This article out that the right are perfecting blog-mob techniques like WatchSites and "fact checking" mobs against the LiberalBias in academia and the media.

The linked site, Wizbang, is an interesting example. As they hear rumours of left-leaning academics or academic research they attack in various ways :

  • FactChecking
  • other active criticism
  • phoning the institution and making charges of academic malpractice.
  • ad hominem attacks on the academic, attempts to dig up dirt on his private life (1)

(1) Quick note on the ad hominem attack. The original authors distance themselves from it (but but) remember we are talking about a self-organized phenomenon here not the individual "leaders". So the mob as a whole certainly does engage in ad hominem attack.

What's going on?

On one level, this is a classic fight between networks and institutions. The universities are institutions which, to a certain extent, protect their members in various ways :

  • tenure means you don't get sacked for saying unpopular things, and aren't responsible to the market
  • accreditation means you expect some kind of automatic respect / acceptance that your opinion is a) honest, b) likely to be correct
  • intangible "emotional" support from the institution, it respects, loves and values you as an individual (notice how relieved the academic in question is, when he receives confirmation of this)

No such thing as tenure nowadays in British Universities! (SJ)

The mob explicitly attacks such institutional protection given to the researcher :

It is extremely quick and willing to make charges of malpractice and fraud (The original blog posters admit their language was incendiary but excuse this on the grounds that their medium is opinion and has fewer constraints in this respect.)

Such charges are easy (and cheap) to make, and hard to refute (and expensive to investigate). Thus the institutions are forced to pay a price to defend their academics, or go into "CYA" mode, even when the academic is innocent. In the long run, this is clearly a disincentive for them to give tenure to more controversial / unpopular individuals. Or to give tenure at all.

The mob ignores any kind of implied respect accorded to the academic due to his titles. In fact, as witnessed by some comments, the mob explicitly assumes that academics are likely to be biased. It is, of course, likely that academics are more left than right in their inclinations (LiberalBias), but this mass-disobedience against respect for titles is highly damaging, not just in the particular situation but to the principle of respect for titles in general. With titles devalued, much of the power of the university as an institution diminuishes too.

Ad hominem attacks on the academic counter the emotional support from the institution.

Aside : Paying the piper

The comments also make oblique references to the funding of such institutions. The claim is continually made that right-wing tax-payers are financing academic institutions and should expect academia to be either

  • a) accountable to the market
  • b) free from political bias
  • c) have a balance of biases that reflect the distribution of opinions in the market

To which the correct response should be, sure academia consumes wealth generated by the market. But the market also consumes ideas and an educated work-force generated by academia. And no one is suggesting that those who got rich in the market allocate their money to support causes according to the whims of academics.

The right can make the charge that the universities ought to balance the number of left and right academics, but as there are likely to be more left than right wannabe academics, there's a larger pool of talent on the left to choose from, and any attempt at a balance would amount to a political quota system.

The degree to which this story (that academia is beholden to the market) is accepted, is the degree to which the market is winning the argument. The controversial issue here is measurement. (What and how. For example, how does one measure the academic contribution to the market? Using money? Which is itself the market's unit of measurement. Or number of qualifications, which is currency in academia?)


Well, basically, this is something that the left are going to have to live with. All hierarchies and institutions are under attack from networks. (NetworksVsHierarchies) So we shouldn't be surprised that the academic ones are too (AcademiaVsNewMedia) And as such institutions typically harbour more left-wing thinkers than right, the left will disproportionately suffer.

Yes, but how do we defend ourselves?

At the low-level it seems that left-wing swarms ought to be able to counter-balance the right-wing. And there are left-mobs in the BlogoSphere.

But that isn't quite a solution because :

  • a) such swarms are not actually defending the institution and the protection it offers to left-wing academics.
  • b) as pointed out on LiberalBias, the left are less likely to appreciate swarm mode and massively parallel dumb units. So mustering left mobs is actually harder than right ones.

So some other suggestions

  • there are still places where applied intelligence can win out over the mob. For example, TimLambert's expertise in statistics on Deltoid ((NB (NB) : I'm probably leaving a hostage to fortune here as a someone will "debunk" Lambert next week. My bet is they won't be succesful.) It's a variation on "speak truth to power" even the power of the mob has to respect truth.
  • design research projects which are explicitly intended to be attacked by right-wing mobs - eg. Optimaes. Announce results with the emphasis that these results are provisional and hypothetical. Invite the debunkers to tell us what's wrong, but in such a way that their help doesn't hurt our credibility but enhances it.
  • This last is sort of what I'm doing experimenting with PredictionMarkets/ForPoliticalDebate.

I guess these are all variations on the same thing. The left need to protect themselves by being correct, and being seen to be correct. And to achieve that, they need to incorporate right-wing scrutiny into their practices and institutions.

Left-wing intellectuals need to network, spread the word that this is coming, and start to implement these changes in their practice before they are wiped out by the right-mob. This is the wake-up call. (AcademiaVsNewMedia/SurvivalOfUniversities)

More examples

  • Not exactly blogs, but an example of the right-wing spin-machine in action against an academic - in collaboration with some grass-roots support.

** (You've got to admire the framing going on in this opinion piece.)



I think this behaviour definitely isn't restricted to one wing or another. There are plenty of examples of concerted flash-style mob efforts by groups of people on all sides of the political spectrum - for instance, pseudo-DoS websites that repeatedly connect to a particular target site and try to undermine the ability to disseminate info through critical mass. I can think of more than a few times when details of high-ranking US military officials have been posted on sites such as [Cryptome Cryptome]] with the insinuated intent of probable harassment (and I'd probably rather be harassed by 50 right-wing bloggers than 10 cypherpunks... ;) - not that cypherpunks are necessarily left-wing, of course. Oh, and don't forget the various anti-SCO actions, which could possibly be considered mob-style efforts on a much larger scale.

I think it's definitely a great thing that there are now 10,000 sites out there that will offer credible counterpoints to "facts" presented in mainstream media. Never be afraidof criticism - that's important. This is the up side, and I'm glad that both "sides" of any discussion may now tend towards critical discussion rather than namecalling or boring polemics.

But a). I don't think that personal attacks are limited to one particular demographic, and b). I suspect that such methods will be increasingly frowned on by those with influence - see [Paul's Paul's Wizbang post], for example. There may be some amount of self-regulation, as there usually is in small groups. But to say "...the mob as a whole certainly does engage in ad hominem attack." is only partially right. Even mobs have leaders. In fact, mobs are characterised by lack of independent thought, and as such are probably more susceptible to peer pressure from those they respect.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that we're avoiding the "problem" of small, troublesome minorities. Even if they're distanced from those willing to make points on a rational basis, there will be some who are more excitable, and see the best way to proceed as preventing people from talking, rather than actually counterpointing the ideas presented. Of course, disrupting the channel of communication is a cowardly way to do anything, whichever party/background you're from, IMHO.

Hmm, have to rush off, but I must say that I agree with the "solution" (or attitude?) that the best approach to a discussion is to accept and assess criticism.

But then, that's merely a personal attitude towards discourse. What do you do when you're dealing with people that have already decided one way or the other, and are currently acting on their beliefs? Do such techniques work then, or is it necessary to adopt more disruptive approaches? Where do you draw the line, in that case?


See also :

I personally believe that (A) academia almost universally, and the media generally, are Left biased, (B) it is good that university titles (and titles in general) are in declining respect. And (C), I am a proud Leftist.

I believe that what is going on is a renegotiation of power between the general public, the government, educational institutions, and corporations. Note that corporations and the government have less respect as well.

That is, we are moving into a Democratic era, Democracy with a capital D. This is to counteract our motions in the past century or whatever, for increasingly centralized power, including economic power.

Academics use CommunityWiki:PainfulTalk in order to distance themselves and maintain elite power. The new demand will, and should, be on CommunityWiki:PlainTalk. That is, if you're going to say it, say it so we can all understand it. I can show you a hoard of instances where academics use painful language, when plain language would be both shorter, more expressive, easier to learn.

There is also, just- an inborn suspicion of new forms. (It's not all about maintaining respect.) "Well, I learned it this way, and this is how I'm going to teach it to you." That is to say, it's not all about greed and vanity. There's also just plain pig-headedness.

There was a Flemming Funch article you linked, about networked models of information, rather than hierarchical. In it, you'll recall, he talked about the experience of learning something really complicated, finally getting to the simple idea, and then keeping it to yourself, as a reward for all the hard work. Sound familiar? That's what we're dealing with here. That's why we're disrespecting your egghead titles. Because you've been intentionally keeping us in the dark, and demanding that we defer to your expert opinion. In most cases, it's not even conscious. But it's there, it's clearly there, if we don't go into denial about it.


Lion, thanks for comments. Here are some responses.

On A, B, C

A : Me too, and I suggest some explanations on LiberalBias and ArnoldKlingOnMovingToTheRightOutsideAcademia

B : Agree in principle (I'm a CriticalRationalist, and the hallmark of CR is to reject the judgement of knowledge according to it's pedigree). But the DevilIsInTheDetails. It may be that simply devaluing the academy will leave a power vacuum which the market will rush in to fill. As someone who's also a proud leftist (C), I don't believe the market is a purely disinterested Democratic institution. For example, academia does a far better job promoting popular understanding of science than the market. Sure the market produces good pop-science books. But most of those pop-science authors are products of the academy. Meanwhile, the market produces a lot of confusing pseudo-science (eg. in commercials for hairspray), and tries to cover up and hide what real science it does for competitive advantage. Science controlled entirely by the market would be an activity of competitive guilds, hiding their research secrets from each other, with deliberately obscurantist and incompatible languages designed to protect it's trade secrets. Pop-science journalists would only get to see this research spun by the PR departments of the corporations.

Now, of course I believe that we're entering an era with a huge explosion of good, free, open amateur science by self-organized communities on the web. But my contention is that these networks are as separate from the market as they are from the academy. (They are GiftParadigm rather than ExchangeParadigm). But these newly appearing networks are currently dependent on the academy for a large proportion of their knowledge.

To give another example, the devaluation of left-wing academics in sociology and anthropology departments may produce a greater amateurization of these studies, leading to better knowledge and public understanding, but is more likely in the short-term to leave a vacuum filled by equally biased economists and lawyers working for privately funded right-wing think-tanks.

There isn't just a negotiation. There is continuous dynamic tension between these rival models of organized action. And yep corporations and government lose authority too. But the market is also an institution but it's not the same institution as the corporations. It's an institution defined by money and property (MarketsAreEmbedded, OnMoney, PropertyModules). As far as I see, in the absence of government and the academy and corporations, the market is the main institution left. That's great for right-libertarians who believe it's the best institution available, and promotes nothing but industrious, peaceful, mutually beneficial co-operation. Of course, I agree it does. But I'm also a sceptic who believes it reduces human interactions to alienated, tightly accounted exchange, disincentivates generosity (OnIncentives), fails to deliver PublicGoods, exacerbates divisions between people, amplifies small differences in ability and luck into large differences of wealth and power, and has other pathalogical effects on the fabric of society. For this reason, it strikes me that a balance of different institutions and different logics of association is better than a market monoculture. Perhaps I see the academy as a kind of endangered wetland that needs to be protected because that's where all the wild flowers and butterflies are :-)

All institutions are held together by conservatism and suspicion of the new. It's not a virtue or a vice. It's part of the infrastructure.

I agree academic writing is often inpenetrable. I hypothesized why on AcademiaVsNewMedia/GranularityOfScholarlyWriting.

It may be less about keeping something to yourself as a reward and more about not understanding it well enough to paraphrase into a different language from the one you learned it in.




Added 2020-03-23 : Originally 2020-03-23