Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Turning down the volume

While I was doing field work in Kiribati a few weeks ago, I started reading Voltaire’s Bastards, the 1992 polemic by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul about the failure of reason in western society. You know, some light reading for the beach.

Saul steps back from the sniping between right and left to ask whether our deference to reason and structure has created an unthinking, technocratic society. It’s amazing this book was written before the internet transformed communications and before politics became a marketing exercise. This quote, speaking about how things of changed since the time of John Locke, could be talking about the inanity of the online debates between climate skeptics:

Facts at that time were such rare nuggets that no one realized how they would multiply. Everyone believed them to be solid and inanimate – to be true fact. No one yet understood that life would become an uncomfortable, endless walk down a seashore laid thick with facts of all sizes and shapes. Boulders, pebbles, shards, perfect ovals. No one had begun to imagine that these facts were without any order, impose or natural – that facts were as meaningful as raw vocabulary without grammar or sentences. A man could pick up any fact he wished and fling it into the sea and make it skip. A practiced, talented arm could make it skip three, perhaps four times, while a lesser limb might make a single plunk with the same concrete proof of some truth or other. Another man might build with these facts some sort of fortress on the shore.

As for Locke, he certainly did not think that facts would rapidly become the weapons, not only of good men but of evil mean, not only of truth but of lies.

Gavin Schmidt over at Real Climate has a terrific post about the repetitive spiral of blogging. In his case, the subject is debunking the climate skeptics. The basic conceit could apply to blogging as a whole. The popular politic blogs suffer from a more severe case of this affliction, rehashing the same issues over and over again, creating an urgency that often does not exist in reality.

Personally, I've found it difficult to re-enter the blogosphere after spending a couple months conducting field work in Fiji and Kiribati. This happens every time I step away, whether to do field work, to finish other work, or just for a break. I've found it more challenging this time because of the very "groundhog day" nature of the online climate discussions of which Gavin writes.

Thanks to technology, anyone armed with either a few good sound-bites or an important sounding title can become an expert these days (link to IPCC “expert reviewer”). We end up with these shouting matches, on air and online, with both sides throwing out numbers and figures without any real context. The good lines, sound-bite or video clip enter the echo-chamber and get repeated, cited or linked over and over again. And voila, the steadily increasing ratio of commentary to original research and reporting.

This craziness is why we should appreciate institutions like the IPCC. With this all war of context-free facts, figures and soundbites being fought 24 hours a day, 365.25 days a year, sound summaries of the actual original research are more necessary than ever.


Anonymous said...

I'd be perfectly content to read most of the blogs that focus on debunking denialists if they stopped doing so altogether and wrote about whatever they were interested in at the moment. I suspect that many regular readers would as well...

John Mashey said...

I don't think debunking should be abandoned, but it can and should be much more efficient. Ideally, when someone pops up with the Nth iteration of long-debunked idea, the first one who sees it an cares simply says:

"long debunked, see URL", and that's that.

I've found John Cook's Skeptical Science especially useful for this, given its structuring.

The issue is not to fill blog threads with endless repetitions of the same debates, and top lead *onlookers* to understand the repetition.