(Currently) Free Movies I Enjoyed

Larry Sanger

Here are some movies I found on YouTube, which are currently free, and which I enjoyed (well, most of them). Merry Christmas!

  • 5: very highly recommended; rare, distinctively excellent, and memorable; a classic, or ought to be; one of the best films. Need not be perfect.
  • 4: highly recommended; excellent film, well-made; either highly enjoyable or quite important. Many old films can be highly recommended. Fewer new ones. Can have significant flaws, but none that make it repellant.
  • 3: recommended; above average; a good flick; not a bad way to spend an evening; has issues that make one think twice; but on balance, good enough to recommend.
  • 2: not recommended, but perhaps not a total waste of time; enjoyed myself, perhaps, a bit, but overall had serious objections to the film.
  • 1: very much not recommended; appalling film; few if any redeeming qualities

The Most Dangerous Game (1932). 3. IMDb: 7.1. Early Hollywood thriller/horror film. Despite some campy and unbelievable elements, it was very watchable and surprisingly interesting. I did not realize when I started watching it that it was a thriller, or horror show, which probably made it more interesting.

49th Parallel (1941). 4. IMDb: 7.2. While this was a Canadian war propaganda film (dated 1940), it was quite an excellent film on its own merits, with a series of cameos by famous actors. Exciting action and stirring speeches in favor of freedom, fairly believable despite a rather strained-sounding premise (a small squad Nazis fleeing across Canada). Excellent shots of Canadian scenery.

I watched these movies in this order. You might be able to spot trends.

Somewhere in the Night (1946). 4. IMDb: 7.1. Enjoyable noir, a thriller and mystery about a soldier who lost his memory and is trying to find a mysterious Larry Cravat—and who is tracked by a detective who is looking for the money that the criminal Cravat apparently left for the soldier.

Compulsion (1959).3. IMDb: 7.4. The true story of a murder committed by two rich, Niezschean law students, shown to the viewer early on, and of how they were eventually caught. Watchable, tries hard to be high-minded, but doesn’t quite bring it off. Still interesting enough.

And Then There Were None (1945). 3. IMDb: 7.4. Adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, changes the ending slightly but otherwise not a bad adaption. Very recommendable if you’re in the mood for a rather dark, accessible, but ultimately unserious murder mystery. Note, this story is the basis of the later movie version of the board game Clue, which is a piece of fluff I’d also give a 3.

The Big Combo (1955). 3. IMDb: 7.3. Another murder noir. Entertaining enough.

Mister 880 (1950). 4. IMDb: 7.0. Rather unique film about the investigation and capture of a quirky old petty counterfeiter, glorifying the Secret Service, but fun. Romance, too. Sounds unlikely but it works.

Love Is News (1937). 4. IMDb: 7.0. Star-studded older comedy about an heiress, tired of being hounded by the press, who turns the tables by pretending to be engaged to a particularly determined reporter, causing headaches for him. You can guess the rest. Fluffy but fun.

Charade (1963). 4. IMDb: 7.9. A romantic mystery-comedy with an aging Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, fluffy again, but very enjoyable especially if you’re an Audrey fan like myself.

Walking Tall (1973). 3. IMDb: 6.9. I’d really like to give this classic a higher rating, and I can recommend it and it is pretty good, but, without going into details, it has issues. A downer.

Gone (2012). 3. IMDb: 5.9. One of the few recent movies on this list; came up as free in YouTube and I tried it out despite the low ratings, because the premise sounded interesting; and it is. The IMDb rating here is unfair. I don’t think I had seen anything with Amanda Seyfried in it, but she seems to be famous. She’s actually quite a good actress here and holds an entertaining psychological thriller pretty much all on her own. That said, it’s not exactly a classic for the ages.

Nurse on Wheels (1963). 4. IMDb: 6.2. I loved this comedy of a house-calling nurse in small-town Britain, and I gave it a 4 despite being particularly candy-coated fluff. But such likeable, wholesome, enjoyable fluff!

While You Were Sleeping (1995). 3. IMDb: 6.8. I have a weakness for Sandra Bullock which makes me capable of tolerating chick flicks. Considering her repellant cosmetic practices, I don’t feel too good about this. But I will watch most stuff with her in it. This is also romantic fluff, and a lot of people don’t like it, but I did. I might have given it a 4.

Lured (1947). 4. IMDb: 7.0. If you didn’t know Lucille Ball was not just a screwball sitcom actress, get ready for a revelation as she is quite fetching here as an ad hoc detective helping the constabulary to track down a serial killer in this British noir. Keeps you guessing practically until the end.

Phantom Lady (1944). 4. IMDb: 7.2. Another mystery noir, this one also a romance, Ella Raines is lovely as a secretary is besotted with her boss, who has been framed and imprisoned. She goes to great lengths to investigate and prove his innocence by finding the woman who can give him his alibi. Well-constructed and well-performed, if imperfect.

The Lost Moment (1947). 3. IMDb: 6.9. This unlikely and dark gothic psychological mystery-thriller, with slight occult undertones; it takes place in Venice and apparently based on an almalgam of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Watchable and interesting but a downer.

The Dark Corner (1946). 3. IMDb: 7.1. Another Lucille Ball murder noir; not as good as Lured but watchable enough.

Heaven Only Knows (1947). 3. IMDb: 6.6. This is an extremely bad reproduction of the film, but watchable. About an angel who unites a man who has gone bad, who was supposed to be in the Book of Life, and was supposed to marry a certain woman and do great things. But now he’s on the wrong road. As is typically the case for shows about angels that come to earth, it is fluffy and sappy; but if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, it’s not bad.

One Touch of Venus (1948). 2. IMDb: 6.6. A comedy-fantasy about Venus (Ava Gardner) who comes to earth and solves some problems for a naive young window dresser. Fluffy and silly. Certainly, some would like it. I should have stopped earlier but I made it all the way through and therefore it is on this list. There are several other movies that didn’t hold my interest, would have gotten a 2 probably, but I didn’t finish them and removed them from the playlist. One redeeming feature is that it is the origin of the popular song “Too Soon.”

Hope Floats (1998). 3. IMDb: 6.0. Another Sandra Bullock vehicle, a drama-romance chick flick. I made it through and didn’t regret it. Serious and heavy at times, but qualifiedly uplifting in the end.

Walking Tall Part II (1975). 2. IMDb: 6.0. Probably should have stopped. Similar to the first installment, but worse. Don’t get me wrong. It really isn’t that badly done; it could have been much worse. But can I recommend it? No. Another violent and uninspiring downer.

Sabrina (1995). 4. IMDb: 6.3. As much as I adore Audrey Hepburn, I have to say that I liked this updated version, which is quite similar to the 1954 original, rather more; the original is a classic, and one of my faves, but Julia Ormond is more believable as the overlooked chauffeur’s daughter, and Harrison Ford is more believable as the captain of industry; the pair have more chemistry than Bogey and Audrey.

Sabrina (1954). 4. IMDb: 7.6. I mean…it’s arguably better than the remake. Many people think so. And Audrey is wonderful as the returning fashion plate.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). 4. IMDb: 8.1. While this is very self-consciously a Serious Movie, it is so extemely well-done that one cannot make fun of it for that reason: yes, its coming-home-from-war themes are serious, but ultimately this film is uplifting and edifying. It is about three military men, one middle-aged and the other two younger, and their relationships with their women when they come home. Very close to a 5.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947). 2. IMDb: 7.6. An angelic Cary Grant puts the moves on a remarkably patient and decent Episcopalian bishop’s wife, although his assignment is to improve them all. And so he does. I’ll be honest: I more or less enjoyed it when I was watching it, but the ending showed that the angel was actually every bit as smarmy as he appeared to be, and perhaps more. Frankly, some of you will probably be offended by this rating and be ready to give it 4, because in its way it is uplifting and nice. But…yeah. Can’t recommend it.

The Little Foxes (1941). 3. IMDb: 7.9. This a Serious Film, by which I mean, an enormous downer. However, it is an extremely well-done downer with fantastic acting particularly by Bette Davis. Also, it has two things that it has going for it: Teresa Wright, who brightens everything she is in, and the ending, which I am not going to reveal. I mean, I wouldn’t want to watch it again, but I don’t regret watching it once.

Against Cannibalism

Larry Sanger

UPDATED July 26, 2022; first published August 25, 2019

I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that eating people is wrong.

Psychologists Jared Piazza and Neil McClatchie, however, appear to believe this position is just a little bit unenlightened. If we are clever, as they are, then we will not be too dogmatic in our aversion to human flesh. That, at least, is what seems to be the upshot of their recent article, which appeared in The Conversation and then in the Daily Mail.

For my part, I happen to think that certain things, like murder and pedophilia, deserve to remain taboos. Apparently, I must now explain why cannibalism, too, should continue to be taboo.

The fact that I must defend the taboo, apparently, is further evidence that we are struggling with an insidious antivitist tendency in the West: that is, there is a strange contempt for the value of human life. As I argued in an earlier blog post, instances of antivitism include support for active euthanasia for the depressed (even for teenage girls); enthusiasm for late-term (“partial birth” and “after birth” abortion) and even infanticide; antinatalism, the view that it is harmul for a human being to be brought into existence; and the more radical elements of the childfree movement. When I wrote that blog post, I hadn’t considered that there might be some silly-clever academics who would test the daring, edgy position that eating people might, perhaps, be OK.

Let me roll up my sleeves, then, and see what can be said in reply to an article titled “Is it time to drop the cannibalism taboo?” I’d tell the authors to “bite me,” but I’m afraid they might take me literally.

Our intrepid authors begin by listing certain species that eat their own: tadpoles, gulls, pelicans, various insects, rodents, bears, lions, and yes, our fellow primates (famously, chimps). Very well. And what conclusion are we to draw from this? It’s not clear. They don’t draw any clear conclusion. They draw, instead, a contrast:

For humans though, cannibalism is the ultimate taboo. In fact, our aversion to cannibalism is so strong that consent and ethics count for little.

This is a very curious thing to say, however. Is it supposed to be clever or funny? As far as I can tell, looking at the context, the authors seem to be in earnest. “Consent and ethics count for little”? The implication is that consent—as in a person saying, “Sure, go ahead, eat my finger” or “eat my dead body” or “have a cupful of my blood”—ought to count for something. That’s odd enough, but much odder is the bizarre implication that ethics might counsel us to eat humans, that the taboo against cannibalism might represent a rejection of ethics.

This is bizarre in two ways: first, there’s the utterly bizarre, and even horrific, suggestion that ethics would have us eat people; second, there’s the casual and even smug wording or tone, as if this were a clever movie review and not about devouring people. If it’s supposed to be funny, I don’t get the joke.

The problematic tone only gets worse. Our authors go on to describe a thought experiment they had experimental subjects do:

In one of our own experiments, participants were asked to consider the hypothetical case of a man who gave permission to his friend to eat parts of him once he died of natural causes.

Participants read that this occurred in a culture that permitted the act, that the act was meant to honour the deceased, and that the flesh was cooked so that there was no chance of disease. 

Despite this careful description, about half of the participants still insisted that the act was invariably wrong.

“Imagine that,” seems to be the authors’ implication, or so I imagine. “We explained that the person was dead, that a culture regards eating him as honorable, and that the flesh was cooked and germs destroyed. But they still thought consuming human flesh was wrong! How curiously narrow-minded!”

The authors don’t say that, though. They refuse to be pinned down. They leave it a mystery what they really think themselves.

Another thing they don’t say, though I would expect sane scholars to, is: “Of course, philosophers and priests throughout history have had a thing or two say about the value of human life, so their position is defensible.” But no. The only justification of the taboo against cannibalism they are willing to entertain is one based on “essentialism.”

To introduce this idea, the authors speak about the famous case of the crash in South America in which some survivors ate bodies of the dead in order to stay alive:

One survivor, Roberto Canessa, felt that to eat his fellow passengers would be ‘stealing their souls’ and descending towards ‘ultimate indignity’ – despite recalling that in the aftermath of the crash, he like many others had declared that he would be glad for his body to aid the communal survival mission.

The tragic anecdote above illuminates why humans are the exception to the animal cannibal rule. Our capacity to represent the personalities of the living and the departed is unparalleled. 

One does not get the impression that the authors quite approve of Roberto Canessa’s theory: note the distancing scare quotes around “stealing their souls.” Modern scientists do not believe in souls, much less stealing souls. One suspects, beyond that, they do not put much stock in the idea of placing an unusually special value on human lives.

Why do I say that? They go on:

This deep connection between personhood and flesh can mean that careful reasoning in certain situations over the merits of cannibalism is overridden by our feelings of repulsion and disgust.

Here their views begin to come out. Careful reasoning—which only sophisticated academics such as themselves are capable of, no doubt—is overridden not by morality, not by concern for the value of human life, not by concern for the soul (our own or that of the consumed), but by repulsion and disgust.

I believe disgust has become a bête noire for the academic left, ever since it became common knowledge that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Disgust strikes us as an irrational, even an involuntary physiological reaction. This use of language (the section of the essay is titled “Categorical Disgust”) thus allows the authors to imply that a sort of deep-seated irrationality lies beneath our resistance to eating people.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to be committed to that view. After all, murder and rape and pedophilia disgust every decent person, as well, but there are independent reasons to think they are deeply wrong. Disgust isn’t the only reason for our aversion to such crimes.

So maybe Piazza and McClatchie will, reasonably, avoid implying that it is only disgust that would explain why we avoid cannibalism. But no:

So why our disgust for human flesh but not that of other animals? Philosopher William Irvine has us imagine a ranch that raises plump babies for human consumption, much like we fatten and slaughter cattle for beef. 

Irvine suggests that the same arguments we apply to justify the killing of cows also apply to babies. For example, they wouldn’t protest, and they’re not capable of rational thought.

Although Irvine is not seriously advocating eating babies, the scenario is useful for illuminating our bias when considering the ethics of cannibalism. 

This passage pisses me off. I find it repellent and disgusting—and yes, my reaction is physiological, because I get sick to my stomach reading it through—though I can certainly articulate why. The authors actually suggest that there is merely a bias against cannibalism, and that, if we lacked this bias, if we were more enlightened, then we would have no more objection to eating babies as to eating cows. Really—a couple of university researchers make this implication, and the Daily Mail thought it was a good idea to publish an article that says so.

Well, biases are of course unfair and unreasoning; they indicate bigotry and prejudice. So, do our noble and eminently rational authors explain why the firm stance against eating babies amounts to little more than a bias?

Of course they do:

From a young age, we tend to think about categories, such as humans or cows, as having an underlying reality or ‘essence’ that cannot be observed directly but that gives a thing its fundamental identity. 

For example, humans are intelligent and rational thinkers, we have personalities and a desire to live, and we form bonds with each other.

This psychological essentialism is a useful shortcut to guide our expectations and judgements about members of the category – but it doesn’t work so well when the typical qualities of that category don’t apply, for example upon death. 

You see, if you think eating babies is much worse than eating cows, it is because you buy into a very Aristotelian-sounding folk theory that small human beings have a mysterious “essence” that gives them their fundamental identity qua valuable human beings.

Essentialism, like disgust, is another bête noire of the academic left. If you find yourself saddled with essentialism, then rest assured: you have been dismissed. That’s because the idea itself is rather ridiculous. Essentialism, as it is typically understood, isn’t just that categories have defining properties (as when Aristotle says that the definition of human being is ‘rational animal’). It is that those properties represent some strange metaphysical beastie that, as our authors put it, “cannot be observed directly.”

But it is, surely, a straw man: who believes in essences in 2019? A few philosophers, maybe, and some theologians following Aristotelian tradition. But Piazza and McClatchie actually claim that ordinary people find cannibalism abhorrent due to some essentialist views they hold. That doesn’t even pass the chuckle test.

But probably, they are trying to put a patina of folk science on religion. While pretty much nobody believes in essences, lots of people, like the aforementioned Roberto, do believe in souls. Perhaps these psychologists just lack the philosophical or theological sophistication to distinguish between essences and souls; and probably, they would have the precise same objections to souls. Souls, too, might not appear observable, and they depart upon death, i.e., when “the typical qualities of that category [a human being with a soul] don’t apply, for example upon death.” Of course, one view that is apt to be commonly cited for the abhorrence of eating babies (aside from the murder and infanticide thing) is that babies are held to have souls.

Belief in souls doesn’t require essentialism, but it is perhaps a fair representation of a certain religious attitude toward baby eating. But what if you don’t believe in souls, as I am pretty damned sure our brave authors do not? Does that mean you must resign yourself to accepting the inevitable baby meat farms in some horrific “enlightened” future?

Besides, even if you do believe in a soul that has a special attachment to a body, and that’s why you don’t ingest those bodies while alive, what’s to stop you from ingesting them after they’re dead?

To answer that, I will finally leave this silly article and offer up a theory of my own. Mind you, I fully support the taboo: we don’t need no steenkin’ theories to justify our absolute abhorrence of the very topic. (My wife refused to discuss it after about two minutes. I couldn’t really blame her.) But I find that, over and over, the obvious is ignored and called into question, and it is useful (and philosophically interesting) to articulate the obvious and defend it. As I said, I’ve already defended the obvious views that murder and pedophilia are evil, and also that human life has inherent, special value and that purpose of education is the getting of knowledge. I rather like defending obvious but important truths against idiotic attacks on them.

Cannibalism is wrong because it sets a very bad precedent. If anybody gets a taste for human flesh, they are a threat to the rest of us.

Decent people (unlike some philosophers with idiotic thought experiments) are inclined to wildly irrational hostility toward baby-eaters. (Actually, I’m not sure any hostility toward baby-eaters is irrational.) Why? Because the last thing we want to have to deal with is a society with baby-eaters in it. We don’t want baby-eating because we don’t want there to be a market for baby meat. And don’t tell me about how the FDA will keep this under control. An FDA that permits baby eating, not to mention people who grow babies to be eaten, are just not to be trusted. I’m just sayin’.

But how about corpse-eaters, when permission is obtained in advance and some bizarre society (that I’m sure I’ve never heard of) thinks it’s respectful toward the dead? It’s the same thing: we don’t want corpse-eaters stalking among us because we don’t want them getting any ideas about bodies that are still alive. It’s very much like concern over drawn child molestation: that’s abhorrent to decent people because people with a taste for it might move on to child porn, which is absolutely horrific because its production requires truly horrible crimes being done upon children. You just don’t go there, you monsters.

This, I suggest, is ultimately what fills us (all of us) with horror when we hear of or merely contemplate the idea of eating babies, body parts, or fresh corpses. We might have religious ideas about the soul in addition, for sure. If life, for you, is a holy thing only to be disposed of by God, the idea of consuming a body, living or dead, is surely sacrilegious: hands off. But the threat, the monstrous threat—the shiver-inducing Hannibal Lecter threat—of someone going around looking for people to eat is why it is a no-no for absolutely everyone.

It was only in researching this post that I came across news reports from 2015 that some people drink human blood. Described as “real vampires,” people do it for health reasons (which are reasons I would avoid the practice, but never mind). Though the BBC claims (citing one such vampire) that there are “thousands” of Americans who regularly drink blood, I would venture to say that the vast majority of people—you know, sane people—would find the practice utterly abhorrent. And why? My theory explains this very handily: nobody wants to live around vampires. I for one don’t want to have to worry whether someone is coveting my blood.

Even worse is the suggestion one can find in a few articles, like this Vice article, that the blood of young people is highly desirable to the very rich: Peter Thiel apparently touts the health benefits of transfusing the blood of youths into his own veins, and he avidly follows studies in China of this very thing. Well. Not only do I not want to have to worry about vampires, I don’t want to have to defend children, especially poor children (think third world orphans), against amoral, soulless, wealthy vampires. I mean, come on. We should not have to worry about the health and well-being of growing children, who very much need their blood, or defend them against depredations of literal rich vampires.

This sounds like fiction, but the BBC and Vice inform me that my fears may be well-founded.

So there, my tasty friends, is a simple theory about why eating people is wrong. This theory as well as the above excursus about the evils of drinking blood should help put Piazza and McClatchie’s article into perspective. It turns out to matter that we have the right reasons to reject their insanity. If we rely only on “essentialism” or harm to the soul, we might lack the intellectual ammunition to ward off the proliferation of vampires.

At the end of their article—after dryly considering the merits of eating corpses to ward off third world famine—our authors explain that they’re still against cannibalism:

For now, we’re as happy as you are to continue accepting the ‘wisdom of repugnance’: human flesh, despite its biochemical similarities to that of other mammals, shall remain firmly off limits.

“For now,” indeed. Assholes. This might seem droll, but I find it unsatisfactory and am not at all convinced of its sincerity. After all, the authors suggested over and over that resistance to eating human flesh is irrational and rooted in mere biology or superstition, that it is “natural” (since savage animals do it), and that it might even be beneficial. It might even be the right thing to do. Really, only ghouls use a patina of science and academic respectability to mount such arguments.

The authors do not consider for one moment the fact that cannibalism is a human action, that human actions typically take place in the context of habit, and that morality may be understood as the recommendability of habits, which we bless as virtues, curse as vices, and describe with principles.

For some tiresome reasons, those writing about ethics (and other philosophical subdisciplines) often speak in terms of specific, often highly contrived or unusual cases. But that is not how we approach matters of personal policy in our daily lives. We decide, rather, whether we want to take some action of some general type. In the sobering light of day, Peter Thiel does not decide whether to sample a bit of blood just now, but whether the habit or policy of drinking blood in general is recommendable.

That is the sort of question we should be asking ourselves, too: are there any circumstances, perhaps beyond the direst and most absurdly unusual emergencies (which basically never happen), in which we should consider ingesting human flesh? The answer, clearly, is no; the reason is that this would give evil, unbalanced, and insane people a taste for it. The horrors are great while the need basically nonexistent.

Even less could I seriously countenance the idea of young blood (or, God forbid, flesh) for the very wealthy: the moral and ultimately criminal dangers are much too great just to give the super-rich a slight edge in health and youthful appearance. Indeed, nothing could be more evil, more contemptuous of the humanity of others, than the willingness to use wealth to directly consume the flesh of a child, especially if the child dies, or if children in general (any children, of course) are put at greater risk.

Call me old-fashioned if you must, but there are some things that civilized societies just don’t do. Indeed they are taboos, and cannibalism certainly deserves to remain one.

If Truth Is Complex, Why Is Fact-Checking So Simplistic?

Larry Sanger

For the last several years, powerful media and government organizations have been sounding the alarm with increasing urgency about what they are pleased to call “disinformation.” Defined in various ways, the main thing about disinformation is that it is somehow obviously, provably false, and this falsehood matters—if society continues to believe “disinformation,” bad things will happen. So it has to be stamped out forcefully. Hence the rise of the “fact-checkers,” a whole industry of them, deputized by major media outlets, Big Tech corporations, and governments to declare what is officially true. Those who call these inquisitorial truth squads into question are themselves branded as biased, ignorant, or purveyors of disinformation. You just don’t disagree with the experts and The Science, if you want to be part of the mainstream conversation.

I’m in a fairly unique position to comment on this trend. I’m a Ph.D. philosopher actually trained in epistemology, and I am co-founder (or “ex-founder”) of Wikipedia and other reference and education projects, which are used to articulate and check facts. I was also the first and most vigorous proponent of Wikipedia’s neutrality policy, and I have long been philosophically opposed to relativism, i.e., the view that the truth essentially depends on your (or your culture’s) point of view.

In plain terms: the objective truth is out there. For real. In my well-considered opinion, the objective truth is simply too important not to be left up to us to decide individually. If our supposed betters are permitted to propagandize us with what they arrogantly declare are the unassailable facts, we will quickly slide into authoritarianism. Or rather, heavy-handed, manipulative Establishment dogmatism is a symptom of authoritarianism that is already here and growing daily.

I actually think there can be such a thing as reasonable, reliable fact-checking. Let’s compare it to the often bogus versions we are presented with today. Sometimes the facts are, on some questions, practically beyond reasonable dispute—namely, when the facts are relatively simple, on anyone’s view, and the means of ascertaining them are also well agreed. Big media companies sometimes hire people to do this sort of relatively straightforward fact-checking; I once spent over two hours on the phone with a fact-checker from The New Yorker for a story written by Stacy Schiff. But public fact-checkers, the ones that are used to “debunk false narratives,” frequently comment on quite complex questions. And there are some earmarks of reasonable, rational, non-manipulative fact-checking of complex questions.

For one thing, especially in inherently complex topics such as geopolitics, economics, and cutting-edge science, there are rarely simple yes/no answers. This is not because the truth is relative—quite the contrary. It is because the objective truth, the mind-independent truth, is almost always messy and complex, and requires considerable background information and careful verbiage to lay out with any accuracy. Reality emphatically does not have “a bias,” as when people say, “Reality has a liberal bias.” To say so is merely to point out your own ideological blinkers smugly. Good journalists and “fact-checkers” shine the light of reason on reality in its full splendor; they show it by turns to be confounding, stunning, pedestrian, stranger the fiction, rigorously rule-following, random and unpredictable, admirable, heartwarming, bloody and cruel, and dismayingly politically incorrect. Any sufficiently large chunk of reality never fits simplistic journalistic narratives.

If you dogmatically insist on the results of quick, simplistic, and one-sided “fact-checks,” you are showing you do not care about objective truth. Objective truth and the process of demonstrating it are rarely quick and simplistic. A fact-check—or for that matter, any encyclopedia article or textbook—is irresponsible if it offers up one definite “true” or “false” bottom-line answer for a complex question, even if it proceeds to defend its point of view, if it does not acknowledge the complexity of the question. Good fact-checkers instead break inherently multi-part questions into their components, acknowledging matters of opinion, ruling definitively where there is broad agreement on narrow questions, and when there is inadequate evidence on a question, then leaving it, yes, entirely open. It is a travesty that so many fact-checkers (and journalists, encyclopedists, and educators) so rarely say “we don’t know” or “it is up to you to decide.”

Another earmark of responsible fact-checking is openness to radically divergent points of view during the process of information-gathering. You cannot shut yourself off from sources because you think they are “biased.” Anyone who is not self-consciously following the (difficult) canons of neutrality is bound to be biased, and generally speaking, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a point of view when building a case in science, research, law, policymaking, and punditry, and many other disciplines.

In fact, if you want to see what happens to the neutrality of a reference work when certain sources are eliminated for their supposed bias, look no further than Wikipedia. Amazingly, sources of staunch conservative opinion and reporting are all verboten. The vast majority of permitted sources are progressive or radical, and what few centrist and center-right sources are permitted represent the “loyal opposition” that rarely strays far outside the Establishment’s Overton window. As a result, Wikipedia’s articles are so badly biased that, on topics relevant to the Culture War, it is no great exaggeration to call them “propaganda.”

Here then is one more earmark of good fact-checking: neutrality. If I can tell your party alignment, position on a controversial issue, or approval or disapproval of a politician, how on earth can you expect me to take you seriously as a fair arbiter of truth? I cannot. Public fact-checkers often pretend to play the role of impartial judge of truth. Yet just as often it is easy to infer the writer’s bias from the title and first paragraph; even if fact-checkers conceal their bias that far, it typically comes out farther down.

I am not saying there is something wrong with a fact-checker asserting one side is right and the other is wrong when it comes to a relatively simple factual question, if indeed the facts are clear and well-documented. That can be OK. What I am saying is that, frequently, it is glaringly obvious how the article could be improved in point of even-handedness. Many mainstream media fact-checks of statements by Republicans, for example, make only the thinnest, briefest explanation of what motivated a statement put under the microscope. They then proceed to strike down a straw-man version that bears only a passing resemblance to the original statement in context.

The irony is that the sort of people who claim to be so concerned “disinformation” routinely follow a simplistic and unobjective approach to fact-checking. Yet they point to the results of such fact-checks as unassailable evidence of objective truth.

And this is surprising, isn’t it? Twenty or thirty years ago, when I was teaching philosophy, I remember complaining about students who were steeped in the relativism of the dominant culture. I constantly had to fight against this notion that it’s all just a matter of opinion (so why should we bother studying philosophy at all?). Yet now, with the Establishment deciding they need to get a firmer grip on public opinion, all that relativism seems to have disappeared like a morning fog under the hot midday sun.

Don’t get me wrong; I still hate relativism, and in fact, the current shoddy methods of fact-checking show that these supposedly sober journalists still do embrace relativism—but, being close to power, now they say that the truth is whatever The Man says it is. And then they merely lie that this is the objective truth.

Wikipedia Criticism With a Scottish Accent

Larry Sanger

Neil Oliver is an interesting cultural and political commentator from Scotland. I sat down with him last weekend.

What Is Minifeed and How Can It Help You?

Larry Sanger

YOU want to control your social media feed. You want to own your follower lists. You don’t want to have to please the poor, pitiful moderators at some giant, cynical Silicon Valley behemoth. Just like on your blog, nobody should be able to shut you up—though, to be sure, they can shut you out of their own feed. In fact, if you leave Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever, you’d like to be take along your content and your followers and still have them, with just as much impact as they were having before. How could we make that possible?

Well, why not use the same open network that connects our blogs together—RSS—to connect our social media? That was the thought I had last January, when I posted “We Want to Pay for a Good, Functioning WordPress Microposting Plugin.”

The Knowledge Standards Foundation took on the project, and the first example microblog—or, as we call it, “minifeed”—was StartThis:

The new Minifeed theme turns a WordPress blog into a social media feed. StartThis happens to run on my own NAS sitting in a box at home and backed up offsite. It’s pretty cool to be able to control my own social media feed literally from the comfort of my own home. There are over a dozen other Minifeed installs, including one for the Minifeed project itself. You’re going to see a lot more popping up when we finish version 2. When v2 is ready, we’ll make it fully open source (both libre and gratis). It might just change the world…for the better. We’ll take back what’s ours.

v2: General Requirements

Just as I posted the requirements for Minifeed v1 on this blog, I’m going to post the requirements for v2 here too.

In the following, “mini” is short for “Minifeed”.

The first step of v2 is to create a social media reader. This is a big enough job that it might occupy all of v2, but we do want to go further to support cross-mini (or inter-mini) conversations as well as a notification feed. We will build the reader first, anyway. The basic requirements can be briefly listed:

  • Follow and unfollow an RSS feed.
  • Display only my (i.e., this mini install’s) posts—as at present.
  • Feed reader: display my feed with posts from followed feeds (i.e., from other mini installs) intermixed with mine.
  • If this is different from the foregoing, which it might not be: display other RSS feeds formatted as minis.
  • Add inter-mini discussion threading.
  • Support account mention features.
  • Display mentions in notification feed.

Assorted feature requests associated with the above:

  • The format for a mini account mention should be as in the Fediverse: @[email protected] my Twitter address is @[email protected], while my StartThis address is @[email protected], and my mini address is @[email protected]
  • If I type a well-formed mini address, the software should attempt to find the associated RSS feed and account information. It should pop up the account information in a box, as Twitter does at present. I should be able to follow and unfollow the account from that interface.
  • I should also be able to follow a feed simply by pasting it into a form (i.e., this is what you have already started developing).
  • If I type @id with no domain, the software should attempt to identify that person and complete (shown on mouseover) the address if it is unique. If it is not unique, I should be forced to type the whole address.

I will continue to work on this post over the next few days to weeks, so let me know if you have any special (related) requests or ideas.

My Interview on Epoch Times

Larry Sanger

Is There an Exit from Search Hell?

Larry Sanger
Search Hell.

UPDATE (March 14, 2022): like DuckDuckGo, Qwant has also decided to censor RT and Sputnik (Russian state media). Text slightly changed below.

UPDATE 2 (April 2, 2022): as noted below, Gibiru routes their results through Google. So, no. But I discovered Seekr.com, which seems like a possibility. Need to evaluate the extent to which they use Google and Bing.

The Problem: DDG Has Jumped the Shark

I would not use Google; it’s both censorware and spyware. And I would not trust Bing, or Yahoo, which is powered by Bing, for the same reason. Such reasoning is why many of us switched to DuckDuckGo in the last few years, despite the fact that Bing is one of their sources. In addition to supporting user privacy, when I switched, they seemed to be of decent quality and, importantly, not to be censored.

Unfortunately, that seems to have changed. Read this from DDG’s CEO:

Very well, now DuckDuckGo’s CEO has as good as declared that they, too, have been censoring their results (I’ve been wondering, frankly) and as a company are not afraid to announce censorship policies.

Now, let’s be clear. I have no issues with search engines using a wide variety of methods of determining the most relevant and useful search results. A search engine need not be strictly a popularity contest, for example, a la Google. But when a search engine specifically declares that it will censor (yes, down-ranking is a kind of censorship) “sites associated with Russian disinformation”, that signals that they have set themselves up to be arbiters of what counts as political “disinformation.” That is not a role I want a search engine to play; as a conservatarian, I would not even want a search engine to weed out left-wing establishment views from results, because I want to know what those people are saying, too.

The Alternatives

It takes a while to create a good search engine—we saw that in the late 90’s with Google, and then much later with DuckDuckGo itself. Are any other search engines (1) competent (surfacing many relevant search results) and also (2) unbiased? This is hard to determine, and one cannot make any conclusions without actually trying them out.

Let us review some of the more interesting alternative search engines on offer, comparing them on a variety of searches: (a) encyclopedic/general info (are the results relevant/useful?); (b) current news related (unbiased/balanced?); (c) technical (do they actually find good StackOverflow or other forum answers to problems?); (d) other assorted searches, including philosophy, theology, and geography/local.

I will look at Brave and Qwant in detail, and Gibiru, Gigablast, and Mojeek briefly. I will not be reviewing StartPage for the simple reason that they use Google, nor Swisscows or OneSearch, because they use Bing. (By the way, if you want a family-friendly search engine that doesn’t use Google data, Swisscows might work for you or your kids.) In fact, one of the dirty little secrets of the world of alternative search engines is that most of them are just the biggies repackaged—but not all. I am also not going to consider the English Yandex, because it’s run by Russians. I certainly have nothing against Russians, but I also don’t want a Russian point of view and, indeed—they do engage in propaganda, just as Google does.

So here goes. I will focus on the desktop experience. I will begin with the search engine so many people on Twitter were recommending in response to a recent tweet of mine:

Brave Search

Brave Search is associated with the Brave browser I’ve been using. Both were founded by JavaScript developer Brendan Eich, who was canceled by Mozilla for giving money to the anti-gay marriage side in the California proposition 8 debate. Brave Search does its own indexing but also makes use of other search engines as well. They are focused on privacy and, one might expect, offering a broader ideological landscape. But the latter, not so much.

George Washington

  • Nice pre-search results! Neat!
  • I’m not French. Why the heck am I getting this at the top of my results? But this might be a temporary glitch, because I didn’t see this message when I tried the search later (I don’t think I dismissed it either).
  • But when I search “GAFAM” on Brave, apart from pushing Wikipedia right to the top, the results seem rather good to me: a nice variety, sources seem credible and the offerings useful.
  • Anyway. Back to Brave’s “George Washington” results. Ugh, here’s Wikipedia right at the top!
  • Then comes GWU, a history.com page, the Mount Vernon museum, Britannica, GWU law school, the Mount Vernon museum again, the Miller Center (on the presidency), etc. Not bad, on the whole.

catcher in the rye summary

  • Actually quite good, as far as I can tell. A lot of relevant information. SparkNotes #1, Britannica #2, Wikipedia #3.

Where do ducks go when ponds freeze over?

  • Only OK. First two results are from answers.com, ugh. The first answer isn’t bad, the second sucks, the third is autogenerated SEO-gaming nonsense, and the rest actually seems to be OK.

Now some current news-related topics.


  • In order, the results (below) are: Wikipedia, ABC News, then comes an “In the News” section (from CNN, NYTimes, and NBC News…ugh), Britannica, a Guardian category page, a NY Times recent update, a CBS News category page, a CNN recent update, the State Dept. page.
  • This is surprising and disappointing in two ways. First, there are no conservative sources among the news results: I checked, i.e., on the first page, not a single news result from anything that wasn’t obviously liberal/progressive. Highly favors CNN, NY Times, CBS, and NBC.
  • Second, since the search phrase didn’t specifically concern the news, I wasn’t expecting to find such an extremely high concentration of news-related results. If I had wanted news, I would have clicked on the news tab. The general search should not give me news predominantly.

inflation and gas prices

  • While my search is fairly generic (the relationship between inflation and gas prices is a fairly important topic in economics), again, most of the results are news. Not my preference.
  • Sources in order: CNBC, LA Times, Pew Research, NY Times, WaPo…ugh again.

trans terf controversy

  • The thing I’ll look for here is pretty much anything that isn’t in favor of the trans political agenda. And…yeah, it’s almost all news and explainers told from a pro-trans political agenda (the NBC News seems relatively even-handed between trans and feminist), and all Dave Chappelle and J.K. Rowling, who cause old liberals difficulties because they’re not exactly conservative but they refuse to get in line with the trans agenda. But maybe pro-trans folks are all who are actually, you know, writing about this?

Now some technical searches.

java.lang.IllegalArgumentException: An SPI class of type org.apache.lucene.codecs.PostingsFormat with name ‘Lucene90’ does not exist. You need to add the corresponding JAR file supporting this SPI to your classpath. The current classpath supports the following names: [IDVersion]

  • This is a search recently performed in this household. No results from Brave. DDG does fine with it.

How to initialize an array of the first ten integers briefly ruby

  • Generic results only. Does not actually answer the question, but plenty of specific answers are available. DDG is much better.

Now, for special interest to me, I’ll do some random searches on topics of interest to me: philosophy, theology, geography/local, and Irish fiddle.

Thomas Reid theory of perception

  • Wow! Really not bad at all! SEP is #1, then two academic sources, then a book by a guy I went to grad school with, then IEP. Well done!

“God was with him” (in quotes)

  • Wow again! Quotation pages from the Bible, followed by specific commentary on the meaning of the phrase.
  • Moreover, despite the fact I used quotation marks in my search, the results also (even mainly) include pages about “The Lord was with him.”

pizza near me

  • I’m reasonably pleased with the map that I get as a result (below). Glad they don’t depend 100% on Yelp.
  • This is not where I live, but it is probably close to the Verizon server I’m connected to.
  • When I substitute the name of the nearest town to me, I get an auto parts store and an apartment building as #2 and #3. That’s weird. The rest of the results are OK.

‘Shamrock Hill’ reel

  • The page from thesession.org should be in the #1 place, but #3 is OK. DDG is better. Not very good results, but far from not useless. But:

“Shamrock Hill” reel (with double quotes instead of single quotes)

  • I tried the search again now with double quotes, and lo and behold, the results are pretty much perfect. Just the results I would expect, in the order I’d expect.

Summary of findings about Brave Search: for a relatively new search engine, it was better than expected. Several times, the search had results that were as good as DDG’s. It is still a bit rough around the edges, though. The biggest issue I have with it is in the news topic related searches: they could have been delivered by Google, they were that focused on mainstream liberal-left news. If I am going to abandon DuckDuckGo because they are pushing a liberal-left viewpoint now, I don’t see why I wouldn’t draw the same conclusion about Brave Search. Sorry, Brave. I have to call it as I see it.


Qwant is French, nine years old, and another search engine that is highly focused on privacy. They’re supposed to do their own indexing. Last I checked, long ago, they definitely weren’t ready for prime time. But maybe they’re better now. I’ll comment at the bottom about the claim that they depend on Bing. I’ll try the same searches I did before.

But first, an update, as a tweet came to my attention the day after first publishing this blog post.

So apparently, Qwant too has decided to decide for its users what ought to count as “war propaganda.” Make use of that information as you will; but for me, as with DDG, this is a decisive count against them. Again, this is not because I hold a brief for Russia or Russian media in particular, but simply because, if a search engine presumes to make such a decision on my behalf, then I cannot trust them not to make other censorious decisions as well.

George Washington

  • The results, even with Wikipedia right at the top, are very similar (including many of the same results, in a different order) to Brave. Not bad.

catcher in the rye summary

  • This is a bit better than Brave. It has all the lit sites I’m used to seeing: SparkNotes, LitCharts, ThoughtCo, GradeSaver, WritingExplained, CourseHero, etc. Wikipedia is there, but in spot #7.

Where do ducks go when ponds freeze over?

  • Again, quite good answers. Has something from Parlia before the two Answers.com answers (ugh), and the rest of the results seem plausible. Better than Brave again.


  • We get a flag, map, and infobox in the left column, above the regular results, which frankly makes some sense to me. Pretty attractive.
  • Despite being French, Qwant knows I’m American and shows me American news sources. Like Brave, the results are mostly news, but not entirely. Sources: NBC, Sky, CBS, CBS Local (LA), MSNBC, the CIA World Factbook, State.gov page on Ukraine, Fox country landing page, MSN page on “war in Ukraine,” and finally a page on Ukraine from PremierChristianRadio.
  • While again there is not enough general info, and too much news/orientation from liberal sources, but at least they actually had Sky, Fox, and PremierChristianRadio—all three establishment conservative sources. Interesting. Better than Brave.

inflation and gas prices

  • This leads with the gas prices page from USInflationCalculator.com, which seems very appropriate. The other sources are USN&WR, CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, Motor Trend, NY Post, a radio station, CBS Local (Boston), and finally an economist’s blog that actually addresses the question, “What happens to gas prices during inflation?” Dang, Qwant is just leaving Brave in the dust here. Where Brave had nothing but establishment left and local sources, at least Qwant has CNBC and USN&WR (maybe more centrist), Fox Business, and NY Post. No big complaints here.
  • But several results match perfectly with Bing, albeit in a slightly different order.

trans terf controversy

  • Now we enter real controversial territory, and Qwant is like Brave: different selection of articles, but 100% on the trans side (see below).
  • I find it hard to believe that the “terfs,” i.e., the (typically) radical feminist and especially lesbian commentariat has nothing to say about the controversy. But it’s not implausible that their stuff is mostly buried in relatively obscure blogs.

ame ‘Lucene90’ does not exist. You need to add the corresponding JAR file supporting this SPI to your classpath. The current classpath supports the following names: [IDVersion]

  • Very poor. At least it had some results (unlike Brave), but they are useless. Seems partly based on Bing.

How to initialize an array of the first ten integers briefly ruby

  • Returns good StackOverflow pages in the first two results. The rest are more general, but that’s not worse than DDG. Only Google is better (and there I’d recommend using StartPage instead since they give you Google results without the spyware).

Thomas Reid theory of perception

  • Here we have the first instance where the Qwant results are significantly worse than Brave. Result #1 is a student paper, a PDF; then come some academic sources which are fine, and finally we get some relevant SEP and IEP articles in positions 8 and 9.
  • Seems to be derived from Bing.

“God was with him”

  • This is a bit different from Brave. The results are: a blog on the meaning of the phrase; a collection of Bible quotes; two sermons; etc. Anyway, not too bad, but I like Brave’s results more here, too.

pizza near me

  • Interesting. Qwant is so averse to making use of your personal information that they do not even make use of your IP address to give you personalized results. That’s quite OK by me.
  • When I do “pizza near [a town near me]”, I get some pages, not its own results, giving “The 10 BEST Pizza Places in …”. I like this more. These are actually useful results.

‘Shamrock Hill’ reel

  • Excellent results, in the order I’d prefer. The double-quote version is not the same, but also good. The latter in particular are quite close to Bing’s.

Summary of findings about Qwant: I could see switching to Qwant, but their use of Bing is a sticking point. The results are better than Brave’s in most cases, but they do still seem to make heavy use of Bing; still, they appear to use data not reflected in Bing’s results. I would need to study to what extent Qwant uses Bing. A bit too much for my taste, I think. And my updated conclusion is the fact that Qwant decided to censor Russian state media for me is a reason to think they’re not above censoring all sorts of other things. That sort of controlling behavior is not a thing I can support or endorse, so it’s a firm “no” from me to Qwant.

Briefer reviews

Other search engines present some interesting options, but ultimately, I was disappointed. Gigablast had its start in 2000 and since 2013 has been open source. It claims to be an independent web crawler. The front page sports a U.S. flag and the tagline, “F*** all dictators!” (without the asterisks); search results are shown with a rather bizarre design. But the results are OK, as far as I can tell. They still place sometimes Wikipedia on top as in the case of “George Washington”, but the results for “Ukraine” were different: CIA Factbook came first, then U.K. travel advice, Twitter hashtag #Ukraine, and lo and behold, between Ukraine Tax Treaty Documents and HuffPo, there is the Ukraine landing page at Epoch Times. “Inflation and gas prices” ranges from Democratic Underground to Daily Mail, with everything in between; the results are certainly more diverse than the others. Meanwhile, “trans terf controversy” has even more radical trans sources, but also more articles from the Daily Mail. The long Java error message generated simply “Error = Query too big”, while the Ruby query generated useful results. The ” ‘Shamrock Hill’ reel” results were embarrassingly bad.

Gibiru…stop the presses! Update! I just noticed that all their search results are actually routed through Google. Avoid. Anyway, Gibiru bills itself as not just another privacy-oriented search engine, but also as “uncensored.” The latter is strictly marketing, however, and probably means very little; the results I saw were pretty typical. Its results do appear to be comparable to Brave and Qwant in terms of relevance, but sometimes a bit strange (the “George Washington” search didn’t inspire confidence, but others were OK). They are still dominated by establishment news, though with perhaps more centrist and factual Establishment sources. I could find no information about the sources of their index, but it was frequently similar to Brave. It is harder in their case to demonstrate that they use other search engines, but they might. (I could find no information on this.) Update, again: avoid Gibiru. They route their searches through Google.

Mojeek gives plenty of info about itself, and it claims to be entirely independent, having built its own index. So, that’s nice. How does it do? “George Washington” results are pretty spotty; it begins with Wikipedia, and five of the next six results do not actually concern George Washington, but things (or people) named after him. It does well with “catcher in the rye summary”, but poorly with “Where do ducks go when ponds freeze over?”, though it is entirely clear that the results are very different from other search engine’s, which is nice, as far as it goes. “Ukraine” has neither very much nor high-quality info about the country in general, nor even a decent selection of news, though mostly it’s news. In short, the rest is mostly of poor quality and not really ready for prime time; it reminds me of the also-ran search engines of yesteryear, full of puzzling, irrelevant results.

One more search, just to double-check

Frankly, the main reason I am disappointed with DDG is its move toward censorship and ideological filtering—which was one of the main reasons I had for abandoning Google in the first place. So you might do several ideological searches, comparing DDG, Brave, Qwant, Gigablast, and Gibiru. (I’m not going to bother with Mojeek because its results are so often useless.)

Well, I’ll try one, because this takes a long time. What search term shall I try? How about…

gay marriage

I am not suggesting that there’s something wrong with gay marriage. I’m using this as a sharp divider between Establishment liberals and disaffected conservatives.

  • DDG: This was weird because I ended up refreshing the page a few different times and my results changed very slightly each time. It always begins with Wikipedia and History.com, but in the third place is ProCon.org, which I can vouch is scrupulously neutral (I know the founder). Then Wikipedia again, IGLTA (International LGBTQ+ Travel Association), once I saw The Knot.com (an interest group for gay marriage), GotQuestions.org (uber-conservative), once I saw Brookings.edu (uber-DC Establishment), tfpstudentaction.org (blog of a “Tradition, Family, Property Student Action” group), an IMDb movie page, a Georgetown academic page, and a pro-gay marriage Psych Today article. So, DDG is certainly on its way to liberal orthodoxy, but it does have two firmly conservative pages and one studiously middle-of-the-road pages; all the rest are quite liberal in point of view.
  • Brave Search: sources include Wikipedia, ProCon again (wonderful), Council on Foreign Relations (pretends to neutrality and factuality but is of course firmly in the pro-gay marriage camp), American Psych Assoc (very pro), New Yorker, Pew Research (5 facts, all good news for gay marriage, but does seem to be factual), Human Rights Campaign (pro), USN&WR (factual page on same-sex marriage around the world), Britannica, History.com. Of these, I would count 1-3 as neutral, none conservative, and all the rest strongly pro-gay marriage. OK then. And that’s supposed to be our replacement for DDG because DDG has abandoned principle? Hmm.
  • Qwant: here we have Wikipedia, History.com, ProCon again, an IMDb movie page, the TFPStudentAction blog from DDG, a Georgetown academic page, Wikipedia again, the Psych Today pro article, an attempt at a neutral “pro and con” article from Marriage.com, and TheKnot page. That’s it. The results are very similar to DDG.
  • Gigablast: sources include NY Times (three articles), Obergefell v. Hodges itself (nice!), Gay Wedding Blog on Facebook plus two other Facebook pages, CNN Money (touting the “big business” of gay weddings), a page on the conservative Christian blog All About Worldview, two IMDb movie pages, three Pew Forum research pages (mostly factual), two activist GLAAD pages, The Atlantic, three (pro) Amazon book pages, another Obergefell law page, three EventBrite “Gay Wedding Show” pages, SCOTUSblog (law, factual), Newsweek (three different URLs pointing to the same pro article; embarrassing), three Politico pages…and it goes on. Well, here again we have one conservative blog post, several more or less factual (or perhaps more subtly biased) law and polling pages, and all the rest, the vast majority of the pages, are wildly pro. OK dokey.
  • Gibiru: here we have Wikipedia, ProCon, Obergefell itself, NPR, ABC, CFR again, Human Rights Campaign again, another Obergefell law page, Pew, Britannica, Pew again, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services FAQ page, a YouTube video embarrassing to Hillary Clinton, a SSA (U.S. gov) page, a YouTube song (it’s funny I guess), Pew a third time, BBC, Gallup, the Georgetown academic page, and Gallup again. Now, this is interesting. Gibiru actually focuses on supplying mostly (i.e., the majority of the pages) polling info and sociological and legal facts. So frankly, maybe this should be called the winner on this search; if you actually wanted to learn about the topic, as opposed to absorbing opinion, Gibiru would be a better source than the previous four.

There is so much overlap here—when I am very sure these pages that just keep coming up have no great justification to keep coming up—that I am curious what Bing has. Let’s have a look, shall we?

  • Bing: …yeah. A lot of articles we’ve seen above. Wikipedia, history.com, ProCon, GotQuestions, TFPStudentAction (i.e., the two conservative articles I was impressed to see in DDG), Psych Today, the Georgetown page, WorldPopulationReview.com (the only one found only here), a pro YouTube video, and another Wikipedia page (shown to me because Bing knows I’m in Ohio).

And a quick check of Google also surfaces many of these. So what does that show? It shows that DDG is still using Bing results heavily; but, to a slightly lesser extent, so are Brave, Qwant, and perhaps Gibiru too. They might all also use Google as well. Only Gigablast is very different, but it’s very biased. Gibiru, as I said, focuses on facts and seems to downrank opinion, which is better at least than results stuffed with left-wing opinion.

Tentative Conclusion

According to this highly unscientific and small amount of testing, if you want to avoid ideological bias similar to Google’s, switching from DDG to Brave Search will not actually be an improvement. DDG still seems to make heavy use of Bing, which is why it’s so similar to Qwant, which also uses Bing. Gigablast will give you something different, for sure, but it has a weird design and is just as left-wing as the rest. Gibiru might make use of other sources for its index, and it is not so obviously based mainly on Bing; and it is sometimes more focused on facts over opinion, but not always.

These are all my vague impressions based on hours spent staring at and comparing search results.

My overall conclusion is not good news for people who are interested in neutral and factual information: We do not really seem to have any meaningful choices when it comes to search engines. These are all better than Google, though, in terms of ideological bias.

Sorry. Wish the news were better. I really wanted to like Brave, and failing Brave, then something else. Heck, in terms of simply giving the conservative Internet a voice, DDG and Brave seem no better than Bing. But it should of course be better in terms of privacy.

(But I’ll tell you what. As I constructed this, I frequently made use of the KSF-run encyclopedia meta-search engine EncycloSearch, because I knew I wanted a basic encyclopedia article, and this is actually more useful in surfacing a good variety of such articles than general search engines do. It won’t replace a general search engine, but sometimes it’s better than one.)

“But Wait,” You Say

Some people will look at the conclusions and say—as they often do, regarding bias in the news media, Wikipedia, and academia—that this state of affairs is simply a reflection of reality. These information sources all seem to be biased because, as leftists sometimes smugly and laughably say, reality “has a liberal bias.” Similarly, the reason all search engines seem to have a bias toward left-wing information is that there is simply more left-wing information online. Most people writing substantive material online, which might be linked-to from a search engine, just happen to share views that I would describe as “Establishment left.” And so what? I am asked.

I do not know if the latter claim true. Maybe it is. On certain topics (such as some of my searches, like “trans terf controversy” and “gay marriage”), of course there is a lot more written on the topics from a left-wing point of view. This is easily spotted and not hard to acknowledge.

But does that mean search engines must be designed so as to reflect the proportion of an ideological weighting among all possible search results? Of course not. We can design search engines however we like. As with news, reference, and education, I would prefer that the information I get from search engines be scrupulously designed so as to make it easier for me to make up my own mind about controversial topics, not harder. We might not agree on what ought to be controversial; as a philosopher and free thinker (very broadly speaking), I would like to be exposed to a very wide variety of points of view. The thought that search engines, like those other info sources, are designed to manipulate me—as they manifestly are—makes me livid. I am not a programmable robot. I am a free and critically-thinking citizen of a republic, or I would like to be, anyway.

Look at it this way. Among the responses to searches on politically charged topics such as “Ukraine” and “gay marriage,” there are boatloads of relevant pages, from a wide variety of sources, that I would want placed higher than just these. Why on earth should we constantly see Wikipedia, New York Times, Britannica, Vox, Pew, ABC News, CNN, etc., come up over and over and over again? I don’t mean I want to see more of Fox, WSJ, the New York Post, and the Daily Mail. I mean, that wouldn’t hurt, but that’s not my point. I would like to see high-quality material (there is a lot) from the long tail of downranked websites. I saw the Epoch Times once, and the Federalist, Breitbart, and National Review never. There were very few relatively obscure websites.

The broad overlap in most search results is a massive smoking gun that search is wrong. Massive amounts of useful content can only be found by drilling down into individual sites. It’s systematically hidden.

It seems to me there is a wide open opportunity for fresh, new kinds of search engines, with obvious features such as:

  • Ideological sliders. Why can’t I just specify that I want to see more conservative results, or more liberal results? And why stop there? Why not allow users specifically to give more weight to results that are Christian, atheist, traditionalist, feminist, libertarian, communist, techie, lawyerly, academic, etc.? We’ve been robbed, people. Why haven’t they done this? I’ll tell you why. It’s not because giant corporations like Google and Microsoft can’t make such a product. Of course they can. It’s because they don’t want to. They want to control you. That’s rather the whole point, for the oligarchs in control of the Googles of the world.
  • Easy switching between nationalities, and blending. I’d love to see a combo of American, English, Canadian, Australian, and Kiwi results.
  • Opinion search. We need more intelligent and deep indexing and results from blogs, Reddit, Quora, and the like.
  • Use of user ratings of content. With, of course, the absolutely essential ability to control which categories of raters that one will trust. This is how many social websites work internally (Amazon, YouTube, Twitter, etc.); why not the entire web, then? There is an answer: it’s because Google and Microsoft don’t actually want you to weighing in on certain information sources; you might come to the wrong conclusions.
  • In short, lots of settings. Who the hell decided it was a good idea to make the search experience the same for everyone in an entire country? I’ll tell you who: people to whom it is very important that they retain the ability to make entire countries (and ultimately the whole world) think the same way.

We’re very far from such search engines. I don’t know what I’m going to use going forward. I’ll probably switch off among the above until I settle in with one that I like best. But I won’t be happy about it.

What I’d really like to see is a statistical measurement of the top, say, 20 results from the top dozen or 20 search engines, on 1000 different quite various queries. Questions I want answered:

(1) How different are the results, on average, from Google and Bing?
(2) How many of the results are unique or very rare (compared to other search engines)?

Basically, I think there are boatloads of great content that rarely show high up on any search engines. Of course, this is necessitated by the sheer size of the web versus the limited real estate at the top of search results. But still: my contention is that, very often, there are better results that never float to the top of any of these search engines.

And that’s a problem they should have solved by now.

Why Neutrality

Larry Sanger

I drafted this article for Ballotpedia.org, where it first appeared December 2015. I since published a slightly updated version (not the one below) in Essays on Free Knowledge.

As a teenager, I habitually scanned encyclopedias, newspapers, and textbooks—angrily. I was on the lookout for bias. I had discovered, to my frequent irritation, that writers of authoritative texts would present only one side of a dispute, as if it were uncontroversially true. Honest and important debates were treated as if they didn’t exist. An encyclopedia writer, for example, was supposed to be an objective source imparting facts. Where a dispute existed, the writer was supposed to represent a broad range of opinions fairly, and anything controversial should have been left up to me to decide for myself. Instead, these writers were indoctrinating me, or trying to. What an abuse of a position of authority! How infuriating!

Later in life, given the opportunity to start an encyclopedia, I was a zealot for neutrality. My teenage ire at shamefully biased writers and editors found expression in Nupedia’s neutrality policy, which in turn became Wikipedia’s. I defended these policies at length against criticisms, but I never carefully articulated or defended my views on neutrality in a paper. Finally, I have an opportunity to do so. Ballotpedia has asked me to write this paper as part of their effort to adopt more formal, systematic principles and practices surrounding neutrality.

In this essay, I will defend neutrality as the preferred policy for some types of writing. I will define neutral writing, lay out four arguments in favor of a policy neutral writing, and refute some common criticisms. I will conclude by suggesting that publishers adopt both neutrality guidelines and editorial processes to make sure that the guidelines are followed.

Criticisms are lurking in the background throughout this essay, and let me tip my hat slightly at them before I dive in.

I concede that neutrality is a headache. It is so difficult to achieve that bias is the norm, and it will continue to be the norm unless it is deliberately eradicated.

Neutrality, even if it is a writer’s aim, can be very hard to achieve. Neutral writers have to have mastered their subject and then be extremely careful and fair-minded. Otherwise, they are almost sure to display bias. In my experience, neutrality doesn’t come easily to any of us, but is a discipline that must be practiced. Some of us don’t even seem to have the concept, or rather we confuse it with objectivity or being scientific or describing a middle ground or taking the most mainstream position. Even if we understand the ideal of neutrality—understanding it does make it easier to achieve—and our writing is successfully unbiased, others may misunderstand what we have achieved. Partisans might think we are soft on “the other side” (meaning the one they’re opposed to) or even biased in its favor. Neutral writers might even be accused, perversely, I think, of “false balance.” So, as difficult as it is, a neutrality policy might seem more trouble than it’s worth.

Besides, not everyone is on board with neutrality. Bias (in the sense of tendentious, one-sided communication) has its apologists. Some claim that neutrality is not just difficult but actually impossible. We are each hopelessly biased and we simply cannot keep our biases from coming out, they say. Some go further to claim that neutrality is simply wrong or unreasonable in many cases. Some points of view do not deserve any expression. And where the truth is known, it is wrong to pretend it is not.

I disagree. What if I were to tell you that, if you write biased encyclopedia and newspaper articles, you’re doing a moral wrong, and what you’re doing is on a par with propaganda? Ridiculous, you say? But it’s true, as I’ll argue further down.

What is neutrality?

1. Defining “neutrality”

First, let’s define neutrality.

Here’s the basic idea: if you’re neutral, you don’t take a position. You present all sides fairly and let your reader decide which is correct.

A disputed topic is treated neutrally if each viewpoint about it is not asserted but rather presented (1) as sympathetically as possible, bearing in mind that other, competing views must be represented as well, and (2) with an equitable amount of space being allotted to each, whatever that might be.

On this account, neutrality is a concept dealing specifically with disputed topics, and it has three basic requirements.

First, if an issue that is mentioned in the text is disputed, the text takes no position on the issue. Neutrality is not some midpoint in between competing options. A political moderate’s positions are not “the neutral positions”: they are positions as well. Neutral writing takes no position, left, right, or middle.

Second, there’s the requirement of tone, or the strength of the case made for a viewpoint. Basically, if you’re going to be neutral, you have to represent all the main views about the topic, and you have to represent them all sympathetically, i.e., according to their best, most convincing arguments, evidence, and representatives.

Third, there’s the question of how much space it is fair or equitable to spend in a text on the different sides. Prima facie, it would seem that spending a numerically equal amount of space on both (or all) sides is fair, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Exactly how to apportion limited space is a complex question I’ll address further down.

Basically, to write neutrally is to lay out all sides of any disputed question, without asserting, implying, or insinuating that any one side is correct. If a debated point is mentioned, you represent the state of the debate rather than taking a stand.

As I will explain below, it is probably practically impossible to achieve perfect neutrality, if that were understood to mean neutrality with respect to all cultures and all historical eras. I will also mention the notion of a “good enough” neutrality. One observer noticed that these concessions seem to commit me to the proposition that neutrality comes in gradations or aspects—which is something I happily admit. What I advocate might be described as a strict or professional standard of neutrality.

2. Some principles of neutrality

Here are some general principles that are more or less implied by this definition. I don’t claim that these principles have no exceptions but only that they give a fairly good idea of what neutrality entails.

It is impossible to tell reliably what side of a disputed issue the author of the text is on, if the text is neutral with respect to that issue. The text avoids word quantity, choice, and tone that favors one side over another. Both or all sides agree that their side is fairly represented. Barring that, the text will tend to anger or dissatisfy everyone equally, although for different reasons. Generally, there is a focus on or preference for agreed-upon “facts.” If an opinion is included, it is attributed to a source. The debate is not engaged but rather described and characterized, including information about proportions of people on the different sides, where available. Controversial claims—i.e., claims that a party to a dispute might want to take issue with—are all attributed to specific sources. The author does not personally assert such claims. Biased sources are either eschewed or used in approximately equal numbers on both or all sides throughout a document. A document that uses many biased sources on only one side looks biased itself. When there is a “significant” (this word admittedly glosses over an important problem) ongoing debate and a source implies a definite stand on it in an article that is not about that debate, at the very least there must be some acknowledgment in the text that a disagreement exists. When it makes no sense for articles to be individually neutral, reporting and publications that are neutral with respect to a debate, or a field, will publish in equal amounts on both or all sides of an issue. If a publication favors one side because more papers are received on that side, or because more of the research community embraces that side, that might appear fair and reasonable, but it is not neutral and equally balanced: it will tend to make one side look better than the other.

3. Neutrality distinguished from rationality, scientific writing, and objectivity

Let’s get clear about one thing: neutrality is different from being rational, scientific, or objective. People often use these terms as if they were synonyms. For example, at least one journalist has argued that “ ‘neutral’ journalism can’t die fast enough,” but only by glossing over the distinction between neutrality and objectivity, and his piece simply did not consider the notion of neutrality discussed in this paper.

Rationality means (roughly) following the rules of logic and careful observation and proportioning belief to the amount and quality of the evidence. Being scientific (also roughly) means following the scientific method and, again, not believing a hypothesis unless it has been well established by the canons of science. Objectivity means deciding what to believe (or write) not based on mere feelings or prejudice, but strictly based on substantive considerations of evidence that are supposedly independent of our personal views.

Rationality, scientific method, and objectivity all concern epistemology or methodology, i.e., they are standards of knowledge, or else methods we use to determine our beliefs in an attempt to arrive at knowledge. Neutrality is in a different category altogether: it’s a standard of exposition, of expression. If I write neutrally, I am simply refusing to take a position. As I am neither evaluating or staking out a claim, the rationality, scientific merit, and objectivity of my claim are not at issue. It is true that in writing neutrally, I might help others to be objective. But neutrality is a style of writing, while objectivity is a state of mind. Expression is neutral; people and their mental states are (ideally) objective.

Neutrality and those other qualities are orthogonal. You can have one without the other. In fact, if you have written much in a neutral way, then you’ve probably represented views fairly that you believe to be irrational, unscientific, or subjective. You have simply not taken a position. Similarly, you can write a perfectly rational, scientific, and objective treatment of a topic—which takes one particular position in a hotly-debated dispute.

For example, suppose in a piece of writing, you discuss the measles vaccination controversy. If you’re going to write in accordance with the canons of science (and also rationality and objectivity, no doubt), then in my opinion, you will support the view that children should be vaccinated, period. But if what you write is going to be neutral with respect to current American society, you will have to withhold any such forthright claim. Rather, you’ll report that while a very large majority of doctors and scientists strongly advise vaccination, something like 9% of the population thinks that the measles vaccine is unsafe. You will not take or project any stand one way or another, although, to be fair to the vast majority of the public in favor of measles vaccination, in some kinds of articles you might spend only about 9% of the article on the anti-vaccination position.

4. Does equitable division of space always mean equal space?

You might well disagree with the latter sentence. Even if it is a minority view, why should the anti-vaccination position get only 9% of an article? It does not seem obvious that that’s fair. If we’re trying to help people make up their minds, why isn’t 50% fair and neutral? If neutrality means, ultimately, that the reader cannot guess your position as the writer, then a case can be made for 9%, and a case can be made for 50%.

I suggest that it depends on the type of writing. Consider two examples.

First, news reporting of scientific studies: each time a news service reports a new study on a scientific controversy, neutrality does not require that the journalist give equal space to all competing theories. That would be unreasonable. Neutrality, then, is not an article-level concept but a service-level concept. For example, the news service might have a rule to the effect that major studies supporting competing theories should be covered in proportion to how often they appear in major journals. Perhaps the journalist is obligated to acknowledge briefly that there are one or more competing theories, and if there happens to be a debate or disagreement about the study itself, that debate should be covered neutrally.

Second, articles introducing policy debates: surely we do expect an encyclopedia or debate website article on the vaccination issue to be scrupulously even-handed, and perhaps that really does mean giving approximately equal time to both or all sides. But why? Why should a description of the debate give 50% of the space to the anti-vaccination side if only 9% of the public (and probably less than 1% of doctors and medical researchers) are on that side? Why not give something like 9% to the anti-vaccination side? Wouldn’t that be fair? Why should the minority position be dignified to that extent?

I think the answer stems from the premise that the major purpose of reporting on a controversy is to enable people to come to their own conclusions about it. In that case, devoting more space to one side, even if it is the majority side, would suggest that that side is correct. This in turn would interfere with the mission of supporting readers in deciding the issue for themselves. Scrupulously presenting both or all sides in approximately equal proportions, and with the best available arguments, etc., gives readers no clues as to “the right” answer, requiring them to fall back on their own critical thinking skills. In other words, covering the debate in a strictly even-handed way enables readers to be more rational.

Advocacy journalism, I am well aware, rejects my premise that the purpose of reporting on a controversy is to enable people to come to their own conclusions about it, though. Still, that ought to clarify at least somewhat better what I mean by the third part, on fair apportionment of space, of my definition of “neutrality.” It gets more complicated, as I will explain in sections toward the end of this paper.

5. Traditionally neutral texts

There are at least three categories of text that are traditionally neutral: encyclopedia and reference writing, straight news writing, and basic textbooks. These aren’t always neutral, of course, but they are generally expected to be. Why? Why should they be expected to be neutral when opinion pieces, art, documentaries, scholarly papers and monographs, and various other forms aren’t?

Lower-level textbooks (through the junior high school level, say) are expected to impart facts and avoid controversy in order to give a student a basic foundation of knowledge. If an elementary school textbook is full of opinion, theory, and controversy, it’s less likely to be used, because students are expected to begin their studies with commonly known facts, which are more than enough to learn. At higher levels, a range of opinions and controversial theories may and indeed should be included, but even then, if they are not neutrally presented, the text runs the risk of alienating students and their parents. By making textbooks neutral, we make them satisfactory for everyone in a diverse society. Of course, there are biased texts—especially at the high school and college levels. Thoroughly biased texts, which inculcate only one political or religious view, are used especially by highly ideological teachers and professors, at religious schools, and in home schools; but such texts and teaching generally earn the contempt of many of us because the students who emerge will not be so well prepared for life in a more intellectually diverse society. Besides all that, texts that are biased are more likely to get the facts wrong, as I will argue with respect to journalism.

Not all journalism is or is expected to be neutral, of course. We think of journalism as straight reporting, but it also includes outright opinion pieces, advocacy journalism, and opinion and debate broadcasts. These biased forms have become dominant in 21st century society, especially on cable news shows, opinion websites, blogs, most news magazines, and talk radio. Yet even in our modern, cynical news consumption societies, “straight news” is still a fairly well-understood category and is generally expected to be neutral, even if it comes from Fox News or MSNBC. In a straight news story, the journalist’s opinion is irrelevant and distracting. Partly this is because there is typically a lot of news to report and reader time is quite limited as well. In addition, there are a lot of people—I am one—who simply don’t like any opinion mixed with their straight facts.

But a deeper reason is that ideologues seem to get the facts wrong so often when reporting the news. Reporting the straight facts speedily and readably with a maximum of accuracy and relevance is surprisingly difficult. Seeing the world always through red- or blue-colored lenses makes writing easier, but the hard job of accuracy on a deadline harder: it tends to blind writers to facts that sit poorly with their filters. So we naturally and rightly distrust the factual claims contained in reporting that strikes us as biased (cf. the “backfire effect”).

Finally, the function of encyclopedias and other reference material is to serve as highly relevant compendia of searchable facts. They are expected to be neutral for similar reasons to the foregoing. On the one hand, mixing opinion with straight factual writing wastes our time and distracts us from what we’re using reference materials for: learning the basic facts of what is known and believed about a topic. On the other hand, again, we don’t trust a reference to catalog complex facts reliably if it is also trying to persuade us of a particular point of view. Getting the facts right is hard enough as it is.

So, for the rest of this essay, I’ll refer to “traditionally neutral texts,” meaning encyclopedias, straight news, and textbooks.

By the way, there have been societies in which the news, encyclopedias, and textbooks were, all three, expected to reflect a single point of view, as if none other were possible: totalitarian societies are like that. The old Soviet Union—with its Pravda newspaper serving as the voice of the Communist Party, its Great Soviet Encyclopedia the source of state-approved facts, and its notoriously propaganda-laden textbooks—is perhaps the most famous historical example. Such openly, complacently biased publications strike us in the 21st century West as deeply problematic subversions of their traditional forms, serving as especially pungent illustrations of why totalitarian societies are so problematic.

Four arguments for neutrality

6. Neutrality respects personal autonomy

So, why neutrality?

I have attempted to explain why, traditionally, we expect certain texts to be neutral. Next, I will advance four arguments for neutrality that apply equally to all traditionally neutral texts.

My first argument is the longest and most important, and it’ll take several sections to go through.

Consider some examples of neutrality and objectivity:

  • a science textbook fairly explaining competing theories
  • a detailed encyclopedia article breaking down competing narratives and explanations of the Great Depression, and you can’t tell what side the author is on
  • a scrupulously balanced news article clarifying the latest policy debate, with all sides fully and sympathetically presented

I admire such approaches. Probably, you do too. But why do we?

It’s because neutral writing respects the reader. It shows the author is treating us like adults who wish to make up our minds rationally, using reason, logic, and evidence. If somebody is being conspicuously neutral, it inspires confidence that we are getting the facts, all the relevant facts, with emotion-driven rhetoric left out. We’re being left to decide the matter for ourselves, rationally.

Someone who writes neutrally supports our natural desire to be rational and thus puts us on the road to truth. The choice of belief is left entirely up to us.

Neutrality, I’ll argue, respects our personal autonomy.

Autonomy can be roughly defined as the capacity to govern oneself freely, independently of other influences generally (metaphysical autonomy), of the moral dictates of others (moral autonomy), of law and government control (political autonomy), of religious dictates (religious autonomy), and of the pressure and indoctrination of authorities such as educators (intellectual autonomy).

It is our intellectual autonomy that neutral encyclopedists, journalists, and educators respect. They leave us free to make up our own minds for ourselves. Naturally, we appreciate that—assuming we value our autonomy, as we should and typically do.

Propagandists, by contrast, sometimes insist that neutrality is impossible or wrong, and they use such assertions as an excuse for taking definite, controversial positions in traditionally neutral forms. Hacks try to control their readers. They don’t want to leave them free to make up their own minds. They don’t respect their autonomy. Propagandists aren’t interested in giving readers the tools they need to decide rationally, for themselves; they want to indoctrinate or trick them into believing precisely the way they believe.

7. Independent, rational deliberation respects autonomy

In my mind, autonomy is bound up with two good things: free will and the Enlightenment.

Autonomy is essentially the same as freedom—as in the freedom of the will—and therefore it is deeply important to morality. My view is that to act with free will is simply to act with an unencumbered, mature ability to think our decisions through. Our ability to deliberate rationally on what we ought to do is what gives us our freedom, or autonomy. It is also what gives us our dignity as individuals: it is our own intellects—our independent, reflective minds and our ability to make them up for ourselves in a mature, adult fashion—that command that basic level of respect we call dignity.

Now, our beliefs themselves are frequently out of our direct control. For example, if I am an atheist, I cannot simply up and decide, “Today I’m going to believe in God.” But we can control the inputs of our beliefs. We can control whether our beliefs are informed by facts and reasoning, or instead by emotion and rhetoric. We can control how long and how carefully we think a view through, before we accept it or that we are committed to it.

If we carefully think through the issues, especially if we consider all sides and all the evidence, then we embrace, as genuinely our own, whatever conclusion we come to. That we have reasoned our way to a conclusion means we accepted it freely. By contrast, if we simply find ourselves with an opinion after idly, passively receiving messages from our friends and from mass media, we are less likely to take responsibility for that view. It seems to be less “our own” and easier to reconsider.

If that’s true, then the more independently deliberative we are, over the course of our lives, the freer we are. This is the conclusion that Spinoza came to, famously, in his Ethics (e.g., see this). The more that we guide our beliefs by our own careful reasoning and observation, the more freedom or autonomy we have.

Intellectual autonomy was naturally a key feature of the Enlightenment, and it remains robust and important to this day; we’re still encouraged to think for ourselves far more than we were in the Middle Ages. Immanuel Kant opened his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with these ringing words: Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage [immaturity]. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

We like and admire neutral writing because it fosters our personal enlightenment. Bias, by contrast, treats us like immature children—who are in “nonage”—who cannot be trusted to arrive independently at the beliefs some authority wishes us to have.

8. Neutrality fosters autonomy

I say neutrality respects autonomy. It also fosters autonomy. So, how does it, exactly?

Neutrality has at least two features: (1) it involves presenting competing positions, and (2) it presents them sympathetically, according to their strongest arguments. Let’s take these in turn.

(1) If various competing views are presented, then we must naturally fall back on our own resources. Neutral writing removes the crutch of simply accepting the single view that the author informs us of. If we are simply “told the One Truth” about a topic, then we do not engage our own brains or curiosity, and we become dependent on the author and less autonomous or free in how we think about the topic. By contrast, if we are given several options, our natural curiosity and desire to settle upon the truth will impel us to reflect on those different options. That is just what intellectual autonomy requires of us.

(2) Moreover, if the competing views are all presented sympathetically, in their strongest forms, we will be given the best data, evidence, and arguments—the tools needed to make up our minds rationally. Armed with those tools, we will be more likely to deliberate rationally in an attempt to arrive at the truth.

This, again, is exactly what intellectual autonomy requires of us: fully adult, intellectual freedom isn’t simply a matter of choosing a view by whim, emotion, or social pressure, but only after carefully examining and comparing the competing arguments and evidence for ourselves.

Bias, by contrast, frequently encourages us simply to leap to a view based on our prejudices, on emotional and social appeals, without thinking the matter through. Even when one side is presented in great rational detail and the other is not mentioned, the lack of mention itself implies without argument that the view is not worth spending any time on. In any event, we are made dependent on whoever propagates a single view. To the extent that we are subject to emotional manipulation or other kinds of fallacy, we are less autonomous or free in how we think about the topic. In short, bias is a tool of control, especially but not only emotional control.

Bias more generally dulls the brain. In an educational setting, it actually discourages people from forming, and exercising, the habits that constitute intellectual autonomy. In civil society generally, it dulls the practice of individual reason, encourages groupthink, and devalues the coin of rational debate.

To sum up both points and to put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves.

9. Bias makes us less morally responsible

A case can be made, though I can’t make it here, that there is no more to autonomy than doxastic (belief-related) autonomy. In other words, the only real sort of free will we have stems from our ability to deliberate, to think things through for ourselves. That’s what Spinoza argued in the Ethics, and (after long reflection, of course) I agree with him. But free will is what makes us morally responsible; if we aren’t free when we act, we aren’t responsible for what we do. If that’s true, a surprising consequence follows: bias has a tendency to make us less morally responsible. The more that we are simply told what to think, the less our beliefs are our own, and the less morally responsible we are for our own actions.

Perhaps that just sounds strange. But on reflection, we can see that it is true. Consider the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a browbeating scientist presented his subjects with exactly one option: to deliver what they believed to be (but in fact were not) painful electric shocks to other subjects. There was a doubly shocking bias at work—in favor of continuing the experiment. Think of any number of cults in which the leadership, possessing ultimate religious, moral, and intellectual authority, issues not-to-be-questioned rules and commands, impelling members to do things they would otherwise never dream of doing. The leaders’ injunctions were presented in a thoroughly biased fashion. Reflect on how powerful Nazi and Communist propaganda campaigns made it possible for the hapless citizenry to demonize the “enemies of the state,” dissociate themselves from their own appalling behavior, and act as informants and tools of the state. These are all particularly appalling examples of bias.

If bias can have such horrifying effects on our moral autonomy, then our obligation to strive for neutrality is very strong, indeed. Neutral writing makes us more reflective and therefore more capable of taking moral responsibility for our commitments.

10. Bias as a moral failing

If I am right, neutrality is not just being kind and respectful to readers; it is a positive obligation. When we write neutrally, we help others to be free, and so neutrality is a virtue. Bias, by contrast, is revealed as a moral failing.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Kant—champion of the Enlightenment—also believed we have a fundamental obligation to respect others’ dignity, their basic, irreducible value as human beings. We should treat others as ends in themselves, Kant famously wrote in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, not as mere means to our own ends. And what is it that gives us our dignity as human beings? Again, I, like Kant and other philosophers, maintain that it is our autonomy or free will, our ability to deliberate rationally, as adults should, that gives us this basic value, this right to be considered not as a mere means to others’ ends. (Cf. the Second and Third Formulations of the Categorical Imperative.)

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

This is especially the case when you are writing in a traditionally neutral form, one in which people expect to learn the whole story or debate. Admittedly, if you are writing an opinion piece, it is up to the reader to find alternative points of view; while you should still be fair-minded, it is not necessarily your job to make your opponents’ case for them. But if you are writing in a traditionally neutral form, then your audience expects you to lay out everything relevant. If there is some dispute in the relevant community, and you take sides, you’re putting one over on your audience, for your own purposes. I say—though it might sound like hyperbole—that’s morally wrong.

I mean it. But let me clarify. When I say you’re treating your readers as pawns or as mere means to your ends, I don’t mean that you think that way consciously. Maybe what I’m suggesting never occurred to you. But the fact of the matter is that, if you’re writing in a traditionally neutral form, and if you give your readers just one out of various possible views to consider, or only one is presented sympathetically or with all the most convincing evidence and argument, then you are in fact treating your readers fraudulently: you are falsely portraying a controversial issue as if there were only one view that an uninformed person would want to be fully and fairly informed about. Neutrality respects people as autonomous individuals, capable of hearing all sides and judging the evidence fairly for themselves.

Encyclopedists, journalists, and textbook writers should all take note: neutrality is the best policy for free people.

11. Neutrality as adversarial, bias as inquisitorial

The phraseology “hearing all sides and judging the evidence fairly” suggests an analogy: an encyclopedist acts as a fair and impartial judge, enabling the dueling sides to call their witnesses and present their cases as forcefully as possible. Presented with a full airing of all evidence that both sides deem relevant, the jury will, we hope, arrive at a just verdict.

In an analogy with neutral writing, the judge, who organizes and oversees the proceedings, is the author. The counsel are the partisans on the sides of some issue discussed, the witnesses are experts and eyewitnesses, and the evidence and arguments are precisely analogous in both cases. The jury is the reader; the jury’s verdict, the reader’s judgment of the truth. The analogy, then, is that just as we trust that a fair presentation of both sides will result in a fair verdict in a court case, so also we may trust that a neutral account of a dispute will maximize the reader’s chances of believing something true.

What, then, is the analogy to biased text? I propose that it is the elimination of an adversarial jury trial altogether. In the inquisitorial system, the judge leads the trial, never engages a jury, and determines the verdict from the bench, speaking from authority. And this is essentially what biased texts do: the ultimate judging role of the individual reader is dismissed. How justice plays out depends on the abilities of the judge, but generally, the details of a position are not covered if the judge deems that position implausible. Perhaps justice, or the truth, will be arrived at. However that might be, the judge, or author, decides for us all, thereby infantilizing us and failing to respect our autonomy and dignity as free people.

12. The evil of totalitarian propaganda as takes the badness of bias to an extreme

There is yet another way into the same argument.

We agree that totalitarian propaganda is wrong. We resent totalitarian personality cults and indoctrination in schools and mass media. The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, is generally thought to have been among the worst of the worst Nazis. There is surely something deeply alarming and oppressive about being expected not only to say certain things but also to believe a certain way, on pain of punishment by the authorities.

We in the liberal West regard these episodes with horror. Their horror is not just a reflection of the horror of mass killing and the threat of concentration camps. There is something soul-killing about the propaganda, the cults, the indoctrination itself.

I think the Goebbelses of the world, the puppetmasters who perpetrate totalitarian propaganda, have tremendous contempt for our right to make up our minds for ourselves. The propagandists do not want us to think for ourselves; they want to do our thinking for us. An independent mind—an enlightened one, in Kant’s sense—threatens the regime.

Totalitarian propaganda seems obviously bad; but why is it?

The answer, my arguments suggest, is that propaganda offends against human dignity because it does not respect our intellectual autonomy. If it is an essential part of human nature to be able to deliberate and reach our own conclusions, if that gives us our freedom, our dignity as human beings, then totalitarian propaganda is a deliberate and systematic attempt to totally deny us our dignity and our full humanity.

But if this is correct, then the error of more ordinary bias—journalistic, encyclopedic, and pedagogical—is no different, except in degree, from the crime of totalitarian propaganda. Nazi propaganda strikes horror in us because, in treating us as mindless drones, its offends against human dignity. If so, shouldn’t we be horrified, albeit to a smaller degree, when a journalist comes out in favor of a certain proposal, repeating only one side’s most persuasive talking points and failing to interview anyone on the other side?

13. Neutrality’s democratic consequences

There is one last variant on the theme of autonomy: it is that neutrality fosters democracy, a system in which power is ultimately vested in individual citizens. The consequences of neutrality are not just epistemological and moral, but also social and political.

Journalists have the franchise like everyone, and naturally they individually favor one party or another. Fully and fairly stating the evidence and arguments of all political parties, not just their own, doubtless harms their own party’s chances in an election. Still, the practice of neutrality is very important, for it has deeper and more important consequences than the temporary victory of this party or that.

I want to maintain that the robust practice of neutrality by the fourth estate strengthens democracy itself. It keeps power more firmly in the hands of independent, individual citizens, and out of the hands of an elite. It does so in remarkably many and diverse ways.

Neutrality requires that political journalists give a fair and colorful account of the drama of policy debates. This practice informs voters, allowing them to make fairer choices. It makes voters more anxious, as they should be, about the necessity of actually being informed when they do vote. It calls attention to and raises interest in substantive policy debate, causing more of such debate to occur. It calls attention to the details of policy and the evidence for and against positions and thus, one hopes, improves everyone’s quality of reasoning. It causes voters to reflect on that substance and not just react to slogans and personalities. It raises expectations that politicians ought to be serious thinkers and not just empty suits. It causes us to take our leaders and our fellow voters more seriously.

Last but certainly not least, it makes the practice of politics more intellectually complex, making us better appreciate the sort of critical, liberal arts education that is necessary to a robust democracy. It gives us an added incentive to mold our young citizens into well-prepared participants at all levels of the process, which can only be to the good of everyone.

All of this is contrary to the ethos of an authoritarian society. Journalists, encyclopedists, and teachers all bear a very heavy responsibility to fight against the authoritarian tendency—by being scrupulously neutral as they report the debate and not just the horse race.

14. The argument from the Golden Rule

My second argument is much simpler: the Golden Rule holds that we should treat others as we want them to treat us. (For philosophers, I might just as well put this in terms of Kant’s First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative, for example. Interestingly, perhaps, my first argument may be cast in terms of Kant’s Second Formulation.)

Suppose you’re writing an encyclopedia article about some topic on which you have a strong opinion, such as politics, religion, or sports, and you have to represent an opinion you think is completely wrong.

Well, the Golden Rule asks, how would you want to be treated in this situation? So let us imagine that someone else is doing writing the encyclopedia article, and you are the reader. The issue is one you are fanatical about—but the writer takes the other side. Perhaps you’d like them to ignore their own opinions and repeat yours. But that isn’t going to happen: they disagree with you. You wouldn’t want to put aside your own opinion and repeat theirs, either. At the very least, you’d like your opinion represented in this encyclopedia article, not ignored. Indeed, you want it explained fully and fairly. In fact, you want the best arguments and the strongest evidence offered. But you’ll grudgingly admit that other opinions have to be given the same treatment, as long as yours is as well.

So the Golden Rule says that that’s how you, too, should lay out opinions you disagree with. As a result, you’ll paint the whole dialectical landscape in its most vibrant colors, and not just one part of it.

In short, when people set themselves up to be authorities, condescendingly telling you The Truth when you might want to disagree, you naturally find it irritating. You want to be treated like an adult, presented with all the best arguments, so you can make up your own mind. So, since that’s how you want to be treated, the Golden Rule would have you treat your readers that way, when you sit down to write a traditionally neutral text.

15. The argument from cooperation

So far, I have given two main arguments for neutrality, which are conceptually related: first from autonomy and second from the Golden Rule. A third, from cooperation, and fourth, from reliability, I can state much more briefly.

Here’s an argument from cooperation.

Wikipedia’s predecessor, Nupedia, originally adopted a neutrality policy, which Wikipedia inherited, partly because neutrality provides a way to defuse potential problems when people collaborate. If people are working together on the same text, the text can’t take a controversial position without potentially alienating some co-writers. Of course, if the collaborators share the same views, this is not a problem. But if the collaboration is, as on Wikipedia, open-ended—if you don’t know who, in the future, will be working on it—then the prudent way to avoid conflict is simply not to let the text take a position on controversial issues. Insisting that shared text in a collaborative project remain neutral provides the basic diplomatic framework that enables such projects to exist without permanent ideological warfare.

But since this argument is relevant only to open wikis and other collaborative works, that’s all I’ll say about that here.

16. The argument from reliability

Let’s consider one last argument, from reliability. The basic claim is simple: neutral writing is truth-conducive. Neutrality makes it more probable that readers will arrive at true and nuanced beliefs. (Compare the following argument to Chapter 2 of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.)

The conclusion here is that the exercise of rationality is truth-conducive: we are more likely to have true beliefs if we base those beliefs on cogent arguments and solid evidence. Neutral writing supports the exercise of rationality by presenting us with, ideally, a full battery of arguments, with all the relevant evidence on all sides. This better equips us to determine what is true than if we receive only one side ex cathedra.

We’ll be more likely to have true beliefs if, as a matter of policy, we are presented with neutral writing. The more points of view we consider, and the more fairly and sympathetically the arguments for the various competing views are represented (even if they are wrong), the more likely we will be to arrive at true beliefs as a result.

17. A shotgun has a better chance to hit a fuzzy target

Some people might find this to be wrong or puzzling, in cases in which the truth is known. Ideally, they’ll say, of course the best way to ensure that a reader has the truth is to determine in advance what the truth is and then present it and only it in all its glorious detail. Generally, I find nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes; however, it doesn’t go very far, as it assumes the truth to be known and—this being the sticking point—uncontroversial. What if there is significant disagreement about what the truth is, and undecided readers know this?

In such cases, undecided readers have no rational grounds on which to prefer one source over another, everything else being equal; if they wish to follow Kant’s advice, sapere aude, they must make up their own minds. If they see different experts and credible resources saying different things, which are they to believe?

What if there are five different expert views on a question, each having adherence of 20% of the expert population and a similar chance of being right? Suppose an article advocates only one of these, and it turns out to be the wrong one. Then the chance of the article’s readers reaching a true belief, based on this biased account, is 0%. But if we canvass all five views, at least those readers who settle on the correct view will have a true belief.

More generally, if one side is ignored, or made to look very bad, and that side turns out to be correct, readers are discouraged from learning it. That is what my young friends would call a “fail.” And even if the truth happens to be presented with a favorable bias, it won’t be presented in its strongest, most rationally persuasive form if the reader can’t compare it to the other, wrong side.

Suppose instead that I have indeed made up my mind about something and, fortunately, I am correct; still, neutral sources inform me about other, incorrect views. That often helps me to understand and support my own position better.

In short, a neutral presentation at least exposes readers to the truth (if anybody has it) and, by comparing it with false views, enables them to understand it better.

18. A complete map of the dialectical landscape

It’s more complicated than that, though, of course.

Frequently, there are not just two bare claims on some narrow question; instead, there are various competing webs of interdependent claims, which are best weighed at the same time. The claims, taken together, make up what I might call the “dialectical landscape” surrounding a position: all the arguments, facts, details, attacks on the other side, rebuttals to their attacks, history, and context of some core proposition. For example, the dialectical landscape of a typical Democratic Party approach to the Affordable Care Act is very different from that of the Republican Party. Whatever you think of them, both are complex, both involve many subtopics and specialized claims, and they don’t even always address the same questions.

Truly neutral text, then, fully maps out the dialectical landscape on both, or all, sides of an issue, in a way that the sides can recognize as fairly representing their views.

A map of the opposing camps provides an invaluable service to us undecided interlopers. This isn’t just because we have a better chance of deciding rationally whether the core claims are correct, but also because the quality of our understanding is greatly improved the more familiar we are with all parts of the landscape. Even if we finally embrace some false claims, our minds are improved by being exposed to the context of all the claims. After all, in the dialectical landscape surrounding all competing claims are typically many others that are uncontroversial and yet very important to evaluating both sides.

Biased writing, by contrast, tends to be comparatively simple, too often appealing to emotion and employing fallacies and simplistic versions of arguments. Even if a piece fully and fairly canvasses one side, a biased account that mentions the other side makes a caricature of it, often simply to make its own side look more reasonable. Such caricatures propagate falsehoods—they are false portrayals of what the best representatives of the other side actually believe. But the point is that such caricatures actually stand in the way of improving the sophistication of our acceptance of our own side.

Arguments against neutrality

19. Examples of “good enough” neutrality exist

I want to deal with some objections. There are two big ones: (1) neutrality is impossible, and (2) in some cases, it is simply the wrong approach.

When defending neutrality as a policy, I often hear the following. We all have our views; nobody is unbiased. Those views are bound to come out, one way or another, in any exposition of a controversy. We can try to be unbiased, but we will always fail. It’s inevitable.

Yet many of us have had the experience of taking a class from a teacher who presented both sides of controversial questions sympathetically, and at the end, the teacher asks, “So, what do you think my view is?” And nobody could tell. I taught a philosophy of religion course once and at the end of the course asked for a show of hands: “Who thinks I believe in God?” About a third of the class put their hands up. “Who thinks I believe God does not exist?” About the same number of hands went up. “Who thinks I am agnostic?” Again, about the same number of hands. That was a proud moment for me.

Similarly, many of us have—I certainly have—had the experience of reading a news or encyclopedia article covering some debate, and it occurs to us that we cannot tell what view the writer endorses. The article seems admirably even-handed.

Perhaps it is true that one can always, in any text above a certain length, find something to improve as regards neutrality. Neutrality is extremely difficult to achieve—a point I will elaborate toward the end of the paper. But “good enough” neutrality, neutrality robust enough to earn our praise, plainly exists because we have seen many examples of it.

There is a different way into the latter objection. One of the main insights that motivate some people to say that neutrality is impossible is that objectivity is impossible. We all have a point of view, goes the objection, and this makes claims that certain propositions are “objectively true,” or true independently of any observer, very problematic—perhaps indefensible. (This issue is discussed in Thomas Nagel’s well-known book The View from Nowhere.)

I doubt that this is a problem for claims about neutrality, however. As I said above, “objectivity” and “neutrality” are two quite distinct concepts. The first is a quality of beliefs or attitudes; the second is a method of or constraint on exposition. I can be as subjective and “biased” as you like, in my heart of hearts, even as I am crafting a supremely neutral text. Similarly, the claims made in such a text can be neutral, fair, balanced, or untendentious without being objectively or subjectively true or false. The point of neutrality is to be fair to what people actually believe. One can be fair despite taking a side.

20. Chomskyan cynicism

Some people claim that neutrality is impossible basically because they have a cynical view of the world. To them, neutrality is always a front, a show—never sincere. Politics, like life, is nothing but a power struggle, they believe, and any claims to neutrality are instead just a cynical device for smuggling an ideology into a reader’s thought-world under cover of such precious epithets as “fairness,” “objectivity,” or “neutrality.”

Given the abundance of examples of apparently neutral writing, such a cynical stance seems unwarranted and merely puzzling. How can these people justify their cynical attitude in the face of such seemingly obvious examples to the contrary? What are they thinking of? They seem too cynical. Perhaps this is how they think; but it is most assuredly not how everyone thinks.

I find in conversation that the cynics frequently defend their views in terms of Noam Chomsky’s influential book Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky and his followers state that the news media may be given a “propaganda model,” i.e., the news serves merely propagandistic purposes for our corporate masters. They argue that the various “filters” that make up this model put the lie to pretensions of journalistic neutrality. Basically, the news is filtered: some legitimate stories are excluded, and others are distorted by mechanisms of “money and power,” including such things as the size of mass-media firms, advertising, reliance on establishment sources, “flak,” and “anti-communism.”

The most common thing one hears, along these lines, is that the big news media organizations are owned by corporations and thus inevitably biased in favor of corporate interests—for example, ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Company, Comcast owns NBC, and National Amusements is majority shareholder of CBS. If corporate interests are in control of the news media, how could the news fail to be biased in favor of such interests and of capitalism generally?

21. Chomskyan cynicism is unconfirmed and doesn’t establish the thesis

There is no brief way to address Chomsky’s argument head-on, so I won’t try. Instead, I’ll simply discuss this type of argument. The difficulty with it in this context is that it is a hypothesis formed more or less a priori—the news must be “filtered” because it is subject to the mechanisms of money and power—and while the hypothesis might be true (although, frankly, I doubt it), it can be confirmed only empirically.

What would go into confirming the claim? At a minimum, one would have to find some way to identify instances of bias and then confirm that that bias tends to be significantly associated with Chomsky’s “filters” such as corporate interests. The question then devolves from the rarified, abstract air of “systemic bias” to the more humdrum, concrete instances of bias that can be detected in actual reporting. Even if Chomsky and his followers were able to marshal some convincing examples of bias in corporate-sponsored reporting, the fact remains that there are plenty of examples of unbiased reporting. At least, in my opinion, there have been lots of news articles that lack any significant amount of bias.

Even if it is completely correct—and falsifiable—Chomsky’s cynical hypothesis appears to be that there is one source of thoroughgoing bias due to the influence of “filters.” It does not follow that neutrality is in principle impossible. In other words, even if we can identify something like “systemic” bias, or the bias of the whole (unreconstructed capitalist) system, it does not follow that there is bias in every instance of every publication, every article, every paragraph, and every sentence.

Another response is simpler: Chomsky’s criticisms concern only corporate news. What about private, independent media, individual and small bloggers, academic and independent encyclopedias, and various non-corporate textbooks? Even supposing that corporate news is hopelessly and systemically biased, that would not establish that neutrality per se is unachievable.

22. Is neutrality relative?

Next I will address a different sort of argument that neutrality is impossible. Its basic premise is that neutrality is relative.

This is hard to dispute: it seems to follow from the very definition of neutrality. If neutrality is a matter of fairly representing the various opinions on a question, one is right to ask which opinions should be included. We routinely exclude the extreme minority, idiosyncratic, and personal opinions from traditionally neutral texts, and we don’t call them biased for this reason. But we also routinely exclude (or fail to weight) opinions from foreign cultures. And for this reason—I will have to agree—our texts are typically biased in favor of our own cultures.

New York Times article about the American policy debate over gun rights and gun control, which is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of Republican and Democratic approaches, correctly looks extremely biased to a Briton, for whom the very idea of “gun rights” seems ridiculous and horrible. And so it is. The Times article is biased: it carries an American bias. One may also say that an encyclopedia article for the Catholic Encyclopedia might be unbiased with respect to liberation theologians and conservatives, while remaining biased, as one would expect, in favor of Catholicism generally. And the same may be said for textbooks and encyclopedias and so forth: even if they are neutral with respect to a particular community, they are biased in favor of the more distinctive aspects of the community’s outlook.

This is interesting, but it is not very obviously a serious objection to a neutrality policy. It might cause us to review the arguments in favor of the policy. Indeed it seems we are indoctrinated, by our newspapers, encyclopedias, and textbooks, into our community’s basic assumptions. Are we less free for that indoctrination? Cosmopolitan philosophers like Descartes (Discourse on Method, Part 1) and Spinoza (his Ethics again) certainly thought so—to say nothing of contemporary philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Kwame Anthony Appiah. I think so too. But it is surely too much to ask that writers somehow take account of the enormous range of views from across the whole globe when they write in traditionally neutral forms—or even always to care about those views. Arguably, it is human to be part of a culture, and, globalism notwithstanding, there is really no such thing as a “global monoculture” with respect to which writers should be expected to be neutral. Maybe that will exist someday, but it doesn’t yet.

I suppose a committed multiculturalist or relativist might want to take me to task for this, saying that it would surely be a grand thing that we be exposed to the broadest range of views from across the globe and across all ideologies, religions, and philosophies. (But what about eras? Shouldn’t we canvass historical views as well? We are surely present-biased.) Such a perspective is what one hopes to gain from international travel and a broadening, liberal education. But with the possible exception of remarkable polymaths, probably none of us has such a global perspective that we could make sense of a globally “neutral” newspaper, encyclopedia, or textbook—one that comprehensively takes account of an entirely global range of views.

Wikipedia itself might be thought to be committed to such a completely international neutrality, and in places, its policies have seemed to hold it to that utopian ambition. But of course it cannot be and it is not. The English Wikipedia’s articles about science most clearly betray its Western and especially Anglo-American provenance, and articles about, for example, philosophy are mostly about Western philosophy. I see nothing really wrong with that. There are many pages that report comparative information about conditions all over the world; but I have never seen a page that actually tries to synthesize and compare opinions from around the world, about controversial questions. It might, perhaps, be a worthy goal to create a new version of Wikipedia that is fully committed to being internationally neutral. If it succeeded, it would be the world’s first and only encyclopedia (or traditionally neutral text of any sort) that is fully neutral. I’m not claiming that many people would find it to be very useful. Maybe it would, but I might instead prove to be a curiosity of interest only to a few scholars.

23. Are some positions unworthy of inclusion in a traditionally neutral text?

The last major objection to a neutrality policy that I will consider is perhaps the most potent for many journalists: sometimes, certain points of view simply don’t deserve inclusion in a traditionally neutral text. Surely, some opinions are simply wrong—scientifically disproven, grossly offensive, or just plain idiotic.

Journalists sometimes make this objection. They react with exasperation at accusations of “liberal bias” from conservatives, arguing that sometimes, since one side of a dispute is clearly false, any balance would be “false balance.” The mission of journalism is to uncover the truth, and its first commitment is to accuracy. Accuracy, these journalists say, forbids us to strike a spurious balance between what are in fact two very unequal views.

I think some journalists can use this device as a cover for naked partisan bias: if there is a legitimate debate and an activist journalist refuses to find a “false balance,” that’s a fallacy. Whenever journalists choose a side, on grounds of avoiding “false balance,” they owe us an argument that the disfavored side really does not deserve neutral treatment. What sort of argument would do the trick?

Consider some points of view that mainstream journalists often find unworthy of uncritical coverage: global warming skepticism; creationism, intelligent design, or creation science; the anti-vaccination movement; homeopathic medicine. Those examples are from science, and similarly controversial examples might be drawn from recent events and history: Holocaust denial; “birtherism”; the 9/11 conspiracy theory; the Bilderberger or Jewish banker conspiracy theory.

The popularity of such views combined with the relative silence about them in the media suggests that journalists would find neutral coverage of such topics to be “false balance.” These also suggest at least two different variants of the argument to consider: a moral variant and an epistemological variant.

On the moral variant, the reason we should not fairly represent certain positions is that the positions are morally reprehensible, harmful, and/or dangerous. This is a common German attitude toward Holocaust denial. Moral concerns, therefore, outweigh society’s interest in neutral reporting.

On the epistemological variant, the reason is that the positions are so unscientific or otherwise ill-supported that it simply insults readers’ intelligence for a writer to treat them seriously. This is a common scientific attitude toward homeopathy and global warming skepticism. Here, epistemological concerns outweigh society’s interest in neutral reporting.

In either case, the argument is simple: certain views are either morally or epistemologically bankrupt to an extreme degree. So, the claim goes, traditionally neutral texts are under no obligation to include them. Therefore, since there are exceptions, neutrality is not a universal, absolute principle. It has its place, my journalist friends tell me, but it operates within ethical and epistemological constraints—which they determine, of course.

24. The relevance of morally repugnant views depends on the context

This all seems reasonable. Heroically, I shall proceed to disagree.

Let me begin by conceding that there do seem to be instances of positions that I would want to exclude from an encyclopedia, for example. It it does seem I would want to do so on grounds that they are thoroughly (morally) reprehensible or utterly (epistemologically) ridiculous. Is shoplifting to be represented as a legitimate hobby? Do the attitudes of child molesters or sociopathic killers toward their crimes merit serious discussion? Do we really need to spend any time on Holocaust denial? For some, these seem to be rhetorical questions; but I won’t treat them that way.

In a list of hobbies covered by an encyclopedia, we wouldn’t include shoplifting, even though it serves as a hobby for some people. But there are perspectives in psychology or sociology that consider shoplifting that way. And while a general encyclopedia might not include shoplifting among the hobbies, probably we can justify that exclusion not on grounds that it is immoral or criminal but because it simply is not ordinarily classified among the hobbies.

Similarly, in news reports of crime statistics, crime’s impact on communities, and police and legislative strategies to defeat it, discussion of the attitudes of child molesters and sociopathic killers is an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion. That is because they are irrelevant to the concerns of news readers. But criminal attitudes are certainly a focus of sociologists and criminal psychologists, who need to understand the motives of criminals; in criminology textbooks, criminal attitudes are crucial to include in chapters about criminal psychology. And sometimes, criminal motives are newsworthy. For example, we all wonder what impels a handful of inner-city blacks to shoot white police officers without provocation—and vice-versa.

Even Holocaust denial is open to the same sort of context-based analysis. There is no need to include Holocaust denial as an “alternative theory” about German history in WWII, for the simple reason that it is an extreme minority position; textbooks are under no obligation to include extreme minority positions. Of course it is repugnant, but its repugnance is not why it is not covered in textbooks. After all, there are circumstances—e.g., the politics of modern Germany, or German sociology—in which the views of Holocaust deniers, and getting the facts about them correctly and even sympathetically stated, might be important.

This discussion should make it plausible that it is not the moral bankruptcy of certain views that would lead us to exclude them from traditionally neutral texts, after all, but just considerations of relevance. It depends on the purpose of the texts. In some sorts of texts, thoroughly reprehensible things are described in stunning detail. In others, they simply aren’t relevant.

25. The same sort of analysis given to teaching creationism in schools

So much for the moral argument. What about the epistemological version? Is such an analysis possible for those cases in which a position seems legitimate to exclude because (on the view of many scientists or scholars) it lacks any sound intellectual basis?

I can’t sidestep the issue when it comes to, for example, creation science or creationism in biology textbooks. I won’t pretend to be able to adjudicate this politically charged issue in a short space, but I will make a few germane remarks and draw some limited, tentative conclusions.

On the one hand, the public and their representatives in Texas certainly have the right to ensure that public school children are exposed to views about what fundamentalist Christians believe about the creation of the world and the origin of species. In the U.S., they do not have the legal right to teach only those views in public schools, because that would run afoul of First Amendment prohibitions of the state establishment of religion. But it seems perfectly unobjectionable that those views, if placed among others, are canvassed in public schools.

On the other hand, scientists have an excellent point when they maintain that creation science is an extreme minority view among scientists. Even scientists with a Christian point of view generally endorse evolutionary theory, as does the Catholic Church. If the purpose of teaching biology is to impart facts and theories that biologists stand behind, then biology classes should do so.

A policy of neutrality would have us determine what the relevant community is. In science class, that would seem to be the scientific community. But science class is taking place in the larger context of enculturation by the school system, and there the relevant community is the general public, not just scientists.

Bearing this in mind, I think adopting a policy of neutrality would entail the following recommendations:

  1. Insofar as biology class is canvassing the views of actual biologists, creation science has no place there; for better or worse, the vast majority of scientists simply do not consider it to be a scientific theory at all, but a theological one. So it is simply incorrect to represent it as one view among many.
  2. Insofar as biology class takes place in the context of a broader schooling context, however, the people of Texas (and other such places) have the right to insist, not that the science be taught a certain way, but that students be informed that a large number of citizens disagree with the science. Little time need be spent in informing them of this disagreement in science class, because the disagreement is not a topic in science but in the broader culture. But the dignity of students and their parents is best respected when their disagreement is officially and respectfully acknowledged.
  3. In the interests of neutrality, in addition to evolution as taught in biology, students should be taught about (neutrally, of course) a variety of religious, philosophical, and scientific views about cosmology, creation stories, and other topics that religion, philosophy, and science all speak on. Such an interdisciplinary class or unit would be the place in which creationism would be canvassed. Needless to say, perhaps, students in that class whose parents do not want a neutral approach to this subject should not be forced to endure it.

This is a compromise solution, and I hope a neutral one as well.

I could give similar treatment to other issues. What I want to maintain is that for all the issues listed earlier, there exist sophisticated, often multi-part neutral solutions. In some cases I might seem to favor one part or another; but taken all together, the result will be fair. Journalists, or the state, will not unduly favor one position over another, affording readers and students the dignity and tools to decide important, controversial issues for themselves.

26. Neutrality and global climate change

A few comments about how to write neutrally about climate change should clarify some more issues.

A majority of climate scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW); exactly which scientists to include as “experts,” and thus which surveys to consider and what percentage endorse it, is a matter of debate. In any case, while there are some distinguished climate science experts who are skeptics, a decided majority are not.

When explaining the science itself—so, in science textbooks and science research news—understanding the controversy is not the primary aim. Understanding the state of the science is. So, presumably, in that context, most of the issues and most of the evidence will appear to be on the AGW side, not because the writers are biased but because most of the actual science happens to be on that side. In other words, if the mission of the text is to canvass the science, the text will appear biased but it will not really be biased; any bias is to be found in the subject matter itself. Besides, there are many skeptical qualifications and objections that will be worth covering, even if they are dismissed by most experts. One justification of covering them, apart from the requirements of neutrality, is that it helps the mastery of any very complex subject (like climate science) to consider objections and qualifications.

But matters are different in a political context—political journalism, or encyclopedia articles or textbook chapters about the politics of global warming. There, as important as understanding the science is, understanding the controversy is even more important. Coverage of such a controversy cannot be done without apportioning space at least roughly equally.

Climate change scientists and activists have dismissed the idea that journalists ought to report neutrally on climate change skepticism by arguing, “If you’re going to give equal space to climate change skepticism, you should also give equal space to Holocaust denial—which is absurd.” But I hope it’s clear how I would respond to that argument: while among the American population, climate change skepticism appears to be a (large) minority position, Holocaust denial is a tiny fringe phenomenon. In an American context, reporting neutrally about the climate change debate does not entail that reporters must so much as mention Holocaust denial. In certain other countries, however, things might be different.

I realize this section’s discussion is just a lot of hand-waving on my part, and more needs to be said. Beyond this, the issues are to be taken up by the experts themselves (those who really care about neutrality). That, as we will see next, is the point: the specific requirements of neutrality in any particular case can be discovered only by careful study of the details of the case. The devil of bias and the angel of neutrality are in the details.

The difficulty of neutrality and how we might eradicate bias

27. Neutrality is complex and difficult

After this long discussion, I hope it will be abundantly clear that neutrality is not a simple concept. “Why can’t journalists just be more neutral?” readers ask, complaining about “media bias.” But this assumes that neutrality is something simple and straightforward to fix, like a spelling mistake. It might appear simple, if you think of neutrality as no more than giving an equal amount of space to each position and avoiding obviously controversial judgments.

Apportioning space evenly and avoiding words that imply judgment is a good place to begin, especially when you’re reporting about a policy debate. But if your purpose is to construct a narrative about a multi-layered, developing situation, neutrality is instead a matter of relaying, while reporting the basic facts, that there are alternative views, mentioning them in the right places, providing different possible explanations, and so forth.

The failure to understand or acknowledge the complexity of neutrality is widespread, even among writers. That failure in turn leads many writers, even of traditionally neutral texts, to underestimate the challenges and fail to take practical measures to meet them head-on. Writers often fail at this and end up writing biased stuff without realizing it, even when they sincerely believe and intend otherwise. The sheer difficulty of neutrality is at the root of this failure.

When we learn to spot instances of bias and look hard for it, we can see it everywhere. For some, this in turn causes cynicism about the very possibility of neutrality.

28. If bias is the norm, it must be eradicated deliberately

Cynicism is understandable. We should expect bias to be the norm, if it isn’t deliberately eradicated.

That bias is the natural state of affairs became obvious to me after I attempted to herd the many biased cats of Wikipedia and Citizendium, and later compared those experiences to what I learned about how the admirably even-handed ProCon.org operates. (Disclosure: ProCon’s publisher is an investor in a startup of mine; but we got to know each other some years before that due to the very issue of neutrality.) ProCon’s executive team told me they have detailed rules about neutrality as well as a thorough process in which people from a variety of ideological perspectives give brutally honest feedback on the fairness of drafts. The result is remarkably even-handed articles.

Well, if ProCon has to invest so much time and attention to make their pages neutral, what makes the rest of us think we can do it without spending a similar amount of time and attention?

29. How publishers can improve neutrality

Publishers, I propose, need to add two features to combat bias: first, detailed neutrality guidelines, and second, specific procedures for making writing more neutral, including specially assigned people.

We would need a complex set of neutrality guidelines to identify neutrality problems and adjudicate issues. I haven’t included such rules in this document. To a great extent, the rules will resemble a style guide. Wikipedia has an extensive guide, and I have developed a guide for Ballotpedia. Other publishing organizations that claim to be neutral or fair ought to be able to articulate exactly what guidelines they follow in identifying and resolving neutrality problems.

Beyond simply having rules, staff need to follow some procedure to ensure that the publication as a whole, as well as individual articles and their components, are all neutral. Some publishers invest money into copyediting and fact-checking, presumably on grounds that it makes their publications more readable and accurate. Similarly, I propose that publishers of traditionally neutral texts ought to care much more than they apparently do about neutrality, and they might wish to assign editors and writers to handle the most difficult neutrality issues and otherwise implement their neutrality methodology.

ProCon goes further, constantly worrying about the issue and following arduous procedures to achieve it. Ballotpedia, too, has hired two people for a new sort of position that will help with neutrality issues.

30. The discipline of neutrality

Let me elaborate the second point here.

I am proposing that publishers add what would for many be a new layer of oversight: not just vague expressions of commitment to neutrality, but specially assigned neutrality editors, or some other way to more actively and aggressively edit for neutrality, in addition to the traditional disciplines of copyediting and fact-checking.

Ballotpedia recently hired its first writers specifically tasked to work on neutrality. I helped hire them. We had the top candidates evaluate the neutrality of a report Ballotpedia had recently done. I immodestly prided myself on my ability to spot problems with neutrality, and the Ballotpedia piece struck me (on a too-casual reading) as having only a few problems—nothing too bad. But after the candidates got through with it, it was clear that the report had many more neutrality issues than I had noticed. The problems were mostly subtle and perhaps understandable, but the criticisms all made sense. And more to the point, they were all fixable. If the writer of that study had had feedback from a neutrality editor, the piece would have been substantially more neutral and better-written as a result.

Similar instances of surprising, “hidden” bias are rife in most news reporting, textbooks, and encyclopedia articles. If we choose to view neutrality as a discipline similar to good spelling, then the bias of today’s journalism, textbooks, and encyclopedias looks clumsy and backward, like the weird spellings one finds in books published before spelling became standardized.

Professional publishing operations already take the time for the traditional disciplines of copyediting and fact-checking, because publishers and readers value readability and accuracy. For traditionally neutral forms, shouldn’t they also value neutrality just as much? The moral and political arguments in favor of a new discipline are as strong. If you do not take the time to edit for neutrality very explicitly, you will simply fail to be neutral. How could you not? The same can be said of copyediting and fact-checking: if you don’t take the time to edit explicitly for correct mechanics and accuracy, you’ll probably screw up. To err is human. If you try hard and are conscientious, you might do a decent job—maybe. If you want to be sure, hire some professionals and set up a neutrality editing process.

31. No newspaper has ever been neutral

If I am right that bias is rife and yet we have good reason to value neutrality, there is a great latent demand for reporting that is neutral in the sense described here. I know that I would take great interest in any news, encyclopedia, or textbook publisher that credibly announced a claim to neutrality in the sense I have defined.

The emphasis here is on “credibly.” Obviously, claims to being “unbiased” or “objective” have long been a cheap but meaningless selling point for various clearly biased publications. Idle claims to the effect of “we are already neutral, of course” are simply not credible.

After all, the reply is simple: No, you aren’t. No newspaper has ever been neutral. No newspaper has ever even tried properly, as a matter of policy.

Again, this isn’t a complaint about “liberal media bias.” Fox News claims to be “fair and balanced” but of course very few people believe they are. Traditional news broadcasts project a tone of objectivity and generally claim not to be biased. But nobody really believes they’re neutral in the sense defined in this paper. Again, I say this not because I’m accusing them of liberal bias but because neutrality is difficult and simply will not be achieved except deliberately, recognizing the perhaps surprising complexity and difficulty of the job and devoting the effort needed to get it done.

A publisher’s claim to neutrality could be substantiated by (a) publishing a statement of neutrality principles, (b) taking proactive measures to ensure that they are followed, (c) doing studies of reader and external neutrality auditors vouching for success, and finally (d) publishing the results of the audits.

32. There is an unmet latent demand for neutrality

There’s a great latent demand for neutral content, and the demand is unmet.

There will always be a market for biased reporting and opinion. But publishing operations that can credibly state that they embrace neutrality would have an unusual advantage over others. So I speculate that startups in a new “neutrality niche” might do well. There could be newspapers, weeklies, wire services, and more.

I can also imagine startups in reference and textbook publishing that could credibly make similar claims. As an encyclopedia aficionado and former college teacher, I know I’d be extremely interested.

Finally, I can imagine firms offering external audits of the neutrality of publications and research organizations.

Readers can help make this happen, too, simply by making their preference for neutral texts known. You simply need to promote the proposition that publishers should adopt both detailed neutrality guidelines and procedures for ensuring the guidelines are followed.[1]

  1. For discussion and other help, thanks to Kamy Akhavan, Courtney Collins, Angela Consani, Anthony DiPierro, Scott Duryea, Stephen Ewen, Mike Forsythe, Leslie Graves, Sara Key, Greg Lukianoff, Geoff Pallay, Terry Phillips, Jay Rakow, Gerry Sanger, Kristen Smith, Jason Swadley, Anton Sweeney, and Bryan White.

On a Philosopher Defending Pedophilia

Larry Sanger

A series of short videos, all drawn from interviews with philosophy professor Stephen Kershnar of SUNY-Fredonia, has gone viral—because he has the shocking temerity (and I use that phrase totally unironically) to defend pedophilia. This is nothing new, by the way. I’ve been aware of his 2015 book, which I will not link, which defends pedophilia. If his contemptible attempts to change the culture to legalize sex with children will finally be subjected to the Internet’s wrath, I say: excellent.

I do not have time to respond in depth to his philosophical work, and I am not sure it would, in the end, be a very good idea for me to do so. But I thought I would comment on the puerile and shockingly ridiculous things I heard come out of his mouth in the following short clips shared by the @libsoftiktok Twitter account. Here goes, then.

Should a defense of adult-child sex be taboo? Suppose, Kershnar says, an adult man wants to have sex with a 12-year-old girl, and she is a “willing participant.” “It’s not obvious to me that it’s in fact wrong,” Kershnar intones.

My immediate response to this is, “It’s obvious to me that it is in fact wrong. What’s wrong with him?”

Philosophers often put absurd views on the table, saying “It’s not obvious to me that not-p,” and this is regarded as a more or less legitimate move to create some space to argue that p (any philosophical position at all). Others tolerate this move more or less out of respect for the wide-open perspective that philosophy as a discipline requires. If not-p were obvious, then the argument for p could not begin.

There are in fact very few instances in philosophy where you could respond, “It’s obvious to everyone else that that not-p—so what are you talking about, dude? What’s wrong with you?” But the present case strikes me as one; other strongly-held moral principles make other cases. Imagine he had said, “It’s not obvious to me that murdering absolutely innocent people is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that raping any woman I want to is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that I should not take out a knife and slit your throat.” Would we allow him to proceed?

When he says it’s not obvious to him that engaging in statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl is wrong, he’s declaring the issue to be an “open question,” or in other words, it is not absolutely out of bounds to debate it seriously. And yet it seems to me it is and should remain a closed question. I certainly would never want to take a course from a professor with such views, nor would I want my child taking a course from him, nor would I want to hire him if I were in a position to do so.

This is especially the case because Kershnar goes on to declare that believing sex with 12-year-olds to be wrong is actually “a mistake.” In other words, he’s not just saying it’s not obvious that it’s wrong, he appears to come right right out and say that sex with 12-year-olds is in fact morally permissible (not wrong). Incredible.

Now, this is not to say we could not explain why statutory rape of a 12-year-old is indeed so wrong as to be quite rightly regarded as a taboo (which is what I think). In fact, I have written an essay doing exactly that; it is called “Why Pedophilia Is Evil.” But seriously taking the contrary position strikes me as something that ought to be ruled out of bounds, period.

Anyway, let’s go on.

A question-begging “threshold” argument. Next, he says that we might want to imagine a threshold below which all sex with children is wrong: “I’m making this number up here, let’s say it’s age 8.” What follows? Kershnar says, “Still, that tells you some adult-child sex is permissible.” Really. He says that: watch the video.

Now, obviously Kershnar could be going over some more complex arguments quickly, but the way he puts it here in this clip would be laughable, if it were not seriously outrageous. His argument appears to be:


(1) Sex with children age 8 and below is not permissible; sex above that age might be permissible.

It follows logically that

(2) Therefore, sex with some (older) children is permissible.

Yes, this conclusion follows from this premise, but the premise is obviously false. So the argument begs the question.

What is fascinating is not the argument so much as the fact that he actually thinks it is acceptable to make such a terrible argument, and that he continues to hold a position in the SUNY university system.

The wrongness of sex with a baby is not quite obvious to Kershnar. Yes, that is what he says. On what grounds does he motivate remaining open to such an unspeakably evil act? I kid you not, he says:

There are reports in some cultures of grandmothers fellating their baby boys to calm them down when they’re collicky. Now I don’t know if this is true, but this is just, sort of, widely reported as occurring in at least one culture. …and the grandmothers believe the sex works. … If this were to be true, it’s hard to see what would be wrong with it. … I don’t think it’s a blanket wrong at any age.

He says this as if it were a good argument. But it is hard to imagine even a green freshman philosophy student making such a terrible argument.

What this shows about Kershnar is what is interesting to me, as an anthropological point. He seems to think that one can believe what one likes on an issue, even sex with babies, if it is permitted in “at least one culture.” He seems to be trading on multiculturalist, cultural relativist assumptions. Because it is permitted in some culture where grandmothers think fellating babies “works,” and because Kershnar can’t see what is wrong with it, it is (or might be?) permissible.

That he arrives at such a ridiculous conclusion, it seems to me, is a very strong argument against, what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum of, Kershnar’s ridiculous cultural relativist assumptions.

Kershnar says those wanting to ban “adult-child sex” (i.e., child rape) “bear the burden” to justify such bans. Think molesting children should remain illegal? The burden is on you to justify those laws! Bet you can’t convince Kershnar!

The ridiculous assumptions he seems to be making here are:

(a) There exist no good reasons to ban child rape. (A contemptible assumption. Again, see my essay.)

(b) If no one has produced a careful analysis of such reasons, then child rape should not be outlawed. (One wonders if any analysis could possibly satisfy his twisted, evil principles.)

(c) The vast, strong, long-standing set of taboos against sex with children—regardless of some minor qualifications and some exceptions in some decadent and backward cultures—is not itself a strong prima facie argument against it, meaning the burden rests on the monster who wants to dismantle the taboo. (Of course the taboo is a strong prima facie argument against the practice. Things are and remain taboos for typically good reasons. You don’t get rid of taboos lightly.)

No further comment here seems necessary. His claim about where the burden lies seems just obviously false.

There are evolutionary advantages to adult-child sex. Ugh. This is particularly disgusting. I just can’t.

I’m done. This pair are like movie villains. They’re beyond parody. Chances are, both of them were molested as children themselves.

I think that’s quite enough.

Social Media Meets RSS, v2

Larry Sanger

What Is Minifeed?

YOU want to control your social media feed. You want to own your follower lists. You don’t want to have to please the poor, pitiful moderators at some giant, cynical Silicon Valley behemoth. Just like on your blog, nobody should be able to shut you up—though, to be sure, they can shut you out of their own feed. In fact, if you leave Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever, you’d like to be take along your content and your followers and still have them, with just as much impact as they were having before. How could we make that possible?

Well, why not use the same open network that connects our blogs together—RSS—to connect our social media? That was the thought I had last January, when I posted “We Want to Pay for a Good, Functioning WordPress Microposting Plugin.”

The Knowledge Standards Foundation took on the project, and the first example microblog—or, as we call it, “minifeed”—was StartThis:

The new Minifeed theme turns a WordPress blog into a social media feed. StartThis happens to run on my own NAS sitting in a box at home and backed up offsite. It’s pretty cool to be able to control my own social media feed literally from the comfort of my own home. There are over a dozen other Minifeed installs, including one for the Minifeed project itself. You’re going to see a lot more popping up when we finish version 2. When v2 is ready, we’ll make it fully open source (both libre and gratis). It might just change the world…for the better. We’ll take back what’s ours.

v2: General Requirements

Just as I posted the requirements for Minifeed v1 on this blog, I’m going to post the requirements for v2 here too.

In the following, “mini” is short for “Minifeed”.

The first step of v2 is to create a social media reader. This is a big enough job that it might occupy all of v2, but we do want to go further to support cross-mini (or inter-mini) conversations as well as a notification feed. We will build the reader first, anyway. The basic requirements can be briefly listed:

  • Follow and unfollow an RSS feed.
  • Display only my (i.e., this mini install’s) posts—as at present.
  • Feed reader: display my feed with posts from followed feeds (i.e., from other mini installs) intermixed with mine.
  • If this is different from the foregoing, which it might not be: display other RSS feeds formatted as minis.
  • Add inter-mini discussion threading.
  • Support account mention features.
  • Display mentions in notification feed.

Assorted feature requests associated with the above:

  • The format for a mini account mention should be as in the Fediverse: @[email protected] Thus my Twitter address is @[email protected]er.com, while my StartThis address is @[email protected], and my mini address is @[email protected]
  • If I type a well-formed mini address, the software should attempt to find the associated RSS feed and account information. It should pop up the account information in a box, as Twitter does at present. I should be able to follow and unfollow the account from that interface.
  • I should also be able to follow a feed simply by pasting it into a form (i.e., this is what you have already started developing).
  • If I type @id with no domain, the software should attempt to identify that person and complete (shown on mouseover) the address if it is unique. If it is not unique, I should be forced to type the whole address.

I will continue to work on this post over the next few days to weeks, so let me know if you have any special (related) requests or ideas.

Following RSS Feeds


In these requirements I distinguish between the act of following a feed and the display of the feed (the latter is covered below under “Feed Reader”). The basic requirements here are simple:

  • Form allowing people to add a feed; verify that a feed is readable.
  • Construct “followers” list from RSS messages that such-and-such is now following.
  • Count, list, search, and delete items from a list of followed feeds; make these public by default, but include an option to make them private.

1. Add feeds to, and display, followed feeds list

  • Design
    • On desktop/wider screens, the form should be near the top of the page in the sidebar.
    • On mobile/narrower screens, there should be a prominent button/link near the top of the screen (not at the bottom, at any rate). The form should popup/slidein (whatever we use).
    • The list of followed feeds should be linked from near the top of the account’s poster page, using the number of such feeds.
    • The list should be public by default, but should be easy to make private (like an obvious toggle switch)
  • Functionality
    • Form should verify well-formed URL first, and give feedback to the poster, if there’s a problem.
    • Form should also verify that account is not on “blocking” list (i.e., list of accounts that have requested that you not follow; see “block self” just below). If the account is on that list, tell the poster.
    • The software should attempt to locate the RSS feed first at the given address, and then, bearing in mind that the poster might have supplied an incorrect path, in various locations using the poster-provided domain.
    • If no readable feed can be found, the poster should be told so.
    • If the feed is added, a notice to that effect should be given…maybe a slide-in from the bottom saying “@id was added” with a link to the followees list.
    • If the feed is added, an RSS message to this effect should be sent to the blog (see next).
    • Basic search.
    • “Unfollow as requested”: if account receives an authenticated RSS message from a followed feed, reporting that your account is blocked, respect this by unfollowing the feed.
      • Remove feed info from list of followed feeds.
      • Add same info to an always-private list of “feeds blocking me”. The link to this should probably be located at the bottom of the followed feeds (I guess?).
    • Eventually, allow accounts to respond to messages that they are now un-blocked.

2. Construct followers list

  • Design
    • The button/link to the followers list should be prominent and near the top of the account’s poster page (as on Twitter).
    • The list of followers should be linked from near the top of the account’s poster page, using the number of followers.
    • The list should be public by default, but should be easy to make private.
  • Functionality
    • Basic search.
    • “Block”: sends an RSS message to the follower.
      • Instructs the recipient’s Minifeed software to stop following. (See above.)
      • Unfollows the account, if was already following.
      • Adds account to list of “blocked feeds.”
      • Note: does not add accounts to “feeds blocking me” list. That is a distinct list.
    • Eventually, support un-blocking as well.

How to Decentralize Data Aggregation

One special difficulty about decentralized social media (especially such functions as counting likes and shares) is that it involves aggregating data across the entire network; for example, how do we calculate the number of “likes” of a post, if there is no master database containing all social media posts, and a function to count them up within a database? Can we do that without a giant central database? Centralized aggregators would make this possible, but they also place individuals at the mercy of much bigger organizations—ultimately, whoever does the job of centralization best will govern the network.

Besides, especially for smaller interactions among relatively few people, aggregators should not be necessary. The basic idea is to use a propagation model. The idea behind the strategy is simple:

  • All social media data is connected to posts.
  • Anyone who has a copy of a post, a reply, a like, a share, etc., is good enough as a source of the data as the original.
  • It is much more efficient for people with updates to push those updates out than to check 1,000 followed accounts regularly (with “no” answers).
  • BitTorrent is a P2P network in which anyone may be the supplier of a copy of a requested file. We might want to engineer a solution that uses that; Ology is working on something like this, so we should keep in touch with them.

In summary, one suggestion is that you push all updates to your own posts to BitTorrent, and you grab the data you need to construct your feed from BitTorrent. But exactly how it will work we leave to the engineers.

Feed Reader


The feed reader (or just “feed”) is similar to, but to be distinguished from, the notifications feed (or just “notifications”). The feed reader displays, according to some algorithm (we can put them in reverse chronological order of receipt, to start), the posts of the feeds one is following. By contrast, notifications include replies, mentions, reposts, likes, and other items of interest to the poster which do not appear prominently in the feed.

In this, we are drawing the same distinction Twitter does. There is a good reason for doing so. A feed gives you new material to consider. The word “feed” is short for “newsfeed,” and a news feed gives you news, or discussion-starters, not the meat of the discussion. Your notifications, by contrast, are a feed in a derivative sense—a list of new posts and activity of interest to you.


So here are the feed reader requirements, design and functionality combined:

  • Account A keeps a list of all accounts that follow A (see above, “Construct followers list”). Then, “behind the scenes,” whenever A posts; or A posts a response to account B’s post, or to a post that B is mentioned in (see below); or A takes an action on account B’s post (see below); then A sends a push message to B (or perhaps to a pingback system, whereupon B fetches the message).
  • Posts drawn from other sources are formatted the same as one’s own (but there could be an option to make one’s own posts appear differently, e.g., with a different background color).
  • Within the main feed, all posts from all accounts that you follow are displayed reverse chronological in order of receipt, rather than reverse chronological order of original posting timestamp. Note, posts within a thread do have to be placed in forward chronological order of original posting timestamp.
  • Local copies of all external posts are saved to the database as originally posted, unless they are edited or deleted:
    • An external post that is edited is updated in the database and reposted (although feed algorithms might deal with them specially) and specially marked (just how is a task for the designer).
    • External posts that are neither liked, nor reposted, nor responded to (in other words, the account does not touch them), are deleted after some period of time, once the database has gotten up to a certain specified amount of space. The database size is always kept below a certain editable limit.
    • The poster can delete individual posts from his feed. (This has no effect on the source post.)

Liking, Sharing, and Related Functionality


This section concerns the “social-making” functionality of operations on individual posts. Liking and sharing both add an attribute to a post; sharing pushes a post to others’ feeds as well; quote-sharing creates a new post that incorporates an existing post; using a hashtag in a post adds the post to a list of posts that use the hashtag; and mentioning an account generates a notification message to the mentioned account.

Requirements: Liking

  • The owner (or account, or originating address) of a post cannot “like” its own post. (Just in case it isn’t obvious: all posts are encoded as having a unique originating address/account.)
  • When I “like” a post, a message to that effect is sent to that post’s owner’s mini (if that makes sense); and a record of the like is saved, so that the local count is incremented. Similarly when I retract a “like”—i.e., pressing the “like” button for a post that has already been “liked” toggles the “like” off. This sends a retraction message to the post owner’s mini, and the local count is decremented.
  • When a mini receives a “like” notice for one of its own posts, the mini tracks the supplied data (address of liking account, timestamp either of time received, probably, or of time sent, maybe, or both) and generally keeps an updated list of likes. Similarly, when a mini receives a retraction of a like, the data is deleted. In either case, the local count is incremented/decremented.
  • For various reasons, it seems probable that the number of “likes” being assigned to a given post will occasionally differ between minis, maybe due to undelivered notices. v2 will not feature a reconciliation feature, but such a feature seems like a good idea for future iterations.
  • Number of “likes” to display is determined by actually counting the number of “like” records, not by incrementing or decrementing a raw number not tied to the number of records.
  • For persons other than the owner of a post, it is not clear how the like count is going to be updated. Preferably, the count (and, perhaps, the associated info) will be dynamically updated after being initially loaded, by being synced with the source post.
  • Probably, “liking” and “unliking” posts generates an RSS update. Theoretically, it should be possible to rebuild or reconcile/audit an accurate feed strictly based on the RSS feeds contributing to my feed (especially, but not only, accounts I follow).

Requirements: Sharing and Quote Sharing

  • Sharing a post (that is not one’s own) essentially makes a copy of the post and posts it to one’s own feed, but retaining the original authorship and other updatable metadata of the original.
  • Sharing a post that is itself shared (by a third party) is, for now, treated identically to sharing the original post.
  • Everything said above about data exchange of “likes” applies to “shares” as well, except that you can “share” your own post as many times as you like, but this does not increment your share score.
  • Quote sharing involves making a brand new post and incorporating another post as part of the content of the post.
  • If there is more than one post shared, or if a post is shared along with some media, whatever appears at the bottom of the post is displayed.
  • A post shared above some other post or media is shown as a clickable link, and does not increment the count of “shares.” (I’m not quite sure of the latter.)
  • A quote-shared post generates a mention-type notification message (see below) to the account of the author of the shared post (if at the bottom of the post).
Requirements: Hashtags, Mentions, and Search Updates
  • Hashtag pages work as at present, but incorporate posts from all followed accounts, or, when available, all accounts in an aggregator’s database (probably not available until v3).
  • Mentions generate non-displayed messages to the account mentioned (i.e., RSS posts used behind the scenes by the software in notifications).
  • The receipt of a mention message is reflected by notifications (see below).
  • Search is changed to include tweets from all posts in the local database (including those not originating with the poster), or, when available, from all accounts in an aggregator’s database (probably not available until v3).

High priorities (may not be listed above)

  • Develop new, better, built-in functionality for pushing posts to Twitter.
  • In the latter, support images.
  • Also in the latter, push what appear to be threads on Minifeed to threads on Twitter.
  • Minifeed threads are currently two-deep. I’d like to have the concept of a “topmost post” and an indeterminate number of child posts. But if we decide that is substandard, at least I would like the option of being able to automatically incorporate a snippet of a longer post (one for which there is no length limit imposed).


To be finished…