Twenty-Five years ago, at the dawn of the internet age, if you had told me that a few decades hence everybody would have nearly all the world’s information in our pockets via smartphones I would have thought that our society would be better informed and more rational in its decision-making. Regrettably, the opposite has occurred. This is captured perfectly by Tom Nichols in his dynamite book “The Death of Expertise”:
These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of laypeople lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.
Instead of making us smarter, in some ways the internet is making us dumber; it allows us to immerse ourselves in our own point of view without objectivity or fact checking. In that light, let’s look at three rules of the internet that are at the same time both humorous and deeply concerning because there’s a lot of truth to them.
1. Godwin’s Law
Mike Godwin is an attorney who has served as legal counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights group, as well as Wikimedia foundation, the organization that oversees Wikipedia. Way back in 1990 he formulated Godwin’s Law, which says:
“As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches one.”
I’ve seen Godwin’s Law in action many times in the comments sections of articles and in Reddit discussion boards. The problem with invoking Hitler in online discussions is it intellectually lazy. If you disagree with someone and their position, comparing them or a person they support to Hitler is just giving up on having any sort of rational discourse or learning from each other. Mike Godwin has noted that since the internet has existed, every US president has been compared to Hitler in some sort of online discussion.
2. Pommer’s Law
Pommer’s law states:
“A person’s mind can be changed by reading information on the internet. The nature of this change will be from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.“
This, of course, is not an iron-clad law but an unfortunate tendency. While sometimes people do find information on the internet that is helpful and nudges their views in conformance with reality, Pommer’s law encapsulates the notion that there is a ton of misinformation on the internet and the number of people likely to hear misinformation and immediately believe it is huge.
3. Shank’s Law
This law sums up the problem with arguing with anybody about anything now that the internet exists: it’s always possible to find an expert or a study that confirms your views, no matter how crazy they are. Here’s how this law is usually stated:
The imaginative powers of the human mind have yet to rise to the challenge of concocting a conspiracy theory so batshit insane that one cannot find at least one PhD holding scientist to support it.
These laws are sort of funny. Like me, you may read these and chuckle and think “that’s so true, wow, other people are so misguided.” But maybe we should stop and check ourselves — maybe these rules apply to each of us as well!