Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The problem of too shallow knowledge / experiences in Sweden

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During my recent travels in Sweden, I encountered other information sources than I usually do, including Swedish news-papers and Swedish TV. As a result, I saw quite a few examples of how common a too shallow or outright incorrect knowledge is, how this can lead to an incorrect understanding of e.g. a situation, and how important it is to gain a deeper understanding before forming strong opinions or demanding action.* This especially when it comes to topics like public policy, whom to vote for, what cause is worthy of support, …

*I have discussed similar topics, although often less generally, on a great number of occasions, e.g. in [1], [2], [3], [4], [5].

A discussion I had with my father over a cartoon of yogurt provides both a good example and an analogy for the larger problems—the difference between the advertisy claims on the cartoon and the truth revealed by the “nutrition facts label”:

The front of the cartoon proudly proclaimed 0.5 % fat*—the more extensive declaration on the back, in fine print, noted sufficiently much added sugar to ruin the energy savings from the reduced fat content, when compared to “traditional” yogurt. Indeed, since sugar is likely worse than fat, this might amount to a health**-downgrade… In the same way that many just note the front of the cartoon and do not bother to read the true information, so many rely on superficial, incomplete, deliberately angled, or otherwise flawed information in other contexts—even when better information is not that hard to find and gives a very different view. (Of course, many even better examples exist, including sugary candies advertised as “0 % fat”…)

*I might misremember the exact number, but the value was of this order.

**Here and elsewhere I use “health” (and variations) in a manner similar to the usual discourse. However, I caution that I consider this use simplistic, sometimes even misleading. Phrases like “healthy food” could even be seen as illogical, because an excess of virtually any food is unhealthy—just like a too great lack of variation.

Among the many other examples:

  1. We ate the yogurt with müsli—another food stuff traditionally considered healthy. Said müsli contained a considerable amount of candied fruits…

    My father happened to know* what he was eating, but many others do not. They know that müsli (and yogurt) is supposed to be a healthy food, go by reputation, fail to look at the specifics of the product at hand, and find themselves eating unhealthily* while believing that they are doing the opposite. The food business, I suspect, even deliberately plays on this, adding sugar and whatnot to make a product taste better** than the competition’s alternative—hoping that the customers will notice the taste difference, not the health difference.

    *Note that there is not necessarily anything wrong with picking a less healthy alternative when it is an informed decision. (Indeed, I often go by taste or convenience myself. Moreover, I suspect that fanaticism with healthy food can lead to unhealthy eating too.) The issue here is how often the decision is uninformed—or even misinformed.

    Here we have a good example of a special case: Focusing too much on the name, reputation, appearance, whatnot of the thing rather than on its true nature. This especially through changes over time (e.g. in what an ideological label implies or what goals a party has), appropriation of names/reputations/whatnot by others (e.g. any number of brands and marketing gimmicks), and confusing the characteristics of one group member with those of another (e.g. by assuming that two party members agree on a certain question, or that “corresponding” parties from different countries have the same ideology and policy in detail).

    *It is conceivable that the yogurt and müsli at hand were still better than many of the alternatives—and certainly better than chocolate milk and whatever passes for breakfast cereal among sugar-addicted children. However, more traditional versions would have been better, and the problem is not limited to these. Indeed, many even sabotage reasonably healthy foods by own manipulation, e.g. by drenching a salad in mayonnaise. A notable complication is that müsli is very high in energy to begin with, making additional sugar the worse an idea.

  2. The culture section of Dagens Nyheter* (DN) usually contained about as many articles on topics like society, politics, economics, …, as it did on culture. Those that I bothered to read invariably were written from a very limited understanding of the issue at hand and very often with a one-sided perspective or an unnuanced black-and-white world view. As a result the texts were uninformative, poorly reasoned, and often** off in their conclusions. To boot, they often had an ideological tilt.

    *A major Swedish daily news-paper, to which my father subscribes. Also see excursion below.

    **It is possible to be right for a poor reason…

    Broadly speaking: Some culture expert, “cultural intellectual”*, or similar** develops a strong opinion based on an understanding and intelligence that is not or not much better than the average, and is allowed to write about it for an audience of hundreds of thousands of paying readers. Those among the readers who are not themselves well informed and/or good critical thinkers stand a fair risk of being worse off for reading these articles.

    *For want of a better phrase and too differ from those who have a broader intellectual background.

    **I have not investigated the authors in detail and, in all fairness, it is possible that some of them have another background (e.g. as regular news-journalists, who simple happen to express their opinions in the culture section). However, because similar topics are covered in the main section too, and often in an editorial or opinionating manner, I suspect that the culture section is the playground of a subset of the staff. (This in contrast to e.g. to a system where some types of content appear in the culture section as a matter of course, with the word “culture” remaining merely for historical reasons.) Either way, the problems with the contents remain unchanged and worse than in the rest of the paper.

    (I cannot give specific examples, because these readings took place during my first visit. During my second, where my specific recollections are fresher, I either merely leafed through this section or did not bother to open it at all… Indeed, even during my first visit, the low quality usually lead me to stop reading before the half-way mark of the article at hand.)

  3. I encountered a great number of articles (by no means restricted to DN or, within DN, the culture section) based on or propagating weird misconceptions and misrepresentations of “gender issues”, including claims that rape would not be taken sufficiently seriously in Sweden or how too few reports lead to convictions,* that women earn much less than men,** that there are too few women in tech/politics/whatnot,*** and so on. As long as people do not have the depth of knowledge and the ability to think critically to see through such misinformation, the impact on politics, public policy, business, education, …, will be considerable.**** Sweden provides a nightmare example of this, but the problem is present in large portions of the rest of the world too.

    *A ridiculous claim considering how strong feminism is in Sweden, how laws on consents have been altered in an insane manner, how rape is presented in media, etc. With an eye on conviction rates, I point to portions of an earlier discussion of rape statistics.

    **See e.g. [1]. This topic should be stone-dead by now. It has been debunked again and again and again by so many people over such a long time span, but I see it dozens of times per year, including several mentions last week alone.

    ***Questions like suitability, interest, willingness to sacrifice for a career, whatnot, are almost invariably ignored—worse, it is often considered sexist to even bring them up as possibilities. (Note that this unscientific and misological attitude would be a very bad thing even if there were no differences between the sexes. Of course, science tells of considerable differences when looking at groups, and evolution more-or-less necessitates them.) Instead, there is a blanket assumption that any difference is explained either by (a) some version of “discrimination” or “oppression” (I am often left with the impression that there must be some secret club of cigar-smoking men deliberately plotting to keep women down…), (b) “structures”, societal indoctrination, whatnot (i.e. it simply is not possible that their might be some biological difference in e.g. male and female career preferences—differences in behaviors and preferences must have an external cause).

    ****A particularly blatant example of such an impact, if only for one day: DN reported that (probably) Berlin’s public transport would give women a 21 % rebate to “compensate” for the difference in income—without understanding that there is no unfairness involved in the original difference, which makes the rebate unfair. To boot, this might be one of the many cases where it would be more relevant to look at house-hold income, which is often to a significant part shared, sometimes even mostly under the control of the woman—an aspect which I have never heard mentioned in main-stream media and politics.

    That was on regular days. During my second visit, the International Women’s Day reared its ugly head again. Nine years ago (cf. [6]), I already wrote a very negative piece on this. This year it appeared to be worse.

  4. Luring out school-children to demonstrate for the environment (or any other major issue) despite the clear majority knowing and understanding little more than what they have been told. Most adults do not have a sufficiently solid understanding of these issues that a measure like a demonstration* would make sense—for a young student this applies even more strongly. Worse: In many cases, this is likely to be more of an excuse to get out of school… To take such actions without having a reasonable** understanding is irresponsible and should be condemned—not lauded.

    *There are very few cases where a demonstration is legitimate and effective at all, but here, for the sake of argument, I work on the premise that demonstrations are a reasonable idea in principle.

    **Such an understanding is not reached by reading news-papers and listening to teachers, but requires going to deeper sources one-self, to look at both sides of an issue, and to actually think. This is not to say, however, that the understanding must be perfect and the opinion unchanging—such criteria would bring everything to a stand-still. Certainly, a weaker dedication/action/statement/whatnot requires less prior effort than a stronger one.

    While not a topic I encountered during my visits, I am also reminded of the malpractice of parents dragging even small children to demonstrations to protest issues that the parents do not understand sufficiently, e.g. nuclear power.

  5. There appears to be an extreme aversion towards flying, including some member of the “Green Party” demanding a ban on intra-country flights. In earlier times, I have repeatedly seen news-paper articles complain that too few would “klimatkompensera” (“climate compensate”) when flying, which amounts to making a “voluntary” monetary donation to, in some sense, offset the environmental impact of the flight*—on top of already existing taxes and whatnot.

    *Which, obviously, does not work very well: In the short-term, the environmental impact is entirely unchanged; in the long-term, it is dubious that charities handle money effectively and efficiently. Indeed, I cannot quell the suspicion that there is some aspect of scam to this, aimed less at saving the environment and more at getting money to keep charities running and their leaders well payed. (But I have not looked into this.) Note how a similar scheme for cars would make more sense, but would also be harder to guilt people into for practical reasons—they use their cars everyday, but fly far less often.

    This shows a great lack of thinking:

    Firstly, the main problem related to flying is not the means of travel (i.e. airplane) but the distance traveled. Questions like “Is it a good idea to travel long distances during vacations?” should take precedence over “Is it a good idea to fly during vacations?”.

    Secondly, problems through air travel are dwarfed by problems through cars. If current air travel was kept constant and car travel was removed (in favor of e.g. train travel, walking, or non-travel; or reduced through car-pooling; or made more environmental through non-fossil fuels), the effect would be much larger. Indeed, many in e.g. Germany spend one to two hours per work-day just with a car commute—to which various other trips must be added. (And then there is trucking of goods and whatnot.)

    Thirdly, it is a myth that air travel is unusually “dirty”. It does compare poorly with e.g. train travel, but looking at the cost (in some sense) per kilometer compared to regular car travel, it is often superior.* Note e.g. that planes are reasonably energy efficient once cruising (but not when taking-off), that the environmental impact of construction is larger for cars on a per-seat basis, and that airplanes are much lesser contributors to localized concentrations of emissions in cities (which are quite hazardous both for the local environment and the people in the area).

    *Beware that comparisons are often made unfairly, e.g. through assuming a car with four passengers, when many (most?) real car journeys are made by a solitary driver.

    More generally, climate debate in Sweden invariably forgets that what the Swedes do matters far less than what e.g. the Chinese do. I am not saying that Swedes should ignore the environmental impact of their own behavior based on this; however, for a comparatively small group of people to endlessly optimize* its own environmental impact is not the most productive of strategies from a global perspective, with an eye on other groups and on the issue of diminishing returns. This repeats the airplane-vs-car error of not putting in the effort where it has the largest impact.

    *As another example: During my first visit, DN had an article on eating “klimatsmart” (“climate smart”) almost every day. Apparently, the most import thing Swedes can do for the environment is to cut down on meat and whatnots… Here a detail is optimized even when there are targets much more worthy of optimization, e.g. the Swedish use of cars or the Chinese eating habits. In addition, the very phrase is idiotic, using “smart” (undoubtedly for rhetorical purposes) where e.g. “friendly” would have been appropriate, and speaking of “climate” where the more general term (and priority!) “environment” would be better.

    Looking specifically at the suggested ban on intra-country flights: It is true that air travel is often sub-optimal for shorter distances, which will include most intra-country travel in at least European* countries. Still, going from Malmö to Kiruna by car might not be ideal… For shorter distances, we have to ask why people chose to fly: Either they have some reasonable advantage over other means of travel or they should be informed about the benefits of these other means. (Of course, if they do have reasonable advantages, an additional approach could be to improve other means of travel, e.g. by a faster train that removes a time advantage.) A ban simply makes little sense. Indeed, a part of the reasoning for banning flights was that there would be no point in travel by plane between Göteborg and Stockholm, because there would be no time saved.** But: If there is no point, why do people fly?!? Either there is a point or they need to be informed better.

    *Which tend to be small area-wise compared to the rest of the world.

    **In a twist, while my father was reading the article and I had only seen the headline, I argued that there was unlikely to be much of a time gain between exactly Göteborg and Stockholm, implying that there was unlikely to be a major reason to fly, implying that a ban on that route would be pointless. Then I read the article myself, and noted the perverted turned-on-its-head reasoning by the “Greens”… (Note that the time for air travel also includes travel to-and-from airports, time for check-in and security checks, and similar. When I had a weekend commute between Düsseldorf and Munich, I soon switched to trains for this exact reason—the time needed was about the same, but travel by train was less of a hassle and more comfortable.)

  6. A U.S. admissions scandal found its way into even Swedish news-papers: Some few rich and famous had bribed colleges into admitting their children.

    What went without mention is how fundamentally flawed and arbitrary the U.S. admissions tend to be: Without these flaws, this scandal would not have happened (or, at least, not as easily)—and there are far worse consequences. An article dealing with these problems would have been a much worthier undertaking, but the journalists were likely clueless. (And such and article might have had less entertainment appeal to the broad masses…)

    For instance, consider that Asian* applicants regularly need hundreds of points more on the SATs than Black applicants (and/or a corresponding difference in GPA). For instance, consider that many “jocks” that are not college material not only get into college, but actually get scholarships—taking places from some “nerds” that are college material.** For instance, consider that having the right connections, notably alumni parents, can be a greater benefit than scholastic aptitude.

    *Whites are often suffering a similar disadvantage, but (a) it tends to be smaller, (b) the focus on Asians is justified through demonstrating that e.g. belonging to a minority is secondary to something else.

    **A sometime suggested justification is that college sports help with paying for colleges. So far, I am not convinced by this line of reasoning, considering factors like the immense profits of many U.S. colleges, the costs incurred by sports programs that reduce the profit from the same sports programs, and the possibility that even sports competitions involving non-bought talents would also earn money. (Nevertheless, this is an area that could need investigation.) In addition, even if we assume that the gains would be sufficient to ensure that the “jocks” do not steal places from others, we have to consider issues like the devaluation of academic standards and the value of a diploma.

    (To detail a solution would be beyond the scope of this text, but I would tend towards looking only at proved (e.g. through GPA) and projected (e.g. through SATs) academic ability, and using other criteria only as a tie-breaker. An essay is out entirely, as too arbitrary; an interview should be an exception, seeing that it brings little value, that many college applicants simply are too young to interview well, and that interview success is unusually coachable.)

  7. A more everyday example is given by a brief conversation about crêpes vs. pancakes, where someone mentioned that “crêpes Suzette” might or might not have been invented or named by the Swedish Prince Bertil. I took the trouble to check—and its “not”: According to Swedish Wikipedia, which mentions the claim, the dish existed by that name no later than 1903, which predates the Prince’s birth.

    Now, I do not check every claim that comes my way, nor do I investigate everything mentioned as a possibility, but I do have an investigative attitude and I do check many things and read up more in depth on others—or, as when visiting my father, I ask questions when I believe that someone has more knowledge in a certain area.* Above all, I realize that my opinions cannot be set in stone—when I encounter no information, when old information is revised, when new arguments are presented, …, then I must be willing to re-evaluate my opinions. Most other people, including typical journalists and politicians, do not do this to the necessary degree (if at all). From day to day, the impact might be small—but accumulated over a life-time it is enormous.

    *And I do not claim that every text I write is researched and thought-through to the last detail—especially, because I often use the process of writing as a means of learning and as a stepping stone to a better future understanding. Nevertheless, I do better than the typical journalists, and I only rarely write something that I would consider an outright blunder afterwards. (An example would be assuming that Linnaeus did not use Greek.) More often, the research or thinking brought on by the writing has led me to forego a text entirely or to write a different text on the topic than I originally had intended.

Excursion on DN (and other news-papers):
When I grew up, DN was one of the two “big” morning news-papers (Svenska Dagbladet/SvD being the other), considered to be of very high quality and vastly superior to various local and evening news-papers. My father subscribed as far back as the 1980s, and I must have read hundreds of them during my many visits. (During my first year in college, my student dorm subscribed to both DN and SvD, and I read both each day.) Compared to the local news-paper that my mother subscribed to there was a world of difference, be it in depth of coverage, quality, or number of pages.

Now, it is possible that I would be less enthusiastic about the “old” DN, had I encountered it today—a part of my different evaluation is almost certainly rooted in my own development. However, there is objectively much less text today than back then, which tells in terms of depth and breadth of coverage. Worse, the current* incarnation of that local news-paper that I encountered when visiting my step-father was often superior—something unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. And, no, while the local news-paper might (or might not) have improved, the main explanation is the drop by DN.

*In my youth, this was a separate paper, “Bergslagsposten”, which merely cooperated with and had the same owner as “Nerikes Allehanda”. By now, the former has been integrated into the latter. (While I only very rarely read the latter in my youth, it was of a similar quality level as the former.)

More generally, there are many news-papers that have grown worse over the years, and considering the low competence levels typical among journalists, the populist take, and problems like an ideological slant and the natural limits of the format*, I see little reason to bother: My advice is to get a brief overview of the events of the day from some online source, to dig deeper in other (typically also online) sources when something is of interest, and to focus more on building a solid knowledge of various topics than on news when reading. This has been my own approach for years.

*For instance, that individual articles cannot cover all angles in depth without growing too large and that there are often time constraints involved.

A detailed analysis of the problems with modern news-papers is beyond the current scope, but I note poor writings skills, a lack of critical thinking, poor knowledge, and an attitude aimed more at getting attention and entertaining than at informing. I note especially the idiocy of weaving together several logically distinct articles regarding a larger theme into one, e.g. through having one logical article dealing with facts and arguments, one logical article dealing with human interest and emotions (often even a sob story), and then throwing them together into a chaotic mixture—which is poor writing caused by a wish to entertain. An interesting example of attention getting is DN’s common idiocy of using a number (!) as the headline of a shorter news item. For instance, five lines dealing with recent statistics on X might be head-lined (!) by “35” (or whatever the number associated with X was). Another is the inclusion of images of the journalists themselves…


Written by michaeleriksson

March 20, 2019 at 5:08 am

4 Responses

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  1. […] a recent text, I discussed the decline of the Swedish news-paper DN (among other […]

  2. […] warming that… For instance, reading up a little on means of transportation for an example in a text on shallow knowledge, I found comparisons that focused almost exclusively on C02 emissions and other ways* that the […]

  3. […] a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a […]

  4. […] e.g. [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], […]

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