Expertise and the Blawgosphere

TortureRack.jpgA recent, well-publicized, comment thread over at the VC caught my attention. In it, Professor Ilya Somin explained his silence on the habeas/torture legislation as a combination of humility and utility maximization:

I try to limit blogging to issues where I have a comparative advantage: that is, questions on which I can say something useful or interesting that is unlikely to be said by others. I do not regard the VC as a forum for me to air all aspects of my world view, or even all of my views on contentious political issues. Little purpose is served by my simply repeating the same points on torture, detention or any other issue that have already been made by dozens of others.

Moreover, I take seriously the implications of some of my own scholarly work on political ignorance. Merely knowing a few basic facts that can be gleaned from perusing a newspaper is not enough knowledge to conclude that I have something original and important to say about an issue, except in very rare cases where the issue in question is unusually simple. My experience as an expert on political information is that there are far more issues that are more complex than most nonexperts believe than the reverse. In this regard, my general expertise on political information helps me keep tabs on my lack of expertise on specific issues.

Marty Lederman commented:

The odd thing is figuring out why many of the VC bloggers have not been *interested* in becoming more informed about these questions, and about this legislative initiative — *not* because they are bloggers or even legal bloggers (heaven knows we don’t want every legal blog to pretend to be expert in such questions), but because many of them are committed *libertarian* bloggers who are obviously impassioned and informed about many other arrogations of state power and threats to individual liberty.

It is a debate with some bite, I think, for this blog. We aspire to be a general interest law blog, with mostly serious content. But we have demonstrated little collective interest in the habeas/torture problem. Sure, we’ve had a few posts, but nothing like the sustained attention given by Balkinization, or Opinio Juris. The question I wonder about is whether a blog that claims to be a general interest legal forum has a duty – if it is to be respected – to weigh in the big legal questions of the moment.

I’ve two personal responses to Marty’s challenge.

First, I’m trying hard – real hard – to hold onto that cynicism about constitutional law that directed me toward more private spheres. It seems unlikely (to me anyway) that the law’s fine print, so nicely parsed by Marty and others, will significantly change the Supreme Court’s ultimate approach to its constitutionality. That decision will be overdetermined by the national political environment. On national security problems, I perceive the court’s methodological approach to involve a wet finger, a nervous eye, and a breeze. Such cynicism, however corrosive, suggests that I’d be better served blogging about legal subjects amenable to logic and reason, or at least calling folks attention to interesting, entertaining, and novel legal problems. Or, to be more succinct: formal legal rules matter less in this debate than in others I’m interested in.

Second, and more significantly, I buy the comparative competence argument. Marty’s comment seems to seek allies on the right. Fair enough. But I’m more of a fellow traveler from the center, and I don’t think that I could do much to add to the writings on Balkinization, either in terms of depth or breadth. (For examples, see here, and here and here).

But these personal objections don’t fairly meet the point that general interest law blogs should have broad coverage of the legal world. Which is why I think we let our readers down last week. If we can’t, don’t want to, or shouldn’t in good taste blog about the purported constitional constraints on executive power, we ought to be in the market for bloggers who specialize in that particular subject area. Right?

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13 Responses

  1. James says:

    Ilya Somin is a man.

  2. Dave Hoffman says:

    Corrected. Sorry for the quick-typing error.

  3. I don’t think that there’s any duty to opine on all issues, even if they are within our range of competence. My policy is that I’ll say something when I can contribute something to the debate. Marty Lederman and Jack Balkin’s posts at Balkinization were terrific and I had little to add. I don’t believe that the purpose of the blogosphere is simply to register my agreement or disagreement about the issues of the day. I post when I believe I can add something to a debate or discussion, not just to register my vote. When somebody else has raised the relevant arguments and done a better job of it than I think I can do, I don’t think I’m contributing much by adding something.

    If one has a view of the blogosphere as functioning as a survey of expert opinion — so that getting a head count of blogger opinions on an issue is of value — then perhaps every blogger with a modicum of knowledge about an issue should register an opinion.

    But I adopt (or try to) a view toward blogging that is similar to my views about when to speak in faculty meetings. Speak when you have something to add, not just to repeat what others have said already.

  4. Marty Lederman says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m not of the view that all blogs, or even all “general interest law blogs,” are obliged to cover every important legal issue. I certainly have not myself blogged on the vast majority of important legal issues.

    You should blog on issues if you have special interest or expertise in them. Not otherwise. No one should blog if they feel they have nothing to add to what else is out there. (Thanks, btw, for the kind words, and links.)

    My question on the VC concerned why libertarian bloggers, in particular, seem so indifferent to it all. And I singled out Eugene Volokh in particular. Please note my follow-up comment,, where I wrote to correct my mistaken presumption about Eugene’s philosophical commitments:

    “Eugene graciously wrote me to note that my premise was mistaken: He is *not* a libertarian. ‘Ask some libertarians and they’ll tell you. I’m a libertarianish conservative, partly because I’m far from sure that the government minimalist position on crime and especially on war and foreign affairs works.’

    Which explains why he has not taken a classical libertarian view on these matters! My mistake. I appreciate Eugene correcting my misunderstanding.”

  5. Marty Lederman says:

    What Dan said.

  6. Frank says:

    I think the force of Lederman’s challenge derives from VC, et al. being lawyers, not bloggers. I think he is calling for all lawyers to oppose processes that do not respect basic procedural norms. The tragic conflict here, I think, is the division between lawyers with basic commitments to procedural fairness, and a security apparatus committed to win an existential conflict at (almost) any cost.

    In that case, perhaps advocacy needs to re-focus on undermining the rationale for the detainee/torture bill in national security terms. . . i.e., arguing that it just doesn’t generate useful leads. That is what made the opposition of the JAGs to the bill especially convincing.

  7. Amy says:

    For better or worse, I think there’s a difference between a “headline blog” – i.e., a blog that tends to use whatever’s in the news as fodder for reflection – and a more idiosyncratic blog like Concurring Opinions, which covers whatever its authors happen to be interested in at the moment. I was surprised and disappointed that the Volokh Conspiracy did not cover the detainee bill because they do tend to cover the major legal issues of the day – indeed, I can’t think of a legal issue of equivalent importance that they haven’t blogged about. By contrast, though I’m a bit disappointed that Concurring Opinions did not blog about the issue, since I’m sure anything that appeared on this blog would have been illuminating, I don’t find its failure to do so as disturbing, since Concurring Opinions seems a less news-driven blog in general.

    One other difference between the two blogs is that the Volokh Conspiracy is more comments-driven, often featuring just a paragraph or two of blogging that commenters then run away with; by contrast, Concurring Opinions has longer blog posts and fewer comments. Many of the commenters on the Volokh Conspiracy are themselves quite intelligent and interesting; one reason it’s a pity that the Volokh Conspiracy didn’t cover the issue is that its commenters, as well as its regular bloggers, might have provided insight on the issue.

  8. Dave Hoffman says:

    I appreciate the comments, but I think the pass you are giving us (or the pass we’re giving ourselves) demonstrates the point, which is an unresolved confusion about the purpose of a law blog.

    Is the point of blawging, as Amy suggests, mere idiosyncracy, covering “whatever its authors happen to be interested in at the moment.” That doesn’t sound bad over the short term, but over the long term, the aggregated canon of posts might look fairly trivial.

    Or, are blawgs supposed to be public intellectual forums, where people can go to get informed commentatry on important civic issues?

    A hypo illustrates the point. Let’s say that tomorrow the President declares a state of martial law, cancelling the fall elections, and states “there is an epidemic of pedophelia which we’ve got to wipe out before electing new folks to congress.” If our blog wrote about smoking bans, law student elections, M’Naughten, footnotes, and a district court opinion about KPMG next week, I think we’d fairly be accused of whistling past the graveyard. Of course, last week’s detention act wasn’t in that category – at least I think not – but the point that there are somethings we ought to blog about, as civic minded folks, remains.

  9. Nate Oman says:

    Dave: I confess that I am a bit confused by your angst here. It seems to me that there are two possibilities. First, the detention bill was big news and we didn’t blog about it. To which I think that the best response is “So what?” There are lots of blogs that specialize in ripped-from-the-headlines commentary. That has never been what Co-op has been about.

    Second, it could be that the detention bill represents a unique moment in contemporary history when the future of the republic and our precious civil liberties hang in the balance, and that Co-op has been guilty of some sort of grave ethical lapse — like the aesthetes of Weirmar who chattered away in cocktail parties while Hitler’s brownshirts were beating Jews in the streets — for not raising its voice in protest and outrage. “Mene mene tekel upharsin.”

    While I don’t particularlly like the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and it has some provisions that I think are a really bad idea, I don’t think that we are currently experiencing this second sort of a moment. (Perhaps I should put up a post on this.)

  10. Dave Hoffman says:


    I think that “the detention bill was big news and we didn’t blog about it” sums up my position. But I disagree with you that “so what” is ends the response. The question I posed boils down to whether general interest law blogs are, in any way, different from ordinary blogs, by virtue of law’s special relationship to civil affairs. This is the Posner public intellectual problem writ small.

  11. There are countless important civic issues we’re not covering. What about Darfur? What about the Iraq War? What about a legal analysis of Foley? I don’t see our purpose as covering all the latest legal and political issues. Certainly, this is an important function, but your view seems to suggest that all law blogs should provide comprehensive coverage of “important civic issues.” I’ll call this the model of “blog as newspaper op-ed page.”

    I think that there’s a more modest model for a blog, as interesting commentary about a somewhat idiosyncratic range of issues. Under this model, a blog doesn’t seek to be like a newspaper op-ed page. It is just commentary on certain issues, but not a comprehensive examination. We have no editor who says: “Ok, we need a post about such-and-such topic.”

    At this point, few blogs have the range of coverage to be a true equivalent to a newspaper op-ed page. Blogs are more specialized. And I don’t think that one blog alone must cover each and every issue of importance. It’s great that collectively in the legal blogosphere, most issues get covered. Being more comprehensive is fine, but I just don’t see why one blog must cover it all.

  12. Dave also writes: “The question I posed boils down to whether general interest law blogs are, in any way, different from ordinary blogs, by virtue of law’s special relationship to civil affairs. This is the Posner public intellectual problem writ small.”

    Yes, blogs are places for public intellectuals. But I’m not a big fan of public intellectuals who feel a need to opine on every topic under the sun. There are some public intellectuals who will readily offer an opinion on any legal topic . . . and even on the weather. For many lawyers and law professors, their opinions about legal issues are bound to be more “expert” than those of ordinary laypeople. So even if we opine on an issue beyond our areas of specialty, we’re still probably a bit ahead of the game given our general legal knowledge. I think that given a void in legal commentary, it would be important to speak up on an important civic legal issue even though we didn’t have specialized knowledge about it. But there isn’t a void. There were plenty of folks with better specialized knowledge who opined. As I said in an earlier comment, I don’t feel a need to register my vote or opinion on every issue if others have said it better.

    Perhaps we should have linked to some of the best commentary about the issue. I read the posts over at Balkinization and thought they were very insightful. I could have certainly posted a quick link to them. But I don’t think I should have said anything unless I had something worth adding.

  13. What you understand from Expertise and the Blawgosphere? I never heard these terms before.