Media Isn’t About Truth

In 2015 I was on Gimlet Media’s Startup podcast as the “Atheist Bible Salesman”.

Startup was their biggest podcast by far at the time and so my story got a ton of internet and even mainstream press, including being discussed multiple times on Fox News.

The best part was seeing the difference between how the story was covered and talked about, versus what actually happened.

This wasn’t a complicated story that involved a big company or lots of people or different organizations. It didn’t involve anyone other than me, so I literally know all the facts.

If you’ve been talked about significantly online you know what I’m talking about. There’s an enormous gap between the truth and what’s covered.

This is so common we even have a name for it: the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.


Why does this happen?

Why don’t we read the New York Times the same way we read the tabloids? And why isn’t the New York Times better at finding truth?

I’m not saying this is a conspiracy. The NYT isn’t overtly lying or trying to hide important information.

The problem is that all the incentives are all wrong.

Truth takes time, and readers frankly aren’t interested in it. Humans are far more interested in:

  • having their views confirmed (“My worldview is OK because these people think the same way”)
  • feeling morally superior (“People who don’t think like this are bad”)
  • being part of the tribe (“I read the same news as the people I admire”)
  • feeling smart (“I read the news with the best brand”)
  • having something to say in daily conversation (“I said something timely in my meeting with a client today”)1
  • being entertained
  • gossip

Even worse: the business model of the vast majority of media is advertising, so their incentive isn’t even to tell you the truth in the first place, but to capture your attention.

They will get to truth in so much as it doesn’t cost them your attention or too much money to produce.

And they have to make another tradeoff still! Which is that if they don’t hit publish in time, a competitor might beat them and capture the valuable attention of the audience for the same story.


To be clear, this isn’t a new problem from the modern internet (i.e. Facebook and Google). The late Michael Crichton said this in 2002: (emphasis mine)

You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well… You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. 

The point was that journalists aren’t experts at what they cover. How could they be?

They’re not in the industry, don’t have the background or experience, and they’re never in the room or the building where the event(s) they’re covering actually happened.2

And then journalists have huge confirmation biases: the much-read NYT piece about Amazon had “over 100 sources” but that’s out of (in 2017) over 300,000 employees! And that doesn’t even include all the employees who have left.

If you couldn’t find 100 people who are pissed at any employer of that size I’d be amazed. Hell, make it 1,000.

Sources also have all of their own non-truth-seeking incentives for talking to a reporter:

  • wanting press for their next thing
  • hurting a competitor
  • maintaining a good relationship with the journalist
  • defaming a rising industry
  • elevated status
  • personal content marketing

I don’t know what to do about this. It’s not a new problem and will continue for the rest of our lives.

But remember that the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is real. When you laugh at how silly something you’re an expert in sounds in the paper, remember that most everything else should be treated with the same ridicule.


  1. The Skimm’s created an entire business of telling you what’s happened to give you daily talking points about the news

  2. They often don’t have the technical expertise either. This isn’t a perfect example, but I’ve seen tech reporters covering the fastest growing businesses in the world saying they never took a class in economics.

Great People or Great Circumstances

If you read enough biographies of famous and successful people1 it becomes painfully obvious that the greatest people all got incredibly lucky in their circumstances.

Not in that they born rich or well-connected, but that they were in a place where something could happen.

Steve Jobs’ career would have been very different if he hadn’t been adopted by parents living in Silicon Valley.

Napoleon wouldn’t be a name without coming of age during the French Revolution.

FDR would be just another president with the Great Depression and WWII. Same with Lincoln.

Alexander Hamilton would have been a nobody if he hadn’t gotten off his native island in the West Indies.

To be clear: all these people were very talented and made the most of their opportunity.

But we wouldn’t know their names if dumb luck didn’t give them a chance to be somebody.

 


  1. Are there biographies of non-famous and unsuccessful people? Maybe internal family biographies?

We All Died So That You Might Live

For a long time I thought our species had a way out of death: eventually we’d figure out immortality, become a multiplanetary species, and travel as far in the universe as our understanding of physics would permit.

We only needed enough time.

Then a friend pointed out to me that, no no no, such a thing could not happen as the universe would inevitably begin to fall back on itself and crush everything in existence. 1

So if literally EVERYTHING will one day cease to exist, what the f*ck is the point of anything?

Here’s my latest stab.

To enjoy consciousness today, all previous generations had to live and die:

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

A lot of people had to die so that we might live.

Some people find inspiration in Jesus dying for mankind.

But I find it even more inspiring that all previous generations gave their lives so that humanity could march on, allowing you and I to enjoy consciousness at this precise moment.

And so that’s how I find meaning in death: dying will be a tiny part of that push forward.

Just a little more evolution, a little more progress, a small shot at giving more humans the chance at consciousness.

 

 


  1. I’d known this expanding/contracting universe fact for a long time, but apparently my desire to find purpose and immortality overcame my brain’s ability to combine that fact with the prior desire. This is a life lesson: our bodies and minds are often not incentivized to find truth

Lessons from the Japanese Porn King

Bloomberg’s piece about the Japanese billionaire porn titan is well worth a read.

A few thoughts:

1. Business vs Product

“In three decades of financing pornography, Kameyama says he hasn’t set foot on an adult movie set more than once or twice, and he doesn’t watch his own films. To him, porn is the proverbial widget — a thing to sell for more than it costs to make and market, no different from any other product.”

Some people say you need to be excited about your own product, but you can be passionate about the business itself.

How do I find customers, how do I hire, how do I optimize, etc., are all their own challenges and triumphs; what you happen to sell obviously is important, but it doesn’t have to be the thing you’re into.

2. Being Warren Buffett

Owning lots of businesses is the new cool thing. People with wealth have always diversified, but you hear about it a lot more these days:

  • This story
  • The Saudis investing in assets outside of oil
  • Stories like Brent Beshore of Adventrues doing “mini private equity”
  • The $500 million Social Capital fund to buy tech companies that don’t want to IPO

3. Do Now, Adjust Later

He hates the lobby decor and design @ their HQ but did it because someone he trusted said it would help attract talent.

“I hate it,” he says. “But if it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.”

That feels like the philosophy of the great entrepreneurs I know. There is no fear of failure. Do now and adjust later. There’s no fear of feeling stupid. The whole thing is just one grand experiment.

That’s the same attitude he had earlier in life, where he tried a little of everything:

  • Accounting school, but dropped out
  • Semi-nude dancer at a gay Chippendale’s club
  • Washing cadavers at a hospital
  • Owned several movie rental shops in his late 20’s

4. Narratives All the Way Down

This story covers a few of the paths he tried, but I’m sure there are tons more. And I’m also sure that the successful businesses have their own fits and starts, too.

The great mistake is to compare the inside of your business to the outside of the businesses you read about online.

Media has to tell a story because that’s what we like to read. But most successes don’t have great narratives in the moment. They’re all constructed after the fact.1

5. Start Small

Great advice on how to contribute to society:

Kameyama’s : Start by building a company that lets a few people feed their families, instead of trying to tackle global hunger.”

Everything begins with a single customer.


  1. Cue Steve Jobs commencement speech quote: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”.

A Simple Way to Avoid Being Wrong

Not Even Warren Buffett Could Predict the iPhone Would Decrease Chewing Gum Sales is a fun narrative that I almost wrote about.

But it’s probably wrong.

So I wanted to know why I almost made that mistake and also how to prevent making the same mistake in the future.


Buffett did a great Q&A that that I’ve written about before. In one part while talking about moats he makes a prediction:

I’m not going to be able to figure out what the moat’s gonna look like for Oracle or Lotus or Microsoft 10 years from now. [Bill] Gates is the best businessman I’ve ever run into, and they’ve got a helluva position, but I really don’t know what their business is gonna look like 10 years from now. And I certainly don’t know what his competitors’ businesses are gonna look like 10 years from now… I know what the chewing gum business is gonna look like 10 years from now. I mean, the internet is not gonna change how we chew gum.

And then just a few months ago a bunch of places (including Business Insider and Recode) wrote a post with this chart:

Made by Euromonitor International

And they all basically said the same thing: “We’re so addicted to our phones that we don’t look up to buy chewing gum at the grocery store checkout. The iPhone has changed everything!


At a quick glance the idea seems very reasonable, even intuitive.

We know how much the iPhone has changed everything else about our lives, we can see ourselves bored on our phones during checkout, it feels a simple narrative, etc.

Until you think about disconfirming evidence.

What could prove this idea is wrong?

Everything I said about this being easy to believe is all evidence that confirms the idea.1

But what about something that would disprove it?

I can think of 2 simple things that would do the trick:

  • Is gum mainly bought at checkouts? If not, people being bored in checkouts would have to be a really strong cause to affect sales
  • Have sales of other products primarily available at checkouts also declined? I.e. why would distracted shoppers not buy gum because of their phone but continue to buy, say, candy?

It’s “hard” to think of disconfirming evidence when you’re first looking at an idea. It takes a concerted and conscious effort.


I found a simple study in the Robot’s Rebellion that confirms this.

Each of the boxes below represents a card lying on a table:

  • Each one of the cards has a letter on one side and a number on the other side.
  • Is the following rule true: If a card has a vowel on its letter side, then it has an even number on its number side.
  • Which card or cards must be turned over in order to find out whether the rule is true or false?

Take a moment to think about this before reading on.


The K is easily ignored and the A is simple. But the 8 and 5 are tricky.

The right answer feels like 8, and that’s what most people choose. But it’s wrong.

Picking the 8 comes from a desire to seek confirming evidence

Which is why we tend to ignore the 5. We already know it’s odd, so it can’t confirm the other side is a vowel.

But it could prove the rule to be wrong, i.e. disconfirming evidence.

If we turn it over and the letter is a vowel, we know the rule is wrong.


Seeking disconfirming evidence takes effort. We’re all biased to interpret new evidence according to our previous knowledge of the world.

Even stopping for a few seconds to ask “what would prove this false” would be a huge improvement in the project of finding truth.


  1. Confirmation bias FTW

Problems are an Entrepreneur’s True North

If Benjamin Franklin rose from the grave today happy and healthy he’d have a ton of questions:

  • What’s the state of the world?
  • What the hell is that thing? (pointing to cars, iPhones, etc.)
  • How do I ______?

Ben’s not one to sit out the action, and he’d like to get back into the swing of life! So he needs to learn how to get some stuff done:

  • How do I find food?
  • How do I stay informed and educate myself?
  • How do I get anywhere? Where is worth going?
  • How do I make money?
  • How do I buy things?
  • How do I find a romantic partner?
  • How do I communicate with people who are far away?

Morgan Housel wrote a great post about betting on things that don’t change:

In the last 100 years we’ve gone from horses to jets and mailing letters to Skype. But every sustainable business is accompanied by one of a handful of timeless strategies:

  • Lower prices.
  • Faster solutions to problems.
  • Greater control over your time.
  • More choices.
  • Added comfort.
  • Entertainment/curiosity.
  • Deeper human interactions.
  • Greater transparency.
  • Less collateral damage.
  • Higher social status.
  • Increased confidence/trust.

You can make big, long-term bets on these things, because there’s no chance people will stop caring about them in the future.

It’s an easy bet that Ben Franklin would desire all those things, too.


Before alarm clocks were widely available people still had to get up in the morning, so the profession of the “knocker-up” was born.

A knocker-up’s job was to walk around early in the morning and use a baton to knock on people’s doors and windows to wake them up:

I’m sure it gave the workers’ great pride in being such an important part of society’s daily life; how could the town run if everyone woke up late?


It’s easy to forget that all products and services exist to solve specific problems.

The problems of getting yourself from A to B, transacting with other humans, and finding food have existed for a long time.

And while the solutions to those problems have changed with society and technology, the core problems themselves rarely do.

So if you want to get into the business of providing goods and services (sometimes known as entrepreneurship) don’t do it in a vacuum. Solve a problem.

Even Elon Musk’s1 companies could all be summarized as “how to get from A to B, better”.


  1. Tesla, SpaceX, Hyperloop, The Boring Co.

No Freaking Clue About What Our Brains Are Doing

I found a great study that’s summarized in The Robot’s Rebellion. It freaked me out (the writing can be dense but it’s worth it):

Some patients who have sustained damage in their visual cortex display a seemingly puzzling set of symptoms. They develop a blind spot in their field of vision: they report seeing nothing in a particular portion of their visual field.

However, when persuaded to make a forced choice about a fixed set of stimuli (for example, to choose one of two shapes or lights) presented into their blind field, they perform with greater than chance accuracy despite their phenomenal experience of seeing nothing.

For example, when choosing between two stimuli, their choices are 70 percent correct despite the fact that on each trial they insist that they see nothing.

Often such patients have to be persuaded to continue to keep making the forced choices which they view as pointless. Many report that they are simply guessing, that they “couldn’t see a darn thing,” and question what the experimenter could possibly find out from such a pointless exercise.

Basically, someone has a blind spot. The tester puts a shaped object in the blind spot and asks the subject to guess the shape. The tester gets bored/frustrated because they can’t see the shape at all, yet they guess the correct shape more than 70% of the time.

This is crazy! The brain is updating with information and the subject is unaware of the entire process.

Some version of this has to be happening constantly.

And some people think brand advertising doesn’t affect them?!

We have such a small idea of what’s going on behind the scenes: how we make decisions, why we want something, what scares us, etc.

Maybe there’s something to the idea of being careful about what you put into your mind.

Starting a Successful Business is like Losing Weight

It’s impossible to cram losing weight. If you want to lose your excess permanently, you need time & discipline. There’s no way around the day-in, day-out daily grind.

As an investor or business owner it feels like today everyone is looking for shortcuts and overnight success.

But growing a business takes the same time and discipline that losing weight does. Every day you have to put in your time, and eventually you get to look back and realize how far you’ve come. 1

The good news is that taking a long-term view is valuable. 

Since capital everywhere is looking for short-term returns, one of the only remaining competitive advantages for small time investor/operators is having a long-term time horizon.

Brent Beshore makes this point at Adventures: since they’re acquiring companies that they plan to hold forever, they can make investments that won’t pay off for 10 years that competitors would never touch.

I have more and more friends who are getting pretty nice returns from their companies these days, but only after taking 5+ years of hacking away to get there.

I think most people can start and run a successful business. But I don’t think most people are willing to put in the daily work over a period of years to get there.

Value the valuable.


  1. Even successful venture-backed businesses take 7-10 years to come to full fruition, and those are the fastest growing businesses on the planet.