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:

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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."

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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.