How to see the underlying cause of the news?
August 12, 2008 9:24 PM   Subscribe

What should I be reading so that I can read between the lines?

Pastabagel's fantastic comment got me thinking - there's so much out there that I probably take as given, or if I think there's more to an issue there's nowhere of really substantiating that gut feeling.

So, what should I be reading so that I can better relate these newsworthy to their underlying causes, without resorting to crackpot conspiracy sites. i.e. what semi-authoritative sites/newspapers/magazines are there?
posted by djgh to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
It's rather tricky to find the underlying causes/real reasons of things, which is exactly why pastabagel's comment is good - it seems to have done that. You need to get into the practice of searching for reasons. So, let's take int'l politics.

Take a conflict that you know something, but not tons, about. Then follow some variant of these steps (off-the-cuff, but it's a good start)

1. Who's involved?
2. What is the history of each player, and their mutual history?
3. How much land/person is there in each of the areas?
4. What natural resources are in each area? (water, arable land, oil, minerals, I think in this order)
5. Who are the secondary players (e.g. is there someone you want a buffer to protect against?)
6. What clubs are each player in / trying to get in?
7. If A wins over B, what economic benefit do they receive? B over A?

Run through each of those, formulate your answers, then start reading more into the conflict. Now that I think about it, this might work best with resolved conflicts. You'll start to see the patterns.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:20 PM on August 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sometimes the "crackpot conspiracy sites" are worth a gander. Why? So you can learn to think for yourself. Your assumption, and it's one a lot of people hold, is that the "news" has been vetted in advance for you in some way, but you're best bet is to just read EVERYTHING: high, low, crackpot, academic, mass, tabloid, specialist, in between, foreign, domestic, left, right, economic, political, non-profit, propaganda, you name it. Once you read as much as you can, from as many diverse sources as you can, and once you include books along with journals, and dig deep, you'll realize it's not as easy as "reliable" and "unreliable" sources. Sometimes the most profound lies are planted in the most supposedly "reliable" places, and sometimes a profound detail will emerge from a place that is otherwise unreliable.
posted by ornate insect at 10:34 PM on August 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Get a subscription to the Economist. Yeah, it's expensive, but it's worth it. Read it cover to cover every week for... oh, say three months and you'll be pretty clued in. You won't have a deep grounding, but you'll at least know where to go from there.
posted by wfrgms at 11:15 PM on August 12, 2008

The Economist is pretty far from a neutral (or even pretending to be neutral) news source. That said, it can give you a good grounding in the majority of ongoing conflicts and international situations.

For warzones, I'd recommend Robert Pelton Young's Dangerous Places and the book series that goes with it. The jacket copy makes it sound like a Discovery Channel breathless adventuring type book, but the short, pithy analysis of each conflict zone, running down the various players, can be a great introduction to some of the more obscure brushfire wars on the planet.

For a similar tone, check out the War Nerd archive and his ongoing writing. As I remarked in the South Ossetia thread, he doesn't pull any punches, but his analysis is often spot on.

It's also a good idea to get impressions fromm those serving on the ground - Mil Blogging is a good index of military blogs and websites, with a heavy US focus, although they do have other countries. While their opinions are spmetimes missing out on the bigger picture, they are often direct witnesses to the daily reality, and can sometimes give a much more accurate feeling for the mood and civilian beliefs and preconceptions on the ground.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:21 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Speaking only for Finance & Economics mind you, there isn't any substitute for a solid background in the subject matter, an expertise gained before one starts to read blogs.

Lots of the misstatements, misconceptions and all around wrong information we see from time to time in the Finance and Economics threads are solely due to folks - lacking a solid background in the subject matter - reading blogs and misconstruing the blog writer's opinions as facts. While some blog writers have very solid, respected opinions, there are lots of extreme crackpots out there. Reading blogs is no way forward to gain mastery of any topic.

If you're interested in Finance & Economics I maintain lots of links that will help you become what I call A Student of The Markets. Hint: I do not link to blogs because if you don't first gain a solid background in the topic you simply won't be able to read critically, distinguish fiction from fact.

And in terms of dead tree reading - The Economist is pretty good - worth every pence and I read it every week. I also subscribe to Money Week (a UK weekly) and every day get through a copy of The FT.

I don't think there is any single source the will help you become an expert in everything (I rarely post or comment on anything other than Finance & Economics), but if you read a lot of books & journals focusing on topics of interest to you, you can become an expert in those topics.
posted by Mutant at 4:01 AM on August 13, 2008


"...I maintain lots of links in my profile that will help you become ... "
posted by Mutant at 4:15 AM on August 13, 2008

I'm seconding the Economist, I've been a subscriber for two years and it's really helped me get a grip on current affairs away from the more sensationalist news arena. The thing to remember is that the news doesn't have any agenda other than GRABBING YOUR ATTENTION. If you want to understand, you have to dig deeper. I don't for a second believe the likes of the Economist in delivering me the *truth*, but it helps me negotiate what I want to learn more about, and off I go to do some research. You quickly get an instinct for which avenues to pursue.

I'm fascinated by history now, and I never was before. Give or take one or two generations either way, people do forget, or just aren't interested in why stuff happens. So it's not that astonishing how much pattern there is in war. We think every situation is new, that there are more 'evolved' reasons for conflict, but no, it's usually economic motivators leveraging ideological ones to net a self-interested outcome. But it's easy to spin motivators into layers of obfuscating complexity because most people aren't confident about challenging percieved wisdom.

Basically, as in life, your best bet is to ask why, and don't stop at the first answer you're presented with.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:21 AM on August 13, 2008

I found the following two podcasts have helped me to more critically analyse what I hear and read:
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Podcast (for science and the like)
Dan Carlin's Common Sense Podcast (for politics)
posted by blue_beetle at 8:26 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dave Emory has produced a lot of interesting listening.
posted by harmfulray at 11:52 AM on August 13, 2008

Reading widely and in depth, and being an expert yourself, has been covered (and is also time consuming)
An easier trick (which obviously works best in addition to the above, rather than instead of) is that the easiest information is often the stuff people want you know, and they probably want you to know it because it's marketing, or propaganda, or it makes them look good, or some other flavour of BS.

An easy example: did you think, before the war, that Saddam had WMD? If so, why did you think this? Ie Think about why you went wrong, and what you should have done differently.

I believed he had disarmed. I was initially open to this idea because it was a sensible course of action for a rational leader to try after Saddam's attempt and failure at faking compliance - so was Saddam a rational man, or a madman bent on nuking the USA at any cost? I thought there was nothing to suggest anything but rational. The madman characterisation seemed like propaganda. I noticed that around 1998, the nature of his interactions with the UN changed significantly - his priority seemed to shift from weapons to eliminating political barriers to getting sanctions lifted. This suggested to me that a) he had decided that non-compliance could not get the sanctions lifted, b) getting the sanctions lifted mattered to him.

So keep an eye on the source. My reading put more weight on the reports of the weapons inspectors than the US administration, because in 2002-3, the inspectors were on the ground in Iraq, had confirmed that Saddam's games had stopped and that they had unfettered freedom to go anywhere and investigate anything, they were saying Iraq had disarmed, and they were also getting the USA's best intelligence otherwise and where to look, and were going to those places and finding the US intelligence to be 100% wrong, and all the time they were under enormous pressure from the USA to announce non-compliance in Iraq. So the weapons inspectors were very strong evidence. (Their evidence was not reported or was glossed over by the US media, but the UN has a website, so no reason to not get it from the horses mouth).

An example of circumstantial evidence - Iraq had built missiles that were deemed non-compliant due to exceeding the maximum range that Iraq had been allowed (due to sending scuds into Israel during the gulf war). That's interesting - Iraq building non-compliant weapons would run against the weight of the evidence. Anything that doesn't fit the pattern deserves attention. Looking into it, the missiles are non-compliant because if, in theory, one were able to strip out the weight of the warhead, and the weight of the guidance system, and reduce them to just an empty tin-can with the engine left in, they can go a few km further than the maximum range imposed on Iraq. In other words, those missiles had been designed with the explicit intention of being clearly and genuinely compliant, and in this light, that they were being labelled non-compliant spoke of desperation to keep the wheels from falling off the Iraq-is-not-complying train.

Basically, listen to the talking heads and their experts for an idea of what the prevailing opinions are, what people are thinking, but you want to figure out who you think would be an expert, and check them out - see if they're saying anything different.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:25 PM on August 13, 2008

Read a good book on basic economics. Economics is misunderstood, at its purest form, economics is the study of the "why" of human behavior. Knowing sound, microeconomics principles lets you cut through the bullshit you see on the news. If you would like recommendations, mefimail me.
posted by yoyoceramic at 7:44 PM on August 13, 2008

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