Don’t Diss the Blog!

Don’t Diss the Blog! April 13, 2015

It is an older article, but Jennifer Raff’s piece on differentiating between science and pseudoscience only came to my attention recently (despite the fact that it quotes Doctor Who in the process of making its point!). It suggests the following ranking of sources:


I don’t think anyone would disagree about placing YouTube comments at the bottom.

But I think the others deserve discussion. On the one hand, academic journal articles do tend to have the most rigorous level of review prior to publication, although academic monographs may also be peer reviewed.

My issue with the placement of journals at the top has less to do with the level of scrutiny prior to acceptance, but with the kind of information one will find in them.

If you are looking for the latest proposals, which may or may not withstand subsequent scholarly scrutiny, then the latest articles in academic journals are the place to look.

But most people who are not themselves engaging in cutting-edge academic work tend to be seeking a different sort of information: the state of our knowledge in a particular field, on a particular topic.

That sort of information is more likely to be found in a widely-used textbook than in the latest article, and arguably has a higher degree of authority, since it reflects the consensus of scholars, and not the argument of one individual trying to break new ground.

The other issue I had was with the low placement of blogs. Certainly, blogs can be no better than YouTube comments. But I wonder how one ought to rank the blogs of scholars in comparison with newspaper articles. In the latter, you get a journalist writing about a subject outside their expertise, hopefully after having interviewed scholars and other relevant experts. But on scholars’ blogs, you get the scholars expressing themselves in their own words. Isn’t that better than having scholarship mediated through a journalist?

When one adds to this the fact that any distinction between “blog” and “newspaper” is being blurred in the present day, and I think there is reason to say that the authority of a blog depends on who is writing it.

And so perhaps that is the key takeaway point that the diagram correctly makes. Writing by an identifiable author is better than something anonymous. And writing by an expert is better than writing that gives you the views of experts mediated through the writing of someone else.

What do readers of this blog think? Feel free to disagree with my arguments here – after all, this is only a blog post!

Let me conclude by saying that the post by Raff is on the whole a very helpful guide, despite my quibbles, inasmuch as it emphasizes that even the fact that something is in a book does not make it trustworthy, and that we need to take the time to fact-check, look up sources, and in other ways make efforts to avoid being deceived.

Let me also link to a recent article in The Straits Times, which makes a related point: that academic journal articles are read by few people, and so scholars ought to be writing blog posts and op ed pieces as well as peer-reviewed scholarly publications.

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  • Given that newspapers have been known to plagiarize blogs, they definitely belong below them.

  • Irina

    I’d put Academic journals – Academic books – Academic blogs – Popular books – Informal blogs – Newspapers – Youtube comments.

  • Blogs written by scholars can certainly carry more weight than a newspaper or magazine article by a journalist lacking scholarly qualifications – assuming that the topic of the blog post in question is in the scholar’s area of expertise.

  • Jennifer Raff needs to broaden her horizons. There are actually newspapers other than the New York Times.

  • Joshua Brainard

    “And so perhaps that is the key takeaway point” is that the blogs of Dr. McGrath need to be bumped way up on the list. 😉

  • TomS

    I’d say that everything must be evaluated. For example, some articles in Wikipedia are quite reliable, and some are best forgotten. Their best articles are substantiated by reliable references. References are the best sign of reliability, no matter the medium, IMHO.

    • Erp

      The references have to check out. I recently spent a little time tracking down some references another wikipedia editor added to multiple articles to discover that the references didn’t support the assertions (yank reference, find a reliable source if there is one and replace or remove the unsupported info, go to next article, repeat). Or the multiple references supporting 400,000 (or 500,000 or 800,000) Mayans join the Orthodox Church, the most reliable source I could find seems to indicate 40,000 at most as the more accurate figure (and even that isn’t too reliable since it is by the priests supporting the converted group of Mayans [and they readily admit they have no idea how many are in the group except it is at least a few thousand but far less than 100,000]).

      • TomS

        Agreed. The point of having references is that one can see what they have to offer. Unfortunately, the same can occur even in peer-reviewed literature and respected textbooks. We can only hope that there are concerned people who are alert to stop the propagation of unsupported assertions.

        • If the point is that a Wikipedia article may lead one to sources that may be useful and reliable, that is certainly true. But that doesn’t mean that the Wikipedia article is reliable. Even if the sources cited are good ones, you are still relying on unknown writers and editors to mediate that good material to you. And unless you read the cited sources, and unless you know the field already or check who the authors are, you have no way of knowing whether the sources cited are reliable.

          • Erp

            Though there is a certain amount of fun in the hunt. One thing I’ve learned is do not trust the Latter Day Saints Church’s statistics on membership at all.

          • ccws

            I use Wikipedia a lot, but only as a quick reference and a starting point to find links to sources. If I were a teacher & one of my students turned in a paper referencing Wikipedia, it would get an instant zero, be sent back for a do-over, & be recorded as “late” when it came back. Go real or go home! (I know, I’m a real hardass…) 🙂

  • I have some problems with the ranking “academic book > newspapers > popular book”. I assume a book written by an academic author for a popular audience would be included as a “popular book”, and I’d certainly consider that a more reliable source than a newspaper article. Even a well-researched book by a non-specialist is probably a better source than the average newspaper article.

    It’s probably better to judge by the source of the information rather than the medium, I think.

  • Johannes Richter

    We run an imprint for peer reviewed, multi-author works (and monographs) that are expressly not textbooks or meant for a general audience. Sometimes chapters may have proceeded from journal articles or workshops/conferences, but these books are often a collaboration across different disciplines, resulting in original research that might be ranked even above journal articles in their contribution to a field. The format works well for subjects in the Humanities, where the real impact is made through the weaving of an argument or a conversation rather than a “QED”. Blogs are an excellent way to continue these conversations freely and creatively.

  • R Vogel

    Where should we put FB memes, which seem to be an important source for many of my friends and relatives?

    • Those too seem to cover a range, from infographics that might be as good as popular articles, to pictures of cats with a caption that might fall lower on the scale than some YouTube comments.

      • R Vogel

        Well played Dr. McGrath, blogger and meme generator, well played…. 🙂

      • R Vogel

        Sidebar: Did I read correctly that both Jim Jones and Kurt Vonnegut are Butler alum? Those are some strange bedfellows, eh?

        • Vonnegut took classes but didn’t graduate from Butler, I believe. Jones did, I think get a degree from Butler eventually. And so both have in common that neither studied here as a typical four-year student.

          • R Vogel

            I think you could rightly say that nothing about either of them was typical, full stop! Cool history though.

  • ccws

    Just like books, blogs run the gamut from the ridiculous (Food Babe, anyone?) to the academic (there are some pretty high-powered curated blog carnivals out there dealing with current research). As with everything else, it all goes back to the sources.