Originally published in The Skeptic, Volume 32 Number 3, September 2012
As a repository of all human knowledge, the internet is an absolutely amazing thing, but as a platform for a global discussion of that knowledge it leaves a lot to be desired. In spite of all of the discussion capability which has been built in to it over the years, in the form of message boards, comment fields and social media, none of these discussion platforms have adequately integrated the immense resource of information available to them. In fact, they just add more noise to the already overwhelming and repetitious pool of information.
The internet lacks an organising principle which allows all of this existing information to be meaningfully structured in to an accessible, global discussion. Until this external organising layer is built, the internet will continue to be a sub-optimal system for helping people to understand complex subjects. Users will continue to suffer from being overwhelmed with too much information, driven to distraction with the repetitious content and constantly suspicious of being tricked or lied to.
Why is there Still Ignorance in this Age of Information?
Every single day there are numerous people seriously asking the question “If man evolved from monkeys, then why are monkeys still here?” And every single day people are taking the time to actually answer these people, again, adding these new answers to the existing stockpile of hundreds of thousands of copies of the answers already provided.
We’re living in ‘The Information Age’ and yet somehow people are still ignorant of answers to basic questions of biology. Answers which are easy to understand, have been available for several generations at least, and are now so easy to find that a five year old could do it. How is this possible?
There is scope for a huge discussion here and I would love to cover it all, but I am limited in space here, so please allow me to just say that I think the primary explanation for this seemingly willful ignorance comes under the blanket term of confirmation bias.
More specifically within the broad scope of the term confirmation bias, I am referring to how information leads to more self-confirming information, providing a biased representation of a complex issue instead of a balanced one. For example, when someone lectures us on a topic they know more about than we do, they may recommend other people to talk to about it. When we read books, they recommend other books to read. When we access websites, they choose which other website they link to, and so on. If any of these initial sources have an agenda at play, or even a slight bias, then the receiver of the information may be starting down a path of repeated confirmations of an erroneous conclusion, completely unaware that it is even happening.
This is where I believe our source of trouble comes from, and I think the internet is making it worse. The internet has made it so easy for people to click through to multiple assenting websites from one initial article, that when they do so, they can quickly build up a mental portfolio of ‘independent’ authors who all agree with the original conclusions. Within a very short time frame the person who has previously had no exposure to this particular topic, whatever it may be, will feel confident that they have thoroughly researched the subject and confirmed that their fringe belief actually has massive support; after all, 100% of resources discovered in their investigation agreed on the point in question, right? And they did take the time to read 5 different websites!
Simple Methods, Powerful Outcomes
Rbutr is an idea which we started developing at the beginning of February this year which provides a deceptively simple solution. Rbutr records claim:rebuttal connections between webpages, and displays alerts whenever you visit a rebutted page.
At its most simple, rbutr just highlights an opposing perspective to the page you are viewing, providing you with the opportunity to balance two contrasting perspectives and evaluate the arguments of either side. But with extensive application of this simple claim:rebuttal connection process, combined with the fact that claim articles can be rebutted by numerous pages, rebuttal pages can be connected to numerous claim pages, and rebuttal pages themselves can also be rebutted, it will also create an extensive map of webpage relationships which provide a valuable layer of meaning.
By organizing a global effort to connect opposing perspectives together like this, we can build a global discussion overlay on top of the internet which will allow all of the existing work which has already been done to be used more effectively in its rightful place within that discussion. People will be able to access the best arguments against any article they find themselves on, and then the best rebuttals to those arguments. They can follow an ideal ‘discussion’ of the subject between opposing camps of thought from sources all over the world – authors who may have never even heard of each other. This externally imposed discussion will provide them with the strongest arguments on the subject, free from the fear that they are being manipulated in to a particular viewpoint by a single biased information source.
Extending the Internet with rbutr
To use rbutr, simply visit http://rbutr.com and click on the link to Register. Immediately after picking your username and password, you will be prompted to install rbutr in to your browser – at the moment rbutr only works for Chrome, though we are working to release a Firefox version as soon as we can – simply follow the prompts to install and it will all be done within a few seconds.
Once installed rbutr sits silently, unobtrusively in the top right hand corner of your browser watching and waiting for its opportunity to tell you whenever you hit a rebutted page. If you don’t want to wait until you stumble across one, you can always click on the rbutr icon, and click on the link to a ‘Random’ rebuttal. If you are looking at a page you wish was rebutted, hit the ‘Request’ button. And if you have found a rebuttal, hit the ‘Rebuttal’ button while that page is open, then go to the page which has been rebutted, and hit the ‘Source page’ button. A comment about the rebuttal and some tags are all you require from there, and submitting the rebuttal takes less than 30 seconds to do.