What can we learn from visits to the FM website from interesting Internet communities
Summary: Here’s another year-end reflection on lessons learned from the comments in the FM website. Here we look at some of the communities that comprise the greater Internet, and the qualities which make it unique.
- Internet Communities visiting
- Contempt for Science
- Model Internet Communities
- Why don’t facts change people’s thinking?
- For More Information
(1) Internet Communities visiting
Thanks to the magic of Google, websites occasionally get visits from specialist Internet communities. Often these bring valuable insights and information; sometimes brilliantly so.
One fascinating example: posts about genetics often receive visits from the sharp, intense people hanging out at the Gene Expressions website. Website operators unwilling to acknowledge contrary evidence — and admit error — sometimes don’t handle this level of opposition very well. For example, see how Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) and his fans responded to their crushing onslaught at Ongoing Human Evolution. Eventually DeLong did a big purge of comments, then closed the thread.
Sometimes the FM website gets such attention, such as the threads about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
The MMT threads illustrate an interesting aspect of Internet communities: that they have different standards of conduct. The reputation of the MMT community proved accurate, with lots of ad hominems: “spiteful error-ridden nonsense”, “pack of lies purposefully designed to conceal his extreme political agenda”, “extremely rude and self serving”, “horse’s ass” — and some rude ones. That does not affect the substance of the debate about MMT or the validity of their ideas; it shows how different communities have their own styles. Interestingly, the professionals in the thread (eg, Warren Mosler, Prof Dolan, Prof Black, Scott Baker) were courteous and restrained in their comments.
Another topic that brings visitors: climate science. Mass visits by AGW advocates. The majority make reasonable points in this important, highly politicized, and contentious field. But in a large number of comments, their primary mode of argument is to lie. Most frequently to create stawman arguments for easy rebuttal (“You deny there’s warming!”). It happens too frequently to be inadvertent; it seems that false smears have become an accepted mode of defense in the AGW community.
An extreme example of this appears in the threads about conclusions of the IPCC and other climates-relevant professional organizations: incredulous refusal to even see where they disagree with “warmista” dogma, and somewhat deranged attacks in response. Brad DeLong, speaking about a different dynamic in another community, gives a possible explanation:
It appears to be a thing their sub-group does in order to close the circle of discourse against outsiders — just as economists close the discourse to outsiders by saying “they don’t have a mathematical model” and historians close to discourse to outsiders by saying “they don’t have any new primary-source evidence.” (source here)
To repeat, this is a feature (or bug) in the sociology of the lay community of global warming advocates (there are seldom widely accepted labels for groups in US political debates). It does not affect the debate among scientists; but it has helped poison the public policy debates about funding for climate science and responses to our changing climate.
(2) Contempt for Science
There is an interesting and perhaps significant trait common to both the MMT and climate science lay communities: contempt for scientists. To many (not all) people in these groups, scientists are authorities when they agree with the community’s dogma — but objects of contempt when they don’t. These are in a sense faith-based views; to that extent neither is a reality-based community (a generalization; of course does not apply to every individual). Quite odd, considering that their areas of interest concern science.
What we see on some of the websites about these areas is tribalism. Us vs. them. Service clubs are slowly dying, but internet communities thrive. People play MMT or climate science, cheering for “their team” like their parents participated in bowling leagues. Unfortunately bowling is fun to learn, while science is difficult and often boring. As we see in the threads on these subjects, people can immerse themselves in these subjects — avidly reading blogs on the subject — but remain largely ignorant about the basics of the science. The result is a loud discussion that amounts to nothing but a confident cacophony.
Worse, these partisans tend to reject the work of scientists who disagree with their dogma — and consider themselves too knowledgable to read introductory textbooks. So their thinking too-often becomes self-reenforcing loops, short-circuiting normal learning mechanisms.
(3) Model Internet Communities
A model internet community: the Small Wars Council. Good discussions, with many experts. Strong moderation. Great discussion software.
In the comments list your recommendations of model internet communities.
(4) Update: Why don’t facts change people’s thinking?
There’s quite a bit of research about this.
Reviews of the research:
- “How facts backfire“, Boston Globe, 11 July 2010
- “Why We Don’t Believe In Science“, Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, 7 June 2012
A paper about this:
- “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions“, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, Political Behavior, 30 March 2010
- “Opening the political mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions.“, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, Unpublished manuscript, 20 September 2011
(5) For More Information
The sociology and politics of climate science”
- A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009
- An army of Davids storm the walls of the scientific establishment, 19 June 2009
- More attempts to control the climate science debate using smears and swarming, 19 October 2009
- Lies told under the influence of the Green religion to save the world, 30 July 2010
- Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
- Puncturing the false picture of a scientific consensus about the causes and effects of global warming, 20 September 2010
- Kevin Drum talks about global warming, shows why the Left’s credibility has collapsed, 17 October 2012