The blogosphere and its enemies: the case of oophorectomy

Professor Stephen Turner writes in The Sociological Review in 2013:

* The blogosphere is loathed and feared by the press, expert-opinion makers, and representatives of authority generally. Part of this is based on a social theory: that there are implicit and explicit social controls governing professional journalists and
experts that make them responsible to the facts. These controls don’t exist for bloggers or the people who comment on blogs. But blog con1mentary is good at performing a kind of sociology of knowledge that situates speakers and motives, especially in cases of complex professional and administrative decision-making, as well as providing specific factual material that qualifies claims of experts and authorities. In many contexts the co111mentaries are examples of Habermasian demands for justification, to which there here is a response. A major topic in won1en’s health, and on the blogs, is the effects of hysterectomy, especially accompanied by oophorectomy, the removal of (normally healthy) ovaries, Physicians make extreme claims on web pages about the lack of consequences, or their manageability through hormone therapy, which they claim is supported by research. Blog posters, and a blog opposed to hysterectomy generally, claim that there are numerous damaging effects, and deconstruct the claims of experts. Blog posters fill in the claims with personal experiences and analysis of the conduct of physicians and nurses, as well as the n1otives of won1en who deny symptoms, Physicians provide their own critique and analysis of the blogs, to which they attribute great influence. A later meta-analysis and new longitudinal research affirms the bloggers, and explains why much of the research cited by experts is wrong.

* The blogosphere is loathed and feared by the press, expert-opinion makers, and representatives of authority generally. The reasoning is simple, and is part of a long tradition of anti-liberalism that stretches back to Comte, Karl Pearson, and Walter Lippman: uncontrolled public discussion is ‘intellectual anarchy’ and the rantings of the ignorant. Part of this is based on a social theory: that there are implicit and explicit social controls governing professional journalists and experts that make them responsible to the facts. These controls don’t exist for bloggers or the people who comment on blogs. To the extent that their form of public discussion supplants the professional class of journalists and challenges the authority of experts we trade ‘a dictatorship of experts’ for ‘a dictatorship of idiots’, according to Andrew Keen (2008: 35).

While it is true that the topics your mother told you to avoid at dinner – religion and politics (and especially core political ideologies) – remain as dividers in blog commentaries, the actual content of bogs contains much more. Especially in cases of complex professional and administrative decisionmaking, blog commentary is good at performing a kind of folk sociology of
knowledge that analyses the interests and motives of participants in discussion, experts and lay observers alike. Blog comments on newspaper articles and columnists are especially effective detectors of bias. But commentary also provides specific factual material that qualifies the claims of experts and authorities, including testimony from actual personal experiences. Blog commenters often also have specialized knowledge and experience that bears on the issues, that is, technical knowledge or knowledge of normal procedures that journalists do not have and can access only with difficulty through the maze of spokespersons, official representatives, executives, and experts that present themselves professionally as explainers.

In many contexts, blog comments are examples of Habermasian challenges to provide justification. A rough sort of civility is enforced, and the course of the exchanges exposes the ‘idiots’ and ideologues, or they expose themselves. There is even an argot for this, identifying certain contributors as ‘trolls’, for example. Instead of a dictatorship of idiots, the discussion becomes a large schoolhouse in which opinion is tested, questioned and moderated. It has a special role in relation to expertise, particularly by supplying personal experience that conflicts with, specifies in detail, or balances the blanket assertions made by experts.

The emergence of the blogosphere, which I will define for this paper as the world of web pages, often linked, that allow for reader response and commentary, has produced a response by critics that has focused especially on the problem of expertise,
and on the relation of traditional journalism to expertise. According to the critics, the rise of the blogosphere has produced a degradation of public discourse. The gold standard of public discourse is the professional work of journalists and commentators functioning as opinion leaders. Their work facilitates public discussion by providing ready-made correct or competent summary views for those who do not have the time and competence to construct opinions on their own, or to survey the range of competent opinion and fact on their own. The blogosphere, according to this view, lacks the professional standards that make this work of facilitation possible, and tends, in a kind of Gresham’s Law, to drive out competent discussion. The blogosphere distracts the unwary consumer of opinion and fact with false, scurrilous, inflammatory, and ideologically laden material. The economic problems of the media, together with the din of the blogosphere, threaten the quality of public discourse, and indeed have actively degraded it, by diminishing the role of the professional channels of public opinion formation and creation.

* …we all depend on others for what we know, other than for the most simple forms of knowledge. The relations we have with our sources of knowledge, the others on which we depend, are structured in various ways, some explicit but mostly hidden. We can become aware of the limitations of the sources of knowledge on which we depend, but this is not easy to do. We can, however, recognize that particular ways we come to know have biases, or are prone to particular kinds of knowledge failure or knowledge risk.

It makes sense to characterize groups, such as physicians, in terms of the individual and collective biases they have, and to contrast these with the cognitive biases of others, and the biases introduced by collective devices, such as the information sharing devices of the blogosphere. Science has its own much discussed biases. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996) was a discussion of the way science was biased- against new infor1nation, which was anomalous, and the way that scientists processed new information of this kind. Ulrich Beck, similarly, charged scientists with a reluctance to recognize risks (1992). These are examples of attempts to characterize the heuristics by which opinion is formed.

Although people do not explicitly theorize the problem in this way, there is a kind of folk sociology of knowledge that people think in terms of that makes similar distinctions. They think of professions, such as medicine, as having certain cognitive biases, and of the individuals in the profession as having biases as well. Medical science and clinical medical practice, for example, each have their own cognitive biases.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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