by Judith Curry
On a previous thread, I made the following statement:
I am striving for something different, sort of an e-salon where we discuss interesting topics at the knowledge frontier.
Lets take a closer look at how this might work.
Jean Goodwin has several posts that provide some insights:
- Maslin v. Morano: The full analysis
- Debate in the blogosphere: a small case study
- Making arguments expensive
- Some communication principles for an e-salon
JC comment: Not sure what to make of this one, although most of my audience is male. Re policy/ideological differences, yes that adds some spice, but some of the most interesting policy/ideological arguments here have been between two cool libertarian dudes (Chief Hydrologist and Rich Matarese).
The primary aim of conversationalists should be to keep the conversation going in a way that’s enjoyable to all. And Bizell & Herzberg (The Rhetorical Tradition, 2nd Ed.) provide a nice summary of where conversations are supposed to end up:
Harmony among conflicting viewpoints, not the victory of one of them, should be the ultimate goal (and the topics discussed in Scudéry’s conversations are usually left unresolved for that reason).
Note that “harmony,” unlike “consensus” requires diversity. We do in fact have to live with irresolution in the blogosphere. But can we come to like it?
One can’t openly “win” a conversation without breaking it. But there is still plenty of room for competitive self-display, in the manner one expresses one’s points. Getting the right word (we still stay it in French–le mot juste); constructing prose that is clear, flexible and maybe even a bit fancy; managing interpersonal relations in a subtle way: the conversationalist can win on style points where outright victory is denied. Now this would certainly be a nice thing to see more of in the blogosphere!
Managing interpersonal tensions. It’s long been recognized that in online discourse, the “cues” we rely on in face-to-face talk get “filtered out.” In a conversational debate, we have signals of intonation and body language that indicate how upset or angry our opponent is getting. Online, without these cues, it is easier for speakers to lose track of their audience’s possible feelings, and for audiences to misjudge a speaker’s intention to insult. One result: ”flame wars.”
Climate Audit manages this problem through what could be called an aggressive insistence on mutual respect, at least at the beginnings of posts. After my comment, I was repeatedly greeted by name and “welcomed in.” Less consistently but still noticeably, participants in the comment threads made an effort to avoid ad hominem attacks, identifying the target of their critiques as my work, as opposed to me. As McIntyre said during the discussion,
I try pretty hard to be polite and I think that it pays off over the long run. I know that I occasionally do not live up to this policy, but I also understand departures from this policy are counter-productive and self-indulgent and still try to adhere to the policy.
Managing misunderstandings. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that many disputes–online and in person–are driven more by misunderstandings than by actual disagreement. In face-to-face conversations, misunderstandings can be managed by a variety of means. Participants often know each other, reducing the frequency of misunderstandings. Further, possible misunderstandings can be detected through body language, and repairs can be sought quickly and easily.
None of these conditions hold in the blogosophere. People may not share much common knowledge, the comment threads lack interpersonal cues, and the statements at the center of a misunderstanding just hang there, perpetuating the problem. Speakers, diagnosing their audience’s lack of agreement as a misunderstanding, can begin to repeat their points over and over again, cluttering the comment thread and eventually irritating their fellow commenters.
Climate Audit appears to be managing this problem well by a general culture of patience; commenters just let things go. One indication of this is the relatively short thread “depth”; only occasionally does a comment thread go beyond 3 levels of responses, and there isn’t a conspicuous jockeying to have the last word. It’s my impression (at this point, undocumented) that several of the commenters are blog regulars, and resolve possible misunderstandings by listening to each other over a relatively extended period. So this, too, is a good strategy for comments in the blogosphere: let it go, try again next time.
JC comment: occasionally the discussion at Climate Etc. goes off the rails, and occasionally I have deleted a whole string of comments. I have struggled with levels of nested responses to allow; right now we are at the max that wordpress.com allows. Thoughts? Also, people that are “regulars” get to know the other “regulars,” and settle into a comfortable mode of sparring. One person noted that he only looked at the posts aligned on the left margins, and not the replies. I suggest substantive, lengthy posts not be made as part of a nested reply string.
There’s nothing much to stop people from selecting the strongest arguments to defend their valid point of view–or from cherry-picking evidence to support a blatant mischaracterization–on their own blogs. How to stop such loose talk? By making it expensive. Pielke opens his post with an “invitation” to his critics to come to his blog and “to explain what is wrong with the math and logic presented below.”
Demand clarity: One of the critics’ responsibilities to identify their points of disagreement. Pielke is thus licensed to refuse to respond until his critics answer a “simple question, do you contest any of the 10 statements above?”
Refuse to acknowledge a comment: The critics’ other responsibility is to offer some kind of a defense. Again, Pielke can refuse to respond until his critic follows his ”Advice: if you want to make a claim that ‘X is false’ then you need to provide evidence and an argument.”
Critique the arguer for an inadequate argument: Even when the critic puts some kind of argument forward, Pielke can refuse to reply in detail if that argument does not fulfill the critic’s probative responsibilities.
In sum: about half the debate consists not of arguments pro and con, but of Pielke’s reasoned refusals to respond–refusals justified by his critics’ failures to meet the probative obligations set up at the opening of the debate.
What can a critic do? One possibility is obvious: Meet the announced burden of proof! Of course, that may be hard to do in the fast-moving blog world–the first critic in this debate, for example, came in only an hour after the challenge was issued.
A second strategy is to attempt to redefine the burden of proof. One critic tries this midway by demanding that Pielke take responsibility himself, for producing and defending a solution to AGW. Pielke of course refuses to make a case until his critic has offered an adequate counterargument under the responsibilities set up at the beginning of the debate, and refers the critic back to all his previous works.
A final strategy for the critic: Refuse to engage, at least on the terms Pielke has set. This strategy has a downside; it allows Pielke to make (slightly indirect again) accusations of cowardice and sophistry.
The critic in refusing to debate can respond that he has dealt with the matter sufficiently on his own blog; that he has other responsibilities to meet (like the need to craft his next multipage blog post); that Pielke is unlikely to play fair; and so on. As the poet said, “the wise cats never appeared.”
This is why despite the many challenges to Climate Smackdowns, few have actually come off. We in the audience would enjoy the drama of a definitive climate debate, we would relish the victory (at least, if our side won), and we would all benefit from the higher quality arguments participants would be responsible for offering. But the debaters themselves seldom have incentives to take responsibility for what they are saying; and so in the Gresham’s law of argument, cheap talk drives out expensive argument.
JC comment. Climate Smackdowns or “cage matches” between two well matched opponents in a debate have great appeal, but they rarely happen. Why? Nobody wants to do homework on an assignment that someone else has given, although they might enjoy being a pundit and making comments on the topics. So Roger Pielke Jr is certainly an effective debater, but his blogospheric tactics don’t engender many takers. Does this allow him to claim he has “won”? Not really, since the debate didn’t happen on his terms.
Morano vs Maslin
Randy Olson’s fine and amusing The Benshi characterizes the mini-debate during the Copenhagen summit between “skeptical” spokesman Marc Morano of Climate Depot and climate scientist Prof. Mark Maslin as a “K.O.”–in Morano’s favor, of course. He’s right, and I want to use the first series of posts to examine why. Here’s their exchange, via YouTube.
Goodwin provides a very interesting analysis of what works in debate vs what doesn’t, using the Maslin Morano debate as an example. For people bemoaning that Morano invariably “wins” debates according to the public reaction, pay attention to Jean Goodwin’s analysis.
JC conclusion: trying to figure out how to effectively communicate in blogosphere and run a climate blog is a work in progress. The one thing I’ve figured out is that “echo chamber” blogs are much less interesting than ones with participants having a diversity of perspectives. Also, insulting people invariably ends up reflecting more poorly on the person doing the insulting rather than the object of the insult (that one is a very difficult lesson for people to learn.)