Molecular Systems Biology | The Seven Stones

The end of news, the end of reason

Guest post by Holger Breithaupt, Science & Society Editor, EMBO reports, Heidelberg

Aside from what Waldorf & Statler make of the internet, it is the greatest source of information humanity has ever created; larger than the Vatican Archives, the Library of Congress and all public and university libraries combined. And it’s fast. I don’t have to wait for the news on TV or the daily newspaper to tell me about the US government’s latest reaction to AIG’s bonus payments: the internet, in particular the blogosphere or that latest spawn of it, twittering, gives me real-time news, 24 hours a day. Why then, would we still need news on paper, on TV or on the radio?

Given the power of the internet, there are actually not a few who think that it heralds the demise of the newspaper (Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, Shirky, 2009) and even of journalism (Filling the Void, Nature editorial, 2009). Sure, why bother trying to unfold the New York Times during rush hour in the subway to read a 3500-word feature, if I can download 140-character information tidbits on my iPhone? I don’t even have to buy a newspaper or wait for the 8 pm news in the first place: RSS feeds, search engines, ToC alerts or whatever technology spoon-feed me the newsbits that I’m interested in from the sources that I like.

And that’s exactly the problem. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out, we mainly use the internet to reinforce our prejudices and opinions while it makes it easier for us to ignore contradictory arguments (The Daily Me, Kristof, 2009). I myself plead guilty of such behaviour: while I read and enjoy Frank Rich’s column each week, I shunned William Kristol. On the other hand, while I was reading the newspaper the other day, I stumbled upon an article that explained why paying big bonuses to AIG managers who helped run the company aground is not such a bad idea (The Case for Paying Out Bonuses at A.I.G., Sorkin, 2009); I still disagree, but at least I feel I have a better understanding of the issue.

What is at stake here is our ability to reason, which, as I understand it, means forming your own opinion on a given topic–or maybe even changing it–after listening to the diverse pros and cons. Instead, as Kristof noted, the way we use the internet largely serves to harden our pre-formed beliefs unless we deliberately make the effort of searching and reading the arguments we don’t like to hear. Newspapers, TV and radio and good journalism are the antidote: they provide–if they live up to the task–an oversight of arguments and they expose us to topics and opinions that we would just ignore or not even become aware of and thus broaden our horizon. Claiming that they are no longer needed in the brave new world of blogs, social networks and twittering means that we give up an important opportunity to make up our mind.


  1. Report this comment

    Thomas said:

    Thanks Holger for this provocative post… I agree with the general point that it is important to be exposed to opinions that differ from ours. In fact this extends beyond blogs, newspapers etc… and it is true that it requires some courage to always consider with attention also the views of opponents and constantly challenge one’s own views.

    I agree also that the size of the Internet makes it almost always possible to find a sizable group of people/sites that will provide some support to whatever opinions are yours.

    Having said that, in my experience, web tools including blogs, Twitter, FriendFeed etc.. actually increase my exposure to different opinions and new topics (eg it was a tweet via @benjaminblack that attracted my attention to Clay Shirky’s very insightful post). As a matter of fact, commenting is one of the defining features of blogs and I think that there is a lot of thinking from web designers/programmer to come up with the best technologies possible that stimulate, facilitate and accelerate debate and discussions. FriendFeed is certainly a brilliant illustration of this.

    So in summary, even if I take the general point as valid, I am more on the optimistic side with regard to the role of the web as also providing tools that stimulate critical thinking and contradictory debates, as hopefully illustrated by your own post… ;-)

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    Samuel Caddick said:

    I would argue that the advantage of the blogsphere, as Thomas comments in his post above, is that the interactive connectivity and relatively democratic nature of the Internet makes avoiding what you don’t like – and ignoring the responses of others to your own opinion – much harder to do than simply not buying a newspaper or not watching a TV programme.

    In terms of quality control, there are even various organizations that try to gather selected blogs based on the qualifications of the authors, the factual accuracy of the blogs, and the quality of writing:, for example. Moreover, the ScienceBlogs example has, to date, 1,367,854 comments on its content – both positive and negative – not a level of discussion that ‘letters to the editor’ in newspapers can achieve.

    In summary, there are good, balanced, unbiased and factual newspapers and television programmes that have a genuine commitment to good journalism, and Holger is quite right to argue that these traditional media institutions and companies need to be maintained and supported. On the other hand, I would also argue that there are good, balanced, unbiased and factual blogs that deserve equal respect and can provide a perspective not available through traditional media – thus enhancing our ability to form considered opinions about ‘the news’. We deserve, surely, the best of both worlds?

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    Holger said:

    Sam, you’re right that we deserve, surely, the best of both worlds if we want to ‘make up our mind’.

    If I really need to read up on a topic, I certainly prefer to use the internet – it just takes a bit of an effort to find all relevant information and arguments for forming a reasonable opinion. But I equally appreciate the news for gathering, analyzing and sorting information, analysis and opinion into a daily newspaper or news show – a job, which I wouldn’t do if I were just marginally interested in the topic. As such, news–whether on paper, TV, radio or online–play an important role in helping us to make informed opinions.

    Newspapers do attract considerable comments and debate – not just a letter to the editor in the printed version. Many major newspaper now enable comments in their web versions and easily attract hundreds or thousands of reader comments per day.

    As Thomas said, the web will provide increasingly efficient tools to stimulate critical thinking and contradictory debates; in the meantime, however, we shouldn’t easily dismiss those that have been tried and tested.

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    Adam Ricketson said:

    I won’t claim that the new media has any business model that can provide the original reporting that we get from the traditional news outlets. Likewise, it is quite easy for a person to enter an echo chamber on the web, if that is what they want.

    However, for those of us who do want to see good analysis and participate in active debate, the web is a godsend. First, I think that traditional media pundits are pretty pathetic — they often repeat dogma and promote misinformation, even as their perch provides them with legitimacy. I can typically find better (and more honest, and more diverse) analysis among the collection of bloggers who I have discovered over the years.

    Second, when I edited Wikipedia a lot, I found that I was constantly forced to confront and critically analyze opinions that differed from mine.

    Finally, there are websites out there that strive to create communities with diverse opinions. Wikipedia does this implicity, but I can also recommend Swords Crossed (for current events discussion) and Chains of Reason (for point/counter-point argument construction in a wiki)

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    Toaster Sunshine said:

    While it is true that traditional newspapers are enabling comments on their websites, believing that this makes them as transparent as blogs is a false presumption. Newspapers still have the physical imprint of the paper itself, all web-based efforts are ancillary and don’t necessarily change anything. Even if 500 comments slammed a traditional article online, the editor is in no way beholden to changing how they do stuff. On the other hand, however, blogs are implicitly traffic driven, and if the blogger in question posts something lazy or incorrect and does not correct it when called out, then they will lose the page views and hits that give them a platform in the first place. Simply put, bloggers have more invested in accuracy and transparency than do the traditional media.

    Furthermore, investigative reporting from a blog is actually much more likely to be of high caliber and well-researched because the blogger posting it has no intrinsic monetary reward coming back to them; they do it because they are curious and driven by passion.