Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Hardest Meta-Questions You Can Ask When Reading

There's an extra subtlety to some of the meta-reading questions that I discussed in my last post. Let's take one more look at this series of questions that we asked the other day:

1) What facts and evidence does the author include?
2) Do you find those facts and evidence persuasive?
3) Why or why not?
4) What facts does the author leave out, and what might the exclusion of those fact imply?

It's one thing to answer the first three of these four questions--you can simply observe and think about the facts and evidence in an article. However, it's another thing entirely to observe facts and evidence that aren't in an article.

Said another way, the first three questions simply ask you to look and think--anybody can do that (although, sadly, few do). But the last question assumes much more: it assumes that you know enough about a subject that you can see what's not there.

This is an entirely different level of subject matter sophistication. And most of the time, quite honestly, you won't know enough about a given subject to answer this question.

Don't worry. Once again, the fact that you ask the question in the first place--even if you can't know the answer--puts you on a level of media consumption far above the average reader. More importantly, you eventually will develop this level of expertise on most subject areas if you keep asking this question as you read.

A few more examples of sophisticated cross-checking questions that you can ask while meta-reading:

1) What logic errors or factual mistakes are in the article?
Just as with knowing "what's not there" in an article on a given subject, you will have to know a subject well to identify errors in an article.

2) Does the information in this article conflict with other available information?
Assumes you've read at least a few other articles on the subject from different vantage points.

3) Does the work appear to be balanced when it actually isn't?
Assumes you already know that there are standard biases that people hold in a given subject area. For some people the idea that bias exists everywhere in the media is standard obviousness. For a surprising number of readers, however, this is a revolutionary insight.

4) Are there unstated opinions assumed by the article?
An extremely subtle question. In order to "see" an assumed and unstated opinion you must have close knowledge of that opinion.

5) Does the article represent consensus thinking?
Another subtle question, one that's particularly useful for content on investing and the stock market. How can you tell whether something is consensus thinking? You'll have to have some sense of what everybody else thinks about the subject. How can you get this sense? By making a practice of reading widely and paying attention to the waxing and waning of sentiment for various topics.

Essentially, each of these meta-reading questions assumes the reader has enough knowledge to be able to cross-check the author. How do you get to a level of knowledge so you can ask--and answer--these questions? Keep reading. And pay closer attention to what you read.

These are true subtleties of meta-reading, and they add so much to the pleasure of reading that the mere act of asking them makes even bad articles a delight to read. There's nothing quite like reading an article while simultaneously ticking off the biases, preconceptions and mistakes of the author.

And for any readers who consider these meta-reading exercises a waste of time, let me say this: If you cannot perceive these blind spots when you read, how can you possibly protect yourself from them when you write?