Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Deliberative Carnival?

[Update: the Carnival of Citizens is here!]

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!]


  1. Hmmm, this is a difficult question. In a way, one does not know which carnival will be successful and which one not unless one tries. As you point out, 'God Or Not' failed, and the Left-Right bickering pops-up every now and then on several of the "general magazine"-style carnivals, like the 'Carnival of Vanities'. This makes me wonder if the two sides are capable of understanding each other at all!

    'Smarter Than I' also failed - and that was a carnival with second-party nominations with a link to both the nominator and the nominated. It was mostly political and accepted posts from both Left and Right. The quality of almost all posts was outstanding. I expected that one to thrive, so I may not be the best judge after all.

    Critical thinking is covered by the 'Skeptic's Circle' whcih always has some posts tackling logic and logical fallacies directly, while others apply the logical skills to examples of pseudoscience, bad history, medical quackery, creationism, etc. Politics, though, is outside the realm of the SC and I am wondering if the political posts on critical thinking would be able to stand on their own without getting into fights between Right and Left. At the same time, regular SC contributors - great logical thinkers all - may shun a carnival that has a political component.

    So, I don't know. It may be worth a try to ask around and see how much interest there would be for this and then decide. Another thing is to get away from the "Carnival of..." title. Find something catchy - that is half of the success. "The Straw Men Brigade" may perk people's ears. "The Red Herring Diaries" will turn heads. And it is no big deal if a carnival is started, lasts a few issues and dies. That is just how it goes sometimes...

  2. A carnival is always a difficult and somewhat iffy thing, although you can never tell what will succeed or fail. (One thinks of the Poetry Carnival, which seemed to have failed miserably, was started up again, did smashingly well for a brief period -- and with themed carnivals, which is difficult to do -- started increasing its webpages to include a forum and an aggregator blog, then, apparently, collapsed again.) It's also worth mentioning that there are a lot of very successful niche carnivals, on subjects so narrow that one would be surprised that they could garner enough interest, that actually do very well because (1) they have dedicated organizers; (2) they have reliable hosts; (3) they are easy to submit to; and (4) they've found the right regularity for that community -- not too often, not too rarely. I suspect also that (contrary to what one might expect) the more general and open the carnival is, the more it will be necessary for organizers and hosts to work to find posts. It's easier for people to come up with posts that would make great submissions to Mixology Mondays or Carnival of the Dogs than it is for them to come up with posts that would make great submissions to the History Carnival or the Philosophy Carnival.

    One of the problems with God or Not was that the rules explicitly forbade hosts from doing anything more than introducing the posts in the carnival -- for obvious reasons, but it meant that no one ever actually started the conversation off. Any such rule would be death to a carnival like the one proposed -- there would need to be guidelines, but a lot of room for the host to find a way to begin the conversation.

  3. I suppose submissions regarding meta-topics about rationality might be on topic? For instance, posts examining various categories of social interactions that commonly take place in discussions, and how they relate to furthering real rational discussion?

  4. Timothy J Scriven3:28 am, May 11, 2006

    Richard, I'll email you with some questions and requests later. Thank you for setting up this thread.

  5. pdf23ds - yup, certainly.

    Brandon - your final point sounds right. I'm surprised that general carnivals have a harder time of it though, since presumably more posts would fall under their scope. (It'd be easier to find a submission for a carnival of animals than for a carnival of dogs, for example.) But perhaps the extra scope makes it harder for people to tell what a "good" submission would be. Hopefully the specific requirements for tone/presentation would help the CoC in this respect.

  6. Speaking of scope...

    One problem with finding good submissions may be that the best specimins of good, rational discourse are often found in the much more technical, wonky areas of different fields. Pretty much anything that can be said that's accessible to a general audience has been said a million times, and there's really nothing remaining to be said that's also accessible to a general audience.

    A non-rational discussion between people will often make little progress, and a rational one will make a lot of progress. But that progress means that, as the discussion goes on, the reader is required to pay more and more attention, and to be more and more familiar with the subject.

    I think it's certainly posssible to write very rationally and accessibly on many broad topics. (Granted, you'll be simply restating what others have said in the past, but that can be a very useful activity.) Productive discourse, on the other hand, often requires leaving easy accessibility on the wayside, or at least progressing very quickly.

    Sorry this comment is a bit scattered.

  7. Timothy J Scriven11:41 am, May 12, 2006

    Here's a list of blogs that I'll send emails to. It's a list in progress, if anyone reading this could please give some more suggestions, the list is looking incomplete and lopsided to say the least since ( from memory) all the bloggers are lit crit people or philosophers.

    - Michael Berube
    - Majkthise
    - Acephalous
    - John and Belle have a blog
    - Amardeep Singh
    - Thoughts Arguments and Rants
    - The Weblog
    - Logic and Language

    I've think that the carnival should focus on blogging that aims to geniunely advance public disscusion and move away from a model of debate as warfare ( Richard's talked about this here before).

  8. Yup, see Sterba on "the battleplace of ideas".

    (P.S. Timothy, did my email reply get through in the end?)

  9. "Genius" proposes that we devise a system for offering impartial summaries of a dialectic's progress. This could be a great idea to build into the carnival. Hosts could provide an initial overview of "the discussion to date" as they introduce a post. Then, the next carnival might include a "progress" section, about posts first introduced in the previous carnival, summarizing how the discussion progressed in each case, perhaps highlighting any emerging consensus, or (if it could be done fairly) assessing the merits of the arguments on either side.

    It would probably be too much work for one person (the host) to write all these summaries themselves, but they might delegate this to the post authors themselves. (One question would be whether to get each blogger to summarize their own discussion, or re-assign them to each other's blogs. The latter might be more 'impartial', but the former would gain from the blogger's familiarity with the discussion. So I'd recommend trying that first, and only shifting to "reassignment" if that proves necessary.) Hosts could then build on the submitted summaries, editing or expanding on them as they see fit.

  10. BTW, I've contacted the following blog(ger)s about the carnival:
    - Obsidian Wings
    - Peter Levine
    - Timothy Burke
    - Left2Right
    - Positive Liberty
    - Jeremy Pierce
    - Max Goss

    The latter two are the only conservatives. Hopefully they'll be able to identify more thoughtful conservatives themselves. It'd be great if more people could "evangelise" about the carnival to any bloggers they think might be interested, and perhaps post the names in comments here to avoid overlap. (Someone might get irritated if they're flooded with invitations all saying much the same thing!)

  11. I appreciate being mentioned in connection with this idea and would certainly consider participating.

    If the goal is to accumulate submissions that are written in a deliberative spirit, then I'm afraid that the collection will be too diffuse. A submission could cover any topic of public concern. Therefore, two alternatives occur to me:

    1) Choose a topic on which there is currently more heat than light--something controversial and polarizing. Solicit or collect comments on that topic that are deliberative. (Note: Definitions of "deliberation" differ; for instance, I would not exclude overt expressions of strong emotion. But you could simply stipulate criteria for inclusion).

    2) There could be a "carnival" of discussion about deliberation and related ideas, such as civility, public reason, the public sphere, polarization, ideology, etc. I'd be interested in this second option, but I'm not sure than many others would.

  12. Thanks! I think the first idea, of having "themed" editions of the carnival, might work especially well. If bloggers are writing a post especially for the carnival, they might take care to write in a more 'deliberative' style (however we end up defining that).

    Combining these ideas with previous comments, perhaps the carnival could be split into three sections:
    1) The (themed) first-order submissions.
    2) Meta-discussion about the public sphere.
    3) The "progress" section summarizing the resulting discussion from the previous carnival's first-order submissions.

    One concern is that this approach would fail to highlight some really thoughtful posts on first-order topics other than the themed ones. We might get around this by having alternating themed/general editions. If such experimentation showed either carnival type to be uniformly better, we might then change to using that type exclusively.

  13. Timothy J Scriven8:52 am, May 15, 2006

    Sorry for the abnormally long comment.

    Taking Richard’s list as a blueprint I think that we should include the following:

    1) First-order submissions in a variety of areas.
    2) Meta-discussion about debate in the public sphere.
    3)An innovation post in which people can suggest ideas for for the carnival and for the internet in particular.
    4) The "progress" section summarizing the resulting discussion from the previous carnival's first-order submissions.
    (5) Themes.

    The reason I think the carnival should not be all themed are the reasons Richard outlined and that we should aim for as broad a readership and authorship as possible. I think we might have the first carnival as purely generic. It's a good idea to start the carnival of as simply as possible then add complexity later on. We might want add 4 in a bit later as well. 4 is perhaps the most exciting of all of them but it could easily fail. To get Bloggers started though I'll include in the final invitations a broad list of suggested topics just so they have an idea of the kind of thing we are looking for.

    My ultimate plan which is perhaps a little too ambitious is that this carnival will create many splinter carnivals specialising in various areas ( Left v Right, Pomo v NoPomo, revive the God or Not carnival in a different form etc). I will not handle them all of course, I'll try to find volunteers to start them.

    Here is a draft of the submissions policy:


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