Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (2/2)

In the second part of our interview, Christopher Donohue and Will Thomas discuss the possibilities offered by scientific blogging. Despite the usefulness and heuristicity of writing posts (clarifying theoretical or empirical aspects of a research that has just started, moving forward in the exploration of new objects of study, facilitating the flow of fresh ideas, interacting with other scholars, and so on), they both point out the fact that this activity is still far from being considered a legitimate part in an academic career. And at the same time, it requires a significant investment in time, energy, collective coordination and discussion. So there is something of a dilemma in the pursuit of this cognitive aspiration, and we thought it was useful, even essential, to reopen the interview on this issue. We also wished to ask what is their position towards the idea and practice of debate and open criticism (organized skepticism, in Robert K. Merton’s terms) within the academic world, given that we still think that it’s easier to engage in critical thinking and discussions in the US than in France. Another thing: like the Carnet Zilsel, EWP has its obsessions. The long series of posts written by Will on Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre is a good example. For its part, Christopher took the opportunity of this interview to announce the forthcoming publication of a series on Joseph Agassi, a now totally forgotten philosopher of science. (We also take this occasion to publicize that Chris will give a talk on Agassi in the Sociology of Science [a.k.a. “SoS”] Seminar of the Printemps, on March 20, 2015.) To sum up, we are delighted to have caused this interesting transatlantic conversation, and we hope that the discussion will continue for the coming years!

Even today, it seems that researchers are cautious about the idea of being involved in a scientific blog. It is true that it takes time and, above all, that this sort of contribution is not taken into account in the academic CV. This blurs the boundaries between ordinary usual scientific contribution evaluated within the peer-review system (which represents a huge temporal investment), and the desire to popularize and communicate on topics in a much more spontaneous manner. What is your position on these issues? How do they resonate in the United States? Could we say that it challenges the professional ethos of researchers?

Will Thomas (WT): Blogs can be a distraction if you’re not self-disciplined enough to budget your time, and I don’t think they can be anything other than a supplementary item on a CV, simply because of the lack of peer review involved. But they can also be a good investment in terms of their ability to help develop ideas. Alex Wellerstein’s blog is really great at this.

Interestingly, I think that due to universities’ emphasis on documenting “impact”—as well as the “evangelical” streak running through the humanities (i.e., the belief that ultimately research should speak to a public need for humanistic ideas)—the popularization function of blogs is fairly well accepted by now. I can’t think of any instances where I’ve heard someone look down on that. (Again, Alex has had great success in addressing the public, though he does have the advantage of writing about nuclear weapons!)

(credits: Charlie Broome, via Flickr)
Give Me a Keyboard and I will Raise a Blog (credits: Charlie Broome, via Flickr)

The biggest barrier, I think, is that many senior scholars look on blogging as something that is beneath their dignity. In my experience, scholars are reluctant to let people see what they are doing before their ideas are well polished. When they do write for blogs, one definitely gets the sense that they are mounting the lectern rather than talking off-hand, and calling attention to questions about details they don’t know the answer to. They want to project a kind of knowing authority. They might also have a sense that Internet discussions always get invaded by trolls, which is not my experience when you’re working in a specialized area. I think even the ugliness of the word “blog” may have something to do with it—it’s easy to disdain. This is too bad because there are at least some senior scholars, who I think could make good use of the medium. Their participation would do a lot to integrate it into the scholar’s accepted toolkit. Continuer la lecture de Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (2/2)