The Importance of Bloggers

Perhaps you’ve heard of Andrew Keen? He showed up on Colbert recently to discuss his new book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.

One of his points is that bloggers in particular are mere amateurs who inevitably coarsen the public debate and threaten professional journalistic enterprises with their ceaseless and ill-informed attacks.

This, of course is total nonsense.

You can always find dark corners of the internet where ignoramuses get into silly flame wars with one another. But the best blogs, and the ones that generate most of the traffic, are simply marvelous at keeping journalists and pundits honest. Media folks now have relentless, well-informed watchdogs ready to take them to task for their frequent errors, biases, and just frankly stupid statements. It’s not that we once had professional journalists who knew what they were doing, who then got taken down by amateur know-nothings. Rather, it is that journalists can no longer get away with phoning it in and making it up because bloggers will call them on it.

Via P.Z. Myers, we we now see a similar example from science journalism. The propensity of science reporters to exaggerate every two-bit discovery into a scientific revolution has long been a problem. Now we have a classy outlit like National Geographic falling into this trap:

Aaargh. When will the media learn? National Geographic is running this ridiculous headline right now: New Fossil Ape May Shatter Human Evolution Theory, in which the reporter claims a discovery of some teeth could “demolish a working theory of human evolution.” It’s not true. Where is this nonsense coming from?

And later:

Now read the blogs — they’re doing a much better job of evaluating this work than the traditional media. For one thing, they’re actually looking at it critically. Afarensis points out that these are only a few teeth, and it’s awfully thin grounds for a substantial revision of the timeline. John Hawks makes a similar point, but also highlights the fact that there is an unresolved problem — we need to reconcile paleontological and molecular dates. Even John Wilkins, a “mere” philosopher, weighs in sensibly that teeth are plastic characters in phylogeny, and deplores this peculiar media habit of taking a recalibration of a historical detail as a major reformulation of theory. All these discussions are sober and interested and most important of all, accurate.

See the original for links.

P.Z. has it exactly right. More than that, when it comes to science reporting, the blogs are usually written by professional scientists, while the mainstream media articles are not. Who’s the threat to professionalism now?


  1. #1 David D.G.
    August 23, 2007

    A-freakin’-men, Jason. I have been getting increasingly frustrated with appallingly bad science journalism for the last several years. The fact that this trend has even reached National Geographic is just dumbfounding. We need to have somebody getting their facts straight and keeping their perspective where it belongs, and I find this among ‘Net commentators and bloggers far more often than in the traditional news releases.

    And, as you say, they make profoundly honest and very effective watchdogs for the so-called professionals — at least to those of us who read them. Hopefully that will enable their influence on the professional media to increase so that it can one day be worth taking more seriously.

    ~David D.G.

  2. #2 mollishka
    August 23, 2007

    I just watched the video (over the *internet*, for free, of course) and I have to say, normally I find Colbert incredibly annoying, but it’s interviews like this that make me respect what he does. Also, does this guy really think that most blogs people read are anonymous, and that the real authors of said blogs are “in pay of corporations and foreign governments”?!

    And he really did say that the internet is worse than Nazis. ergo, the argument is over, and he has lost.

  3. #3 Blaine
    August 24, 2007

    I shouted to the TV “Godwin’s Law” when I heard Keen make that incredibly dense statement.

    By shouted, I mean I actually woke up my sleeping 2 yr old….ooops. Then I had to explain to my wife why I had done that. I tell ya, if these people keep this up I am just gonna send my wife after them.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    August 24, 2007

    I’ve always loved the idea of “professional journalism”. Journalism as we know it started out as the very blue-collar enterprise Keen denounces in the blogosphere. It was always considered a “trade” rather than a “profession”. The idea of the journalist as the uber-intellectual who directed national “narrative” is a very modern (or rather, post-modern) notion.

    Journalism isn’t crumbling under the influence of the blogosphere, as Keen seems to imply. Its just going back to it’s roots.

  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    August 24, 2007

    Or I should say, “…very recent notion” in the last sentence of the first paragraph above.

  6. #6 valhar2000
    August 24, 2007

    Actually, Tyler, professional hournalism is much too post-modern nowadays. You surely have read complaints in the scienceblogs about the media’s penchant for fake balance? It’s just the idea that all ideas are social constructs and nobody is right or wrong: the garbage the post-modernism produces in practice.

    And, of course, if journalists are not afflicted with post-modernism, there are hundreds of defects they can choose from at marvellous prices! They DO NOT miss that opportunity!

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    August 24, 2007

    The Columbia Journalism Review‘s Gal Beckerman had a good summary, a few months ago: “Keen is scared of America.”

  8. #8 SLC
    August 24, 2007

    What’s really going on here is the deterioration of science reporting in the mainstream media, particularly the (formally) newspaper of record, the New York Times. One only has to recall the coverage of the Dover trial in which a couple of small town newspapers in York, Pa. did a greatly superior job of coverage then did the Times. This is not limited to science reporting; consider the Times giving an editorial page byline to a moron like Maureen

  9. #9 mark
    August 25, 2007

    Many good blogs also benefit from from knowledgeable commenters (although there sometimes is considerable chaff that can be downright distracting). Many comments link to original news items, quotes, journal articles and other sources of valuable information.

  10. #10 Aonymous
    August 25, 2007

    Jason Rosenhouse said,

    But the best blogs, and the ones that generate most of the traffic, are simply marvelous at keeping journalists and pundits honest.

    And what is there to keep the blogs honest? Some of the biggest blogs — e.g., Panda’s Thumb, Pharyngula, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and Uncommon Descent — have arbitrary censorship of blog visitors’ comments.

    IMO the best way to improve a blog’s credibility is to have a policy against arbitrary censorship of blog visitors’ comments.

  11. #11 Steve Murphy
    August 25, 2007

    Regarding arbitrary censorship, I would respectfully disagree with Anonymous’ comments – except for UD which has gone through long phases of censorship (I don’t know about “arbitrary” even there – usually it stems from attempts of asking for testable hypotheses or refutation of outlandish claims).

    For example, PZ has a rather short list (relative to his readership) of who has been bounced and the list is the usual suspects banned from blogs across the political spectrum. Panda’s Thumb has ATBC for flamewars and so on. Ed rarely bounces people at Dispatches – he does fisk people, yes, but he’s libertarian to the core and takes pains not to try and ban (there are exceptions for sockpuppets and so forth).

    I think these blogs (and I would also include Jason’s here) are widely read because they don’t jump the gun on banning or censoring. Hell, Jason, PZ, Ed (and others) have had some good and intense internecine back-and-forth arguments and none of them appeared to censor even some of the most heated arguments even between themselves.

    You don’t really see attempts to put up a political or phony united front on all topics by the Sb crowd even though that might spare them all from critics who then shout “aha, see proof that scientists cannot even agree amongst themselves”. There *is* convergence on a lot of the science (because of the evidence) but the social aspects of sciences and the attendant political positions are a lot more varied.

  12. #12 Kevin
    August 31, 2007

    “Many good blogs also benefit from from knowledgeable commenters (although there sometimes is considerable chaff that can be downright distracting). Many comments link to original news items, quotes, journal articles and other sources of valuable information.

    Posted by: mark | August 25, 2007 11:31 AM ”

    why thank you mark!

    I also think that inane, repetitive and obscure-point commenters also serve a purpose.

  13. #13 Anonymous
    September 7, 2007

    Steve Murphy,

    You are insane. Smart comments and commenters are censored all the time. There is no good reason to censor stupid comments and commenters.

  14. #14 Kristjan Wager
    September 10, 2007

    First of all, censoring is something the state does, not private people. Second of all, several of the bloggers mentioned only disenvowel comments, so it’s possible to see if someone has been “censored” – in PZ’s case, it nearly never happens, and certainly not to intelligent posters. If you feel I’m wrong, I’d ask you to provide just one example of a smart commenter who have had a comment removed/disenvoweled at Pharyngula.

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