Fear of Being Wrong on the Internet

Eugene Volokh explains why he's not writing on a controversial subject recently in the news: He doesn't know enough about it and doesn't want to be wrong.

Eugene Volokh, responding to emailed queries as to why he and his fellow Conspirators are not writing on a controversial subject recently in the news, explains:

I can’t speak for my colleagues, but here are three things I’m scared of:

  1. Looking like a fool when I opine on a topic about which I don’t know enough, and thus get the facts or the analysis wrong.
  2. Getting facts or analysis wrong, even if I don’t look like a fool.
  3. Falling yet further behind on my various other responsibilities, as a result of taking the time to learn enough about a complicated, controversial, fact-rich question so that I can opine on it without being wrong.

I think the world would be a better place if people were more scared of things 1 and 2.

But where would the blogosphere be with that attitude?

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    “But where would the blogosphere be with that attitude?”

    Jim, you’ve just made me laugh over my breakfast coffee. I’d have to agree with Eugene though. I personally find 1-3 are powerful inhibitants. That’s why although you’ll find me voluble on matters economic, literary or geopolitical nary a word escapes my lips on climate science, pop music, religion, cable tv shows, opinion polling, and others issues too numerous to mention. However, I think I recognize the same trait in you!!

  2. James Joyner says:

    However, I think I recognize the same trait in you!!

    I do two broad types of postings:

    – Shedding light on some topic under discussion based on my knowledge, experience, and trained intuition.

    – “Hmm, this seems interesting.” I tend not to offer much commentary on these.

  3. J.W. Hamner says:

    I fear 1 and 2 a lot, and yet still post a fair bit on the intertubes… I guess that mean I’m overconfident about my own acuity and knowledge. Hmmm.

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    “and trained intuition.”

    Is this what I’d call street smarts? There are in fact some incredibly informed blogs out by academics and the like. You linked to one a couple of days ago by some guy called Finel whose at the war college . The serious economic ones are usually compelling and you’ll even find ones with loads of expertise on the cut of men’s suits.

  5. James Joyner says:

    “and trained intuition.”

    Is this what I’d call street smarts?

    Maybe, although I haven’t spent all that much time on the “streets.” Part of it is just life experience, which is pretty much the same thing. Part of it, though, is being able to extrapolate from areas of legitimate expertise based on instinct, experience, and amateur level wide reading.

    You linked to one a couple of days ago by some guy called Finel whose at the war college . The serious economic ones are usually compelling and you’ll even find ones with loads of expertise on the cut of men’s suits.

    Oh, there’s no shortage of genuine expertise out there in blog land. Most of us tend to wander past our niche expertise from time to time, though.

  6. Tano says:

    I seriously doubt that many people who comment on the internet find Volokh’s number 1-3 to be “powerful inhibitants”. The usual pattern one sees is that analyses are rendered impervious to embarrassment by aggressive defense-turned to mocking and insulting offense whenever the analysis is challenged. One needs to have the capacity and willingness to admit error before the shame of falling into error has any effect.

  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    I think the 4th inhibitor–at least for commentators–is “Is it worth the effort?”

    I try to only seriously comment (I’ll snark about anything) on subjects that I’m knowledgeable in. However a few of those–like climate science and environmental policy–is sure to bring about a firestorm of “You are brainwashed by Al Gore in believing the religion of global warming. If global warming is real, why do I still need a sweater in winter?” comments.

    And then I think “Aww screw it. I’m not going to convince any of these people otherwise, so its not worth the effort in arguing with them.”

  8. John Personna says:

    We should all aspire to admit our errors, and to back down, because that is so rare on the internets.

    People like Eugene Volokh should be able to leverage that himself. Make an initial post, and then exhibit flexibility.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    Tano says:
    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 14:18
    “I seriously doubt that many people who comment on the internet find Volokh’s number 1-3 to be “powerful inhibitants”.”

    Well it certainly isn’t one for you.

  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Maybe, although I haven’t spent all that much time on the “streets.”

    Oh I think you have Jim, in that “streets” in this context is only a metaphor.

  11. Gilbert Le Blanc says:

    I think you should credit the original author of the drawing.

    http://xkcd.com/386/