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The norm of entertainment

Someone pointed me to a comment that a psychology researcher wrote that he almost never reads our blog and that it “too quickly bores me.”

That’s ok. I’m sure that lots of people have stumbled upon our blog, one way or another, and have been bored by it.

We don’t have a niche audience, exactly; maybe it’s more of a mixture of niches, including people who are interested in statistics teaching, students who enjoy getting exposed to statistical ideas as they come in (in the same way that some people like to listen to the news on the radio in part they never know exactly what topics will come up that day), people who use Bayesian methods or who do research in Bayesian methods and want to keep up with the latest idea, Stan users, political scientists, people who click on a link that they see on facebook or whatever and keep reading, people who study and do research on causal inference, as well as frequent commenters and people who just enjoy whatever soap opera we happen to be covering this month.

Add up all those niches, though, and it’s still a small subset of the population. Most people, even most quantitative social science researchers, have better things to do than read and converse about statistical modeling, causal inference, and social science. So it makes sense that there are researchers that find the blog to be boring.

What’s interesting to me, though, is the norm or assumption that a blog should be entertaining.

It seems that we demand entertainment in some media but not others. We expect movies to be entertaining, and if they’re not, we’re annoyed. Even documentaries are supposed to be well paced. If not, they’ll be criticized as being boring, or “preachy,” or whatever. Most TV is expected to entertain also, except for certain special events such as official speeches, rocket launches, and Super Bowls, which it’s considered ok to watch out of ritual obligation.

Novels and plays, we usually expect to entertain us, with some exceptions. I might read Moby Dick because it’s thought provoking and has brilliant passages. It’s not entertaining, exactly, but reading it can be satisfying. We don’t always expect dinner to be entertaining either, but we do what it to fill us up.

What about textbooks and nonfiction books? Some of these are entertaining. In Regression and Other Stories, we try to amuse. The classic textbook Numerical Methods That Work is a flat-out fun read. Some scholarly works for the general public are highly readable. I’m thinking of The Origins of the Second World War. Hey, here’s a whole list of entertaining nonfiction books I’ve read. Entertaining is great, if you can have it. But I’ve read lots of completely unentertaining books that were great because they had important information. That would describe most of my textbooks, as well as various nonfiction books. If a textbooks entertaining, that’s lagniappe.

And then there are research articles. There are entertaining research papers out there—I’ve written a few, myself!—but most of the time we don’t expect journal articles to be entertaining. Indeed, there are times when we would feel that any effort made by an author to be entertaining is effort wasted, if it could be spent on content itself.

Where do blogs fit into this picture? Blogs aren’t always entertaining to read, but they’re supposed to be fun to write. The quote that led off this post surprised me when I first heard it, because I’d thought of this blog as being in the category of textbooks and research articles, not so much in the category of movies, novels, or magazine articles. In some ways it’s a compliment, that a rando on the web would think that a statistics blog could be entertaining. Or maybe it’s just a sign of the current TV-internet world, that people expect entertainment in all aspects of life.

27 Comments

  1. Adede says:

    You define boring as the absence of entertainment. But I can imagine a textbook that is “unentertaining” in the sense of lacking overt “fun” but is still not boring because it has information I want to learn.

  2. Dale Lehman says:

    Reading the purported comment is like reading teaching evaluations (which I find necessary and even valuable at times). Entertainment is not the most meaningful focus to comment on, in my opinion. Blogs cover a number of topics because people are multidimensional. There have been posts that have bored me – even some I didn’t bother reading all the way through. But there have been far more posts that engaged me, educated me, and made me think (a lot). So, was this comment from a particularly narrow-minded academic, someone who stumbled across a particular post that did not interest them (and did not look further), and what does this person read that they don’t find boring? As I said, it is like reading teaching evaluations. I’ve often received comments that give me little information other than questions about what the person was really meaning and whether there was any meaningful content in the comment. I am also wondering about the “someone” who sent that comment to you. Did they elaborate? Did they have more information than that single comment? If all they heard was that someone was bored and thought that was worth sending to you, then that is worse than the comment itself.

  3. Jonathan (another one) says:

    ‘Entertainment’ is often thought of as passive. “I’m sitting here in the audience, and your job is to *entertain* me.” But there really isn’t any entertainment that *truly* passive…. at least I can’t think of any. To be entertaining, something you do has to elicit something in me. Now, if that thing is, say, disgust or boredom, or anything entirely negative, then it fails to qualify as entertainment and instead becomes ‘torture.’ (But be careful, horror movies, for example, can induce negative feelings which have positive cathartic effects.)

    That said, *too much* effort on the part of the person being entertained lowers the entertainment value. A bad textbook that nonetheless teaches me something, but only after I work through it laboriously for weeks, wasn’t entertaining… it made me do too much work.

    So once we get past entertainment as a passive endeavor, and simply mean a positively engaging endeavor which requires less than some upper threshold on recipient effort, then I’m not sure there’s a useful boundary. But the people who remain are those for whom: (a) the results are positive; and (b) the blog writers and other commenters are doing *most* of the work in some sense I’ll leave vague. But it applies to both research articles and novels.

  4. gec says:

    I’m a psychology researcher who enjoys this blog and finds it—and its discussions—quite valuable. Maybe I’m just easily amused?

  5. Mathan says:

    If asked pointedly, I probably wouldn’t use the term “entertained” when describing my experience of reading this blog, but on reflection it might as well. “satisfying” is definitely there (I’m part of the student-listening-to-radio niche, myself, so getting exposed to ideas from the areas mentioned is great).

    For me reading blogs sits perfectly in between textbooks and movies, there’s the learning aspect and the more personal aspect of reading how someone thinks about a topic.

    And sometimes it leads to going down a deep rabbit hole of what-is-that’s with tabs and tabs of reading material, which can be deeply engaging- definitely entertaining for me!

  6. Joshua says:

    Andrew –

    > What’s interesting to me, though, is the norm or assumption that a blog should be entertaining.

    That seems to me like a leap. The commenter finds this blog boring and so doesn’t read it. Where do you get an assumption or norm that a blog “should” be (interesting to thst person), as opposed to simply a statement of taste?

    I’m sure that there are many blogs out there that you’d find boring and hence wouldn’t rant to read. Does that mean you have an assumption that blogs should be entertaining (to you)?

    > Or maybe it’s just a sign of the current TV-internet world, that people expect entertainment in all aspects of life.

    “Kids today”? When I was a kid, I used to walk to and from school in a snowstorm. Even in the summer. Uphill both ways.

    Old many yelling at clouds?

    • Phil says:

      I agree, just because someone says a blog is boring, that doesn’t mean they think it’s unexpected that it is boring, or that it somehow required to be interesting. I also don’t think the opposite of ‘boring’ is ‘entertaining’. Something can be interesting without being entertaining.

    • Andrew says:

      Joshua:

      When he wrote that he doesn’t read the blog and it bores him, I was taking that to imply that the blog’s boringness is the reason he doesn’t read it. But I guess you’re right, it’s possible that the blog being boring and him not reading the blog are just two different things.

      • Joshua says:

        Andrew –

        > it’s possible that the blog being boring and him not reading the blog are just two different things.

        Lol. Of course they aren’t likely disconnected.

        That wasnt my point. My point is that I don’t think it’s likely that this person would have an expectation that all blogs would be interesting to her. I doubt that’s his “norm.”

        I also question whether people today have a higher expectation of entertainment “in all aspects of life” than people of the past – and further even if so, whether it’s due to a TV/Internet culture.

        I suppose it’s possible but obviously entertainment was a sought after commodity throughout history. I just tend to have a reflexive pushback against casual (causal) characterizations of broad trends in our social culture absent evidence. It’s easy to just say “kids today” and sometimes it’s true, and changes in expectations of entertainment and resins for them is an intersting question – but I think it’s worthwhile to push back against such assumptions.

        • Joshua says:

          Let’s say that it’s true that people today have a higher expectation of entertainment. My guess is that the direction of causality would run in the other direction. It’s because we have more leisure time, that we have a higher expectation for entertainment, and that higher expectacion for entertainment leads to a TV and internet culture. What do you think?

          • Andrew says:

            Joshua:

            I don’t know. I think that expectations change. For example, books used to be a mass medium for delivery of entertainment. Nowadays, yes, we like our books to be entertaining, but we don’t have so many cheap paperbacks etc. or mass-circulation magazines. Another example is TV: in recent decades we’ve had high-end TV like Sopranos, Wire, etc. Back in the 1970s there was some good TV, critics made the argument that All in the Family etc. were important cultural products, and shows like Columbo were recognized to be high craftsmanship, but, still, expectations were different. Another example is the film criticism of Pauline Kael: she pushed hard against the idea that movies should represent worthy endeavors. She had the attitude that lowbrow entertainment was better than middlebrow or highbrow aspiration, and I think when it comes to film criticism her view has prevailed. So I don’t know if there are any general trends, but I think that for particular media, the expectations of entertainment can change over time.

            • mr 80s says:

              In hindsight, things the critics celebrated such as All In The Family were celebrated because of their lefty-chic politics. I enjoyed it as a kid in the same way people who grew up in the USSR are nostalgic for the cultural products of their childhood — it was a notable product of its time and lots of fun if the psychological warfare went over your head. The show had moments of stellar comedy and some talented writers and actors, but the relentless moralistic pushing of “correct thought” was almost Soviet in nature. Richard Nixon sized it up correctly based on a single episode, on one of his White House tapes in a conversation with Haldeman.

              The status of some of the Times reviewers like Kael and (for other reasons) Kakutani is similarly inflated. Amazing that these people and shows were taken as seriously as they were.

              • Andrew says:

                Mr:

                I disagree with you regarding All in the Family. I think the reason that newspaper TV critics wrote about All in the Family and its spinoffs is that they were among the few shows on TV that dealt with contemporary social issues while at the same time having interesting characters and acting. Compare to shows like Bonanza or Mash., which dealt with social issues but at a historical or geographical remove, or completely shallow shows like the Brady Bunch or various cop and detective shows which could be said to have some indirect social relevance but didn’t address these issues head-on, or shows like Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newhart which were considered to be of high quality but were primarily about the sitcom not the issues, etc. All in the Family was considered loud and crude and flawed even in the 1970s—a lot of critics didn’t like Neil Simon too, which is in the same Borscht Belt tradition—but it was super-popular, and critics looked for what they could among the popular TV shows.

                Regarding Kael (who wrote for the New Yorker, not the Times): I always found her writing to be super-irritating, and it annoys me that not just her attitudes but her style have become standard in much cultural criticism. But, credit where due: she earned that influence. She had a populist attitude and a conversational style that resonated with people, and she became arguably the top person ever in her male-dominated field. So, although I’m not a fan of Kael, I can’t really say I think she’s overrated.

              • mr 80s says:

                All in the Family did deal with social issues, but exclusively from the Norman Lear – Rob Reiner end of the political spectrum. The basic schtick was to have what were in effect stock characters, but humanize and humorize them. This worked as comedy, the writing and acting were very good, but the same nuancing was not applied to the social issues. e.g., George Jefferson was portrayed as a funny and irritating black Archie Bunker-equivalent rather than as some Sidney Poitier archetype of stoic integrity; but the treatment of black/white politics left no such room for ambiguity. Was there ever an episode with black, Jewish or Puerto Rican villains, even off screen, such as a member of the Bunker family getting assaulted in a ghetto neighborhood? It seems impossible though I admittedly can’t remember all the program details so many years later. But looking back, it was obvious even at the time what the social message was. As I kid, I took that as part of the comedy setup but as an adult it seems absurdly heavy-handed. Which is not to say the show wasn’t novel and excellent in various other ways.

                For prolific film critics like Kael the basic problem with their whole enterprise is that to go beyond pedestrian summaries (artfully obscuring or omitting spoilers but getting the point across), their craft becomes a kind of performance art, “seeing” themes and psychological architecture that may or may not actually be in the film or in the minds of the screenwriters. Making a big career of it depends on opinionated overconfident invention and the ability to write in a glib convincing style that is its own form of entertainment and would keep the readers coming back. That’s fine and some of the critics seem like nice folks who love the movies and are glad to have a regular gig reviewing them, but some the self-conscious intellectualizers like Kael were taken way, way too seriously.

  7. Hannah says:

    I’m a regular reader of this blog and I do find it pretty engrossing. Not sure if that’s the same thing as entertaining, but I mean that I’m generally curious to read new posts. About half the time I have no idea what the post is about because it uses so much specialized statistics terminology that it’s like its in a foreign language. But the rest of the time I feel like I’m learning something.

  8. Matt Skaggs says:

    I am definitely entertained by stories about people attempting to tiptoe through the minefield of causal inference (or like Wansink, declare themselves on the other side despite leaving no footprints in the minefield). And while I flail to understand probability, I am endlessly fascinated by how it in invoked.

    If the topic is interesting and the prose is adequate, I think there is plenty of entertainment value in vulgar (sensu Stephen Jay Gould) science writing. I’m reminded of the old theory that human brains have three levels, a reptilian brain surrounded by a simian brain surrounded by a human brain. An entire psychology literature developed over the implications of this new understanding, and those papers were quite entertaining. Carl Sagan even summarized the literature in one of his books. But then some pesky scientists used analytical instrumentation to discover that there was no physical basis for the theory. So now all those old papers are profoundly boring.

  9. Michael Nelson says:

    To be fair, the norm for blogs isn’t that they’re entertaining, it’s that they’re defunct. Almost all blogs with the primary draw of being entertaining long ago moved to other media (twitter, instagram, etc). The fact that this blog is still being updated, and commented on, means it has something others did not. I’d guess that that something is, partly, your dedication, humor, passion, and intellect. You engage us on many levels. Another part is probably the community that has developed around the blog. We engage each other.

    This all goes along with what several people say above, that the opposite of “boring” isn’t “entertaining” (although maybe that was the meaning in context?). I’d say the operative word here is “engaging,” and this person is simply not engaged. I admit I will sometimes go months without checking in here, just because I have too much other stuff going on. I am too engaged elsewhere to be engaged here. So yes, it does take a certain type to be engaged by your blog, but it’s also relative to your other engagements. Maybe this person has some really awesome things going on elsewhere and you really never had a chance! :)

  10. Phil says:

    Boy, are you wrong about Moby Dick. I re-read it about a year ago…or maybe read it for the first time, really, because there was so much that I would swear I had never read before. There were a few parts of it that did get a bit boring, and I have myself license to skim those, but on the whole I thought it was extremely entertaining or engaging or whatever we are choosing as the antonym for ‘boring’.

    Even the dreaded ‘cetology’ chapter, famous for being the stopping point of many a would-be reader, engaged me. Here, for example, is the description of the ‘sulphur bottom whale’, which today we call the Blue Whale:
    “Sulphur Bottom).- Another retiring gentleman, with a brimstone belly, doubtless got by scraping along the Tartarian tiles in some of his profounder divings. He is seldom seen; at least I have never seen him except in the remoter southern seas, and then always at too great a distance to study his countenance. He is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line. Prodigies are told of him. Adieu, Sulphur Bottom! I can say nothing more that is true of ye, nor can the oldest Nantucketer.”

  11. Gorgias says:

    Some psychologists demand that their field be very entertaining as well. Below is text from an article by Roy Baumeister, a leading social psychologist:

    3.3. Boring the intellectual community

    Another danger is that if we get caught up into a highly rigorous but
    narrowly focused style of research, we will cease to produce work of interest
    to colleagues in other fields. Note what happened to personality
    psychology. Unquestionably the study of personality is far more rigorous
    today than it was half a century ago. Yet back then personality psychology
    captured the interest of people in many different fields, influencing
    anthropology, literary criticism, philosophy, plus lots of other subfields
    in psychology. The gain in rigor was accomplished by a loss in interest
    value. The Big Five, in particular, is far more solidly based in data than,
    say, Freudian psychoanalytic theory — but its influence on thinkers in
    other fields is far less, and indeed it has failed to capture the imagination
    of the intellectual community.

    I mentioned the rise in rigor corresponding to the decline in interest
    value and influence of personality psychology. Crudely put, shifting the
    dominant conceptual paradigm from Freudian psychoanalytic theory to
    Big Five research has reduced the chances of being wrong but palpably
    increased the fact of being boring. In making that transition, personality
    psychology became more accurate but less broadly interesting. I do not
    wish to offend my colleagues in personality, and certainly there is plenty
    of interesting work. Still, it seems undeniable that the interdisciplinary
    intellectual excitement that psychoanalysis and related theories once
    stimulated has not been sustained by the new, more rigorous programs
    of research. Social psychology might think carefully about how much to
    follow in personality psychology’s footsteps. Our entire field might end
    up being one of the losers.

    Baumeister, R. F. (2016). Charting the future of social psychology on stormy seas: Winners, losers, and recommendations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 66, 153-158.

  12. mr 80s says:

    Blogs by blunt, opinionated (but not dogmatic) experts, who write relatively short down to earth posts on things they are expert about, pass the entertainment standard as far as I’m concerned.

  13. jim says:

    Sometimes I find this blog engrossing. Sometimes interesting. Sometimes boring. Sometimes irritating. Sometimes entertaining. But I don’t come here for any of those things.

    I come here because I want to participate in the quest for knowledge – both by learning and by contributing my insights and knowledge – and this is one avenue through which I can do that in a small way. I’m guessing that’s why most people come here. And that they do is a complement to Andrew and other contributors as well as readers and commenters.

    The “quest” aspect of the knowledge endeavor separates it from mere entertainment. In a sense we do not chose our quests – they are foisted upon us by the forces created by the interaction of “me” with the environment. We are pulled into our quests inexorably, helpless to reject them.

    So I guess at the end of the day, for most of us this blog is satisfying because it satisfies a need.

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