From the archives

December 2009

Five years ago I had a job writing for Grist, an environmental news blog. I just came across this old post from way back then, when ‘blog’ was still a four letter word. It’s actually in response to an article by a colleague at the time. While the original topic was about the environment, I took things in a decidedly more philosophical direction, and the content is still relevant because of that decision.

I would throw this analogy out there. In the hypothetical, completely ideal world of globalization where people and nations do only what they do best (hold a comparative advantage for), everything gets divided up and specialized.

But in the real world, people and nations like to do some things themselves. On the national level, defense is one example. Producing a pretty fair amount of food and energy domestically is another. On the personal level, there are tasks and jobs that people just prefer to do, or at least be able to do, themselves, even if they aren’t that great at them. For example, most people like to have a certain degree of culinary expertise, usually extending beyond ramen, if only slightly.

I extend this analogy to the “thinkin’” world. There is absolutely no way for everyone to do all their thinking for themselves. They must learn which sources to trust, as you say. But there’s a certain level to which you have to be able to do your own thinking, a level which is different for everybody.

For a timely example: I am no legal expert, and probably would have never even seen the NARAL ad opposing SCOTUS nominee John Roberts had it not been for the online firestorm that resulted. Annenberg Political FactCheck is an organization that I have come to trust because of its work on other issues, so when they say something like “the ad is false,” that tends to convince me. It also means that on this issue, I did not dig through the legal briefs myself in order to be convinced that the NARAL ad was misleading.

This is also (warning: cliche ahead) the power of blogs: when there’s a new blog created every second, there’s going to be someone who is willing and able to blog in-depth about almost any particular topic there is, to become the expert on it. Does it really make sense for me to immerse myself and investigate fully a topic like land trusts if someone I trust, like Pat Burns, has already been doing a superb job for some time and will thus be much more efficient than me at analyzing news when it breaks?

The irrationality of some heuristics certainly throws a monkey wrench into this whole thing. The “price implies quality” bias can be a devastating argument against free markets with the exception of commodities markets, since it scuttles the assumption that people act rationally/have good information, since the information they are inferring is incorrect if it’s based solely on the “price implies quality” idea.

The idea of “perceived consensus” is also an interesting one, and one which contains elements of framing in it. If something starts to be referred to with words implying consensus, it won’t be too long before there is a perceived consensus. Of course, if the basic facts of the matter are incorrect, it won’t get anywhere, mostly because of blogs and organizations like FactCheck, but simply having the facts right isn’t enough. One potential problem then is the fact that those who are adept at getting the facts out and investigating might not the ones who are best at framing the issue and getting the message out.