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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Cyber Scholars"

PZ Meyers reports:

Cyber Scholars?, by PZ Meyers: Those sneaky alumni organizations — they've always got new angles on how to get to you. The alumni magazine for the University of Oregon has a writeup on me and a current member of the UO faculty, Mark Thoma. Apparently, we are Cyber Scholars, professors who use the blogosphere to teach the world. I think we need some new academic robes to go with that designation — preferably something in silver fabrics, and with a jetpack.

Here's the write-up. This kind of thing - the picture, the story, etc. - makes me self-conscious, so please feel free to scroll on by (I should note that one or two of the statistics are a bit off, but not by much, and that I wasn't going to post this until convinced to do so by others):

Cyber Scholars, by Katie Campbell, UO Quarterly: Mark Thoma compares the problem with the national deficit to dieting.

“People eat more in anticipation of a diet, which makes the diet that much harder once the time comes,” the UO associate professor of economics explains. It’s with that type of everyday language that Thoma reaches beyond the walls of academia to explain complex economic issues to average folks. That’s what he does everyday—on his blog (short for web log).

Many view the blogosphere less as a scholarly realm and more as a perilous information wasteland where the average blowhard can present himself as an expert. But a growing number of people with Ph.D.s, such as Thoma, are using blogs to connect with colleagues beyond their university departments and with the greater nonacademic community.

Thoma compares the power of his blog to standing in the plaza of his hometown of Colusa, California, with its 5,800 residents gathered before him for a daily discussion of the economic issue of the day: the dangers of privatizing social security, the economic impact of immigration, or even a systematic analysis of supply-side economics. But in reality, his blog, called Economist’s View, draws a worldwide audience.


An average of 10,000 Thoma fans check in every day—about fifty times the number of students he teaches each year. Because of Economist’s View’s informed content and widespread popularity, one web critic deemed it the “L.A. Times of econ blogs.”

Standing out online today is a feat: there are already some 70 million blogs and about 120,000 more each day—that’s 1.4 new blogs every second. But Thoma has attracted a dedicated and diverse following. One of his biggest fans is Princeton professor and noted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who said, “There’s no blog I like better.” Thoma’s target audience, however, is less erudite. He hopes by reading Economist’s View people like his mother, a woman without a college degree, enhance their comprehension of the economic issues at the core of today’s public policy questions—issues such as whether the United States should adopt a national health care system or whether the Federal Reserve should adjust interest rates. He feeds his readers hearty servings of logic and information for their next dinner party debate.

“I come [to Economist’s View] almost every day because of the consistently excellent explanations,” wrote a Greek reader, commenting on one of Thoma’s posts about how a free market isn’t a panacea. Such praise keeps Thoma blogging— something he has done every day, without fail, since March 2005. “People presume that, because you’re blogging, you’re not doing serious academic work, but this is important. It’s a way to connect with the real world,” Thoma said. “There’s a lot of clutter out there. Part of my job is to be a credible source.”

For the reader wading through the blogosphere, knowing which sources to trust isn’t always clear. Part of Deborah Carver’s job as the UO’s Phillip H. Knight Dean of Libraries is assessing the integrity of information online. In the past decade Carver has witnessed the surge of electronic communication and has been confronted with the question of what is worth trying to capture and preserve. Will we one day consider blog posts just as archive-worthy as the handwritten diaries of Oregon Trail pioneers? Although much of the material in the blogosphere could be considered nonsense, Carver says, “The format of a blog doesn’t necessarily make the information invalid.”

Online material should be scrutinized in the same way as printed work, she explains. Find out how up-to-date the information is, who is funding the report, and what the author’s credentials are. By considering such information, the reader can determine if the material favors a certain bias.

Some blogs may even be more reliable than the mainstream media, according to professor Paul Zachary “PZ” Myers, Ph.D. ’85, a science blogger known for his playful writings on evolutionary biology and neuroscience—including details of the arachnid sex life, complete with close-ups of spider genitalia.

“When you look at media coverage of the sciences, you find the majority of journalists don’t know the science. They just go after the controversy,” says Myers, who now teaches biology at the University of Minnesota in Morris.

The evolutionism-versus-creationism controversy riles Myers most and regularly sends him on a blogging tear. “(Media) stories usually present a scientist who represents 99 percent of intellectual thought facing off against some crank who wants to keep science out of schools,” he said. The result, according to Myers, is that viewers end up seeing the debate as one to one, not one to ninetynine. He aims to set things straight on his blog.Named Pharyngula after his favorite embryonic stage of development, the blog has become so well liked that it receives between 35,000 and 40,000 visitors daily, making it the 162nd-most-read blog in the world. Nature magazine declared it the best blog by a scientist, and it earned the 2006 Weblog Award for best science blog.

Both Myers and Thoma have been praised for blogging, but not in the form of academic accolades. Publication in scholarly journals, not online web logs, still reigns as paramount in academia. But blogging has value, they contend. It’s a public service: The twenty-first century’s version of a civic debate.

“It’s a way of communicating with the public daily. This form of mass communication should be a part of what we do as professors,” Myers said. “Besides, it’s good training to translate complicated research into words people can understand—it’s exactly what we have to do in teaching freshmen.”

    Posted by on Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 08:37 AM in Economics, University of Oregon, Weblogs | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (31)


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