Monday, November 16, 2009

bullshit detectors

You may not know anything about the issue, but I bet you *reckon* something. So why not tell us what you reckon? Let us enjoy the full majesty of your uniformed, ad-hoc reckon.

Having open-access comments on websites is technically very democratic, except that it allows the quickiest to be heard loudest, and discourages people who don't like being insulted.

George Monbiot lamented the way this fouls discussion, saying that the Guardian environment site is especially bad. I beg to differ. On reading that I went to a random Guardian news article - it was about Michael Jackson's funeral - and found the same level of brazen ignorance and vitriolic venom there. I think perhaps we think comments are worst at the place we read them most.

But the prevalence of climate deniers at the Guardian site made me realise why, conversely, the Daily Mail site often has surprisingly good comments. People go to where they can beat their chests. It is far easier and more pleasing to talk at length about things you dislike than things you like. So, pick the newspaper or columnist most opposed to your perspective and you'll likely be welcomed into the warm bosom of sympathetic commenters there.

Nicholson Baker's fascinating article about Wikipedia talks about vandalism on the site, which is surprisingly low compared to other high-volume open-access sites. Partly it's due to the fact that lots of people are patrolling Wikipedia, but there's something else at work.

Wikipedia's a reference tool, the Guardian is a news site. If you manage to skew the first wave of comments on a news article, you've effectively neutered the ability to debate. Who goes back to a four month old news article to start a discussion? Thus, it's worth the climate deniers while setting up Google news alerts and then rushing to blather loud and long and unintelligibly when something in their sphere of interest is published.

There's no such rush to read a Wikipedia article. Your stupid comment will probably be wiped before many people have seen it, and certainly it won't stand there attracting responses and making you feel important. So, even though Wikipedia is such a popular site, the news services are the main focus for the hard of thinking.

As seekers of knowledge we have a relatively new task. Before the 20th century - arguably up until the internet age - the problem with getting good information was finding where it was. These days, it's right there in front of you, but getting it is about filtering it out from the bullshit.

So, whilst it may appear a bit of an obvious fish/barrel/firearms jamboree to have a blog devoted to stupid things said on the BBC's Have Your Say pages, there's a very profound point being made. It keeps your mind sharp, it reminds you that just because lots of people say something online doesn't mean many people actually think it at all. The blog - newly added to my sidebar - is called Speak You're Branes, named after the segment in the priceless Day Today where a member of the public gives an idiotic vox-pop.

I'm finding that blogs like Speak You're Branes, and the ones like Enemies of Reason and Five Chinese Crackers that take apart newspaper bias and made-upness, are forming a key component of my reading these days. It's almost as if I've got to get some of that attitude on as armour before wading into the news media.

Being able to discern between the various calibres of information presented is the only way we'll make sense of the world. A finely-tuned bullshit detector is the most essential tool of the 21st century.

1 comment:

punkscience said...

Word. The Twat-O-Tron is one of the internet's true giggle engines.

Not sure if you've seen this XKCD comic but its an idea that needs to be put into action on HYS as soon as possible.