Attention conservation notice: this is a long, navel-gazing post. Sincere thanks in advance to anyone who bothers to read it, as you’ll be giving up your valuable time to help me out, which I very much appreciate.
My recent post strongly criticizing E. O. Wilson’s editorial on math in science drew a wide range of reactions, from very positive to very negative. The positive and negative reactions concerned both what I said and how I said it. And the Wilson post isn’t a unique case, except in drawing much more traffic than any post I’ve ever done. The debate sparked by that post was terrific, I thought–it was a great advertisement for blogging as a medium for discussion and debate.
Now that the debate has died down, it seems like a good time to step back and talk in general about my approach to blogging. About why I blog in the way I do, in terms of things like choice of post topics, style of writing, and the way I engage with commenters. I’ve talked about much of this before, but I think it’s good to revisit it periodically and invite feedback.
I’m only speaking for myself in this post. Dynamic Ecology is a group blog, and Meg, Brian, and I have talked in a general way about how the blog operates, what we’d like it to be, etc. We keep in touch with one another to coordinate post timing. And we comment on each other’s posts, and pat each other on the back when one of us writes a really good post. But having said that, we mostly operate independently. Brian, Meg, and I all choose our own topics and write our own posts, and none of us has any input or oversight on anyone else’s posts. I think that’s a good thing—one big reason to have a group blog is to expose readers to a greater range of views and voices, on a greater range of topics. So while I doubt Brian or Meg will be surprised by anything I say below, I’ll leave it to them to chime in if they wish.
For me, blogging is a “brain dump.” It’s a way for me to quickly share any ideas I have that I think are worth sharing, but that for whatever reason aren’t best shared in the form of a peer-reviewed paper. So for me, blogging is a complement to, rather than a substitute for, writing peer-reviewed papers. Lots of worthwhile scientific communication isn’t peer-reviewed—think of the talks, posters, and conversations we all deliver, see, and participate in at scientific conferences.
In particular, I think blogging is a good medium for discussion and debate. The back and forth can be much faster, and can involve many more people, than can debates conducted via peer-reviewed papers. Again, the Wilson post is a great example. My own view is that ecology would be better off if we had more arguments (well, debates). Ecology is hard—the world is complicated, the data we’d ideally want often are difficult or impossible to collect, etc. So there’s a strong temptation in ecology to look for shortcuts—easy, broadly-applicable routes to insight. In my experience, shortcuts rarely if ever live up to their original promise, and often turn out to be dead ends. I think that if we were all more critical and demanding of each other, we’d be less prone to jumping on the latest trendy bandwagon and it wouldn’t be so hard to root out zombie ideas. Obviously, there’s room for reasonable disagreement with me on this; I’m just explaining where I’m coming from. And on a personal level, I like a good argument (which is different than just liking to argue).
The primary audience at which I aim is academic ecologists in developed countries, and their postdocs, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates. This is in many ways a very narrow audience; “ecology” as a whole is far broader than that! This reflects my admittedly-narrow interests and expertise (in some ways I’m a fox–but in other, perhaps more important ways, I’m very much a hedgehog). That academic audience is the audience to which I think I have things to say that are worth saying. It’s not that I don’t care about the many ecological topics on which I don’t post, or don’t think those topics are important. They’re hugely important–they’re just not topics I feel motivated to write about, and they’re not topics on which I have much to say. Just as macroeconomics is hugely important–but isn’t something about which I have anything useful to say. I know that Dynamic Ecology has many readers from other backgrounds, and those readers sometimes express disappointment or annoyance that we write for the audience we do. I confess I’m not sure what to do about this. I feel badly for any readers who don’t feel like there are blogs out there covering the topics they’d most like to read about. But Dynamic Ecology can’t be all things to all people. I’ve made some effort to broaden the range of topics we cover and views we offer (more on that below), but I can’t see Dynamic Ecology ever becoming a comprehensive ecology blog. I’d like to see the ecology blogosphere as a whole provide comprehensive coverage of ecology. The only way I feel I can contribute to that is by writing about my own admittedly-narrow interests in a way that I hope is interesting to others. In all honesty, I am continually stunned that there’s an audience for “whatever it is I happen to feel like writing about”. Before I started blogging, I’d never have guessed that there was a huge unmet demand for posts on how the intermediate disturbance hypothesis is a zombie idea, or about how I almost quit science to become a high school teacher, or how macroecology is like astronomy.
Speaking of the size of our audience: I do care whether or not this blog draws an audience. Probably, I would eventually have quit blogging had my writings at Oikos Blog (where I started blogging) not begun to draw an audience. I care not because an audience is valuable for its own sake—it’s not as if whoever dies with the most pageviews wins—but because I do think I have some things to say that are worth reading. However, I’m not prepared to do anything to draw an audience. Many ways of trying to draw an audience would either be ineffective (at least in the long term), or would defeat the purpose of having an audience. Here are some of the things I do to try to draw an audience, and some things I don’t do:
- I write in what I hope is an entertaining style, or at least a non-boring style. Who would read a boringly-written blog?
- I post on topics I think readers will find interesting or useful. That’s why I often post controversial or contrarian things. It’s not that I actually think everyone else is wrong about everything—far from it! It’s that it would be boring for me to say things that everyone already knows or agrees with. For instance, that’s why I don’t post summaries of recent papers from the literature, not even papers I really liked. I tend to find such posts boring, and most readers seem to as well (such posts were among my least-read posts back when I was at Oikos Blog). Conversely, I do advice posts because lots of readers seem to find them useful, even though they’re not my favorite type of post to write (though they are easy to write, which is a plus for a busy/lazy blogger like me).
- I post a lot, because the number one way to build a large audience for a blog is to post regularly. That’s a big part of why I invited Meg and Brian to join me—it’s easier for a small group to maintain a high frequency of substantive posts that are worth reading.
- While I’m willing to fill gaps in the posting schedule with short posts, or occasional posts that are just for fun, I try to avoid doing so too often. And I never put up a post that I think is just bad, boring, or pointless, purely for the sake of posting. That might maintain or increase our traffic levels in the short term, but in the long term I’m sure it would lose us readers. Plus, what’s the point of trying to keep an audience if you don’t actually have anything to say to them?
- Hard as it may be for some readers to believe, I never say outrageous or controversial things just to draw an audience. My most strongly-worded posts—on E. O. Wilson’s recent editorial, on zombie ideas, on the Spandrels of San Marco—reflect my strong but sincerely-held and honestly-stated views. In part, blogging for me is an opportunity to be honest and open. It’s a chance to say what I really think. I’m tenured. I have as much freedom to say what I want as anyone ever has, which is a tremendous privilege that I’m very lucky to have. It would be a shame to waste it. And I think there’s a lot of value, in particular for students, in knowing what an established ecologist like me really thinks. Not that I’m typical—in many ways I’m not—but all I can do is put my own example out there.
Following on from that last bullet point, I recognize that “what I really think” is not necessarily what readers want to hear! Here are my thoughts on that, in no particular order:
- This blog has a big readership (well over 20,000 pageviews and 7000 unique visitors per month), which continues to grow. So while I certainly don’t think I’m perfect (see below for more discussion than you probably want), overall I do think I’m doing a pretty good job. If I wasn’t doing a pretty good job, I don’t think the blog would have a large, growing audience. And the bulk of the feedback I’ve gotten confirms that. But I’m not perfect, and hopefully feedback on this post will help me get better.
- My tone often is quite forceful, especially in posts that argue for or against something. I know that some readers—and perhaps many folks who don’t read the blog—would prefer some other writing style. Which is something I struggle with, because there’s no pleasing everyone. For instance, some readers found my recent post on E. O. Wilson to be totally over the top in terms of tone. But as far as I can tell, at least as many readers were cheering me on, thrilled that someone had the courage to say out loud what they’d been thinking! And of course, there are other readers who don’t really care about or don’t mind my tone (maybe they sort of mentally filter it out as they’re reading, because that’s what you have to do when you’re reading that crazy Jeremy Fox guy…) It really is a difficult circle for me to square sometimes. On the one hand, some people’s favorite posts are the most strongly-worded ones. But on the other hand, a few people have told me (anonymously) that they find my writing incredibly arrogant and seriously offensive, and that anyone who writes as I do must be very nasty (those are more or less direct quotes; I’m not exaggerating). One person even claimed that many senior ecologists feel this way, and that once word gets out about their feelings, my career will be ruined. Which dismays me—I do not like offending people or making enemies. And it worries me, because people who don’t like the blog, or even hate it, aren’t likely to contact me. So while only a few people have told me they hate the blog, or have significant concerns about it, I don’t really know how many such people there are (although I’ve tried to find out by inviting feedback) Which makes it difficult to decide how seriously I should take their criticisms. Anyone who writes for public consumption has to decide if they can live with the full range of reactions that their writing might generate. Most days, I’m comfortable living with the full range of reactions my blogging generates. But once in a while, I worry.
- Related to the previous point: everybody has different sides to their personalities. I enjoy blogging in large part because it gives me an outlet for aspects of my personality that don’t otherwise have much of an outlet. Like the side of me that loved late night dorm room arguments with friends in college, or the side of me that liked serving as a tour guide for various venues in my younger days (in many of my posts, I think of myself as a “tour guide” to the bits of ecology that interest me). And I’m fine with people seeing those sides of me. I like those sides of me, they’re a big part of who I am. But I think all of us are better people for having more than one side to our personalities, and not letting any one side dominate too much. I worry sometimes that blogging gives too much encouragement my argumentative, overbearing, overly-talkative side. I know that that side of me can be hard to take sometimes, even for my closest friends (to my friends: seriously, thanks for putting up with me!) Should I make more effort to suppress or dial back that side of myself?
- Also related to the previous point: economics blogger Noah Smith recently said that, as a blogger, you have to remember that anything you say sounds ten times worse online than it would in conversation. There are no non-verbal cues to take the edge off what you’re saying. This is right, and I try to keep it in mind. But I’m not sure how good I am at that.
- I have a snarky sense of humor, and I let that come through in my posts. It’s my hope that this helps defuse what might otherwise come off as some overly-strident posts (many readers have told me that my zombie jokes have had this effect). And I do sometimes make jokes at my own expense, and just to make jokes. I hope I don’t come across as taking myself, or this blog, too seriously, because I don’t.
- My writing generally is very confident. That’s because I am confident! Mostly, I think that’s a good thing. After all, I’m highly trained and very experienced—I have a Ph.D., I spent four years as a postdoc, and I’ve been a professor for almost nine years. Surely I ought to know what I’m talking about within my area of expertise! And mostly, I think I’m a pretty good judge of recognizing when I don’t know what I’m talking about (not always; see for instance this, or the old post [sorry can’t find it now] where I had to apologize for ignorant and unfair criticisms of the Evolution 2012 meeting organizers). And while I occasionally use the blog to ask questions and seek advice (e.g., on choice of stats textbook, extinction cascades, or structural equation models), most of my ideas for posts tend to concern topics on which I know something. Having said that, when giving advice, I do often emphasize that I’m just providing my own views, that different people will have different views, and that my advice should not be taken as gospel (e.g., this). But for other sorts of posts, I tend not to bother with ritualistic hedging (“I could be wrong, but…”) or ritualistic inviting of other views (“What do you think?”), because I regard that as understood. Of course I could be wrong, and of course you’re welcome and encouraged to comment! But perhaps I should do more to avoid creating an unintended perception of overconfidence? If so, what should I do? Should I make a point of concluding every post by saying something like “This is just my opinion—what do you think?” Are there other things I could do to avoid coming off as over-confident, but without coming off as wishy-washy?
- I use rhetoric, which I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. All I can say is that I don’t ever consciously use rhetoric as a substitute for substantive evidence and logical argument. I try to use rhetoric to dramatize, clarify, and drive home substantive points. I’m never just looking to toss out “applause lines”, score cheap points, or “win” the debate at all costs. But I am well aware that for some readers, rhetoric can obscure rather than drive home substantive points. Some readers assume that anyone using rhetoric must be trying to cover up a lack of substantive arguments for their views. I don’t share that assumption, but I do appreciate where it comes from. And I know statistics blogger Andrew Gelman recently decided to tone down his writing, as he felt his rhetoric and snarky humor was causing too many readers to misunderstand the substantive points of his posts. This is something on which I’d particularly welcome feedback. I’ve talked in the past about when I think the use of rhetoric in scientific writing is both justified and helpful in getting one’s substantive point across. But I’m not sure how good I am at following my own advice on that, or whether I should quit trying to follow that advice because too many readers disagree with it.
- I don’t often change my mind, and I know some people see this as a sign that I’m closeminded or biased. A sign that I don’t take the views of others seriously. I’d like to think that’s not the case. I certainly don’t delete or ignore comments with which I disagree, or engage in personal attacks on those with whom I disagree! And I’d like to think I change my mind in response to good evidence and arguments, but not otherwise. Isn’t that what scientists are supposed to do? For instance, when Chris Klausmeier offered what he thought was a counterexample refuting some of my claims in my zombie ideas post, I took it very seriously, to the point of doing a whole post on it. And I dug into Chris’ counterexample in detail, eventually figuring out that it wasn’t actually a counterexample. Both Chris and I really learned something from that exchange, and I ended up using Chris’ example in a paper. That’s just one instance of me taking pushback seriously, I could give many others. But for me, “taking pushback seriously” means engaging with it. Scrutinizing and evaluating the evidence and arguments offered. Asking for and offering clarification if needed. If I don’t agree, explaining why in as much detail as I can. For me, the mark of a good debate isn’t that agreement is reached (although of course it might be), it’s that the discussion keeps moving forward. As my exchange with Chris illustrates, I think that’s how good debates really teach you something. In other words, I don’t think that “frequency with which someone changes their mind” is a good measure of how openminded or unbiased they are.
- I’m heavily involved in the comment threads. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that conversations with commenters are one of the most fun parts of blogging for me. Another is historical. At Oikos Blog, and early on here, the audience wasn’t big enough to generate self-sustaining conversations among commenters. The only sort of conversations that were possible were between the post author and the (few) commenters. I think we’re just getting to the point where our audience is big enough that we can regularly expect to have self-sustaining conversations among commenters, with little input from the post author, as happens at blogs like Crooked Timber. I’d love for us to have Crooked Timber-type comment threads! And I know my heavy involvement in the comment threads might create the perception that I think the only worthwhile conversations must involve me, or that I insist on always having the last word. I’m going to experiment with dialing back the frequency with which I comment, and also try waiting a little while before making my first comment on any given post. Of course, I’ll still respond quickly to any comments clearly intended to invite a response from me.
- Another thing I worry about is that, in trying to take full advantage of blogging as a medium for vigorous discussion and debate, I’m driving away readers who are turned off by vigorous discussion and debate. I absolutely don’t want to drive away such readers. I want Dynamic Ecology to be a great place for vigorous discussion and debate, but also a great place other sorts of discussion. I think we’re getting there, but there’s probably room for improvement. For instance, I worry that, in responding to comments, I’m sometimes too quick to seize on opportunities to start a debate, when there were other ways in which I could’ve responded. Even if the subsequent debate is productive, it does represent a lost opportunity to start a different sort of conversation. I also worry that I miss opportunities to exhibit more curiosity about where commenters are coming from, and why they hold the views that they hold. Even if I do disagree with those views, that disagreement need not always be front and center, or even “on stage” at all. It’s always a judgement call which disagreements are worth voicing, and which ones are best passed over in silence, in order to promote a different sort of conversation. Not sure if I always make the best judgements on that. And as I noted above, I don’t often do posts asking questions of readers, which may leave the unintended impression that I’m uncurious.
- I’ve been trying to do a greater range of posts (more advice posts, book reviews, etc.), and to do fewer posts criticizing the ideas of others. Inviting Brian and Meg to join me, and inviting occasional guest posts (several of which are in the pipeline, by the way), are other ways I’ve tried to broaden the blog. My hope is that every reader will like at least some reasonably large fraction of the posts we do. I’m curious if long-time readers have noticed this effort to broaden the blog, how well they think it’s working, if they’d like to see it go further, and if they have any other ideas for how to broaden the blog. I worry about this in part because of a recent comment from someone who felt that the blog had become more strident and critical in tone over time. I thought we’d been moving in the opposite direction!
- One thing we’re going to start doing to further broaden the blog is to turn some especially good comments into guest posts. Either by just copying and pasting the comment as a new post, or by asking the commenter to write a guest post building on their comment. Besides further broadening the blog, this seems like a good way to thank our commenters and to encourage others to comment. A recent correspondent suggested this, and it’s a great idea.
- When I screw up and cross a line that shouldn’t be crossed, I apologize, publicly. But obviously, it would be better not to cross any lines in the first place.
I sincerely welcome your feedback in the comments. As a blogger, I don’t have any editors or pre-publication peer reviewers to restrict, guide, or improve my writing. All I have to go on is post-publication feedback. And that feedback ordinarily comes in the form of comments related to specific posts, rather than on the blog in general. I encourage you to provide any and all feedback on the blog, particularly my own contributions (as I said, I’m speaking for myself in this post). Everything is fair game—choice of post topics, tone of writing, engagement with commenters, anything. Positive feedback, negative, or some of both–it’s all good. Comments on what we’re currently doing, and ideas for things we could do differently/instead/as well–fire away. And if you want to comment anonymously, which is totally fine, you can do so. Just use a pseudonym, and either omit your website and email address or give fake ones. If you prefer, you can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I won’t publish or share any emails I receive, in whole or in part, without the permission of the sender.
Thanks for reading, looking forward to your comments.
p.s. I’m not going to comment on this post, except in response to specific requests that I comment. If it seems useful, I might do a follow-up post responding to the comments on this post.