Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Can Bloggers Save the World?

Over at Policy Review, John McGinnis argues that we are on the "cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism." McGinnis claims that the growing stream of factual information, rapidly distributed by bloggers and others, has the power to break through the "partisanship and the excessive power of the special interests that distort modern democracy." Why? Because people ultimately are more persuaded by facts than abstract theories, and blogs make factual data more readily available to more people. This increased access to facts, McGinnis claims, will enable people to reach consensus on issues that are controversial only when presented in a a empirical vacuum.

Sounds like an empiricist bloggers dream come true. Unfortunately, I'm skeptical. If empirical information is to have the effect McGinnis claims, people have to believe that the information presented is accurate and unbiased. But this isn't how most people respond to information that conflicts with their existing beliefs. Instead, we tend to discount and dismiss the conflicting information. This may be particularly true in relation to political choices, as demonstrated by the tendency to continue to view favorably an elected official you voted for regardless of the official's job performance. In other words, for facts to be persuasive people have to believe that facts are in fact facts. And while bloggers make empirical work more accessable, the pure quantity of information available on the Internet also makes it easier to find "facts" that merely confirm what we already believe. Consequently, without a commonly accepted authoritative source of information, facts will always be "facts" to those who disagree with them.


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