Friday, December 03, 2004

Encyclopedia or Ethics

When I first started thinking about this post, it was meant to relate a current issue to the paradigm of knowledge that Hegel inherits from Diderot: the encyclopedia. In many ways, the internet generally and some of its networking elements such as wikis are the cyber-embodiment of this epistemic goal. However, my thoughts became more specifically tied to the concrete elements of the debate rather than its historical or epistemological elements. Here is the result:

Matthew Yglesias once asked, where have all the experts gone? He was referring to the need for more bloggers like Juan Cole, i.e., more bloggers who offer commentary from their field of expertise in order to enhance the general intellectual milieu of the "blogosphere." He noted, however, that some of the logical choices for these roles may not always be available.
Academics have real jobs and will only perform the great public service of blogging about what they know if they happen to be egomaniacs. Think tankers and other such people one encounters here in DC, on the other hand, really are just being paid to disseminate ideas throughout the world. And blogs are probably a more cost-effective way of doing that than most efforts at print publication.
So I guess it is clear where I fit into this picture. Of course, he later noted that he "intended a bit of ironic self-deprecation in the whole bloggers-as-egomaniacs thing." (Actually, I took no offense because it is just nice to hear someone seriously refer to my academic work as a "real job.")

More recently, Yglesias reiterated his point about "think tankers" and wrote about them as the "hidden treasure" to be discovered--once they discover the virtues of blogging, that is.
[T]he weblog is an ideal format in which to pursue the think tank's core mission of providing timely, expert commentary on current issues to an informed, but largely non-expert audience.
More recently still, Yglesias has followed up on this idea by submitting the following view:
The internet and related phenomena could, by lowering transaction costs, search costs, and the like, allow progressives to better leverage the vast store of expertise that exists scattered about the country in the form of college and university faculties into something that can do some work outside the ivory tower.
This suggestion was actually commentary on Mark Schmitt's opinion:
All this gets to an issue that I want to think about over the next few months: can blogs -- and related networking and knowledge-development tools such as wikis -- help to serve some of the purposes of progressive think tanks, in much the way that networked organizing such as replaced some of the organizing role of top-down membership organizations? I think they can, but I don't think it's quite happening yet. I'll have more to say on this.
Dan Drezner writes about the benefits of academic credentials for political influence, but the larger question of "knowledge-development" is not addressed.

An recent article in the LA Times reveals the Pentagon's use and extent of "psy-ops" during the Iraq war, i.e., psychological operations which involve the dissemination of misinformation. This raises another issue related to knowledge-development: credibility. It is no secret that the United States has undermined its own credibility in many ways during the past four years. Some in the Pentagon apparently recognize this risk, as attested by one senior official:
"The movement of information has gone from the public affairs world to the psychological operations world," one senior defense official said. "What's at stake is the credibility of people in uniform."
How does this relate to Yglesias' and Schmitt's proposal for further knowledge-development? It appears we cannot always trust our traditional news sources like CNN given the possibility of psychological operations. Thus, Juan Cole notes the danger of media's reliance on retired military personnel and "experts" who are well-connected to the administration.
Hint to cable news personnel departments: if an academic has a spotty publication record ... or doesn't have a proper university post, but you get a call pushing him from some rightwing think tank in Washington or from the Benador Agency, be suspicious.
Finally, when journalists cannot obtain credible information from insiders and cannot rely on such untrustworthy sources as Walid Phares, Cole recommends that they seek information from academics who are truly independent outsiders.
They are most often not interested parties. They aren't under any pressure to adopt positions that contradict common sense. And they often have long-term expertise in a country that gives them a bullshit meter that a journalist just parachuted into a story hasn't had time to develop. Depending on the Think Tank talking heads alone will just amplify the psy-ops.
This seems right to me, and furthermore it indicates that some considerable discrimination be exercised in creating any sort of "knowledge-development" system involving Think Tank blogging. I think I'll side with Drezner and Cole until I hear more about the independence of the Think Tanks to ensure that they do not simply amplify the psy-ops of our government. More importantly, the whole issue of bloggers' self-justification seems to be more than just epistemic. What is remarkable to me about the progressive tenor of many blogs as well as their ability to persuade is that they are so much more than a means of conveying information. They are about action-guiding principles; in other words, ethics. If they can correct some of the misinformation circulating in our media, that is good, but it is the epiphenomenon. More fundamentally, there is a value of honesty being promoted. It strikes me as no surprise that this value would surface in an era when a state representative could claim that his view on global warming is as valid as any view constructed by a team of scientists. Let me digress on that case for a moment.

From the Anchorage Daily News, we read the following:
Alaska's lone congressman, Republican Rep. Don Young, went so far as dismissing the major new report on Arctic climate change. He called it ammunition for fearmongers.

"My biggest concern is that people are going to use this so-called study to try to influence the way and standard of living that occurs within the United States," Young said.

"I don't believe it is our fault. That's an opinion," Young said. "It's as sound as any scientist's."
Kevin Drum spotted this latest case in the War on Facts and then wrote:
There you have it! There's no need for all those boring, lengthy, scientific studies that have unanimously concluded that human activity is a primary cause of warming. Don Young's opinion on this is every bit as sound as any research scientist's.
My point is that blogs seem to be as much about ethics as knowledge-development.

Here ends a rather desultory post. I've always been suspicious of novels about novelists or movies about movie directors, and now blogs about blogging fit into that category. Still, it seemed like there was something worth writing when I began, but I'll let you be the judge of that.


Blogger Jexebel said...

I do agree, most of the blogosphere seems to be everyday shmucks (myself included) with few experts in their feild. I kind see it as a good thing, perhaps blogging as a medium of the masses?

12/04/2004 4:55 PM  

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