Chris Blattman

The promise of blogging also has its perils

I arrived back to the US and opened my inbox to a surprising number of sympathy emails/tweets over my upbraiding at Freakonomics.

Many thanks to readers for the sympathy, but it’s not completely deserved. It’s pretty simple: I made a mistake. Stephen called me on it. I had a chance to apologize and clarify. And Stephen needed a chance to publicly respond and have his say.

His points are more or less fair. One thing I will say: I think my blogging history points away from a tendency to attack to score points and seek traffic. But there’s little way a newcomer to the blog could know that. Credibility is earned in this world, not given.

Why bring this up? One reason is that owning up to mistakes and giving air to one’s critics is good medicine, even if it tastes bad.

Another is an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned after four years of blogging, in the event it’s useful to budding writers, scholars and bloggers. Most of these, in fact, make pretty good general life lessons.

Blogging is risky. Blogs are more interesting to read when you write like you talk. Plainly. Off the cuff. In my experience, if you edit and fine tune your post it begins to sound like a tiresome op-ed, and no one reads beyond the first paragraph. If you assiduously research your posts you either slow down or burn out, and the blog dies.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a pro blogger at a magazine or newspaper. My sense is that these people have editors and fact-checkers to fine tune their posts without losing the common touch, or draining all their time. And hence stop them from saying something truly stupid.

Without the same resources, the academic needs to tread a middle ground between off-the-cuff thoughts and responsible writing. This takes discipline, luck, and a willingness to screw up once in a while.

Since I have limited luck, hate screwing up, and don’t want the blog to die of exhaustion after a couple of years, I instead focus on a few disciplines I try my best to follow.

Don’t write in an angry tone. Most irate writing simply sounds mean-spirited. Most of us are not talented enough writers to pull it off. The only thing harder is snarky humor. Attempt with caution.

Arrogance does not win the argument. Even if another’s argument is worth open disdain, don’t hang it, but rather let it hang itself. A humbler pose is more persuasive.

Be careful: Unfamiliarity breeds contempt. It is altogether too easy to denigrate someone distant from you, especially one above you in the media stratosphere. Callous remarks result. I’m not sure why. It may be the assumption (often wrong, I have learned) that they will never see the post. Or (also wrong) that people largest in the public eye don’t have the same sensitivities the rest of us do. The reality, if you ask me, is that the opposite is true: most of us who write or blog for a living are oversensitive egocentric dandies. I am no exception. Handle us carefully.

Use your “I” words. “You are offensive” is different from “I feel offended”. In theory we all learn this in grade four, but it bears repeating and remembering.

Don’t escalate. The more hostile a comment, the more measured you make your response. Escalation leads in a predictable and disastrous direction.

Don’t try to “score points” in subtle ways. Usually they are not as subtle as you think, and you simply sound passive aggressive.

Don’t go too negative. I critique and disagree with others regularly, but I try to do so in as evenhanded a manner as possible, and with a civil tone.

Finally, if you feel must attack, pause. Go through the above list mentally and revise. If you find yourself forgetting these dictums, you can do worse than to channel your inner Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Most of these lessons I learned the hard way, which means I haven’t manage to live up to my ideals every day. But more often than not I think I succeed.

You can weigh in with your opinion here. Or offer your own blog/writing advice below. Andy Gelman also gets a drubbing, and he gives a spirited, though not mean-sprited, response here.

12 Responses

  1. Not surprising that an conflict over the ethics of blogging would arise in this case. From the perspective of an academic, blogging seems like a way to air ideas without the scrutiny and tedium that goes with the peer-review process. From your perspective, Freakonomics was (erroneously it seems) not adhering to the academic norm of attribution. From Dubner’s, the important norms that were violated were factual accuracy and refraining from defamation. So who does the blogosphere belong to? Journalists, academics or the masses of hacks out there? It seems that the benefit of open exchange of academic ideas outweighs the occasional stepping on toes that occurs when a post is under-vetted. And the usual journalistic standard of a correction and retraction should be enough.

  2. Hmm. Not exactly gracious in victory is he. If its any consolation I gave up listening to their podcast as they clearly struggled to find sufficient interesting material to sustain it – a dire episode about fathers day finally ending it for me – but I still subscribe to your blog.

    I agree on the benefits of immediacy and personality in blogging. But some good bloggers also clearly take the more carefully thought through approach: Owen Barder is a good – and very successful – example in the dev blogging sphere. However, not everyone should follow such an approach. E.g. Owen has occasionally upbraided me for commenting on stuff I haven’t fully read through. Fair enough. But I’m a practitioner and really do not have time to read everything through. Policy makers and advisers shut out our voices at their peril.

  3. Can you add, “Don’t exaggerate” to the list of don’ts? The brouhaha started when you used the word plagiarism. There are more than enough hyperbolic snark pits out there — I don’t need to get my hyperbole here. Say what you mean. No more, no less.

  4. Your advice about blogging seems sensible, except for your easygoing approach to fact-checking. One of my pet peeves is people who blog or comment saying something like, “I think Nebraska has a population of about five million” or “I seem to remember the President said . . . .” Pretty much in the time it takes to type those tortured phrases, the writer could have done some quick Internet research and pinned down the facts. That would not only educate the reader but the writer as well. One of the glories of the Internet is the ease with which things can be researched. Failing to take advantage of that capability is, forgive me, intellectually lazy and suggests an all too casual approach to the kind of rigor we are entitled to expect from leading scholars.

  5. Great words. Glad to have found your blog this month.

    Such valuable advice, much that I have learned the hard way too. I would like to add something I do. If I’m writing something late (after 10pm) or emotionally charged, I’ll save it as a draft for a day or until the morning. I’ve saved myself many many times by delaying the gratification of pushing “publish” on something that could ignite a lot of discussion and controversy, however large or small.

  6. Great words. Glad to have found your blog this month.

    Such valuable advice, much that I have learned the hard way too. I would like to add something I do. If I’m writing something late (after 10pm) or emotionally charged, I’ll save it as a draft for a day or until the morning. I’ve saved myself many many times by delaying the gratification of pushing “publish” on something that could ignite a lot of discussion and controversy however large or small.

  7. Wow… juts caught up with the debate and I have to say I couldn’t imagine Dubner to be such a winy baby… I think he tarnished Freakonomics’ reputation with posting that attack on you… I’m a huge fan of freakonomics, even including “freakonometrics” as one of my research interest, but I have to admit their blog is not nearly as interesting as it used to be, mostly because Dubner blogs too much… Levitt should go his own way…

  8. I always know when I am about to publish something that may cause a less than charming response; and my internal unease makes me go back and re-read and re-edit my post to minimise the personal nature of any criticism in it. (If I feel out of my depth topic-wise I have someone more knowledgeable than I read it through first; although, granted, this slows down the blogging process and stalls blog activity.) Your final point is key – pause, breathe. Often the initial nature of expressing a frustration in draft goes some way to exorcising it…but if one is still not satisfied, and you feel it is justified, publish away! Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

  9. Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been reading and enjoying your blog for years, and who also frequently disagrees with you, I think you are 1000% right in this instance. This is a blog, you can’t be expected to perfectly think through everything you post completely before you post it- otherwise there would be no blog- and as a result there are going to be some missteps. The way to handle them is exactly as you did, by making a genuine and public apology. That ought to be good enough, I think it speaks poorly of Dubner that it wasn’t for him in this case. Don’t change a thing, Chris.

  10. This is one more reason to maintain the Blattman tab on my browser. Keep up with the excellent post, Prof.

  11. Keep blogging Chris! One blog post from you is worth a thousand other websites. Thank you for your hard work and diligence it truly means a lot!

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog