July 22, 2006

Blogging from the seat of power

In a recent debate with other New York Times columnists (Times Talks, U.S. Politics: What's Next?, July 17, 2006), Maureen Dowd got a big laugh when she said

I don't think Bush is stupid either, but I think that they are willfully kind of blind about different cultures, and how to deal with different countries ... I mean, Paul Wolfowitz said in an interview that we shouldn't "mirror", which is ascribing our behavior and motivations to other countries, and yet they do this again and again ... You know, what just surprises me is that they don't use basic kind of common sense, I mean you could look at a movie like Mean Girls, and figure out the way these North Koreans are reacting, you know it's like high school girls with nuclear weapons, they just want some attention from us, you know? [unedited passage and audio link are below]

This is vintage MoDo, a witticism that deflates the powerful by framing them as clueless high school girls vying for status. It's too bad that Dowd isn't on radio and television more, since her languid, nasal whine is the perfect vehicle for this sort of humor.

But imagine if she were president, or even a senator. The same people who laughed and applauded would be shocked and horrified. This person is in charge of our nation's destiny, and she's still acting out her high school dramas? In one breath she tells us that we need to understand other cultures on their own terms, and in the next breath she's telling us that Kim Jong Il is just like Lindsay Lohan?

My point here is not that MoDo is self-refuting, but that we evaluate people and opinions in context. What's amusingly edgy coming from a columnist would be appalling coming from the president.

The first time that I really understood this effect, I think, was when Arno Penzias became vice president for research at Bell Labs. When I started working there, the VP for research was Bill Baker, who had spent years as science advisor to presidents from Eisenhower to Ford. At Bell Labs, Baker had helped to create a managerial culture of benign and aristocratic serenity. He greeted everyone in the halls by name -- including me, in my first week of work -- and when he came around for a lab visit, he asked intelligent and supportive questions, and complimented everyone for his or her specific contributions. (Though one of his aides later told me that in leaving one of these sessions, he might well ask under his breath "can we find a way to fire that idiot?").

Arno's style, in contrast, was typical of a regular member of technical staff, which is what he was before the work that won the Nobel Prize in 1978. He was smart and skeptical and combative. He asked for evidence, he questioned logical connections, he looked for alternative explanations. If he didn't believe you, he said so, and he said why. That's how engineers and scientists generally act, in America anyhow, and it's a good thing, because that intellectual rough-and-tumble is an important part of the process that makes ideas and inventions better.

After Arno won the Nobel Prize, he was promoted rapidly, and when he became vice president for research, he was still the same guy, under the expensive suits. But suddenly, without changing at all, Arno the smart, intellectually engaged scientist became Arno the Hun. At least, that's how many of my colleagues saw him. He would come around for a lab visit, or invite some staff members to breakfast, and interact with them pretty much the way they interacted with each other. But after the meeting, the halls would buzz for days: "Do you know what he said to X?" "No, but I hear he's going to reorganize the whole division from top to bottom." "Well, Y says he'll slice and dice Area Z first." We were used to years of amplifying the subtle signals that people like Bill Baker emitted, and Arno overloaded our receivers with painful and distorted noise until we adjusted our settings. (I get the impression that Larry Summers had some similar problems with signal-level calibration recently at Harvard.)

As weblogs and other new media become more popular, similar things are happening again and again in slightly different ways. In one class of cases, bloggers become powerful enough to be judged by the same standards that they use in judging others. A recent example was Maryscott O'Connor's complaints about goings-on in the Kosworld:

This is what happens when you crash the gates. All of a sudden, you're not just a pajama-clad kid in his parents' basement; once you've demonstrated your power and influence, people start demanding accountability and transparency.

Another class of cases arises because traditional media have started looking for what NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin called "Truth with edge", the informal, intelligent, opinionated perspective that they see as characteristic of blogs and other new media. Or maybe it's just a matter of fashion, as Warren Kelly put it:

Once upon a time, people mocked bloggers. Yes, I know it's hard to believe, after we toppled the Rather regime and all, but it's true. Bloggers were wanna be journalists, hacks, or worse. Now, of course, many journalists are wanna be bloggers.
Then there was podcasting. People mocked podcasters, calling us wanna be DJs. They said the music we played was substandard. OR they said we were violating copyright. RIAA hates us. And now, of course, podcasting is mainstream -- just ask NPR.

In terms of my Bell Labs example, Bill Baker has decided that he needs to be more like Arno Penzias. But again, transplantation from one context to another can change everything. When you project the blogger's perspective into the seat of power, it can turn into a kind of tyranny. Suddenly the amusingly eccentric autodidact becomes Kim Jong Il, or the housepainter with a grievance becomes .. well, you know what I mean.

There was an extraordinary example of this effect earlier this year, at the leading scientific journal Nature. Or rather, at the journalistic organization that shelters under Nature's skirts. As part of a broader campaign to achieve an edgier brand of truth, news@nature.com started a regular column "To be blunt: looking for the point of seemingly pointless research", written by Helen Pearson under the pseudonym "Sybil".

The very first instance of Sybil's column, published on January 9, 2006, critiqued some research on social networks published a mere three days earlier by Duncan Watts and one of his students (Gueorgi Kossinets and Duncan J. Watts, "Empirical Analysis of an Evolving Social Network", Science, 311 88:90, 6 January 2006). The archive of Sybil's columns is only available to Nature "Premium Plus" subscribers, at a cost of $15.99 per month. If you happen to be a Premium Plus subscriber, here is the link. If not, here's a poor person's version. Even more interesting is this version, apparently an earlier draft that went out by mistake on news@nature.com's RSS feed, and was duly posted at BioEd Online.

If Sybil were an ordinary common-or-garden-variety blogger, this would have been a normal, amusing, snarky critique. Here's the start of the accidentally-released draft (the final version is not much different):

2006, I have decided, is the year that I'll make it big. I'll get a promotion. I'll be wildly popular at parties. And in order to do this I'll meet lots of people - very important people - and make them my best friends.

I was keen to get started right away. So imagine my delight when I found a study that would help me make my new contacts sitting in my e-mail inbox at the start of the week. It sounded like a large and impressive investigation; it was, after all, published in the journal Science, which is one of my very favourite reads.

The two guys behind the research, at Columbia University in New York City, decided to analyse how people make friends and interact with each other. To do this, they sifted through some 14 million e-mail messages sent by over 43,000 students and staff in a large university (an institution that they decline to name, although I have my suspicions).

The pair spent three years or so building and running fiendish computer algorithms that could analyse who had e-mailed whom and how often. They assumed that two people who exchange e-mails have some kind of relationship, be they friends or acquaintances.

I know you're holding your breath, so here's what they found: two people are more likely to strike up a relationship if they go to the same college class or have a friend in common.


Brilliant. Genious. [sic] Three years sifting though millions of messages and that's the result? My excitement made a nosedive towards depression as I thought of the poor people who set out with such a great project only to find... the obvious.

This is a pretty typical of a certain style of blogging, adapted from the traditions of British intellectual invective. Our own David Beaver is a master of the form, which he applied (for example) in an exuberantly snarky post about some work on animal communication ("And people say we monkey around", 5/18/2006). In that particular case, I thought that the research itself was pretty good (though the media coverage David satirized was mostly not), and I also thought that larger research program was even better, as I explained in a later post ("Monkey words", 5/28/2006). I also happen to think that "Sybil" entirely missed the point of social network research, by pretending that it ought to provide a recipe for social climbing rather than an empirically-testable mathematical model of relationship formation and transmission of influence. But all's fair in the darwinian struggle of ideas, right?

Well, sometimes. The thing is, "Sybil" isn't a common-or-garden-variety blogger: she writes under the aegis of Nature, one of the world's top two scientific publications. That's blogging from the seat of power. So her contemptuous dismissal of a graduate student's first first-author paper as obvious and useless wasn't just an amusing piece of give-and-take in the intellectual agora. In context, it was the casual whim of a tyrant.

Here's the complete Maureen Dowd passage, with an audio link:

But I- I agree with you that- I don't think Bush is stupid either, but I think that they are willfully kind of um
blind about different cultures, and how to deal with different countries, which is really strange, 'cause the one lesson that was supposed to come out of Vietnam was that we would never again go into
a situation where we didn't un- try and understand the other culture, where we stumbled in so blindly, and now that seems to be what the-
what the original Foreign ((Service)) dream team is doing all over the world.
I mean, Paul Wolfowitz said in an interview that we shouldn't "mirror",
which is ascribing our behavior and motifica- mo- motivations to other countries, and yet they- they do this again and again, it never seemed to- I mean you have these
you know, thirty billion dollar agencies that should tell us what these other places are thinking culturally,
but it never seemed to occur to any of them that Saddam might just be bluffing about his weapons because it was an Arab macho thing, he had to
keep up this front, for the neighbors. I mean, they never seem to try and get into other people's heads, that the North Koreans might just want a little respect, by getting our attention,
and that if we took out Saddam, that would uh
signal to the Iranians and the North Koreans that the way to fend us off, and get our
you know, attention and respect was to have nuclear weapons, not *not* to have nuclear weapons, so
you know, what just surprises me is uh that they don't use basic kind of
common sense, I mean you could look at uh a movie like Mean Girls, and figure out the way
these uh North Koreans are reacting, you know it's like high school girls with nuclear weapons, they just want some attention from us, you know?

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 22, 2006 12:47 PM