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One might turn it around and ask if the authors of these blogs, having been accustomed to having their views confirmed/discussed principally in academia, learn anything from the commentary they receive here and elsewhere, or does the commentary simply entrench their positions?

Cass Sunstein has two books (well, the second is a revision of the first) making these arguments about the internet and proposing that there be some content regulation to address it. I think they are republic.com and republic.com 2.0

I also seem, though, to recall reading somewhere (NYT, no doubt) that people on the internet have more access to contrary views than is suggested by people like Sunstein. Of course I can't find that anywhere now.

One thing I find interesting is the extent to which themes emerge from comments sections, even on places like the Post or the Globe, that potentially eliminate the outliers. If you look at the comments on your post on dog care, e.g., I thought there was a tendency for outliers to get pushed further out, rather than to muddy the debate. Consensus didn't develop, but mainstream threads of disagreement did. I.e., the anarchic tendencies of the comments tend in an active comment page to become less anarchic over time. There may be some evidentiary support for this in the extent to which listing comments by ratings, which the Globe is now doing, pushes the outliers out of the debate altogether (or, at least, down more pages than I am willing to scroll).

I should have known: David Brooks (I am confirming my own biases more by the minute):http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/opinion/20brooks.html?_r=1

I just want to say you are doing a splendid job of staying out of petty political fights and it's not always easy these days. Stephen dove into the Census issue because there was a clear threat to fact-based economic analysis itself. I didn't count (maybe you should Frances), but I find that you called out the NDP, Libs and Tories roughly the same amount of times for their use of junk economics.

Claiming the centre. Being criticized by those right of centre and calling them left ...

JVFM: "One might turn it around and ask if the authors of these blogs, having been accustomed to having their views confirmed/discussed principally in academia, learn anything from the commentary they receive here and elsewhere, or does the commentary simply entrench their positions?"

I can say for certain that in the last 2 years, while blogging and following other blogs, I have regularly encountered a *much* wider range of perspectives (I'm thinking more economic than political, but both really) than I would ever have encountered otherwise. That's partly from commenters, and partly from other blogs.

This confirms in my case the study that David Brooks cites that Alice links to. (And didn't that study also show that righties read more widely than lefties?)

I know this has changed my opinions on some very specific questions. (I learn something I didn't know before, or learn I was wrong on something.) But I really can't tell if it has changed my overall perspective much. I think it has, but don't know for sure. Probably, rather than shifting my perspective (right or left or whatever), it has flattened out my perspective a bit, because I get pulled in multiple directions at once by what I read.

When I read comments on newspapers, they seem to be very different from comments on blogs. Blog comments are better. Less likely to get knee-jerk reactions. Not sure why.

Riders on the Storm By DAVID BROOKS: "In the mid-20th century, Americans got most of their news through a few big networks and mass-market magazines. People were forced to encounter political viewpoints different from their own."

That's a joke, right? Everyday Americans in the 50's? Exposed to a wide range of political thought? Good one!

OTOH, the National Post's comment board is also the source of possibly the most extravagant compliment I've ever been paid.

"but I find that you called out the NDP, Libs and Tories roughly the same amount of times for their use of junk economics."

It's because we all secretly support the 'Patrons of Industry'. Sure they've been dormant for 110+ years, but when they come back, we'll have the last laugh.

In all seriousness I believe this blog *does* have a political slant, but it's a non-partisan one. My political views are that policy should be determined by careful consideration and evidence, not by knee jerk reactions and political polls. It's not necessarily an anti-populist position, but it certainly is an a-populist one. Of course, there are only my views - I can't speak for the views of the of Profs. Gordon, Woolley and Rowe.

My personal experience with the National Post and the G&M comment sections is that both have become partisan bun fights - that occasionally become nasty. Saying NDP in the NP adds some red meat.

The benefit of having your blogs posted there (and I did see SG's latest in the hardcopy of the ROB yesterday) is to have it read and considered by influential persons/decision makers/other media - many of whom don't bother reading the comments there, I suspect. I wouldn't pay much attention to them - only as a matter of amusement.

Great comments!

Just visiting: "One might turn it around and ask if the authors of these blogs, having been accustomed to having their views confirmed/discussed principally in academia..."

Are you referring to other blogs, or this one? There's a game economists play in seminars called "look smart" - tearing other people's arguments to shreds is a key move in this game.

Alice, thanks for the link. Yes, it's complicated. The internet/Microsoft homogenizes along some dimensions (my students now mostly write "labor" not "labour") but then, on the other hand, I've found my kids watching Indian pop music on Youtube.

I can't really work it all out.

"Probably, rather than shifting my perspective (right or left or whatever), it has flattened out my perspective a bit, because I get pulled in multiple directions at once by what I read."

Yes, I feel this too. Pesonally, I don't know if I could be considered left or right. Depends on the issue, I guess.

"When I read comments on newspapers, they seem to be very different from comments on blogs. Blog comments are better. Less likely to get knee-jerk reactions. Not sure why."

This is also true. I comment occasionally on cbc.ca site, and I get the impression that there are roving gangs of lefties and righties sniping at each other.

I suspect that any ordinary joe can find and read cbc/G&M/NP on the internet, but takes more effort to find and read a blog talking about various economic issues. That would explain the variance in quality in postings.

Are you referring to other blogs, or this one? There's a game economists play in seminars called "look smart" - tearing other people's arguments to shreds is a key move in this game.

A croissant fight. :) I was referring to this one, but since others from a similar background frequent here, it probably applies elsewhere as well.

"That's why I generally don't read the comments when my blogs are reprinted on the National Post website. Every time I take a look at the readers' responses, they confirm my belief that the comments section contains poorly thought out responses from readers who haven't read the post carefully."

Of course, there's also the possibility that a significant percentage of the internet commentatoriat (though not, happily, here) are too ignorant to comprehend the thrust of your posts. These would be the same people who clearly have no idea what the term "socialist" (or "right wing", "left-wing", or "fascist", take your pick) mean, other than to use it as a slur for people they disagree with and whose positions they can't begin to refute.

I'm not sure about regulating content in online forums, but minimum standards of civility would be nice.

This reminds me of George Bush's presidency. You can tell he was a centrist, because the right disavows him as not being conservative enough, and the left says he was too right winged.

Paul wrote: "This is also true. I comment occasionally on cbc.ca site, and I get the impression that there are roving gangs of lefties and righties sniping at each other."

CBC.ca is such a cluster f it's not even funny. There are some bona fide wackos commenting there. A couple days ago I saw a post calling for the end of all credit worldwide within 5 years, and some other guy claiming that some foreign shadowy gang of private bankers owns the Bank of Canada.

Blogs tend to have more insightful comments because you have to be legitimately interested in the range of topics being discussed on the blog to frequent it and read it. Anyone can pull up a news site and rant about how so and so is ruining their country.

The particular type of confirmation bias at work here is known as hostile media effect.

It's likely just a combination of different comment moderation setups, the sophistication of a given topic itself (the more sophisticated, the lower the amount of people who can actually constructively comment on it and the greater the potential for misinterpretation by the rest of the commentators), the level of traffic the site gets, the type of traffic the site gets or aims for (general public, economists, university-level readers, etc.), and a few other factors I can't think of at the moment.

If you have a particular type of website that attracts a certain type of reader, you have a highly moderated comment section in place (see: this site, or sites which delete offending comments regularly, or webforums with listed rules that are enforced, etc.), then you're likely to create a particular social rubric surrounding the type of comments that are considered constructive and that everyone will generally follow. If, on the other hand (out of lack of resources or just poor setup) you don't have much of an architecture in place that just invites a flood of comments (see: pretty much any national news site out there), the ability to distinguish between trolls and non-trolls, or the ability to have commentators actually comprehend and speak to the topic itself or other comment criticisms without reducing themselves to name-calling and other non-constructive dialogue becomes less and less achievable.

Good post, Frances. I used to try to read really extreme points of view to challenge me (I'd try to read a far right magazine, say, the Western Standard, and a far left one, say The Street News or This). But then I got busy.

David, for the really extreme points of view I just turn to friends and family ;-)

I used to hang out at FreeDominion, but I was banned in short order for having a dissenting viewpoint (regardless of how polite you are). Echo chambers are fun.

I LOVE this comment


"David, for the really extreme points of view I just turn to friends and family ;-)"

One of the better ones I've seen anywhere Frances!


I have noticed that one of the casualties of our culture and the way it debates many issues is we have an extremely large middle that tries to intentionally not take a side and simply be neutral. I find this to be sort of an ideology in and of itself. Its the "Nobodys Right" school of thought.

While its true that everyone must have the humility to say that they dont KNOW much of what we think we know, there is much danger in not taking a very strong, principled PROVISIONAL stand on something. I KNOW what I believe to be true. I have evidence of varying degrees for almost all my beliefs. When I'm not sure about something I must let my convictions inform me on which way to lean until some information comes along and sways me.

Not taking a stand is OFTEN times taking a stand against doing anything. There are few situations where doing NOTHING is called for or even possible. Whether you think you are doing something or not SOMETHING is being done and its imperative that you try and learn what IS being done, by whom its being done and whether or not you are being affected by it.

My $.02 worth

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