[T]he biggest problem, of course, is that “race” is impossible to operationalize in a cross-national comparison. Whereas a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country, a person being of “another race” depends on constructs that vary widely, in both nature and level of perceived importance, country to country, and indeed, person to person. In other words, out of all of the many traits of difference for which the [World Values Survey] surveyed respondents’ tolerance, the Swedish economists – and Fisher, in their wake – managed to select for comparison the single most useless one.
Mitter thinks this is representative of broader problems in the blogosphere:
The specialty of foreign-affairs blogging is explaining to a supposedly uninformed public the complexities of the outside world. Because blogging isn’t reporting, nor is it subject to much editing (let alone peer review), posts like Fisher’s are particularly vulnerable to their author’s blind spots and risk endogenizing, instead of detecting and flushing out, the bullshit in their source material. What is presented as education is very likely to turn out, in reality, obfuscation.
This is an endemic problem across the massive middlebrow “Ideas” industry that has overwhelmed the Internet, taking over from more expensive activities like research and reporting. In that respect, Fisher’s work is a symptom, not a cause.
Dan Drezner disagrees:
[I]n this instance, the primary fault lies not with foreign policy bloggers, but with academics.
It’s not like Fisher commissioned a bogus survey and then wrote up the findings in a misleading manner. Rather, he relied on a survey that goes back three decades and has been cited pretty widely in the academic literature. He got to that survey via an academic article that got through the peer-review process. Almost all journalists not in possession of a Ph.D., going through that route, would have taken the data as gospel. … I’m all for better education in the ways of statistics and social science methodology in the foreign affairs community, but methinks Mitter is setting the bar extraordinarily high here.
Second, the blog ecosystem “worked” in this particular case. Fisher posted something, a bunch of social scientists looked at the post and found something problematic, and lo and behold, errors in the data were discovered and publicized. As I’ve opined before, one of the signal purposes of blogging is to critique those higher up in the intellectual food chain. I understand that Mitter would prefer that the original error never take place. By its very nature, however, the peer review process for blogging takes place after publication — not before.
Mitter has responded in part here, and at more length in a constructive comment to this post. Both are well worth reading, and put some more context into his original post. He’s getting to some interesting tensions about the nature of expertise and “publicity” in a changing media landscape that are worth mulling over before responding.