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“Blogs are the New World of the mind…”

3 June 2011

My other great debt is to blogging. I’m a professor by trade, but the blogosphere is my intellectual home. To me, academic writing feels too narrow and timid. Blogs are the New World of the mind–the land where science meets common sense, and logic meets life.

That is the second paragraph of the Acknowledgements in economist Bryan Caplan‘s book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. If you didn’t know, he blogs at EconLog.

Sounds like another strong endorsement for the academic blogger. Others can be found here, here, and here. And, watch this space — because Marc Bellemare promises he’ll be posting on the topic soon too:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 June 2011 2:38 pm

    I have mixed views about blogging. On the one hand, it is a vehicle that allows academic analysis and the application of expertise on a small scale, without the trappings of the academic article, no literature review, discussion of specifications and data, robustness checks, etc. On the other hand, the lack of a check or a filter creates the opportunity for a spleen dump.

    Yes, academic writing is constrained, hopefully by our areas of expertise, by what we know about how the world works. But advocacy and opinion constitute ever-present temptations for smart academics with strong views who passionately care about improving the world. But our expertise is in our knowledge of means-ends relationships, not in our values or policy preferences. In a democracy, we each get one vote. Our voice should only get unequal weight to the extent that it is rooted in our expertise. Otherwise, we simply use our academic standing as a soapbox. Think of it as the academic equivalent of a rich person buying television ads to pitch a candidate or policy. The Supreme Court tells us that spending one’s money for a bigger megaphone and greater political impact is simply the exercise of free speech and thus cannot be limited (an argument with which, I suspect, most political scientists would disagree). Without comparable deep pockets, academics blog and use their intellectual standing to express their views (and also their expertise). So lots of academic blogs are opinionated polemics. And even in those that are somewhat scholarly and grounded in knowledge, the whiff of ideology can often be readily discerned.

    The recent Kanazawa dust up reflected crap science and analytic speculation and provides a sense of how academics can get into trouble by ruminating and sensationalizing and become accused of racist beliefs even when they are not expressing opinion per se. The further we stray from what we know, the less solid the ground on which we stand.

    The combination of straying from what we know and believing that our knowledge provides added weight to our opinions often gets us into trouble. The point is not that academics should not blog, it is that the blogs of academics should differ from those hosted by foundations, think tanks, special interest groups, etc. And whether in a blog or facebook post or a twitter feed, not every thought we have that we might state at lunch is worthy of broader dissemination.

    • 8 June 2011 12:00 am

      I’ve ruminated on your thoughtful comment, which in itself could be a post, perhaps if your views on blogging weren’t mixed. I’ve even talked about it with other junior colleagues–one who blogs, one who doesn’t.

      There are risks to blogging. I could write something that is wrong, something that is stupid, something I’d regret, and some sort of combination of those. Worse yet, the failure would be public (that is, it’s available to the public, not that the public necessarily cares what I’m blogging about). These negative outcomes could cost my reputation.

      At the same time, blogging helps me write. Sometimes, I’ll admit, my ideas are half-baked. If I had the luxury of having Art Stein across the hallway to shoot an idea at before risking my reputation with a potentially wrong/stupid/regrettable new thought, I would certainly take advantage of that. In fact, I often did. But in the world I live in today, my blog posts are like those office conversations with you or lunch conversations with Jeff Lewis. Sure, the number of people who get exposed to some of my not-yet-fully-thought-out ideas has increased, and perhaps if I write enough wrong/stupid/regrettable posts, fewer people will be there to listen to the new ideas and give constructive feedback.

      So, all of this is to say, I’m listening to what I think is good advice. I’m not going to continue blogging as if I didn’t read it, or as if I didn’t think the advice was valuable. I’m trying to find a balance between posting with enough frequency to be of value to readers but not with so much frequency that I’m passing along things that aren’t worthy of broader dissemination. I’m also trying to stick to what I know. But for now, I’m going to keep blogging.

  2. Sylvia permalink
    16 June 2011 11:23 pm

    Dig this post and your response. Academics that want to blog should do so for the same reason anyone else does — because they want to and they can. As with anything said or written, there can be risks, but that is true for any blogger. I like the fearlessness associated with blogging without permission from colleagues, reviewers and editors. I like the fact that academics can talk about their feelings, thoughts and opinions about topical issues.

    In Texas, I think it is interesting to see academics becoming activists over the university structure politics. So much for divorcing our personal politics from our jobs…..All of that said, I don’t blog.

    Viva los bloggers — especially the young guns 😉

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