What Do You Hope to Accomplish, Policy Bloggers?

Public policy blogging has purposes other than moving mass opinion

Bill Gardner cites research showing that even people with big megaphones (e.g., U.S. Senators) have not apparently influenced public opinions regarding the Affordable Care Act. He reasons therefore that health policy bloggers, with their smaller audiences, haven’t a prayer of shifting public debate:

If you view yourself as a writer in service to a political movement, a soldier in the skirmishes over the daily meme, then give up. You are throwing pebbles, hoping to breach a castle wall.

Gardner’s comments were focused on health policy bloggers (e.g., Austin Frakt), but could be made more general. Why should Mark Kleiman bother to blog about drug policy? What does Harold Pollack think he is accomplishing by writing about criminal justice policy? Or to take it to a more personal level, who am I to delude myself that the hours I spend blogging about public policy affect public opinion one whit?

I will let my friends Austin, Mark and Harold answer Gardner’s challenge for themselves if they wish, but for me at least the response is simple: I have no expectations that my blog posts will sway mass opinion so it doesn’t bother me that they don’t. The main places at which I blog about public policy have a far larger audience than most…but since most blogs are read by hardly anyone, that’s just a nice way of saying that from the viewpoint of the mass public, I labor in obscurity.

A memory of a Roger Mudd story during his time on Macneil/Lehrer News Hour makes this okay in my mind. His segment examining who watched their show revealed that it had an extremely small audience, indeed laughably so by national network standards. But it was an unusually policy-connected, policy-saavy audience, and that’s what made the show important.

Years ago I got a telephone call from a journalist at the Economist who wanted to talk about drug policy. I asked how he found me, i.e., was it through some newspaper that quoted me or the medical school press office or what? To my surprise and delight, he said that he and his colleagues had long followed Mark Kleiman’s and my blog posts on drug policy.

I discovered over time that our readers also include other journalists, elected officials, Congressional and White House staffers, police officers, health care system managers, teachers, judges, economists, social workers, physicians, university administrators, business leaders, civil servants, policy analysts and many other people who regularly face up to the challenge of designing, analyzing and implementing public policy. We also have many readers — and this is reflected in the quality of our comments section — who are not public policy professionals but are public policy buffs: They have studied up on water conservation or solar power or Middle East politics and they take the trouble to share what they have learned with the rest of us.

Add up all the people who implement public policy, study it, or just know a lot about it, and you get a sadly small number, way too small to ever kid myself that my blogging could move mass opinion in a country of over 300 million people. But what it clearly can do is put good information and ideas into the hands of people who matter in and care about the public policy world. It can also provide me with an opportunity to learn from my readers and thereby come to a better understanding of the policy issues I care about. The public at large will likely never know (or care) about this ongoing exchange of wonky material within a small community. But I do, and that’s enough to keep me going.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “What Do You Hope to Accomplish, Policy Bloggers?”

  1. There’s an old story about the early Quakers. Unlike most small Protestant sects, they did not believe that salvation was only for their members, readily identified as the elect. Why this eccentricity? – asked an enquirer. The reply: “For so few, heaven would hardly be worth the upkeep”.

    In addition to the band-of-the-elect effect identified by Keith, I am also heartened by the curious fact that a small number of old posts are regularly visited. These are not always the ones you’d expect, or think highly of yourself. I fancy it may sometimes be thanks to Google, which rates the RBC highly, perhaps by blogrolls. “Barack Obama black” is a plausible search string. But “broccoli aspirin” isn’t, and my post on the topic gets hits. Two hypotheses: there is slow viral dissemination of page links by email or Facebook; and students have discovered the RBC archive as a useful source of unattributable ideas for term papers. Either mechanism would extend the reach of the blog.

    For bloggers, there is also the Goldstein factor: “give me a hand, buy a ticket.”

    1. I still haven’t started taking aspirin, but figuring that out is on my to-do list. (Dr. Oz books seem to endorse it too.) So who knows, you may have saved some lives. That’s kinda hot, as the kids say!

      And Keith’s post on compression socks was of immediate benefit to me and my family, and I now harangue people about them whenever travel comes up. Or shopping, really. Plus, they come in lots of styles now.

      As the saying goes, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness (though I often prefer to do both). I like it here. And reading a good blog like this can help people learn to argue correctly. This should be taught in schools but probably isn’t, due no doubt to NCLB. ; >

  2. Topical blogs can be informative to those of us who wish to learn more about something so it should not be surprising to find that journalists read blogs because it is, after all, their job to be informed about the things that they write about. You’re doing the background research for them.

    Blogs can also act as echo chambers where people find someone who they agree with and bask in the reflected glow which deepens their sense of correctness; we are the ones who really know the truth.

    1. Good link. Is once a week the right rhythm? Mark expanded his blog to a group partly because of the contemporary expectation of fresh material on a blog every day, which is too much for amateurs. Steele and Addison chose 3 times a week when they started The Tatler in 1709, addressing an audience of “men of strong zeal and weak intellects” (out of courtesy to our excellent commenters, I will refrain from saying plus ça change).

  3. I think good policy blogging is important even if you don’t influence either many people or very influential people. It matters that the citizenry of a democracy be informed. The more channels there are for good information, the better. You don’t have to see yourself as having the One Huge Megaphone; being a small thread in a large fabric of information is useful as well. Especially when so many people are trying to tear it apart.

    1. Right. We all contribute as we are able. One can argue – entirely reasonably – that certain behaviors aren’t worth the trouble for the impact that they have. Still, I won’t apologize for the fact that I vote, or that I recycle, or that I turn the lights out when I leave a room. Anyone who demands that Professor Humphreys show that he has a direct, significant impact on policy is missing the point.

  4. “He reasons therefore that health policy bloggers, with their smaller audiences, haven’t a prayer of shifting public debate:”

    And thereby fails “common sense reasoning 101”. I listen to a lot of podcasts from places like the LSE, which have a wide range of speakers. I uniformly skip over the talks by ambassadors, senators, MPs and so on, because it is a simple fact of life that these people never have anything interesting and new to say. The single bit of information they might convey in a speech is “I support X” (and even that is a noisy signal masked by caveats and weasel words).

    If you’re in the market for being persuaded by serious argument, you’re persuaded by those who offer serious argument — numbers, logic, history. And that means bloggers. Not the press, not officials, but bloggers.

    It’s not a perfect system. Bloggers, in my experience, tend to herd and so to pile on emphasizing some point while not emphasizing others. (In the case of medicine, my single biggest complaint here is far too little discussion about the SUPPLY of medical professionals, because of the artificial restraints that the AMA imposes on schools so as to keep numbers low and salaries high; followed by complaints about how med school is funded.)
    I’d say medical bloggers still too much follow the agenda and the channels of thought erected by those with a political agenda, rather than pointing out genuinely important issues which aren’t reactions to the political atmosphere. But still, you take your information (as opposed to propaganda) where you can get it, and right now health bloggers is where you get it.

  5. “I uniformly skip over the talks by ambassadors, senators, MPs and so on, because it is a simple fact of life that these people never have anything interesting and new to say.”

    Which is why I very rarely ever watch the Sunday talking heads programs any more.

  6. Public opinion research actually gives some reason to think that having an audience made up of “journalists, elected officials, Congressional and White House staffers, police officers, health care system managers, teachers, judges, economists, social workers, physicians, university administrators, business leaders, civil servants, policy analysts” will actually affect public opinion appreciably over time and indirectly.

    This is because many of these folks are essential to the formation of public opinion through disseminating political information and indeed making policy which is then reported upon. Popular attitudes are constituted by the differential absorption of these elite communications. (John Zaller’s work is one of the touchstones of this view).

    Having an influential audience therefore means that your influence goes both up to affect policy directly, as you note, but also down as elites publicly debate these policies.

    1. Thanks Kevin. Do you think that means that the research that Gardner cites is wrong, re: The ACA?

      1. It’s not exactly wrong, but having looked at it quickly, it looks like the operationalization of his independent variable (speeches and press releases of Senators for elite discourse more generally) should not really be expected to have much an effect on an issue like health care.

        Although elite discourse helps constitute wider public opinion, it can’t guide it by the nose. It has its greatest impact on new and unfamiliar topics, when the (attentive) public is still trying to understand what this issue is all about. But for an issue like health care that has been salient for a long period–and so has had most of the relevant sides try to frame the issue and the public has adopted some subset of the available frames–there is no reason to expect normal perturbations of elite discourse to have an appreciable impact. People’s minds are already made up. That being said, univocal or unopposed elite support/opposition for something is entirely different, and can be expected to shift public opinion even on mature issues, but this was not the case with the Obamacare debate, to put it mildly.

        It seems to me that policy bloggers are often in the unique position of being ahead of both the public and most influential public figures on the political issues of tomorrow, having done research or thought about these otherwise obscure issues for some time. For this reason, they are operating at the bleeding edge of the aforementioned ‘new and unfamiliar topics’ which are so much more susceptible to the kinds of framing effects Gardner talks about. This should make for potent, if highly indirect, influence on these issues if and when they emerge on the agenda, given an RBC-like audience.

        Individuals do make judgments about the frames offered by elites, even if they’re only decisions about which best fit their priors.

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