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Climate Hustle

rbutr Puts Climate Information In Front of Those Who Need It Most

Posted on 6 May 2012 by Shane Greenup

Guest post by Shane Greenup.

It is an unfortunate fact that most people will tend to only see information which confirms their current beliefs. Thanks to choosing friends with similar beliefs, choosing news programs which report things in a way which we find agreeable, and now thanks to the filter bubble concept, even Google and Facebook are selectively giving us more of what we have previously indicated we liked and clicked on.

This is a real problem for those of us who are interested in genuinely finding the truth in this sea of opinions. How do we inform ourselves completely when everywhere we look (whether by design or by accident) we only see more self-confirming bias? Perhaps more importantly, how do we reach everyone else who is trapped in their own bubble of self-confirmation, and don’t even realise it?

In an attempt to help with this problem we have recently launched an application which provides a surprisingly simple way out of this self-confirmation bubble for anyone who cares to look. It is called rbutr, and it simply allows people to connect one webpage which makes a claim, to another webpage which rebuts that claim. In doing so, any future visitors to the original claim webpage are then able to see that that page has been rebutted, and can easily click through to read the rebuttal.

rbutr in action

Take for example a recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal: No Need to Panic About Global Warming. Within our system we already have 8 rebuttals listed for this page. Following one of them to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog we get a thorough debunking of the op ed, including use of Skeptical Science’s Escalator animation. Interestingly, there is also a rebuttal posted to Phil Plait’s rebuttal, taking you to an article which argues against the escalator graphic. Looking at that article though, you are then able to click through to another rebuttal on SkS itself, defending the graphic, which has also provided links to a few other articles which argue against W.M.Briggs’ article criticising the escalator. Using rbutr you are able to immediately step outside the single perspective presented on any one of these websites, and see the greater internet-wide discussion which is taking place.

One point which is particularly worth noting about rbutr, which separates it from other apps designed to inform people about particular subjects, is that rbutr is neither subject specific, nor agenda driven. This is important, because the way that people are trapped within their own confirmation-bubble means that the people who most need to install an application like Skeptical Science’s climate change myth debunking tool, won’t even know it exists! However, if the tool is genuinely neutral and the subject matter presented by the tool is entirely up to the contributors, then hopefully it is just as likely to be used by creationists as it is to be used by evolutionists, by anti-vaccinationists as by vaccine supporters, and of course, by all people on all perspectives of the climate change debate. Because really, preaching to the converted is not much help to anyone…

What Do We Hope To Achieve?

We do hope to have a significant impact on the way information is accessed online. Since launching our beta just over a month ago, rbutr has had press coverage in The Australian, a great review by Tim Farley of SkepTools, and made it in to the final 52 of the 1078 applications for the Knight Media News Challenge - we're waiting to see if we've made it in to the top 15, and then one of the winners who will receive a large grant to fund ongoing development costs of our application.

Our current goal is to build a large, vibrant and active community who are all interested in improving the quality of online discourse and information in general. Providing a way for people to readily inform themselves with quality information.

We are also looking at ways rbutr can be used to provide a platform on which an online crowdsourced debates can be conducted - allowing opposing sides to present their arguments and counter arguments to the best of their ability (as a global community), rather than relying on fallible individuals, or moderators to control the exchanges. The exact details are still being sorted out, but if you register with rbutr we will be sure to keep you informed, and if you are interested in participating or helping out, please feel free to contact us.

In the end, we just hope that for every new article which pops up repeating an already debunked myth, it will be fast and simple to add a rbutr link to an already existing rebuttal, immediately quashing any new-resurgence of the old myth for all rbutr users, who will then hopefully spread that rebuttal to other non-rbutr users, helping to keep the mole-whackers one step ahead of the nonsense-spreaders...

Head over to http://rbutr.com, register, install the plugin (chrome only at the moment – we are still in beta testing), and let us know what you think! We’re eager for as much feedback and thoughts as we can get during these early stages.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 5:

  1. So lay readers of legitimate science and opinion who lack the background to know when they're being duped will also be linked to specious, deliberate misinformation, right? Is that a wonderful thing?
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    Moderator Response: Hi threadShredder,

    I think this is a common concern and one that deserves a detailed reply.

    First of all, the idea that someone who would go out of their way to find legitimate science in the first place, would then be the sort of person to be swayed by 'specious, deliberate misinformation' doesn't seem justified to me. In my experience, people are already convinced by the 'specious' misinformation well before they ever come across legitimate science, and secondly, the sort of people who look for legitimate science, aren't likely to be easily convinced by nonsense. So immediately, the concern that good information will be rebutted with bad information shouldn't be concerning at all - the people who are likely to be more swayed by the bad information vs the good information probably already had their minds made up before the arguments were made.

    Following on from that scenario though, said person who has chosen to ignore solid science and be 'duped' by 'specious, deliberate misinformation' will hopefully be presented with yet another rbutr alert to a rebuttal of the misinformation. Afterall, the information is all already out there. All rbutr is attempting to do is connect the right information to the pages which need to be rebutted. And for every page full of misinformation, there is already a collection of pages rebutting them. All we're asking for, is some help finding these articles so that we can add them as rebuttals to the misinformation.

    Because now, our scenario has this person sequentially exposed to legitimate science, specious misinformation, and then a detailed deconstruction of why the misinformation was specious - and hopefully has enough information to actually have a *chance* of changing their mind from their previously already decided state. Which I am sure you may have noticed by now, is quite a challenging thing to achieve.

    Is this a wonderful thing? Please indulge me in my favourite quote of all time, which pretty much sums up my philosophy, and why I think rbutr *is indeed* a wonderful thing:

    "John Stuart Mill argued that silencing an opinion is "a peculiar evil." If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the "opportunity of exchanging error for truth"; and if it's wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth in its "collision with error." If we know only our own side of the argument, we hardly know even that: it becomes stale, soon learned by rote, untested, a pallid and lifeless truth." - Carl Sagan

    And please consider that ultimately, you can choose to sit on the sideline decrying how the system may be abused, or you can join in the fight and link every piece of misinformation you ever find to the best rebuttals of that misinformation that you know, and help expose truth to those who have stumbled across error...

    Shane Greenup

  2. Nope. I like to know when I watch space-nazies. I won't be endorsing the debate between the non-conformal theory of angel-flight against gravitation.
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  3. It would seem to be a good idea, assuming that enough people are actually interested in having their opinions tested. However, I think most people will deploy the app to fortify and propagate their preferred view, and the likeliest consequence would to dumb down the audience. A creationist vexed by a pro-evolution weblog page will now have a short-cut to a counter-argument, whereas previously they would have had to do a bit more work to find what they want, and thus be more likely to chance upon other tracts on evolution that will be bypassed by this rebuttal router. I've picked up a lot of useful information when researching a topic under discussion, because the search engine takes me to places and opinions that I wouldn't have visited if there had been a direct route. The best corrollaries of these websearch adventures are more context, clearer overview, and getting a better idea of how the topic at hand relates to others that may augment my view on it.

    "Don't like what you've read? Tired of searching amongst millions of web pages for the argument you want, or that pithy quote that sums up the logical depravity of that wordy schmuck who is wrong on the internet? Talking points and counter-arguments are now at your fingertips. Simply copy'n'paste! Or paraphrase slightly so you can seem more intelligent! Pwning your opposition has never been easier!"

    Perhaps that's too cynical. I'm curious to know how this application gets used - that would make for an interesting study on 'nettitudes'. Are there plans to monitor this? What are they?
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    Moderator Response: Hi Barry,

    The interesting outcome of someone using rbutr to fortify and propogate their own view, is that it still helps engage them in the opposing perspective of the argument. In order to add rebuttals, or to click through to rebuttals you agree with, you are required to see the other side. Of course, people can choose to not read those other articles, but this is all true of the internet in general, and nothing to do with rbutr's functionality.

    My experience in online debates (forums, comments etc) is that Creationists (or whoever) simply don't go to pro-evolution websites. They read the website which reinforces their own beleif, and then repeat the arguments verbatim. This is how it already is. The whole point of rbutr is to have them install the extension so that during their standard browsing of their favourite belief confirming website, they might occasionally let curiosity drive them to click on that rbutr button and see what the other side is saying against their beliefs.

    Because seriously, you don't need rbutr to reinforce your own beliefs - everything around us already does that. This is really the only tool which is purposefully designed to do the opposite! So in order to use it that way, would just be an inefficient waste of time, fraught with the danger of accidentally looking at an opposing perspective!

    You also seem to be arguing that streamlining the process of finding 'the best' rebuttal to any given page is somehow a negative. By this logic, you should write to Google and tell them to stop optimising their search results, because it is better when you get stuff you didn't really want. If you want serendipitous discovery - install StumbleUpon. If you want to meander around the web looking for random arguments, then just browse directories. But if you want a rebuttal to a page, use rbutr. Afterall, how do you know that the best rebuttal to the page won't also 'take you to places and opinions that [you] wouldn't have visited'? Afterall, the whole point of rbutr, just like Google, is to suggest material to you which you don't know about.... so you don't know what you might find on the other side of that link.

  4. My concern is that the system will be easy to game. For instance an author can presumably add rebuttals to her own post that point to other pages which either agree, or disagree in a way that is obviously wrong or are totally irrelevant. After chasing up a few of these readers are likely to give up or assume that there is no legitimate rebuttal to the original post
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    Moderator Response:

    Of course this is something which we will have to moderate. At this stage, our system is incredibly simple and we can moderate that sort of abuse manually. As our usership grows and manual moderation becomes a problem, we can react with algorithm based filters/alerts, and bring on board additional moderators with extra powers.

    For every social system there is someone trying to game it, and for every game move, there is a counter-action to stop it. To date there has been no attempt at abuse of rbutr. As soon as there is, the reaction will be swift, and effective.

    Shane

  5. Shane
    That's good to hear.
    0 0

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