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Last Updated: Monday, 8 August 2005, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Back to the fray
The Magazine's review of weblogs
By Alan Connor

When Weblog Watch did an initial round-up of British bloggers' reactions to the London bomb attacks, we noted how Tim Worstall's words had generally been heeded in the immediate aftermath:
    "May I just remind you of one of those little rules that we have in our civilised society? We bury the dead and console the bereaved before we start making asinine political points."
Time for soapboxes again
Well time has moved on. And lately, across the blogosphere, there are many who seem convinced that the specifics of the bombs happen to confirm exactly what they'd been typing all along: about Blair, Iraq, Bush, Islam or the 21st Century in general.

The comments sections are getting longer and longer, and, following the death in Iraq of blogger Steven Vincent, you can see "those little rules" falling by the wayside.

The comments at Vincent's own - now posthumous - blog are untempered, leading Eric S to despair at Europhobia:

    "If there's anything that annoys me about blogs, it's the way so many people can never resist the temptation to stand on their soapbox to bleat, 'I told you so, because insert my correct opinion here' before the victim's families have even had a chance to grieve."
But it might be a little unfair to say that this is happening in the blogs any more than it is in the papers or in the pubs. And a survey of BritBlogs provides a corrective.

Weblog Watch is the BBC News Magazine's weekly digest of bloggers' views on the news
Over at Stumbling & Mumbling, Chris Dillow finds the press no more cheering, as explained in his post, Why Is Journalism So Bad?.

Dillow has a keen eye for sloppy thinking, particularly people's tendency to see things that aren't there. Wondering, for example, why the England cricket team doesn't have a "cussed little sod" to match Australia's Langer or Katich, he blames a culture that privileges those we believe are naturally talented over those who train, and remarks:

    "The bias to over-rating talent relative to practice is not just damaging to English cricket. Less importantly, it's damaging the economy too."
And biases, Dillow believes, are damaging journalism, as well: after a lively anecdote, he identifies various types of sloppy thinking which make it into newsprint: Hands up if you've never made one of those?

And this may be one point where blogs have an in. As we noted in May, paid journalists have various advantages over bloggers: like resources, contacts, and not having a day job to worry about when they're sitting there writing.

But with all that time to write comes a penalty: the deadline. Bloggers don't have those, and a harsh critic would argue that this means that there's even less of an excuse for hasty conclusions if you're writing online.

Even more so, the bits of social science that Dillow mentions above might give a newsprint editor the heebie-jeebies, but a blogger blogs alone.


So here's a fine example of a blog which is prepared to trust its readers to run for a while with what might be a new idea: Depleted Uranium sees the problem-solving offered by Bayesian Inference as a useful way of looking at the risks involved in a shoot-to-kill policy. The introduction is a scenario most Londoners will have ruefully imagined:

    Here's how it works. Imagine you are a London cop facing a suspected suicide bomber in a crowded railway carriage. He might pull the trigger at any moment, so you have to make a split-second decision as to whether or not to shoot him.
And the remainder of the post is an attempt to apply the numbers to this horrific dilemma:
    - if you don't shoot him and he detonates, you and a bunch of innocents will be maimed or killed.
    - if you do shoot him, and he's innocent, he for sure is dead.
Of course, no-one could claim this single mechanism provided a complete model of how to understand what London's policemen are experiencing, but it's an analysis which stays with you, and one which you can't really imagine popping up in a newspaper.

And as it goes for the scientific references, so it is for the bookish ones. Blogs can afford to explore a cultural echo which, in a newspaper, might seem a tad indulgent.

Here's a passage quoted by Jonathan Calder's Liberal England:

    "They saw a park-warden and some school-boys running towards a figure that appeared to be crouched on the zigzag path below the Observatory. Racing down, their first thought was that the man had shot himself, but the scene they encountered was unexpected and horrific. The park-warden was holding a man who, despite massive injuries, was still alive and able to speak."
A London suicide bomber: but one from 1894. A true story, and if you've read Joseph Conrad's novelised version or seen Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic response, the most recent of all of London's bombs will take you back to this.

And as with the Bayesian analysis, it might offer a new angle or something to help us get our heads around the incomprehensible:

    "A particularly memorable character in the novel is The Professor - a thwarted scientist and expert in explosives who makes himself a walking bomb, always holding the detonator in his hand. Only this can make him feel powerful"
And it's this freedom to offer up analogies, explanations and speculative nuts and bolts that gives the blogosphere its strength.

The newspapers have got rhetoric and leader columns covered. What it would be great to see from blogs is the start of a set of building blocks - analogies, psychological mechanisms, and actual experiences - to help us build up an understanding of the mad world around us.

It's a task more noble than "taking on the media", and it's one that only the blogs can do.

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