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Groupthink 21 September 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in journalism.

I was struck by whether the mushrooming of information via the internet actually improves the quality of our thinking. In theory it ought to; nowadays we can instantly resolve most of our factual doubts – indeed I love nothing more than resolving a dinner-table quandary by looking it up on Wikipedia. And of course I contribute to Wikipedia, a project I deeply believe in, frustrating though it can be at times. However as any Google search will show, an awful lot of what is on the web is derivative and self-referential. There are too many parasites who ‘scrape’, ‘spin’ and ‘morph’ existing content in order to attract readers. I remember the odd feeling when I first came across something I’d written myself on someone else’s website – a mixture of pride and outrage (a bit like the Duchess of Cambridge at the moment maybe?). So error and confusion can multiply rapidly. It may be true that two heads are better than one, but crowdsourcing your opinions doesn’t always give you a more balanced view. Furthermore the sharing of opinion does not necessarily lead to an increase in understanding – witness the recent report that there are two tribes of bloggers whose opinions never meet – they are no more than opposing megaphones. (And curiously, the style of the blogs mirror their content: left-wing blogs invite comment and debate, whereas right-wing ones don’t!) Hence the importance of original reporting and principled journalism. And that’s why I love doing case studies! ‘Analysis’ and ‘synthesis’ often means the imposition of a set of blinkers on reality, not a probing for it inherent truth.

An exception has to be made in scientific domains such as medicine, where the internet does allow meta-studies to aggregate the results of many studies, which moves knowledge forward faster.



1. cooperatoby - 24 September 2012

Round a camp fire or pub table you have the time to examine a few opinions in depth – the academic seminar model. The internet offers an overwhelming number of commentators. You can’t conceivably take in and weigh them all. So it comes down to needing a filter. And the tried-and-tested filtering system is journalistic practice, made up of principles derived from experience, and depending on reputation. You have to give your trust to a certain ‘brand’ of news if you are not to drown in unsorted opinion. In theory it’s great that everyone in the world can air their views, but in practice we still need trusted intermediaries to make sense of it, and to offer us an element of serendipity too – suggesting things we wouldn’t have thought of on our own.

Ian Symonds - 17 October 2012

There is an interesting discussion of the influence of political perspective on the interpretation of facts from scientific research in this BBC programme:
[audio src="http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/analysis/analysis_20120917-2100b.mp3" /]

2. Ian Symonds - 24 September 2012

We have of course always checked and triangulated our opinions with others, whether round a cave dwellers’ fire or in an 18th century coffee shop. The Internet, as in so many other ways, simply amplifies the process: more opinions available more easily and more quickly. I would venture that the range of opinions on any specific matter available on the Internet is much greater than that available from self selected and therefore generally sympathetic friends and colleagues or from a favourite newspaper. You can indeed therefore have a more robust and therefore ‘better’ opinion by reading widely.

I don’t buy your two tribes theory, which is unhelpful and only belittles the many bloggers who try to take an independent and reasoned approach. Take George Monbiot, who, alongside his impeccably liberal views, has concluded that nuclear is the most pragmatic option for future energy generation. Right wing or left wing?

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