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Monday, July 29, 2002


The value of bloggers in public discourse

Douglas Adams in one of his books describes a program that allows the user to specify a conclusion in advance, and then constructs a plausible series of logical-sounding steps out of a collection of facts, to support this conclusion. (In Adams' book, the program is sold exclusively to the Pentagon, for obvious reasons.)

Probably most people's brains work like this fictional program, more or less. People have a certain worldview (in the broadest sense of the word), and information that supports or seems to support their particular view is "processed" easier and faster. Information that doesn't "fit" and should make people scrutinize or even reconsider their worldview and conclusions is often repressed, the people who present this information are often attacked, vilified.

The less someone is willing and able to scrutinize and reconsider his own worldview, the less his value in public discourse. In my opinion, teachers, journalists and academics, to name a few, should concentrate on checking and improving the "collection of facts" and on exposing the "logical-sounding steps" for not being logical.

Most people publishing independently on their own internet site (bloggers and such) aren't much different from most professional journalists (- who do journalism for a living). But professional journalists work in an environment where they have to prove themselves before their work gets published. Other professional journalists read their work and decide if it's good enough to publish. And even when it's considered good enough, it usually gets edited.

This doesn't make professional journalism perfect. It often doesn't filter out bias, the uncritical use of opinions of experts and the incompleteness of the presented facts. But it does keep much professional journalism relatively (I said "relatively") free of two habits that make much of the unedited contributions of independent bloggers close to worthless for public discourse.

The first of those habits is the incessant vilifying of people who present information that doesn't fit in the blogger's worldview. For example, by using terms like "idiot apologists for Islamo-fascist terrorism" and "The Circle of the Treacherous", Pejman Yousefzadeh raises the suspicion that he is not able to convincingly defend his own opinions without raising his voice or shouting. It makes him look like a teenage boy who believes that his admirers admire him for his imagined guts to shout down his opponents with the absurdest terms of abuse.

The second habit that makes much of the bloggers' contributions close to worthless for public discourse, is the uncritical praise for opinion that they think supports their own opinions, even when the praised opinion seems to have been put together by a very early, buggy and badly working version of Douglas Adams' fictional program.

This is what Andrew Sullivan does when he praises yesterday's opinion piece Oust Saddam First, Then Pursue Peace in the LA Times.

The writers of this article base their argument that the removal of Saddam Hussein is necessary to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace on the following statement: "[t]here is little doubt that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is the major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace". In fact, there is not much doubt that Arafat is one obstacle to peace. But: there is a lot of doubt that he is "the major obstacle". Andrew Sullivan should know that. The writers probably know that too, but apparently refuse to take this information into account.

The writers don't support their statement that Arafat is the "major obstacle" to peace, although it is the fundament of their analysis. They don't even discuss the statement, which makes it difficult to consider their article to be something else than black propaganda. Andrew Sullivan calls the analysis a simple and powerful case for a war against Iraq. It seems that he has already concluded that Arafat is the major obstacle to peace, and that a war against Iraq is a good idea. I suggest he upgrade his "Douglas Adams program" to be able to better support those conclusions.

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