Why academics should blog and an update on readership

It’s that time again, TheEGG has passed a milestone — 150 posts under our belt!– and so I feel obliged to reflect on blogging plus update the curious on the readerships statistics.

About a month ago, Nicholas Kristof bemoaned the lack of public intellectuals in the New York Times. Some people responded with defenses of the ‘busy academic’, and others agreement but with a shift of conversation medium to blogs from the more traditional media Kristof was focused on. As a fellow blogger, I can’t help but support this shift, but I also can’t help but notice the conflation of two very different notions: the public intellectual and the public educator.

It seems that most communities treat scientific bloggers as overqualified science journalists, sharing and communicating an excitement and passion for science. This is outreach, and — 9 times out of 10 — an active scientists is not the best person to communicate research to the lay public, nor is there any incentives for it. For most scientists, there is little to gain from simply sharing science factoids with random readers on the net. All you get is a warm feeling in your heart of helping or some satisfaction of vanity. Of course, never underestimate vanity especially when you are reading a post about readership statistics. This can encourage a few, but it won’t make a culture of public outreach; it is also not the right platform since it results in bite-sized entertainment.

If we are going to go down the route of edutainment (I know, a dirty word for some) then MOOCs are obviously a better way to go. The bigger commitment involved, has a higher chance of producing some learning aims than just a snazzy 500 word press release of the latest research. Now, don’t mistake me for a MOOC-fan; if I had Facebook then our relationship status would definitely read “it’s complicated”. Although I think MOOCs can save higher-education, that doesn’t mean I buy into their advertised goal of revolutionizing education — they are just intellectual colonialism on a new level — but it means that I think university education has lost its focus on higher learning and has instead been replaced by binge drinking and mass catch-up of content that should have been taught in highschool. A shift to MOOCs can relieve universities of these stadium-fillin courses and return the focus to more individual and critical-thinking based curriculum that actually makes use of the professors’ expertise. Of course, in the process of this shift — if it happens — I will face the personal difficulties of an even more cut-throat academic market as teaching jobs are replaced by A-list celebrity lecturers and colleges are pushed to extremes by bloated bureaucracies misinterpreting animated books as teachers. It is a price my generation of scientists might have to pay to mass educate the public. For edutainment, MOOCs are the way, but leading them does not a public intellectual make.

What do I mean by a public intellectual, then? I mean individuals that engage in intellectual discussion in a space accessible to the public. Of course, sometimes accessible means more than just “on the web”; it can mean being ‘background accessible’ by avoiding unnecessary jargon or extraneous technicalities. However, the discussion is still one between parties qualified to discuss. Note that the public itself can be such a party on many occasions, and thinkers like Feyerabend would argue that they are an essential party in most discussions. But, the focus is on a reciprocal interaction where both parties are growing and learning, not a patronizing ‘outreach’ to the public.

This doesn’t mean that the public has to always be included. For instance, in the very important arena of Q&A sites, I think it is alright to be elitist and background inaccessible. The lack of editorial control makes sites without high community standards on background (like the Cognitive Sciences or Biology StackExchanges) devolve into nearly nonsensical or at least uninteresting questions, removing any external or research-motivated incentive for scientists to participate. Sites with high background standards, like cstheory or MathOverflow, deny some the ability to participate but insure that the resulting dialog is one that has direct benefit to the researchers. The result is something that a focus on public outreach can never achieve, a site where leading scientists participate not out of vanity or the kindness of their heart but out of the drive it gives their research. It builds a community of discussants — a more accessible and #OpenScience oriented community. To join this community, you do not need a subscription fee or affiliation, just the background knowledge to be a productive discussant.

This is the mindset I thought I followed for most of my own blogging. I don’t try to write to “explain some issue” to the public, or to affect social change. Most of the time, my target audience is other researchers or a version of myself that doesn’t care about the specifics of the topic I am blogging about (this is often future or past Artem). I think this is less patronizing.

But do I follow it? If you are a regular reader, you might have noticed that unreasonably flowery first few paragraphs I include, or obscure historic/philosophical overviews. Is this in the name of background accessibility? After some reflection, I think not. I don’t shy away from potentially inaccessible math in the rest of the post, just the introductions and summaries. To some extent this style is because I believe that any article, be it on a public blog or in a publisher’s walled garden, should be enjoyable to read, and since practice makes perfect — I practice.

For the main reason, though, I had to read Dennett. Dennett pointed out, that one of the most common causes of disagreement and confusion between scientists (or philosophers) is that they are talking past each other. This happens because in academic parlance (and in keeping with the non-patronizing nature) there is a standard of assuming that your discussant can keep up, that they have read all the relevant background literature and worked out all the main theorems and you don’t need to go into specific details. In fact, going into such details can be taken as a sign of disrespect. Thus, when scientists from two different cultures (in the Feyerabend sense of the word — jargon!) meet, they both assume the other shares a background with them even when none is there. They use the same words, but mean different things, and this stops any chance of productivity. For a more concrete example, see my most recent post on mathematical oncology.

Dennett resolves this issue by holding scholar-student seminars. Just like in any meeting, leading researchers speak about the current research that they want to discuss with their peers, but the twist is that their audience is actually a class of undergrads. The other researchers sit at the back of the class, but Dennett forces the speakers to target the students. As such, basic assumptions and background can be discussed without insulting your peers. As a bonus, the undergrads get some cool ‘outreach’ from the best of the best.

Dennett has found that this style of seminar results in researching being on the same page much more often. Disagreements are addressed and resolved more constructively since it is easier for colleagues to see the implicit assumptions and cross-cultural variation of their peers. I think that without knowing it, I have been trying to make TheEGG blog into an online version of such a seminar — broadening the audience from Tufts students (in the case of Dennett) to whoever types the right search word, or clicks a seductive reddit link.

In the process, the readership response has also appealed to my vanity and made it easier to write. The concrete bite sized chunks, also make progress easier to track than endless paper writing/reading in isolation or small groups. To continue my trend of public self-metrics through viewership graphs, here are the last seven and a half months of views:

Columns are views per week  at TheEGG blog since the start of August. The vertical lines separate months, and the black line is average views per day for each month. The scale for weeks is on the left, it is different from the scale for daily average, those are labeled at each height.

Columns are views per week at TheEGG blog since the start of August. The vertical lines separate months, and the black line is average views per day for each month. The scale for weeks is on the left, it is different from the scale for daily average, those are labeled at each height.

To get an idea of the best posts on the blog, here is the top 10% in total viewership (not just the last 8 months). Of the 15 posts, 6 are from the last 50:

  1. Hunger Games themed semi-iterated prisoner’s dilemma tournament (8,086)
  2. Machine learning and prediction without understanding (6,118)
  3. Toward an algorithmic theory of biology (5,934)
  4. Software through the lens of evolutionary biology (5,457)
  5. Three types of mathematical models (5,077)
  6. Micro-vs-macro evolution is a purely methodological distinction (4,801)
  7. Bounded rationality: systematic mistakes and conflicting agents of mind (4,438)
  8. Evolution is a special kind of (machine) learning (4,272)
  9. Monoids, weighted automata and algorithmic philosophy of science (4,182)
  10. Is Chaitin proving Darwin with metabiology? (3,488)
  11. Programming playground: A whole-cell computational model (3,227)
  12. Mathematical Turing test: Readable proofs from your computer (3,120)
  13. Programming language for biochemistry (3,104)
  14. Four color problem, odd Goldbach conjecture, and the curse of computing (3,085)
  15. Are all models wrong? (2,152)

The total blog viewership doubled to 159,455 views (from 79,722 at last update), and the viewership inequality decreased with the top 10% getting only 46.0% of the views (down from 51.4%), and the top 1% down to 7.71% (from 9.97%).

I’m not sure if the above suggests consistence and a stable readership or just a decrease in recent performance, but a second milestone in these last 50 posts was passing 1000 comments on the blog. This should be taken with a grain of salt though, since the comments include ping-backs and so it is mostly self-citations. However, there were a few articles with very lively discussions, like the posts: Three types of mathematical models; Are all models wrong?; Kooky history of the quantum mind: reviving realism; and Interface theory of perception can overcome the rationality fetish. That last post even prompted a post-length reflection from Sergio Graziosi. In other words, if I want more discussion then I should replace the technical posts by philosophical ones.

Although these philosophical and metamodeling ramblings of mine are often disorganized, Adam Elkus managed to make them coherent in his look at the philosophical basis of computational social sciences. Adam and I are trying to figure out how much common overlap we have in our views, so expect some summary and discussion posts on the algorithmic lens and other aspects of modeling as we attempt to start a dia(b)log.

For those fed-up with philosophical nonsense, don’t worry, I will continue with more concrete commentaries, previews of preliminary results, and snarky reviews. I am particularly looking forward to the mathematical oncology discussion started by Philip Gerlee’s post, my ‘misleading models’ response, David’s comment, Jacob’s sum, and my philosophical (ahh!) continuation.

The overall hope in the next 50 posts is two fold: (1) is to foster more of a sense of community, both in the comments and across blogs, and (2; a New Years resolution) is to maintain consistency with at least one post every seven days. Wish me luck, and join the discussion!

About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

12 Responses to Why academics should blog and an update on readership

  1. Adam Benton says:

    Last time you posted your stats I got very jealous. I still am; they’re impressive (although I’d like to brag about clearing 2,000 comments a while ago) but I took your advise about reddit and have noted a remarkable increase in traffic. That said, seeing what people find most popular is influencing what I write and I’m not sure in a good way. They seem to prefer short, simple posts about some “surprising” aspect of human evolution. Our shrinking brains, art showing women hunting etc. The problem is (a) I quite like writing longer things and (b) the surprising things are often controversial, and since the posts work better if short I don’t include as many caveats as normal; so I worry about giving the wrong impression (the same problem I have with twitter).

    Long comment short: have you noticed any similar influences in your writing, do you like how it’s changing your posts and if not; any tips?

    • Thanks, like I mentioned previously, I am jealous of the community you’ve built over at EvoAnth (as your comments attest!).

      I agree that reddit has a love for short edge-y stuff. I do find myself occasionally picking a topic because I think “well, that’ll get the guys over at r/_blah_ excited”. However, this is usually a minority of my posts. When it happens, it just results in me writing an extra post above what I would have normally written. However, it is a little jarring to see how posts that are very important to my thinking and require effort end up getting little attention, while some of the other ones get a lot even though they are superficial.

      Are my post becoming more superficial? I don’t really know, I guess you would be a better judge of that than me. Sometimes I feel like they are becoming more superficial, but I think there is a bias here from the fact that the popular posts because they are popular end up occupying more of my ‘mind space’, so I feel like I’ve written more superficial stuff just because I see it come up more often on the stats page. However, this prominence in mind space results in some vague feeling that somebody will read the posts and I think that has improved my writing. Well, I hope!

      Also, I don’t necessarily think that writing for reddit is a bad thing. On some subreddits (like r/PhilosophyOfScience) I feel like I learn something from the discussions. As such, writing for that audience and seeing their feedback on reddit is actually useful to my thinking beyond the view-counter.

      As for length, I set an arbitrary word limit early on, and have been relatively consistent in hitting the 1-1.5k words per post mark. I feel like if I can’t package something into that length then maybe it isn’t a single idea or maybe I haven’t really understood it. Packing into 140 characters is much harder.

      My tips would be: not all change is bad and set some arbitrary standards/goals ahead of time.

  2. Artem, nice post but I am not entirely sure I agree with you about the idea that scientists blogging to the general public are just overqualified (over-specialised might be better) science journos. There are reasons by which a professional scientist might want to write about his/her research in a way that an intelligent audience that does not perform research can understand.

    When I started my blog I was not even trying to do science outreach, my thinking worked along the lines that if I cannot describe my work in layman terms then I probably did not understand what I was working on in the first place. Often the person that finds or creates something new is not well positioned to understand how that will impact society but at least I would give that person the opportunity to try first!.

    • I don’t think we disagree. When you write:

      There are reasons by which a professional scientist might want to write about his/her research in a way that an intelligent audience that does not perform research can understand.

      When I started my blog I was not even trying to do science outreach, my thinking worked along the lines that if I cannot describe my work in layman terms then I probably did not understand what I was working on in the first place.

      I think you are proposing the same thing as Dennett was with his seminars. You explain it in simple terms to advance your own understanding/research and not just for the sake of educating or pontificating to the public. For me, the reasons you outline are awesome reasons to get into blogging and I can see them scaling because the blogging can directly help the research of those doing it.

      However, this sort of blogging is not the same as a lot of the big popular blogs hosted by say Nature, Science, Discover or other big blogging networks, or even some of the columns run by economists. Of course, a lot of times these big networks actually higher science journalists or scientist journalists, so maybe I am setting up a straw man.

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  4. I keep reading your blog, and, regarding the noted public intellectual discussion, I think that using tips such as ‘avoiding talking past each other’ can help to clarify rules for the engagement arena.

    Unfortunately, however, most people who don’t spend a lot of time reading journal entries and presented papers take a blogger / formal discussion to be something with the clout of authority.
    Basically, ‘if a scientist said this / thinks this way, it must be a credible source.’ This may be due to a heuristic regarding aggregating knowledge, personal laziness, or any other reason, but it still can effect people’s distrusting scientific work when instead it should be distrust of opinion.

    Separating these two takes a bit of time and effort.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! I hope you are enjoying the content.

      You raise a very good point, in a number of domains noted intellectuals have to be careful about what they say simply because it is taken by some as gospel. I think that Adam Elkus wrote some interesting thoughts about the relationship of blogging to public policy in an earlier G+ thread, I’ll try to grab his attention to see if he has something more to add.

      However, I’d like to use this as a chance to just to dig more at the difference between public intellectuals and public educators, I think some of this issue stems from academics that treat their audience as children or ‘laypeople in need of outreach’ and thus indirectly (or directly) promote others to view them as an authority. I feel like encouraging more discussions where several academics with contrasting points engage in dia(b)logs can help alleviate this issue.

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  6. Mohammad says:

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