Blogging, ideas, academic output and society

Blogging, ideas, academic output and society

In my post on academic publication, I lamented academics’ failure to make useful contributions to public policy debates. In this post, I will give some thoughts on how blogging makes a useful contribution.

I’ve been thinking about this question in my four years of daily blogging on the political-economy of government policies [why I do what I do], but this update was motivated by an interesting session on academic blogging that I attended in January in Chicago.

I have three points to make here:

      1. Blogs are better than academic papers for debating ideas. Blogs are faster to write and distribute, open to more people, and more robust in the depth of their debates (I love reading reddit — a kind of group blog — for the quality and depth of the commentary there).Arnold Kling writes:

        …the type of scientific discourse one can have on the Internet differs from what is found in books. Also, the Internet is suited to topics that are open-ended, whereas in the paper medium we tend to look for ways to settle issues once and for all.

        Anyway, I think that the paper medium in economics came to be dominated by mathematical formalism. This had the effect of shutting down some important discussions, particularly in macroeconomics and political economy. Now, with blogs, it is as if the gag that had been covering our mouths for decades has been taken off. Now that we can talk again, it turns out we have a lot of thoughts to express.

        And this post puts an ironic wrapper on the thought: an economist who did not agree with a point in a blog debate went off to write a paper to settle the issue. The paper (on whether carbon offsets really decrease carbon emissions) was just published — five years after the original post.

        For an example of (creeping) success in the policy world, read this Economist article on how blogs have changed the debate over macroeconomic policy. As Alex Tabarrok said in Chicago, bloggers are moving from neat economic examples to debating and developing policies that bring good ideas from all corners, not just high profile professors or pundits (e.g., Mankiw or Krugman). More important, blogs bring collective wisdom to bear on complex problems, not just a clever mathematical “solution” that is often too restricted in application to be useful in practice.

      2. More academics should blog, and blogs can be used to measure “academic productivity.” In seven principles for arguing with economists, noahpinion reminds readers that blogs provide an egalitarian outlet for good ideas, which is more than I can say for academic journals where gatekeepers can (and do) make mistakes in choosing which ideas to exhibit and how those ideas should be expressed. Blogs, OTOH, get to the point quickly (“the bottom line”) while exploring and exposing different ideas in multiple posts (this blog has over 100 posts on desalination and 400 posts on climate change, for example).Blogs allow for multiple accurate measures of impact and interest. On this blog, I track daily unique visitors, most popular posts, comment activity (and content), page views, and ratings per post. Academic output can be tracked by abstract views, downloads, citations by other papers (VERY slow), and their publication outlet. These measures are fragile in terms of actual benefit from the article (publication in a “high ranked” journal and citation by other papers often results when groups of academics “like” each others’ work) [my paper on how to fix academic publication]. Even worse, 99+ percent of people do not have access to academic publications.
      3. Blogging is a fun way to learn — for both the writer and readers. I have learned so much from developing my ideas here, thinking about new problems that others have raised, and reading the comments from readers and practitioners with different opinions and experiences on these topics.
        I could not have written my book without using this blog to expose, aggregate and develop ideas with readers.Why blog? Let me steal — with some small edits — from Aquadoc’s first post:

        • Providing my perspective on today’s water and related issues;
        • Illustrating the many facets of water;
        • Soliciting and listening to your perspectives on water;
        • Satisfying my desire to be a “writer;”
        • Educating and entertaining my readers (and myself!); and, above all
        • Stimulating thought and generating controversy.

    For more on blogging as a social phenomena, read my review of Say Everything.


Bottom Line: Blogging is making the world a better place for ideas and the people who use them.