September 14, 2005

Blogging Effects As Quack Medicine

[Context: I originally wrote this as a comment for a discussion of blogging and academic jobs, from a column noting downsides of blogging. See also Blogs can help boost a career or sink it]

[The academic bloggers writes:]

"I just want to observe that blogging has been helpful in a very practical but unexpected way to my academic career."

[I reply]

Ah, but note, this is a classic example of "survivorship bias". If blogging had NOT been helpful, you'd be unlikely to be posting that on a well-read academic blog (not impossible, but much less likely).

I don't mean the following applies to you, but in general: A certain type of blog evangelism strikes me as very similar to the process of selling quack medicine. Any medical quack can usually produce a list of glowing testimonials - "I tried Dr. Blog's All-Purpose Cure-All, and I lost weight, my health improved, I became a magnet for hot members of the appropriate sex, and my career skyrocketed". If one does a scientific analysis, and shows there's no therapeutic positive effect, or even an overall negative effect, the person can always say, "Well, it worked for me!".

But in real medicine, there's a saying, there are no effects without side-effects. Even the safest drugs sometimes kill people through allergic reactions. And it's not because the patient has a bad attitude, or was weak of faith.

In much discussion of blogging, I see very little recognition of what seems to me to be an elemental point - if there are substantial positive effects, there must almost certainly be substantial negative effects. Now, it may be the negative is outweighed by the positive, or can be managed. But there seems almost an outright blindness, an unwillingness to acknowledge that negative effects can and will happen, intrinsically, as part of the nature of the endeavor.

I suspect a large part of this result comes from the fact that blogs have been prominently "sold" by a certain huckster-type, somewhat akin to the quack-medicine man, but here in love with the supposed benefits of personal self-revelation. It's a current version of "Let It All Hang Out". Many of these people are relatively wealthy, so they don't have to worry about career-climbing. Others are professional "outrage-mongers", and well-studied in the ways of making the "personal" marketable.

I see cautions as just a mild corrective to the overbearing hype and cultism, where the potential negatives deserve far more examination than they presently receive. Ever seen the package inserts for even over-the-counter medicine? As in "DO NOT take this if ...". It's easy to parody that sort of warning. But on the other hand, the purveyors of the text equivalent of patent tonics, should be called to greater account.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on September 14, 2005 11:46 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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