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.

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