The Accidental Utility of Slashdot
December 30th, 2005

I’ve been reading Slashdot for the last year and a half or so. I stayed away from it until I downloaded an aggregator that had it preinstalled, and, well, it just kind of stayed there. I don’t post comments myself, but I find find those who do interesting. Of course, it’s probably not for the reasons they had intended.

I think Slashdot is a great way to measure my own susceptibility to argumentum ad verecundiam. I do this (retrospectively) by reflecting on to what degree I have agreed with the posts scoring “5, Informative” or “5, Insightful” when attached to topics I know relatively little about. I contrast that with how ignorant posts with the same rating seem when in reply to topics I know inside and out.

What is more likely? That only the high-scoring commentators on “my” topics make serious errors? Or that the overall intelligence and ability of the commentators is fairly uniform, and I attribute too much credit to them when I don’t know the material? Meeting one or two posters in real life might bias your response, but I digress.

In Humans First Arose in Asia, for example, some of the comments currently scored as fives give away obvious misconceptions of the time frame of human evolution. There are good comments too, but the scoring system does a poor job of differentiating them. Competitors like Digg and Reddit suffer from similar problems with varying degrees of severity. (I can’t read Digg at all, and I’m currently giving Reddit a “time-out” after it linked to one too many pseudoscientific/conspiracy-theory articles.)

So what’s the point here? Just that adequate English skills combined with an argument that sounds logical can easily be mistaken for an argument that is correct.