Monday, 27 August 2012

Building a sustainable community that avoids group-think and embraces cultural evolution.

Having thought about the dynamics at play regarding Atheismplus over the weekend, I figured I would try and crystallise my ideas into a general guide for creating as inclusive a community* as possible, one that guards against group-think and facilitates both internal (community) and external (social) cultural evolution. It would be utterly contradictory and hypocritical for me to view this guide as anything other than one person's thoughts, an embryonic seed at best, but it does represent the kind of community I am waiting to emerge before I would consider committing myself again. I can only assume that I am not the only one.

Should those people leading the momentum behind Atheismplus wish to heed any of this advice I'd be more than happy for them to take it. If not, I care not. I do not expect this vision to materialise suddenly in its full form anyhow; I'm not naive enough to think there are not, in all likelihood, several evolutionary steps still to play through before that were to happen. If Atheismplus wants to go a different route, then that is entirely their choice to make. I only hope that emotions cool soon and we can actually get down to some serious inter-community discourse.

First of all I want to share a few structural and cultural components that I believe are necessary to create and maintain a sustainable community. Although I have written this with Atheismplus in mind, I think many, if not all, of the points are likely to be applicable to most communities that eek to be more than simply an interest group. As I've said previously, I hold no political allegiance one way or the other, so I wouldn't be surprised if those who identify as either left or right both find objections or concerns regarding these ideas. After that, I want to share a few ideas for some shared culture that embraces the principles I've laid out, shared culture that does not run the risk of centralising the community or facilitating group-think.

Structural components of a sustainable community:

  • The community structure should be as horizontal as possible. Either you could limit this community to being an autonomous part of a wider community, or else seek to found an affiliation, or federation, of groups, individuals and organisations that together strive to cross-promote each others work and collaborate as much as possible. Either way, such cross-promotion should be used to maintain a conscious balance in the diversity of discourse, both in terms of subject and of authorship.
  • The functions and duties of positions of authority should be as transparent and, where applicable, as crowd-sourced as possible, across all scales organisation.
  • Revolving positions of authority can promote greater diversity, both within the affiliated groups of the community and in any overarching administrative structures, of which their should be as few as possible (a media contact point, promotion and awareness, political lobbying, an open-source arbitration process etc).
  • An agreement should exist on the assumption that nobody speaks for anyone else but themselves, unless speaking as a representative with a consensual mandate, on whatever scale. So simple (yet so staggering common in this debate), but just because individual A said X, does not mean that all others who affiliate under the same moniker as A also believe X, nor that it is official policy of the group unless otherwise stated (and even then one should treat it with caution unless there is evidence of a consensus process having been implemented. Individual A could easily be speaking from an emotional state and proclaiming personal, assumed belief and not fact, thereby absolving affiliated others of assumed belief in X).
  • Whether crowd-sourced community guidelines are created for the community as a whole or by individual groups and organisations themselves, they are vital to possess along with mechanisms for grievances to be heard (prior to any incident that threatens to get out of hand). My personal preference is for a 90% or so approval benchmark for acceptance of a guideline or procedural process; this represents a strong mandate that even those who get ideas voted down should be able to accept, yet flexible enough to avoid bloc-voting tactics (it would be interesting to see if there were any studies on the levels of voluntary acquiescence to consensus at various levels). It is important to have a set of guidelines with a sufficient enough mandate to act as an objective framework that everyone can have confidence in appealing to. I've had experience in this regard (anecdotal, I admit) and the impression that it was an absolutely crucial component was apparent almost immediately.
  • With these guidelines, moderators should have an agreed mandate to use whatever powers they have been given, by consensus, to ensure that guidelines are followed. Some issues may be destined to end in flame war, at least at first; for these, all you need is somewhere to park it, away from the main message boards where with luck it will die a slow death. If not, people are free to ignore it. For persistent offenders you shouldn't be scared to suspend or revoke accounts. It's not a free-speech issue; nobody is stopping them spewing shit on Twitter or anywhere else, its just the consensus-derived authority of a group of people choosing to stop you metaphorically stalking them and screaming in their face 24/7.

Cultural components required for a sustainable community:

  • We must all completely flip the way we view critical critique, and those who would offer it, from the instinctively defensive and unconstructive assumption of conflict to an acknowledgement of what is in fact a compliment: someone has deemed your views worthy of time-spent constructing a rebuttal. Obviously this can and is achieved already everyday, though usually with issues that do not have unaddressed ideological belief, however small and subconscious, as their foundations. Those issues remain compartmentalised from our skeptical environment and, it seems to me, from our skeptical way of thinking (I speak here simply from my own experience, and not just about trolls). We need to collectively recognise these unspoken biases and apply the same level of critical thought (and respect) to all issues equally. A lot of lapses and biting of lips will be involved, I'm sure, but there is always “sorry”.
  • We need to create a culture that openly celebrates the best Devil's advocates out there. After all, to be a good Devil's advocate one needs to go all out in researching and trying to understand the rationales for what they may personally see as unsavory arguments and beliefs. We can't expect to have constructive debates (either for the inherent advance of knowledge or the for the perception of the audience) with sceptics or fundamentalists who do not share with us an objective framework for debate; a culture that promotes the playing of Devil's advocate in a constructive way is an alternative way to guard against the emergence of group-think.
  • The written word has its uses, obviously but it's shit for tackling social issues where advocates are often all to willing to insert whatever tone of voice or choice of interpretation is needed in order to validate pre-existing unexplored or unfounded beliefs. If we revive the Socratic tradition, actually utilise video technology to present crowd-sourced debates and arguments, we could take it to a whole new level. I'm sure that Socrates would be ribbing Plato hard now were they to know about Twitter, but there is no reason that we cannot harness the best bits of both direct debate and text.
  • There can be no taboos. I'm serious on this one, but it's gonna be tricky. It might be that some issues are so fresh or vulgar that time would be needed to develop the culture a bit first, get some training in as it were, before it starts to do more good than harm. But ultimately, everything that is out there in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes seemingly FUBAR world is best understood through critical, skeptical thought. It's just something we will need to deal with as it comes, and all try to (for want of a softer, less evocative word) self-police the community.
  • On 'self-policing', it would ideally be a natural consequence of the redefinition of how we see criticism, encouraging a culture of challenging each others views. It will mean learning to control instinctive, defensive tendencies at first, given the lack of critical discourse to date within our present communities on social issues. The best way to do this in my view is to have a code of conduct for debate (something we should already be using i.e. awareness of fallacies, respect etc), something we all subscribe, and hold each other, to. Furthermore, this will help us enter into debates and discussions in a constructive manner, under the assumption that everyone is coming from the same place, not in terms of views and issues, but in terms of method.
  • This is the central strand that runs through all of this advice: If you wish to have a sustainable community, it must be built through a shared culture of methodology, not a shared culture of content. This is the only way to avoid group-think, facilitate cultural evolution and be seen to be just the most damned reasonable and unobjectionable community the world has ever seen.

Here are some ideas that embody these principles, examples of shared culture that would both bind and challenge us as a community:

  1. A wiki for collating scientific evidence on social justice issues – It should be completely open to all, but moderated in the manner described above (very important), with room for debate on each entry. Entries could be tagged for filtering and debate purposes – tags should include, at a minimum, indicators of study quality (whether it is blinded, has a large sample group, area of funding etc), the appearance of objections with further room for debate, and the theme of the study. It wont matter how people approach adding entries, so long as it is sufficiently and effectively moderated by enough users. For the sake of being a user-friendly resource, as well as responsive to cultural evolution, the front page could consist of portals for the top ten or so issues voted up and down on a daily basis (obviously measures would need to be in place to ensure it doesn't become victim to foul play). I don't know if such a resource exists already (I have no time to research this blog as well as write it) but it would be a really useful resource to have to congregate around. It would also be a great media resource, should they find the inclination to actually start quoting evidence. If things get out of hand then folk could always turn to idea number three..
  1. Podcast, or preferably video-based production, for promoting diversity and quality debate – One or two regulars artful in the ways of the devils advocate play host to a different group or person each week, providing a constructive counter-balance to controversial and emotive issues. It would need to be meticulous in it's approach, crowd-sourcing opinion in advance of each episode. Evidence likely to be drawn upon for the debate would be compiled by each side in advance and available to the public. In order to act as an exemplar that the wider community would find constructive, it might be useful to mirror the structure of the debates on idea number three..
  1. Debate Arena – I've a feeling this sort of thing exists, but building one from scratch would give the element of community ownership and consensual design necessary to gain credibility. It could be cross-referenced with the wiki for contestants to draw upon evidence, with debates advertised in advance for research and audience awareness. Contestants could tag other people into the debate, either sourced in advance or drawn from the audience, should the debate require different expertise to advance. People could vote as the debate goes where they think points or arguments have been won, contribute to visualisations that show which way, and to what extent, a consensus is evolving and have the ability to award kudos points to people who uphold their debating standards under pressure. Participants would begin with their own interpretation of the context of the debate, before embarking on a series of 2 minute rounds (though this should be flexible on agreement, according to requirements). A maximum of one correction of a rebuttal, one rebuttal of your own and one argument to advance the debate allowed per round, to really allow for granular exploration of issues and avoid it simply becoming noise. Victory is declared if the crowd consensus reaches a certain level and remains there for two further rounds (a three strikes and you're out policy). Losers could of course seek a rematch, giving plenty of time to perfect your next material. With such a format, I would hope that over time there would emerge people who elevate this style of debate to an art form, applauded for their succinctness, speed of thought and clarity of communication. Debates would be transcribed using voice recognition, as well as being available for stream and download, with the transcript open to editing should errors be spotted. This would allow for easy citing in blogs and further debate. Personally, I would absolutely love to see any debate, interactive or otherwise, between DJ Grothe and Brian Dunning on whether skepticism is actually applicable to politics. I respect the work of both of them but I cannot ignore the possibility that two such prominent voices seem content, publicly at least, in knowing that they entirely disagree on an issue that should be regarded as a fundamental aspect of what skepticism actually is. That's just my opinion, but I'd be more than happy to debate it.

    EDIT: Another idea for how the debate might be won - The synthesis ending. Basically, the audience can participate by buzzing in and proposing a synthesis answer to the debate. Either contestant can opt to agree with the synthesis proposal, and if the proposal gains consensus level within the crowd, the first of the contestants to have agreed wins the battle.

As I said, I'm not telling anyone to do anything, merely presenting my own ideal version of community in the hope that some people might see, understand and adopt some of my ideas. That's even the last I'm going to write on the matter. Between work and the baby, we've got too much on at the present for me to contribute further to the discussion on Atheismplus. Beyond replying to comments here and the odd tweet, I shall remove myself now and wish you all good luck.

* I have used 'community' as shorthand for what Benedict Anderson called the 'imagined community', different to a geographical community (of which I say nothing) in its scope and number.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

An attempt at being constructive regarding this whole #FTBullies thing

The purpose of this blog is to try and offer a hopefully new and constructive perspective to the increasingly bitter debate currently ongoing within the skeptical/atheist community. I am a relative newcomer to this issue having only caught up with it over the last few days; I'm hoping my relatively outside view might be of some value to someone. First though, a little context is needed to try and minimise the seemingly inevitable (potentially from both sides), knee-jerk, distinctly un-skeptical responses that may ensue.

I've considered myself a skeptic for many years. I hold to no pre-packaged political viewpoint. I like to think that I take each issue as it comes, listening to logical arguments on both sides and trying to form an opinion for myself based on the evidence available. Yet I know as well as any that not I nor anybody is infallible, and so if you find reason to disagree all that I ask is that you reply with evidence, logic and respect in a manner befitting the term skeptic. Straw is for horses.

This is my first blog for nearly a year. During that time I have been feeling somewhat adrift, for reasons that may colour my perception of what is going on (consider this a disclosure). Last year, in the wake of the rise of Occupy, I sought to debate politics with my fellow skeptics. In return, I got insults, strawmen, prevarications, and the kind of trollish behaviour we usually criticise our opponents of. On the one hand I had Brian Dunning claiming that politics couldn't be assessed skeptically because it was 'value-based', while on the other hand I had DJ Grothe proclaiming the exact opposite. It suddenly occurred to me that all one needed to do to break the skeptical consensus on organised religion was to ditch the metaphysical stuff and call it politics. The realisation that within our community, beyond religion, alternative medicine and claims of the supernatural lay ideologies as deeply entrenched as any that we seek to counter was a shockingly painful one.

Anyone who believes that the skeptical community possesses a rational quality that puts it above such things as ideology, ignorance and “pointless” schisms, as I once did, are simply being na├»ve. Don't get me wrong, we are in good company; the vast majority of intellectual thinkers since the enlightenment have made the same, relativistic mistake. But I'm not writing this to point fingers, cast blame and root for one team over another. It isn't constructive in an environment such as this. My area of interest lies in networks and power relations, and their relationship with culture and cultural evolution. So, in order to try and explain this in as objective a manner as possible, I shall try to stick to that framework to briefly explain why I think this situation is for the best.

The basis for any community is shared culture. How that culture is produced, disseminated and consumed determines the social power structures that emerge. At one end of the spectrum we have the cult, a strictly top-down model of cultural creation and dissemination, resulting in a group of individuals bound tightly together by virtue of having consumed an all-but-identical shared culture. At the other end we have something like the skeptical community; a far more networked collection of (often grass-roots) affiliated organisations and individuals. Furthermore, thanks to the internet we have developed this community largely through a democratised meritocracy of cultural production, something that has allowed people of independent minds to create bonds without the need for a centrally-derived shared culture.

However, there is another kind of power dynamic that hasn't been addressed by this unprecedented (in scale and rate of iteration anyhow) model of community. Within any growing community, there will always be a relative disparity of power between those that have risen to positions of authority and influence, often the 'veterans', and those that are either primarily consuming or else simply new to the scene. As the creators of the overwhelming majority of the communities universally shared culture, these influential people. to a large extent, determine the discourse and, as good skeptics should, they primarily discuss that which they know: alternative medicine, religion, pseudoscience etc. However, it is my opinion that as well as being a handy rule to keep in mind when embarking on a debate, limiting oneself in this way can also be used to justify ignoring issues that fall outside of those established within the shared culture, and/or conflict with one's concepts and beliefs derived from other spaces entirely, outside of the skeptical community (family, local 'real-life' community values etc). This creates a naturally emerging, unsystematic top-down element in the creation of our shared culture and, as a result, there is a group-think dynamic at play that is far more ingrained in some than others. This is where the split lies in my view. We have a group of people that can see the elephants in the room, people who's values from other communities cannot be so easily compartmentalised-away and who cannot, for whatever reason, maintain the self-censorship/denial necessary to maintain this veneer of complete unity. And, as with every community that has ever come before us, we also have a group that denigrates such up-starts as trouble-makers and upsetters of the natural order.

Oh the irony.

The important thing is the veneer has been stripped away. Now should be the time for all the major-players to face up to the fact that there are fundamental aspects of skepticism that have yet to be addressed. On this, you would all come to us as equals. It is simply ridiculous to say that politics and social issues are not the realm of skepticism; that may be the desire of those that wish to maintain the illusion, but discourse and method will emerge soon whether you like it or not. Social science may not be as empirical, but that doesn't mean the answer is to simply ignore social issues or, worse yet, to seemingly actively discourage its discussion to a sometimes obsessive degree. Only through the influential people openly discussing these issues sensibly, skeptically (no more ad-hominems, no more strawmen, no more disrespect), and with no taboos, can we hope to sustain this community in a way that can act as an effective force for good. Create and systematise tools to facilitate this communities evolution, or die (metaphorically speaking, of course). This is what must be done if you want to try and keep this movement together, though in my heart-of-hearts I doubt if it is either possible nor even desirable. If one thing has come out of this for me, it is a feeling of confirmation that this movement, like all before it, does not have what it takes to be truly unprecedented. While the wider societies in which we all live continue to propagate radically different, largely segregated cultural concepts, we cannot expect to maintain a community through simply ignoring it. If that's what you want, call it a club.

This has gone on long enough. In my own personal opinion, if you cannot resist partaking in this runaway tit-for-tat behaviour, launching strawmen and ad-hominem attacks, gleefully interpreting emotional and distressed individual statements as representative for an entire group (and this goes to both sides), then you do not deserve to call yourselves skeptics. As you might have guessed, and for the reasons I described in the beginning, I find my sympathies lying with those that want more from a community than possibly the most ironic case of group-think likely to have ever existed, those that cannot separate their skepticism and their social conscience Therefore I offer them some, in my opinion, much needed advice, should they desire it.

    • Do not simply make the same mistake again and think for one moment that this time the community is going to be perfect. We are all the product of a shit system, and we all bring issues because from it. Reinforcing an us-versus-them narrative merely takes you along a well-trodden path to a place you don't want to be.

    • If the energy and enthusiasm is genuinely there then you do have an opportunity to create something special. The world of politics in all its forms is crying out for skeptical discourse.

    • This should probably be titled rule number one, two and three: beware your own hidden ideologies and confirmation biases. Actually put in effort at self-reflection, mainstream and systematise it into forums and debates and discourse. Learn about facilitation and conflict-resolution. Skepticism and social issues has a bad track-record; don't be complacent and assume that it won't be you next. 

    • Also importantly, apologise for errors, things said in the heat of the moment, strawmen and the like. Try and develop a shared culture of meticulous debate etiquette: if the group-think and underlying ideologies of those shouting loudest are as deeply held as I suspect, then it isn't them that you are appealing to . It is that majority that primarily consume that are the most reachable. I genuinely think that on the larger issues you guys have the moral high ground. Make sure you act like it.

    • If you want to be truly unprecedented, there is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind (the simplest there is, in my view). Facilitate cultural evolution. This means creating discourse to find ways to systematise checks and balances against group-think and the development of dogma: always actively seek greater diversity; if in a position of high influence, accept the role with humility and act primarily as a facilitator, promoting as many voices as possible whilst ensuring one's own voice is not dominating multiple discourses; create an environment where people can be comfortable playing devils advocate (far more constructive for the neutral reader should the current level of debate out there remain so toxic); actively resist attempts to create an us-versus-them culture, a breeding ground for the development of group-think; and do not be afraid to remind and correct those who share your (at present) beliefs when you feel that they are out-of-line or in need of some self-reflection.

      UPDATE: There is a good critique by Massimo Pigliucci, with lively comments, to be found here: 
      ... is a reasoned blog by Alonzo Fyfe addressing some of the flawed responses to #atheismplus as well as a critique of the current circumstance.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Blog by former Ambassador Craig Murray

Taken from which is currently down.

UPDATE: Site is now back up it seems, having faced "serious traffic" according to (presumed admin in) comments. 
    America’s Vassal Acts Decisively and Illegally

    by craig on August 16, 2012 11:30 am in Uncategorized

    I returned to the UK today to be astonished by private confirmation from within the FCO that the UK government has indeed decided – after immense pressure from the Obama administration – to enter the Ecuadorean Embassy and seize Julian Assange.
    This will be, beyond any argument, a blatant breach of the Vienna Convention of 1961, to which the UK is one of the original parties and which encodes the centuries – arguably millennia – of practice which have enabled diplomatic relations to function. The Vienna Convention is the most subscribed single international treaty in the world.
    The provisions of the Vienna Convention on the status of diplomatic premises are expressed in deliberately absolute terms. There is no modification or qualification elsewhere in the treaty.
    Article 22
    1.The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter
    them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
    2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises
    of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the
    mission or impairment of its dignity.
    3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of
    transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.
    Not even the Chinese government tried to enter the US Embassy to arrest the Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen. Even during the decades of the Cold War, defectors or dissidents were never seized from each other’s embassies. Murder in Samarkand relates in detail my attempts in the British Embassy to help Uzbek dissidents. This terrible breach of international law will result in British Embassies being subject to raids and harassment worldwide.
    The government’s calculation is that, unlike Ecuador, Britain is a strong enough power to deter such intrusions. This is yet another symptom of the “might is right” principle in international relations, in the era of the neo-conservative abandonment of the idea of the rule of international law.
    The British Government bases its argument on domestic British legislation. But the domestic legislation of a country cannot counter its obligations in international law, unless it chooses to withdraw from them. If the government does not wish to follow the obligations imposed on it by the Vienna Convention, it has the right to resile from it – which would leave British diplomats with no protection worldwide.
    I hope to have more information soon on the threats used by the US administration. William Hague had been supporting the move against the concerted advice of his own officials; Ken Clarke has been opposing the move against the advice of his. I gather the decision to act has been taken in Number 10.
    There appears to have been no input of any kind from the Liberal Democrats. That opens a wider question – there appears to be no “liberal” impact now in any question of coalition policy. It is amazing how government salaries and privileges and ministerial limousines are worth far more than any belief to these people. I cannot now conceive how I was a member of that party for over thirty years, deluded into a genuine belief that they had principles.