Why academics should blog and an update on readership
March 18, 2014 12 Comments
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on a new level — but it means that I think university education has lost its focus on higher learning and has instead been replaced by binge drinking and mass catch-up of content that should have been taught in highschool.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:
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:
- Hunger Games themed semi-iterated prisoner’s dilemma tournament (8,086)
- Machine learning and prediction without understanding (6,118)
- Toward an algorithmic theory of biology (5,934)
- Software through the lens of evolutionary biology (5,457)
- Three types of mathematical models (5,077)
- Micro-vs-macro evolution is a purely methodological distinction (4,801)
- Bounded rationality: systematic mistakes and conflicting agents of mind (4,438)
- Evolution is a special kind of (machine) learning (4,272)
- Monoids, weighted automata and algorithmic philosophy of science (4,182)
- Is Chaitin proving Darwin with metabiology? (3,488)
- Programming playground: A whole-cell computational model (3,227)
- Mathematical Turing test: Readable proofs from your computer (3,120)
- Programming language for biochemistry (3,104)
- Four color problem, odd Goldbach conjecture, and the curse of computing (3,085)
- 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!