Some Blogging Philosophy

As usual, I’m late to this particular party. Over at BayBlab, a blogger calling himself “Anonymous Coward” offers up some choice words for the all-powerful, all-consuming, resistance-is-futile ScienceBlogs combine:

If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That’s right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I’m afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.

I’m afraid this is mostly nonsense. More on that in a moment.

Many of my fellow Science Bloggers have already replied to the BayBlab post. I especially liked Janet Stemwedel’s response here. I agree with everything she says. Nonetheless, since I am one of those bloggers who frequently writes about politics and religion, permit me a few words of my own.

BayBlab suggests a rather stringent standard for what constitutes a science blog:

Of those only Cognitive daily is consistantly talking about peer-reviewed research. Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists.

Now, I almost never write about peer-reviewed research at this blog. The reason is simple. The sort of peer-reviewed research with which I am most familiar typically involves certain obscure questions in algebraic graph theory, and I just don’t think that makes for very interesting blog fodder. To be honest, I typically don’t read such posts when they appear at other blogs. Not because I object to them for some reason, but simply because I find such reading a bit too taxing to be enjoyable. For me blog reading is a break from the more technical reading I do as part of my daily routine.

That leads to my next point. In my view, a science blog is simply a blog the majority of whose posts relate to science in some way. Bashing creationists or discussing the relationship of science to religion certainly qualify. Seed‘s slogan, after all, is “Science is Culture.” Focusing solely on peer-reviewed research is far too narrow.

We turn now to some of BayBlab’s flashier points. Apparently a desire to write about things like politics and religion indicates that it is entertainment, and not a discussion to discuss science, that is my primary motivation. It’s the corrupting influence of all that money Seed sends me, apparently.

It is certainly true that the posts about creationists and religion are very popular. Posts on those topics typically attract far more comments than posts on more sedate topics. But that is not why I write them.

I was blogging for close to two years before making the jump to ScienceBlogs. The primary reason, then as now, was therapeutic. I find that when I read something to which I have a strong reaction, it is difficult for me to concentrate until I write things down somewhere. Otherwise I just mutter to myself about all the insipid things I just read, and start staging a little debate in my head. Writing it down is like unloading all that pent up vexation, thereby allowing me to move on to other things.

Blogging, after all, is a bit like acting. If you go into it hoping for fame and glory you are almost certainly going to be disappointed. For my first year of blogging it almost never happened that I received more than 100 hits in a day. I did it anyway. I joked to a friend of mine that I wrote the bog to keep my parents and brother informed as to what I was thinking about. Frankly, it never occurred to me that I would ever have any substantial body of readers, let alone that someone would pay me to do it.

The content of my posts is based solely on what I feel fired up about that day. I know that certain topics attract more interest than others, but that is neither here nor there. My chess posts are unlikely to appeal to more than a small fraction of my readership, but I enjoy writing them so up they go. My math posts lately have focussed primarily on the Monty Hall problem, not because I think that’s a keen subject for attracting readers, but because I am about two hundred pages into a first draft of a book on the subject and therefore have been thinking about it quite a lot. And I have been writing a lot about evolution and religion lately because there is a lot about those topics in the media these days, and that keeps me fired up.

And that brings us to the question of what a blog actually is. I view a blog as a very personal endeavor. The sort of staid, careful writing that is appropriate in a scholarly paper is less appropriate for a blog. Blog writing should have a strong voice and a distinct personality. It is not a betrayal of your blog’s mission to write about topics other than your main focus.

I feel compelled to mention this because periodically I get lectured by people who think I have wronged them in some way by writing about politics and religion. In the comments to BayBlab’s post, “rob” stopped by to offer the following:

You mentioned Sandwalk, which for me is a classic example. I love the science content on the blog, however Larry is constantly trying to pick fights with creationists which for me is tiring to read. The scientists who read your blog already agree with you Larry. Also the other mentioned blogs often have good content but there so much of it is not science related. I want science on my science blogs! I’ll go elsewhere for politics and religion.

And later:

I also find it strange that so many scientists post about politics when their specialty is science not politics. It is true that science and politics often cross paths and it is important to blog about those issues perhaps, but most political issues can be explored on political blogs.

Why is it strange to write about something that is not your academic specialty? If Larry Moran were frequently trying to publish in political science journals, that might seem a bit weird. But to be fired up about some bit of current events and unload about it at your blog? Nothing strange there.

Rob finds it tiring when Larry writes about creationism? Then the solution is to not read those posts. Even the bloggers I read most frequently often write about topics about which I have no interest, but I don’t take it as some personal affront when that happens. I don’t act as if they have failed in their duties as a blogger for writing about a topic I personally find tedious. I find it tiring when commenters stop by to let me know that I have blogged about something about which they are uninterested.

As for his line that, “The scientists who read your blog already agree with you Larry,” this is really wide of the mark. First of all, why is it a bad thing to express views with which the majority of your readers agree? As a reader there is satisfaction to be found in finding views you agree with expressed in a creative way. And secondly, while I can’t speak for Larry’s audience, I know that around here my readers are hardly monolithic. I know that any time I write about a topic that is at all interesting, I can expect quite a few contrary opinions to show up in the comments. I like that sort of thing, as do most bloggers.

A similar sentiment was expressed in the main post over at BayBlab:

But bashing creationists is almost too easy, and not very constructive. It’s been said before, you can’t reason somebody out of a position in which they didn’t reason themselves into.

Another common sentiment that is woefully misguided. The idea here seems to be that before you post on a topic you should ask yourself whether your argument is likely to convince someone on the other side. That is a bad attitude. You don’t challenge creationists because you’re hoping that some fundamentalist will stop by, read your cogent argument, and immediately deconvert. Aside from the personal satisfactions that come from confronting nonsense, you do it because it is important to provide cogent counter-arguments against pseudoscience. You do it because you do not know who is reading, and you just might give some one information they find useful. I receive e-mails all the time from people thanking me for writing the blog and for providing some pushback against the creationists. And when I read those e-mails, I spend the next hour or so feeling really, really good.

For myself, when I first got interested in this subject I knew next to nothing about evolution and creationism. I was suspicious of much that I was reading in the creationist literature, but I did not have good answers at my fingertips. So I was certainly grateful that some high-powered scholars like Douglas Futuyma, Niles Eldredge and Phillip Kitcher had gone to the trouble of writing book-length discussions of the subject. I’m sure a lot of their colleague taunted them with BayBlab’s sentiment. “Why are you bothering, guys? Scientists already agree wtih you and you won’t persuade the creationists!”

And that brings me, finally, to the one genuinely interesting point in BayBlab’s post. How is a blogger just starting out supposed to get noticed in a noisy blogosphere? I think there are only two ways to do it. One way is to catch the eye of some big shot bloggers and get them to link to you. The other is to have something going for you outside of the blogosphere. Many journalists, for example, already have a base of readers from their printed articles that then transfer over to their blog.

In my case what happened was that Paul Gross saw an essay I had written for The Mathematical Intelligencer about evolution and creationism. This led him to my blog, which he mentioned in Creationism’s Torjan Horse. Around the same time I was writing frequently for Skeptic magazine on the subject, and that also attracted readers. Somehow this led to some bigger bloggers linking to me on a regular basis, which also increased my readership. Eventually the folks from Seed found out about me somehow, seemed to like what I was doing, and invited me to do it for them.

If you decide you want to start a blog, you have to go into it with your eyes wide open. Be aware that blogging is just about the biggest time sink since Tetris. Expect to devote enormous chunks of time to it, and expect to be doing it in obscurity for quite some time. Expect to have your friends question your mental health, and be prepared for bouts of self-doubt as to whether your time can be better spent. If it still seems attractive, then go for it!

Well, that’s it for now. It’s taken me two hours to get this far, and I feel a sudden urge to go think about the Monty Hall problem!

Comments

  1. #1 Koray
    February 29, 2008

    You could perhaps write on the basics of algebraic graph theory or anything you want a la GM/BM as long as you enjoy it.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 29, 2008

    Actually, that’s not a bad idea. It would probably help if I knew how to format a matrix in HTML.

  3. #3 Rien
    February 29, 2008

    I receive e-mails all the time from people thanking me for writing the blog and for providing some pushback against the creationists. And when I read those e-mails, I spend the next hour or so feeling really, really good.

    Then, let me add that I usually find what you write about creationists some of the best out there in the blogosphere and I always enjoy those posts. (I came here from Pharyngula at some point. But PZ is rarely doing anything beyond calling them demented f***wits nowadays…)

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 29, 2008

    Rien –

    Thanks for the kind words. Rest assured that they make me feel really good indeed.

  5. #5 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    February 29, 2008

    I appreciate your posts, but I get sick of PZ-bashing. I wish that there weren’t so many comments out there against him. Comments on science blogs should be limited to science. The blogger can write about whatever s/he pleases.

  6. #6 RBH
    February 29, 2008

    Mike wrote

    Comments on science blogs should be limited to science.

    Erm, that’s a comment about a non-scientific topic posted on a science blog. :)

  7. #7 Kevin
    February 29, 2008

    I’ve been reading your posts forever .. but.. I was a math major in college; I play chess; I study astronomy, cosmology and biological systems and dinosaurs and small rodents research re the wobble in the earth’s orbit…

    and so what is a non-abelian group good for? or a ring or a what? as I got a “D” in group theory….

    and how does a tensor relate to a vector? and why can’t I really understand the mathematics of ?erenkov radiation ?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherenkov_radiation

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    February 29, 2008

    “and so what is a non-abelian group good for?”

    Depends on what you mean by “good for”. None of the canonical number systems under multiplication are even groups, but rather semigroups IIRC (zero isn’t invertible under the group’s composition).

  9. #9 Callandor
    March 1, 2008

    The subject of this post doesn’t interest me. You really should be focusing on the math, you know….

    Honestly, though, this place has numerous posts on it that are terrific reference points for any of my creationist encounters. A great resource.

    So, finish up that book and put more resources out! :)

  10. #10 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    March 1, 2008
    Comments on science blogs should be limited to science.

    Erm, that’s a comment about a non-scientific topic posted on a science blog. :)

    RBH – I am glad to see that I made somebody smile.

  11. #11 slpage
    March 1, 2008

    ‘The Doc’ at Bayblab also seems to be one of these chaps who believes that physics is the utmost, beat all end all scientific field, and all elese is kiddie’s play.

    He is, of course, a physics major…

  12. #12 slpage
    March 1, 2008

    Oops – it was Rob, not the doc…

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    March 2, 2008

    Because rotations in three dimensions do not, in general, commute, the group of 3D rotations is non-abelian.

  14. #14 Eric Thomson
    March 2, 2008

    I didn’t know bloggers in the scienceblog syndicate get paid. That does make me look at them differently. I’m not sure exactly how, but not in a good way. It adds an additional level of skepticism about each post. Bloggers already have a tendency to pad their blogs with fluff posts. This could in theory be a temptation here, especially since it sounds like you aren’t paid a salary, but pay by the number of ‘clicks’ or whatever. So learning about the money thing does make me look at this blog and blogs in this set differently than your average ‘wordpress’ amateur blogger.

    However, it really doesn’t matter: I can tell if a post sucks or not, and the science-oriented posts here tend to be very good.

    More generally, a cabal of bloggers can evoke a kind of jealousy or antagonism from people not in the group, so I’d expect that with scienceblogs. People need to realize that the scienceblogs folks aren’t a blog cabal. They really have no affiliation other than having the same employer.

  15. #15 matt
    March 2, 2008

    Perhaps the nature of blogging is something that only another blogger can properly understand? I don’t really believe that, though. Anyone reading this blog is likely subjected every day to the output of dozens or hundreds of writers, most of them paid. Some of those are no doubt horribly compromised hacks — those in advertising are obvious examples — but we read the others with a keen interest. Not because they are or are not professionals, but because what they write fascinates. Do people, for example, generally despise novelists because they happen to get paid for what they write? Or serious journalists? Do we think “Oh, Woodward and Bernstein were only in it for the money”?

    Not that I want to equate blogging with professional writing, even in the case of people like yourself, Jason, who get some meagre income from it. Blogging can be vastly more interesting, because it is more immediate and personal, because it isn’t beholden to an institutional editorial line. That isn’t guaranteed — there are more uninteresting blogs than you could shake a stick at in ten lifetimes — but the possibility exists. A significant part of that is the freedom from simpleminded strictures on subject matter. Scientists can blog interestingly on politics, just as policemen can on music, just as beekeepers can on performance art. Blogging is about life, and science is intimately bound up with that. Anyone who doesn’t see that is, and I make this sweeping statement without compunction, a fucking idiot.

  16. #16 Eric Thomson
    March 3, 2008

    I think Matt is right. Even amongst, say, freelance journalists, there is a pressure to write fluff pieces. But freelance journalists also do amazing work. It is up to us to be critical.

    I’m frankly not sure why I initially tend to be suspicious of bloggers that make money, when I am not that way with authors of books, newspaper articles, etc that always get paid. Perhaps I have a more academic model of blogging. Academic journals pay people nothing (heck, they usually don’t even give authors the copyrights on the papers), and if there is any potential conflict of interest, it must be reported to the journal.

    On the other hand, academics get paid to do their research, and there is temptation for some of them to produce crap just to maintain money (and more likely reputation).

    My initial negative reaction doesn’t stand up to rational reflection (as I said in the second paragraph of my original post, I can tell crap from non-crap, and gravitate toward the latter regardless of any economic incentives they had for writing that non-crap).

  17. #17 Blake Stacey
    March 3, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse:

    It would probably help if I knew how to format a matrix in HTML.

    HTML by itself is pretty limited, but people have come up with lots of ways to harness the power of LaTeX. Most sophisticated, perhaps, is the approach which Jacques Distler employs on the sites he hosts at UT Austin, which use MovableType plugins to translate itex to MathML:

    http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2006/09/texnical_issues.html

    This produces nice-looking output, if your browser can handle it (the proper fonts must be installed, etc.), and would probably require a few late-night caffeine sessions on the part of the ScienceBlogs tech guy. Other blogs, including Cosmic Variance, Clifford Johnson’s Asymptotia and my own sunclipse.org, use a program called LaTeXrender:

    http://www.mayer.dial.pipex.com/tex.htm

    This has the advantage that the output is pretty much guaranteed to be browser-independent (it’s just GIF or PNG files). Again, integrating it with the ScienceBlogs setup might be difficult, but if you intend to write posts focused on a few equations surrounded by verbal discussion, it might not be too difficult to generate the equation images and then manually include them in the post.

    Finally, my friend Randall came up with a JavaScript tool for automagically parsing TeX into images. Installation instructions are here:

    http://canofpowerup.wordpress.com/2007/12/17/sal-continues-to-get-pummeled/#comment-7

  18. #18 Kevin
    March 3, 2008

    “It adds an additional level of skepticism about each post. Bloggers already have a tendency to pad their blogs with fluff posts.”

    ABSOLUTELY! I am sure that $36.50 biases each and every word and rots their moral fiber to the core of their very existance.

  19. #19 gary
    March 4, 2008

    The great thing about blogs is that people are free to write about whatever they feel like writing about, and people are free to read whichever blogs interest them.

    Very democratic if you ask me.

    By the way, I like your blog a lot and I don’t feel guilty for saying so.

  20. #20 XYZ
    March 5, 2008

    There is a wide variation in ScienceBlogs blogs — for example, Tara Smith’s Aetiology blog is almost all pure science whereas Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars blog has almost no pure science. I don’t see how Ed was accepted by ScienceBlogs or Panda’s Thumb, a science blog where he is a co-blogger. Ed has no professional credentials in any technical field (science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science). By his own admission, he is not even a college graduate. He is just a glib storyteller.

    Probably the thing that has made blogs highly attractive as references is the comment sections, which potentially present a wide variety of views and potentially help to make the blog self-correcting as to facts. I say “potentially” because arbitrary censorship of comments negates these potential benefits of the comment sections. This problem of arbitrary censorship of comments is especially serious because blogs are being authoritatively cited by scholarly journal articles, court opinions, the official news media, etc.. There is inadequate recognition of the need to fight arbitrary censorship of blog comments.

    There are a number of factors that make some blogs more popular than others — it is not just the quality of the articles or the comments –

    (1) Those who got off to an early start in blogging have a big advantage compared to those who started when the blogosphere was saturated.

    (2) Co-blogging on a multi-blogger blog. A lot of ScienceBlog bloggers are co-bloggers on multi-blogger Panda’s Thumb, which they use to feed websurfers to their personal blogs.

    (3) Posting a lot of articles on popular subjects like sports and entertainment. Ed Brayton does a lot of this.

    (4) Making up stories. Ed Brayton does a lot of this, too. It seems that this should hurt is credibility, but he has a devoted following.

    Ed also covers up the faults of his blog articles by arbitrarily censoring comments. Ed is a typical unscrupulous BVD-clad blogger (I prefer “BVD-clad” to “pajama-clad” because Hugh Hefner considers pajamas to be formal wear).

  21. #21 Jim
    March 5, 2008

    Larry,

    Ed has no professional credentials in any technical field (science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science). By his own admission, he is not even a college graduate. He is just a glib storyteller.

    um…pretentious much Larry? You apparently have an engineering degree & look at what it’s done for you. From your blog:

    Tuesday, March 04, 2008
    “Even Jews have difficulty deciding who is really Jewish”
    I have argued that a “systematic” Jewish holocaust was impossible because the Nazis had no objective and reliable ways of identifying Jews and non-Jews.

    Well, this is why if there was even a doubt that someone wasn’t Jewish … they were Jewish. & it wasn’t for lack of trying. The history of IBM’s punch card technology tells that tale well enough.

    Ed also covers up the faults of his blog articles by arbitrarily censoring comments. Ed is a typical unscrupulous BVD-clad blogger (I prefer “BVD-clad” to “pajama-clad” because Hugh Hefner considers pajamas to be formal wear).

    I’m just going to assume that may have been an attempt at humor, but it really is so difficult to tell when it comes from a crazy person.

  22. #22 pough
    March 5, 2008

    Seed’s slogan, after all, is “Science is Culture.”

    This was the first thing that occurred to me when I read that post. From my reading (which also made me wonder what colour the sky is in that person’s world) I got the impression that it’s basically saying, “no it’s not.”

  23. #23 Blake Stacey
    March 6, 2008

    To continue on the subject I addressed a few comments ago (and which I doubt anybody is desperate to know more about), there’s also MathTran. I haven’t used it, so I don’t have personal experience with it, but it seemed worth mentioning.

  24. #24 Seo Teknikleri
    March 6, 2008

    Thanks for the kind words. Rest assured that they make me feel really good indeed.

  25. #25 Seo Terimleri
    March 6, 2008

    The great thing about blogs is that people are free to write about whatever they feel like writing about, and people are free to read whichever blogs interest them.

    Very democratic if you ask me.

    By the way, I like your blog a lot and I don’t feel guilty for saying so.

  26. Gretz..!

    [link title="Makara,Eğlence,Fıkra,Fıkralar,Komedi,Komik"]www.makara-eglence.blogspot.com[/link]

  27. #27 Interrobang
    March 7, 2008

    Thanks a lot for expressing the point about talking about creationists. I’ve been having a back-and-forth about this with my boyfriend, who just doesn’t Get It in a certain sense. He seems to think that if I’m not actively trying to deconvert people (by writing apologetics of one sort or another, apparently), then all I’m doing is flinging muck, which is useless and alienating, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way of replying cogently to that. I think you just crystallised my response, in that the next time he runs one of these concern-troll numbers on me, I’m going to tell him I’m not interested in deconverting the other side; I’m trying to radicalise a larger segment of my own side. There’s more than one way to skin an Overton Window, after all.

    If hearing that kind of crud from my own boyfriend were funnier, I’d be thinking of that ancient “letter to the Smothers Brothers” satire that appeared in Mad lo those many years ago, that started with, “Be funny, boys, but don’t offend/The sponsor who’s your network’s friend…”

    Yours in more and better arguments…

  28. #28 Su Aritma Cihazlari
    May 12, 2008

    Su Aritma Cihazlari

    Nice Site thank you

  29. #29 Susan
    July 16, 2008

    I haven’t used it, so I don’t have personal experience with it, but it seemed worth mentioning.

  30. #30 Alex Griffin
    July 26, 2008

    I’ve been reading your posts forever .. but.. I was a math major in college; I play chess; I study astronomy, cosmology and biological systems and dinosaurs and small rodents research re the wobble in the earth’s orbit…

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!