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

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.


Debbie is keenly interested in secularism, skepticism, magic and deception, LGBTQ issues, language and perception, and general geekery. She works at the Center for Inquiry as director of outreach, director of African Americans for Humanism, and intro-doer for Point of Inquiry. You can find her on Twitter: @debgod.

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  1. Personally, I find weblogs crass and uninteresting. I question both the sanity and sexual virility of anyone who engages in such poppycock.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, all this excitement has caused my monocle to drop into my champagne flute and I simply must fish it out, lest I give the servants cause to gossip.

  2. I don’t really understand all this fretting about the echo-chamber effect. Yes, it’s a problem, but blogs have hardly created it; it’s always been the case that anyone who only wanted to hear opinions from the like-minded has been able to do that. If blogs have had any effect, I think, it’s in the opposite direction: they make it easier than it’s ever been to seek out and engage with opposing viewpoints. (Just ask any atheist blogger how many Christianity-preaching commenters they get.)

    I can’t help but suspect that, at least in some cases, what people like Cass Sunstein and Forbes’ editors object to is the way that blogs have democratized public debate – made it possible for anyone to render an opinion and be widely heard, not just those with the requisite credentials or social circles. The Very Serious People will always wring their hands when some new technological innovation lets the rabble speak up and be heard.

  3. Debbie! Funny, I was just thinking about this. I noticed that there is an upcoming “Women in Secularism” conference being hosted by…*gasp*…Center for Inquiry?! *mind being blown* My first thought was, “This would never have happened six years ago.” My second thought was, “What has changed?” And granted, many things have changed…but one of the big things is that female skeptics (and their blogs) are popping up right and left, asserting their presence and saying some pretty intelligent things. And now they can haz microphones?! I’m sure PK is rolling over in his…bed.

  4. I might be wrong on this…

    …but I think it’s more to do with people who comment and post in blogs that most reflect their views, and avoid the ones that counter. The question is, would the majority of any commentors here be comfortable posting their views over at ERV for example? Conversly, whould any commentor from ERV be comforatble posting their views here? Of coarse there are exceptions and trolls. So it’s less of an echo-chamber than more of a gathering place of like minded individuals. It’s kinda like people who love going to parties that play techno…they wouldn’t go to a heavy metal concert to hear it.

    1. I do like reading blogs that challenge my views. As an example, the other day I tweeted this link, which made me seriously reconsider my outlook. I wouldn’t count ERV among them, though, for the same reason I don’t read Stormfront, or r/mensrights: it’s not a site that is in any way intellectually stimulating. It’s a cesspit.

      1. Sean Carroll wrote an excellent piece on approaching the blogosphere in 2009 called the The Grid of Disputation. On this ERV is definitely in the Crackpot quadrant. The goal is to find worthy opponents to argue against.

      2. Thank you for replying, Rebecca.

        As I said…I’m sorta going out on a limb with that observation. And as I noted, there are exceptions. But I admit though, the observation is more based on personal experience. That is, for example…I don’t think I could handle ERV without wanting to hurl the contents of my stomach. So I avoid it like the plague. But is that a criteria I should be using to support my observation?

        However, I suspect you’re right though. There is also the issue of the quality of the site we wish read and/or post too. There are certainly better places to have reasonable discourse. And there certainly places to avoid because their nature of ignorant, bigoted asshattery…unless that’s one’s thing.

        I hope that makes sense.

  5. Another major factor is independence. I think the mainstream media has become narrower and narrower, and it has pushed out a lot of interesting, intelligent and independent minds. Bloggers don’t have to worry about getting fired, selling copy, editorial policy, they can say whatever they want, especially if they are anonymous, and it takes everyone, no matter how controversial, abrasive, evil. Imagine if House blogged.

  6. As a young and gifted MGM (Mentally Gifted Minor-a precursor to the AP program. Much more difficult, yet it had limited students that could qualify. So in my opinion, they made a wise choice to go with Advanced Placement Programs) student, who after many tragedies finally became a proficient entrepreneur and so far am 5 for 5. But in 2003, I had a tear in my vertebral artery and as a result, had a stroke.

    Now, I don’t know how I can explain to anyone what this meant for my life. I had overcome so much and done so with a good mind, but now the tragedy was that the tool I had used all these years-now it was damaged.

    Due to “pre-existing conditions”, after talking to even the under writing departments, no one would ensure me in my younger years. So, on that very memorable morning as things started spinning and I felt to the ground, I knew for the first time in my life, this may not be something I could overcome.

    After 2 years of no insurance and 26 trips to the ER for passing out on the sidewalks, and no treatment whatsoever, I retreated to a room and shut the sheets on the window and sat in the dark for 5 years.

    See, while once able to do anything I wanted and know of anything I so desire, I now found myself unable to even converse in a conversation. The words were almost painful and the more input the more fatigued I had become. At one point, I wanted to check out (a few times-but unsuccessfully).

    One morning as I could not push the knife through my skin, I stopped. I thought “You’re getting no where with this” “I think you are going to have to decide right now, leave…or stay. And if stay, you are to”, as I was known for, put every cell and every thought into recovery, despite being told it was too late.

    Why am I on this blog? Because having no one to talk to and no support group, I needed access to information, and a variety of it. And I needed a way to respond. I picked up that dusty computer and feverishly tried to understand how to work it again. It soon brought me to something called a “Huffington Post” and after the articles were conversations.

    That was June 2009. At first, I could maybe after an hour or so, write a sentence. Each day I returned to this and other blogs. Sometimes for 14 hours straight. At one point, people had begun to stop noticing that there was something wrong with my writing. And soon a fan base followed. Not a lot, but a fan base all the same.

    Now, I’m in the process of starting business #6, Blog: OnlyTheFacts.org and I am a frequent blogger at Huffington Post. I owe my life and the return of some of my mind to blogs.

    See, I was also an over active person and did not want to study long courses when I could understand much in just short sessions. And as far as the echo chamber, on HP, because of my atheistic, feministic, liberal, empathetic views on life, I am bombarded by protagonists that constantly challenge me and bring in variations of information and in addition to that. I have become aware of more famous writers and professionals on certain topics than before the stroke.

    Good and bad information does exist in blogs-not much different than books, and I must use my rational thinking to decipher which is which. And yes, my information base has increased by leaps and bounds.

    So, all in all, owe my life and much of my thought (although not nearly what it was), to blogs.

    One last thought. Blogs allow so many more people with valuable information to have a platform while that was not possible with books. Blogs have literally taken the information base and also the base that is accessible to others and multiplied it exponentially. And the only thing one must remember is, just like with books, variety, rational vetting of information and other things must now be incorporated in order to get the full benefit.



  7. And yet I see leaders of freethought orgs openly admit that they don’t bother reading blogs because they don’t see the point… and then express flabbergasm that they aren’t current on the discourses taking place in the movement and have no clue how to reach their membership.

  8. This is one of those things that makes me think that the people writing about (in this case the Economist but also a lot of technophiles)

    a) haven’t studied history
    b) haven’t met any humans

    Look, can blogs expand discourse? Sure. Can they narrow it? That too. Depends on context, and all that.

    Let’s go over the historical aspect for a moment.

    Printing probably had zero effect on literacy. In 1600 most folks could not read. So whatever the new printing technology was doing didn’t freaking matter.

    No, there were a lot of other things going on. Expanding the class of people that can take part in politics, or affect debate, I submit, has very, very little to do with the technology involved. Let me put it another way: technological change wasn’t what drove the black civil rights movement. It was not wanting to be treated like freaking garbage all day long and every minute of every goddamn day. The proliferation of TV had nothing to do with it.

    Now, that doesn’t mean blogs are meaningless. I love ’em. But I try to temper that love I have for the form with a realistic assessment of the effect. Sometimes it’s big. Sometimes it’s not.

    Quality of debate? Man, for every example of the kind of thing they talk about in the Economist I can point to the opposite. I believe that was a topic on this very blog about a certain girl who posted a picture of herself with The Demon Haunted World. Just seems a weird conclusion to me.

    Blogs can do both things and neither. They are just like any other human endeavor. They are just like any other media. Good/evil, progressive/regressive in equal measure and all the time.

    (BTW before you say “but it’s interactive!” the only difference is you don’t have to wait. Local newspapers were very interactive — it just wasn’t on a screen. Just ask anyone who has actually worked at one and how many phone calls they got or people accosting them in the street if they screwed something up. Letters to the editor OMG a whole week to publish my god how did people ever wait so long?).

    Some blogs end up with like minded people and nothing else. Some don’t. But it is highly dependent on the blog, who runs it, what it is about, all that stuff. It’s like saying that the existence of reading has coarsened/refined debate. It’s a meaningless question.

    I dunno. Every time I hear that X new thing (whatever it is) is the X-est thing (whatever that is) ever I roll my eyes. I’ve heard it too many times before.

    To me, a more interesting question is not whether the level of debate (whatever the hell that means) is different, but what the terms are. That is, are we approaching it from the idea that people are generally acting in good faith? Are we approaching it as reformists or radicals? Which ideas are considered part of the acceptable spectrum? By how many people, and more importantly which people? The ones with power or without?

    Honestly, if there is some great effect of making political debate more logical because of blogs, I don’t see it. Heck, I see the country sliding towards more authoritarian and patently crazy beliefs that manifest in our political debate and even who people vote for, so if I were doing a strict correlation analysis I’d be like “hey blogs have facilitated out country’s slide into crazy because only after they appear did we elect GW Bush and consider Palin a serious candidate.” But you’d all say that was stupid, and it is.

  9. I hate to make a critique on this, but:

    “When people share their experiences, those become data.”

    I thought that the plural of anecdote was NOT data?

    1. Hi! I’ll share a few thoughts on this.

      First, when trying to answer a question like “Is there sexism in the skeptical community?”, we can rephrase it as this: “Have individuals experienced behavior, actions, or attitudes in the skeptical community that we would classify as sexist?” How do we answer that kind of “fuzzy” question? Lots of experiences turns into lots of data.

      Another example: We know that a good number of Catholic priests have sexually abused children and teens. How did we find out? It started with a significant number of individuals sharing their experiences. The more experiences became public, the more certain everyone became that the issues are widespread.

      Second, depending on the field, anecdotes can be considered evidence, although we have to be careful about how much weight we give it. The Wikipedia article on anecdotal evidence includes some of the common fallacies (correlation/causation, hasty generalization, availability heuristic, etc.).

      Third, as I understand it, the original quote was actually the opposite: “The plural of anecdote is data.” A quick Google search attributes the original quote to a political scientist at Berkeley who first spoke the aphorism in 1969-70. Of course, just because it’s pithy doesn’t mean it’s correct either way!

      It seems to me that when we try to answer “fuzzy” social-science-type questions, we often start with people reporting experiences. In the academic realm, that’s often a starting point from which more rigid research and investigation spring. For example, if a significant number of individuals taking a new allergy medication report that they’re experiencing, say, suicidal thoughts, then the drug company can reasonably conclude it needs to investigate further, maybe do a double-blind study. But before that study happens, we have data from people’s experiences that seem connected to taking the new drug. When it comes to bias and bigotry, the experiences aren’t usually as blatant as seeing a sign that forbids a group from using a water fountain. How do we know if discrimination is really there, if it’s not that kind of blatant? Well, if lots of people share their experiences of discrimination, that’s a start. Then maybe we ask more people. Perhaps we’ll hear about a greater number of relevant experiences. Then we have data; then we have evidence. At least, that’s how I thought it worked. (It’s been a long time since I studied this sort of thing in a formal context…)

  10. Thanks for the response on that!

    It makes more sense to me now that you’ve explained it so well. I’m just wary of falling into the same traps that we (as skeptics) see others constantly falling into.

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