The Epistemology of Blogs

Before another word is said… Let it be known that; Yes, I am fully cognizant of the irony. Now let’s move on and not speak of it again.

I want to admit that there isn’t a whole lot of original thought in what follows. It’s all stuff that many of us will have heard before, but I until recently I haven’t personally considered it with regards to the educative agenda of skepticism. I’ve found myself thinking about it all an undue amount lately as a result of the Skeptic North project. Really this is little more than a cursory compilation of myriad things from various sources I’ve been pondering. I haven’t reached a lot of conclusion, so this is largely food for thought. Perhaps bringing it together will jar something in someone’s mind who hasn’t thought much about it yet and that will lead to greater discussion.

I am a big advocate of both free speech and the democratization of media. Without both of which I’m not sure that I would have ever known about organized skepticism, and the general consensus is that that is a truism for the legions who are now discovering the critical thinking community. It has been said many times in the past few years that blogs and podcasts are largely responsible for the oft heard chorus “I had no idea that there were other people in the world who thought this way.” But on the flip side, the side that I want to delve into here, is the reality that blogs in general are for the most part crappy when it comes to the competition of teaching factual information in favour of bunk.

Democratized media is fantastic when it comes to politics and other debates of opinion, but sadly facts are not influenced by popular opinion. Six and a half billion of us on the planet could declare that two plus two equals five, but the paltry few left over who declared that it indeed equalled four would be correct… for the brief period of time before they were burned at the stake. In matters of opinion taking a liberal sampling of the noise on the blogosphere can lead to a reasonable middle ground. In social-issues the golden mean may have some merit. Certainly it can provide a solution that least offends the most people. But truth is binary. Things are wrong or right. There is no half-right. Facts are correct, or they are simply not facts.

Facts fall under siege in the blogosphere, amongst other things, by an illusion of false balance. As if this weren’t enough of an issue in the established media, blogs misbalance any given issue by giving an unfettered voice to those whose ‘facts’ are simply wrong. There are no gatekeepers on the internet. That is one of its greatest strengths. But it means that Intelligent Design competes with a voice that bears the same apparent authority as Evolution. There are no fact checkers or editors or peer review on the internet. Comment threads are perhaps the closest approximation to these, and they do a terrible job of any of it. Comments are rightfully moderated by the blog owner or their agent. They can choose to have no comments, only comments by people they know and accept, only comments they agree with, they can delete comments at any time — all of which lead inexorably to a one-sided discussion. Or comment threads can take anything that comes. And when they DO take everything that comes, the threads are often plagued by spam and/or regularly devolve into angry screed. The latter of which does nothing to help the facts gain clarity; the and both require policing which without significant self-monitoring can move deeper and deeper into gray zones that border upon the first set of options. It’s an inherently broken system.

Blogger-Joe, who likes to hear himself type, has little or no background in journalistic ethics or in scholarly citation. There is nothing stopping them from making unsupported claims that the Moon Landing was a hoax; the Avro-Arrow debacle was a conspiracy of profiteers; 9/11 was an inside job; JFK was killed by the CIA; or that if you dig far enough down, the dirt beneath your feet will actually be chocolate shavings. Okay, so one of those would be awesome, but none of them are true. But if one person makes an outrageous claim, you know damned well it’ll get repeated as fact. (So, yes you can blame the upcoming “sub-top-soil-chocolate-dirt myth” on me.) Too many readers fail to demand second independent sources. Most bloggers haven’t got a clue what the provenance of information is and are perfectly happy to quote Blogger-Joe and take him as an accurate primary source, rather than the result of an online game of telephone, where the facts are distorting by degrees with each step away from the original source.

The reality is that detailed and accurate information tends to be dry, more than most people want to read or hear about, and all too often beyond the reader’s expertise. They prefer the distilled version. But they fill the holes in the distillation in with their own distorted assumptions and before too long; truth (if it was there in the first place) has become fiction. As truth on any given subject is a single very specific and often narrow and/or convoluted thing, and fiction is absolutely everything else, you can imagine that it’s nigh impossible to have fictional information morph into truth as it passes down the line — certainly not without an infinite number of monkeys blogging, and even then it would be drowned out by the noise.

To make matters worse, the bemoaned death of newspapers at the hands of a world of bloggers is undermining the main online source of information. In order to compete with the free blogging media, print media is destroying not only it’s living infrastructure, laying off more and more of the people who are trained to present the news in a factually accurate manner, but they are wilfully compromising the ethics that guide the writers who remain. They are given less time to deliver and thus are implicitly encouraged to cut more corners. This extends to the editorial efforts, where a blind eye is turned to journalistic failures. No fact checking is done. Articles are taken directly off the newswire without corroborative sources, because it’s an efficient way to get copy. Thus the bloggers’ source is crumbling at the fundament. And what if newspapers and other established media were to dry up completely? The investigative side of journalism is fading. And if it were to do so completely, the blogosphere would be nothing but a giant interconnected op-ed page. I seriously doubt it will go that far, but the fewer the established media sources, the less quality will come out of the blog-mill. Without established media to parasitically glean facts from, then what? It’s like trying to run a steel-factory without an iron mining industry providing raw material.

Readers of blogs often don’t improve their opportunities to get more and better information. They aren’t a jury in a court room beholden to listen to both sides of the trial. Myself included. The vast majority of the blog and podcast media I consume is material that I have chosen because I know by antecedent what the bias is. I have a copy of the libretto and I’m belting it out from the choir. When I am casually consuming I only rarely investigate the ‘other side’ — whatever that may entail. I DO check out what the opposition is claiming when I am specifically investigating something for a blog entry or something I have chosen to take action on, but I fear that I am an outlier in that fashion. I hope and expect that most critical thinkers are outliers as well… but we feel pretty rare, don’t we?

But wait… there is a good side to all of this. There may well be more, but at the moment I have only one point that I’ve grokked which I see as a distinct positive*. When someone has done a good job of researching their material and has taken the effort to properly cite their sources or whatever otherwise inspired them to think their thoughts that they are writing about — right or wrong, opinion or fact — then hyper-linking suddenly becomes a fantastic tool. Particularly in the hands of an active reader. They can follow the links, read the originating sources for themselves, decide if they agree with the interpretation and in the long run make a better informed choice about what they want to believe. And I do think that this is something that we, the critical thinking community, do better than most demographics, and maybe even better than practically all. Perhaps that alone will eventually win the day or perhaps other factors I’ve missed or ones which will arise will ride in like Gandalf at Helm’s Deep.

Hopefully there is much I am missing on the “what we’re leveraging for good” front. Maybe discussion will lead somewhere fruitful in terms of what else can we do. Perhaps someday we can look back at concerns like these and think them quaint.

- Kennedy

 *Someone will no doubt add to the list. Let’s knock down two items that I decided I couldn’t include in my meagre list of one:

  1. “What about the reach of new media?” I did note it above, but all the reach that is provided us is also provided to the woo-mongers, at best balancing the equation, but more realistically tilting the slope with us looking up the incline.
  2. “What about crowd-sourcing efforts within science?” Galaxy Zoo, Seti@home and their ilk are unequivocally awesome. But that’s a totally different thing. The internet is doing some very cool stuff, and I include blogging in that. But blogging is a category in its own right, and I don’t want to water down my message too much with examples whose relevance is mostly illusory.

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  • Kennedy Goodkey

    Kennedy is a film-maker and skeptic. As a skeptic his primary interests are in the communication and advocacy of skeptical and science issues, specifically calling attention to the idea that the standard practice of “playing nice with others” is not always the best approach, and definitely must be explored and refined as a tactic to be leveraged to best effect.