Re: Mailing List Quality (Was: Certainty, Experiments & Facts)

Crosby_M (
Sun, 29 Sep 1996 18:33:00 -0400

Sarah Marr wrote:
"My experience of this list is that people always speak out if they
disagree with something, but don't if they simply agree. So I would have
interpreted a lack of responses to my original mail as agreement by the
list, not disagreement (and hence disagreement with you)."

On Sunday, September 29, 1996 3:44PM Robin Hanson wrote:
"I wrote to Sarah privately, saying: I think this is a mistake. I often
don't reply to things I disagree with. Replying depends on having time,
thinking the other discussants are worth talking with, and thinking
email is a good forum for that sort of discussion."

Robin adds:
"The quality of a mailing list is a fragile thing. If just takes a few
"bad apples" willing to post enough junk, and then people will stop
bothering to post a reply to every post they think is below par. And it
goes down from there."

I'm not sure what is included in your definition of quality. You imply
that posting 'junk' will spoil a mailing list. But, as you point out,
the 'junk' can be ignored if it's not on your personal list of
priorities. Far more fragile is the quality of civil discourse, which
(IMO) Reilly Jones has more seriously violated with his slurs about
"imbecility" and "conceptual drivel" and, less seriously, with his
apparent notion that anyone who speaks must do so with 100% certainty.

I really hope we don't poison this list by classifying people as
'nihilists' and 'imbeciles', nor condemn their ideas as 'conceptual
drivel' just because their thinking may be 'muddled' in some areas, or
their terms were ambiguous and their ideas may have been poorly


When I said that Sarah's initial response to Reilly's initial post was
"incisive", I meant two things simultaneously: (1) It really 'ripped'
Reilly's post apart (perhaps a little too intensively, and he responded
in kind); and, (2) It was sharp and to the point in some instances. I
used "incisive" in an ambiguous way. Does that qualify my statement as
'junk'? Should there be no subjectivity allowed on this list?

I am guilty of posting some 'junk' myself recently (mostly by improperly
using terms I'm still learning about, like 'ontology' and 'Markov
processes', in an ambiguous way or incomplete way), but as Sarah points
"I had a short discussion ... which showed me flaws in my thinking and
allowed me to revise my ideas ... I'd hate to think I might have missed
that chance."

The Socratic method of the mailing list is a good place to learn and
clear up some confusion. But every utterance shouldn't need to adhere
to strict scientific methods of experimentation, or formal logic, or
mathematical proof. Neither should every utterance need to be
challenged - there should be some room for humor & banter.

Robin concludes:
"I think the net is in great need of some innovate alternatives to the
stark alternatives of open vs. moderated lists. One idea I've played
with is a list pair, one open and one closed (to posting, but readable
by all). To apply for membership in the closed list, you submit five of
your recent posts to the open list, which are forwarded to three random
closed list members for consideration."

So, for example, the closed list might contain your "Great Filter"
essay, but not all the rambling discussion of it that took place on the
open list. This seems like a nice idea, more like an official journal
than a debating forum though. Given limited list management resources,
however, it seems somewhat unnecessary to me - intelligent participants
can determine for themselves what posts contain significant ideas and
which are less formal or more conversational, or just items that *might*
be of interest to some.

Robin ends with:
"It is important to have a common sense of what some community is

Would the 'authorities' on the closed list be obliged to consider all
sides of a debate? If the community consists of all who participate in
the open list, can there be a "common sense" of what 'the community' is
seeing other than through the full and open forum?

Mark Crosby