blogging in grad school

Drew Conway offers up ten reasons grad students should blog. It’s a good list — and, naturally, I basically agree with the general argument — but I’m a little concerned he goes a bit overboard, especially in reason #5:

The faculty in your department will not think less of you – I have been asked several times by fellow grad students some form of the following question: “Weren’t you worried what your advisors would think about your blog?” Of course, I never even thought about this question, as I started blogging before actually matriculating to NYU (note that ZIA’s anniversary is early-June and most universities begin the Fall semester in late August). This, however, is besides the point. No, I was never worried about what my advisors would think. The things I write about on ZIA are exactly the same kinds of things I say in seminar and write for term papers (in fact, these ideas often flow both ways). Furthermore, most of those faculty who might actually view blogging in a negative light are also those most unlikely to ever read your blog.

Well, maybe. I’d certainly like to think this is true, but I’m not quite as convinced as Conway. I blogged regularly for years before coming to grad school but mostly stopped upon my arrival. In part this was due to a lack of free time, but there was also a sense of professional concern. Political scientists tend to strive for an apolitical tone in their work and often frown on outright displays of ideology or partisanship. In this regard, political science can often seem far less, well, political than disciplines like comparative literature, history, or sociology. Blogging need not be intensely partisan, of course, but it does tend to lead to a more personal style of writing than standard academic fare, which lends itself to a bit more straightforwardness of expression. And at least at the more conventionally prestigious departments, there’s generally no clear reward for engaging in public discourse in this way, as hiring and tenure decisions tend to be based effectively on the number and quality of peer-reviewed journal publications. Blogging can be viewed as a distraction from the real work of grinding out research.

This is not to say that, normativelly, blogging shouldn’t be viewed as a good thing for social scientists to do more of. I think it should be. But, empirically, I’m not sure it’s always so easy.

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speaking of atheism

I should shout out one of my favorite sociology articles in recent years:

Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society,” American Sociological Review 71 (2), 2006.

The authors use survey evidence to demonstrate that as tolerance for religious diversity grows, it does so at the expense of non-believers.

The article is available from Gerteis’s website here (.pdf).

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science, faith, and the marginalization of non-belief

Sean Carroll critiques the Faith and Science program at this year’s World Science Festival:

I have to agree with Jerry Coyne here: the program on Faith and Science at this year’s World Science Festival is a mistake. I went to last year’s Festival, and I have great respect for Brian Greene and Tracy Day for bringing together such a massive undertaking. It would be better if they didn’t take money from the Templeton Foundation, but money has to come from somewhere, and I’m not the one paying the bills. I don’t even mind having a panel that talks about religion — it’s a big part of many people’s lives, and there are plenty of issues to be discussed at the intersection of science and religion.

But it would be a lot more intellectually respectable to present a balanced discussion of those issues, rather than the one that is actually lined up. The panelists include two scientists who are Templeton Prize winners — Francisco Ayala and Paul Davies — as well as two scholars of religion — Elaine Pagels and Thupten Jinpa. Nothing in principle wrong with any of those people, but there is a somewhat obvious omission of a certain viewpoint: those of us who think that science and religion are not compatible. And there are a lot of us! Also, we’re right. A panel like this does a true disservice to people who are curious about these questions and could benefit from a rigorous airing of the issues, rather than a whitewash where everyone mumbles pleasantly about how we should all just get along.

Four hundred years after Galileo turned his telescope on the heavens, it’s incredibly frustrating that we still have debates over whether the world can be described in purely naturalistic terms, rather than accepting that insight as an amazing accomplishment and moving on to the hard work of articulating its consequences.

It’s unsettling how the growing trend in science towards working with religious groups on scientific understanding (which, at its core, is of course a good thing) tends to contribute to the marginalization of atheism in public discourse.

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political science and journalism

Greg Marx at the Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting article about the relationship between political scientists and journalists. Political scientists tend to be skeptical of journalists because they effectively make their living propagating baseless myths about politics, while journalists tend to be skeptical of political scientists because a) they’re convinced their “real world experience” gives them unique insights into the political process, and b) political scientists often obscure their findings in mathematical equations, forgetting to translate them into plain English for others — like journalists —  to assess.

Take Marc Ambinder’s unfortunate comment when John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book was released as an example:

Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say—a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings—a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.

Or Matt Bai’s oddly uncalled-for grumbling:

Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Both these contain a certain pseudo-populist attack on the Ivory Tower, but both ultimately fail, well, empirically. It might be the case that an hour long conversation over dinner with three Iowans is a great way to explore the nuances of a few people’s beliefs, but if you were a political strategist, would you really feel comfortable making a controversial policy decision based on that, or would you benefit more from a randomized poll of 1,000 national respondents? Human beings may well be “sweaty,” “ugly,” and “messy,” but social life in the end does tend to be probabilistic. While journalists will, for example, search for every possible explanation when the Democrats lose seats in the midterm election, the actual answer won’t sell too many papers: the incumbent party pretty much always loses seats in the midterms. It’s not special enough to merit wasting so much space on the editorial pages over.

But, while I’m obviously quite critical of journalists here, political scientists deserve a bit of blame for the situation too:

  • When political scientists do make it into the mass media, they can be awestruck by glimpses of fame and merely end up repeating the common wisdom rather than relying on social scientific analysis to correct common journalistic tropes. This is especially true of political scientists who have made their names as media darlings first-and-foremost, rather than first gaining credibility within the academy. Political scientists are, after all, humans like any one else, and their analysis is only more useful than any other random hack of a source when it is backed up by the sort of research that would make it through a peer review process.
  • As Jonathan Cohn pointed out in a 1999 article in The New Republic (which doesn’t seem to be legally available online for free viewing), many political scientists seem genuinely uninterested in being politically relevant, focusing far more on increasingly sophisticated models of the sort that earn them the ire of the Ambinders and Bais of the world. Along the way, they rack up academic journal publications and, thus, tenure, thereby generating and maintaining the status quo of political irrelevance. But this is hardly true of everyone in the discipline.

So what’s the best way forward? A few things might help. For one, more active communication between political scientists and journalists would benefit both. Indeed, political scientists have as much — if not more — to gain than journalists, as such communicaton would provide incentives to write with greater clarity and keep the relevance of their work in mind. So, political scientists should start more blogs!  Short of that, they should send relevant research to journalists, especially new media types that are actively sympathetic to the discipline (see Klein, Ezra and Yglesias, Matthew). Political reporters, likewise, should read academic work in a more systematic way. Indeed, the substantive knowledge provided by a bachelor’s degree (or even master’s degree) in a discipline like political science is, at this point, frankly more relevant to the future direction of political journalism than the type of skillset developed by conventional journalism programs.

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    a spectrum of facial hirsuteness and social trust

    from a full beard to the hitler

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    84 percent of tea partiers…

    believe they “reflect the views of most Americans.”

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    “gin and juice” as performed by the gourds

    One of the band members proclaimed they can no longer perform the song live  “without throwing up in our mouths a little bit,” but this doesn’t stop it from being kind of awesome.

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