A Tale of Two Internets
June 29, 2010
It is extraordinarily likely that some large segment of the general population has vastly increased their knowledge and skepticism and that this phenomenon is almost certain to make itself felt more and more as time goes on.
In my first column for this publication, I made what I hope was the convincing case that the rise of the Internet has had a net positive effect on the thought processes of those who use it regularly—comparable, perhaps, to the demonstrable increase in reasoning ability we see in the classical Greek world upon the adaption of written language, which itself appears to be something of a prerequisite for any number of abstract undertakings ranging from political theory to ethics. Appropriately enough, my argument in that instance was itself rather abstract, so would like to expand upon it here, as well as provide concrete evidence which, though anecdotal and thus by itself incapable of proving that the net effect of the net (sorry) has indeed been positive, ought to at least convince the reader that (a) certain dynamics now in play provide for the possibility of a net positive effect on the thought processes of Internet users, (b) these likewise provide for the possibility of a public that is more skeptical overall, and (c) it is extraordinarily likely that some large segment of the general population has already begun to benefit from these dynamics in such a way as to have vastly increased their knowledge and skepticism and that this last phenomenon is almost certain to make itself felt more and more as time goes on. We will be dealing, then, not with the subject of cognition per se, but rather with the specific subjects of knowledge attainment and extent of skepticism.
Such arguments I have made and am about to expand upon are necessary because there are a number of very well-informed people in a variety of pertinent fields who have declaimed my friend the Internet as of late. As noted in my first column, the publication Edge recently asked a number of relevant professionals about their thoughts on the subject. Several neuroscientists and others with similar backgrounds responded with their suspicions, and in some cases their outright declarations, that the Internet has had a deleterious effect on the cognitive functioning of its users. A few took the less critical but far odder stance that Internet use actually has no effect at all on the cognition of its users. This latter opinion is patently absurd; even the process of navigating a busy city street has been convincingly demonstrated to have some measurable effect on brain functioning in general and focus in particular—a negative one, incidentally—and it would be hard to show how a practice such as weaving through pedestrians is much more substantial in terms of the effects on its practitioners than the practice of sitting in front of a computer monitor for hours at a time each day and taking in, navigating, and creating content ranging in nature from text to video to interactive mediums of a hundred sorts.
It might also be tempting to ask those who argue for a negative effect and those who argue for no effect to argue amongst themselves while those of us who have determined otherwise go about making our own case—but it would be unnecessary, as there have been quite a few studies indicating that various computer-related activities do indeed enhance cognitive performance (as is noted by author and Wired contributor Jonah Lehrer in the article on city navigation linked above, incidentally). Still, the issue has yet to be resolved, and it will probably be years before anything approaching a consensus is reached by neuroscientists and others with a professional stake in the question. In the meantime, then, let us finally turn our attention away from cognition and to what we can indeed show to be the effects of Internet use on the knowledge of those who use it with at least moderate responsibility, what potential the Internet possesses in terms of our ability as skeptics to promote our approach to such knowledge, and what this all means for the future.
We would not be amiss in beginning with a quote by one of those experts to whom Edge put the original question of the Internet’s effect on our thinking several months ago—one who had a positive take on the overall dynamic, and who also happens to be noted skeptic Michael Shermer:
Thanks to the Internet, for the first time in my life I feel that I have a chance to compete on a level playing field. My academic background is embarrassing compared to that of most successful intellectuals…. Since teaching as an adjunct professor is no way to make a living (literally), I founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine just as the Internet was getting legs in the early-1990s.
Starting with no money, no backers, and no affiliation with elite institutions, the Internet made it possible for us to succeed by making knowledge accessible and searchable to me and my editors and writers on a scale never previously available. The intellectual playing field was being leveled and the Internet changed the way I think about the very real possibility of fairness and opportunity in a world that has for too long been rigged to favor the elite.
Here, Shermer has laid out the basic case for one superbly positive aspect of the Internet: its role in providing individuals with vastly increased opportunities to act, to inform, and to otherwise improve the environment, intellectual or otherwise—and to do so outside of the structures that have developed somewhat haphazardly around our major institutions, such as academia and media. Neither the Skeptics Society nor Skeptic would have succeeded, Shermer himself notes, without the Internet’s particular advantages—and certainly both of those institutions have had some great degree of positive effect on the thinking of a large number of people. Of course, it is also true that the Internet has given rise to all manner of deleterious institutions with net negative impacts on the thinking of individuals, such as Web sites advocating for crystal healing and e-mail forwards to the effect that Barack Obama is the antichrist or even Kenyan. I will note, and the reader will perhaps agree, that the sort of people who are taken in by such things were probably already lost causes to some degree or another, and that it matters very little whether such people add some additional piece of falsity to their respective quivers of nonsense. But I will not let myself off the hook so easily; instead, I will note that for every false assertion that spreads via the Internet, the actual truth of the thing is just as readily available to those who desire the truth—and those who desire something less than the truth will always get it, the avoidance of cognitive dissonance being the defining drive of such people.
Again, we cannot know with certainty the net effect of all this in terms of the distribution of the true versus that of the false, but it is worth repeating that the Internet has made available a vast storehouse of reliable information, far more than had previously been available to anyone who has ever lived. Significantly, such information is not only available, but quite readily so—and thus more likely to be accessed.
There is another factor at work here, one that amplifies the positive potential of the Internet as it currently exists: the particular Web institutions to which we turn for knowledge—regardless of whether we are erudite or ignorant—are in the control of relatively rational individuals who have wisely engineered such entities to serve as reliable sources of facts. Wikipedia, for example, has been the target of countless one-liners calling it an unreliable tool for gathering information. As is so often the case, it is the one-liners and the popular sentiment expressed thereby that are in error; Nature published a study in 2005 showing that the online encyclopedia was about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. This revelation was not particularly shocking to those of us who have kept a close eye on such emergent Internet phenomena as Wikipedia, which operates under a system of rules that require every assertion to be tied to a verifiable source and which, unlike printed works, also facilitates links to such sources and thereby allows users to verify context and otherwise ensure that the facts on display are indeed facts. Meanwhile, Wikipedia continues to improve as new experts join the ranks of its editors and scan articles to ensure accuracy. It is worth putting into perspective the concerns with this outlet being something that “anyone can edit,” as not everyone does, of course, and those who do are by definition the sort of people who would spend their free time editing an online encyclopedia for fun—not a surefire prevention of foolishness by any means, but one that at least seems to attract more technocrats than fools, as may be discovered by an examination of the contributions of the average editor and which may be confirmed in part by the Nature study.
The mechanisms and dynamics of the online world that we find in play within the enterprise of Wikipedia may of course be found elsewhere as well. At its best, the Internet outperforms the best of equivalent brick-and-mortar institutions hands down. And it is the best of the Internet that tends to draw the attention of those clever enough to make accurate determinations regarding such things. It is well known among observant people that such outlets as CNN and The Washington Post are quite inferior in many respects to the better blogs, for instance; as evidence of this, I will note that the former provides a largely uncritical outlet for such people as psychic Sylvia Browne and End Times advocate Joel Rosenberg, and that the latter has promoted Charles Krauthammer as some sort of expert on foreign policy, despite the fact—easier to verify, incidentally, due to the Internet’s archival nature—that the Pulitzer winner has been demonstrably wrong in his predictions about every single U.S. military action conducted in the past twelve years, at the very least. Incidentally, Krauthammer’s liberal counterpart, Thomas Friedman—another Pulitzer winner who is widely regarded by the ignorant as some sort of modern polymath—has been similarly wrong on such a wide range of subjects that I have composed some dozen articles and a book chapter on this unwholesome subject without expending the entirety of the examples I have discovered in my perusals of his past columns, and does not seem to have ever been particularly correct about anything that is not common knowledge among the educated. Meanwhile, no one has attempted to make a similar case against those regarded as among the best of the bloggers, such as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald or Middle East expert and independent blogger Dr. Juan Cole. In light of these and other observations, I do not think I would be amiss in thinking that it is the more orthodox institutions that merit scrutiny, rather than these more modern institutions, which are still evolving after existing for a scant decade—particularly since the former are largely insulated from any reasoned criticism of the sort that might be seen by their respective audiences, while the latter are each day subject to that very thing by way of commenters and other bloggers.
Plainly, the best of bloggers are not representative of the whole of them, no matter how much better they may be in comparison to the most unjustifiably prominent of columnists, and this is true of all emergent institutions we find on the Internet. Still, there are mechanisms by which the reasoned individual may quickly sift through the nonsense of the many in order to obtain the wise counsel of the few. This brings us to the example of reddit.com, a Web site at which users may submit various online materials for the consideration of others, who subsequently upvote or downvote these entries based on their perceived value. Thus, the collective usership of this entity promotes to the top those articles deemed to have merit while strangling in the crib those deemed to have none. It does not take much imagination to see how such a system can fail, but experience with this system reveals it to surpass the medium of the newspaper or television program in its usefulness. As is the case with Wikipedia, those familiar with the site in the first place have passed what amounts to a test of their knowledge—in this case, knowledge of the existence of some information-oriented entity. Such a test immediately excludes several billion people who are, on the whole, less knowledgeable than those of us with the benefit of having lived in the Western world—a Masai tribesman, for all his virtues, does not understand the theory of evolution and for similar reasons is unlikely to know of reddit or Wikipedia or even the Internet, and is thus not likely to show up at Wikipedia to edit an article on germ theory to include information on the demonic origin of disease. To a lesser extent, but by way of the same dynamic, the creationist Texan is unlikely to waste everyone’s time with the product of his more self-enforced brand of ignorance, not being as likely as a research scientist to learn of Wikipedia, reddit, or any of the other institutions that have come to exist as concentrations of erudite individuals with relatively high levels of education and intellectual curiosity.
Similar to the case of Wikipedia, then, is the more exciting case of reddit, filled as it is with implications for the future of human organization and collaboration. On a typical day some months back, one user submitted an article announcing that President Obama promised federal financial backing for the opening of new nuclear power plants. Other users understood the significance of this story and voted it to the top of the front page where it would be seen by all. Meanwhile, various individuals posted comments that would likewise be visible to anyone who cared to see them (and most users did seem to be so inclined). A few comments questioned the wisdom of nuclear power, citing the cases of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; these were answered promptly by others aware of the actual facts behind the cases, such as the absolute lack of casualties of the former and the easily avoided failures that prompted the latter, and who were likewise quick to point out the widespread death and pollution caused by such alternatives as coal. Overall, the vast majority of the comments in question were made in justifiable defense of nuclear power, while the minority of comments in opposition were quickly answered with a range of verifiable facts. Compare this result to the impression one might receive on the subject from one of the usual outlets—in fact, such a comparison is provided by one of the commenters:
I was watching NBC news tonight where I saw the announcement of this and, of course, they were showing pictures of the Chernobyl aftermath. WHY?!
We need media that educates instead of terrifies...
Indeed we do—and by way of the emergent dynamics of the Internet, we are starting to get it.
By necessity, this essay has provided only an overview of the case for the Internet as compared to other mediums. Certain concepts described herein merit additional commentary, evidence, and context, and I hope to provide them in subsequent columns. In the meantime, I will end by noting that, whatever the advantages that the Internet may provide to our skeptical endeavors even without any direct action on our behalf, such dynamics also entail vast opportunities in this regard—opportunities that will be wasted unless we move quickly to identify and act on them. I provided one opportunity in my last column and have received responses from readers of the Skeptical Inquirer. Next month, I will announce a more specific, related opportunity, one with the potential to accomplish a great deal of what we all would like to see accomplished. I request that the reader consider the first opportunity and return here for the second.