Another of my resolutions for the New Year was to get rid of unwanted regular emails. It’s not as easy as you might think. I’ve tried blocking, and that works, to a degree, for anything generated in Australia. But those from overseas are immune. I looked at sites I’ve subscribed to, such as purveyors of goods of various kinds, like clothes. It seems that if you buy something you are offered a goody if you subscribe, and one does. But I’ve got rid of most of those, too.
And that leaves The Conversation, which claims 2 million unique hits a month, and seems to be funded largely by universities. I’ve complained about its bias before (here, and here, for example). Its published ‘community standards’ are fine:
We want The Conversation to be a place for intelligent discussion. By posting, you’ll be contributing to independent, fact-based debate. We want the discussion of an article to be, if anything, more illuminating than the original article and we need your help to do that. Follow these guidelines to help keep things on track.
Don’t attack people and don’t respond to attacks – report them and move on
Keep your posts on topic and constructive
Take responsibility for the quality of the conversations you take part in
Above all, respect others and their opinions.
Who could object to that? Certainly not me. But to go past the essays and enter the Comments section is to encounter a much more savage world. Moderators do remove comments, but many of those that are retained fall well below the standard set out above. More about the comments in a moment.
I decided that I ought to subject The Conversation to a real analysis, which took far more time than I had expected. I chose two days in February a week apart, and read every essay and every comment. The essays fall into a small number of discrete groups. There are pieces of reportage, such as those by Michelle Grattan, still one of Australia’s best journalists. She sets out what has happened, who has said what, and what the implications might be.
Then there are essays of explanation — what happened in the first billion years of the universe, who is responsible for deaths at sea. Then there are pieces of analysis, like the extent to which student loans will be repaid, or how the Chinese New Year affects the Chinese economy. And then there are arguments with a tendency, on women and violence, on state violence, or on plagiarism. Finally, there are opinion pieces. All of them are written by academics of one kind or another, or by the editors of the Conversation themselves.
It’s an eclectic mix, and the quality varies a great deal. If you are a seeker after general knowledge, and I’m one, there’s usually something that will cause you to stop and read. There is a general bias in those essays that are not analysis, explanation or reportage (and it is there in some of these, too), which is that the world needs improvement, and the essayist has the answer. Since most of the proposed improvements seem to require government action, the bias is what is generally referred to as ‘Left’.
It needs to be remembered that the general bias of all the social sciences is that greater knowledge ought to lead to improvement of humanity, and that is true for the natural sciences, too, if not directly. A good deal of economics points to the need for personal improvement, in the better maximisation of one’s utility, but a good deal of it, in macroeconomics, is also about how the economy works, and what governments ought to do about it.
I’ve been reading essays in The Conversation for a few years now, and it is rare to find anyone writing pieces that say that things are better than they used to be, or that poverty is declining, or that, all things considered, humanity is doing well. Since I think that there is evidence to support such points of view, it puzzles me a little that I see so few essays of that persuasion. Perhaps it is that no one in the academy sees things that way, or that the editors don’t want such pieces, or that people who feel that way don’t publish in The Conversation. I once tried to get published a piece on ‘climate change’, and was told that I was not an expert. It has to be said that many of those who write for the website are only mildly expert in what they write about.
But it is the Comments that really put me off. By and large, there are few comments for the explanatory essays. The bulk come on what I would call the ‘social good’ essays — child abuse, ‘climate change’, metadata, violence on women, and the like — and the prevailing tone is angry, scornful, personal and anti-government. Mr Abbott is a perpetual target, and in vituperative terms.
Not only that, it seems that the Comments are dominated by a few commenters who must spend much of their life commenting on the day’s offerings. There were 339 comments about a lead article on whether or not there had been fiddling with temperature data. Of those, 144 were provided by 7 commenters, and in fact there were only 59 separate commenters in all. In vain do thoughtful people try to contribute to the desired independent, fact-based debate. The bulldogs growl them down, one of them (at this particular essay) adding, I would prefer that deniers were banned from the conversation now.
One dogged contributor finally gave up, saying, in part, this is not a conversation but a bunch of people who wallow in their collegial condemnation of Tony Abbott and his government. I cannot see any productive outcome except that we might delude ourselves into thinking that everyone thinks like that.
Another, shaking his head at the comments following a sensible and temperate piece of reporting by Michelle Grattan, wrote, …if all I read was The Conversation I’d become convinced that everyone hates this fellow called Abbott, everything mentioned by him is totally fake, and that explains everything about all worldly events.
People like these two have a go, and then leave, making the Comments even more one-sided. I don’t know whether or not the editors (and there are quite a few of them) worry about the bias that is there. It is reminiscent of the bias in the ABC, which is part caused by people convinced that they are wise, rational, good-hearted and sensible, which means they can’t be wrong, and that their opinions are the right ones for everyone else to have.
Anyway, I have decided that I’ve given The Conversation a decent run and, apart from sending a copy of this essay to the editors and the Board, I too will leave The Conversation. I’ll even send a copy of this essay to a vice-chancellor I know…