Blogs Are Valuable and Enrich the Discourse, Says Study. I Agree.

January 12, 2012

(Cross-posted from Skepchick.org.)

I’ve spent more time reading posts and comments on skeptic and freethought blogs in the past two weeks than I had in the previous six months combined. It started with Ben Radford’s article about Riley on Discovery News, then I read Ben’s articles at weareskeptixx, Rebecca’s response, Ben’s reply on the CFI blog, several of PZ Myers’ responses to Ben, and many other recent posts about blogging, sexism, privilege, skepticism, and free expression. This week I think I’ve spent an hour a day reading related posts and comments on Pharyngula, Almost Diamonds, and Greta Christina’s Blog, among others. I feel ridiculously in-the-loop about this stuff at the moment.

Some commenters say they’re tired of skeptics and freethinkers talking about sexism and privilege; some accuse freethoughtblogs.com and skepchick.org of being echo chambers and commenters of being “ditto-heads” (a term I’d never seen before). In my own organization, there are a few individuals who downplay the value of the skeptic/freethought blogosphere instead of seeing it as a valuable space for getting feedback, evaluating interest, building connections, and impacting attitudes, among other things.

So when I stumbled across this article from The Economist last night I found it particularly relevant. Titled “A less dismal debate,” the article says: “Blogs are blamed for cheapening debate in some fields. Yet they have enriched economics.” Here are a few paragraphs:

“[I]n an era when a blog can be set up with a few clicks, not everyone agrees that more voices and more choices improve the quality of debate. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor, has argued that by allowing people to retreat into “information cocoons” or “echo chambers” in which they hear only views they agree with, the blogosphere fosters polarisation—a fear widely shared by politicians. Forbes once called blogs “the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective”.

Previous publishing revolutions, such as the advent of printing, prompted similar concerns about trivialisation and extremism. But whatever you think about the impact of blogging on political, scientific or religious debate, it is hard to argue that the internet has cheapened the global conversation about economics. On the contrary, it has improved it.

It’s interesting that it says “whatever you think about the impact of blogging on political, scientific or religious debate…” If blogging can enrich the discourse on economics, I believe blogging can also enrich the discourse in these other fields.

The article references a study titled “The Impact of Economics Blogs,” which attempts to measure three things. First, do blogs improve the dissemination of research findings, and are their readers more informed? Here are some of the perspectives the study authors took into consideration:

On the one hand, coupling the large readership of blogs with the argument of Cowen (2008) that the best ones are written at a level far higher than that of any major newspapers offers the promise that economics blogs may have sizeable effects on the dissemination of economic research and on the knowledge and attitudes of their readers. On the other hand, Sunstein (2008) argues that the blogosphere might be causing “group polarization” and creating “information cocoons” – making it unlikely that blogs would cause a significant change in the knowledge and attitudes of their readers. Bell (2006, p.75) summarizes another common perception of blogs, as “…a largely harmless outlet for extroverted cranks and cheap entertainment for procrastinating office workers.” Combined with the possibility that blogging gives scholars the freedom to write about topics outside their area of expertise (what Jacob T. Levy called public-intellectualitis’ in his blog) this would suggest that impacts of blogs are likely to be negligible.

Their conclusion: “There are large impacts on dissemination of research – a link on a popular blog results in a substantial increase in abstract views and downloads, while a majority of economics blog readers say they have read a new paper in the past month as a result of a blog.”

Second, does blogging raise the profiles of the writers? This one was easy; the answer is yes.

Third, do blogs lead to increased knowledge or changes in attitudes among readers? One way to evaluate this is to measure the influence of blogs on policy. (Remember, this is economics they’re talking about.) It seems the answer was inconclusive partly due to lack of data, but anecdotal evidence suggests that blogs can influence policy sometimes. Regarding attitudes, the study says, “we find some evidence from our experiment that blogs influence attitudes and knowledge…” but the study didn’t gather enough data to conclude that confidently.

So what am I trying to say here? I haven’t just been following the recent discussions in the skeptic/freethought blogosphere on sexism, privilege, and feminism for my own edification; I’ve also been bringing them to the attention of coworkers and friends because I believe the discourse is crucial. I think the blog discussions indicate a major shift in the culture of the movement, and—as can be expected when privilege is highlighted and challenged—the change can be painful, difficult, and sometimes divisive. Things have been “fine” for many individuals involved for a very long time, but other voices are speaking up, asking—then insisting—that their voices be heard, that their concerns be addressed, that the movement belong to them as much as it belongs to the demographics that have been comfortably represented for decades.

I am confident that blogs are an important tool driving this shift. After reading hundreds of blog comments in the last two weeks, I’m also certain that it’s not just the bloggers who have an impact; the commenters are a crucial part of the change that’s happening. If enough people speak up, others must listen. When people share their experiences, those become data. From data, we should be able to draw reasonable conclusions, even if some of the experiences may seem unreal to us. With those data and conclusions, more people will be educated and empowered to effect change.

Does this mean that every blog, and every blog community, is fostering progressive ideas? Of course not. But in this movement that values skepticism and critical thinking, we see that when members do these things poorly, they are often critiqued and criticized. And yes, there’s certainly mudslinging and ridicule and all the other kinds of behavior people might engage in when they think they’re right, someone else is wrong, and they’re offended. We have a long way to go, but—difficult as it may be—more and more people are joining in the effort and moving things forward.

As the article in The Economist says:

The back-and-forth between bloggers resembles the informal chats, in university hallways and coffee rooms, that have always stimulated economic research, argues Paul Krugman, a Nobel-prizewinning economist who blogs at the New York Times. But moving the conversation online means that far more people can take part. Admittedly, for every lost prophet there is a crank who is simply lost. Yet despite the low barriers to entry, blogs do impose some intellectual standards. Errors of fact or logic are spotted, ridiculed and corrected. Areas of disagreement are highlighted and sometimes even narrowed. Some of the best contributors do not even have blogs of their own, serving instead as referees, leaving thoughtful comments on other people’s sites and often criss-crossing party lines.

This debate is not always polite. But was it ever?

The discourse, and the process of changing our culture, is not always polite. Sometimes it gets ugly. Sometimes it drives people away. Sometimes it brings new people in. Again, the shift that’s taking place on blogs, in local groups, in our general movement can be painful, especially for those who were comfortable with the way things have been. But I’ve met many skeptics and freethinkers who are getting involved now because we’re addressing these important issues in our movement. And I’ve heard many new voices from individuals who felt that they couldn’t speak up before. Change is happening, and I am hopeful.