The Internet is more polarizing than national newspapers

A new study has gotten some people excited about how the internet is not as ideologically segregated as many people think.

We find that ideological segregation of online news consumption is low in absolute terms, higher than the segregation of most offline news consumption, and significantly lower than the segregation of face-to-face interactions with neighbors, co-workers, or family members.

The paper calculated an isolation index, which is basically how much people are exposed to a point of view that is similar to their own. An internet where conservatives only read fox news and liberals only read the new york times would have a very high isolation index score.  However, because conservative blogs link to the New York Times and liberal blogs link to, that paper finds that the internet has a lower isolation index than national newspapers and the people we interact with everyday.

The problem with this line of thinking is mentioned as a caveat in the paper:

We conclude with an important caveat: none of the evidence here speaks to the way people translate the content they encounter into beliefs. People with different ideologies see similar content, but both Bayesian and non-Bayesian mechanisms may lead people with divergent political views to interpret the same information differently.

This caveat been vastly underrated by most people looking at this research. When or the links to a conservative site such as, it is most likely for one of the following reasons:

1. To tell their readers about the lies Fox News is telling their readers
2. To make a liberal point, highlighted with "even Fox News admits..."
3. To make counter arguments to the views expressed, so when the reader visits the website they are inoculated against any of the arguments made.
4. To show their readers that those who disagree are them stupid/racist/misogynous/etc.

As the authors mention, a liberal isn't likely to trust data from a known conservative website in the first place.  The same point extends for conservatives linking to liberal websites. A conservative reader who visits an article on because he followed a story about their media bias is still isolated from the liberal point of view.

The paper itself is very interesting, but readers should be wary of drawing the wrong conclusion from this research.

Intellectual Pessimism

Via Arnold Kling, I found this interesting question/answer from Matt Ridley:

6. What interesting question didn’t I ask that I should have? And please answer it!
You did not ask me why intellectuals are all such pessimists. And my answer is that pessimism gets attention – from funders, from the media, from governments. Also, for reasons I do not fully understand, it sounds wiser than optimism.

Some people might think that optimists ask this question when they don't know how to respond to the pessimist's concerns directly. However, there are a few reasons beyond attention why being pessimism might be the intellectual's preferred approach.

1. Intellectuals are more likely to stick to ideas than to get their hands dirty executing their ideas in the real world. The optimistic intellectual might be tempted to leave the ivory tower for opportunities elsewhere, leaving the intellectual profession full of pessimists.

2. There are always flaws to any plan/idea/project, so it is often easier to point out the flaws than help make it work.

3. There is a fine line between being optimistic on a subject and being a cheerleader, so it is easier to avoid the fine line completely and be a critic.

4. A continuation of the status quo or "these trends will continue" is often a rather boring point. Intellectuals need to be interesting in order to for people to pay attention to them.

5. Optimists who believe that a problem will be solved but who aren't quite sure how sound a lot less impressive than a pessimist who can give you the reasons why a problem is important and why each attempt to solve it will most likely fail.

6. Discussing why something won't work gives the intellectual the chance to raise his status relative to the people he is critiquing. Discussing why a certain group is going to do amazing things would lower his status.

What am I leaving out?

On Robin Hanson and Meta-cynicism

Robin Hanson has another post up where he discusses the need to disseminate cynical views. He points out that idealism is public and cynicism is mostly private.

It seems to me that idealistic views dominate official views, especially views visible to many and expressed by the powerful. (After all, power is far, and far is ideal.) Idealism dominantes most official speeches, especially for funerals, weddings, award acceptance, politicial stump, and movie hero speeches. Idealism also dominates most ads, product brochures, vision statements, legal rulings, textbooks, and song lyrics. Cynical views are found in private conversations, e.g. at a bar or water cooler, in porn, from stand-up comedians, in movie villan speeches, and in political rants about certain sorts of “them.”

He clarifies that he is talking about cynical beliefs, not cynical moods by linking to his essay "The Cynic's Conundrum" that attempts to distinguish between cynical beliefs and a cynical mood. 

Cynical beliefs are either that people have relatively "low" motives, or that people are hypocritical about their motives. (Even when "high" motives dominate conscious thoughts, the cynic can claim that low motives better explain overall behavior patterns.) Similarly a cynical belief about a social institution is that while it may claim to serve high functions, it actually serves low functions.
A cynical mood is rude, unhappy, and complaining, presumably about low motives and functions. Cynicism is contrasted with idealism, a good-natured emphasis on sincere high motives and functions.

Two explanations are advanced for cynical moods. Each explanation explores a tie between cynical beliefs and cynical moods. Through these explanations, they suggest that teaching cynicism might not be the best idea.

The idealistic explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually high motives or insight. He is better able to see behind false appearances, and he is more shocked and disapointed to discover the low motives of others. Because he is unwilling to be hypocritical, he is less popular and so he succeeds and leads less. Most people dislike cynics because cynics expose most people's hypocrisy.
With this explanation, it seems that correctly teaching a person cynical beliefs will turn them into someone with a cynical mood. The idealistic explanation of cynical moods implies that exposure to cynical beliefs needs to be weighed against the usefulness of the cynical information. There are further costs to being a young cynic.

The cynical explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually low motives or ability. He can better see low motives because he has them in spades, and the cynic complains to belittle the success of others. That is, if he cannot win in some area then the cynic will complain that the game is unfair, or that those who succeed are not really very praiseworthy. Most people dislike cynics because cynics are losers.

This view suggests that teaching cynical beliefs to those who are predisposed to hear it is likely to be a waste of resources. This view suggests that the students who are susceptible to cynical views are not the type of people who will get anything useful done with them.

The trade off between sociability (idealistic beliefs) and expressing the truth (cynical beliefs) needs to be carefully considered. There are social norms imposed on people who promote unpopular true ideas, so the scales need to be leveled by changing these social norms.  While it is very difficult to change social norms that are built up over time, in Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely gives a few examples where long held social norms are replaced by market norms once money gets involved. Maybe the same thing can be done for cynical beliefs using a mechanism that Robin is already very familiar with. TGGP makes a similar point in the comments of Robin's post when he points out that betting markets impose market costs for holding idealistic views and thus lead to more true beliefs in the long run. Those in favor of cynical beliefs but not cynical moods should focus more on promoting the social norm of betting money on ideas.