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Tweeting has its virtues, I’m sure. But over and over I’m seeing these blog vs. twitter battles where the blogger wins. It goes like this: blogger gives tons and tons of evidence, tweeter responds with a content-free dismissal.

The most recent example (as of this posting; remember we’re on an approx 2-month delay here; yes, this site is the blogging equivalent of the “slow food” movement), which I heard about on Gawker (sorry), is Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who took a break from tweeting items such as “How Can You Tell if a Designer Bag Is Fake?” to defend serial plagiarist Fareed Zakaria:

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Just to interject: to say that Zakaria is a serial plagiarist is not to say he has nothing to offer as a journalist. Plagiarists ranging from Martin Luther King to Doris Kearns Goodwin to Laurence Wayne Tribe have been functional members of society when not copying the work of others without attribution. (OK, I’m kidding about that “Wayne” thing; I just thought Tribe needed a middle name too, to fit with his distinguished associates.)

OK, back to the story. The tweet is Weisberg’s empty defense of Zakaria’s plagiarism. OK, not completely empty, but what can you do in 160 characters? Weisberg’s point is that it’s ok to quote without attribution on TV because on TV there’s no room for footnotes. Fair enough. I can tell right now that (on the rare occasions that) I go on radio or TV, I would never use someone else’s words without attribution, but Zakaria’s a lot more busy than I am, and a lot more practiced in using other people’s words, so maybe the guy just can’t help it.

OK, back to the story. (Hey, I keep saying that! Maybe we’re having too many digressions here. Anyway . . . ) Now comes the blogger. “@blippoblappo & @crushingbort” are blogging, they have as much space as they want, indeed their only limitation is their own capacity to get bored by their own writing. OK, blogging is rarely crisp, but they have the space to make their points. They don’t need to pick and choose, they can say everything they need to say.

In particular, in their post, “Yes, the indefensible Fareed Zakaria also plagiarized in his fancy liquor columns for Slate,” they have this:

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Winner: blog. It’s not even close. When it’s information vs. soundbites, information wins.

Of course this is not to say that bloggers are always correct or that every tweeter is wrong. Not at all. But I do think there’s a benefit to being able to lay out the whole story in one place.


  1. Steve Reilly says:

    What’s funny is they point out that Weisberg was upset when a radio show plagiarized Slate:

    (By the way, Twitter’s got a limit of 140 characters, not 160.)

  2. Rahul says:

    I agree about Blogs > Twitter.

    I often wish bloggers were more succinct though. The lack of constraint on space oft leads to rambling posts. Brevity is becoming a lost art.

  3. Erin Jonaitis says:

    That’s sort of … not what Twitter is for? Or rather — yes, it’s part of what Twitter is used for, but not the good part. I feel like you’re comparing the best of blogging to the worst of Twitter.

    The good parts of what Twitter is for: Easy, near-immediate access to people I don’t know, or don’t know well (the @ calls give me a fair chance of getting someone’s attention, which a low-traffic blog really wouldn’t). A low-investment way to give those people a chance to get to know me. A fantastic way to eavesdrop on communities I’m not part of, so I can learn stuff about how people feel without sticking my foot in my mouth too much. Amusing wordplay games. Hilarious and creative bots.

    • Andrew says:


      I’ll buy that. Twitter can do great things. The problem is when Twitter is being used to conduct an argument.

      • Erin Jonaitis says:

        Fully agree. Every time I’ve tried to have a serious conversation there I’ve been frustrated. “More heat than light” seems apropos.

        The one exception is conversing via direct message, which in my experience can work about as well for real conversation as any instant-message sort of chat. There may be some performativity thing going on, where people have a hard time walking back bold statements they’ve made in public, but are more willing to engage in dialogue in private. (Hmm, I hear echoes of an earlier discussion with you… :) ) But of course that’s just my subjective impression.

    • Rahul says:

      Not sure why “easy, near-immediate access to people you don’t know” is a good thing necessarily. At least for those people.

  4. Fernando says:

    @Gelman talks nonsense about Twitter. Twitter >blogs #Twitter #blogs

  5. Mark Palko says:

    Not to defend Weisberg or Zakaria and certainly not to defend Twitter, but…

    @blippoblappo & @crushingbort have tons of something but that something often falls short of what I’d evidence. Keep in mind that breaking the news that Zakaria is a plagiarist is about as newsworthy as announcing that Clifford Irving was unreliable, but even in this journalistic equivalent of a canned hunt, these guys are terrible.

    The piece in question doesn’t actually come up with lifted language; it mainly just points out cases where an article on martinis mentions the same facts you’ll find in pretty much every article written on martinis over the past ninety years. Apparently Nick Charles, the Thin Man [sic] liked the cocktail. (There also a weird passage where the authors claim that Zakaria thinks that Charles was a real person. I’m not entirely sure how they came up with that one.)

    In a later post, they accused Zakaria of anonymously editing his Wiki page.

    Their evidence?

    “But what caught our eye last night was some very specific activity on Fareed Zakaria’s Wikipedia page. Over the last few months, someone with a New York City IP address has made 7 edits to Wikipedia, all of which have been to Fareed Zakaria’s page over the last few months (friendly reminder to readers – Zakaria lives in New York City).”

    And my personal favorite

    “Finally – and most tellingly – the editor did what only a good son would: fix the name of Zakaria’s mother, from “Fatima” to “Fatma.””

    Actually, a good son would have known that his mother (an internationally known journalist with her own Wikipedia page) seems to be named “Fatima”

  6. Eli Rabett says:

    As readers of the blogs know Wayne is the middle name of choice for murderers. . Is there something about Tribe we should know??

  7. Eli Rabett says:

    More on topic, Eli suspects that Zakaria’s Slate articles may have been written by an intern who did the intern thing.

  8. […] From the This Is Obvious But I’m Linking To It Anyway Because I Agree Dept.: Twitter has many uses. But substantive, evidence-based debate isn’t one of them. […]

  9. […] an aside, it’s worth noting that elsewhere Andrew has said he strongly prefers blogs to Twitter. Blogs are of course slow compared to Twitter. So apparently, everyone thinks there’s an […]

    • Andrew says:

      At the link, you write:

      Andrew has said he strongly prefers blogs to Twitter. Blogs are of course slow compared to Twitter. So apparently, everyone thinks there’s an optimal speed at which scientific debate should be conducted, and it’s whatever speed they personally happen to prefer. :-) By the way, I say that as someone who much prefers blogs to Twitter as a medium of discussion and debate, for the same reason Andrew does. But I try to remember that my reasons for preferring blogs to Twitter are other people’s reasons for preferring peer-reviewed papers to blogs.

      No. I prefer blogs to twitter not because blogs are slower but because blogs are not limited by space and, as a result, blog discussions are more open-ended. When you have only 140 characters, it’s all about getting off a good quip. When you have unlimited space, the quick quip is no longer king.

      Do I prefer blogs to peer-reviewed papers? Not quite. I think both blogs and papers have their useful roles. What I was objecting to was the claim by Anne Case that blogging is “not the way science really gets done.” That’s a ridiculous claim, and I felt that the work I was publishing on my blog was just as much “science” as the work she had published in PPNAS (and, for that matter, both of our work were much more “science”-like than various notoriously bad PPNAS artifacts such as the himmicanes and hurricanes paper).

      What do I like about blogs compared to journal articles? First, blog space is unlimited, journal space is limited, especially in high-profile high-publicity journals such as Science, Nature, and PPNAS. Second, in a blog it’s ok to express uncertainty, in journals there’s the norm of certainty. On my blog, I was able to openly discuss various ideas of age adjustment, whereas in their journal article, Case and Deaton had nothing to say but that their numbers “are not age-adjusted within the 10-y 45-54 age group.” That’s all! I don’t blame Case and Deaton for being so terse; they were following the requirements of the journal, which is to provide minimal explanation and minimal exploration. Journals typically value the appearance of certainty and penalize you if you express to much openness to alternative possibilities. Similarly for the comparison of trends to men and women. In their paper, Case and Deaton supply the terse and misleading sentence, “Patterns are similar for men and women when analyzed separately.” It was only in a later online magazine interview that Case explained that the patterns were not actually so similar for men and women, but they had a way of understanding these differences. I don’t know that they did any quantitative analysis, though. Again, on the blog I was able to compare men and women in many ways; in the journal, sorry, no space. On the blog i was also able to post graphs showing trends for each single year of age. In the journal: sorry, no space. In an interview with the New York Times, Deaton did talk about trends in single years of age, but he got things wrong! He wrote, “If we want to be more precise about the age range involved, we could say that for all single years of age from 47 to 52, mortality rates are increasing.” But that statement isn’t even correct! He got this by simply looking at changes from 1999 to 2013. If you look at the time series, that’s not a good summary at all. So, over and over again, we’re seeing journal article, or journal-article-followed-by-press-interviews, as discouraging data exploration and discouraging the expression of uncertainty.

      So my reasons for preferring blogs to Twitter are not other people’s reasons for preferring peer-reviewed papers to blogs. Yes, twitter is faster than blog, and blog is faster than journal. But speed does not seem to me to be the key dimension here.

      And let me just emphasize one thing here: Throughout this discussion I have continually, over and over again, recognized the value of Case and Deaton’s work and expressed uncertainty about my calculations. It is they who have continued to dismiss the contributions of various outsiders (not just me) who presented alternative analyses. I find this very frustrating.

      It’s easy to tell a story in which scientific journals are so civilized and online discussion is all about point scoring. But what I’ve seen here is the opposite. The norms of peer reviewed journals such as PPNAS encourage presenting work with a facade of certainty. It is the online critics such as myself who have continued to display a sprit of openness.

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