At work I get the pleasure of being able to have direct discussions with remarkably smart people. How are our conversations different from normal conversations, say with acquaintances? They appear to be oriented towards truth finding rather than opinion sermoning.

It takes a degree of humility to say that you don’t know the answer to something. Certainly if I look over my social media today, the people who are most confident in what they believe tend not to be the brightest, or the most knowledgeable. They display the classic Dunning-Kruger effect.

If one looks closely at lunar dust, one finds that it is far more jagged than anything one can find on earth - the moon has no atmosphere, no flowing water, so it has nothing to erode the sharp edges away. Perhaps the same effect is happening here; the sharpest opinions have no softening, no blunting, because they no longer run into the obstacles they once did.

Throughout history, we can see examples of places where people could sit together and speak frankly - that is to say, they could speak honestly without the fear of repercussions, and get feedback. Paris had its salons, Martha Washington hosted gatherings of noted politicians, even Einstein had a small group of people with whom he could hash out ideas.

There are a couple of factors that appear to define success for these discussion groups:

  1. lack of judgment - people were allowed to discuss the topic at hand without worrying about whether the people in the room would judge them for the opinion they were espousing. The focus was to find what was true, not to say what was politically correct or convenient. One could comfortably espouse whatever belief one had, or even a devil’s advocate position, without worrying about getting tarred and feathered.
  2. the ability to change one’s mind - because the goal was to find the truth (and not just “debate”) it would be not only acceptable, but spectacular, to argue one side and eventually get convinced of the other side.

My contention is that there is no place on the internet where such discussion groups can be easily found.

Increasingly, I find a tremendous amount of hassle in current online discussions. I don’t have particularly controversial beliefs (though I suppose everyone believes this), and yet I have to be extraordinarily careful in how I phrase things to make sure it can’t be misinterpreted, taken out of context, etc. The inertia to maintain perfect political correctness is enough that it’s usually easier not to say anything at all.

More importantly, the most radical sides of any particular debate do not have qualms about being perceived as -ist or -ian and therefore speak all the more loudly. And since one can’t engage with them in an effective way, others who are less perceptive read the more radical perspectives and begin to believe it, so it propagates…

You’ll notice that I don’t actually reference a specific issue here. I don’t have to. You already think you know what I’m referring to, don’t you? I can promise you that I’m not talking about any issue specifically - I’m simply abstracting up a level so that we can engage on the meta point (a trick I learned from Paul Graham, here).

I suspect there may be a solution, in software. There are a few well established ways of allowing for open ideas in an online community (anonymity, deleting postings after a certain window of time) and also forcing some degree of civility (talking to your real life friends). The question is whether the two can be hybridized to build a trusting, open atmosphere.