The Tenure Tracts

Tenuretracts_calmag Cathleen McCarthy profiles some academic bloggers, including Brad DeLong, Dan Drezner, John Holbo and Cosma Shalizi, in California Magazine (via bookforum):

Whether blogs are bringing anyone closer to the truth, Holbo’s not sure. “People aren’t nearly as blunt in academic writing as they often are in the blog space. Even so, when academics argue with other academics on a blog, it’s generally pretty well-mannered—sarcastic, but well- mannered,” he says.

Cosma Shalizi ’93 is a case in point. Of all the blogs that brainiacs love to love, Shalizi’s The Three-Toed Sloth is one of the most esoteric. His undergraduate degree from Berkeley is in physics and he is now an assistant professor in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. Bloggers from every discipline comment on his posts despite the fact that, if you have no statistics training, they read like a foreign language. His posts are sporadic, well researched, and loaded with a scientist’s idea of tongue-in-cheek humor. Just one can effectively eviscerate the latest popular theory.

If there’s one thing Shalizi can’t stand, it’s misinformation bandied about in the name of science. “A lot of the time, when I’m motivated enough to post something, it’s because I think someone is ‘being wrong on the Internet,’ as the saying goes—and this cannot stand,” Shalizi says. “It’s usually something I’ve read more than once and it seems such a pack of lies, or utter misunderstandings, that I feel like writing something. I wish I wasn’t so destructively motivated, but I am.”

When asked how much time and effort that takes, he says, “Quite a bit, to be honest. Part of that is the fact that I’m way over trained as an academic, and part is also wanting to leave people no excuse or way out,” Shalizi says. “If I can show that they’re just totally wrong, thoroughly wrong, then I will try to do that.”

“Of all the things I’ve written about, IQ and Wolfram got the most reaction,” he says, referring to his dissection of Stephen Wolfram’s best-selling A New Kind of Science, and to a series of posts in 2007 debunking the theory of IQ—particularly “the statistical myth” of g, or general factor of intelligence. “I wouldn’t say Wolfram is lying as much as utterly self-deluded. The IQ people I do think are lying.”

Shalizi rebutted Wolfram’s book in a post titled “A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity.” He opens with “It is my considered, professional opinion that A New Kind of Science shows that Wolfram has become a crank in the classic mold, which is a shame, since he’s a really bright man, and once upon a time did some good math ….”