Already a couple of good things have come out of this morning's rant. One is Brandon's outstanding post On Teaching People to Reason Well, an incredibly important topic I'd like to see more widely discussed. And second is Timothy's comment, wherein he suggests a new kind of blog carnival:
I think what you are saying is basically true, the level of reasoning in the community is appalling. I remember when I was first starting philosophy, I grew excited, then horrified, then depressed at my new found ability to spot six non sequiturs a second.
Still, depression cures no ills. That's why I'm going to propose to you that a carnival of the rigorous be set up for posts that exemplify all the things that, as you pointed out, are tragically lacking.
I am only an eighteen year old kid, so I was wondering if I could get your advice on how to do it since you've set up a carnival before.
I think that's a really exciting idea. Before I get into specifics, I guess I should say a little about more general carnivalia.
General advice on Carnival Creation: The first thing to do is identify the target blogging community, and get the support of the community "leaders" or high-profile bloggers -- you'll need their patronage to get word out. Create a carnival homepage, and advertise it like mad. But note that a carnival's success ultimately depends on "the long tail" of "little guys" that link, read, and contribute to the carnival. Do what you can to make life easier for them: online submission forms and an emailed newsletter reminder are a couple of gizmos used by the Philosophers' Carnival.
Note that for a long time, the Philosophers' Carnival had trouble eliciting enough submissions, and relied heavily on me and/or the host going out and finding more posts to nominate. It's only recently that the carnival has really come into its own, and become properly "self-sufficient" in this participatory sense. So under-participation can be a real difficulty. I'm not sure what can be done about that except for improving incentives through increasing publicity. (I expect the Philosophers' Carnival could not have succeeded as it has without the regular links from Brian Leiter, for example.)
These lessons are reinforced by the failure of the Kiwi Carnival, as discussed here. A carnival needs a 'critical mass' of publicity that will entice authors to make (quality) contributions, which are in turn required for the carnival to be worth reading and publicizing.
The proposed new carnival: It's an exciting idea, but might be difficult to pull off.
Carnival entrants are self-selecting, but it isn't obvious that this is a reliable method for identifying "rigorous" posts, as opposed to confident ones. One might instead rely on third-party "nominations", but these are difficult to motivate. Here's one idea: have a default policy of linking to the nominator's blog when introducing their nominee. That would provide some incentive to nominate at least. And since it's public, nominators will also hopefully make an effort to show good taste in their nominations. Though some hosting discretion would still be required, no doubt.
An alternative is to reconceptualize the carnival as catering to a certain 'deliberative' mindset, rather than the end goal of a rigorous post. Potential contributors should be genuinely seeking reasoned dialogue with their "opponents", in line with the peace-making ideals of rational discourse. Competent reasoning may of course be a prerequisite for inclusion. But that needn't be what the carnival is explicitly about. I think a focus on the dialogical attitude could prove much more attractive. It wouldn't be just another carnival of people who think themselves awfully smart. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you know.) Rather, it'd be a carnival for those who genuinely want to advance public debate, and who demonstrate civility and other intellectual virtues in doing so.
Entries would need to be non-partisan in the sense that they don't indiscriminately demonize all who might initially disagree with the author. (My cheeky challenge for right-wingers would be excluded, for example. The friendly version might be more appropriate.) That doesn't mean one should refrain from criticizing particular politicians, claims, or positions. Certainly not. But one should take care to argue in a spirit embracing of fellow citizens. For example, a post harshly criticizing the Bush Administration might address itself to moderate Republicans, explaining to them why they should accept one's conclusions. Such invitation to dialogue need not be explicit. The point is simply to ensure that diverse readers can have their assumptions rationally challenged without feeling personally attacked or alienated. Also, entries should ideally argue from premises which their opponents might accept. (It wouldn't provide much of a 'challenge' otherwise.)
Both authors and readers would be expected to approach the carnival with the understanding that it is a medium for open-minded (though not open-mindless) dialogue, consideration, and re-consideration of ideas. By bearing these ideals in mind, the resulting discussion might prove less defensive and more productive than is typically the case.
The scope of the carnival I envisage would cover topics of "public debate", i.e. politics and applied ethics, very broadly construed. This may include issues of broader cultural interest - e.g. science, religion, and general philosophy - insofar as they connect to public discourse or matters of general interest. It would be a "carnival of (global) citizens", with the ideals of citizenship informing both the content and presentation. (By the latter I mean that participants would conceive of their interlocutors first and foremost as fellow citizens worthy of respect and dialogue, and express this through the civil behaviours discussed above.)
[Update: the carnival would also invite 'meta' discussion about the public sphere, rational discourse, and general civic issues.]
Carnival Name? I rather like the simplicity of "Carnival of Citizens" (CoC) myself, but other proposals might invoke 'deliberation', 'reason', 'dialogue', or the like. "Carnival of Reasoned Dialogue" (CORD) might work, for example, or "Carnival of Deliberative Reason", though that forms a less nifty acronym. Other suggestions are most welcome.
Ideas and Implementation: a major challenge for the proposed carnival is that it has no readily identifiable target "blogging community". (Though Obsidian Wings does spring to mind as a consistent exemplar of the virtues discussed above.) To some extent, it would have to forge a community of citizens where before there was none. That would be a remarkable accomplishment. But this also highlights the difficulty of the endeavour.
On a more positive note, the CoC could potentially be embraced by all but the most partisan of blogs. So there's plenty of potential there. For now I think the best thing to do is simply to air the idea and invite further suggestions and expressions of interest. Thus anyone who likes the sound of this project should post about it themselves, contribute any suggestions they have on how to make it work, and invite others to do likewise.
Also, has anything like this been tried before? I suppose the "God or Not" carnival was a narrower version, though I gather it ultimately failed due to lack of theist participation, and never really elicited much open-minded dialogue in any case. How might we avoid the same fate?
Perhaps in the end it must simply come down to the strength of individual bloggers' commitments to the ideals expressed above. If enough of us want this enough, social norms governing the carnival might develop which successfully facilitate the sort of interactions we have in mind.
What do you think? (Is this ridiculously utopian, or an ideal worthy of aspiration?) Over to you...
[Update: don't miss the discussion in the comments below!]