On the blogosphere and readers’ responsibilities

While I try to stay within the confines of science studies, Freddie DeBoer’s latest missive warrants a response. Not content to simply critique the flaws in Matt Yglesias’s prediction on the decline of the university, Freddie felt it necessary to attack the blogosphere writ-large:

As it happens, pay blogging has actually been on the uptick, as Yglesias himself has pointed out— with reference to evidence, making this post vastly more valuable than his recent ones on college. If he treated them in that way, I wouldn’t mind the conjecture, but that’s not the case. There is no indication in these posts that Yglesias takes one more seriously than the other, or that he recognizes the value of empirical evidence and the poverty of speculative claims about the future. This is a really good example of what I was recently complaining about on Balloon Juice, the conspicuous lack of epistemological distinctions and accountability in the blogosphere. Yglesias is essentially making things up here, whereas he was responsibly reading empirical data when it came to the blogging boom. Yet there’s no consistent system of knowledge generation that privileges the latter over the former, and no accountability to be found within blogging to correct his poor reasoning.

That last sentence is a bit strange. In this very post, Freddie spends 500-odd words serving up the kind of blogospheric accountability he insists doesn’t exist. Matt swung and missed here, and Freddie quickly pounced. This is what is supposed to happen.  Precisely because so many people can read and pick apart sloppy arguments, we shouldn’t worry so much when bad ones are advanced.

The blogosphere was never intended to replace longform journalism or peer-review, which almost by definition are coherent and well-researched while limited in scope and time-consuming. The blogosphere reverses these qualities. In the past three days alone, Matt has authored thirty-three posts. Surely Freddie doesn’t expect every  one of them to reference the latest NBER report. Matt does what anyone who every day writes thousands of words on topics as diverse as evolution, social insurance, political rhetoric, bank regulation, Islam, war in Iraq, the Danish elections, and monetary policy would do.  Some posts (perhaps too few) are rigorous, well-thought out and draw from established scholarship while some are not. So it’s a bit much to claim Matt doesn’t “recognize the value of empirical evidence.” More likely, this piece was composed within 10 minutes and we shouldn’t take it that seriously.

By requiring excellence in every post, Freddie neglects his duties as a blog reader while narrowing the richness of what the blogosphere offers. Blogs demand more of their readers exactly because they demand so little of their writers. Readers should know what they’re getting into before they engage with the medium. Don’t visit blogs if you want carefully constructed prose that references the latest Science paper.

Restricting the one venue where informed analysis happily co-exists with  partial and even complete ignorance won’t necessarily improve the blogosphere. It will make for watered-down journalism.

Is there no place to think out loud? To offer visceral predictions? To describe the vague impressions we all have that we know aren’t grounded in evidence? And if the blogosphere cannot fulfill this role, where should it exist?

Perhaps Matt should have started: “Hey guys, this post is less meticulous than some of my others. Take it with a grain of salt.” Perhaps such caveats would better delineate the good from the bad. But perhaps readers should recognize armchair theorizing when they see it.

Writers rightly expect their readers to bear some responsibility in the transaction. In the blogosphere, even more so.

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