Reflections on 10 years in science blogging

By Razib Khan | July 6, 2012 11:38 pm

I’ve been thinking that I should post about what it’s been like being a blogger for 10 years. 1/3 of my recollected life! (I recall fragments of being 3, but continuity of self starts somewhere at the end of my 4th year) Actually, I always assumed I would do this post in 2012 when I joined ScienceBlogs in 2006 and realized I could turn this hobby/sidelight into a source of semi-professional fulfillment. But now that the time is nigh (I started blogging in April 2002, while the original Gene Expression launched in June of 2002) I find myself procrastinating, ironic in light of the fact that blogging is often parodied by some as a form of procrastinating. I will say that whenever I have a “9-5″ (or, in my case more often an 8:30 to 6:30 at minimum) I don’t ever write for the blog during those hours (if a post shows up in that period, it’s a feature called scheduling enabling that miracle, something obviously unknown to those readers who stupidly ask “why are you posting now loser! Shouldn’t you be hittin’ on bangin’ chicks, like I am on Friday nights?”). So blogging is not a way procrastinate for me. It is a way to say what I need to say.

But in any case, something over at MetaFilter has prompted me to perhaps reflect on what blogging has become, at least for me. One Allen Spaulding observes:

So I was going to write a whole thing about how this isn’t actually terrible smart writing and that the whole thing reads like a B- paper in Behavioral Econ 201 at a second tier university, but I’ll let this quote do all the work for me:

Second, people who gain a Ph.D. at least know something of theoretical interest. This applies even to an unemployed history Ph.D.! 

This is a weird cottage industry – taking obvious problems and using every available tool incorrectly to get clicks so you can sell more ads for penis creme.

Obviously I’m not going to defend my posts on law school as awesome pieces of writing. On the contrary! Yet I’m always aroused toward some curiosity whenever people criticize the content of these non-science related posts. For example, performed a routine analysis of GSS data, and someone in a forum like MetaFilter (I forget which) dismissed the results as something that a graduate student in political science might write as a paper. Here’s the point I want to emphasize: I did not spend more than 30 minutes on the post which the commenter judges as being a B- paper at a second tier university! Question: what’s the going rate for such papers? I could produce a bunch per day if needed. Similarly, the commenter dismissing my GSS posts as something a political science Ph.D. could easily generate might be curious to know that some of my posts of that genre are written in less than 1 hour while I’m killing time in public transportation tethering to my phone so I have an internet connection. The method is rather easy to replicate:

1) Question

2) Look for data sets to test question

Unfortunately not too many people find this practice congenial, so the niche is left to a few odd bloggers (e.g., Audacious Epigone, the Inductivist). Naturally, sometimes I do put a lot of effort into a post. For example, I remember precisely that this post took me about 6 hours total to write. I ran it through two edits, instead of my customary single instance. Though I have to admit here that my very long posts are really not creations de novo, rather, they’re a stitching together of analytic modules I’ve developed over 10 years, or, have had kicking around in the back of my head. Any novel inferences I might have are never obtained through the process of writing. Rather, they serve as seeds for the writing itself.

When I began blogging in 2002 the world was different. In a prosaic sense the general fixation was on the Iraq War and 9/11 (though techblogging predated “warblogging“). I quickly lost interest in current affairs for two reasons. First, I was way too prone to saying stupid things which were lacking in both substance and style. A move away from that domain of commentary saved me from my own embarrassment (e.g., I praised Michael Ledeen as a deep thinker in 2002! Yes. I was a moron). Second, politics and policy blogging has become sharply polarized and partisan. It’s simply not interesting, insofar as it has been totally co-opted by the mainstream media and political movements. I’m far too fundamentally misanthropic to be part of a “team,” so this sort of dynamic has never been a “good fit.” I just don’t get why some of my favorite bloggers sometimes drop into the typical partisan hackery of intellectual self-stimulation. But obviously it serves as a necessary outlet, and I don’t expect total mastery of domain from anyone.

Rather, in hindsight it is obvious that there are three broad channels into which my blogging has settled upon. First, there is the secondary commentary on scientific papers. Though I pursued this sort of thing in an inchoate manner as early as 2003, I was strongly influenced in this direction by my friend Dave Munger in the mid-2000s. Second, there are the long historically informed essays. The impulse behind these ultimately derive in my case from Zach Latif, who early on focused on discursive and meandering reflections on current affairs and deep history. Finally, there’s the social science blogging using the GSS and playing around with data sets & R. For this, I have to thank the Inductivst, Half Sigma, and the Audacious Epigone, in addition to one of my GNXP co-bloggers (you know who you are). I say plenty of stupid and wrong things in all of these endeavors, but I’m pretty sure that I have some chance of actually adding value. I’ve also divided my blogging a bit, as I’m a regular contributor (albeit, more irregular now) to two other blogs (you can find by backlog of other writings on the web over at razib.com).

One of the main “problems” that I’ve encountered with the move to Discover is that people think I’m a writer for the magazine. This means that they expect me to be “writerly.” People also complain that my “articles” are sometimes not as well researched as they should be. The problem here is that the production of prose being generated in this space, blog posts, is qualitatively different than that of an article for the magazine. I’m rather sure that 99% of the writers for the magazine aren’t generating their prose invariably between 10 PM and 1 AM, in a rush, with only one read through after writing. On the other hand, despite the hurry and haste of this production it’s relatively constant. Additionally, the ends of the production are somewhat different from that of a magazine article. I’m not out to report or lay out a coherent and full-fleshed case for a specific thesis or phenomenon. Rather, quite often I’m throwing out slices of information and analysis, in the hopes that it will prompt responses which will coherently and intelligently fill in the gaps factually, as opposed to judge my prior normative preference. This is the fundamental problem with those readers who begin their response with “so what you are trying to say is….” As my posts have clear lacunae, they attempt to interpolate their own interpretations of what I’m trying to get at, but usually I’m really not trying to get at any specific thing! The gaps in my argument aren’t a bug, they’re a feature. Rather, I’m attempting to inject data into the bloodstream of wider discourse. Less pretentiously, I’m trying to convince people that it is better to argue with facts rather than their own self-serving opinions.

The process of dialogue isn’t always pretty. Though I agree in the abstract with Phil Plait’s plea that it is important not to be a dick, I find that unfortunately it’s pretty necessary to maintain proper order in the comments, which necessitates being a dick. The less time I have the more offended I get at textual flatulence. I particularly find obnoxious those commenters who strive toward seeming smart rather than actually forwarding our understanding of reality. My aims are pretty simple here: extract information and insight when possible from commenters. I’m not a total egoist, so if you follow the comments you’ll see that I do engage those readers who ask questions politely and sincerely. On the other hand I’m not very patient or tolerant of explicit or implicit thread-jackers. After 10 years blogging I’ve got a pretty good sense of that type. I also trace IPs, Facebook profiles, and such, so as to identify those readers who are switching handles to evade my attentions. I would say that about 50% of my blogging energies at this point are devoted to comments.

This sort of tyrannical behavior of course doesn’t always go down well with people. In fact, there’s a regular banter of complaint at my aggressive and intolerant behavior whenever my posts get linked from aggregators and outsiders see how I manage my discussion threads. The fundamental reason is simple: most people seem to outwardly disagree with my frank admission that I think most of the readership of this blog should keep their opinions to themselves on any given post, because they don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute. This stance leads to charges of elitism, which I don’t deny. Though honestly I think the accusation is too normatively charged; rather than there being an elite, many traits exhibit a continuous distribution, and these differences are important. Most readers are too stupid to be interesting on most issues, and some are so incoherent and ill-informed that it actually requires expenditure of cognitive resources to decrypt their blather. Naturally some readers get angry and tell me they aren’t going to read anymore because of this attitude, or they are going to complain to the editor. All fine. I don’t do this for readers, though that’s a positive externality (i.e., the world is getting some entertainment or insight), and the bosses here are Discover obviously prefer that I maximize my audience. But my traffic is sufficient, and most readers don’t even want to comment. The reality is without aggressive supervision the arc of the human social universe seems to bend toward idiocy & group-think. If being a dick is a way that I can push against this slouch toward mediocrity in discussion, thaen dick I will be.

Of course I do admit that I’m not that bright in any absolute sense. If I say something stupid about phylogenetics, and Joe Felsenstein verbally abuses me in the comments, that’s entirely acceptable. He knows his shit. Sometimes I need to have a sock stuffed down my throat in metaphorical terms, something that Leigh Van Valen had to do in a gentle manner here once. The older I get the more I am haunted by my own ignorance and lack of cognitive capacity. The only thing more depressing is the sorry state of the human race, where even those gifted with general intelligence are more concerned with signalling their erudition for the purposes of status, than leveraging that erudition in the interests of elevating the discussion before they expire.

I’ve given a great deal of time in this post to comments because of the things I’ve learned about blogging over the past 10 years, foremost is that the medium’s fundamental power is in its interactivity. But this strength also introduces weakness. You can extract from the readers very detailed specialized knowledge, or, you can read about how they are “First!” and would engage in vulgar acts with Emmanuelle Chriqui. Many of my posts are obviously inspired by questions in the comments, or are triggered by observations in the comments. Writing a book or magazine article is fundamentally different. That’s projection out, with minimal audience feedback that shapes the narrative.  Despite the fact that many websites have comments sections, these are tacked on perfunctorily. There is no feedback power of comments back into the content-generation state. This is what makes blogging so different. Many of the books I’ve read over the past 10 years have come via reader suggestions. No doubt that’s shaped this blog, and my own viewpoints.

Obviously things have changed for me a great deal in the last 10 years in life outside of blogging. Much of that change readers have not been privy to, because it’s none of their business, and it doesn’t add any value to the information I’m putting up here. But, I did mention recently I became a father, because I plan to do genotypic analyses of my daughter.

What would she think of this blog? What will she think? I am now conscious of the fact that I’ve preserved in exquisite detail a record of the thoughts of her father as a foolish young man, predating her own existence by 10 years. I may be writing in this space as she grows into the fullness of her own consciousness. Would I have to explain the way I treat readers? How about some of the controversial things I’ve said, and propositions I’ve put forward?

The reality is that I don’t regret anything. I could regret my stupidity and ignorance, but such are the wages of genuine understanding. One must be wrong before one is right. My own goal in my short life is to understand the world as it is, not as I would wish it to be. Wishes are all fine & good, but the great accomplishments of human intellectualism are systems of the world which map onto that world, not systems of the world which construct mythical conceptual superstructures. I try vainly to swim against the superstitions of the age, though no doubt I am subject to many myself. I would hope to god that my daughter does not fall into the pattern of intellectual idolatry, bowing down before false propositions hoping for the adulation of social superiors and the validation of one’s peers. This blog is a testament to my own attempt to live that.

So where now? I have a whole “offline” life obviously, family, friends, academic pursuits. But in many ways I believe that this blog always was, even before it came into being. I spent the first quarter century of my life in internal monologue, struggling with ideas which I encountered in my reading, occasionally bursting forth on Usenet, or making a scene at a party, verbally bludgeoning someone or overwhelming them with a tsunami of fact (I try and maintain silence when I am ignorant, masking my deficiencies). Though it started as a hobby which I adopted in an absence of mind, it’s become a rather important extension of my life. This obviously does not mean it is my exclusive life, as some readers have mistakenly assumed because I omit many personal details (though if you follow my Pinboard feed you will notice that over the past year I was bookmarking many articles on fertility and pregnancy!). No matter my own personal evolution, I see no reason why the blog should not continue being an important outlet for my own thought. I’ve long ago stopped giving specific expiration dates for the blog. I’m not close to feeling burned out, and I kept posting even on the edge of exhaustion 7 months ago.

I hope soon to get a better sense of my time management issues. This year was rather difficult for me for reasons you can guess (I was preparing for my impending fatherhood), and others which I haven’t talked about online, though which my friends in “real life” are probably sick of hearing about. I just didn’t have the time to engage in “deep dive” analyses of papers which were such a joy for me in the past. I also plan to reboot my “genome blogging,” and see if I can discover something that Dienekes and Zack haven’t already touched upon.

Unlike Ed or Carl I am not a writer by inclination. In other words, expect more of the same, an idiosyncratic and sui generis engagement with the material, with no great pretense toward caring about intelligibility for the “person the street.” I find wrestling with reality so as to get a good grip upon it incredibly hard. I welcome fellow sojourners in this exhausting task, but I don’t have much patience or inclination to hand-hold. This is a brutal enterprise, where failure is most of the game. You will know that I’m “phoning it in” when you notice that I don’t verbally abuse commenters who verge on non-sentient. I only attack because I care.

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  • Balaji

    Thanks for your blogging! You are one I regularly follow – you always have something interesting to say.

  • http://www.buildinghistory.org/distantpast/ Jean M

    “My own goal in my short life is to understand the world as it is, not as I would wish it to be. Wishes are all fine & good, but the great accomplishments of human intellectualism are systems of the world which map onto that world, not systems of the world which construct mythical conceptual superstructures. I try vainly to swim against the superstitions of the age, though no doubt I am subject to many myself. I would hope to god that my daughter does not fall into the pattern of intellectual idolatry, bowing down before false propositions hoping for the adulation of social superiors and the validation of one’s peers.”

    This is why I find yours one of the few blogs worth reading. Thank you for defending rationalism against the mental mush of Post-Modernism.

  • http://sjespositoweblog.blogspot.com S.J. Esposito

    I think the fact that you are not a (professionally trained) writer is part of what makes this blog special and, for me, readable. It comes across very ‘stream-of-conscious’ and authentic. When I read an interesting paper or whatever, I always look for your opinions on the matter here because I value what you have to say. I really cannot say the same for other ‘blogs’ which read more like magazine articles, generally spitting chewed-up info information into the readers mouth for easy consumption. Here, we don’t get that in the slightest and that’s what I really value the most. This blog makes me work to understand the content, even if the posts are built around things with which I’m familiar.

    Congratulations on 10 years.

  • http://bloodyshovel.wordpress.com spandrell

    It’s kinda sad that you should need to argue, in GNXP of all places, that most people are not capable of contributing interesting thought. This blog must have a quite self-selected audience, but giving people freedom to express themselves over time still leads to idiocy and status signaling crap.

    Keep the dick going.

  • April Brown

    You’re actually a fairly good writer, and your habit of bolding key sentences is a helpful touch for those of us who skim blogs with less attention than they deserve due to small children wrestling us for possession of the laptop. There’s quite enough professional writers out there trying to make the world intelligible to the masses.

  • Sunset Shazz

    “The older I get the more I am haunted by my own ignorance and lack of cognitive capacity. ”

    Preach, brother.

  • Faze

    I’m jealous of the fact that you can write so fluently on complex subjects in what anyone with any imagination can guess is a haphazard combination of available time and place. Many of your posts are dense with what is to me new ideas or information offered without grandiosity or cant. Your blog is most appreciated – and I hope to continue to have the advantage of your insights for some time to come.

  • http://www.twitter.com/theogonia Shashi

    I am one of those readers that has been reading for a while and I never really comment because I am usually being one of the two things you pointedly discourage 1)ignorant and 2)stupid

    Since we are celebrating ten years, I get an opportunity to tell you what I like.

    1. That you don’t write magazine articles and don’t even pretend or aspire to. This is great because magazine articles like the ones in New Yorker or New Scientist or whatever are just full of fluff and just too ornate to the point where it’s irritating to wade through the irrelevant bits. I enjoy context but my idea of context doesn’t include painting a picture about a scientist or thinker, how he talks or drinks coffee etc. I am interested in ideas and not the person, and magazine articles waste most of the words trying my make me ‘relate’ or become ‘social’ with this person. Generic, formulaic writing which honestly needs to die a fast death along with the degrees that people get for it.

    2. I admire the high entropy in your sentences. The use of the precise word in the right place is effective. It’s something I wish I had, I would comment more.

    3. You put a good amount of effort into hyperlinking to material that’s relevant instead of giving primers every-time. Part of the attractiveness to this approach is that you don’t have to accommodate everyone by wasting other people’s time by going over things. If they care to know, they can click and do their homework. Please keep this part.

    4. I know that people who are generally curious or have facts or insights to share have a distinct urge to share bits or insight or data that are *irrelevant* to the larger point but being able to contain yourself and not digress is a great quality. Maybe you don’t face this problem, then you get less credit.

    5. The bolding of key sentences and ideas is the best bit, it’s really really powerful tool in trying to communicate through a written medium and I haven’t quiet seen it been used the way you do.

    6. Last but not the least, I just have a taste for your style of writing. Not really sure which part it is, but I think it’s the irreverent tone, or almost total disregard to correctness, but not being intentionally inflammatory for the sake of being contrarian etc. Maybe I am wrong to think this, but it always seems that you are measured/careful in your prose where you need to be (specific epistemological claims, deductions, info) and completely uninhibited when expressing emotions.

    Fuck. Too verbose.

    If you want to answer a question for me about your writing – Are you trying to be funny or at least aware when you have written a sentence that it could have comedic value? Or does that shit just happen as you are writing it? I ask this because whenever I read a more personal blogpost by you, or one that refers to other people, it’s invariably really funny.

    “You will know that I’m “phoning it in” when you notice that I don’t verbally abuse commenters who verge on non-sentient”

    “most people seem to outwardly disagree with my frank admission that I think most of the readership of this blog should keep their opinions to themselves on any given post, because they don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute. ”

    Maybe only I find this kind of stuff funny, I imagine most people find it arrogant or offensive.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    re: bolding. i adopted the practice of randall parker of futurepundit. my first co-blogger and mickey kaus also served as models.

    re: humor. usually it’s not intentional. that’s kind of how i am in real life, i’m never funny if i try to be, i just am. it’s not something i think of as a major trait of mine, but for others it is.

  • Icepick

    I’ve been reading your stuff for nine years, maybe a little longer. I appreciate your dickishness in the comments because it maintains the quality of the comment section. Sometimes I think you are a little too much of a dick, but (a) I know that you follow your commenters closely so you have more information than I do to judge, and (b) better to be a little too harsh than to let standards slide.

    I know you’re not seeking validation for what you are doing here, and how you are doing it, but I’m expressing my approval anyway. Keep up the good work.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Sometimes I think you are a little too much of a dick, but (a) I know that you follow your commenters closely so you have more information than I do to judge, and (b) better to be a little too harsh than to let standards slide.

    also, finite time. i’ve had friends suggest that i be less of a dick, and which point i ask them to take on moderating duties gratis since i’m rather busy. but at this point i do know a lot of the commenters well enough that i wouldn’t be comfortable letting other people make judgments.

  • duende

    Happy birthday!

  • Justin Giancola

    Awwwww.

  • Dan

    The only thing more depressing is the sorry state of the human race, where even those gifted with general intelligence are more concerned with signalling their erudition for the purposes of status, than leveraging that erudition in the interests of elevating the discussion before they expire

    It may be depressing in the practical sense of moving forward human knowledge, but if the status afforded for displaying one’s intellect confers reproductive benefits, then it has payed us enormous dividends in the longer arc of human brain evolution

    Congrats on 10 years of impressive intellectual display!

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    It may be depressing in the practical sense of moving forward human knowledge, but if the status afforded for displaying one’s intellect confers reproductive benefits, then it has payed us enormous dividends in the longer arc of human brain evolution

    that’s a stupid *if* the data are pretty robust that high educational/academic accomplishments are a negative correlate with reproductive output.* if you are referring to geoff miller’s theory about display, maybe. though i think there’s some frequency dependence here.

    * in fact, the core readership here is a) very smart b) very un-fertile

  • http://anepigone.blogspot.com Audacious Epigone

    Know there are people out there who enjoy the approach you take with the comments. You cut out the verbiage, distill the commenter’s point(s), and then obliterate it(/them). And when I get lost somewhere in the body of the post, the sadistic lift I get from you being a dick in the comments makes my own ignorance a bit more tolerable, which helps push me to keep chipping away at that ignorance. Congratulations on a great decade, with greater decades still to come.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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