Summary: How can one determine the reliability of a correspondent whom one does not know? Here are some guidelines, drawing on my experience replying to the majority of the 19 thousand comments on the FM website, plus many hundreds of long email discussions about its contents. Please post in the comments your thoughts about this important topic.
Nobody knows anyone in comments on the Internet. Names mean nothing, as they might mask someone quite different. Claims of authority — degrees, rank, titles — are equally easy to fake. So what indicators of competence and authority can you rely on?
I’ve learned a great deal from comments on the FM website, and they are littered with my acknowledgements of error. One in particular on an important subject: A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand. These are the lessons I’ve learned about who deserves close attention.
The four kinds of comments
This method categorizes comments primarily by the sources of information they cite, secondarily by their understanding of those on the other side of the debate.
(1) Comments by experts, professional and amateur
They tend to support their assertions with citations of specific books and articles — often citing those on both sides of the debate, or at least acknowledging their valid work when you cite them. Such people are fruitful partners in debate, and much can be learned from them. Such people usually make cautious assertions, expressing opinions that are narrow in scope and hedged (eg, “based on current knowledge”). We must seek to learn from such people, but expect no change in their views.
(2) Comments by people well-read in the literature about a subject but governed by a partisan belief
They often cite one or two experts as definitive authorities, on only one side of the debate. Experts disagreeing with them tend to remain invisible to such people, even when mentioned in rebuttal. Only those agreeing with their belief are right. This backwards logic rules their thinking. We can learn from such people, but expect not the slightest change in their views.
(3) The average comment
The general media provides the information most people rely upon when writing comments. Citing authoritative sources in reply to them — primary data and analysis by experts in the professional literature — can spark interesting discussions. Sometimes a change or modification of view will result.
(4) The largest group: comments by fanatics
Unfortunately, comments by fanatics comprise the largest fraction of comments. They tend to get information from websites written by and for partisans, usually all laypeople, driven by misinformation and exaggerations. Debate with such people only for entertainment; only divine intervention can change their views. They react to facts as vampires do to holy water. Each successful rebuttal of their assertions will result in one of two responses.
- A fast exit, scalded by hard data, returning to websites that welcome true-believers.
- Another bold assertion — usually equally exaggerated or wrong. After a long series of such exchanges they often reply with the original assertion that began the discussion (no matter how thoroughly it was debunked) — a fine demonstration of the futility of debate with an idée fixe.
For more information
For more about this see the FM Reference Page Information & disinformation, the new media & the old.
Other posts about this topic:
- Economics can help understand events in America and the world. Here’s where to find those answers. 16 February 2010
- Sources of reliable information about the Gulf Oil Spill, 4 May 2010
- Sources of information about the situation in Egypt, 6 February 2011
- Where to go for information about our conflict with Iran, and why you should understand what’s happening, 31 January 2012