On Blogging, Direction And Ben Radford’s “Still Skeptical of Blogs”

Today I felt so down about how people have been treating each other online that I’ve given up on Facebook-social networking as it just kept leading me back to feeling bad again and again, as if every post which ranged from the innocent “You know what I’ve observed about skepticism?” to the rare passive-aggressive “Neener neener” horrible sort were all just pulling on scabs and slicing open scars. Physically sick-making stuff that I couldn’t stand for one minute longer and I certainly wasn’t contributing anything useful. I started shutting down Facebook and eventually ended up looking over a goal that I wrote back when I first started blogging with a purpose:

“At least four times a week, write on something strongly related to what you have to produce for your degree, using as much current or influential research as possible. Aim to have at least one post a week that is over 400-500 words, with correctly-formatted references. Do this for a time period of just over three years of part-time study, or at least until the conclusion of my thesis deadline, fairly consistently.”

That thesis is done: finished, published. Which has led me to think about what to do now, especially since I’ve had a move to a network of blogs. I don’t regret moving here, because I did need a change for a number of reasons and honestly, the benefits outweigh the unfortunate costs. I do think, however, that the skeptical community is showing a side of itself that hasn’t been made public before – and I’m really not surprised that there’s been a resulting fallout. I don’t think anyone is happy about how things have turned out. That’s all I have on that. Otherwise it’s just more scars.

Overall, I’m thinking that returning to a goal similar to my earlier one will be beneficial in a number of ways. Over the next month or so there’ll be a few events that I’m either helping with or promoting and I’d rather focus on those, such as liveblogging or analysing news and journal articles. One such article that has caught my eye is the one by Ben Radford, called “Still Skeptical of Blogs“.

It points out the (undetermined as to what causes) growth of popularity with blogging – with a wide range of topics and different demographics taking part – which purportedly leads to the “signal to noise ratio [being] higher than ever”. I’m not so sure if that takes into account people who blog for only a short time or blogs that are dedicated to a particular purpose, rather than just general online diaries. As Radford writes:

…according to a statistic I just made up (so you can’t check), 98.3 percent of blogs are irrelevant, self-indulgent musings and journaling, read by the blogger and one or two friends.

Which prompts me to see the entire piece as a cheerful, opinionative post that just raises general questions as I’ve done in the past as to the purpose (and should there be one?) of blogging. Certainly I don’t think it warranted the rather terse comments it receives in the comment section, but maybe I have a different sense of humour about the matter.

Blogs are inherently personal; they rarely include references; they are short, thus allowing for little or no detailed, critical analysis.

Possibly – but I mostly read a handful of science blogs and news blogs. I read blogs on Slate, The Consumerist, Boing Boing, New York Times, The New Yorker, I09… all the way to The Bloggess, Hyperbole and a Half… how well does the Bloggess have to research a sex dungeon in Japan to meet the criteria of ‘detailed analysis’? Should she have not used paper towels when she rode the pony (and no, that’s not a euphemism…)?

Immediate, yes; accurate, no. Skeptics (should) value truth over immediacy, period.

I agree – this is why Twitter can also be misleading too. And Facebook updates. And… pretty much every SMS message I’ve ever got that’s been prey to autocorrect. It’s also why I ended up working with the Young Australian Skeptics to create a blog anthology, inspired by the Science Open Lab Anthology (please note, it’s open for nominating!)

Yes, we should value truth over immediacy. Which is why I don’t read many science-based blogs unless I’ve noticed that they’ve spent some time and effort into researching their posts – and I head to check out established networks like Scientific American more often than not.

As Mark Twain noted, “A lie [or myth, or mistake] can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

True, but a modern Mark Twain would probably not be writing for Huffington Post. He’d be on whatever the online equivalent of Sacramento Union is now… maybe The Atlantic? Pay-per view on The New Yorker or Slate? Perhaps he’d have the occasional column to replace the space left by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair?

As for flaming, troll-wars and “…It’s probably true that most of everything is crap-but it’s a shame that we must work so hard to find the non-crap.

Then maybe one answer is to continue creating Blog Networks (how many other skeptical network similar to FTB are out there? That promote the kind of content that Radford admires, for example) which bring together good bloggers; to support good bloggers and promote those rare occasions when writers of the calibre of Dr Karen Stollznow and Dr Harriet Hall hit the mainstream news sites and magazines. After all, I read Ben Radford’s articles that appear on non-skeptic sites. Didn’t do me any harm… in fact, even got some great interviews for the podcast from them, because I was inspired to learn more.

Okay – a confession. I’ve certainly been highly critical of blogs myself, and probably undeservedly harsh about them – self-reflection on what a blog does, what it should achieve and the impact upon its audience has always been an interest of mine. Mostly because I ponder if I’d ever use it more as an educator. There’s also the puzzling research regarding the value of blogs in secondary education generally, if you look around. Firstly, I’d suspect, it’s because it’s fairly new technology. Like studies into 9-11 conspiracy theory beliefs, they’re only just coming out of the woodwork (blog-work?).

For example, I’ve shared an office on and off for about a year with a researcher who was looking into the use of blogs by adults in a remote area of the state – ‘Using social computing to enhance adult literacy in remote Western Australia’. She found that blogging just didn’t take on with the population of teachers she introduced it to. The time constraints, the effort required to get familiar with the technology… and the self-conscious factor probably didn’t help much either, as older members of a predominantly youth-driven community online.

Whilst I’ve seen conferences and workshops on blogging (such as those mentioned by Science Blogs and even awards for education blogs), the mixed-message I’ve been getting indicates that so far, educational mindsets and school cultures don’t really mesh with Web 2.0 all that well. I’ve found from some general reading on education and use of Web2.0 in general, comments like -‘although there is an acknowledged potential value, the implication of changing instructional approach, use of time, role and responsibility of the learner and the teacher, will influence how often (how well?) it is used in schools’ [Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) report Leadership for Web2.0 in Education: Promise and Reality, 2009]. Then again, it is relatively early days.

There was also Chou and Chen (2008) with ‘Engagement in Online Collaborative Learning: A Case Study Using a Web 2.0 Tool‘ -which ‘confirmed that wiki technology can support student learning (Armetta, 2007;  O’Bannon , 2008 ; Plowman , 2007; Vaughan, 2008)‘ and yet negative comments about the experience indicated improvement was still needed. In comparison, a study on ‘The effects of wiki- and blog-technologies on the students’ performance when learning the preterite and imperfect aspects in Spanish‘ (Vise and Alex, 2008) featured in its conclusion:

[no] significant differences between students who use blog or wiki technologies on performance levels when controlling for pre-existing knowledge. Results also indicated that there were not significant differences in satisfaction levels between those students using a wiki and those using a blog.’

Another study prompted even more doubt in my mind about ‘what blogging traditionally is about’ – Williams and Merten (2008) with ‘A Review of Online Social Networking Profiles by Adolescents: Implications for Future Research and Intervention‘. Cross-generation adaptation and appreciation of social networking was encouraged, with a conclusion including ‘alienating the Internet from the academic environment would only succeed in creating a greater divide between young people and authority figures. It is also essential that school administrators stay abreast of online networking within their institution to monitor the social climate of their school community. It is imperative that teachers, school administrators, and most certainly parents familiarise themselves with the Internet well enough to at least monitor who students are talking to and about what.’

Whilst the topic of blogging and academia (more specifically, blogging for science and how it leads to unexpected benefits and blogging and journalism) has been touched upon by bloggers like Drug Monkey and Coturnix, the variation in opinion still has me puzzled. Is the tale of Caryn Shechtman an example of ‘lightning in a bottle’ / early adopter getting the breaks or is it possible for anyone? Could such benefits really await any blogger, let alone a young/er blogger?

I quite liked reading Drug Monkey’s breakdown of Batts, Anthis & Smith’s (2008) ‘Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy‘ – which although does not relate directly to secondary education, does have some implications:

The Batts et al piece then ends with issues of quality control. Here they talk about Technorati and search engine status as the traditional measures of blog…..something. Clout, authority, audience… YMMV. Also about the efforts such as self-enrolled quality standards (researchblogging.org,HONcode, etc) or web-based awards. I’m not so keen on this sort of thing. First and foremost because I think that blogging authority should stand on its own merits, meaning that if you write something informative and useful one day you may write complete tripe the next. [my own emphasis]

Next to me on my bedstand, I have a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably. It contains both:

An essay on the ramifications of using Agent Orange in Vietnam

and

An essay on how women just ain’t funny.

Jury, I rest my case.

Sometimes I wonder about the ‘big fish/small pond’ illusion amongst skeptical bloggers and how much of what we do really has any impact at all – beyond the echo-chamber of other skeptics.

Which is why – if you think a blogger, let alone a blogging network could do better… well, there’s certainly plenty of them out there that have been created by groups and there’ll probably be more in the future. It’s up to discerning readers to develop their skills and intelligently support what should be the kind of content that will reach the mainstream. You want it, then either create it or support those and mentor those who will.

…and hopefully it won’t be content where the target audience reads examples of people uncritically ripping the trouser-pockets off each other in the comments of each post…

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Cuttlefish

    Nicely done.

  • Ben Radford

    I think you made many valid points… My criticism was more about the inherent limitations of the blog format as compared to other mediums of communication, and certainly not meant to suggest that all blogs are worthless, or all bloggers are bad.

    After all, as you aptly point out, there’s some great stuff out there, and excellent writers who overcome the format’s limitations!

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Thank you for commenting, I honestly didn’t think you would (mostly because you’re a busy person!). I think the ‘limitations’ are more things like the backwards-history (which Dr Magananti discusses with Stephen Fry in the documentary Planet Word) that is inherent with blogs, where we lose good posts to the passage of time. She doesn’t see it that way, but I do personally worry about the loss of content in the ‘signal to noise’ (as you said):

      Stephen Fry: Do you think if the internet had not been invented, you would have written a diary anyway, in the old-fashioned way?

      Dr Magnanti: Probably. The neat thing about blogs and one of the things I love, is that they’re in reverse order. Yes. So, in the past, if you pick up somebody’s diary, you start on day one of when they start writing and they explain things and introduce characters and this and that. With the blog, you’re reading what just happened. There’s this immediacy of, “Who’s that person? Why did they say that? I’ve got to find out,” and it’s almost addictive in that way.

      I also noticed that another CFI blogger has already commented on the value of blogs a while back (Debbie Goddard) – and Bora Zivkovic of Scientific American kindly posted a link to a translation of a really well-written article about blogging “Why Do We Blog? To Change The World”:

      Nobel Prize winners were joined by Pulitzer Prize winners – reputable science writers and journalists in large numbers joined the scientists in the science blogosphere, bringing with them both the higher standards of good writing and the high standards of journalistic ethics – linking to sources, interviewing additional sources, crediting the authors of art and photography used in blog posts, and transparency of potential conflicts of interest. This resulted in a shift in tone as well – instead of pushing against pseudoscience and medical quackery, the dominant topic of the early years, most of today’s science blogging is targeting lay audience in bringing the beauty and excitement of science to as broad population as possible.

      Then (as you well know), there’s (never-ending!) issues with comments – but that’s been raised by another CFI writer already – Ronald A. Lindsay with On Free Thinking. I’m planning to have a proper blog comment policy, as I think that I need one for the site.

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