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The norm of entertainment

Someone pointed me to a comment that a psychology researcher wrote that he almost never reads our blog and that it “too quickly bores me.”

That’s ok. I’m sure that lots of people have stumbled upon our blog, one way or another, and have been bored by it.

We don’t have a niche audience, exactly; maybe it’s more of a mixture of niches, including people who are interested in statistics teaching, students who enjoy getting exposed to statistical ideas as they come in (in the same way that some people like to listen to the news on the radio in part they never know exactly what topics will come up that day), people who use Bayesian methods or who do research in Bayesian methods and want to keep up with the latest idea, Stan users, political scientists, people who click on a link that they see on facebook or whatever and keep reading, people who study and do research on causal inference, as well as frequent commenters and people who just enjoy whatever soap opera we happen to be covering this month.

Add up all those niches, though, and it’s still a small subset of the population. Most people, even most quantitative social science researchers, have better things to do than read and converse about statistical modeling, causal inference, and social science. So it makes sense that there are researchers that find the blog to be boring.

What’s interesting to me, though, is the norm or assumption that a blog should be entertaining.

It seems that we demand entertainment in some media but not others. We expect movies to be entertaining, and if they’re not, we’re annoyed. Even documentaries are supposed to be well paced. If not, they’ll be criticized as being boring, or “preachy,” or whatever. Most TV is expected to entertain also, except for certain special events such as official speeches, rocket launches, and Super Bowls, which it’s considered ok to watch out of ritual obligation.

Novels and plays, we usually expect to entertain us, with some exceptions. I might read Moby Dick because it’s thought provoking and has brilliant passages. It’s not entertaining, exactly, but reading it can be satisfying. We don’t always expect dinner to be entertaining either, but we do what it to fill us up.

What about textbooks and nonfiction books? Some of these are entertaining. In Regression and Other Stories, we try to amuse. The classic textbook Numerical Methods That Work is a flat-out fun read. Some scholarly works for the general public are highly readable. I’m thinking of The Origins of the Second World War. Hey, here’s a whole list of entertaining nonfiction books I’ve read. Entertaining is great, if you can have it. But I’ve read lots of completely unentertaining books that were great because they had important information. That would describe most of my textbooks, as well as various nonfiction books. If a textbooks entertaining, that’s lagniappe.

And then there are research articles. There are entertaining research papers out there—I’ve written a few, myself!—but most of the time we don’t expect journal articles to be entertaining. Indeed, there are times when we would feel that any effort made by an author to be entertaining is effort wasted, if it could be spent on content itself.

Where do blogs fit into this picture? Blogs aren’t always entertaining to read, but they’re supposed to be fun to write. The quote that led off this post surprised me when I first heard it, because I’d thought of this blog as being in the category of textbooks and research articles, not so much in the category of movies, novels, or magazine articles. In some ways it’s a compliment, that a rando on the web would think that a statistics blog could be entertaining. Or maybe it’s just a sign of the current TV-internet world, that people expect entertainment in all aspects of life.

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