RbutR: The Critical Thinking Plugin
By Oliver Lovell
As we look to post growth futures we can consider how current technologies will and must change and evolve to enable the transition. How will the internet change with a stabilizing population, with reduced global poverty and with a global economic system that is designed to serve people and planet before profits? And even more so, what is the role of the internet and social media in getting us there?
Big challenges characterise this transition. And issues such as climate change and global poverty are complex to address. But one of the biggest barriers to action in my eyes is a perceived lack of correct information. On many of these global topics we see information wars, disagreements about if there’s a problem, how big it is, and if what we’re doing to fix it is actually working.
In the realm of climate change we have warring sides of debate. We have the outspoken skeptics such as Lord Monckton who argue that there is little to no correlation between CO2 levels and temperature. Contrasting that, we have organizations such as skeptical science (and the majority of the global scientific community) who argue that the balance of scientific evidence (including CO2 level and temperature correlation) leads to the overwhelming conclusion that climate change is anthropogenic — e.g. caused by human activity — and a serious issue that we need to act upon.
When we talk about poverty we have one story told by people such as Eric Reinert on “ How Rich Countries Got Rich… and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor” but we have rebuttals from individuals such as Bill Gates who tell us that the percentage of those who are very poor has approximately halved since 1990 and that the trend is continuing.
The frontline of these information wars is often the internet, and the cumulative effect of these wars of ideas is a pervasiveness of inaction. In their book “ Merchants of Doubt” Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway detail how, through keeping doubt alive, action has been stalled in both the case of tobacco smoking and climate change. William Shakespeare felt the same way in 1623:
“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
In the face of these debates the expression “google it” takes on a new meaning. How is the average person supposed to reconcile these opposing arguments that they’re highly likely to come across online?
These are issues that I’ve been grappling with for a number of years. I was therefore understandably excited when I recently came across the internet plugin rbutr.
rbutr is a browser extension that tells you when the page you are currently viewing has been disputed elsewhere on the internet. When reading an article that may seem dubious, rbutr can give you access to someone else’s argument directly rebutting the article you’re reading; giving you a much more comprehensive view of the issue than you would have otherwise had. This immediate, in-your-face feedback whilst browsing can help readers to be more critical about the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments, and more aware of the differing angles from which an issue can be seen.
Another element of this plugin that I found very in line with post growth thinking is how it works. The rebuttal connections are crowdsourced. Users find rebuttals and submit them in relation to pages that they are rebutting. Once a Claim-Rebuttal linkage is made, that connections is permanently in the rbutr system and anyone using the plugin who visits the rebutted content will be alerted to the rebuttals existence.
I have now been using rbutr for several months and have found it incredibly useful. It hasn’t just been useful for my own interest but has also saved me a lot of time in refuting fallacious arguments by people through social networking sites. Its helped me to find rebuttals to arguments such as vaccinations cause Autism (rbutr linked rebuttal found here) and that the recent sequencing of the Gorilla genome provides evidence against evolutionary theory, and towards creationism (rbutr linked rebuttal found here)
I believe that rbutr is a technology that has a lot of potential to change the way that the internet is used to promote and support critical thinking into the future. It’s a glimpse into a host of technological tools that can serve people and planet as we make our transition to Post Growth futures.
Thanks to Shane Greenup, co-founder of rbutr, for his contributions to this article.
Originally published in May 2015 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.