Rajiv Sethi quotes Bentley University economics professor Scott Sumner writing on the first anniversary of his blog:

Be careful what you wish for. Last February 2nd I [Sumner] started this blog with very low expectations… I knew I wasn’t a good writer . . . And I was also pretty sure that the content was not of much interest to anyone.

Now my biggest problem is time–I spend 6 to 10 hours a day on the blog, seven days a week. Several hours are spent responding to reader comments and the rest is spent writing long-winded posts and checking other economics blogs. . . .

I [Sumner] don’t think much of the official methodology in macroeconomics. Many of my fellow economists seem to have a Popperian view of the social sciences. You develop a model. You go out and get some data. And then you try to refute the model with some sort of regression analysis. . . .

My problem with this view is that it doesn’t reflect the way macro and finance actually work. Instead the models are often data-driven. Journals want to publish positive results, not negative. So thousands of macroeconomists keep running tests until they find a “statistically significant” VAR model, or a statistically significant “anomaly” in the EMH. Unfortunately, because the statistical testing is often used to generate the models, and determine which get published, the tests of statistical significance are meaningless.

I’m not trying to be a nihilist here, or a Luddite who wants to go back to the era before computers. I do regressions in my research, and find them very useful. But I don’t consider the results of a statistical regression to be a test of a model, rather they represent a piece of descriptive statistics, like a graph, which may or may not usefully supplement a more complex argument that relies on many different methods . . .

I [Sumner] like Rorty’s pragmatism; his view that scientific models don’t literally correspond to reality, or mirror reality. Rorty says that one should look for models that are “coherent,” that help us to make sense of a wide variety of facts. . . .

Interesting, especially given my own veneration of Popper (or, at least the ideal version of Popper as defined in Lakatos’s writings). Sumner is writing about macroeconomics, which I know nothing about. In any case, I should probably read something by Rorty. (I’ve read the name “Rorty” before–I’m pretty sure he’s a philosopher and I think his first name is “Richard,” but that’s all I know about him.)

Sumner also writes:

I suppose it wasn’t a smart career move to spend so much time on the blog. If I had ignored my commenters I could have had my manuscript revised by now. . . . And I really don’t get any support from Bentley, as far as I know the higher ups don’t even know I have a blog. So I just did 2500 hours of uncompensated labor.

I agree with Sethi that Sumner’s post is interesting and captures much of the blogging experience. But I don’t agree with that last bit about it being a bad career move. Or perhaps Sumner was kidding? (It’s notoriously difficult to convey intonation in typed speech.) What exactly is the marginal value of his having a manuscript revised? It’s not like Bentley would be compensating him for that either, right? For someone like Sumner (or, for that matter, Alex Tabarrok or Tyler Cowen or my Columbia colleague Peter Woit), blogging would seem to be an excellent career move, both by giving them and their ideas much wider exposure than they otherwise would’ve had, and also (as Sumner himself notes) by being a convenient way to generate many thousands of words that can be later reworked into a book. This is particularly true of Sumner (more than Tabarrok or Cowen or, for that matter, me) because he tends to write long posts on common themes. (Rajiv Sethi, too, might be able to put together a book or some coherent articles by tying together his recent blog entries.)

Blogging and careers, blogging and careers . . . is blogging ever really bad for an academic career? I don’t know. I imagine that some academics spend lots of time on blogs that nobody reads, and that could definitely be bad for their careers in an opportunity-cost sort of way. Others such as Steven Levitt or Dan Ariely blog in an often-interesting but sometimes careless sort of way. This might be bad for their careers, but quite possibly they’ve reached a level of fame in which this sort of thing can’t really hurt them anymore. And this is fine; such researchers can make useful contributions with their speculations and let the Gelmans and Fungs of the world clean up after them. We each have our role in this food web. (Personally I think I’m as careful in everything I blog as in my published research–take this one however you want!–and I welcome blogging as a way to put ideas out there and often get useful criticism. My impression is that Sumner and Sethi feel the same way, but authors who have reached the bestseller level probably just don’t have the time to read their blog comments.)

And then of course there are the many many bloggers, academic and otherwise, whose work I assume I would’ve encountered much more rarely were they not blogging.

The other issue that Sethi touches on in is the role of blogging in economic discourse. Which brings us to the (“reverse causal”) question of why there are so many prominent academic bloggers from economics (also sociology and law, it appears) but not so many in political science or psychology or, for that matter, statistics.

I guess the last one of these is easy enough to answer: there aren’t so many statisticians out there, most of them don’t seem to really enjoy writing, and statistics isn’t particularly newsworthy. I had a conversation about this the other day after writing something for Physics Today. Physics Today is the monthly magazine of the American Physical Society, and it’s fun to read. It was a pleasure to write for it. But could there be Statistics Today? It wouldn’t be so easy! In physics there’s news every month, exciting new experiments, potential path-breaking theories, and the like. Somebody somewhere is building a microscope that can look inside a quark, and somebody else is figuring out how to generalize Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to account for this. Meanwhile, in statistics, there’s . . . a new efficient estimator for Poisson regression? News about the Census? No, when statisticians try to be entertaining, they typically end up writing about statistical errors made by non-statisticians. (Oops, I’ve done that too!). This can be fun now and then, but you can’t make a monthly magazine out of it.

14 thoughts on “Blogging

  1. Perhaps Statistics Today should be highlights of the entire endeavor of science, focusing on methods? How do we really know that Planet XYZ 15 light years away is the size between 15 and 19 Jupiters? Well, statistical model ASDF is strong evidence that that is so. Sorta the same way that Philosophers of Science comment on progress in various fields and try to build understanding of the meta questions, of how scientific progress happens.

  2. I'm guessing that Sumner is referring to Rorty's book <a href="; rel="nofollow">Philosophy and the mirror of nature, especially Part Two if you're thinking of checking out Rorty. For my money, though, the other pragmatists are more interesting (e.g. Peirce, James, Dewey, C.I. Lewis, Quine, and Putnam — and depending on your reading, maybe Ramsey, the later Wittgenstein, and Dennett as well).

  3. Blogging can certainly take up precious resources (time, energy, and money) and not necesssarily have a good return on investment. However, Terrence Tao provides a good example of a full-time professor, researcher and blogger who has used his blog to benefit himself, his courses, his research and his readers. So perhaps Sumner's real issue is in how he is using his blog? I would need to read it to know for sure, but I would guess that is part of the issue.

    A monthly update into Statistics research might get a little difficult to fill. Maybe incorporating articles on applications of statistics and probability might help. People love anechdotes.

  4. Today a Nobel Prize winner writing in the New York Times linked to Sumner's blog. I'd say he isn't doing that badly.

  5. Mark: I agree with you. Blogging has got to be the best possible career move for Sumner. I can only assume he was kidding when he wrote otherwise.

  6. By all means read Richard Rorty. He's been my hero ever since I took a seminar on pragmatism focusing on his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature at Michigan State as an undergrad in the early 1980s (I'd taken both analytic philosophy and philosophy of mind classes before diving in).

    I think a good place to start (at least for his theories of meaning in language) is with the first chapter of his later book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.

    Or the later Wittgenstein as Jonathan Livengood suggested in an earlier reply.

    The problem with all of this is that these guys are writing from philosopher to philosopher attacking a received tradition of logical positivism (partly championed by the earlier writings of Wittgenstein himself).

    Here's a bit of an overview of pragmatism (which didn't start with Rorty) in a NY Times article aimed at non philosophers, which just so happens to be written by an academic with a prominent blog:

  7. Mark Thoma said recently, "If someone had told me that starting a blog would lead to world travel on other people's dimes, I would have laughed. But it has. And all I can say is huh. Cool."

  8. Exactly. Actually, I'd heard of very few living economists before they all started blogging and managed to collectively raise all their profiles.

  9. Pragmatism (or better still pragmaticism) probably has fairly high barrier to entry that won't be easily lowered.

    My sense of Peirce was through a misguided enrolment in my first undergraduate year of what seemed would be an easy and possibly interesting philosophy of language course (that dealt seriously with Wittgenstein's tractatus) but then an appreciation of George Hebert Mead and John Dewey (at least his Theory of Inquiry) and then my lingusitics professor giving me some of Peirce's collected writings.

    Then I left university for a couple of years and upon returning met and was tutored by David Savan who was the Peirce scholar at U of T. Without that kind tutoring I don't think I would have gotten much from Peirce. And the most I did get was from his failed Carniege grant application where he tried to explain some of what he had been up to.

    But one of the reasons I often quote him on this blog – is the effort to grasp his writings "may be worth it" and more so to statisticians than others


  10. I really don't understand the post by Prof. Sumner. He's at a little known school that was a college for accountants until not many years ago and now Paul Krugman, a Nobel winner, major economist and NYT op-ed columnist, refers to him by name. If he considers his work "uncompensated," then wtf?

  11. ''it doesn't make for a good magazine''

    …But it would make a great reality TV show along the lines of Dragon's Den.
    Researchers bring their results, get pulled apart and some get research grants.

    Perhaps too much like reality ;-)

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