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Why I Rant

Someone pointed me to an over-the-top social science paper that is scheduled to be published soon. I then wasted 2 hours writing some combination of statistical commentary and rant.

I expect that, once the paper is published, there will be major controversy, as its empirical findings, such as they are, are yoked to political opinions which seem pretty much targeted to offend lots of people in its academic field.

Fortunately, by the time my post appears, the furor should have quieted. That’s one of the advantages of the blog delay: I can write a comment before something becomes a big deal, and then it appears after the controversy has blown over.

And, yeah, sure, I know, I know, that was not a good use of 2 hours—maybe more accurate to say this was a half hour of blog writing, interspersed with 1.5 hours of other things. But it wasn’t even a good use of a half hour . . . nor was writing the above paragraphs a good use of 10 minutes . . . nor was writing this paragraph a good use of, umm, 2 minutes . . . ok, we’re getting real Zeno here.

Whatever. We gotta do what we gotta do. In all seriousness, I do think these rants have value, not merely in allowing me to vent by typing rather than shouting at the TV or whatever, and not merely in letting those of you who agree with me know that others share your feelings, and not merely in the highly unlikely event that they convince any open-minded people to my position (I’m pretty sure a rant isn’t the best way to go about that, if your goal is persuasion).

No, the value to me of such rants is that they allows me to explore my thoughts. Writing is more rigorous than daydreaming, writing in public in complete sentences is more rigorous than writing notes to myself, and writing in a forum that allows comments from people who might disagree with me (along with people who agree with me but can help me refine my ideas) . . . that’s the best. And it’s not just about me. I write my blog posts, but these discussions express some sort of zeitgeist. I don’t claim ownership of these ideas or even these slogans. As scholars, we act as scribes for the ideas that are out there. I’d like to think George Orwell felt the same way, at a much higher level.

P.S. The above is not to be taken to imply that my ranting, or even my blogging, has net positive value. First off, it could have negative value by pissing people off, discrediting my statistical work, crowding out more subtle commentary by others, etc etc. Second, there’s the opportunity cost: instead of 5 rants I could be publishing one article for Slate; instead of 50 rants I could be publishing a research paper; instead of 500 rants I could be publishing a book, etc. Who’s to know? The above post is titled Why I Rant, not Why My Ranting is a Good Thing.

24 Comments

  1. Having just watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my 8 and 9 year olds, I found this post extremely timely.

  2. Tom says:

    I like that Orwell wrote in 1946 about his next book: ‘It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write’. I think most people would give their teeth to have failures as good as 1984.

  3. jim says:

    I’ve written many, many responses to blog posts, comments etc, here and elsewhere, then decided they were either to controversial or not well considered or that the original idea I wanted to develop didn’t make much sense after I drew all the purported evidence together, and just deleted them. Sometimes I save them for a few days then delete them.

    Writing forces you to align jumbled thoughts and find out whether they actually make sense or not. even if you throw it all away, you could learn something.

    • Andrew says:

      +1, and this reminds me of the advice sometimes given to writers of stories, to write an additional episode involving the characters in the story, not to include for publication but just to give depth to the characterization. The idea is that this additional written episode provides some realistic background and constraint. Kinda like Tolkien’s maps, which included all those faraway lands that never made their way into the main narratives.

      • jim says:

        Yeah, definitely, everything we write changes our minds and refines our ideas. It’s almost like the more you write the more you know. That’s one thing that’s kind of cool about blogging as opposed to spoken discussion: first, you can strip away much of the social context that can distort ideas in spoken discussion (e.g., a tall person might be intimidating to others); and second you can – I think – form and sculpt ideas with much greater precision and permanence.

        So maybe you rant because right or wrong, in the end it makes you smarter! :)

        • Andrew says:

          Jim:

          Unfortunately there can be intimidation in online discussion too! I try to be very open in my writing style, and I welcome dissent in the comments section, but I think that some people find me or other commenters intimidating. In turn, I’m intimidated by people such as that power pose researcher who are willing and able to unleash the power of the news media on me. And I’m scared by the intimidation that can come from places like twitter and 4chan (see discussion here). As much as I try to establish a welcoming environment here, I know that social status and intimidation are to some extent unavoidable.

          • jim says:

            Andrew, yes, I guess I find your blog and you and most commenters not too intimidating, but also I totally see where your coming from. Academia can be brutal – actually, that was a factor in me not pressing on to finish PhD. Not that I personally was running into big probs but wow shocking how really closed minded and vicious the academy can be.

            So all the more appreciation for what you do here, it takes alot of huevos and focus to buck the media froth and the personal attacks and stay true to the spirit of the intellectual endeavor.

            Hats off to you sir! FWIW, I’m with you!

          • jim says:

            Incidentally, I just stumbled on this editorial at Nature:

            https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03909-2

            Viva la critiques!

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “Writing forces you to align jumbled thoughts and find out whether they actually make sense or not. even if you throw it all away, you could learn something.”

      +1

  4. David says:

    I’ve learned a great deal from your rants (and writings and lectures I’ve seen on YouTube.). I’ve had to unlearn much of what I learned in grad school as a social scientist and I’m still making and applying adjustments to my approach to all things statistical. I just hope that we see change for the better. I like in your rants that you seem to return to the sentiment that there are better (more credible) ways to proceed. I hope that takes hold particularly in the publishing arena.

  5. Adede says:

    Well now I just want to read that paper.

    • Terry says:

      I had the same thought.

      But it was the right call to not mention the paper to keep the paper itself from swallowing up the post.

      There’s a lesson here, probably about polarization. If the paper had been mentioned, most reader attention would have been drawn, like a cat to a laser, to the controversy about the paper. This is how polarization works; polarizing controversy swallows up all available attention and there is nothing left for more thoughtful discussion. Let’s call it the cat-laser-polarization effect! I call dibs on inventing the term.

      [Insert cat-versus-laser video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0Ko3x_RCA0%5D

  6. Klaas van Dijk says:

    I am currently wasting my time on preparing a complaint which is related to our efforts to retract a fraudulent study on the Basra Reed Warbler, details at https://osf.io/5pnk7/

    This complaint contains “[cat picture]”. I also refer in this complaint to Fokeltje Snikstra-Weening, a famous writer of rants.

  7. Alex says:

    Well, I can say that your rants and the others that post here have greatly expanded and challenged what I thought I knew about statistics. Some of the things I’ve been introduced to on your blog (and then articles you’ve written) just aren’t taught in statistics graduate programs still (at least at the masters level).

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “Some of the things I’ve been introduced to on your blog (and then articles you’ve written) just aren’t taught in statistics graduate programs still (at least at the masters level).”

      Sad to hear. But good that you are willing to go beyond your formal training.

  8. Noah Motion says:

    So, was this post on delay, in which case the controversy has probably already blown over and the rant post is due very soon? Or is it current, in which case the controversy will arrive soon and the rant post about six months after that?

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