Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Discussion and Debate in the Blogosphere: Some reflections on a recent example

Not so long ago I got caught up in a long and somewhat contentious discussion at Crooked Timber. It’s one of my regular sites; I’ve been following it for years. I comment there often enough, but there are others who comment more, and much more, than I do.

This particular post was by John Holbo, and had the (ironic) title, Hazards of Evolutionary Psychology, Royalty Edition (“royalty” plus “edition” is the tip-off). It was a slight post, a quick juxtaposition of two passages from Baboon Metaphysics, an excellent book about the mentality of baboons in the wild. It didn’t seem to call for much discussion, but then it just took off. “Evolutionary psychology,” after all, can be a polarizing subject and so it proved here.

I’m not interested in the pros and cons of the discussion, but simply that it kept teetering on the edge – comment moderation is now in place there, so it never erupted into a full-out flame war. First, then, I discuss the conduct of an online conversation, such as this one, where the discussants don’t know one another, some are posting anonymously, we have widely varying levels of expertise in the topic at hand, and the topic is controversial. Then I present a brief account of a research group I’d been in while in graduate school; that was hands-down the best intellectual venue I’ve ever experienced. The comparison is unfair – how can asynchronous online interaction among all-but strangers compare with week-by-week face-to-face conversation among people who’ve come to know one another’s minds quite well? – but it’s unfair in a useful direction.

The Rules of the Game and a Contentious Discussion

I’d been going back and forth with Z, some good, some bad, whatever. It got to the point where he felt he needed to school me on the etiquette of such things (comment #216):
I am commenting in a blog, Buss [a prominent evolutionary psychologist] is writing a research article. “Not much worse than the typical blog comment” is not the standard we want in a scholarly publication so I am entitled to be maximally intellectually critical of Buss while you have to be maximally charitable in the interpretation of the criticism, those are the rules of the games.
My initial reaction was, on the face of it, sensible enough. Blog commenting is relatively casual; trivial mistakes are common (spelling, punctuation, grammar) and casual formulations and sketchy reasoning is all but a necessity. Unlike preparing a comment for publication in, e.g. Behavioral and Brain Science, one does not expect blog comments, even in the academic blogosphere, to meet peer-review standards (whatever they are).

But, if I may put my Kantian hat on, how does Z’s comment generalize? I’d criticized a comment he’d made about Buss’s article and he’s telling me that I should have been more charitable in my remarks. Perhaps, if I’d done so, I wouldn’t have made those remarks. Who knows, I might even have agreed that, of course, Z, you are correct. So he reminds of the informal rules of the game.

But might I not turn around and suggest that, by the rules of the game, he’s obliged to cut me some slack in my criticism of him? If he’s not obligated to be careful and meticulous in his criticism of Buss, why should I be careful and meticulous in my criticism of him? Is he in effect asserting that he should be exempt from the rules when criticizing me? That hardly seems fair.

But I didn’t say that. My thinking hadn’t gotten that far. Rather, I replied by pointing out that informal norms and maximal charity work well in some situations, but not in the situations like that one that had emerged in this discussion. Here, slightly edited, is my immediate response (#217):
In a congenial intellectual environment where people have a fairly decent sense of what one another knows, the principle of charity makes sense and is easy to apply. All too often, however, Crooked Timber is not, for whatever reason, a congenial environment; hence the need for comment moderation to prevent flame wars from developing. Moreover, we don't know one another very well around here, and I say that despite the fact that I've been following (and occasionally commenting, sometimes more than occasionally) at Crooked Timber for years and I recognize some of the commenters in this thread as regulars. But evolutionary psychology, or psychology in general, is not central here, so our mutual calibration of one another’s knowledge of those topics is not very good. And then we have the fact that evolutionary psychology is highly polarizing and people want to have their say whether or not they actually know much about it or, for that matter, about various kinds of psychology or evolutionary biology.

Put all that together and what do you have? A mess. Thus I've spent a lot of my time in this thread trying to get a sense of what people know and whether or not they’re open to, you know, reason, or whether they’re coming at this discussion with a strong set of prior beliefs that they are determined to defend regardless of what is said.
To that I would add that some people are participating under their own name while others use a pseudonym. This is an issue that’s come up over and again in various discussions about blogging. It’s certainly come up in such discussions at Crooked Timber. There are legitimate reasons for using a pseudonym, but there is a loss as well.

In this particular case, Z appears to be a professional scholar. I’d guess that he has an academic post somewhere and that he’s got academic publications. He seems to have more knowledge about some relevant subjects and less knowledge about others. But this is rather vague. If he posted under his name then I could at least check him out, perhaps even read through some of his publications. Who knows, I might even recognize him.

But, alas, since Z is posting under a pseudonym, I can’t do any of that. I’m thus hampered in my ability to get a sense of what he knows and hence of how to take his remarks. Just how far does one extend charity, and in what direction? A given statement has one valence if it’s made by someone with little knowledge of topic, but a different valence if made by someone with deep knowledge.

A Felicitous Research Group

By way of clarification, let me offer a contrasting example from my own intellectual history, the research group that David Hays had at the State University of Buffalo back in the 1970s. I was a graduate student in the English Department and he was teaching in the Linguistics Department. He had a research group that met weekly, usually at his house; the group’s discussions centered on computational linguistics – broadly conceived – and in particular, on the line of thought Hays had been developing with various of his students. I became a member of that group during my second year of graduate school – fall of 1974.

The group was mostly graduate and undergraduate students, though occasionally another faculty member would attend a meeting. It was informal in that there was no course credit associated with it and no formal requirements, no readings, no papers, no tests. At any one time, however, a given member of the group might be taking a course with Hays and two or three members were doing dissertations under him.

I was in the group for four years and it was the best intellectual arena I’ve ever been in. The meetings had a fixed, but loose, format. Depending on just when the discussion took place, in the morning or the afternoon, we’d share meal before or after the meeting. Members of the group participated in preparing the meal (from whatever Hays had available) and cleaning up afterward.

The discussion format was simple. At the beginning everyone had a chance to put one item on the agenda for discussion. We then discussed them in order. I forget just what the order was, perhaps by seating around that table. But it didn’t really matter because we really did discuss everything. If a discussion was incomplete by meeting’s end, or if we didn’t get around to a topic, those would come first at the next meeting.

We got real work done in those meetings. Things were said and conclusions reached that showed up in papers, whether course papers, or papers for publication. It worked because we were drawn to the group by Hays’s ongoing theoretical work in computational linguistics. To be sure, every once in awhile someone would show up with a topic that wasn’t directly to that theory, but that could benefit from the group’s expertise. But that was rare.

There was one man, however, who didn’t really fit in. While he was generally interested in computational linguistics, he didn’t seem sympathetic to Hays’s approach. That, of course, is fine, but it meant that his contributions were often more disruptive than useful. It seemed a bit like someone going up to the rabbi after the service and remarking that he really ought to reference the New Testament. If you want the New Testament you shouldn’t be attending a Jewish service.

There are limits to what can be accommodated in a given discourse. We all know this.

Tipping Point

What’s the between a conversation were people are seeking truth and one where they are debating? That’s a tricky distinction to make, but it is real. The Crooked Timber discussion never went full-tilt debate; there was always an element of truth seeking. It might be possible, however, to look at individual exchanges and judge whether they were truth-seeking, debate, or both. But that’s certainly more than I want to do here. That discussion was a long one, 258 comments and 70,000 words or so.

What really interests me is what would have happened if those people had engaged in that discussion face-to-face. I don’t know. I think a face-to-face discussion would have been a bit less contentious, and perhaps more truth-seeking and less debate. But I don’t really know.

If it had been face-to-face we would at least have known who one another was. We wouldn’t necessarily have understood one another’s full backgrounds, but we’d have a much fuller sense of one another as individuals. There’s no reason to think that that would have eliminated (the temptation to) debate; after all, that old research group did sometimes slip into debate mode when that one man decided to dig in.

Finally, why? That is, why are some topics so polarizing? That’s not obvious to me. Sure, this discussion was about human nature; that’s important, no?

About a third of the way into the discussion John Holbo observed (# 78):
With so much empirical uncertainty, it’s very hard for either side to win a decisive intellectual victory in the squishy middle (seems to me.) This means there is a strong polemical temptation to argue by trying to push the other party out of the squishy middle, because that would be victory.
Is it the squishiness that causes the trouble, with polarization being an attempt to force clarity where there is none?

I don’t know.

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