Sunday, January 29, 2006

Influence of blogs and antiblogs

As many of you have already figured out, this website is not a blog. It is an antiblog. It was established as an antiblog, it has always been an antiblog, it is an antiblog, and it is going to be an antiblog in the near future. What's the difference between a blog and an antiblog? The answer will become obvious if we sketch what is the direction in which most blogs are trying to push the public opinion on a whole variety of issues.

Let us start with the following observations. Our society relies on a certain hierarchy of skills and roles. Even though most of the U.S. citizens may believe creationism, this fact does not prevent the biology departments of universities and other institutes from pursuing the correct science about species based on Darwin's precious insights.

How is it possible? Why have not the creationists taken over biology yet? Why do the university physicists "believe" in relativity despite the opposite belief of the general public? Why hasn't the rational approach to hundreds of other questions been eliminated from the "establishment" yet? Well, it is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the pyramid of knowledge. The hierarchy in the previous sentence refers both to the structure of the actual scientific insights as well as the sociological structure of the scientific community.

When you're accepted into the college, you simultaneously do two things: you increase the probability that you will influence certain questions that depend on the intellect and other skills and that require a certain effort. However, you also increase the probability that you have the right opinions about and the right approach to the very same questions. The obvious reason behind both changes is that the college students are likely to be smarter than average people without a college. Such a selection mechanism takes places at many other levels in Academia as well as politics. One of the results is that most crackpots or conspiratory theorists can't really become professors or opinionmakers.

I am not advocating elitism as a tool for some people to dictate others how their life should look like; I am only describing the healthy dynamics that assigns different roles to different people.

The blogosphere circumvents this equilibrium that has been built and refined for a long time. What determines whether a typical blog is going to be successful is something rather different from the mechanisms that act within the pyramid of knowledge. What matters is whether you can express the opinion of a large number of people in an attractive and provocative way.

The extreme example is Daily Kos. The success of this website relies on the existence of tens of millions of rather narrow-minded Bush-bashers who are the potential readers and "contributors" to that website. They are convinced that the more radical you are, the better or smarter human you become. They completely avoid all the tests and confrontations that would normally occur before someone would become influential in politics or in Academia. There are thousands of them - and this very large number itself is very intimidating and some people are even afraid to say that most of the members of the Daily Kos community are what they are, namely irrelevant fanatical bigots.

Today, Jim VandeHei explained in the Washington Post how this new force based on the Web influences the Democratic Party. Exactly when the Democrats are trying to regain a moderate human face, the numerous radical left-wing bloggers are trying to push the Democratic Party to the left and "order" the Democratic lawmakers to do a whole plethora of really dumb things such as the filibuster attempt against Alito: an act of obstructionism that is doomed from the very beginning and that moreover shows that the Left does not want to tolerate any people (or even judges) who disagree with their liberal politics.

The radical "base" of bloggers can provide the Democratic Party with excitement, infrastructure, and even financial resources ( donations and/or DailyKos campaigns). However, at the very same time, the Democratic Party knows that the influence of this "base" must be regulated because once the Democratic Party becomes a hostage of this "base", it will be unelectable because the radicals are literally appalling for 3/4 of the population or so. Kerry has joined Dean in relying on the extreme base while Ms. Rodham remains in a similar state as Schrödinger's Cat.

Some of the dynamics is inevitable. The bloggers simply are less special people in average. The intelligence and the knowledge of an average blogger is almost certainly below the intelligence of the people who "mattered" before the word "blog" became popular. On the other hand, the bloggers like to fight much more than the average people in the society - and there are obvious microscopic explanations why it is so: this is the reason why many of them started their blog. (Arguably, the last sentence may hold for some antibloggers, too.) Try to guess where does this combination try to push politics.

Similar comments can be said about science. Many bloggers and especially blog commenters expose attitudes towards science that are exactly equivalent to the attitudes that would prevent them from climbing the "pyramid of knowledge". Some bloggers promote their Intelligent Design; other bloggers promote their ideas that science (or theoretical physics) is another religion. They often do not have any other idea than these two or several other widespread intellectually limited paradigms, and they're not willing to study any "details" because the basic "paradigm" is always more important for them. Some of the blogs even have names that make it obvious that the whole blog is and always will be exclusively dedicated to one silly idea. Just think about the blogs you know and try to figure out how many of them focus on one "point of view" only: the percentage will be very high.

It should not be surprising that some bloggers whose ability to think about science is stuck at some level that would prevent them from being accepted as PhD students get a significant amount of support from other people who are equally stuck. In physics, what you need to learn has many layers, and thousands or millions of people are stuck at virtually every level where they can get stuck.

It should not be surprising that there are thousands if not millions of crackpots around. In the case of physics as well as other disciplines, they get stuck with some particular misconceptions and can't make the next step. They seem to be unable to understand that it is exactly this inability of theirs that would prevent them to climb the traditional pyramid of knowledge.

In the blogosphere, however, the rules of the game are different. You can sell your breathtaking stupidity as an interesting alternative viewpoint on politics, science, or physics - as long as you find enough readers who suffer from the same kind of stupidity and as long as you are ready to write down a lot of stuff and post it at various places. It is exactly this stupidity that makes people above them in the "old world's pyramid" to think that these bloggers and blog fans are not worth attention - but whether something is positive or negative can easily be flipped on the blogosphere.

Most scientists don't worry about these new influences. But the influences are there and we should not hide our heads into the sand. Crackpots who attract other crackpots are unfortunately emerging as an independent voice that should be listened to when any topic is discussed. This message is addressed primarily to all journalists from the "old world". Be very careful if someone tries to pretend that he or she has very relevant opinions about any question just because of her or his blog who is read by a few thousands of people. This is no test of scientific value, and in the case of politics, it is no test of political plausibility of their viewpoints. Most of the readers will be average people who have no idea about the actual issue, and the fact that they happened to be attracted to a particular blog is inconsequential.

If I summarize: most blogs push a one-dimensional, intellectually limited point of view that is popular among average people (or below) but less popular among those who have climbed the pyramid. Also, most blogs are attempting to flatter a particular group of readers and use these readers as a justification to drag science and politics down, instead of trying to educate the readers (and the blogger herself). We have mentioned several other points that should make it clear why The Reference Frame is an antiblog.

1 comment:

  1. 1) That blogs are largely "one dimensional" is the nature of the beast. The medium requires it. If blogs were not tightly focused then they would not be able to attract any volume of faithful readership

    2) The antitode to the problems you mention is for each and every individual to use something called 'discernment'. Not everyone will have or use discernment but a FREE society is built upon it. So if any society can be free there must enough DISCERNMENT around to make it possible. Otherwise, bring back Big Brother Old Joe Stalin.

    3) Your 'pyramid of knowledge' argument, of course, DOES have merit. There will never be surgeons operating on you or me who have been educated by Medical Blogs. Neither, will we do away with representative government. We will have to have people in positions of authority whose judgement we will have to yield to regardless of how many hits certain blogs are experiencing.

    4)One is not right because one "is smarter than the average people" but because one believes the correct information. Going to college is more about getting the knowledge of information of previous generations. A college student with an I.Q. of 150 can still be mistaken about something while someone with an I.Q.100 can be right.