Ben Goertz

Salon of Ideas

It’s a little silly but over the years my brother and I have made several attempts to host a structured intellectual discussion, a sort of 17th century coffeehouse or a salon of ideas with friends. We’re pretentious sometimes like that but our goal isn’t to be pompous. The hope is to learn and sharpen all our thinking - to move beyond the latest headline or gossip towards new perspectives and the roots of our beliefs, the stuff that makes every individual uniquely interesting.

Attempting to add some rigor or structure to group discussions is actually difficult. In our various attempts things tend towards a more normal open chat about whatever friends want. In person we end up having a good time either way. We talk about whatever is fun, or witty, or serious, and then we go home.

Online the problems of any sort of discussion are significantly more thorny. Debates online are usually terrible. Most efforts to help improve this seem (take for example to be fighting uphill against our tendency towards unstructured and bitesized comments. On Twitter the ratio of thoughtful discussions to shallow or frustrating noise is a perpetual letdown.

None of this is breaking news, the negatives of social media and the (related) decline of people’s engagement in deep discussions in-person have been written about extensively. So why am I writing about it, what is my goal? What can I do to counteract these societal trends? I want to live in a more thoughtful and articulate world, where discourse is elevated above simplistic slogans and instead leads to deeper introspection and understanding. How can we live out what sounds about as cliche as a campaign slogan itself? I’m going to keep killing the buzz at parties with dense discussion prompts. But what about online discussions?

I think the problem with most recommendations for improving online discussions, especially when centering around disinformation, is the focus on persuading others. Trying to move people who disagree with me, or you, towards views we think are better (obviously better - like only a FOOL would disagree!). But some research, and I think a slowly evolving consensus based on recent history, is that efforts to persuade can move people further away. The act of causing someone to notice their own views can shift them towards the extremes. This quote from the Sante Fe Institute’s Complexity podcast has stuck with me:

Pretty direct implication of our model is that what basically happens, if you have a discussion with a person you don't agree with, there's probably two things going on... because of this conversation, the other person will of course direct attention to the issue.

And this in our model directly leads you to your beliefs, becoming more correlated and going to more extremes. So what then can happen is even if this person hears the information from your side, it might actually be that increase in attention and importance will actually move this person further away from you because this person's existing beliefs become more correlated and therefore this person becomes more extreme in the other direction.

And I think for example, if you would tell a person that basically, well, you're wrong, this will basically just lead this person to become even more entrenched in his or her former beliefs. And so basically having an open mind and signaling, yeah, I have an open mind also for what would you think would probably reduce this tendency at least somewhat, and then maybe you can actually really have a good discussion and actually exchange information instead of just entrenching your beliefs even more...

What is to be done? I think maybe the goal is not to directly change someone else’s mind but instead to sharpen your own thinking. Writing in particular illustrates how scattered your thoughts really are. Collecting my own thoughts can cause changes in myself that actually move me, not some intellectual opponent, closer to the change I’m hoping to see broadly in society.

Writing is nature's way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is.

Before launching a barrage of (extremely witty and well reasoned) Tweets I can reflect to be less reactionary. Ponder to be more imaginative. Disengage to absorb fewer petty squabbles. Take the time to be more thoughtful. Read (and hopefully write) more of the longform content I enjoy that leads to insights compared to the flickering rage inducing screeds that scroll by on various feeds.

This really is one of those problems that can be solved through small changes individually that then bubble up through to the larger society level changes. Our own small efforts to have better discussions individually can shift the world away from shallow extremes and out into more interesting waters.

“Never underestimate the power of small things."