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.