Lessons learned during 2012 from comments on the FM website

Summary:  In 2012 the FM website had 375 posts and 8,700 comments.  I’ve learned much from writing these posts, and just as much from reading and responding to the lessons.  Here are some of those that you might find of use, another in a year-end series of posts looking at 2012.

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Contents

  1. Politics
  2. About Sources
  3. America the indoctrinated
  4. Erratum — seeing and acknowledging errors
  5. For More Information

(1) Politics

In October 2009 Mark Safranski (aka Zenpundit) classified the FM website as a paleoconservative.   Three years and 15 thousand comments — mostly critical of  our posts, attacking from all sides — have changed my views.  A storm of facts and logic, pushing me to the center (in 2 dimensions: left-right, libertarian – authoritarian).  Now the Political Compass calculator classifies my views as slightly left-libertarian, which seems roughly accurate.

Whatever the net or average result, the range of viewpoints on the FM website continues to span much of the political spectrum, just as described in 2009 by Politics of the FM site: radical leftist reformer or right-wing iconoclast?  That’s bad for business, alienating everybody at one time or other. Successful websites usually tap existing audiences, building around a political or ideological perspective.

We confronted that dilemma when founding the FM website in November 2008.  I was told there was a audience for deep analysis of complex issues, beyond the simple certainties offered by most websites.  Not a mass audience, but enough to make the project worthwhile.  And so it has proven.  The FM website gets aprox 85+ thousand hits per month, plus several thousand more in subscription traffic (plus hits where reposted elsewhere, such as at Roubini Global Economics).

(2) About Sources

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By Joanaaaa at Deviantart.
By Joanaaaa at Deviantart.

Under the pressure of tens of thousands of challenges, I have become more careful with sources (this might be a wider phenomenon; it’s true of the IPCC as well). That means sticking as closely as possible to primary sources or authoritative analysis (eg, peer-reviewed literature).

That’s unusually important on the FM website, where we never rely on the author’s authority.  We provide facts and logic, letting each reader decide for himself where the truth lies. So the reliability of the sources cited is the foundation for all that you see here.

Getting these sources is longest part of writing posts here, and perhaps the most important.

(3)  America the indoctrinated

When we opened the FM website, I expected debates about facts on the edge of the known, about values, and about visions of the future. And we have debates on such things, such as the 2009 posts about torture (there are Americans eager to work for the Gestapo). And the posts about our wars.

But many of the debates — and often the fiercest — have been about basic facts.  What the 9-11 Commission said about the role of Afghanistan.  Why the Earth cannot become as hot as Venus, even if we burn all recoverable reserves of fossil fuels. What Iran’s leaders said about Israel.  What experts say about the efficacy of torture.  What climate scientists — and the IPCC — say about past and future climate.

The really fascinating aspect of these debates about simple facts:  in thousands of conversations, nobody has visibly changed their view about simple facts — even when shown authoritative information.  And these are intelligent, well-educated people.  These posts discuss issues about which Americans have been carpet-bombed with propaganda for a decade or more, and as a result they believe with the fervor of a medieval peasant repeating what the priests say.  Contrary facts roll off them like rain off a duck.

Left and Right, it makes no difference.  I see no “reality-based community” in America, at least in the FM website’s comments.

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(4)  Erratum — seeing and acknowledging errors

““I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”
— Letter by Abraham Lincoln to Grant, 13 July 1863

“my friend bill quick {Daily Pundit} has little regard for you other than your ability to apologize”
comment by “major scarlet”

The most frequent comment I made is “thank you” (yes, I track these things).  The most frequent thanks respond to comments with valuable citations, information, or insights.  The second most frequent respond to comments pointing out my errors.   I’ve found that writing on an active website (daily posts & comments) consists to a large extent of making errors.  Acknowledging them, and where appropriate apologizing, is a core principle of the FM website.  Some of these are recorded on the Smackdowns page.

Evidence suggests that’s a minority opinion.  There are very few similar instances by others in the comments.  People just go away.  Sometimes they return later and repeat the same errors. Many people even consider admitting errors to be a sign of weakness (major scarlet is an unrelaible source, not a reliable witness to Quick’s character).

To repeat, we’re talking about simple matters of fact — not values or controversial views.  That’s sad, because progress often starts with the recognition of mistakes — and depends on what happens afterwards.

Opening of “To Err is Human” by Lewis Thomas (reprinted in The Medusa and the Snail)

Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. We get along in life this way. We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.

We learn, as we say, by “trial and error.” Why do we always say that? Why not “trial and rightness” or “trial and triumph”? The old phrase puts it that way because that is, in real life, the way it is done.

A good laboratory, like a good bank or a corporation or government, has to run like a computer. Almost everything is done flawlessly, by the book, and all the numbers add up to the predicted sums. The days go by. And then, if it is a lucky day, and a lucky laboratory, somebody makes a mistake: the wrong buffer, something in one of the blanks, a decimal misplaced in reading counts, the warm room off by a degree and a half, a mouse out of his box, or just a misreading of the day’s protocol. Whatever, when the results come in, something is obviously screwed up, and then the action can begin.

The misreading is not the important error: it opens the way. The next step is the crucial one. If the investigator can bring himself to say, “But even so, look at that!” then the new finding, whatever it is, is ready for snatching. What is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on the error.

(5)  For More Information

How well have we done? See the page about Predictions revisited – how do they look now?

Post your evaluation in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “Lessons learned during 2012 from comments on the FM website

  1. hello …is very nice to have you in my part of reading thinking or leavenig comment ..never mind if is not so good .
    first of all i have to say A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR ..slogan eh.. MY REAL WISH IS GOOD YEAR WITH LES PROBLEMS AND MORE (LOVE) OR MONEY .you have to choice GOD..give just one ..
    I WILL BAY ATHEIST ..tomorrow from Amazon (i promis)
    .i have to say thank’s god we have problems ..CAN you imagination the world monotone/? after we will be all with psycologic from ”varemara”
    MY BEST WISHING ..friend ..
    thank you
    enjoy..how much you can ..this year is going with many many thing’s missing ..
    never come back just writing in calendar past…

    1. I do not believe we differ on the facts. Or at least, that’s not the major difference.

      That is different than what we often see in discussions here, where we encounter hard core ideologues that refuse to see contrary facts. That is the result of successful indoctrination, like at the end of 1984. The posts today and tomorrow give some examples.

      Rather I think we have different political perspectives, which leads to divergent interpretations of the facts. It’s this kind of difference that drives a healthy political dynamic. Without those we have a sterile political environment, with one group unchallenged by a strong opposition. That produces bad long-term outcomes, on many levels.

  2. Thank you for all the time and energy you devote to your site – I consider it one of the best of its type. There are more than enough partisan echo chambers on the Internet; truly thoughtful commentary is a rare and precious thing.

    I wish you all the best in 2013.

  3. I understand your point (and expected it due to a psychological study I read) regarding people sticking to their “facts” regardless of contrary evidence. I do not do this; I am a scientist. Perhaps if the scientific method were taught better Americans would learn to learn better.

    Thanks for all your time, energy and integrity. It is easy to find those who will devote the first two, not so easy to find someone who will give the third though.

    1. I’ve added an update to the post, in response to Coutinho’s comment about the effects of information on peoples’ belief.

      Reviews of the research:

      A paper about this:

  4. “Three years and 15 thousand comments… have changed my views.”

    I’m impressed. Few people are willing to change their views. Even fewer will admit it in public.

    Thanks. Now I’m off in search of personal courage.
    :)

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