17
Feb
12

The final sign of the apocalypse?

Somewhat unsettled by agreeing in full with posts from both Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman, I’ve been worried about which blogger might complete the trifecta.  Brad DeLong?  Not really; he’s just Krugman with neither a beard nor a Nobel.  Matt Yglesias?  Too rational, to open to countervailing viewpoints.  Digby?  Mike Konczal?  Still too serious and sophisticated thinkers.  Kevin Drum?

Uh oh.

With some trepidation, I worked through a few of Kevin’s recent works, and it is with great relief that I report that he’s still arrogant, ignorant, and more full of shit than the sewers beneath Capitol Hill.

By way of a for instance, consider this latest article from Mother Jones in which Drum asks the internet how much a gallon of milk costs:

“Cognitive inequality”.  Yeah, apparently some people are smarter than others.  Let the facepalming begin.

Kevin marches into the basic problem of keyword search with the eager bravado of someone who doesn’t realize that it isn’t a particularly novel problem to begin with — something that library schools have been teaching for decades and are really quite good at.  He pokes around in his amateurish way, discovers that it’s not as easy as he’d first expected, and draws sweeping conclusions that manage to paint him in a rather good light:

In a way, this is the internet in a nutshell. One site provides a very precise answer that’s spectacularly wrong. Another site provides a fantastic wealth of answers, all of which are sort of wrong in various different ways. But if you’re smart enough to reformulate your search as “usda milk price retail,” as I eventually did, you’ll get this extremely authoritative-looking document from the USDA that provides average retail whole milk prices in 30 different U.S. cities for January 2012. The average is $3.69 per gallon. Other reports are available for reduced fat milk, organic whole milk, and organic reduced fat milk.

Moral of the story: the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter.

Well, that’s the moral of the story if you think you’ve found something novel, as with the medical researcher who reinvented the trapezoid rule.  Back in the real world, we’ve known that searching a corpus of documents is a hard problem for quite some time; this is one reason why librarians get graduate degrees.  (Incidentally, developing library search skills is one oft-touted benefit of a liberal-arts education — and yes, kids, it’s harder than it might first appear.  Kevin’s liberal-arts education would appear to be defective.)  If you’re smart, you can pick up the keyword-centrism of modern internet search engines and take advantage; if you’re dumb (but well-informed) you can do the same.  If you’re smart but ignorant, as Kevin positions himself, you might just make yourself look like an ass to those of us with basic information literacy skills.

None of this actually manages to indicate whether the internet drives cognitive changes, which might not be what Kevin meant by “the growth of cognitive inequality” but is nonetheless what he claimed.  At best his argument — which resembles a dumbworm outbreak more than it resembles a rigorously-tested hypothesis — manages to show that the internet makes people with good search skills (which might be correlated with higher intelligence) better-informed while making people with poor search skills more misinformed.  But hey, no need to actually study things like a social scientist might: When you’ve got a journalism degree all you have to do is start putting fingers to keyboard and write whatever the fuck you want.  Correctness is ensured by layers upon layers of editorial oversight.  Right?

Oh yeah, about misinformation.  Those basic information literacy skills might come in handy if you’re a journalist looking up background for a position piece, mightn’t they?  I’m not the only one who thinks Kevin’s full of shit; Timothy Lee over at Ars Tech has a scathing rebuttal to one of his earlier columns — apparently one he penned before discovering the magic of keyword search:

Kevin writes:

The truth is that IP protection in the digital world might very well be possible. We won’t know until we try, making a whole lot of mistakes along the way.

Timothy retorts:

Among people who don’t pay close attention to technology issues, there seems to be a widespread impression that the copyright debate pits those who think we should enforce copyright against those who are ideologically opposed to copyright protection. But the reality is that we’ve been “trying” to crack down on illicit file sharing for at least two decades, granting copyright holders stronger and stronger enforcement powers and devoting more and more taxpayer dollars to the effort.

He then lists two decades’ worth of IP protection efforts, from 1992′s Audio Home Recording Act to 2012′s Megaupload crackdown.  It’s a pity that Kevin hadn’t yet discovered how to search the internet, or he might’ve found out about some of them before writing that we haven’t tried to enforce IP law on the big truck.


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