False dilemmas in science blogging

Mike Thicke

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.

Mike Thicke

About Mike Thicke

Mike is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Toronto's IHPST. His research concentrates on social epistemology, the use of economics in philosophy of science, and philosophy of economics.

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15 Responses to False dilemmas in science blogging

  1. Jai says:
    [+]

    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, ar...

    • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
      [+]

      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 aca...

  2. Will Thomas says:
    [+]

    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 iss...

    • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
      [+]

      "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. W...

  3. Erich Weidenhammer says:
    [+]

    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 th...

    • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
      [+]

      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 i...

      • Erich Weidenhammer says:
        [+]

        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 th...

        • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
          [+]

          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 wealth...

          • Erich Weidenhammer says:
            [+]

            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 ...

  4. [-]

    Great post Mike! Here’s a view about the benefits of blogging for academics by a grad student in the Chronicle: http://chronicle.com/article/How-Blogging-Helped-Me-Write/136893/

  5. [+]

    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...

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