This Just In: Blogging Skeptic Skeptical of Blogs

December 17, 2008

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, not all blogs are created equal. There are some excellent skeptical blogs, like those of Phil "The Bad Astronomer" Plait and P.Z. "No Clever Nickname" Myers, which entertain and inform readers. But Phil, P.Z., and a few others are the exceptions, not the rules. 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 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."

Yet compromises must be made. Attention spans are dwindling, newspaper and magazine circulations are dropping. When CSI Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell, myself, or some other skeptic is interviewed in the media, we routinely get the televised equivalent of a short (and heavily edited) blog. Cable TV documentaries on the paranormal are notorious for presenting the Believer side of the topic for 52 minutes, then giving the Token Skeptic anywhere from 20 seconds to 2 minutes to explain the scientific side. It’s annoying and frustrating, but if you refuse to participate in this farce, they often won’t have any skeptical viewpoint at all.

It’s not what we want, it’s not ideal, it doesn’t really give a chance to convey any important nuances, but it is better than nothing. So, perhaps, are these skeptical blogs. Not trying to be more than promised, simply a few quick skeptical snatches, insightful comments, and thoughts. Hopefully these blogs—as short and flawed as they will be—won’t be joining the noise but helping people filter it.

I’m thinking of calling my blog "A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper," a reference to mathematician John Allen Paulos’s excellent book "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," about innumeracy and misused statistics in the news media. I’ll post once a week or so, and I hope you’ll come back.



#1 dougsmith on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 9:23am

Ben, I really wouldn’t worry about it. One can argue that full and detailed information is always best, who can disagree? But then we’re left reading through multi-volume historical works and peer-reviewed essays in scientific publications. But we don’t have the time to read through all that, and many of us even lack the background to approach such material properly. We need smart, trustworthy people to cut through the noise and give us their considered opinions.

And personality is also important. We don’t want simply to gain information, we want to meet and get to know smart and interesting people. Part of what PZ and Phil get across in their blogs is much good, quickly written opinion and information. But part of what they get across is their personalities, in a way that can’t be done quite as well in a detailed essay.

Embrace the medium!

#2 Gary Behun (Guest) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 9:57am

Do you have Ben Radford’s email address so I can send him a question.

#3 mckenzievmd on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 10:03am

I’m old enough to remember life before the web, when books on unpopular subjects were hard to find and when individual members of ideological minorities could live for years without contact with fellow travellers. Now, I can indulge my most esoteric interests with ease, and I have great conversations with people around the world I would not otherwise know. Sure, there’s lots of drivel out there, but that has always been the case. More chaff means more wheat, even if the ratio is still high. Luckily, CFI usually provides high quality whole grain!

#4 Henry (Guest) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 10:42am


You may send an e-mail to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) //';l[1]='a';l[2]='/';l[3]='<';l[4]=' 116';l[5]=' 101';l[6]=' 110';l[7]=' 46';l[8]=' 121';l[9]=' 114';l[10]=' 105';l[11]=' 117';l[12]=' 113';l[13]=' 110';l[14]=' 105';l[15]=' 114';l[16]=' 111';l[17]=' 102';l[18]=' 114';l[19]=' 101';l[20]=' 116';l[21]=' 110';l[22]=' 101';l[23]=' 99';l[24]=' 64';l[25]=' 111';l[26]=' 102';l[27]=' 110';l[28]=' 105';l[29]='>';l[30]='\"';l[31]=' 116';l[32]=' 101';l[33]=' 110';l[34]=' 46';l[35]=' 121';l[36]=' 114';l[37]=' 105';l[38]=' 117';l[39]=' 113';l[40]=' 110';l[41]=' 105';l[42]=' 114';l[43]=' 111';l[44]=' 102';l[45]=' 114';l[46]=' 101';l[47]=' 116';l[48]=' 110';l[49]=' 101';l[50]=' 99';l[51]=' 64';l[52]=' 111';l[53]=' 102';l[54]=' 110';l[55]=' 105';l[56]=':';l[57]='o';l[58]='t';l[59]='l';l[60]='i';l[61]='a';l[62]='m';l[63]='\"';l[64]='=';l[65]='f';l[66]='e';l[67]='r';l[68]='h';l[69]='a ';l[70]='<'; for (var i = l.length-1; i >= 0; i=i-1){ if (l[i].substring(0, 1) == ' ') output += "&#"+unescape(l[i].substring(1))+";"; else output += unescape(l[i]); } document.getElementById('eeEncEmail_PIpGix9AeQ').innerHTML = output; //]]> , and I will see to it that Ben gets it. If privacy is a concern, just send me your e-mail address and I will ask Ben to contact you when he finds the time.

Henry Huber
Assitant Director of Communications
Center for Inquiry

#5 Adam (Guest) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 11:10am

Not all blog entries are dashed off during a coffee break.  If you put the same time into a blog entry as you put into an article/essay/paper, then the quality will be just as high.  The blog just fixes the distribution problem by making it easy to update your front page with new content.  And trust me, people will notice a good, thoughtful blog.  Not every one demands daily posts—I haven’t got time for that, and I’d rather a quality article once a week than daily piles of tripe.  The medium is not the message; for that, you have to actually read the damn thing!

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to following this one.  You know how much I hate those cable documentaries.  Three of my teachers (french, history, technology) in high school showed the class that FOX one about the moon landing being all a hoax, when they ran out of teaching material.  My physics teacher was appalled.

“How could that flag be fluttering in space?  There’s no wind!”
“Gee, uh… inertia?  That’s the very… first… law!”

Actually, that’s a good example of the power of the web.  It was easy for me to look up the facts and argue with my teachers throughout school.  Every side of any given story is represented equally and without bias by Google search.  So as Doug says above me, embrace the medium!  It’s a powerful thing.

#6 Madison (Guest) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 11:27am

IMO, Ben made some excellent observations about blogs, in general.

Toward the end of his contribution, Ben wrote:

“Hopefully these blogs—as short and flawed as they will be—won’t be joining the noise but helping people filter it.”

In my view (and also my hope) that, over time, this CFI “Free Thinking” blog will be shown and proven to be “a cut above the rest.”

Is such not a likely consequence of the general nature of the skeptic?

#7 Kathy Ryan (Guest) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 1:25pm

Ben,  it is true that “real understanding requires time, distance, and context.”  But *relationships* are built through ongoing interactions over time—even though the interactions might seem trivial taken individually, they add up over time into something more profound and enjoyable. 

Maybe if you think of yourself as a “spreader of memes” or even as a “host at a really interesting party,” you will feel better!

#8 Bill Archer (Guest) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 2:37pm

Being a skeptic means noticing the differences between what we experience and what we are told by others that we should be experiencing, believing, feeling and otherwise. I can understand Ben’s concern about adding more confusion on the blog, confusion that doesn’t lead to greater awareness of the skeptic’s position.

The skeptic’s best stance is to enjoy the fruits of his or her unencumbered awareness of reality, share it with like-minded people and the genuinely curious and hope not to be further victimized by the codified imagination of others that bleeds into political and religious ideologies that become social conventions. Social conventions that could become the reasons for discrimination and exclusion.

#9 hunchbacksoldier (Guest) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 9:04pm

no offense, but i think you mean that the signal to noise ratio is lower than ever?  more noise, less signal?

#10 Marty (Guest) on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 12:15am

All in all, a good post. Ben is one of my favortes, on Live Science or in the magazine. But what happened to ‘short’?

#11 Vic Jasin (Guest) on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 9:51pm

Blogs are subject driven lightning rods. They are convention for the common man. They are meeting grounds for collaboration. They are a voice for the grassroots members of society. They are a source of brilliance, ideas and perspective. They can be entertaining. They can be informative.

For those who would not otherwise have access to such resources, the noise is tolerable.

#12 Ben "Spreader of Memes" Radford (Guest) on Friday December 19, 2008 at 9:50am

Hm, good, thoughtful posts. This might actually work.

#13 r strle (Guest) on Sunday December 21, 2008 at 3:32pm

Is it me or does it seem to others that the blog comments on this blog are upside down?  Shouldn’t the latest comments be at the bottom and follow the earlier comments at the top?

Or maybe my computer is up side down.

#14 r strle (Guest) on Sunday December 21, 2008 at 4:42pm

Ben says:
“I’m thinking of calling my blog “A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper,”

This I think is a great idea but I think that it would better to have something like “A Skeptic Views the News.”  We have heard of the eminent demise of the newspaper before but just maybe this time the cry of wolf is the result of a real wolf.  In any event there will be news reported in some form and what ever the form a skeptical view of the news would be a very valuable thing.  There is so much to be skeptical of and question in the news every day but I think it would be especially valuable to hear a deconstruction of the “current wisdom” and bandwagoning that passes for news information and analysis these days.

As an Illustration I offer the following:

As a citizen of the great state of Illinois I am appalled at the lack of any kind of skeptical view of the pronouncements of guilt heaped upon our jerky governor (I didn’t vote for him because I do not vote because I have come to the conclusion that my thoughtful vote is completely drowned out by the preprogrammed and emotionally manipulated vote of the masses of U.S. citizens with limited or no critical thinking skills) by Mr. Fitzgerald, the Republicans state wide and nationally and the many Illinois Democrats who have been engaged in a long and ongoing power struggle with him and covet his job.  At stake is a Governor’s seat for Pat Quinn, a U.S. Senate seat for somebody and maybe a veto proof or close to veto proof Senate not to mention the popular support for a new president trying to effect change to politics as usual in Washington.  Why is no one in the news media questioning the motives of any of the Governors detractors?  Whatever happened to the old idea that you are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law?  I have heard much about the governor’s, and his wife’s, foul mouth, I have heard much about his “wish” that he personally gain more than appreciation for appointing someone a Senator, I have heard much of his wish to be appointed to a cabinet and on and on it goes, lots of jerky statements no illegal behavior.  Last I checked wishing someone dead or wishing to be paid off, even if you do it out loud with sailor type language is not a crime.  Maybe I missed it but I have yet to hear of one direct or even indirect attempt of the Governor to extort money from anyone on any of those tape recordings.  There is an old saying:  Where there is smoke there is fire.  But sometimes where there is smoke there is just smoke.  It is possible that in this case there is a lot of smoke and only a little fire and by the time the smoke has cleared and the fire is out more damage will have been done by the smoke than the fire.

So yes Ben please start a maybe useful blog that looks skeptically and encourages a thoughtful analysis of “what’s in the news” because even if it is more noise than signal it could be noise that cancels other noise and allows more signal to get through.  Good luck.

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