Blogging and Writing

by Brian on September 8, 2003

I just got the offprints for my most recently published article, as it happens a reply to the article mentioned by Brad DeLong last night in his theology post. It’s quite pretty too, since The Philosophical Quarterly put nice covers on their offprints.

This article was interesting from a blogging perspective for a few reasons. First, I got the idea for it from reading blogs. Second, I even cited the relatively well-known blog from which I got the idea. Third, the paper itself grew almost entirely out of some blog entries.

(If you want to see the original blog posts, and see how closely the final paper resembled them, they are here and here. Be warned though, these files are rather large, since I wasn’t using any blogging software at the time, just adding text to a poorly designed HTML file.)

Now as you might see by looking at our sidebar, there are a lot of academics who have blogs. I suspect their numbers will start exploding in the next year or two. Very soon I imagine keeping anything like a comprehensive list of them will be impractical.

But it’s not clear to me from skimming through the list just how many scholar-bloggers use their blogs to advance their scholarship. Very few have posts directly about their research, and fewer still it seems use their blog as a place to try out ideas, or paragraphs, for forthcoming papers.

This isn’t a universal principle. Some of the Conspirators have posts closely related to their research from time to time, as does Lawrence Solum. And the oldest philosophy blog I know of, Wo’s Weblog, is another notable exception. Plus, it’s not always easy for me to tell what is intended as passing commentary and what is intended for scholarly publication, so I might be underestimating how much blogging is intended for scholarly publication. But the general trend seems to not be to use the blogs as a forum for first (or zeroth) drafts of papers.

In a way this is understandable. Blog entries tend to be short and topical, academic papers tend to be long and concerned with more long-term affairs. So I can understand why people would be tempted to keep their two forms of writing separate. (And if you have a pseudonymous blog, keeping your academic work off it may be necessary in order to preserve the disguise.)

But to me that is a waste of a good audience. Not everyone who reads an academic’s blog will be interested in the technical details of his/her work. But some of the audience will be, and some of them may have interesting comments. I’ve learned quite a lot from my commentators about problems with proposals I’ve been making, about alternative solutions I should be considering, and sometimes even about reasons why the project should be abandoned. It’s a lot easier to learn about those two days into a project than it is after two months, or two years, into it.

The upshot of all this is that in my case blogging isn’t interfering with scholarly writing. If anything it is promoting it, which is useful for a pre-tenure academic.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who is using their blog this way. Or from anyone who’s made a particular decision to not do so. If I’m right there’s a large potential use for blogs that hasn’t really been tapped into yet.

UPDATE: Norman Geras has a very interersting series on Crimes Against Humanity on his blog, that should be turning into a paper shortly. There’s lots of good stuff there, and I highly recommend reading through it. (I don’t trust Blogger permalinks, so you’ll have to scroll down to find the series – head to the first post headed CAH n for some integer n and track back from there.)

Norman has taken a different approach to mine – he’s serialising a paper on his blog. This is a nice move, because it gives the blog readers a worked out series of ideas (in managable chunks). I’m more inclined to do a brain dump onto the blog and let the readers find their way across, if they care to. As you might have guessed, my way of doing this is less work.



Chun the Unavoidable 09.08.03 at 7:47 am

I can’t parse this:

2 Reynolds’s comment wasn’t directly about Bostrom, but
it bore the ancestral of the relation refers to Bostrom’s paper.


Loren 09.08.03 at 1:48 pm

“I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who is using their blog this way. Or from anyone who’s made a particular decision to not do so. If I’m right there’s a large potential use for blogs that hasn’t really been tapped into yet.”

I have a couple of papers that are very loosely based on stuff I’d discussed in extended threads on the usenet during the ’90s — doubt I’m unique in this respect. But I’ve also found that online discussion isn’t nearly as helpful as extended emails and old-fashioned conversations with friends and colleagues. A related point: my sense is that the usenet is a somewhat better place for extended discussions on a specific topic or topics, although I don’t think it really lives up to its promise for those who want to get good comments on ongoing academic work. But unlike most blogs, usenet involves conversations in which all users are visible in a logical thread structure, and anyone can start a topic (rather than having to either respond to topics on someone else’s blog, or start your own blog, link to your intended interlocuters, and hope they notice and bother to reply). To make the point more polemical, the usenet panders less to narcissism (although this comes at a deliberative cost). Blog “conversations” seem to be the equivalent of usenet users with ADD on amphetamines. Topics change so rapidly, people lose interest so quickly in older threads, and the actual conversations are hidden on these tedious, painfully linear “comments” popup scripts.


Timothy Quigley 09.08.03 at 1:52 pm

I tend to use my blog as an incubator for new ideas. (I teach philosophy and cultural theory at The New School.) My posts may eventually turn into academic articles or short pieces for the mainstream media. Or, more often than not, they may not go anywhere.

The value of the blog for rehearsing arguments with colleagues depends on how many are reading it. For blogs with a reasonable amount of traffic, you have the benefit of well-informed readers who are not personal acquaintances. As a relatively new blogger, I tend to post an idea and tip off my close colleagues who may have an interest in the topic. Since most of them do not blog, their responses usually come back either through email or in conversation rather than the comments feature in the blog.

I also use the blog as a supplement to courses I’m teaching and to extrend class room discussions.


Stentor 09.08.03 at 2:32 pm

I would imagine that for some academic bloggers, blogging is a sort of break from their academic work. It’s a chance to be intellectual about topics on which they don’t claim any academic expertise, and which are outside the confines of whatever narrow topic their current research deals with. It’s also a chance to set aside the rigorous thought required by academia and just pontificate ex recta. That’s certainly true of my frequent posts on gay rights.

The potential to use a blog to get feedback on academic work is dependent not only on how many readers you have, but also how many people out there are in your field. Law, political science, and philosophy seem to have built up the critical mass of people to start producing blog-tested work. But to judge from your sidebar, besides myself there are no geographers, one anthropologist, and no environmental scientists (the three disciplines that would be directly interested in my work) in the blogosphere. I have fantasies sometimes about doing a paper at the AAG meeting that would provoke a bunch of geographers into blogging.


Brian Weatherson 09.08.03 at 3:24 pm

Chun, I just meant that Insty referred to something that referred to something that … referred to the Bostrom piece. I couldn’t remember how the thread went (I have a bad feeling it went via FreeRepublic) nor how long it was, hence the obscurantist citation.

I liked Loren’s analogy. I’ve often though attention deficit disorder was a good explanation or two for why I blog. Maybe I was out of the loop, but I don’t recall there being usenet groups in semantics/metaphysics/epistemology (i.e. what I work in). So blogging in these areas is doing something new, not replacing usenet. I suspect there’s an interesting story to be told about the causes and effects of philosophy not going down this road (if it didn’t) in the early 90s, but that’s a story for someone else to tell.


Liz 09.08.03 at 4:15 pm

Actually, quite a few bloggers that I read do use their blogs to float research ideas and content. Seb Paquet, Alex Halavais, Jill Walker, Matt Kirschenbaum, AKM Adam all come to mind.

I used mine to talk about both of my NSF grant proposals (though one got spun off to a separate blog).


Thomas Dent 09.11.03 at 10:40 am

Warning: I tried to post this in M. Yglesias’ comments but I had browser problems… I react to Matt’s characterizing the argument as ‘goofy-sounding’.

I can hardly agree that a ‘goofy-sounding’ debate has been given legitimacy by Brian Weatherson’s academic needling round the edge of it. Bostrom isn’t any sort of fruitcake, he’s got a textbook published on matters relating to statistical inference and a research fellowship.

The flaws in the simulation argument (as stated by Bostrom) seem to have to do with matters of precise definition which necessarily will remain somewhat fuzzy, rather than substantial holes. In other words, if Bostrom had enough experience constructing watertight definitions in the high analytic style he could still make the argument fly.

Very simply, if 1) DOOM, and 2) unpopularity of simulations, are unlikely, then it’s likely that the vast majority of individuals with access to something like the current level of technology are inside simulations. Where ‘access to technology’ means, for simulated beings, that they should have simulated computers with at most the capability of Pentiums under their simulated control.

Now it’s up to you how you wish to interpret that, in terms of credence functions or induction or indifference principles or probability or whatever. The argument doesn’t have to depend on the precise nature of a human or simulated human’s conscious experience.


Brian Weatherson 09.12.03 at 5:52 am

I think Thomas’s point here is a fairly good one. Fodor says somewhere that it’s a law that every technical problem has a technical solution. If all I’ve done is given Bostrom a reason to read up on some more stats to tidy up the argument, then it’s reasonable to believe that there is a way to tidy up the argument even in advance of his expositing it. So let me try and make the argument as non-technically as possible.

True, the vast majority of things with experiences broadly like mine are simulated. But we never make judgements from a part of our evidence set when there’s potentially more evidence to use. Most things with experiences like mine don’t have their emotional well-being tied to Red Sox wins and losses. No reason to conclude that how happy I’ll be this October is completely independent of how the Red Sox do, because I know something more about my particular position in the world.

I actually know quite a lot about my position in the world, on reflection. There are particular combinations of experiences I’ve had that I can be just about certain no one else in the universe has had or will have. (If the universe is infinite I can’t be so sure, but if the universe is infinite the sense in which ‘most’ creatures like me are simulations becomes elusive. I doubt there’s a higher cardinality of simulated beings than material beings.) What’s the percentage of creatures with experiences like mine that are simulated, and what’s the percentage that’s material? Bostrom doesn’t know. All he can say is because he doesn’t know, it shouldn’t matter.

What do I say? Well some days I say I do know. I know the material percentage is 100. In that case, I should infer I’m material. This isn’t an argument that I’m material, it’s an argument that Bostrom’s reasoning, plus what I know about myself, doesn’t undermine my confidence that I’m material. There’s no reductio argument against knowledge of your own materiality from simulation considerations.

Other days I might waver. At least for the sake of the argument. But I still don’t feel any force of Bostrom’s argument. Because the reasoning Bostrom presents me massively underdetermines how confident I should be in my own materiality. There’s a big chunk of evidence I have, all the evidence of my actual experiences, that it says, “I don’t know how to account for that. Maybe that’s good evidence you’re human, maybe it’s further evidence you’re a simulation, maybe (although this seems implausible) it’s neutral between the two.” Bostrom says that when we’re stuck like that we plump for option 3. I say (a) that’s inconsistent – that’s the techie geeky part of my argument, and (b) it’s undermotivated. The principle at work here seems to be that when you don’t know what effect some evidence has, it has no effect. Why believe that? (Especially since it is inconsistent.)

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