Summary

The post can be summarized as follows: 

A rational agent who has the goal of understanding the world - avoids consuming fiction, unless it's the kind of fiction that benefits this goal more than it harms it.  

Of course, if you have a different goal (e.g. to maximize your happiness), there is nothing wrong with consuming whichever fiction you like. 

The Top Gun Effect

In the comments to this post, Bezzi provides a strong and concise argument worth copying here. If you have no time to read the whole post, just read this:

[A]fter reading about the Top Gun Effect, I strongly updated towards "Hollywood movies can seriously mess up your mind". Also this:

According to the US Navy, the box office success of Top Gun saw their recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the original movie’s release. <...> The U.S. Navy set up recruiting stations outside of movie theaters when Top Gun was released, catching potential recruits as they were left the cinema hyped up by the movie’s dramatic climax.

If a single movie can make people do very serious life choices like signing up for the Navy, then we should probably be less confident in our ability to separate fiction from real-life.

Intro

As the majority of people, you're likely consuming a lot of fiction (science fiction books, Hollywood movies, anime, video games, Twitter etc).

One can classify the content of fiction into two classes:

  • events that have never happened (e.g. fantasy)
  • real events, but so distorted, they don't help you better understand the real world (e.g. TV news)

Both classes are often harmful, as they cloud your mind with falsehoods and wrong associations.

Learning falsehoods

Your mind is learning from what it consumes. If you give it the training data full of falsehoods, it will learn falsehoods. 

And mass media is full of falsehoods. 

Some of them are harmless (Audible Sharpness). Some could kill you (Hollywood Heart Attack).

Some of them are easy to overcome (Space Is Cold). Some could stick in your mind forever (The Good Guys Always Win).

And some are very hard to detect. For example, you're likely assigning unreasonably high likelihoods to dramatic and interesting events - because you've seen way too many fictional events (which are, by design, dramatic and interesting). 

Such distortions could negatively affect the quality of your judgements in real life. 

For example, imagine that we've detected a massive alien spaceship approaching our Solar System, with the intent of exterminating humans. Which of these two events is more likely?

  1. Humans will fiercely resist the invaders, with many losses on both sides. You know, like in the Independence Day.
  2. The aliens will effortlessly wipe out humans, e.g. by throwing a rock accelerated to 0.01c.

For many people, the scenario #1 would look much more likely, unless they put some effort into analyzing the situation. 

It is hard to think clearly about potentially dramatic events (e.g. the AI takeover) with your brain trained on fiction. 

See also: Memetic Hazards in Videogames.

Learning wrong associations

This is not a snake. It's an image of a snake. 

The human brain is very good at detecting snakes. If you see a snake, you likely will feel at least some uneasiness, even if it's a fictional snake in a Hollywood movie.

Similarly, if you see some emotionally charged situation in a movie, you likely will feel some of the emotion yourself. (remember Bambi's mother?)

In a sense, fiction authors have a root access to your brain. By depicting some carefully designed fictional events, they can manipulate your emotions, and they can force you to associate certain emotions with certain entities of the real world.

For example, as a consumer of Hollywood movies,  you see an aged businessman in a slick suit and automatically associate him with "evil capitalists", even if the man is Chuck Feeney or Elon Musk. 

The reason is simple: you have learned to have such associations, by consuming the fiction written by people of certain political views, from Simpsons to Star Trek to pretty much every movie that depicts businessmen. 

Professional writers tend to think of themselves as the shepherds of mankind who are guiding the public opinion into the most ethical direction. As Maya Angelou said, "I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes".

The question is, do you trust those self-appointed "teachers" enough to give them the root access to your brain? In particular, do you trust the people who write screenplays for Netflix / Disney / PRC

See also:

Learning to prefer fiction to reality

Fiction makes it harder to enjoy reality, as it is purposefully designed to be more enjoyable than reality. 

The fiction you consume is entertaining, interesting, emotional, dramatic, exciting, captivating. 

On the other hand, reality is often disappointing. Repetitive. Boring. Banal. Blank. 

You might enjoy a well written scientific paper (if your contaminated brain is still capable of maintaining focus for more than 15 sec). But you know there is a thing that will give you more joy. The new episode of your favorite series. Or Reddit. Or League of Legends. Or Tictok. Or some other kind of digital cocaine. 

And so, gradually, one dose a time, you lose the ability to enjoy reading scientific works. To enjoy a quiet evening with a friend. To enjoy a night with a telescope. To enjoy reality. 

See also: Deep Work

Social networks

Social networks (e.g. Twitter) are harming you in several ways (especially the reward system). They are also the worst kind of fiction: purposefully designed to be memorable, flashy, impressive, noisy, and lowbrow entertaining. They are the digital equivalent of BigMac - addictive and unhealthy, by design.

And, of course, social networks are full of falsehoods, often created on purpose, often by hostile entities

Avoid social networks like the plague, even if you actually need them for work.

See also: 

Some fiction is helpful

Some exceptional authors have managed to create fiction that actually helps you better understand the world (e.g. Heinlein, Banks, Strugatsky, Vinge, Yudkowsky, Taylor). 

The genre of "rational fiction" contains a disproportionately large number of helpful works, and could even fix some of the damage caused by the traditional fiction. HP:MoR is an excellent start.

There are also excellent video games that are both highly educational and entertaining (e.g. Factorio, Capitalism Lab). Some anime (e.g. Dr Stone) could also be described as such.

Alternatives to fiction

Many people use fiction to relax, to escape the stressful day, etc. There are healthier alternatives. 

Intense sport is often much more efficient against stress. 

Listening to an excellent non-fiction audiobook will give you both the escape and a better relaxation (including a good rest for your back and eyes). 

In general, if you want to better understand the world, it makes sense to prefer:

  • science fiction to fantasy
  • rational fiction to pre-rational fiction
  • non-fiction to fiction
  • written to cinematic

For example, you can spend a day re-watching The Lord of the Rings. Or you can invest the same time into improving your understanding of physics by reading The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman.

The choice is yours.

 

See also: Amusing Ourselves to Death.


The goal is, to perceive reality without contaminating your view with falsehoods. 

A healthy media diet is instrumental in achieving the goal.

4

50 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:42 PM
New Comment

It's not obvious to me that reading arbitrary non-fiction gives you more accurate beliefs than arbitrary fiction. No adult updates their probability that dragons are real after reading Game of Thrones, and nonfiction is full of both literal lies and statements that are technically true but deeply misleading that give you the feeling of being accurate information, such that you update on them.

I think it depends on the category of belief. My gut says that fiction is particularly good at instilling beliefs about things like:

  • What constitutes moral behavior
  • Normal and effective modes of social interaction; the mechanics of social status
  • What constitutes a normal level of beauty, power, wealth, intelligence, wit

I think that fiction can be powerfully misleading on these subjects. Nevertheless, I don't agree with the OP's argument that we should avoid fiction. That seems to me an example of safety culture taken to an extreme. I don't feel a need to helicopter parent my own mind!

No adult updates their probability that dragons are real after reading Game of Thrones

Without fiction, the hypothesis "dragon" would not even exist in our minds. We are wasting cultural bandwidth on this concept, and our probability estimation of it is orders of magnitude more than if we did not have it plastered everywhere in fiction.

such that you update on them.

This is a valid point, and I think an extreme case of it can be seen in fundamentalist religions. But my prior is that anyone who understands the argument the OP has presented, is smart enough to curate the non-fiction they consume such that they end up vastly better informed.

Even outdated, dumbed-down popsci books usually make one better informed than the default cultural memes. Usually, the important themes are correct; e.g., you're more or less guaranteed to see spaced repetition as an effective tactic if you read popsci books on learning. The failure mode is probably garbage like The Secret that is easy enough to filter.

No adult updates their probability that dragons are real after reading Game of Thrones

Not sure about it. Can't find a poll specifically about dragons, but ~80% adults in the US believe in angels, and ~30% believe in bigfoot. 

Humans are not good at discerning reality from fiction, especially if the fiction is presented in a visual form. An emotionally charged movie scene, if well made, will cause the same emotions as a direct participation in the depicted event. Humans do learn from fiction, and there is no build-in filter that allows us to learn only realistic parts from it.

nonfiction is full of both literal lies and statements that are technically true but deeply misleading

I agree, one must exercise caution in selecting nonfiction, as some nonfiction could be more harmful than fiction, for the reasons you mentioned. But I think only a rare excellent fiction book is as helpful as a mediocre nonfiction book. 

how are you defining nonfiction? amazon lists over a thousand books on bigfoot in the "science and math" section, and the first 10 all look like they're on the "definitely real" side. so a nonfiction label is no help.

possibly you mean "actually true" not "labeled as nonfiction in the bookstore", but that requires the reader know what's true ahead of time. which would of course be great, but remains elusive.

I should make clearer that I'm extremely in favor of people being much more careful what they include in their media diet, and that I agree fiction has risks people aren't cognizant of. I just don't think the nonfiction label is any protection against misinformation.

https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=bigfoot&i=stripbooks&rh=n%3A283155%2Cn%3A75&dc&crid=3S0BLIWO5DPKW&qid=1642841717&rnid=283155&sprefix=bigfoot%2Caps%2C146&ref=is_r_n_26

I'm upvoting this for basically one reason: after reading about the Top Gun Effect, I strongly updated towards "Hollywood movies can seriously mess up your mind". Also this:

According to the US Navy, the box office success of Top Gun saw their recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the original movie’s release. This swell in numbers was due in no small part to the institution’s ability to tap into Top Gun fever when viewers of the movie were still at their most zealous and over-enthusiastic — as they walked out of the multiplex. The U.S. Navy set up recruiting stations outside of movie theaters when Top Gun was released, catching potential recruits as they were left the cinema hyped up by the movie’s dramatic climax. The strategy paid off, as the Navy soon had their highest number of applications in years.

If a single movie can make people do very serious life choices like signing up for the Navy, then we should probably be less confident in our ability to separate fiction from real-life.

(Also, I fully endorse the "avoid social networks like the plague" advice)

Thank you for this strong argument! Quoted it in the post (with a ref to you).

Seems to me that the 'helpful' works you listed contain falsehoods and wrong associations. They also contain useful information and enjoyable aspects, true -- but couldn't the same be said of lots of non-"rational" fiction? As it stands this just looks like a list of fiction that's popular among our subculture.

Factorio is fun and might make a kid grow up to be an engineer -- and it's also a hugely addictive waste of time.

"How Much Are Games Like Factorio And EVE Online Sapping Away The Intellectual Potential Of Humanity?"

https://www.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/ml00ac/how_much_are_games_like_factorio_and_eve_online/

You're right, Factorio is hugely addictive (saying it as an ex-addict). 

In general, the best games are also hugely addictive, especially the ones that were specifically designed to be addictive (in contrast to being just an excellent game).

It's one the reasons why I'm trying to avoid video games these days. Unless the game has an unusually high educational value (like Factorio or Capitalism Lab), I assume the game is net harmful, and is not worth any time/money.

Can you write a post about things you learned via video games? I am highly skeptical that they can teach anything transferable to the real world for STEM-adjacent adults. (Programming video games like https://store.steampowered.com/app/375820/Human_Resource_Machine/ can teach some programming, but they are more like gamefied Leetcode than a strategy/puzzle game. Most non-programmers I have introduced these games to could not even win the starting levels.)

I wrote an LW post about the one game I can recommend in LW circles. It's called Understand. The main thing it trains is continually coming up with hypotheses and falsifying them.

I've played gazillions of other games, including stuff like Factorio and almost all the Zachtronics games, but don't think their upsides outweigh their significant downsides, like being enormous timewasters.

Personally, I think I got a good feel of the basics of business management from Capitalism Lab. It is a very detailed business sim that is trying to be as realistic as possible for a game.

According to the dev, the game's predecessor was also used at Harvard and Stanford as a teaching aid. Judging by the immense complexity and depth of the game, I find the claim believable.

Very true. But those works, in my view, are in total much more helpful than harmful, which is extremely rare in fiction. 

After thinking deeply on the topic, I now perceive all works of fiction as (by default) harmful. And only if I'm certain that a particular movie / book / etc is more helpful than harmful, I allow myself to consume it.

I downvoted this. I usually like the concise writing style exhibited in this essay (similar to lsusr, paul graham, both of whom I like) , but I apparently only like it when I think it's correct. :P

I especially downvoted because I think it is fairly likely to attract low-quality discussion. A differently-written version of a similar but perhaps more nuanced point, with better fleshed-out examples of why given works are net helpful or net harmful, would be a better post. I am sympathetic to the general idea of the post!

One of the most important steps one can do to overcome a social network addiction is to stop caring about likes. Although LW is an unusually helpful social network that has avoided some of the typical pitfalls, it is still a social network, and thus must be consumed with a great caution.

I especially downvoted because I think it is fairly likely to attract low-quality discussion

So far, I'm ok with the quality of the discussion. Not the deepest one, but much better than one would expect from, say, Facebook (especially given the fact that the post criticizes things that some people can't live without). 

Without getting too into the weeds and looking at the specific examples you gave in the post, I agree with the overall point you make. There exists more falsehood than truth in the world, and navigating the information landscape requires strategic effort. The reasoning for this belief is simple: suppose that you want to make a vehicle from raw material. There are vastly more permutations of that raw material resulting in something other than a functioning vehicle. Similarly, there are vastly more permutations of information representing the reality they are trying to model inaccurately than accurately.

A suggestion: rather than giving specific examples of good/bad fiction, it could be more timeless and more generally applicable to come up with general heuristics about what is good content to consume if you want to systematically improve your modelling of the world vs what is content that consistently worsens the accuracy of your modelling. An implicit assumption here is that our goal is to improve the accuracy of our modelling, which is not always instrumental. For example, you might want to deceive yourself into adopting certain beliefs by consuming 'bad' fiction to fit in or attract mates. ("The Elephant in the Brain" is a good book on the importance of self-deception.)

The value of fiction is in helping me understand the experience of other minds, but this is not particular to fiction as I can also acquire the same knowledge from reading biographies or psychology or just socialising. This quote from the preface to the Lok Sang Ho translation of the "Tao Te Ching" captures this idea well:

Joseph Conrad [...] wrote that the role of the artist is no different from that of the thinker or that of the scientist. Like the latter, he is after the Truth, but whereas the scientist seeks the truth about the physical world, the artist seeks the Truth about the human mind. "The artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom: to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition..."

A general heuristic I use to judge the quality of content is whether prestigious people I respect endorse that content. This is not a catchall heuristic, but it is better than nothing. If someone like Scott Aaronson, a highly rigorous rationalist, endorsed a book or a blog, it's likely of good epistemic quality.

I agree with all of your points.

As for heuristics, I find analyzing tropes as highly useful. 

Firstly, tropes help with finding the fiction that have the traits I perceive as helpful. For example, there is a page that lists hundreds of works that depict mind uploading, one of my most favorite topics. 

Secondly, tropes can be used as additional indicators of the quality of the fiction. For example, someone recommended Deadpool 2 to me. But after scrapping the page for tropes, I found that it contains a lot of tropes that I perceive as harmful, but almost no good tropes. The movie is not worth watching. 

I don't think what you term 'falsehoods' in fiction per se are harmful (more on that shortly). Falsehoods are most harmful when they're indistinguishable, or hard to distinguish, from the truth - or indeed masquerading as truth. In that sense, social media has the most potential of the things referenced above for damage via insidious falsehoods. Phenomena like self-curation, implied endorsement, groupthink, lack of nuance, social pressure to conform in public (to name a few) all cumulatively add up to an objectively skewed picture of reality, but which most people will accept as being ostensibly real/true. Cf. layers of bias in news media.

I think fiction is net beneficial. We know, upon opening a novel, say, that what's contained in the pages is the product of the author's imagination. The world depicted most likely takes its cues from the world we live in, sure, but we know from the outset that that world is not real. Because we understand that framework from the moment we begin, we are able to compartmentalize and to compare/contrast that world and its characters, on the one hand, to/with our world and the people in it. Critical thinking through analogy leads us to learn more about - and understand more deeply - the world we live in, to consider points of view that are different from our own, and to identify parts of ourselves and our worlds we wish to improve and why. It's hard for me to see how that's harmful.

Falsehoods are most harmful when they’re indistinguishable, or hard to distinguish, from the truth

That is too simplistic. Consider an argument made by Eliezer for the proposition that

we first passively accept a proposition in the course of comprehending it, and only afterward actively disbelieve propositions which are rejected by consideration.

My reading the linked argument back in 2007 made me install a habit of always immediately evaluating the truth value of basically everything everyone tells me (along with a compensatory policy of my feeling free to ask my friends to stop telling me things, using phrases such as, "I am overloaded with information now and would like to rest before you give me any more").

But I get so absorbed in fiction (mostly video entertainment) that I doubt I am doing any evaluating, so I do worry about the negative effects of fiction consumption on the accuracy of my beliefs.

Another argument against consuming fiction: at least a few luminaries believe that human progress has stagnated since about 1970. An extremely popular and potent form and vehicle for fiction, namely, television, became a mass phenomenon in the US in the 1950s (and a little later in the rest of the world). The most productive members of society are relatively busy and also (because of their higher status and higher incomes) have relatively good access to enjoyable experiences, making them relatively less receptive to a new form of enjoyable experience. Also, it is plausible that a very productive person will have acquired the knowledge behind his current level of productivity about 10 years ago, on average. The combination of those 2 effects could explain the approximately-13-year delay between the mass adoption of television and the start of the stagnation.

at least a few luminaries believe that human progress has stagnated since about 1970

Yeah, my computer has hardly improved from 1970's ones.

Thank you for the link! Somehow I missed the Eliezer's post during my research. I'll add it to my post. 

My reading the linked argument back in 2007 made me install a habit of always immediately evaluating the truth value of basically everything everyone tells me

I think it's an excellent habit. Will try it too.

I wholeheartedly agree with your view on social media. 

We know, upon opening a novel, say, that what's contained in the pages is the product of the author's imagination.

I suspect that the compartmentalization is leaky. Consciously, I know that the depicted snake is not real. Yet I still feel uneasy if I look at the image. 

Repeated observed association between some X and a negative emotion - will make them associated in my mind, even if the association is entirely fictional.

For example, because of fiction, most people fear sharks much more than they fear cows, although cows are killing orders of magnitude more people per year. Same with terrorism vs heart disease. 

The damage chance per encounter is higher with sharks than cows, surely?

Listening to an excellent non-fiction audiobook will give you both the escape and a better relaxation (including a good rest for your back and eyes). 

It's not my experience that non-fiction would generally give me better relaxation than fiction. (Nor that audiobooks would generally be more relaxing than the written word.)

The claim here is definitely 'audiobooks would generally be more relaxing than the written word.'

I personally find it somewhat true; I need to listen to fiction very attentively to not lose the plot, but I can jump back into a nonfiction podcast/audiobook after not listening for 10 minutes just fine (most of the time).

I've been watching Dr. Stone and it absolutely has wrong things in it. One example is where the protagonist points out that he has to be using up energy to think while made of stone, and the energy has to come from somewhere and must run out. He invokes E=mc^2 for that, in a way that doesn't make sense.

There's also all the feats that are, literally, possible, but would be difficult in practice, like making an iron forge or an electrical generator from nothing in at most a few days.

I agree, Dr Stone is far from perfect. But I think it's the closest thing to rational fiction that I've ever encountered in anime / manga. Moreover, I have a strong suspicion that the author loves HP:MoR. There are certain ideas and scenes in the manga that were quite obviously inspired by HP:MoR.

The second closest thing I've encountered is the Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

But I think it’s the closest thing to rational fiction that I’ve ever encountered in anime /​ manga.

You can try the Promised Neverland.

It is also pretty unbelievable. (Spoilers ahead.)

The security around keeping the whole secret is way off. This is their biggest priority, and they know it. Yet the children can just walk where they are not supposed to go, and discover it.

The technological measures do not match up, and they absolutely can have sensors that make conspiring and/or escaping much harder.

The children are too competent. Well, we can forgive this one, but it really takes things too far; e.g., one child has learned to make a device from scraps of other devices to disable their GPS tracker without sounding the alarm. Seriously?

The children are way too selfless. This gets worse and worse, ultimately ruining the second season. This still would have been okay if the characters paid the consequences for their selfless choices, but no, they get to have their cake and eat it, too. (I guess the average viewer loves to see self-sacrifice while hating "losers".)

The escape would have ultimately failed in (anime) canon if not for some obvious author insertions. They encountered a rescuer randomly at just the right time. They also magically found some pen that had all kinds of information on empty bases and such in it.

All in all, the first season is a good show, but it will definitely further harm your priors than help them.

Judging by the tropes, it indeed could be one of the more rational ones. Will try it, thank you!

However, watch out for the second season. I haven't seen it yet but people say it doesn't follow the manga much and isn't very good.

How is it that authors get reclassified as "harmful, as happened to Wright and Stross"? Do you mean that later works become less helpful? How would earlier works go bad?

What I mean: the author's name on the cover can't be used anymore as an indicator of the book's harmfulness / helpfulness. 

An extreme example is the story of a certain American writer. He wrote some of the most beautiful transhumanist science fiction ever. But when he crashed his car and almost died. 

He came back wrong. He is now a religious nutjob who writes essays on how transhumans are soul-less children of Satan. And in his new fiction books, transhumanists are stock villains opposed by glorious Christian heroes. 

I downvoted this. I feel like large parts of the blogpost are you taking your personal taste and asserting that everyone should consume the stuff you enjoy.  You're saying: Don't consume fiction, except this genre and list of authors which I like. You ignore or are dismissive of the reasons why other people might want to do differently - you just assert that there are better alternatives. 

Personally, I think it is morally wrong to denigrate someone else because they have different taste in entertainment than you do. I realise I'm more sensitive to this than average - it's a combination of having been bullied at school for being different than other kids; and enjoying sci-fi & fantasy which often get sneered at by literary people - but  I'm fairly sure that the world would be a better place if we could all just accept that other people have different tastes than we do. I don't think you intended to invite readers to disdain people who enjoy the 'wrong' kind of fiction, but you are only one step away from that behaviour, and it's dangerous. 

You also dismiss the reasons why someone would want to consume fiction with a blunt assertion that there are better ways. 1) People have different ways to relax, if they like watching/reading fiction of whatever kind, that's cool, whatever works for them. If you personally enjoy non-fiction audiobooks, great, keep enjoying what you like, but you don't get to demand that other people like the same thing or relax in the same way. 2) Fiction has other benefits, in particular as a way to convey experience. You can't know directly what it's like to be someone with a radically different background or sexual orientation or whatever, but fiction can help you understand anyway. I remember seeing an interview with a Saudi lady who had persuaded her father to read a novel about the experience of an unhappy woman in a forced marriage - this lady was also in a forced marriage and had been trying to explain why she hated it for years,  but it was the novel that finally got through to her father. You simply don't get that kind of understanding with a non-fiction work.

There are genuine, high-quality arguments to be made about the non-obvious disbenefits of some kinds of content. For example, I would recommend Elizabeth's post about the effect of distractions from social media.I also agree with your argument that TV news is so heavily filtered it has similar properties to fiction. There are high-quality discussions to be had about how individuals can change their media consuming habits and/or choose different content so as to avoid downsides, bearing in mind the principle of equal and opposite advice, and the fact that what works for one person may not be right for another. But, I'm sorry, this post isn't one of them.

I feel like large parts of the blogpost are you taking your personal taste and asserting that everyone should consume the stuff you enjoy.  You're saying: Don't consume fiction, except this genre and list of authors which I like.

 

I didn't say that. And the post is not about personal taste or favorite kinds of entertainment. 

The post can be summarized as follows: 

a rational agent who has the goal of understanding the world - avoids consuming fiction, unless it's the rare kind of fiction that benefits this goal more than it harms it  

If you have a different goal (e.g. to maximize your enjoyment), there is nothing wrong with consuming whichever fiction you like.

I've edited the post to make it more clear.

enjoying sci-fi & fantasy which often get sneered at by literary people

BTW, for the purposes of mind uploading, I write down the title of every book / movie / game / etc I've consumed (with some metadata). Doing it for more than 20 years. According to the table, I've read about 200 science fiction books. I'm not a science fiction hater, but an ex-addict.

Thanks for the edit, that helps. I un-downvoted it.

I’m a fan of some of the “helpful” authors like Iain Banks. Which Taylor are you referring to? The Strugatsky brothers are new to me. Which of their books do you recommend?

Fiction can be consumed in an unhealthy way, but it doesn’t have to be unhealthy. The same is true of news, cookies, and drugs. I’ve mostly kicked news, but I still enjoy occasional morsels of the others. I gotta have some fun.

How do you stay informed*?

*Of things you care about.

“Of things you care about” is a good way to pose the question. I avoid general news sources like the 6pm TV news, newspapers, and web news aggregators. Most of that seems to be about short term political maneuvers or disaster porn, which I don’t care about. Occasionally a friend mentions an event that interests me and then I catch up with a quick web search.

I follow podcasts, RSS feeds, and YouTube channels for topics I care about like science, economics, and general fun like LessWrong.

Which Taylor are you referring to?

Dennis E. Taylor. I love "We are Legion", especially the audiobook. The sequels are good too.

Strugatsky brothers are new to me. Which of their books do you recommend?

IMHO these are excellent:

Strugatsky brothers are the Heinlein and Banks of the USSR, and their works often incorporate rational and philosophical tropes. But I don't know if the English translations are good (I've read them in Russian - my native tongue).

I think the problem you've diagnosed is valid, but the solution is way off as it underestimates the benefits of reading fiction.

Better solutions include:

 - tactics to being self-aware so you are not as affected by false associations

 - identifying benefits of reading fiction

 - identifying how to select fiction that has high benefit/harm ratio

 - identifying which forms of false association are more potent. Political opinions and fear of snakes likely operate on different neurochemical pathways and hence need to be thought about separately. And it looks like you're focussing more on System 1 reprogramming (not System 2), would be cool if that's explicit.

One could frame this as a need for more media that is both yummy and true/useful. Since there is statistically so much yummy media that isn’t true/useful we might gain the (somewhat false) intuition that yummy is a good signal for not true/useful. But that’s how the world is now, not necessarily how it should be. Sam Rosen had a similar argument on the Clearer Thinking podcast (timestamp in the link): https://overcast.fm/+kgCChiF9A/1:29:39

Products and content can be designed without the effect of addicting you, without making you a lotus eater (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/KwdcMts8P8hacqwrX/noticing-the-taste-of-lotus).

Have you tried to think what other benefits consuming fiction may bring? For example, a way of gaining experience without putting yourself in jeopardy.

Regardless, though, this instrumental understanding of fiction doesn't sit well with me. What if good stories simply offer enjoyment and a sense of communion with the creator? Isn't that enough?

Have you tried to think what other benefits consuming fiction may bring? For example, a way of gaining experience without putting yourself in jeopardy.

I agree with your point about experience. Games are especially helpful in this regard, from the two mentioned sim games to strategies to even some shooters. 

What if good stories simply offer enjoyment and a sense of communion with the creator?

Not sure I understand the second part. Why do you desire a sense of communion with the creator?

I think there's a potentially confusing fact which you're neglecting in this post, namely the reality of literature as territory not map. If you're interested in literature, then when you read it you get lots of knowledge of what e.g. certain books contain, what certain authors wrote, and that can be very instructive not just within literature. I'd like to see you and others with this kind of viewpoint wrestle more with this kind of consideration.

TV news is not in the category of fiction but fact. I think it is harmful fact.

I recommendation also tries to imply that a non-fiction audiobook will be non-harmful. Fact has its own telling and pitfalls and the bewarness sensors should still stay on.

For example, as a consumer of Hollywood movies, you see an aged businessman in a slick suit and automatically associate him with “evil capitalists”, even if the man is Chuck Feeney or Elon Musk. The reason is simple: you have learned to have such associations, by consuming the fiction written by people of certain political views, from Simpsons to Star Trek to pretty much every movie that depicts businessmen.

Many people have had enough interaction with businessmen in slick suits to independently form negative associations. No fiction needed.