Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Ten Commandments of the Internet

Don't be stupid.  This it the first, and greatest, commandment.  In no particular order (I haven't categorized them into tables of the law, or anything), here's a brief guide on how not to be stupid on the internet.

1. Thou shalt not trust anyone who doesn't link to their source.

Linking is quick.  Linking is easy.  Even copying and pasting a URL is permissible.  Anyone who can't manage that on at least a somewhat routine basis is either hiding something or out-of-touch--neither of which make for a good reference.

LIMITED EXCEPTION: Dead-tree media, which publish both print and online versions, will often not provide the URLs.  They need to grow up.

2. Thou shalt know the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, and when each one is appropriate.

With very limited, specialized exceptions, journalists don't know what they're talking about--particularly in the hard sciences or the harder (political science/economics) social sciences are involved.  As such, the awesome article you just read is probably misleading, and you have to check the original to be sure (which is another reason linking is important).  By contrast, Wikipedia, that paragon of tertiary sources, is a super means of finding the original sources.  Though you wouldn't cite Wikipedia directly, you can find the original sources more easily that way.  And if all the sources of the article point back to a single individual, you can be pretty sure someone's just making it up.

3. Thou shalt not dismiss blogs out of hand.

Why would you cite Brad Delong in a book, but not on his blog?  In a world of self-publishing, does hitting "print" make his ideas any more valid?  No one would fault you for citing a leading expert, so why restrict yourself to a single medium?

4. Thou shalt not trust anyone who does not show their work.

This doesn't mean that they should bore you by putting ever equation in the document, but you should be able to review it.  As in #1, any fool can put a pdf of his research results online.

5. Thou shalt consider the motivations of the author.

People write things for a reason.  It could be their interest, their profession, their personal vendetta, or just to get a paycheck.  Let this inform your trust.

6. Thou shalt remember that the burden of proof falls on the reformer.

Anecdotes do not equal statistically valid, double-blind, repeated studies.  If you want me to believe that smartphones cause leprosy, YOU conduct the study.

Also, the absence of evidence indicates nothing other than no one has bothered studying it yet, which is often because it's stupid.  If your proof depends on some massive conspiracy to cover something up, you've just proven that there is no massive conspiracy, or they would have surely come for you.

7. Thou shalt read the comments.

You don't know everything.  The original argument is often destroyed in the comments, through a weakness you didn't even recognize.  Alternatively, the original argument can be strengthened or expanded in the comments.  You never know until you read.

8. Thou shalt not trust anyone who doesn't allow comments.

Obviously, as in #1 and #4, it's easy.  People who don't, don't want public scrutiny.

LIMITED EXCEPTION: Anyone advocating/associated with a socially conservative viewpoint will not have comments turned on due to the abusive nature of the Internet.

9. Thou shalt demand a higher level of proof from sources whose views support thine and, and seek sources whose views differ from thine own.

You know what you think.  You know what you believe.  You're less likely to spot weak arguments, because you've subconsciously filled in the blanks.  You may think it's obvious, but it's not.

10. Thou shalt recognize verbal hedges, that thou mayest not cite headlines or executive summaries.

The purpose of a headline is to get attention.  Consequently, they often remove many of the qualifying words, such as "may," and "might."  That can change the meaning entirely.  If a quote is too good to be true, check the original--it's usually not as exciting as it seems.

And a bonus, 11th commandment:

11. Thou shalt not be a skeptic, cynic, or troll.

Because aren't there enough of those already?


Blogger Noumenon said...

Rule 7 wouldn't work right without the skeptics, cynics, and trolls, but this is good and I bet I find the opportunity to link people to it sometimes.

1:51 PM  

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