Networked zealotry

By Lorenzo

A feature of the internet has been the growth of networked zealotry; where intensely held attitudes are expressed in overheated rhetoric and ad hominem abuse, not as solitary aberrations (though that also happens), but in self-reinforcing internet coteries.

This has fed off, and possibly intensified, the bitter “culture wars” of the US; the intensification of political rhetoric and a more intense partisanship in politics. The last, particularly in Federal politics, has likely been fed by a change in living arrangements among Senators and Congresspersons whereby they spend much less time socialising with people of the other political Party.

There is some penchant–depending on political preferences–for blaming one side of politics for the culture wars more than the other. Since the phenomena in question occur across the political spectrum, this is not likely to be an analytically fruitful exercise, as distinct from another manifestation of the same patterns.

Drowning not waving
Looking at deeper structural changes, we are living in information-saturated societies. A natural response to such an assault of information is to retreat into simplifying and emotionally satisfying narratives. And what is more simplifying and emotionally satisfying than a Manichean story of good and evil, where you and those who think like you are the “good guys” and them over there are there are the bad guys, who clearly only believe what they do because they are evil, wicked, malicious and stupid (while you and yours believe as you do because you are moral, clever, smart and informed).

The dramatic drop in communication costs, and explosion in ability to connect, that the information technology revolution represents means that the like-minded can associate together far more easily. This can be liberating and reassuring. It can also lead to intensification of beliefs as people reinforce each other and divergent information is excluded or discredited. An ironic effect of massively increased access to information is to make the crippled epistemology (pdf) which is so much a part of zealotry and fanaticism easier to maintain.

Established groupthink
The established information institutions have (more than) done their bit to create the basis for these patterns. While critical thinking is allegedly an ideal of post-Enlightenment education (particularly universities), what education systems have generally actually been teaching and practising (particularly universities) has been groupthink. (Scott Sumner, for example, regularly bewails the current groupthink among macroeconomists–all the more remarkable since it fails to conform to previous accepted analysis.)

Moreover, teachers and academics may have been better at teaching the habits of groupthink than their specific groupthinking. Particularly if alienation from the offered groupthink leads, not to open-mindedness, but the search for more congenial groupthink. A sense of status, worthiness and morally-charged meaning are powerful passions; and if the real “lessons” have been that that is what information and analysis is “for”, then people will go off and search for it. And, thanks to the information technology revolution, very easily find it.

Where, in past times, information was filtered through interaction with a diverse local community, now the internet provides congenial filtering and mutual support at one’s fingertips. As transport costs have fallen, local communities themselves become sorting devices, so counteract such trends less than they previously might. Particularly when use of land-rationing to drive up local (housing) land prices adds to the sorting effect. Even within local communities, easy transportation encourages like-minded friendship networks.

The selling of groupthink leading to some frustrated alienation from particular groupthinking has also been a feature of much mainstream media. The issue here is not bias in media, it is biassed media; journalists practising groupthink. Hiring in one’s own image and likeness (something public broadcasters and university departments are particularly prone to) reinforces the effect.

The lazy newspaper monopolies of the US have perhaps been particularly prone to groupthink, whereas the national newspaper market of the UK allows a wider range of choices. In the US, journalistic groupthink has not only led to media operations targeting the alienated (FoxNews, Breitbart), it has also energised the already well-established policy-advocacy industry, some of which very much panders to groupthinking up to and including conspiracy theories; a particularly intense manifestation of emotionally resonant Manichean narrative. After all, if events do not turn out as they are “supposed” to, powerful malign hidden forces are a very emotionally satisfying “explanation”. (The existence of both truthers and birthers point to the not-ideologically specific nature of conspiracy thinking in particular and networked zealotry more generally.)

Reinforcing refuge
The internet also allows people to tap into ready-made articulation of their alienation from educational, academic or media groupthink. Or even participate in such articulation themselves. In undermining the role of the traditional information “gate-keepers” by providing alternative information sources, the information super-highway also makes it easier to identify the failings of such “gate-keepers”.

If anything in your own experience reacts against the offered groupthink, then alternative viewpoints are now much easier to find. My own scepticism regarding certainty about anthropogenic effects on climate partly came from how much it reminded me of previous enthusiasm for eugenics (also a cause of the great and the good based on “cutting edge” science) but also going to a Bureau of Meteorology seminar and being horrified at the appalling quality of what was being passed off as climate “modeling”. I was not a great fan of econometrics–being partial to to economist David Clark’s dictum that, if the data is sufficiently tortured, it will confess. (There is also the small matter that a model simply tells you the consequences of your factual and other premises.) But I knew more than enough to realise what was being passed off would have been laughed out of court if someone had been silly enough to offer it as economic modeling (given that it failed to capture what we knew had happened). I gather the quality of climate modeling has improved (it well and truly needed to), but it was not reassuring. Later work by Ian Castles (former ABS Chief Statistician) and David Henderson (former OECD Chief Economist) on problems with (pdf) the economic modeling underlying IPCC estimates just gave further grounds for scepticism about the rampant certainty. (The linked interview includes evidence of groupthink within the IPCC; this paper [pdf] provides a useful discussion of the issue of using market exchange rates or Purchasing Power Parity comparisons.)

But if allegedly scientific questions about climate dynamics become markers of status, of moral and intellectual worthiness–and so gist for networked zealotry–then any hope of civility is lost. But so is any chance of rational debate in any space dominated by such passions. You cannot have a factual debate if disagreement is evil.

The notion that it is all about righteousness also leads into what I call the ‘homeopathic’ approach to intellectual and artistic life, where any failure to follow the correct line then taints everything else you have said or done, because it is now all the product of someone unclean and unrighteous. A particularly nasty instance of this being this attack on Jodie Foster’s life and work because she refused to abandon Mel Gibson, a friend. But your own views don’t give you positive moral standing, don’t display your cognitive worthiness, unless contradictory views do the opposite.

None of which means that zealotry and congenial groupthink shopping is the only option. The internet is also a marvelous tool for genuine enquiry.  The wealth of genuine scholarship available at one’s fingertips is immense. But even that can make the search for emotionally reassuring narratives powerful; a way of dealing and sorting and not being overwhelmed.


MODERATOR’S NOTE: This is not a post about global warming, but about debate and zealotry. Given past unhappy experiences with comment threads of doom (which, of course, just illustrate the above), any comment which attempts to turn it into a debate about the extent of anthropogenic climate change will be ruthlessly binned.


  1. Posted August 22, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    ‘I’ll revisit the issue when/if up and coming young scientists buck the consensus.’

    Fair enough. It’s already happening, but you will need to take your own time, pretty clearly.

  2. kvd
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I would support [email protected] in his approach – the last three paras particularly. But I’d probably demote Ridley’s significance in the NR debacle, as he seems to me more an incautious dilettante than a prime mover in what went wrong.

    It’s also interesting that Lorenzo feels comfortable taking things of value from any source, yet Mel and DA – from different perspectives – seem to view an individual as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based upon specific reactions to specific areas of (non?) expertise.

  3. Posted August 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    I’m not sure what point you are making about me. With respect to global warming, I am an agnostic, checking new data and new articles as they arrive. I think that any reasonably well educated person can do this. It doesn’t require a PhD. I think that Mel’s perception that there is a ‘near scientific consensus’ on this matter is flawed, but I’ve given up arguing with people who accept consensus doctrines.

  4. kvd
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I am an agnostic

    [email protected] my perception was that you are a skeptic – in the mildest, most respectful, sense of that word, and I don’t understand where ‘agnostic’ fits. I don’t think Mel’s perception is flawed; I think that is fairly obvious at this point. But if you are suggesting the science itself is flawed, that is a different question, well worth ongoing skeptical review – and I expect most qualified scientists would genuinely welcome any input you might offer.

  5. Mel
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    DA @53:

    “With respect to global warming, I am an agnostic, checking new data and new articles as they arrive.”

    No you aren’t. You give the game away in the heading to your blog in which you place climate change in scare quotes in a smarmy one liner. I’m not suggesting you are dishonest in calling yourself an agnostic, rather your mislabelling of yourself suggests a lack of self-awareness.

    “With respect to global warming, I am an agnostic, checking new data and new articles as they arrive.”

    Once again, you do no such thing. I’ve checked some of your blog posts such as this one and found nothing but self-indulgent prose and typical keyboard warrior speculation. There is no evidence in any of your posts that suggests you have even an undergraduate’s grasp of the physics, statistics etc that are the staple of the relevant sciences.

    Be honest with yourself, Don. Do you think your grasp of the subject matter is such that you could waltz into an applicable three hour exam and pass with a high distinction? If not, why are you so convinced of your status as a keyboard genius.

    kvd @52:

    ” It’s also interesting that Lorenzo feels comfortable taking things of value [my emphasis] from any source …”

    No. Lorenzo takes things that reflect his values from any source. There is a world of difference.

    kvd continues ” … , yet Mel and DA – from different perspectives – seem to view an individual as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based upon specific reactions to specific areas of (non?) expertise ”

    Not sure what your point is. As I’ve said previously, according to my philosophy, science is an inaccessible black box, therefore I must rely on various heuristics and in part that involves an individual’s track record.

  6. Posted August 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    I am a sceptic in the ordinary sense, about every claim that is made, though life is too short to worry about most of them! About whether or not the AGW proposition is true (that is, the world is warming up, humans done it, and the results are dire) I am agnostic, because all these claims are intrinsically measurable, and sooner or later we will know pretty certainly whether or not they are valid claims. I an completely sceptical that the carbon tax will have any effect that is measurable on the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Does that make sense.

    I remain of the view that the notion that there is a near scientific consensus on AGW is flawed, though I would have to admit that no one, least of all me, has said what ‘flawed’ actually means. My take is that there is a small number of highly active proponents, and that most in the sciences go along with a version of the IPCC position. But that is all. The science iitself, that is, the thousands of papers that have a bearing on all this, do not agree.

    Perhaps you might go to my website and read the two posts on measurement, and then you’ll get some idea of what I am on about. There are other writings there too, at the head of the website, under Writings.

    [email protected]: You are extraordinarily confident about what I can and cannot do, and you go too quickly to the ad hominem for my liking.

  7. kvd
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Well geez, I’d just appreciate some sort of definition of ‘agnostic’ from either Mel or DA which had any relevance whatsoever to this discussion.

    In the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that humanity does not currently possess the requisite knowledge and/or reason to provide sufficient rational grounds to justify the belief that deities either do or do not exist.

  8. kvd
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Matt Ridley has been a scientist, journalist and businessman. With BA and DPhil degrees from Oxford University, he worked for the Economist for nine years as science editor, Washington correspondent and American editor, before becoming a self-employed writer and businessman. He was founding chairman of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle. He currently writes the Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal and writes for many other publications. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is married to the neuroscientist Professor Anya Hurlbert. They have two children and live at Blagdon near Newcastle upon Tyne in England.

    So, as naturally, as night follows day, he is qualified to be in charge of a bank.

  9. Mel
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo @45 says: “Having listened to an actual doctor and medical researcher with specific expertise talk on the issue (because he was annoyed at the over-hyping of the dangers), second-hand smoke is hardly the same issue as smoking risk for smokers.

    The ( near) consensus position as stated by the US CDC says:

    “Concentrations of many cancer-causing and toxic chemicals are higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.”

    “There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke: even small amounts of secondhand smoke exposure can be harmful to people’s health.”

    “Secondhand smoke exposure causes an estimated 46,000 heart disease deaths annually among adult nonsmokers in the United States.”

    “Secondhand smoke exposure causes an estimated 3,400 lung cancer deaths annually among adult nonsmokers in the United States.”

    “In children aged 18 months or younger, secondhand smoke exposure is responsible for … approximately 7,500–15,000 hospitalizations annually in the United States.”

    “Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma. Smoking by parents causes respiratory symptoms and slows lung growth in their children.”

    Who should I believe, the US CDC Surgeon General or routine science fantasist, Lorenzo and his favourite tobacco funded think tanks?

  10. kvd
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] why the need to introduce religion (even in a joking sense) when all that is required is to use a perfectly appropriate term: skeptic?

    It’s almost as if a ‘superior’ position is being taken in the absence of an honest “I am unconvinced, but am open to discussion”.

  11. kvd
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] well here’s at least one person who respects your right to think for yourself. What a weird world it is that you should be so exceptional.

  12. Posted August 22, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    legal [email protected] & 62 and kvd @57 and 61:

    If it makes kvd happier, I will be a ‘sceptic’ about AGW, but I thought I had made a useful distinction, useful at least to me.

    The matter is important enough to look at the data and argument carefully, and I do, every day (almost). I do accept that others draw different conclusions from the data than I do. That is true of most domains. And I have swung toward being a ‘lukewarmer’ over the last five years, the result of reading, study and thinking.

    Like LE, I dislike the religious and almost fantastical element that can be seen on both sides of the debate.

    Oh, and though this comment pertains to Mel, I used apostrophes around ‘climate change’, because its official meaning is ‘climate change due to human activity’, which seems to me a distortion of the obvious meaning.

  13. Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The doctor in question was not being paid, he was doing it off his own bat. And, from memory, he agreed about the dangers of living or working with smokers, it was casual contact in public places that he thought the risks were being over-hyped.

  14. Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] What political values are relevant as to whether fat intake is the key issue in weight control? (And I have no idea what Taube’s politics are.)

    I will admit to a penchant for being sceptical about claims that immediately morph into controls on people’s lives. And I really dislike the notion that beliefs track moral character; that becomes “error has no rights” very quickly.

    I am also aware that many of those shouting most loudly on climate issues were equally self-righteous on others; not to good effect.

    I also note that the IPCC’s various embarrassments do not seem to figure in your calculus.

    It does seem likely that there is some human influence on climate, but quantifying how much seems much more problematic.

  15. Mel
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Don Aitkin @64:

    “The matter is important enough to look at the data and argument carefully, and I do, every day (almost).”

    No you don’t. You lack the knowledge and expertise necessary to make any sense of the data and arguments, just like everyone else on this thread.

    I also cannot help but note that you have 19 blogs on your blog roll, one of which represents the mainstream view on climate change and 15 or so that not only dispute the mainstream position but throw around words like hoax.

    You are no more a genuine “skeptic” or an “agnostic” than I am an aardvark.

    [email protected]:

    “I also note that the IPCC’s various embarrassments do not seem to figure in your calculus.”

    Given the depth and breadth of the IPCC’s work, the number of people involved, the hurried timeframes etc I’m surprised at the triviality and fewness of the errors. Scientists are, believe it or not, fallible human beings.

    In addition to the above, the IPCC is inside the black box I mentioned earlier.

  16. Mel
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    “I also note that the IPCC’s various embarrassments do not seem to figure in your calculus.”

    Another point, the IPCC and wider climate science community hasn’t had an embarrassment that comes to close to Piltdown Man. Would I be right in assuming Piltdown Man is the reason why you reject evolutionary theory in favour of a more traditional, Biblical Creationism?

  17. Posted August 23, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    Wow! Another omniscient judgment.

    I know nothing about you at all, save what I read here. It seems to me that you are in a cleft stick. On the one hand you say that you know nothing about the science, and that you therefore have to accept the consensus view. In this you follow the path of Professors Manne and Hamilton.

    That’s fine. But then, again it seems to me, you insist that others must do the same. Unless they are climate scientists themselves, they must accept the consensus. Your decision about yourself is accepted. But it does not offer you a platform for assessing correctly what others have to do. They may, for example, know more about the issue than you think. It may be that you do not need to be a climate scientist (let us pass by what that category means) in order to assess the quality of the data, argument and articles that are relevant to it. It may be that you do not have a sure grip on what actually is relevant. And here you would be in good company with Manne and Hamilton.

    In short, you are not in a strong position to insist that others follow your line. And, since you state that you know nothing about the science, you are in a weak position to take issue with others when they make statements about it with which you disagree.

    Perhaps I’ve got it wrong. But that is how it appears to me.

  18. Mel
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Don @70:

    I’m a big fan of the Open Society. All I am doing is stating my case just as you are stating yours. No-one should be forced to believe anything.

    All the best.

  19. Posted August 23, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Actually, Piltdown Man is an excellent example of the fallacy of your “judge the person” approach. Bad behaviour in the actual arena in question said nothing about the truth of the science in question. So, bad behaviour in completely unrelated areas really tells us nothing about an issue.

    The notion that one is only permitted to dissent if one is an absolute paragon is a way of policing dissent, it is not a way of conducting open debate.

    And why do your excuses for the IPCC not apply to others as well? Besides, one cannot, on one hand, laud the processes of the IPCC as a reliable means of truth finding and then, on the other, say that mistakes are completely understandable given

    Given the depth and breadth of the IPCC’s work, the number of people involved, the hurried timeframes etc.

  20. Mel
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    L @72:

    “The notion that one is only permitted to dissent … ”

    I clearly said I believe everyone is permitted to dissent. Your problem is that you don’t like it when your favoured dissenters are ridiculed.

    Look Lorenzo, my position on the hard sciences is formulaic and I have delineated the formula before and I will do so one last time just in case it’s slipped your memory.

    1/ When 95% of scientists in a particular field are in rough agreement, I think it is prudent to act as if they are right (subject to point 4 below), regardless of how it sits with my ideological convictions or gut instincts. Accordingly, as an example, I don’t speak out against GMO food even though my gut and ideological inclinations tell me that something awfully fucked up may eventually happen as an unintended consequence of releasing modified organisms into the environment and eating them.

    2/ The hard sciences are a black box. I possess sufficient humility to know that a few hundred hours spent reading books, chatting on the net etc does not make me an expert or even knowledgeable enough to properly assess competing claims.

    3/ It is an Iron Law of science that the young scientists innovate whilst the old scientists resist new ideas. There are literally hundreds of well documented examples of this happening compared to, as far as I can tell, no examples of the reverse.

    4/ Thus my heuristic in light of point 3 is that I will treat the mainstream view of hard science X as if it were fact until such time as the status quo is challenged by the younger generation of scientists, at which time I will suspend judgement. Furthermore, while the dissenters have grey hair and liver spots, I will entertain myself by treating them as sad clownish old farts.

    You on the other hold to the conceit that you may acquire competence in any field of science after no more than a modest amount of dandy dabbling and then proceed to confuse truth in science with the need to constantly protect your ideological convictions. That is to say, you have no formula at all!

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *