False dilemmas in science blogging

What is the point of blogging from a history and philosophy of science or science studies perspective? What are we trying to accomplish? Is it part of our work as scholars, or just a hobby? Jaipreet Virdi yesterday reflected upon her difficulty in seeing “the big picture”, and I suspect most of us who contribute to blogs ask ourselves similar questions. As Michael Barton of The Dispersal of Darwin observes, there are many different types of academic blogs, with many different aims and many different audiences. There is no one right way to do things, and no one right aim. But what we do have are choices, and we need to be conscious of what those choices mean—or don’t mean—for our mission.

One type of choice that I think is false, or overblown, is the choice between engaging with the public and examining a subject in depth, or between writing accessibly and making sophisticated arguments and analyses. This choice is what Ben Cohen implies with his “Ayers-Onuf axis“:

About that axis. Two historians began a call-in radio show earlier this year. One of them, let’s call him Ayers, considered it an opportunity to contribute to the public debate about current issues by discoursing on historical context – voting, race relations, the environment, what have you. His ambition was to offer greater nuance to issues of political and cultural import. The other, whom we shall call Onuf, thought that Ayers over-stated it. He’s doing the show because he likes talking about history, he’s interested in the conversation, and he enjoys spending time with his colleagues. If someone learns something, well, that’s almost incidental, but let’s not go overboard. Thus the Ayers-Onuf axis defines the range of motivations for engaging in academic topics beyond the campus confines. It hits at the very core of academic identity in democratic societies. On one side is the idealist, on the other, the realist. They both have fun, but they get there from different routes. Those who write a Web-log (“blog”) find themselves somewhere along that axis, either with the belief that they are generating and/or influencing public conversation or with the motivation to explore a given subject in depth.

To be fair to Cohen, he sees himself as sliding between these poles and he claims to be motivated by both impulses. Nevertheless, the implication is that there is a tradeoff between talking to our peers about issues in which we are intrinsically interested and engaging with issues of “political and cultural import”. I think there is a third option: write about issues of intrinsic interest to us, but in a way that is accessible, engaging, and connects our interests to socially-important issues. As academics who study science, we are concerned with a subject matter that is both interesting and important to a great number of people. And what we can offer that, say, science journalists can’t, is the exploration of our subject in depth.

There are two lazy impulses to which I find it easy to succumb. First, there is the impulse to just “inform”—to use our blogs as pulpits to educate the ignorant public about some issue. Indulging this impulse can result in Ayers-type posts: socially-relevant yet shallow. Second, there is the impulse to be overly esoteric—to write blog posts that will only be of interest to or understandable by an extremely narrow range of people. Indulging in this impulse can result in Onuf-type posts. For me at least, Ayers and Onuf thus don’t represent competing motivations, but instead represent traps to avoid.

Will Thomas’s recent post “Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism” is a good example of a post that falls into neither trap. It is deep, accessible, and engages with a culturally-important issue (The #overlyhonestmethods trend and ensuing discussions over scientific practice). I don’t think it is correct to say that Will found a balance between Ayers and Onuf. He didn’t trade off depth for accessibility or import. Rather, he wrote a post that was both in depth and accessible, both academically interesting and culturally important.

Returning to Jai’s question of “the big picture”, I think the trick is to find a way to do real work—real scholarship—while also doing it in a way that takes advantage of the blog format: its immediacy, its potential for conversation, and its potential to reach a wide audience. If we fail to be scholarly we are giving up what makes us special, but if we fail to be accessible we are giving up what makes blogs special. We might as well save our energy for traditional journals.


  • Jai Reply

    Hi Mike,

    Great response. I’m not sure about your last point: “We might as well save our energy for traditional journals.”

    One of the points that came up in 2010 is whether blogging is creating a new(er) academic format, in which bloggers are expected to write posts that are well-researched, articulated, and argued, albeit for a wider audience. If we already use the works of eminent scholars for research and sources, and these scholars also write incredible blog posts (I’m thinking of Helen King here), do these posts hold the same merit as journal articles or even books?

    This topic actually sired up quite a bit of debate in my class last semester, when I was discussing the use of proper historical sources for my students (many who have never taken history courses before) to consult in their essays. I told them that there are many insightful blogs out there, but my students found it difficult to distinguish which were appropriate and which weren’t. I looked for the same quality of scholarship in blog posts as I do in articles (of course, to be shorter), but is quality of scholarship enough? What exactly are we looking for in academic blogs?

    Michael is right: there are many blogs out there that all cater to a variety of tastes. But I’m more concerned with what kind of standards we are–or should–be setting for ourselves if we are really emphasizing the use of blogs and other social media as aspects of scholarship.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Thanks Jai. What I’m arguing here is no, quality of scholarship isn’t enough, at least for me. Thinking of blog posts as shorter academic articles misses out on the potential of blogs to engage with a wider audience. For me, one of the main reasons to blog is to “shorten the value chain” between academics and society. Traditionally academia is based on an implicit division of labour where academics “make” knowledge and journalists or popular writers “disseminate” knowledge. I don’t think this division of labour works very well—it is too easy for academics to lose all sight of how their work might be relevant to society, and too easy for journalists to give a shallow portrayal of our work. Blogs can keep academics conscious of the relevance of our work while also allowing us to give it proper depth.

      You can run a blog for a different reason: as a way to test ideas before you develop them fully in an article. This would make blogs a new method of academic communication—a circular for the 21st century. But that’s not what I’m trying to do.

  • Will Thomas Reply

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks very much for the kind reference to “Kuhn’s Demon” — it was an unusually popular post! Ironically, one of the points of the post (which, admittedly, I didn’t heavily signpost) was that it was meant to question whether #OverlyHonestMethods is, in fact, a “culturally important issue”, or if it only appears that way to science-studies/HoS people because it happens to tick the boxes that we believe (on account of 50 years of rhetorical tradition) are the clear markers of culturally important issues. It is surely true that historians, journalists, and scientists all inherit a certain degree of rhetorical iconoclasm from past observations that scientific papers are not true accounts of scientific practice (thus the existence of #OverlyHonestMethods). But it is, I argue, only people who have integrated that rhetoric into their professional identity who are apt to raise it to a higher level of significance.

    I would also urge against referring to pop-writing and scholarly esotericism as “traps”. I agree there are issues where a good balance between the two can be struck, and that we should look for such opportunities, but I also believe there are esoteric issues that broader audiences will never be able to follow (nor would they want or need to), but that should be of interest to scholars. Like Jai, I would not reserve such discussions for the journals, not only because they might find non-professional audiences, but because journals are simply proving too clumsy: they cannot foster rapid dialogue, they often do not filter information to the audiences that need them the most. In short, journals are insufficiently scholarly to do the kind of work some of us would like to do using blogs (or some similar platform).

    Now, as Jai points out, that raises questions as to whether blog posts can ever be cited as authoritative sources. I would argue, no, since they are not peer reviewed (not that peer review is any guarantor of quality). However, for scholars, they might nevertheless have heuristic value, and could be cited in that capacity.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      “Culturally significant” is somewhat in the eyes of the beholder I guess. It was a popular trend. Will it change how scientists or anyone else views science? That’s a lot to ask of a week-long trend on Twitter. It gave HPSers a chance to reach a slightly wider audience than usual with our message. We might also find that the next time we teach a class about scientific practice, or the rhetorical strategies of scientific papers, some of our students think back to this trend and say, “Oh yeah, I remember…” and our message becomes a little easier to accept.

      Yeah, as I said in reply to Jai, I agree that blogs might have something to offer that improves the academic process, completely separate from public engagement. I’m interviewing Jim Collier of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective about that. I tried to personalize the claim about traps a bit—“For me at least”. But I do think there is a way to accomplish that goal without being esoteric. Perhaps what I want to say is that academic journals are themselves a trap, because they allow you to assume that you will have a small audience and are thus free to stop worrying so much about relevance or accessibility. Scientists sometimes need to write very technical papers that are incomprehensible to all but a few, and there are some areas of philosophy like this as well, but for the most part I don’t think this is the case for HPS.

      On the other hand, part of our job as academics is to consider arguments to a level of detail that would bore just about everyone. Even there, though, if that kind of highly-detailed post exists in conjunction with others on the blog that give it context, interested non-academics might make it to those posts and actually care about their arguments.

  • Erich Weidenhammer Reply

    Hey Mike,
    Thanks for the interesting post. It seems to me that there might be an important distinction to be made between, say, contemporary philosophy of science and history of science. When you suggest that: ‘there is a third option: write about issues of intrinsic interest to us, but in a way that is accessible, engaging, and connects our interests to socially-important issues.’, I think that this probably misses the dilemma that surrounds presenting history to a popular audience, at least beyond the recent past. This, I think, is what the A-O axis thing was about.
    Engaging with ‘socially important issues’ (or you could just say ‘framing the past in terms of present concerns’) is something that one tends to avoid in academic history writing. Popular history of science, mirroring the common perception of the history of science, tends to be about the history of the present, rather than about the ideas and practices of a given historical period.
    It is hard to reconcile these two registers of historical writing because it’s hard to introduce various unfamiliar ideas necessary to approach another time and place to a public that understands less and less about the past.
    Personally, I’d love to share esoteric, half-baked ideas with like-minded nerds who care about early-modern science. Is this possible through a blog? Maybe I should look into it.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Now you’re going to get me in trouble Erich. Whiggish historians tell history a way that implies that it was an inevitable march towards our present-day liberal society. Presentism, as I understand it, applies our current values to judging historical actors. I am advocating neither. However, it is inevitable that the history you tell will speak to present-day concerns. At the very least, it speaks to your concerns (hopefully). It is impossible to just “tell it like it was”—inevitably you are going to have to make choices, and those choices are based upon what you and some group of your contemporaries care about.

      When I say that being overly esoteric is a trap (for me), I mean that it doesn’t make the best use of the best features of blogs—that they facilitate conversation, that they are immediate, and that they can reach a wide audience. I do grant that even in not using blogs to their full potential they still might be a better method of scholarly communication than academic journals, in many cases at least. But I do think that academics (especially ones that receive public funding) have some responsibility to make their work widely available and accessible. Blogs are a great way to do that.

      I think it is possible, on a wider, long-term, basis, to do the work to make even esoteric blog posts potentially relevant and interesting to a wide audience by having other posts that give those posts context and interest. Academic journals and to some extent academic books are limited by space, but blogs are not. Blogs (and the web in general) are also much more choose-your-own-adventure than journal articles or books. Different audiences can, to some extent, construct their own longer works out of a pool of atomic blog posts. A single post may be part of many longer works aimed at different audiences.

      • Erich Weidenhammer Reply

        Hey Mike. Not to belabour what’s really a small point, but I do sympathise with historians of science who feel like they need to share different stories with the public than with their peers. No one, as far as I know, claims that being a historian gives access to some authentic understanding of the past, or that an authentic understanding of the past actually exists. But, ask someone unfamiliar with the history of science what they think the discipline is about and they will give you a much different answer than a historian would. More to the point, the public can’t be expected to pay for the same books on the subject, or (I suppose) take interest in the same blog posts.

        It seems to me that some academic work is, by its nature, more esoteric than other work. That work will be more easily communicated to an ‘insider’ audience than an ‘outsider’ one. Maybe academics who work in less topical areas are obliged to justify what they do to the public—I don’t know. If they are, they might need to find more accessible topics and approaches, which is what (I think) the Ayers-Onuf dilemma is addressing.

        • Mike Thicke
          Mike Thicke Reply

          When it really comes down to it, who am I to say what academics should or shouldn’t study? There is an interesting comparison with academics now and, say, in the renaissance, when if you wanted to pursue something esoteric and weren’t independently wealthy, you had to convince someone who was wealthy that your work was worth funding. Now, it kind of seems like you just have to convince other people much like yourself, with very similar interests to your own, that your work is worth pursuing. I don’t think this is an unqualified improvement.

          On the Ayers-Onuf axis, what I’m mainly arguing against is the idea that there is a necessary tradeoff—that to be accessible you must be shallow.

          • Erich Weidenhammer Reply

            Last thought: You could also compare academics to medieval monastics who were (in theory) a kind of spiritual elite. They were supposed to have protected the community through praying and wrestling with the existential problem by thinking about scripture. People gave them money and space to do what they did. Like monks, modern academics provide a hard core of meaning to society, though this core of western identity and culture is fragmenting.

            You’re probably right that people in the humanities need to be more transparent about what it is they do.

            Can you be accessible without being shallow? As I say, it’s hard in history because we’ve lost the shared cultural literacy/ homogeneity that used to define academia and culture generally. Also, the basic insight of current academic history—that the past isn’t necessarily an impoverished version of the present and ought to be appreciated as something foreign and interesting—is actually quite hard for people to wrap their heads around. It was for me, anyway.

  • Nathaniel Comfort Reply

    Terrific post and great discussion. I think for better or worse that what Mike is describing is fundamentally different from the old “monastic” model of scholarship. I grant that something is lost when we give that up, but a) other things are gained, as Mike aptly describes, and b) the public simply isn’t willing to support it anymore.

    There’s a lot I could add, but I’ll restrict myself to two observations. First, to me, writing accessibly is a form of rigor. A lot of academic writing fancies itself as sophisticated and textured when it is merely turgid and prolix. Bloviation is not an intrinsic good. Writing for more general audiences is a way of disciplining my prose and my ideas–compressing and streamlining and organizing my thoughts so that an imagined reader with no scholarly training but a good brain and substantial perseverance can follow me. And in the blogosphere, contribute.

    Second, traditional peer review has almost run its course. It’s badly eroding in the sciences and is even starting to crumble around the edges in stodgy old History. This goes hand in hand with the crisis over copyright. The journals are run by a tiny handful of corrupt mega-national corporations that charge insane rates for products that have essentially zero value. The universities are now fighting over a misguided intermediate technology called “open access journals,” which are basically a way for them to save money and shift publication costs onto the faculty. Blogs like this, with serious discussion free of jargon and over-wrought concepts, subvert all that. This here is serious intellectual work–what academic writing should be.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Thanks Nathaniel! Your second point is especially interesting and something I want to explore further.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *