Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

Late last week a small dustup occurred over at DCist over a post discussing the Nats' trade for Alfonso Soriano (See DCist: Soriano News is Good News). To date the post has generated 53 comments, and to save you the trouble of reading through them all, I'll summarize: The DCist author gave a big thumbs up to the trade, with an analysis that, at best, could be called conventional, short-sighted and mistaken and, at worst, just plain wrong and insipid. As expected, these kinds of articles attract the attention of the baseball-obsessed, including a roving band of Yudites, who descended upon the post and began to assess the author's viewpoint with vigor. The criticisms were typical Internet fare: caustic, pithy, some personal, but most of them substantive and well-placed.

These barbs brought out the defenders of the original post, whose rejoinder consisted essentially of the following: "Cool it, statheads. Most of us come to DCist for a general overview of things, we're not obsessed about OPS, VORP, etc., and this article served our purposes by informing us generally about the trade and what it might mean for the Nats. Save your in-depth rants for the blogs devoted to baseball and the Nats."

Now, there is a superficial appeal to this position. Many statheads on the Internet do need to cool it. But there is something more to this than meets the eye, something actually quite insidious. It completely sidesteps the substantive criticisms of the original post, and that much of it was ill-informed. It says, essentially, that the general DCist reader would rather have small amount of bad information about a lot of things rather than more good information about fewer things. Those readers seem to be saying, "I need enough to get me through the next cocktail party -- I need to know the Nats traded for Soriano, lost Wilkerson, and then enough to have some opinion on it, regardless of whether that opinion is well-founded or not."

The weird thing about this viewpoint is that it seems so "old school." Those readers are essentially saying, "I want DCist to be like NBC Channel 4 and George Michael. I want them to give me little bits of information squeezed into a strict format. I don't want them to do much research into whether those bits are good or bad, nor research other more in-depth sites to verify those bits. I'm only going one place for my information and I want convenience, not quality." This seems to ignore what many would say is the promise of the Internet -- a place where's one's individual tastes can find deep, knowledgeable sources of information for the most narrow subjects, without having to suffer thin discussion edited to fit a cramped media format.

That problem is not confined to DCist, of course. It is all over the Internet, most notoriously in Wikipedia, the collective online encyclopedia that allows anyone to edit its entries, no matter how offensively stupid the person might be. One critic of Wikipedia found a quote on its site explaining that "While there is no need to be an expert on the article you're working on (in fact, there are some advantages to being completely ignorant of the subject to start with), by the time you're done, you will have at least a working knowledge of the topic." (emphasis added). Nicholas Carr has written some good posts on where this kind of thinking leads (here and here, among others) and I recommend them to you if you find this attitude as discomfiting as I do.

The DCist view is also a species of relativism, of course -- that no one view is right or wrong so all opinions are worthy of being aired and accepted as possibly true. You might have concluded that I don't think much of relativism, mainly because nobody else really does either -- it's just post hoc rationalization for really stupid ideas. If they did, they would let me perform surgery on them for a fraction of the cost of a "true" doctor.

Why did I blog on this, given that it is dangerously close to the abhorrent practice of blogging about blogging? You can say I was inspired by a poem. Last night I ran across Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (in a book, not on the Internet), which contains the following passage, from which the title of this post (and I assume the cliche) comes:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pieran spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

My guess is that 85% of DCist readers primarily seek information from that site for their next pub crawl. What they don't know is that DCist itself intoxicates the brain.


At 3:20 PM, Blogger SuperNoVa said...

Call me closer to a relativist, I don't know, but it seems to me that we all are operating out of limited knowledge. After all, only God knows everything, and if you go around claiming that you talk to God about baseball, well, they'll lock you up. Everyone knows that God only talks football during the football season, sheesh.

I'm not here to defend the DCist post, just to bury it. But do I think that the Soriano trade can be spun positively? Yes. I can do that. Soriano is a much bigger "name" in baseball and has more star power than Brad Wilkerson. He's also likely to hit 25 home runs this year - even if he plays a whole season in RFK - because he's got legitimate power. He's the kind of guy that keeps you on the edge of your seat; you know in the back of your mind he can smoke a pitch at any time. Brad Wilkerson is a good player, and over the course of the season will probably be more valuable. But you'll use the whole seat with Brad, and only the edge with Soriano.

Your problem, it seems, is not a little knowledge, but the application of such knowledge. I can have very little knowledge on a subject yet post something intellectually consistent based on that little knowledge. For instance, I know that the Washington Post declares the Czech Republic to be a better team than the US, and consequently I can reason that the US will be an underdog to advance from its group in the World Cup. What I think you may have a problem with is not the amount of knowledge, but rather the use of such knowledge. Something can be dumb, but logical. There are any number of writers out there that post stuff in that category. Something can also be dumb and illogical, at which point it just makes you scratch your head. I blame those who either edit or publish the latter category of material.

At 10:34 PM, Blogger DM said...

I like your example, SNV. Why do rely on the Post for opinion on the World Cup? Because its soccer reporter, Steven Goff, is pretty good. He's been covering soccer for around 10 years, IIRC. Covering soccer is his profession. He gets paid to do it. That means he can spend a lot of time writing and thinking about soccer. He has "drunk deep" from the spring, and has more than a "little learning." Most importantly, his reporting has been proven solid over time. He has credibility. The Post stands behind him, and will fire him if he screws up too much. If he writes a lousy column/story, they will not respond by saying "Hey, we're not SoccerAmerica. Go there for better analysis." But, even if you happen to draw a logical conclusion from that reporting, as you say, you're not really adding much to the debate. Your use is consumptive rather than transformative (to use a context we both are familiar with).

My beef is with those who tout the Internet (i.e. blogs, Wikipedia, P2P, etc.) as this wondrous thing that makes access to information so easy, but then, when someone points out that some of that information really sucks (or is libelous, or copyright infringement, or exploitative, or harmful in some way), these same people just shrug their shoulders, like those DCist commenters. When the going gets tough, they simply switch their computer off, or move on to the next big thing, or, in Pope's analogy, wait for the hangover to end and find the next small beer to drink.


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