Debate Failure (was: SOC: Opposition to Transhumanism)

From: Joseph Sterlynne (
Date: Wed Jan 05 2000 - 12:10:03 MST

> Hal Finney

>I realize that this is pretty fuzzy in terms of specific
>prescriptions for action in the real world. I don't claim to have a
>fully fleshed out philosophy here; these are ideas which I am
>exploring and offering for consideration. It has long seemed to me
>that the traditional mode of discourse, argument and rebuttal, is not
>very successful. I believe we have seen mostly failures in our own
>debates here. We are much more successful when we are working
>cooperatively, brainstorming together, bouncing ideas off one
>another. I would like to see us find a way to bring this kind of
>approach into a larger arena.

Yes; I'm lacking specifics for prescriptions and a seamless
perspective as well; I think that many of us are. And we know that
in every moment the singularity comes a little closer and we are not

Something needs to be done, clearly. But I'm not entirely sure if
there is a fatal problem in the structure of traditional debate. The
problem probably lies in the medium or in the channels by which
debates may be productive. I suspect that our debates often fail,
drag on, or go in circles because there is little structure to them.
Greater structure in debates and general organization of resources
would serve to bind the community as one with common purposes; along
the way it would probably accomplish some of the things that people
might expect of the near-nascent transhumanist/Extropian political or
media spinoffs.

You cannot expect a method to work if it is not properly applied.
Political debates, for a timely example, operate within the realm of
established political power structures and therefore accomplish very
little or nothing. But even entirely earnest debates---such as those
on this list---can easily fail for any number of reasons. This list
lacks the features of a formal journal or academic community which are
supposed to maintain coherence, context, and quality in discourse.

Lee Daniel Crocker offered back in September a prescription for useful
debate, which didn't seem to attract much attention despite the fact
that it was one of the few recent explicit statements of the sort.
(And despite the fact that it was in response to a call for formal
debate.) During the recent "patents" discussion Robin remarked:
"Behold, the great cycle of email, where the only way to kill one
flamefest favorite (qualia), is to introduce another (e.g., patents)."
"Flamefesting" is clearly not intrinsic to the nature of debate.

I'll try to informally name a few problems, expressed in negative
terms, from which extended discussions on this list may suffer.

- Lack of topic statements
  In order to know what one is discussing one must have a
  clear statement of the contention. Often an observation
  or question becomes a major point of debate but is too
  monolithic or ill-defined for precise discussion.

- Lack of position statements
  It can be difficult to know who, exactly, thinks what when
  everyone is posting and crossposting to different messages.
  Not only is this inconvenient, it results in redundant
  postings, difficulty in seeing how many different positions
  are represented, and poor goal orientation (see).

- Lack of exterior context
  Topics, points of argument, and positions should include
  adequate reference to and understanding of developments
  in the rest of the world. The Extropy list is obviously
  not the first place that things get discussed; it serves
  no purpose to duplicate arguments already held in public
  forums. If posters are unfamiliar with previous work
  references and summaries can be offered.

- Lack of goal orientation
  Some of our debates should have some concrete results.
  Papers are published in journals to make knowledge
  available for further research. There doesn't seem to
  be many noticeable effects of many of the discussions
  here even when the participants are clearly begging for
  them. Part of the reason for the recent expression of
  desire for greater public exposure, I think, is that our
  interaction, which we all enjoy and which has great
  potential, often does not result in action. Bouncing
  ideas around is very important. Bouncing ideas around,
  bouncing them so that they don't get stuck on the roof,
  and throwing them purposefully at the target is better.

- Lack of topic management
  Topics can shift within messages; digressions can take over
  discussions---it is important to maintain focus on the main
  points of contention. I love digressions but they do not
  always serve the goals of a debate.

- Lack of thread management
  When topics do change (in general) the subject lines of
  posts should change. As Eliezer puts it in a specification
  for a mailing list, "One of the things I really hated about
  the Extropians list was missing some great discussion of tech
  because it grew out of "VEGI: Should turnips be illegal?""
    In addition, subject lines are not always maintained
  exactly as originally written. Large and small variations
  sneak in so that posts with common origins get listed
  separately in the archives. It helps to spell the subject
  properly at least so those variations don't have to be

- Lack of message text formatting
  A lot of general netiquette falls in this category: 80-
  character or less formatting of text; unambiguous
  attributions; minimal quotation of previous messages;
  minimal or no nested quotations or attributions; et cetera.

- Lack of moderation and review
  Boards of competent moderators and reviewers are certainly
  fallible. We must assume, however, that individual
  posters are more so. Most or all of the above deficiencies
  could be ameliorated by application of some sort of rule-
  based structure and moderation.

List members could endeavor to modify their strategies; other locations
(_The Transhumanist_, _The Journal of Transhumanism_, et cetera and,
of course, new publications and sites) could act not just as forums for
discussion but as centers for transhumanist ideas, news, and information
in general.

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