Groupthink on Right Wing Blogs

David Atkins wrote an interesting analysis of how “epistemic closure” — the misnomer coined by Julian Sanchez to describe groupthink — led the National Rifle Association to create an advertisement that had a lie at its core: that the school that President Obama’s children attend has armed guards. Atkins writes,

When honest pundits try to piece together what happened to the American Right, one of the phrases that tends to get bandied about is “epistemic closure”, which is a really fancy way of saying that everyone on the Right gets their information from everyone else on the Right, with none of them leaving their information cocoon to see or care whether their information plays well with the broader public or is even accurate.

. . .

Now, it’s one thing to get information from sources that confirm your ideological beliefs. It happens to the most circumspect of us, and sometimes we bloggers relay false information that “seems” right and then are forced to retract. If we do it more than very occasionally, we begin to lose credibility. So even unpaid bloggers, if they’re any good, will do a little research to confirm what they’ve read lest they lose their audience. If they’re shown to be wrong, they’ll post an update with an apology and/or retraction. And they’ll do this level of research even if they’re churning out several posts a day at whirlwind speed.

But for a national organization like the NRA to have invested this much organizational time, money and energy into an ad campaign based on false information from a widely discredited source, without doing even the first steps to confirm the information that is the entire basis for the attack? That is inexcusable solipsism and epistemic closure of the first order.

I couldn’t agree more. Several years ago I quoted approvingly from commentary by Glenn Reynolds who runs the popular Instapundit blog. Reynolds wrote something that at the time I thought was fairly salient on the difference between mainstream media and alternative/non-mainstream media on the Internet,

The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.

That’s because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren’t linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that’s impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.

So far, so good. One of the advantages of the Internet is the ability to quickly send readers off to judge for themselves whether or not you’ve accurately summarized some study or report, for example. When writing an article about some new study or other, no newspaper would have devoted the space (much less paid for the rights) to reproduce the study in its entirety. With the Internet, however, if someone makes a claim it is often fairly easy to check the veracity of that claim.

That’s what I assumed Reynolds was talking about, but he wasn’t. Rather, Reynolds and other bloggers seem to find stories that fit their ideologies and then follow the old “too good to check” mentality of some old school media.

For example, often what you’ll find on Instapundit is some proactive text with a link. But when you follow that link, what you often will find is a summary of an issue with a link to the source. But when you follow that link, it is often itself just a link to someone else’s summary and so on to the point where you may have to go through 5 or 6 links before you to get to the bottom of the rabbit hole.

It is possible to use Google to fact check some of these extraordinary claims, but Reynolds rarely bother to do so, and often neither do those he’s linking to. While they were raging against the mainstream media’s techniques, conservative bloggers ended up largely embracing and extending them.
After all, even on the Internet doing actual research to validate a claim can take some time, and any delay in getting out a hit piece on one’s ideological enemies is something right wing bloggers apparently can’t afford. The other problem is that such research might end up either disproving the claim outright or at least revealing it to be much more nuanced than originally claimed. Neither are outcomes conducive to the hermetically sealed environment that ideologues insist on building for themselves.

This is where I would offer an objection if I were reading this on some other blog. Yes, the right has built itself an echo chamber, but surely leftists and liberals often engage in similar behavior. Just go read DailyKos or similar sites for awhile and you’ll see plenty of similar examples.
True enough, but Reynolds and others set themselves as being a more accurate, thoroughly fact-checked successor to the mainstream media. Instead, they helped kick old school media to the curb only so they could go on to make the same mistakes and engage in the same ridiculous practices. Meet the new Dan Rather; same as the old Dan Rather.

WTF Indeed, Glenn

Surfing the web a few weeks ago, I ran across this bizarre entry on Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit blog. Now, personally, I would have thought that Reynolds would be opposed entirely to naming buildings after terrorists, but apparently not so much:

HMM: University of Texas regents take KKK organizer’s name off dorm. Does that mean that all those buildings named after Robert Byrd in West Virginia will have to change?

UPDATE: Reader Mike Ferrante writes: “Seems like we’re getting like the old Stalinist Russia where we erase the people who have become unfashionable. WTF.”

Now personally, I’m not a fan of Robert Byrd and, yes, his name should come off all those public buildings. By his own admission, Byrd’s infatuation with the KKK was short lived and he apologized for his involvement in it repeatedly, but it also seems clear that Byrd was most upset about what the KKK association did to his political career more than any actual intolerance he perpetuated (as late as 1997 he warned aspiring politicians not to get involved with the Klan because of the albatross it would place around their careers!)

But Byrd’s sins are relegated to the awful, bigoted things he wrote in letters and said in public forums. William Stewart Simkins, the lawyer who had the University of Texas dormitory named after him, was an out-and-out terrorist. As Dr. Tom Russell, who wrote a paper on UT’s history, notes,

After the Civil War ended, William Stewart Simkins dishonored himself by becoming a criminal and terrorist. In late 1860s Florida, Simkins and his brother Eldred were Klan leaders. A masked, armed nightrider who admitted terrorizing freed slaves, William Stewart Simkins proudly spoke of beating a “darkey” with a barrel stave. He robbed a train of rifles intended for the state militia, and the Klan used these guns to terrorize African Americans. Simkins threatened an African-American legislator and kept blacks from the polls. In just one of the Florida counties under his command, Klansmen murdered 25 freed slaves during a three-year period.

It is obscene for Mike Ferrante and Reynolds to suggest that renaming a building to register disapproval for a terrorist is making us like “the old Stalinist Russia” and to bizarrely suggest that Simkins’ acts of violence and terror have merely become “unfashionable.”

WTF indeed.

Glenn Reynolds Makes Newsweek Look Like Journalism’s Gold Standard

After Newsweek’s debacle about the Koran-in-the-toilet incident, Glenn Reynolds wrote an article about what the incident meant for the mainstream media in general. But what does it mean for blogging, in general, when Reynolds himself uses sourcing methods that make Newsweek’s look like the gold standard of journalism.

I’m referring to this Instapundit post,

JOE GANDELMAN says it’s not nice to make fun of Arlen Specter’s cancer.

He’s right.

Somebody made fun of Arlen Specter’s cancer? That’s just horrible. What sort of person would do that?

Well, Reynolds can’t be bother to quote from the offending person who made fun of Specter, so its off to Gandelman’s site.

But there’s something odd at Gandleman’s site — although he claims the American Family Association made fun of Specter having cancer, he doesn’t actually quote from any of the offending material either.

So we follow Gandelmans’ link to the offending article — but Gandelman links to yet another blogger, who does actually quote from the original, which it turns out is this article by the American Family Association’s Matt Friedman.

But while Friedman discusses Specter’s cancer, he does so because Specter himself invoked his own health problems as justification for embyronic stem cell research. And nowhere does Friedman make fun of Specter. Rather he points out the competing “poster children” style events with Bush meeting with kids who were born from extra frozen embryos while Specter invoked his cancer as reason enough to go forward with embryonic stem cell research.

Friedman writes,

Senator Specter apparently wants a place on your wall. Here’s why he shouldn’t get the chance.

Pick your poster child: Arlen Specter, bald from chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s disease, saying that he is Exhibit A for embryonic stem-cell research … or those cute little kids in the AP photo with this caption: “President Bush appeared at the White House with babies and toddlers born of test-tube embryos, some wearing shirts that read ‘former embryo.'”

“I look in the mirror every day,” says Specter, “barely recognize myself. And not to have the availability of the best of medical care is simply atrocious.”

Meanwhile, President Bush was busy praising a Christian agency that helps couples adopt frozen embryos. Amidst 21 babies and toddlers who began their lives as frozen embryos left over after fertility treatments, the president said, “there is no such thing as a spare embryo.”

So, again, pick your poster child. The man with a disease who thinks there is vast medical potential in destroying babies described as embryos, or the children who developed from their embryonic state to roll around on White House carpet.

. . .

Hillary Rodham Clinton, during one of her husband’s campaigns, declared that we should all ease up on the topic of abortion because, after all, we cannot be sure when human life really begins.

If uncertain, one would assume that the compassionate among us would err on the side of life. And a real man who has long touted himself as a courageous senator wouldn’t countenance the destruction of young ones to protect his own life.

There are a lot of things that could be said both positive and negative about Friedman’s claims, but he clearly is not making fun of Specter’s cancer. Nor are Friedman’s comments out of bounds — if Specter is going to invoke his cancer for political benefit, its completely appropriate for Friedman and others to point out that, in their view, he is asking for others to be sacrificed for his health.

Specter doesn’t get to stop all debate on embryonic stem cell research simply by mentioning that he has cancer, as all the bloggers condemning Friedman appear to want to do.

As for Reynolds, in this case he’s in far worse of a position than Newsweek. Newsweek had a source tell them of an incident documented in a confidential report. Newsweek didn’t have access to that report, and did a poor job of attempting to corroborate the story, which turned out to be bogus.

Reynolds, however, could have read the original Friedman article with a couple clicks. Instead he simply repeated a false claim by someone without even bothering to check the source material.

Just what we needed — the blogger echo chamber spreading rumors and lies.

Wikipedia Far More Accurate than Instapundit/Dinocrat (And That’s Not Saying Much)

For some reason, Instapundit is linking to someone who is flat out falsely charging the New York Times with plagarism. According to blogger Dinocrat (Jack Risko),

The New York Times copied an erroneous Wikipedia entry into its news pages today. From the NYT’s article on the Marburg Haemorragic Fever outbreak in Angola:

There is no cure or vaccine for the highly contagious virus. Victims suffer a high fever, diarrhea, vomiting and severe bleeding from bodily orifices and usually die within a week.

The Wikipedia entry on the virus:

There is no cure or vaccine for the highly contagious virus. Victims suffer a high fever, diarrhea, vomiting and severe bleeding from bodily orifices and usually die within a week.

Wikipedia mischaracterizes how contagious Marburg is, and the NYT copies the mistake. Consulting more authoritative sources would have avoided the problem. From the CDC:

This is a lie. Dinocrat apparently doesn’t have the first clue about using Wikipedia, and Glenn Reynolds is content just to take his word for it. The reality is that Wikipedia plagiarized from the New York Times story, not the other way around.

This is trivial to demonstrate. Here is the Wikipedia page on Marburg on April 8, 2005. It doesn’t include the two-sentences that Dinocrat claims the NYT copied from Wikipedia. Those two sentences were added later on April 9, after the New York Times story was published. Here is the page where the edit is made, listed at 15:28 (I have no idea what time zone Wikipedia is using).

The history page for the Marburg virus entry at Wikipedia also confirms that Wikipedia copied from NYT. There’s a notation made later in the day (after Dinocrat had made his post) at 23:31,

nyt link – phrase was copied from there, sorry for wrong summary

So the same text appeared at both Wikipedia and the New York Times. Rather than check the history at Wikipedia — where, after all, articles are being constantly updated and edited — Dinocrat chose to simply assume the NYT was copying from Wikipedia and then Glenn Reynolds ran with that ball, spreading the meme among those who read his popular blog.

Sometimes its not just the MSM who come off as rank amateurs who are more interested in playing “gotcha” than taking the time to get their facts straight. If you’re going to write stuff like . . .

We knew there was a problem with the NYT story right away, and it took only a few clicks to determine that the lazy use of Wikipedia was the source.

. . . you better make sure you’re not a lazy-ass yourself.

Reynolds isn’t much better. He warns that,

IT’S USUALLY A MISTAKE to copy things from Wikipedia without looking further into the subject.

So, its a mistake to take Wikipedia at face value, but any old blogger who makes a very serious charge with basically no evidence as to who was plagiarizing from who apparently can be trusted “without looking further into the subject.” Bah, nobody apparently gives a damn anymore. If it slams James Watt, Bill Moyers has no problem repeating a bogus quote from an online source without investigating further. If it slams the NYT, Reynolds has no problem spreading false accusations of plagiarism around the Internet (and I thought Glenn was supposed to be the voice of reason about accusations of plagiarism.

Oh, and one other point. Dinocrat is full of crap on the claim that Marburg is not highly contagious simply because it “require[s] direct contact with the bodily fluids or excreta of an infected person, so they are pretty easy to avoid.” First, since the virus can live on surfaces of objects for several days, according to the CDC, it might not be so easy to avoid contact with infected fluids. Second, just because you can, in theory, easily avoid exposure to an infectious agent doesn’t mean that it isn’t highly contagious.

Hepatitis A, for example, is also considered highly contagious, and it is usually contracted by consuming the fecal matter of someone who is already infected (it can also be contracted through sexual activity and IV drug use). I suspect most people would agree that this is something that should be, in theory, pretty easy to avoid. Like Marburg, however, Hepatitis A is generally considered highly contagious because of the very high risk of contracting the disease once a person comes into contact with the infectious agent. Contagion is not just the odds of being exposed to an infectious agent, but also about how likely that infectious agent is likely to cause the disease once exposure does occur.

Marburg and its deadlier cousin Ebola are considered highly contagious because exposure to the infectious agent is believed to produce a very high risk of infection. The only certain way to prevent the disease from spreading is isolating patients and having those who come into contact with patients, such as health care workers, use preventative measures such as face shields, etc., to prevent have any contact with the bodily fluids of those afflicted.

Risko should probably revise his title to say something like, “Note to Rest of the World: Don’t Use This Blog As An Authoritative Source.”