I’m going to present two claims, and you can decide for yourself which is more compelling:
- Differentiation of species occurred over millions of years through natural selection of hereditary traits.
- Differentiation of species occurred over millions of years through natural selection of hereditary traits, you prick.
The second one just sounds truer, doesn’t it? That is the odd finding of this study, helpfully summarized by one of the authors in last weekend’s New York Times. First of all, I think we’re all glad that there is a Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and it is printed. Second, the study focused specifically on online comments sections, finding that comments which contained epithets, profanity and ad hominem attacks affected readers’ viewpoints more powerfully than equivalent comments without those attacks. Civilization is doomed.
Maybe it’s just doomed to develop the internet, collapse into mindless belligerence, revert to agrarianism and then develop the internet again. That wouldn’t be so bad, provided you weren’t born near either end of the cycle. Sucks to be us, though. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the study is that the documented effect is particularly pronounced in the area of science, where we are likely to evaluate new information without firm expertise.
Science is also maybe the area were we most need to be scrupulous in our thinking. It’s one thing for everyone to believe crude and fallacious arguments about which congressional candidate to vote for, and quite another for us to convince one another with ad hominem attacks about, say, global warming. If you vote for the wrong guy because I called supporters of his health care plan commie traitors, the political system suffers. That’s a problem. But if my use of the word “idiot” convinces you that man-made carbon emissions do not affect the temperature of Earth, you face a problem of a different order.
Like a lot of contemporary issues, climate change is a collective action problem. If we’re going to do something about it, we have to do it en masse. In that kind of situation, the question of how we can ensure people know what’s happening and come up with useful ideas by talking about it moves from a theoretical underpinning of democracy to an existential need. You cannot have a functioning republic of 350 million people unless a substantial number of them know what the fudge is going on.
You also cannot have a functioning republic of et cetera etc. in which everyone discusses things wisely and without recourse to fallacy, period. At least it’s historically unprecedented. The ordinary person regularly takes recourse in ad hominem attacks or whatever, because the ordinary person knows he is right first and fashions his argument second. That’s why “scientist” is a specific job: almost no one else thinks that way.
Granted, it is extremely debatable whether internet comments reflect the ordinary person. There’s good reason to think they don’t; Combat! blog, for example, has an unusually smart Comments section, but the average number of comments on a given post—three or four—constitutes a little less than 1% of average daily unique visitors. Still, even if internet comments only reflect the ideas of a small subset of cranks, they affect our perceptions. How differently would you read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire if it ended with 20 pages of anonymous quotations about how it is fake and gay?
So what do we do about that? As Brossard and Scheufele point out in the Times, the internet is supposed to be this rad democratizing force that gives voice to all of us, regardless of place and with only indirect regard to status. What happens when that voice says the president is not an American citizen and you’re retarded if you think global warming is real?
Here we are forced to confront an ugly aspect of democracy: it is the most ethical system, but often it does not produce the best results. People have acknowledged this problem from Aristotle to Alexander Hamilton, but the internet allows us to stare at it more directly than ever before. It could be that the marketplace of ideas functions better with certain borderline unjust controls. NASA does not open its discussions of jet propulsion research to whatever opinionated amateur has built a model rocket in his garage. Maybe, as Paul Krugman sometimes does with his columns, we should not open certain discussions to commentary from the general public.
That seems unsatisfying, though. As a person who leans toward the equality side of the liberty/equality tension in American democracy, I want everyone to be a responsible arguer. It’s why I shouldn’t read comments sections, and why I so easily get sucked in. I want people to be immune to ad hominem attacks and able to interpret an article about new science on the strengths of the information therein. Thirty seconds reading almost any comments section on the internet is enough to prove that what I want isn’t how things are, though. As my grandfather used to say, wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which fills up first.