James Q. Wilson asks of himself, “Can I Be a Meaningful Blogger?” and quickly demonstrates that, alas, he can not. Or, at least, will not.
Wilson is an extremely bright and accomplished fellow. Certainly, he’s ten times the social scientist that I’ll ever be. But perhaps the things which made him so successful as a scholar have impeded him as a would-be blogger.
A lot of readers have suggested that I am not a helpful blogger because I refer people to other studies for data to support my arguments. These critics are probably right. Were I devoted to blogging full time, I would quote all the data and summarize all of the studies, thereby getting nothing else done. I had assumed when I started my blog messages that people would pause, think, and look up facts. A few have, but most seem to have opinions they like to express quickly. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it doesn’t advance knowledge. Let me join the opinion parade by offering a few of my own: This country imprisons too many people on drug charges with little observable effect. A better solution can be found in Hawaii, where a judge uses his powers to keep drug users in treatment programs (it’s called Project Hope; look it up). The costs of crime are hard to measure (so are the costs of confinement). The reader who does not want to drive five miles to find the book, Prison State, that discusses this in detail is wasting my time and his. It is not hard to study deterring crime, but I can’t imagine trying to teach someone in a blog how to do a regression analysis. I wish I could do that, but it would take time, and blog commenters seem not to have much time.
Ha! He really told off those pesky would-be readers!
But the whole point of blogging — especially blogging by learned professionals such as Wilson — is to concisely summarize complex arguments, putting them in terms that reasonably educated non-specialists can understand, and provide hyperlinks to more extensive documentation for readers interested in further study.
I’m trained in regression analysis, although I’m more than a bit rusty these days. But I don’t want equations in my blog posts, anyway. What I would want from Wilson’s blog posts is a précis of the latest research results in his field, with minimal jargon, highlighting the findings and explaining what they mean for public policy.
It’s all well and good that Wilson knows more than I ever will about the criminal justice system. But he’s got a genius level IQ and has been studying the issue since before I was born, so I’m never going to catch up. Still, someone with that knowledge and his demonstrated writing skill should be able to spend 30-45 minutes summarizing his knowledge, linking to sources, and educating the interested public. That’s what public intellectuals — which is all bloggers are, really — do.
For my tastes, that would be an excellent use of Wilson’s time. Building knowledge is an important task. But spreading that knowledge is at least as important.