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.