Jul 20 2011

The Internet and Skepticism

How has the internet affected the skeptical movement and the promotion of science and critical thinking? Is the internet a boon or a bane to scientific literacy?

This question came up several times at the recent TAM conference, including while we were being interviewed for an article in TidBITS, a tech journal.

I wish I had more scientific evidence with which to answer this question. But I do have some informed opinions based upon being in the trenches for the last decade.

There is no question that the advent of social media, blogs, and podcasts correlated with an explosion in the skeptical community. We went from being a loose collection of small local groups, with a few national groups largely pursuing their own agenda, to a vibrant intellectual community. At the recent TAM there was over 1600 people in attendance – which is unprecedented for this type of meeting.

But the specific question is this – does the access to information afforded by the internet help skeptics or promoters of pseudoscience more? My sense is that it disproportionately helps skeptics. This view is largely based upon Google search rankings.

As a quick experiment, I typed in the following terms to see in which position (not including paid ads) the first hardcore skeptical treatment of the topic appears:

“magnet therapy” – 2
“acupuncture” – 9
“homeopathy” – 2
“do vaccines cause autism” – 12
“intelligent design” – 5
“ESP” – 5

All of these, except for the autism topic, put a skeptical website on the first page of the Google rankings, which is critical. There is still much room for improvement, but given the relative size of the skeptical community we are having a disproportionately high profile. Incidentally, Wikipedia is almost always the first listing for each topic, and there is a significant skeptical presence there as well (but again, with huge room for improvement).

I speculate that the reason for this is the way in which we promote and share information. Skepticism is about promoting science, critical thinking, and reliable information. We tend to link to each other and reinforce each other, and I think the quality of our information is generally high. These are all factors that give favorable Google ranking.

There are perhaps thousands of promotional or gullible sites on all of these topics for every skeptical site, but they tend to be more self-promotional and not as scholarly. I am apparently not the only one to think so. Coincidentally, PZ Myers reports that Josh McDowell is concerned about the benefit the internet gives to skeptics:

Now here is the problem, going all the way back, when Al Gore invented the Internet [he said jokingly], I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that’s exactly what has happened. It’s like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].

Yes – there is a lot of information out there. It sounds like McDowell is lamenting access to information and the loss of the good-ol-days when children could be shielded from contrary views. As skeptics we embrace the democratization of information (there’s no stopping it in any case) and our goal is to give people the tools needed to live in the age of information.

I hope that McDowell is correct and that he has real reason to fear. In the free marketplace of ideas I think that the skeptical world view has real value and even appeal. Sectarian views that rely upon intellectual isolation are likely to be threatened. That’s a good thing.

If your belief system cannot survive close or open scrutiny, if it cannot compete in the rough and tumble world of free information, perhaps it is lacking in some fundamental way.

It will be interesting to see how the internet experiment plays out over the next century. The view I outlined above is the optimistic view. The pessimistic view is that, human nature being what it is, the lowest common denominator will tend to predominate and motivated misinformation (which tends to be more profitable than skepticism) will overwhelm patient scholarship.

My hope is that the early signs (the disproportionately high Google rankings of skeptical sites) will be an indication that the truth will be closer to the optimistic view.

14 responses so far

14 thoughts on “The Internet and Skepticism”

  1. robm says:

    At least McDowel is refreshingly honest in his use of words like “level playing field” and “equal access” to describe threats to his worldview.

  2. Tim Farley says:

    This area, the intersection of internet and electronic media and skepticism, is what I decided to focus on when I became active in skepticism. I agree with you that the democratization of information on the net can be a boon to skeptics trying to do outreach, but we need to be savvy about the tools & techniques necessary to use if effectively. It’s not enough to just set up a blog and wait for folks to arrive.

    I blog on this topic regularly at my blog Skeptical Software Tools. Recently I’ve been focusing on things other than blogs and podcasts that skeptics can get involved in to help get the word out.

    One example is the tool Web of Trust, which has the potential to give a safety warning to up to 700 million Facebook users about bad information when they click on links. I strongly encourage skeptics to get involved in it.

  3. TylerR says:

    I grew up a HUGE Art Bell fan. My whole family would listen to him every night and I would admit I still have a soft spot for him. Anyways, I was pretty young at the time and my family just started fooling around with our new internet connection. It was great to finally see all the pictures Art and his guests would discuss. You might find this funny, as I do whenever He’s brought up, but it was actually Richard Hoagland that made my raise my first skeptical red flag. Art and Richard were discussing, for hours, these beautiful NASA photographs CLEARLY displaying alien life and cities and giant crystal structures. I was most unimpressed when I logged in the next day to look at them.

    The “believer”-type communites have a way of keeping the skeptical questions away from their work and stories. The internet makes sure that someone is only a 0.23-second Google search away from satiating the tiniest skeptical inclination. After losing all respect for Hoagland (he can’t even fire the imagination of a 13-year-old, bah!) I bagan to notice that a lot of the “Earth-shattering” evidence was only available on pay sites. It didn’t take long to realize there was something fishy about “Earth-shattering” news not freely available on cnn.com, or anywhere else. More tiny Google searches…

    It still took a long time to give it all up, but one day I saw Randi on Penn & Teller, Google’d him, and quickly found SGU there-after.

  4. kittenevil says:

    If it weren’t for the internet, I’d probably be a pentecostal preacher right now. Thank FSM for the information age and the rise of free information. Oh and thank porn too. Everybody knows the internet is primarily for porn.

  5. rgower says:

    Steve,

    I agree that the structure of the internet sides with the skeptical movement, but your quick Google experiment, innocent though it was, gives results so wrong that I thought it worth mentioning.

    Google tailors its results to the search history of the computer, gmail account logged in, and region of the ip address. Given that you’re likely to spend lots of time on skeptical websites, and that you ran this experiment on your computer, your results will be skewed. Conversely, members of pseudoscientific communities are more likely to be insulated from skeptical results on their google queries. This effect would be compounded for those who live in regions where pseudoscience reigns supreme.

    There is a Google “blank slate”, and your tailored results might not be too far from it, but the personalized results of Google are changing the way we should think about the flow of information on the web.

    Here’s a great TED talk on the subject if you’re interested http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8ofWFx525s

  6. SteveA says:

    Are there smarter ways to present the sceptical viewpoint on the Internet?

    One of the reasons I like ‘What’s the harm’ so much (thanks Tim) is not only that it’s a useful catalogue, but it presents human stories of how real individuals have been injured by quackery and woo. These stories are far more powerful and engaging than bald statistics and hypotheticals.

    Unfortunately many people switch off if they’re presented with the dry science as the starter and main course and in many cases the sceptical message could, I think, be better framed from a consumer protection point of view.

    People don’t like to think they’re wasting their money or are being taken for fools. It would be easier to convince people to think twice about things like bogus energy saving devices and medical treatments if they were presented as scams rather than simply as bad science.

    Perhaps we need a ‘Scam Central’ site where people could go to find out about the various ways people are trying to rip them off.

    The obvious risk is that someone gets litigious, but there must be a way of getting past that, or meeting it head-on…

  7. ccbowers says:

    The internet seems to have increased both the number of skeptics and fringe views via the same mechanism. It allows for the aggregation of ideas in a way that was not possible before, because such ideas came from small-ish groups that were not large enough to form in an organized way in small cities/communites. The confirmation bias involved in internet searching seems to fragment the intellectually curious towards what appeals to each person individually, and in these searches they find their respective “communities.”

  8. banyan says:

    The internet is a tool for disseminating information. It seems like you focus on competition in information to support the claim that the internet favors skepticism. I’m not so sure.

    Thinking of it in evolutionary terms, the internet is to memetics was sexual reproduction was to genetics. It allows massive proliferation of a diversity of ideas. However, the key question for skeptics is ‘what are the selective pressures on memes?’

    All else being equal, truth wins over falsehood. However, what you’ve called the “default mode” of our brain suggests that other pressures will win out over truth quite often. For example, if something suggests a danger, e.g. “vaccines cause autism,” that meme will be selected for despite its lack of truth, because human brains are hard-wired to believe and spread claims of danger.

    At least as far as popular opinion goes, I’m less optimistic. I still think the internet is probably doing more good than harm, but mostly in contexts other than spreading truth to the masses.

  9. locutusbrg says:

    In my opinion the internet favors the skepticism movement.
    There is just too much money to be made in pseudoscience. Skepticism is not not overly profitable. The internet has made the dissemination of info cheaper. It helps “even the playing field” for distribution of knowledge. Although this benefit is true for both pseudoscience and science, propaganda is more easily fought by equivocal resources. The internet helps negate the resource deficit measurably. No internet, no blogs, no SGU podcast, no R.Watson you tube videos, no Skepchick, no Brian Dunning, to point out a few major deficits. Major media information would flow to millions through oprah, limbaugh and dr. Oz, all still there without internet, with no counter tide…. scary. At least the Huff-Po would be out of business.

  10. mufi says:

    Lacking sound statistical evidence, I’ll have to go with personal experience – exposure to a diversity of claims and opinions, such as the Internet affords, makes it harder to commit, unless one adopts some more rigorous criteria for acceptance.

    That said, if we mean by “skepticism” the adoption of such criteria, then I would be very surprised if the Internet is not biased towards skepticism – although I suspect that the real work of rewiring one’s brain in that way still takes place slowly and mostly off-line; e.g. while reading and contemplating skeptical works (e.g. books by Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins) that were previously recommended on-line.

    Of course, some groups already removed from popular culture (e.g. the Amish and Hasidic Jews) will either avoid the Internet (e.g. as a devil’s playground) or only use a highly ghettoized version of it. But then their decision to treat it in such a cautious way is telling in itself.

  11. robm says:

    I think the internet is very good for skeptics since we can organize better and reach a broader audience and allow skeptics to clearly state their positions. Something not often done in other forms of communication, which has time and word count constraints. The problem is most people on the internet aren’t critical thinkers, as mufi pointed out, so they can easily fall for slick apologetics. My hope is skeptical arguments will appear more reasonable due to clear thinking, addressing the points raised by the opposition, making a well evidenced case, etc, things that are so often lacking in our opponents.

  12. SimonW says:

    Web of Trust is interesting because of that Facebook reach.

    However first thing I discovered is that my employers were collateral damage of a bug in their system (we’ve persuaded enough folks to vote for us, that we are no longer damaged).

    I think also the rating is too fine grained, if the site is a scam, I want to click “scam”, I don’t want to review their privacy policy – which might be fantastic (if they copied it from someone with good lawyers).

    As Tim has said many time – Wikipedia – Steve if there are areas that could do better on Wiki – name them and someone can go fix them. That you have to chance to influence such a highly ranked websites content is crucial.

    Meanwhile I just gave some Ponzi scheme seller a lousy WoT rating.

  13. SteveA says:

    robm: “The problem is most people on the internet aren’t critical thinkers, as mufi pointed out, so they can easily fall for slick apologetics. My hope is skeptical arguments will appear more reasonable due to clear thinking, addressing the points raised by the opposition, making a well evidenced case, etc, things that are so often lacking in our opponents.”

    Although I agree with everything you’ve said, I think a change of approach, in some circumstances, could bring benefits. You can make a well reasoned argument against magical thinking and bogus cures and that will attract some interest, but most people are likely to ignore it or skim it, or not understand it. On the other hand, if you show people a picture of a baby who literally scratched herself to death because her dingbat parents denied her proper medical care in favour of faith healing – that’s a kick in the tits that stops people in their tracks and makes them listen.

    Skepticism needs to borrow some tricks from the glossies and tabloids – dramatic stories that show how woo really hurts real people. Go for the gut reaction first, then give the mind something to chew on later.

    Just because a book is well crafted, thoughtful and intelligent doesn’t mean the front cover can’t be dramatic and attention grabbing.

  14. Mlema says:

    Dr, Novella says:
    “If your belief system cannot survive close or open scrutiny, if it cannot compete in the rough and tumble world of free information, perhaps it is lacking in some fundamental way.”

    What does this mean Dr. Novella? Belief in spaceships and aliens? Belief in God? Belief in the supernatural?
    Or are you talking about supposed scientific beliefs, like whether or not vaccines cause autism? Or that magnets help arthritis?
    Or is it all the same to you?

    I don’t really see “competing in the rough and tumble world of free information” as being equivalent to “surviving close or open scrutiny”. People gravitate to the information that appeals to them. Only the people who are already critically-minded will take advantage of skeptical web sites to analyze all the info they find about any given topic. But I don’t really see too many Skeptic sites analyzing scientific info in such a systematic way. (there are exceptions 🙂

    I find everyone’s comments here most insightful and agree with them all. If a skeptic hopes to overcome ignorance and fraud through online information, the information needs to be packaged in a “non-denominational” kind of way (for lack of a better description). if you want to criticize religion – do it over here. And if you want to expose a fraudulent product, do it over here. Otherwise, the mish-mosh of beliefs that most people tend to be made up of will prevent them from getting at the salient info you’re trying to provide.

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