On blogging standards

Over here, “Notung” has an interesting article on the standards that bloggers might try to live up to if purporting to run something like a “freethought blog”. I think the same issues arise more widely with anything that has pretensions as a philosophy blog.

The post makes much of the principle of charity (read others on the basis that they are probably saying something that’s not absurd) and the further principle (which I, at least, strongly associate with Karl Popper) of addressing your opponents’ strongest arguments rather than sniping at their weaker arguments (perhaps in an effort to discredit people whose presence and activities seem inconvenient).

As philosophers, we should adopt these principles – or so I think. It seems helpful to use these principles to make intellectual progress and to keep ourselves honest. I do, in fact, try to follow them in my own philosophical work. But … as bloggers we are sometimes more concerned to be political activists than to be dispassionate philosophers keen to make intellectual progress for its own sake. I’m not sure that I want to follow these rules meticulously if objecting to the latest pronouncement by the Pope. Even here, though, I am sometimes dismayed by what look like blatantly illogical and even dishonest arguments from peers and colleagues.

In any event, what standards should we apply to ourselves as bloggers – especially if we also hold ourselves out as philosophers? Discuss.

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21 Comments.

  1. FormerComposer

    The level of blog discourse — along with all discourse — could be greatly enhanced if we could all do a better job of following Paul Grice’s Conversational Maxims. I did a brief post about them a few years ago that I still find relevant: Why Can’t We All Just Play Grice?”[corrected to get link]

  2. michael reidy

    Notung has a tendency to write a history of the universe up to the present day before he gets to his point. As well as the piece that you linked to I read his thoughts on AV which was rejected by the Great Bewildered British Public. He didn’t help.

    Get you chief point in early. Do not distract with irrelevancies, like Pope remarks as you develop your argument. Give offence where relevant rather than as a nod to your supposed constituency.

  3. You’re not sure that you want to follow these rules meticulously if objecting to the latest pronouncement by the Pope => this, I can understand. However, you might profit from such a tolerant attitude, in the sense that any adversary should be compelled to act on you as fair as you acted on him.

    Well, at least we can hope so…

  4. Thanks for this.

    I agree that there’s room for humour and invective if appropriate for your audience. I want to make a distinction between a blog post about something (like a pronouncement from the Pope), and a blog post (or comment) that forms part of a discussion about some issue. If the aim is to discuss the issue productively, then invective is not helpful. However if we are merely pointing out some obvious folly elsewhere for our own bewilderment/amusement, then I don’t think productivity is really the chief aim, and so the principles do not apply (at least to the same extent).

    FormerComposer: I like Grice’s maxims too and they did cross my mind, but I didn’t feel they were necessary for freethinking discourse. I think a post can be wordy or badly-written, and yet still be in the spirit of freethought.

    michael reidy: Yes, I failed to change anybody’s mind about AV! I was very annoyed at the time. My ‘history of the universe’ was for those who wanted to question my view of what ‘freethought’ really is. At least what I think about it is on the table, up for debate. Yes – stick the conclusion in your introduction – that’s what my head of department always tells us! In this case, I couldn’t see a way of doing that – perhaps that’s just my lack of creativity.

  5. The proposals sound great in theory.

    However, most of us, including the vast majority of the free thinkers and skeptics I have run into, have a much greater need to win arguments than to advance in understanding.

    So much of our sense of self-worth is tied to winning arguments and we derive so much pleasure from putting down someone who challenges us.

    I suppose the first step should be not so much to propose ideals that are difficult to attain, but to recognize how competitive most of us are and how much we need to assert and to show off our intellectual powers.

  6. FormerComposer brings up the first and last word, which is Grice. His list of ‘speaker’s duties’ is, of course, a classic. I’ll also plug my ‘listener’s duties’ (TPM blog’s best kept secret!)

    I’m still a proponent of the theory that one should not be an unreasonable asshole. I’ll look the other way if you’re charming and unreasonable, or a reasonable asshole. But if what you’re saying is riddled with mistakes, and being a dick about it, then you ought to be ejected from the 21st century internet and forced to live in Usenet 1995, back in the day when they seriously referred to things like “Netiquette” and every other person was an irate hacker with itchy keyboard finger(s).

    By contrast, I don’t say “be a reasonable nice person”, and expect everyone to live up to that standard as a rule. Sure, it’s a laudable goal, and ideally people should aspire to be decent and reasonable. But if you set it as a rule, you’re setting yourself up for constant disappointment without cause.

    The fact of the matter is, people post quite a lot based only on intuitions. And intuitions are fallible and fraught, inclining an unwary speaker to misjudge tone for factual error, and vice-versa. A negative intuition towards some passage of text does not tell you that the passage was irrational as opposed to being mean-spirited — intuition alone just tells you that you think there is something wrong with the passage. So whenever someone states, “I don’t like your tone”, without also attempting to offer reasoned criticism, it strikes me as being very possible that the speaker may not have thought it through.

    Still, “don’t be an unreasonable asshole” doesn’t let people off the hook. Actually, it’s a double-edged sword. Everybody’s bound to screw up every so often. So the more of an asshole you are, the more reasonable you have to be about it, and the more strict and obvious your standards for ‘reasonableness’ have to be. Charity is like capital in a welfare system: everybody deserves a minimum, but some people deserve a lot more.

  7. michael reidy

    The presumption that one has a proprietory grip on rationality is in itself a cause of flaccidity in the thinking muscle, as it were. When we go broader than the purely rational there is an attempt to own the concept of humanism and a rejection of other ideas of the human form divine (Blake). It then turns into a febrile enthusiasm of its own. This is where reason based belief founders though it could be said that the definition of knowledge as justified true belief is inherently faulty.

  8. I would argue that philosophers not take their blogging cues merely from philosophy, but from the lessons of evolution and positive psychology, which are much more concerned with cooperation and the pursuit of happiness. Sure, truth through logic is the goal, but we must work *together* to get there and that implies repeated interactions and maintaining reputations of trustworthiness and usefulness. As philosophers, we should understand what is required to live the good life and do our best to be exemplars of wise behavior.

  9. Peter Beattie

    » Russell:
    the further principle (which I, at least, strongly associate with Karl Popper) of addressing your opponents’ strongest arguments

    In the preface to the second edition to The Open Society, Popper says:

    In any case, it is obvious that we must try to appreciate the strength of an opponent if we wish to fight him successfully.

    I have a feeling that there’s a quote somewhere that makes this point even more forcefully, but I can’t seem to find it right now.

  10. Peter Beattie

    And here’s another quote pertinent to the discussion that references Popper:

    Throughout the history of advocacy and controversy the approach even of polemicists of genius, like Voltaire, has been to seek out and attack the weak points in an opponent’s case. This has a severe disadvantage. Every case has weaker as well as stronger parts, and its appeal lies, obviously, in the latter; so to attack the former may embarrass its adherents but not undermine the considerations on which their adherence largely rests. This is one of the reasons why people so rarely change their views after losing an argument. More often such a reverse leads eventually to a strengthening of their position, in that it leads them to abandon or improve the weakest parts of their case. It often happens that the lon­ger two intelligent people go on arguing the better each side’s case becomes, for each is being all the time improved as a result of criticism. The Popperian analysis of this is self-evident. What Popper aims to do, and at his best does do, is to seek out and attack an opponent’s case at its strongest. Indeed, before attacking it he tries to strengthen it still further. He sees if any of its weaknesses can be removed and any of its formulations improved on, gives it the benefit of every doubt, passes over any obvious loopholes; and then, having got it into the best-argued form he can, attacks it at its most powerful and appealing. This method, the most intellectually serious possible, is thrilling; and its results, when success­ful, are devastating. For no perceptible version of the defeated case is reconstructable in the light of the criticism, every known resource and reserve of substance being already present in the demolished version. (Magee: Popper, p. 91-2)

    This is something that should be made explicit, I think: one should ask, ‘What specifically have I done to make my opponent’s case as strong as possible?’ And give a detailed answer.

  11. Peter Beattie

    And one specific comment about FtB, if I may. As one can see from certain sites, such as Pharyngula (and even B&W in recent months), it is a grave mistake not to rein in commenters who presume the role of enforcer of rules, or of some orthodoxy or other, more often than not by trying to shout down an ostensible offender or tell them to ‘fuck off’. Fail to do so and such a place degenerates into an echo chamber where the only voice that is heard is effectively that of the owner—which, sadly, a look at the comment sections of e.g. Pharyngula and B&W shows is pretty much what has happened there. If you effectively ban certain contributions based on what conclusion they come to, conformity is what you will get. Just because you had good intentions, or at least that’s what you liked to think, doesn’t mean that criticisms of your conduct referencing totalitarian states and their fetish for conformity (eventually always including its illiberal enforcement) are not to the point. If you know any history at all, you should know that good intentions have never been a bar to abuses of liberty.

  12. The funniest moment in the entire debacle was when some commenter, named Sam (I think), in the middle of a torch and pitchfork anti-harrassment drive in the Pharyngula comments, casually asked whether Pharyngula had an anti harrassment policy itself.
    Naturally enough, this mild (and when you think of it, blindingly obvious) point provoked a reaction not unsimilar to asking a group of vampires whether they wanted a garlic sandwich.
    Which makes me wonder whether some rather mild groundrules might go a long way to answering the current problems. What I mean is something along the lines of Jerry Coynes unwritten rules for WEIT – just write them down. Basically this would mean something like
    1. “No personal insults to other commenters allowed in the comments”
    2. Disagreement is allowed but if you fail to back up your argument then you will be regarded as spamming the forum and will not be allowed to continue commenting.
    3. Personal abuse, threats or stalking behavior is not permitted.
    Those forums that agree to these rules will then carry a little logo that signifies that their comment sections are ‘safe’ places for discussion.
    Someone here could probably come up with more apt set than those mentioned.

  13. Sigmund, do you by any chance have a link for that?

  14. Sorry Peter, I can’t remember exactly in which pharyngula thread Sam asked about their anti-harrassment policy – I guess you might find it with a search of “Sam” and “anti-harrassment policy”. I think it was prior to the thunderfoot/laden evictions.

  15. Peter Beattie

    I’ll have a look, thanks Sigmund.

    And in case anyone was under the illusion that certain bloggers are not in fact tolerating the ganging up on, and shutting up of, people who for all intents and purposes have only voice a contrary viewpoint—since no actual arguments are addressed—here is PZ actually passing the torch to his mob in re Paula Kirby and any commenter unwise enough to even appear to be defending anything at all she said:

    I just find it too depressing, so I’m just going to pass the baton on to Jadehawk and Suirauqa to administer the drubbing. They do it well.

    As I said, not a single argument addressed or put forward. But to those who are in possession of the truth, any means to drum out error is eventually justified.

  16. The principle of charity is certainly worth following. First, it helps avoid committing the straw man fallacy. Second, it can help with keeping things on a civil level. People tend to get a bit miffed when their points are given interpretations that make them seem absurd or foolish. That said, sometimes a point is actually absurd-but it is still nice to handle that with a bit of charity.

    As far as sniping weaker arguments, I think this depends on what is meant by weaker arguments. If what is meant is an actual weak argument, then criticizing it for being weak seems legitimate. If what is meant is going after weak arguments and treating their “defeat” as destroying the author’s entire case while ignoring the other arguments, then that would be poor reasoning. If it means going after minor arguments and treating them as major points, then that would also be an error.

  17. (Good) philosophers (with less ego and more humility in their sufferance of those with a different perspective) have a practice of “intellectual charity” in the dialog with others. We should adopt this is general, though it can be hard sometimes, along the lines of “not suffering fools gladly”.

    PS: I like the word sufferance” it goes well with charity in a self-giving type of way.

  18. Of course, with what you’ve said on Papal pronouncements it seems it may be stretching your intellectual charity to see his point of view on that term! javascript:grin(‘:wink:’)

    http://militesveritatis.blogspot.sg/2008/04/intellectual-charity-pope-benedict-to.html

  19. >In any event, what standards should we apply to ourselves as bloggers – especially if we also hold ourselves out as philosophers? Discuss.

    In terms of audience expectation, perhaps blogging has the simultaneous plus and minus of being as much, or more, akin to a message scribbled on toilet paper as to an academic essay. Fewer footnotes are needed, and thought is freer.

    What standards to hold yourself to? I think there are a lot of variables. Who are you writing for? Why are you writing? I think it’s worth mentioning that even outside a blog context there’s many styles of philosophical writing. Nietzschean or Wittgensteinian aphorisms, Spinozan syllogisms, Platonic dialogues, Sartrean novels…

    Which method wins? Which of these styles ought one prefer? My personal taste is for wishy-washy pluralism. I think it’s easy to argue for value in all of them and that the project of trying to impose standards on philosophical blogging is as misguided, and as ineffective, as trying to impose a single style of art.

  20. Re: Bloggle Made In Vermont, “Goliath just bought David’s slingshot.

    What could this possibly mean? Time for Jeremy to consider a new spam filter.

  21. Dennis Sceviour,

    The spam filters don’t seem to get nonsense and spammers have apparently found comments that get by the filters-I see the same or similar ones on many blogs.

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