Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Trouble with Blogs

This is a blog entry which criticizes blogs--something of a contradiction, perhaps, but I have noticed for some time that blogs tend to be very long on opinion and very short, if not completely devoid, of fact. There was a time that I read a lot of blogs, but I now stick mainly to professional journalists (who have at least some form of journalistic ethics,) scientists, researchers, philosophers, skeptics, and professional media. In short, people who are accustomed to being called out on the carpet when they get it wrong, and so make a habit of checking their facts and ideas before they write. These can go off the rails at times, but there is enough balance between a selection of sources to expose and correct glaring biases and innacuracies.

Not so with blogs. Bloggers often indulge in what I call a circle-jerk--a group of like minded people who quote and link to each other in a circular manner, thereby providing the illusion of concensus and evidentiary integrity without ever touching the ground at any point. A fairly reliable sign of this is when you find wing nuts of similar breed cited on the bloggers page. Granted, the blogger may be linking to a single argument that they find substantial, but there is something suspicious in the fact that they frequent the ravings of these nuts often enough to pick up on such a post within minutes or hours. This is why I no longer bother with Instapundit--having followed the links, looked around, and checked their facts (not easy, given that they often actually obfuscate their sources,) I found not only extremely biased opinions, but outright misrepresentation of truth. Checking their facts should be their job, not mine. I don't bother with Micheal Moore or Air America anymore (they may be very entertaining, but I certainly wouldn't quote them to support anything.) To find myself in a circle-jerk where it takes an hour of careful backtracking to discover Ann Coulter at the center is just insulting.

The internet was supposed to be a means of fact checking, and it still can be. The academic backbone is still there, as is the Guttenberg Project, archives of abstracts and historical archives, and vast repositories of computer knowledge. But there are also stagnant cesspools of inbred lunacy out there: rabid partisans, religious extremists, Neo-Nazis, the tin-foil hat crowd, who are emboldened by their cloistered incestuous digital communities to believe that they have no need to be bashful about their stupidity--indeed, that their delusions are shared by the majority of the populace simply because anyone who disagrees with them is promptly banned from their discussion groups. This is also why I prefer discussion groups which don't have dictatorial ideologues as moderators--what is the point of talking to people who always agree with you? That doesn't even afford you the chance to sharpen your arguments, let alone learn something new.

Worse yet, these backwaters serve as recruiting tools for their members, particularly if they can find someone who has no prior knowledge of the area. It only takes about fifty people to build a circle-jerk convincing to someone naive about a subject. You can find fifty people who will believe anything. Add a few books from fringe presses and you're there--these provide the much cited 'evidence'. Never mind that the evidence in these books is heresay, speculation, misinterpretation, or outright fabrication.

In an ordinary community, it's usually hard to find more than a few lunatics (though not always, or we never would have suffered the industrial strength bullshit of Hitler or the KKK.) But on the internet, you can always search for somebody else who shares that special brain fart that seems uniquely yours. Now these brain farts are stinking up even the mainstream media; thoughts that should have been met with consternation and therapy now meet with the approval of the like-blinded, who will urge you to take it to the sheeple. Today's partisan rant becomes tomorrow's editorial. I'm not sure of the way out of this, but others have already noted this, and suggested that the responsibility of journalism has a place in the world of blogs too.