Still Skeptical of Blogs

June 13, 2012

When the Free Thinking blogs began a few years ago, I was asked to contribute a blog. My very first blog post was about why, in my opinion, most blogs are generally worthless. Excerpts of my first post are below:

• • •

As I write my first entry for the sparkly new "Free Thinking" blog, I'm skeptical of its utility. While I have spent much of my career promoting critical thinking and skepticism, I'm concerned about joining the noise, the glut of words inundating the Web and indeed the world.

By most estimates there are over 120 million blogs out there on the World Wide Intertubes. It seems everyone has a blog; teens are blogging, grandmothers are blogging, almost anyone with access to a computer, an opinion, and some spare time has a blog. The Web has democratized the dissemination of information, but not necessarily improved the content quality. There's incredibly good, useful info on the Web, but the signal to noise ratio is higher than ever.

Of course, some blogs are better than others, but according to a statistic I just made up (so you can't check), 98.3 percent of blogs are irrelevant, self-indulgent musings and journaling, read by the blogger and one or two friends.

Blogs are inherently personal; they rarely include references; they are short, thus allowing for little or no detailed, critical analysis. In this age of blogging and Twitter, communication comes in smaller and smaller bites, conveying less and less information. For people to accurately understand the world around them, they need more information and context, not less.

One distinguishing feature of blogs is that because they are short and online, they are immediate: X just happened, and here is my reaction to it. There's some value in that, but people rarely get an accurate understanding of an event at the time; that's one reason why breaking news reports are notoriously unreliable. If you believed the blogs from eyewitnesses at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, for example, you'd think that hundreds of children were orphaned and there was a desperate need for blood donations; neither of which was true. (No children lost both parents in the attacks, and there was more than enough blood on hand to help the handful of victims who were pulled alive from the rubble.) Immediate, yes; accurate, no. Skeptics (should) value truth over immediacy, period.

The point is that real understanding of an event takes time, distance, and context-none of which are really provided by blogs. Blogging is anathema to careful analysis of the facts and responsible journalism, and therefore responsible skepticism. A claim of some mysterious or paranormal event can take mere seconds to make ("I saw a ghost in my bedroom last night...") and may take weeks or months to establish the facts and skeptically investigate the hypotheses. As Mark Twain noted, "A lie [or myth, or mistake] can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

• • •

The same problems and issues I identified are still around, if anything magnified by the exponentially growing World Wide Web. Since that first blog I have been witness to (and occasional victim of) flame wars, troll attacks, misrepresentation of others' positions (both obvious and subtle), and so on. We've all seen bloggers resort to feigned outrage, insults, and invective in their efforts to stir up controversy and increase page hits. This sensational, shock-jock sleaze is nothing new, and has been immensely successful for Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and their countless blogging ilk. It's not helpful or productive, but it gets attention.

Still, media has always had the inherent problem of separating out the wheat from the chaff, the insightful from the banal, the incisive from the divisive. Such is the price for the democratization of speech that the Internet brings: anyone with a computer has equal access. It's probably true that most of everything is crap-but it's a shame that we must work so hard to find the non-crap.

Comments:

#1 Darcy (Guest) on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 1:21pm

I suspect you mean the signal to noise ratio is lower than ever, or that the noise to signal ratio is higher than ever…

A small mistake but distracting to some of us.

#2 Darcy (Guest) on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 1:22pm

I agree by the way, and said much the same thing to a lit student recently.

#3 K Sturgess (Guest) on Saturday June 16, 2012 at 8:44pm

Why I disagree, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Ben could get a copy of the Young Australian Skeptics Blog Anthology (I can send a copy!) where a number of blog posts have been collated, rather than lose them in the 120 million out there.

It has been inspired by the Science Blogging Open Laboratory model:

#4 DoubtfulNews on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 10:46am

Having been a blogger for many years, I disagree. While you cite some down sides, there are HUGE benefits to blogs being immediate. They are a primary way to put information out there on the net fast to counter mistakes, provide alternative views, create a community and…and, well, I think MANY more reasons can be added to this!

I understand that everyone and their dog has a blog but a well done site with quality controls with dedicated contributors is extremely valuable. How else would some of us have gotten our start, honed our writing and arguing skills, made new friends, shared our contributions, etc.?

All media is 90% crap, in general. But one of the first, valuable skills for the critical thinker/rational inquirer is to be able to distinguish good resources from bad. I think THAT’S what we should be emphasizing. I don’t think you thought this one through, Ben.

#5 Nigel (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 11:48am

I agree that the blogosphere in general has a lot of problems.  I mean a lot of problems, but I do not know a form of media that does not have a lot of problems. 

Print media is slower and more deliberative as are newspapers.  This is quite true.  However, consumers are moving away from print and even ‘static’ website that republish print media.  However, blogs can offer rejoinders to incorrect or thoughtless media in a timely and inexpensive manner.  They can also publish information when it is useful not two to three months after the fact which is the case print media. 

While I agree a long piece regarding an investigation that is not time sensitive does not require the cheap and timely attributes of a blog, there are plenty of area where such attributes are useful.  Blogs can also be useful for this in the correct hands.

I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Radford.  I enjoy his work an immense amount.  Sadly, my knee jerk response is to view Mr. Radford’s post similar to what a Newspaper reporter circa 1963 might think after watching the Huntley Brinkley report, or a nightly news producer discussing CNN in 1985. 

Blogging is new (not so new anymore) and reaches a far reaching audience which might only be a Google search away.  I would submit is better to join it and help guide it then to turn away from it.  I also might note that Mr. Radford criticized blogs from a blog, which is weird.

#6 carr2d2 (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 11:53am

pretty easy to dismiss the entire blogging enterprise when you have the privilege to publish your work through “legitimate” channels. you know what, ben? skepticism is bigger than the establishment now. it’s bigger than the jref and cfi. it’s outgrown its gatekeepers, and the grassroots have decided that there are more important things to pursue than lake monsters and bigfoot.

yes, the atmosphere of the internet allows for a lot of bullshit. and that’s everywhere; not just in the blogoshpere. but to dismiss all of it as irrelevant because you don’t have the time or wherewithal to handle it when people disagree with you, or have different priorities than you, well, that’s just plain cowardice.

don’t like the internet? that’s great. stay off the internet. go hunt down another mythological creature. i’m sure cfi will keep paying you. the rest of us have other things to worry about.

#7 Snoma (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 12:25pm

Perhaps Ben is just tired of the uncalled for flaming. He sure has gotten his share of that.

#8 DoubtfulNews on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 12:37pm

Granted, certain blogs and their followers have been detrimental to progress and have HURT the reputation of freethinking/skepticism online. But some of us strive to be positive examples. People can choose which they prefer to subscribe to.

Skeptical social media is such that a positive and valuable contributor (much the same as a firestarter) can earn their stripes fairly quickly.

There have been many who have advocated the RIGHT way to go re: putting out quality content in a blog and podcasts (example, Tim Farley on skeptools.wordpress.com). Used in a careful way, these can be important tools to reach large audience you would not otherwise reach.

#9 Shane P. Brady (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 12:46pm

Ben,

I respectfully disagree.  Everything you point is true, but it only covers part of the spectrum of blogs.  There are plenty of blogs who do not cater to page views and attention, but instead endeavor to explore ideas and educate.  Good skeptics write good blogs is what I’ve found to highly generalize.

Without blogs, the skeptic movement might be smaller, more regional, and lacking any sort of reach. 

I understand that as someone who has been on the receiving end of some of the worst kind of blogging, you feel snakebitten, but don’t throw them all away.

#10 Greg Laden (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 12:56pm

Here’s the thing. You say this in the OP:

Of course, some blogs are better than others, but according to a statistic I just made up (so you can’t check), 98.3 percent of blogs are irrelevant, self-indulgent musings and journaling, read by the blogger and one or two friends.

But you couldn’t say that so easily in a blog free world.  And editor, for instance, would be annoyed.

Blogs are inherently personal; they rarely include references; they are short, thus allowing for little or no detailed, critical analysis.

Blogs certainly allow for personal, lack of references being short, etc. but they are not “inherently” this.  In fact, the personal nature and shortosity of blogs, when used by the writer, can enhance things like efforts to provide critical analysis.

A mistake you seem to be making, if I may use this space underneath your blog for a bit of critique, is the conflation of blogs and bloggers.  Twenty years ago almost all paper was used for newspapers, insulation, and egg cartons (a statistics I just made up). Does that mean that literature published 20 years ago is cold air and eggs?  No.  Blogging is a medium (like paper is a medium).  You may have conflated medium and producer of medium and message.

One distinguishing feature of blogs is that because they are short and online, they are immediate: X just happened, and here is my reaction to it. There’s some value in that, but people rarely get an accurate understanding of an event at the time; that’s one reason why breaking news reports are notoriously unreliable.

Yes, true, though not always. In fact, there is a bit of a gate keeping phenomenon here that is annoying and I’m glad you brought it up. If I write a critical blog post with references to a finding in science that is a year old, some readers become enraged. They only want my reaction to the immediate.  Not only is the immediacy of blogs real (though NOT inevitable) but it is both a good thing and a bad thing, and should be examined a bit more closely.  Looking only at the full blown essays I write on my blog, very little is immediate.  Much of the work that people say they like the most that I’ve done is very not immediate. 

Blogging is anathema to careful analysis of the facts and responsible journalism, and therefore responsible skepticism.

You need to read a better class of blogs.  They exist.  You just need to do more research, think about the topic you are writing about here more, do a bit more analysis, get more data, and spend a bit of time considering your position.  Then write the blog post.  Your blog post would be better.

Since that first blog I have been witness to (and occasional victim of) flame wars, troll attacks, misrepresentation of others’ positions (both obvious and subtle), and so on.

OMG the blogosphere is a hellish place, it really is.  I keep waiting for some sort of cultural evolution.  Not happening yet.

anyone with a computer has equal access.

That is actually a misconception that you would not have made in your blog post had you been better at this ...  ... (note use of smiley face).

Yes, anyone can have a blog, but not, that does not give everyone equal access or an equal voice. There is heterogeneity.  For example, there are blog networks like Scienceblogs, Scientific American, Discover, Freethoughtblogs, and so on (I’m thinking mainly of skeptical and science blogging) that give individuals much more exposure.  Any blogger who blogs for a while then joins an established network sees a significant increase in readership, and usually you have to be invited to these networks. 

There are democratic aspects to the blogosphere but there are also meritocratic aspects.

#11 Greg Laden (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 1:01pm

The damn smiley face disappeared. Why was the smiley face repressed by the CFI? Come on, guys!

#12 Kammy (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 1:29pm

“Still, media has always had the inherent problem of separating out the wheat from the chaff, the insightful from the banal, the incisive from the divisive. Such is the price for the democratization of speech that the Internet brings: anyone with a computer has equal access. It’s probably true that most of everything is crap-but it’s a shame that we must work so hard to find the non-crap.”

Interesting. Is your entire point based on the premise that what you write is the wheat? Is this post incisive and not decisive? Because from where I sit, it’s very divisive to say that what all you all are dribbling out is tripe, but ooooh, please do bask in my wisdom. Which is essentially what you’re saying here.

#13 Jake (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 1:50pm

So, the basic premise of this blog post is that blogs are bad because anyone can write them…

I feel like the author should spend more time finding good blogs before badmouthing all of them.

#14 skepticalmath (Guest) on Friday June 22, 2012 at 6:40am

Ben Radford - I see you are still writing blog posts without references, citation, research at all, really. While what you say may be accurate of your blog, the blogs I read tend to be the opposite: both long and short articles, well-researched, with copious references and documentation (hyperlinks are your friend.)

The fact that lots of people write informal, personal blogs is insufficient to be “skeptical of blogs.” It is a reason to look for blogs, if you want, which do the opposite.

#15 TommyBoy (Guest) on Friday June 22, 2012 at 7:26am

There is a lot of noise out there, but there are some good blogs.  I read of this one on one of the good ones.

After reading yours, all I can say is “Welcome to the 98.3%”.

#16 ewanmacdonald (Guest) on Friday June 22, 2012 at 7:56am

Mr. Radford, this is the worst wheat I’ve ever tasted.

#17 A Hermit on Friday June 22, 2012 at 9:01am

Wouldn’t this blog look better with a nice, pink background?

#18 Randy on Friday June 22, 2012 at 6:38pm

It’s funny ... Ben claims there’s more noise than signal, and then we get a number of comments (and posts on other blogs) that provide ... anecdotes.

They claim the blog they read or write is the signal, and the comments on their blog are all intelligent.

Sure.  Well, even if that’s true, they’ve made their claim about an ever-decreasing sliver of the pie. what about the rest of it?

There is necessarily more noise because:
(a) “noise” is subjective
(b) the barrier to broadcast is essentially nil

How is this even controversial?

#19 Ian (Guest) on Saturday June 23, 2012 at 3:58am

You do realise you are blogging here don’t you? So is the total lack of substantive content in your post a) because it is inherent in the form or b) deliberate to make a point or c) because you are projecting your own incapacity onto others or d) because you feel threatened by a new media format that can’t be controlled by gatekeepers - which you clearly feel should be your role?

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