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The Tenure Tracts

March 18, 2010
by Cathleen McCarthy
an artist's depiction of sifting truth out of the blogosphere

Academics try to sift truth from subterfuge in the blogosphere

Online, J. Bradford DeLong is, first and foremost, a liberal muckraker. His blog thrives when there is plenty of right-wing muck. Subtlety is not DeLong’s style, one reason other bloggers love to riff on his posts. As GOP resistance to Obama’s bills heated up, DeLong found his voice again. Last August found him authoring a series of posts on Republican subterfuge, including “Why the American Right Lies So Much” and in case we missed the point, “Republicans. Lying All the Time. About Everything. Because the Press Won’t Call Them on It.”

As far as DeLong is concerned, he’s just telling it like it is; somebody has to and it probably won’t be the mainstream media. “There’s a feeling that someone should try to point out things that are simply not true,” he says. “Tenured professors are in a pretty good place to do that.”

DeLong was tenured when he came to Berkeley in 1995 as a professor of economics, and he began blogging three years later. He maintains a political commentary aggregate site called Egregious Moderation, but his main blog’s often-changing title is Grasping Reality with a Ten-Foot-Long Flexible Trunk. It’s subtitled The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist J. Bradford DeLong: A Fair, Balanced, Reality-Based, and Proboscid Look at the World. Most political bloggers refer to it as simply “DeLong.”

Even on high-minded academic sites, controversy (and sex) sells. DeLong might not be as widely read as The Huffington Post, but it ranks among the most visited academic blogs. Nearly 1,100 sites link to his site and his average reader spends almost two minutes a day there. Scroll his archives and you can track the partisan battles of the past few years by numbers of posts—fast and furious during the final years of the Bush administration and the months leading up to the 2008 election. During this period, DeLong began supplementing his posts with videocasts titled Morning Coffee, which opened with the rumpled professor sitting at his desk taking a gulp from a mug, presumably fueling up for another quietly scathing tirade. Both blogs and podcasts appear to be his uncensored reaction to the morning news.

Despite the “fair and balanced” in his blog title—a not-so-subtle dig at Fox News—DeLong doesn’t see the point in presenting the other side of an argument when he believes it’s based on lies and self-interest. He sees that approach as an inherent weakness in American journalism, and likes to point out that even the ultimate political journalist, Michael Kinsley, former editor of The New Republic and Slate, admitted in 2004 that journalism methods make it nearly impossible to deal with people who are lying. “Journalistic conventions demand that you tell one side of the story and then the other side,” DeLong says. “But when Sarah Palin says the House [health care] reform bill will lead to establishing death panels, and the Democrats say no—trying to present that as a balanced report is not something that leads to an informed electorate or good policy.”

So why has a successful economics professor decided to become a blogger? Perhaps for the same reason film stars become advocates for the environment or disadvantaged children. DeLong has opinions and he wants to be heard—a common trait of academic bloggers. His position gives him an authoritative voice and the wherewithal to fill what he sees as a public need: an informed, independent response to political news of the day. DeLong began blogging when it was a risky new hobby for academics. Now he finds himself at the top of an accepted, surprisingly influential field with real barriers to entry.

Other well-known academic bloggers admit they began in an effort to be heard beyond the tight circle of academe to which they had access as untenured professors. Tufts University Professor Dan Drezner, a right-leaning political blogger who often skirmishes online with DeLong, began blogging after 9/11 because he had expertise in the Middle East, and major newspapers refused to publish his op-eds. Within a year, he was a regular contributor to The New York Times. At the time he and DeLong jumped in, says Drezner, blogging was “the quickest way to become a public intellectual.”

When John Holbo, Ph.D. ’99, joined their ranks, he was virtually unknown in academia, having recently received his philosophy doctorate from Berkeley and taken a post as assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. But his distinctive voice at the Crooked Timber blog and then The Valve quickly propelled him to fame among his peers. For Holbo, blogging was a way to open a conversation beyond the ivory tower about his esoteric interests. “Academic blogging is not very pure academics,” he says. “Half the commentators on my blogs are not academics. It feels very healthy that way. Almost everyone who does it seriously does it without mixed motives.”

Part of the reason, Holbo admits, is that there is no direct profit motive, either financially or in terms of career advancement. “If you set up a reward structure, you set up an incentive and risk, killing the enthusiasm that drove the excitement, the frontier, that hobbyist impulse that started it,” he says. That is also the dilemma, he admits. Senior members of his department encourage him to blog but offer no explicit reward.

Holbo isn’t sure that blogs aren’t simply “increasing the volume of disinformation,” but he figures there’s something to be gained by opening up the discussion. Stray too far from the truth on a blog read by the best-educated people in the world, and someone will set you straight. Hit a universal chord, on the other hand, and it can set off a chain reaction of comments and posts that goes on for weeks.

That’s how it works on high-traffic blogs such as Crooked Timber that have made Holbo’s reputation. Founded in 2003, Crooked Timber was ranked in Technorati’s top 100 blogs between 2003 and 2005, making it one of the most widely read blogs in the world despite the fact that it’s written almost entirely by academics. The Valve, another brainy group blog that Holbo launched in 2005, also draws an astonishing number of readers for a site that calls itself “a literary organ.” Holbo has been known to post 6,000-word ponderings on obscure philosophers—“and people actually read them and comment,” he says, laughing.

Holbo and his wife, Belle Waring, M.A. ’06, fell into blogging after moving to Singapore. “We felt isolated there at first and blogging became a substitute for a social life,” Holbo says. He soon discovered that he could theorize online in an extemporaneous manner that suited him much better than conventional scholarly journals. Waring, too, is listed as a regular contributor at Crooked Timber. Every few months she posts an opinion, in much saltier language, on things like family issues, sexism, and sexual harassment in the classroom.

Holbo, on the other hand, is a prolific blogger, whose posts blend the immediacy of blogging with the wit and refinement of another era. “If I had to name any single academic who has flourished in an intellectual manner as a consequence of the blogging form, John would be it,” says Timothy Burke, professor of history at Swarthmore College and blogger at Easily Distracted. “My feeling is that John defines academic blogging’s possibilities. Reading him makes me feel like I’m in the 18th-century coffeehouses in London, looking at pamphlets, talking to Samuel Johnson.”

Holbo says Burke’s analogy is accurate, right down to the debates that take place in the comments section. “Those coffeehouses were incredibly thuggish, to the point where people got punched,” Holbo says. “We think of it now as a very elegant gathering, where the Internet is down in the mud and people have ridiculous names. But coffeehouses were exactly like that: an insane mix of brilliant people, lunatics, and savage thugs.”

Like DeLong, Holbo thrives on that public sparring. He finds the virtual salon a perfect antidote to the insulation of the ivory tower and the glacial pace of conventional scholarship. “I have a split intellectual life: these ant-like projects that evolve over months and years, and then this by-the-moment blogging life,” he says. “Blog posts take an hour, while an academic paper can take four years.” Yet even though the blogs reach a huge and influential audience compared to that of scholarly journals, the blogs are not recognized as scholarly publication and don’t count toward tenure.

Holbo admits he and his fellow pioneers have lost the “revolutionary fervor” of blogging’s early days. “I’m fortunate to be at the top of the food chain, to have these bully pulpits where I can stand up and know thousands of people will hear me,” he says. “But we all thought blogging was going to transform academic life, and that didn’t really happen.”

Holbo now believes his best hope for revolutionizing academia is to organize “book events,” online seminars where a dozen or so academics review the same book. The existing book-for-tenure convention forces far too many books into publication, Holbo says, and people need a better system for figuring out what to read. Crooked Timber has group-reviewed such bestsellers as Freakonomics, as well as scholarly tomes on politics, law, and economics. Holbo got two dozen high-profile intellectuals, including DeLong and Burke, to weigh in on Theory’s Empire at The Valve, then turned their posts into a book in 2007. He hopes to do this regularly.

Whether blogs are bringing anyone closer to the truth, Holbo’s not sure. “People aren’t nearly as blunt in academic writing as they often are in the blog space. Even so, when academics argue with other academics on a blog, it’s generally pretty well-mannered—sarcastic, but well- mannered,” he says.

Cosma Shalizi ’93 is a case in point. Of all the blogs that brainiacs love to love, Shalizi’s The Three-Toed Sloth is one of the most esoteric. His undergraduate degree from Berkeley is in physics and he is now an assistant professor in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. Bloggers from every discipline comment on his posts despite the fact that, if you have no statistics training, they read like a foreign language. His posts are sporadic, well researched, and loaded with a scientist’s idea of tongue-in-cheek humor. Just one can effectively eviscerate the latest popular theory.

If there’s one thing Shalizi can’t stand, it’s misinformation bandied about in the name of science. “A lot of the time, when I’m motivated enough to post something, it’s because I think someone is ‘being wrong on the Internet,’ as the saying goes—and this cannot stand,” Shalizi says. “It’s usually something I’ve read more than once and it seems such a pack of lies, or utter misunderstandings, that I feel like writing something. I wish I wasn’t so destructively motivated, but I am.”

When asked how much time and effort that takes, he says, “Quite a bit, to be honest. Part of that is the fact that I’m way over trained as an academic, and part is also wanting to leave people no excuse or way out,” Shalizi says. “If I can show that they’re just totally wrong, thoroughly wrong, then I will try to do that.”

“Of all the things I’ve written about, IQ and Wolfram got the most reaction,” he says, referring to his dissection of Stephen Wolfram’s best-selling A New Kind of Science, and to a series of posts in 2007 debunking the theory of IQ—particularly “the statistical myth” of g, or general factor of intelligence. “I wouldn’t say Wolfram is lying as much as utterly self-deluded. The IQ people I do think are lying.”

Shalizi rebutted Wolfram’s book in a post titled “A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity.” He opens with “It is my considered, professional opinion that A New Kind of Science shows that Wolfram has become a crank in the classic mold, which is a shame, since he’s a really bright man, and once upon a time did some good math ….”

Doing “good math” is normally the ultimate compliment from Shalizi. Earlier this year, MIT professor Thomas Levenson wrote a post on his The Inverse Square Blog, titled “Why you should always read Cosma Shalizi.” Shalizi had just done an analysis, off the top of his head, of why American steelworking jobs were disappearing. It captured “quickly and utterly intelligibly what I spend much more time arguing with much less clarity: You don’t need much math to gain a great deal of insight into our shared world,” Levenson wrote. “What you do need is the habit of using what math you do know as a guide to your thinking.”

Shalizi has received invitations to conferences as a direct result of The Three-Toed Sloth, and his posts have led to important collaborations with students as well as other professors. Like Holbo, he receives no official credit for these efforts, even though senior members of his department have asked him to post more often. “I asked if it would count toward my tenure review,” Shalizi says. “They said, ‘No, but we’ll give you a pat on the back.”

Cathleen McCarthy writes about business, travel, and the arts. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post, Town & Country, Art & Antiques, and at, among others.
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