The Fog Island Tavern Quarrgument Symposium, second night:

– So friends, did we settle the weather for today? No hurricanes on the horizon? Are we ready to tackle the second part of Abbé Boulah’s agenda? Do you have any questions or suggestions about it?

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2 Needed provisions / agreements for
   a) ‘Social’ Communication, Conversation?
   b) Decision-oriented ‘Planning’ Platform?
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– Let me try to restate my understanding of this in my own terms, Vodçek, correct me if I’m wrong: The distinction between the two separate questions is now based on the different kinds of talk intentions we found last night: simple friendly conversations without any particular aim or focus on the one hand, and discussions aiming at a goal, a solution to a problem, a decision, on the other? And the question is about how to prevent either one to degrade into a ‘quarrgument’?

– Close enough, for the first kind.

– Only for the first kind? Why?

– Well, for the second kind, shouldn’t we also worry about how well that aim or focus can be achieved — of reaching a decision? A meaningful, reasonable one, a good plan?

– You are jumping right into the thick of it, Sophie. Would it be useful to first see how far the agreements for the conversation of the dialogue kind can get us?

– You are talking about what they call ‘general netiquette’, essentially, aren’t you? The rules for polite conversation in decent company, now extended to online discussions on a social forum?

– That would be a good place to start, yes. And suspect it’s more difficult than it looks at first sight — given all the quarrgument-like exchanges we see on the internet, in spite of the well-intentioned policy statements and rules of all those platforms?

– Is there a simple comprehensive summary of those rules?

– Well, the main rules for common polite conversation would be to abstain from crude, obscene language, from ALL- CAPS entries which is understood as the equivalent of yelling and shouting in face-to-face conversation, to stick to the general topic, and above all, not engaging in personal attacks on other participants — the various forms of ad-hominem fallacies; no name-calling, ‘strawmanning’, and so on. Many forum leaders try to forestall problems by listing a number of rules or advice for ‘positive’, constructive, friendly, ‘comfortable’ language and content, for participants to promise to strive for. Hoping that the focus on the positive will keep people too busy to engage in the negative?

– Hmm. I wonder if calling exclusive positive thinking wishful thinking would be a negative term? Those aims are fine and generally accepted, even if not always adhered to. So many moderators feel compelled to simply ‘ban’ — which means just not accept for posting — entries that violate those.

– Yes: Already you can write simple algorithms to do the same thing: scan all entries, given an accepted list of unacceptable words and phrases that automatically blocks the offending entry that contains one of those words. But the issue gets sticky when it comes to the question of offending the beliefs or standards of certain groups in society. Heresy — involving disparaging comment about religious beliefs — has been extended to many other domains, gender, race, politics and philosophy. And the boundaries and the ‘coded’ disguises of objectionable positions can become so fuzzy that many platforms have instead adopted the practice of asking participants to complain about offending posts, and then deciding what to do about them, the complaint becoming the criterion for banning.

– Looks like a slippery slope towards the abyss of political correctness censorship. But also: can the same offending content be blocked in some groups but accepted in others? And isn’t the problem then, that they will be posted and the damage, e.g. of a personal attack, is done; the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. There ought to be a better way.

– Yes, Sophie. It has led group ‘leaders’ or originators to involve several moderators to ‘intervene’ or ‘resolve’ such incidents by asking the offending participant to change the wording of potentially offending comments, either before they are made public, or after somebody complained. The jury is still out about how that will work out in the long run — there will always be complaints by some offenders, of undue ‘censorship’, illegal constraints on ‘free speech’ and so on.

– Yeah, and there will always be ‘administrators’, moderators, who get their jollies out of doing some undue censorshipping, exerting their power by ‘keeping the discourse clean’…

– Are we straying from the topic a tad here, folks? I agree the power issue is one we might want to look at, but is it part of the agenda we agreed on?

– Spoken like a good social media moderator, Vodçek: to compound the offense with an ad-censorum while we’re at it.

– Yeah, I may have to cut some of you off… How about looking at the relationship between the ‘do’s’ of such discourse, not only the ‘don’t rules?

– Is there a difference between responses to ‘don’ts and responses to failure to do ‘do’s?

– To do or not to do, dobedobedo…

– Renfroe…

– Hey Vodçek: think you could get me another glass before you cut me off this dobedialogue?

– It seems that the mere suggestion of straying off the topic has, how are they saying these days, gone viral? So there should be a rule against such suggestions?

– Right, Professor. They are themselves straying off the topic. The only recourse is to not even ignoring them, as the Bavarians say.

– Holy Ignoraminous the Third, of Yerehwon in Lower Lugubria, pray for us!

– Okay, enough of this. Where were we? Sophie, do you remember?

– I’m not sure we were anywhere worth remembering, Vodçek. It seems that there were no really hard and fast rules or guidelines even for keeping conversation-style civilized, if there happen to be less civilized participants involved, who weren’t brought up to properly participate in civilized conversations. Other than with the help of moderators. Who must be granted some power to intervene, at the expense of slightly bending the rule of free speech.

– A balancing act, yes. I’m glad you mention he upbringing part — is it the responsibility of education to instill proper polite conversation behavior habits? That would lessen the problem a bit, wouldn’t it? Supported by silent glacial schoolmarm stares by the community in case of inadvertent violation? Poignantly ignoring the offending remark and returning to the topic? Laughing the poor impolite boor out of the room would already be too much of acknowledgement?

– Remember, we are talking about online conversations here. Those old remedies won’t work there — is there a need for icy-stare ‘nomoticons’ (no-emotion, no rising to the bait, but silently conveying the message?) — to replace those? Making the offenders’ i-screens freeze? Put the designers to work!

– Let’s see, Vodçek: Are you saying that the traditional standards for civilized conversations still apply to online friendly conversations without specific aims, but the tools for ensuring their adherence on online forums need to be improved or invented? Or can equivalent tools be developed for online discourse that would serve the same purpose?

– I’d say that we could leave that to some evolutionary process for the ‘friendly conversations’, as you called them. The types of forums, participants, issues and even purposes that can be discussed are too different to imagine a one-size-fits all set of rules to be used for all of them. ‘Self-governance’ responding to problems as they occur may be the best strategy for that first question.

– I agree, Professor — even though the question of what to delegate to education to prepare people for such interactions might require some common core definition of those basic standards? As long as there are no serious decisions at stake — or inquiries with significant implications for our lives, — let’s leave it to evolution and self-governance. But when we are faced with planning or policy-making decisions that impact the well-being of our human communities, will we not need better methods for the discourse leading to those decisions? Even for traditional ‘live’ events such as town meetings or debates in parliamentary decision-making bodies — but decidedly more so for online discourse?

– So it seems that there is some overlap between the two kinds of processes or discourse types when they are done online — but the question of online standards becomes critical for decision-making settings? Which means that we are now moving to question (b) of our second phase agenda. Okay?

– I agree, Vodçek. Especially because it is becoming increasingly obvious that even the traditional practices for what we may call governance decision-making are still falling short of some basic expectations. So even for those, better tools are urgently needed.

– That’s a serious complaint, Bog-Hubert. Some might say even bordering on the unconstitutional, eh? Can you be more specific about those expectations and shortcomings?

– I guess we can make a list of such problems, and use them to look for ways to meet the corresponding expectations. Let me start with the connection between the discourse and the decision. The great parliamentary principle and tradition of ‘let’s leave our weapons outside and sit down to talk before making a decision’ — don’t laugh, Renfroe, I am serious, I know you like to call all that talk and filibustering pretentious BS or worse — it was a great civilized improvement on prior practice of going straight to violence and war, to ‘resolve’ differences of opinion.

– Hmm. So what’s wrong with it, if it’s so great?

– Oh, Sophie: Look at the improvement side first, to see where things go wrong: ‘Let’s talk’ means that we are willing — agree — to listen to all sides’ points of views, concerns, intentions, learn abbot their ideas of a good plan and decision, and try to tell each other about what we see as the pros and cons of the proposals made. Ideally, that could and sometimes even does result in improvement, redesign of the originally proposed plans. And that is the basic beneficial principle: the decision about the plan or action should be the result of due consideration of all those pros and cons, all the ideas and concerns that have been brought up during the talks.

– I see what you are getting at, Bog-Hubert. Abbé Boulah did talk about that as well. And about the problem: all too often, in the end, the decisions are made by methods that can ignore or override many if not all those ideas and concerns.

– What in three twisters names are you talking about?

– Voting, Renfroe. Majority voting, or the single vote decision by some leader or chairman or president. And voting that allows people who haven’t even listened to any of the talk and don’t really know what the issues are about.

– You want to do away with free elections and majority vote, you’re cruising for trouble, I’d say.

– We’re not talking about doing away with that: the problem is about making a better link, a better connection between the concerns, the content and merit of the contributions to the discussion and the decision. All of the contributions. A more transparent and, if you like, accountable connection.

– Okay. So that’s a first or primary criterion that you think should be provided in online planning discourse?

– Right. One such consideration — didn’t we already mention some? But yes, a key one. And of course that makes sense only if all pertinent considerations, all the expected benefits as well as all the costs, the potential ‘unexpected side-and-after-effects’ have actually been brought up to be given due consideration, wouldn’t you say?

– I see. So the platform or forum must allow all such considerations to be voiced — and even invite, encourage people to bring them up.

– In practice, doesn’t that run into what some call ‘voter apathy’, people don’t care enough about the issues to participate?

– Yes — or they are convinced (possibly based on actual experience?) that their concerns won’t make a difference in the decision, won’t be given due consideration? So should there be provisions for overcoming those obstacles? Some form of incentives?

– You’re talking about something like paying folks to vote? Old hat. And not a good one. No better than the dirty efforts to keep some people from voting, wether by ‘cleaning up the voter registration rolls’ or gerrymandering, or making the trip to the voting stations so difficult that some folks can’t make it…

– Right, Sophie. I think we aren’t talking about the vote, though, but about incentives for contributing good information, whether pro or con, that should inform decisions. Incentives in a currency other than money, of course.

– Won’t the discourse be overwhelmed with all the comments, if you succeed in making such provisions? Can you expect everybody to express their concerns in succinct arguments — pro or con — that are the essence of the talk? How can anybody digest all that material?

– Indeed, good points. You’ll have to expect, and allow, all kinds of expressions, rhetoric, bombast, and even what in ‘polite’ friendly conversations would be objectionable forms of contributions. That’s why there should be provisions to sort things out in displays that give everybody some concise overview of the concerns — no repetitions, for one, and the core content, the key claims of the ideas and arguments stripped of rhetorical bombast and characterization.

– What do you mean, characterization?

– Well, if you bring in a ‘con’ argument against some plan provision, calling it ‘stupid’ or ‘shortsighted’ or ‘brilliant’ or some form of ‘ism’ is already a form of evaluation — an assessment of the claim, that really should be done by every participant at a separate stage. For example, say I’m asked to give ‘due consideration’ to a comment that sounds like this: “That stupid, ill-advised proposed legislation to reduce the use of fossil fuels to stop the hoax of global warming should be opposed because it won’t work”, I may have an opinion about whether the legislation will work to reduce fossil fuel use, another about whether it will help to reduce the effects of global warming. Or whether the global warming predictions are a hoax, in which case any legislation would be moot or have other beneficial or detrimental effects. Or whether calling the legislation stupid and ill-advised is inappropriate whether I believe it will be effective or not.

– So any judgment — e. g. ‘not true’ or ‘good point’ about the comment as a whole does not really help me or others to understand my real opinion of the various claims or premises the comment makes. To be properly evaluated, they should be stated as separate, basic assertions: “The legislation should be opposed”; “The legislation will not reduce the use of fossil fuels”; “Reducing the use of fossil fuels will not reduce global warming”; “There is no global warming”; and /or “Something should be done to slow or stop global warming”, etc. And shouldn’t there be a rule that people who make such claims should be prepared to offer explanations, evidence, support for them: required to respond the the question ‘Because…’? For which ‘explanations’ like “because the opponent of the claim is a moron” or an ‘…ist’ of some kind, are not acceptable — not related to the claim.

– I see: Everybody can have different assessments about each of these or about the entire statement; and resulting ‘conclusions’ about the wisdom of the proposed legislation will differ accordingly.

– Right. So besides appropriate provisions to display the essential claims — for overview, and for some in-depth, systematic evaluation, — there should also be incentives to provide support, evidence, for the claims, at least upon request from people who are not yet ready to accept the claim as stated?

– That could be trouble. The thing about evidence is a bottomless pit, isn’t it? Ultimately, aren’t all our judgments based on beliefs we think are so ‘self-evident’ that there’s no need, nor even possibility, of further evidence? And the folks who are convinced to ‘have’ the truth, because it’s self-evident, or revealed from up high, will resent the request for evidence more than the fact that there are miserable doubters who just don’t see it.

– So in practice, how should that be dealt with?

– Good question, no easy answer, because any answer would rest on ultimate premises that another party doesn’t share. The best I can think of is another basic agreement — one that relates to the aim of each party in such argumentation, which is to nudge the other party to adopt other’s conclusions. The agreement is this: If you propose an ultimate ‘self-evident’ premise that your argument, your reasoning is resting upon, but you can’t offer any more reasons that can nudge me to accept it, you can’t expect me to change my position to yours, and more that I can expect my ultimate premises to change your mind if I can’t give you more reasons to accept them. So when those arguments of both sides lead to contradictory or incompatible conclusions (or plans), it’s time to look for a different, better plan, or some compromise.

– Interesting. Think people will actually go for that? Like Georges Brassens whose friendship with a bishop rested on the agreement “Il me laisses dire merde, je lui laisse dire amen”? (He lets me say shit, I let him say Amen) But this can become a lengthy and cumbersome affair, Bog-Hubert. Especially when you are going to add whatever evaluation techniques needed to determine the ‘merit’ of all the contributions.

– Talking about that merit, and the special techniques, Bog-Hubert: wouldn’t that involve a whole slew of additional agreements and rules and calculations?

– Why, Vodçek?

– Well, Sophie: Wouldn’t the participants have to agree on what their judgments — about the truth or plausibility, and the importance, significance, of each claim — letters like A,B, C, D, F or numbers zero to ten, or minus 3 to plus 3, or smiley-faces etc. ‘mean’ and how they will be assembled into some overall measure of support for or against the proposed decision? Like we now agree, with some reservation, that 51% of a vote will mean approval of a decision? We’ve been talking about those issues before here, haven’t we?

– Oh. I see. So we’ll need some discussion about all those agreements even before we start the discussion? How do we ever get started? ‘Cause we’d need some agreements about how to get started, and those will have to be discussed…

– Yes: That’s what constitutions and by-laws are for. if you wait to agree on those rules until you run into disagreements in mid-process, you’re asking for trouble. That applies especially to the tasks of evaluation or assessment we haven’t talked about yet: developing some measure of that ‘merit’ of discourse contributions we wanted to connect to the decision.

– I remember, we had a long discussion about the tools for that some time ago. Once you decide that voting isn’t doing a very good job of either due consideration or accountability for why the vote seemed to ignore all the assembled evidence, you are opening a Pandora’s box about evaluation approaches. I’m afraid that we won’t get through all of that tonight, much less arrive at a generally acceptable recommendation for that problem. I know our buddy up at the university had some ideas about that, — there are some of those in the appendix of the paper — but whether they will be easily and generally accepted for such discourse is another question.

– So what do you suggest we do about that now, Vodçek? Because it sounds like that would be a very necessary component of any meaningful discourse platform?

– How about putting the task of development of better approaches, doing some experiments on how they work, developing easy-to-understand manuals or worksheets and supporting calculation programs on the agenda as work to do, maybe devote another weekend to that, later. And perhaps see what ideas our buddy’s proposed Planning Discourse Support Platform has to deal with that?

– I agree, Bog-Hubert. It’s getting late; we don’t have to solve all the world’s problems in one night. So let’s summarize the expectations of decision-oriented online discourse that we have touched upon tonight, and look at what that PDSS has to say about them tomorrow night. Here’s a list of the main issues or expectations we have come across so far:

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* Standard ‘netiquette’
* Education for proper discourse participation?
* Response to violations?
* “Inviting, even providing incentives to voice ALL concerns”
* Evolution of self-governance for responses to violation
* Parliamentary principle — but
* Decision based on merit of all contributions
    Link between discourse contribution merit and decisions:
    transparency, accountability
* Inviting, even incentives to voice ALL concerns
* Ensuring ‘due consideration’ of all concerns
* Displays of essential ‘core’ content
* Separating claims and evaluation
* Identifying all ‘premises’ for assessment
* Emphasis on evidence, support for claims
* Up front procedural agreements
* Needed: R&D on evaluation of discourse contributions
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There are probably more, and they may have to be put into a slightly different order, but it may be enough for a start and to give them some thought while you’re trying to catch some flounder from the pier tomorrow morning. Don’t get lost in the fog on your way home…

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Quarrgument Symposium — first night

The Fog Island ‘Quarrgument symposium’ — First night.

– Okay, ready for some serious dialogical systems thinking? Here’s the main agenda again, we agree to start with the first item there:

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The main issues:

1 Disentangling the ‘Dialogue versus Argumentation’ Quarrgument

Meaning of terms?

The case for/against dialogue versus argumentation?

2 Needed agreements / provisions for

a) ‘Social’ Communication?

b) Decision-oriented ‘Planning Discourse’?

3 Provisions for (2b) agreements in the

‘Planning Discourse Support System’ (PDSS) proposals?

——————————————————————————————————-

– What’s this, Vodçek — ‘serious’? didn’t you say it was just a kind of silly dust-up?

– The other side of silly can be serious, Bog-Hubert.

– Oooh. Into deep guruological pronouncements tonight? Okay, what exactly happened to bring this on?

– Well, I’m not sure. I think it started with our buddy posting some things about this planning discourse support system he’s been working on, that’s based on ol’ Rittel’s ‘Argumentative Model of Planning’. Or perhaps it was just somebody proposing a ‘discussion’ about some issue? Well, this fellow was getting all worked up about the pernicious ideas of ‘discussion’ and ‘argument’, and started berating everybody for even thinking about such concepts, saying that we should all use ‘dialogue’ instead.

– Somebody take him up on that?

– Some folks were getting, let’s say, a little concerned. Or just entertained, having fun? But didn’t voice much serious inquiry about it — maybe they didn’t want to come across as too — argumentative? Wanting to keep the dialogue ‘moving forward’?

– So did it move anywhere interesting?

– I don’t think so. Looked more like going around in circles. It looked like there were very different meanings attached to those terms, especially to the concept of ‘argument’, that apparently got tempers up on both sides, so that no meaningful resolution of the issue was in sight. This is why Abbé Boulah put clarification of those terms that were thrown about in that dustup, up as the first agenda task of this symposium:

——————————————————————————————————-

Clarifying the meaning of terms:

Dialogue

Conversation

Argument/ Argumentation

Discussion

Dispute

Debate

Discourse

——————————————————————————————————-

– Hmm. And doing it in a more ‘structured’ way — what did he mean by that, again?

– Good question, Sophie. I guess, to start with, examining the questions, one by one in some detail, to see if they were really talking about the same issues, the same problem? Using the results from one stage as the stepping-stone for the next one? Working towards some overall view and understanding of how all those questions and aspects are connected and form a coherent ‘whole system’?

– Sounds too involved already. Let’s just get started with the questions: the meaning of the words.

– Why don’t we just look up the definition of those words on some fat book dictionary? You have one here?

– That might be useful Renfroe, If Vodçek keeps one to check on the French words in his cookbook —

– Hey! You better watch it all the time!

– Sorry, Vodçek, couldn’t resist. But the fat book probably doesn’t cover all the ways those terms are used and understood by people in everyday tavern talk. Just take that word ‘argument’. The dictionary might tell you that an argument is a set or sequence of statements — called premises — that are connected together to support or even ‘prove’ another statement, the ‘conclusion’. But that’s not really what people mean when they say “Brother Joe had an argument with cousin Buddy”?

– I see. The situations where people have very different opinions about some thing, and are yelling at each other trying to end up ‘being right’, and the other fellow ‘wrong’. A quarrel?

– Right. And they may use real arguments of the dictionary kind, but also forms of speech the dictionary would call ‘fallacies’, such as the old ‘ad hominem’ pattern, which essentially consists of convincing everybody that the other guy’s opinion is wrong because he is just a scoundrel or a miserable sinner, or has been smoking pot and drinking beer in high school. Raising their voices and fists in doing so, and somebody ending up with a black eye or loose tooth.

– Which means the guy with the black eye was wrong, eh Renfroe?

– I don’t know about you guys, I kinda like a good brawl every once in a while … no matter who’s right or wrong..

– Good grief. I remember now, Abbé Boulah invented a word for that kind of thing: the ‘quarrgument‘?

– Yes, Sophie. It nicely acknowledges the common associations while making the distinction. We’ll see if it sticks… So what about ‘dialogue’?

– That’s where things got muddy. I understand that internet friend insisted that a dialogue is ‘amenable’, aimed at ‘win-win’ outcomes rather than ‘win-lose’ one, cooperative rather than antagonistic (I don’t think he used that term but that was the intent), aimed at creative and constructive inquiry, but does not consist of arguments. Even a kind of ‘systems thinking’. And therefore preferable? Even politically correct?

– Audacious claims. But aren’t those things, those reasons, actually arguments?

– Right, Sophie: statements like “dialogue is preferable because it doesn’t contain arguments” are arguments — of the dictionary kind, not necessarily of the quarrgument kind, that he seemed to have in mind.

– So he wasn’t doing ‘dialogue’ when he said that, making those arguments, was he?

– I don’t know — that wasn’t clear; he might complain that he was diabolically, I mean dialogically tricked into argument mode against his amenable dialog intention?

– I always thought ‘amenable’ had something to do with guiding cattle with some kind of special shouts. What do I know. But why did you say things got muddy — so far, the distinctions we made here between arguments and quarrguments would have cleared things up a bit, wouldn’t they?

– Well, it doesn’t look like it got that far. Now, if you looked at the other terms, your dictionaries — different editions — would come up with definitions or meanings and uses of those other terms — discussion, debate, discourse, conversation, even argumentation — that are more or less overlapping with that of dialogue. Sometimes even defining or explaining one in terms of the others. I don’t know of a commonly accepted view that any of them exclude or don’t need arguments (of the dictionary kind), and common acceptance of the danger of any of the forms deteriorating into the quarrgument version more than others. The only common feature is that they, especially ‘dialogue’ assumes people talking to each other. Which is a good start, no?

– Well; we’ll see if it con be used for online discussions. But first: How would you tell when it deteriorates?

– It usually starts with the use of fallacies and comments that fall into the general ‘ad hominem’ category, attacking the other person rather than the reasons offered. Linking the plausibility, probability, believability of the claim in question with alleged intents, benign or evil, or general character features and shortcomings of other participants in the process.

– Huh. Not even the aspect of preference for ‘positive’ features as opposed to ‘negative’ properties or effects of the disputed subject, Professor?

– No, nothing that says something like “If the talk is about positive aspects, it’s a dialogue, if not, it’s a discussion”? Even though some ‘dialogue’ partisans tend to make it sound like that.

– But aren’t there differences of, well, let’s say ‘moods’ or ‘flavors’ of the talk, depending on the intentions of the participants?

– What do you mean, Sophie?

– Well, take the famous ‘debates’ of candidates for public office, at election time. There, the purpose of the debaters is obviously to make themselves look good in the eyes of the audience, while making the other candidates look bad, or less good? Tripping up opponents into making statements that can easily be disproved, making them look like fools? So by virtue of the adversarial intentions involved, ‘debate’ can be seen as being closer to the ‘quarrgument’ end of the scale, than, say, some friendly tavern conversation to pass the time? Or just getting to know about the other, swapping stories and gossip?

– Good point, Sophie — but there isn’t always a clear line between the intentions and effects. In scientific discussions — say, about whether the correlation between effect X and Y is showing that X causes Y, or the other way around, or that both are caused by another force Z, — the concern is about the plausibility of the different hypotheses, not about the scientists proposing them.

– Sure — but if one of those hypotheses turns out to be ‘refuted’ by the evidence brought into the discussion, doesn’t that make the researcher who had proposed that one look less respectable as a scientist, than the one whose hypothesis keeps getting ‘corroborated’ by more evidence? Especially if he had wasted a lot of research effort and grant money on the refuted theory?

– In theory, it shouldn’t. The refutation of a hypothesis is a kind of contribution to knowledge, isn’t it? Now we know hypothesis Y –> X was not the answer? And shouldn’t that be valued, appreciated? But yes, it’s difficult to keep personalities and their egos or struggle for tenure or research grants out of the overall discussion. The difference is that science does have some useful guidelines for sorting that out. At least in the natural sciences that look at how things work, natural laws and such.

– As opposed to?

– As opposed to any processes involving human behavior and their interest in the outcomes. You might say that tenure or not is such an outcome, but whether an asteroid will strike earth, and where, is not that tightly linked to human affairs: if it does strike, whether the fellow gets tenure won’t matter too much, will it?

– So you don’t believe that prayer, for example, can help avert such outcomes?

– Well, you can pray that your scientists have done their calculations properly when they tell you what’s what, and maybe knowing how hard you prayed may just make him check the numbers one more time, — but try to get that across to the asteroid…

– All this talk on steroids aside — what about the kind of undialogue about human plans and policy-making — that our buddy is working on?

– Why do you say ‘undialogue’, Bog-Hubert?

– Obviously, because in that kind of talk, considering and ‘weighing’ all the pros and cons’ is a key concern, isn’t it? And those pros and cons are arguments, aren’t they? So therefore, according to the internet friend, it’s obviously not dialogue.

– By Abbé Boulah’s drooping mustache, you are right! But doesn’t that mean, if we all decide to engage in dialogue, that we couldn’t ever talk about plans and policies?

– Or, Vodçek, that we should only focus on the ‘pros’, and strive, cooperatively, try to improve, make the best plans possible?

– Sounds very sophistically correct — but isn’t that going against the tenets of planning projects, not even to speak of systems thinking?

– I agree: to the extent planning is in part finding solutions to problems — situations that are disagreeable or hurtful to some folks — understanding those disagreeable aspects is necessary, almost by definition. But why against systems thinking, Professor?

– Well, isn’t part of the catechism of ‘systems thinking’ the advice to always try to anticipate ‘unexpected’ consequences of system interventions? Especially of the unexpectedly unpleasant, undesirable kind? So I’d say the admirable claim that dialogue should only focus on the positive (and avoid the negative, the ‘cons’, the potentially undesirable side-and after-effects) is a bit at odds with this principle?

– Hmm. ‘At odds’ — spoken the way you did, with that British accent, sounds like a dialogical understatement. It begins to look like the issue ‘dialogue versus argument’ was a wrong question. Not a good basis for making those distinctions between dialogue and discussion and argumentation.

– So what’s the right, or better, question, Bog-Hubert?

– Well, let’s see: if all those ‘positive’ aspects as well as the arguments are all included in the general category of ‘discourse’, so trying to derive useful behavior or approach from the artificial distinction of the words is actually distracting from the needed focus on what’s being said? How about this one: The real issue is about the things that can make all those forms of talk deteriorate into ‘quarrguments’?

– Sounds good. I’m getting more confused about those different terms the more we try to sort them out — but yes, the question of how to keep all such talk constructive, productive, and not making the problems worse, is a more useful one to study.

– That actually looks like the second item on Abbé Boulah’s suggested agenda: for tomorrow’s talk — whatever you want to call it? The needed agreements for productive conversations — for friendly ‘amenable’ conversation, as well as for planning, decision-oriented discourse? So we’re done for today?

– I’ll drink to that.

– I hadn’t expected anything less, Renfroe. Though we didn’t really succeed in solving the question about the meaning of those different terms.

– Deciding it’s a non-issue, a wrong question, is a vastly more useful outcome, I’d say … if we have identified the better question.

– Right, Sophie. I’ll drink to that, too… Here’s to tomorrow!

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The Fog Island Tavern’ Quarrgument’ Symposium

 Introduction

Almost ‘full house’ in the Fog Island Tavern. Most of the regulars are there, leisurely discussing the lately exasperating performance of the local football teams. They don’t appear to be seriously fanatic fans, having attended a variety of different schools, so the exchanges are still civil, no barroom fights expected. Actually, the discussion seems to be flagging somewhat, interest waning, nobody appears to have placed any substantial bets on the games… people getting tired?

So Vodçek, the Tavern owner and sole operator, takes the moment of a temporary lull in the talk to convey a message from one of the missing regulars — the one they call Abbé Boulah — to his customers at the bar:

– Hey folks, let me tell you about this note I got from Abbé Boulah. He is suggesting a kind of ‘symposium’ here, for the long weekend coming on, to disentangle some kind of quarrgument his buddy up in town was getting involved in on the internet. One of those endless discussions that got some folks all worked up but are going nowhere…

– He wants us to straighten out silly mud-slinging-fests on the so-called ‘social networks’ discussions — or whatever you are calling them? Quarrgument? Never heard that one before.

– Yes, Sophie, it’s the term he came up with — to distinguish argumentative discussions from those that end up in unfriendly quarrels, that folks are calling ‘arguments’ but that actually have nothing to to with real arguments. But that’s already getting into the subject he wants you guys to try to work out.

– But why us?

– I think it’s because it may have some bearing on a subject we’ve been talking about here: the idea of the Planning and Policy-making Discourse Support Platform. And he believes that you can do it in a more civil, structured and constructive fashion than what’s going on in those social media.

– Hmm. A man of some kind of faith, eh? So what’s the issue, the controversy?

– It is about some fellow on one of the networks. He keeps interrupting everybody who dares to use the words ‘discussion’, or ‘argument’ or ‘argumentative discourse’ — insisting that everybody should use the term ‘dialogue’ instead.

– Does he have any good reasons or explanations for that?

– You mean does he have any arguments for his claim? Well, that’s the issue, isn’t it? Now, our buddy thinks that this may have some implications on the way the planning discourse ought to be orchestrated. The issue some of us have been speculating about here. It doesn’t look like a very momentous decision, in fact I think it’s kind of silly, it might be a nice little topic to talk about in this weather that won’t let you go out for bigger fish to catch and fry… So how about it?

– Well, what does he suggest to do, exactly?

– It’s very much up to you guys, Professor — but the did set up a kind of agenda for getting started. He suggests three main topics, maybe for three different evenings, to keep enough time free for chitchat about the weather and football and local gossip.

– Doesn’t that go against the rule for such discussions he was going on about here — the ‘parallel processing’ rule?

– Yes, I know, Renfroe, good question. I asked him about that. He explained that this rule does apply to all creative design / planning and problem-solving projects, and therefore also to large-scale online planning discourse. So people can enter their two cents worth to the questions they are concerned about, whenever they want, as soon as they have the information. On platforms that have overview displays, showing everything significant that’s going on on all issues. The whole system, don’t you know. But you see, here we don’t have those displays for showing all the issues and comments about them simultaneously.

– Ah, I understand. Here, only person should talk at a time, to keep things halfway organized, so we should deal with questions one at a time as well. And we only have until last call. For issues that emerge as more important from our efforts, I guess we can always agree to come back to look at previous issues later?

– Right, Sophie. So here’s what he proposes, for starters — I’ll put it up on the menu chalkboard for now, I’m out of the soup du jour anyway. Maybe one of you can bring some larger poster-boards tomorrow and a few markers?

————————————————————————————————————————————————-

The main issues:

1   Disentangling the ‘Dialogue versus Argumentation’ Quarrgument

    Meaning of terms?

    The case for/against dialogue versus argumentation?

2   Needed agreements / provisions for

     a) ‘Social’ Communication?

    b) Decision-oriented ‘Planning Discourse’?

3   Provisions for (2b) agreements in the ‘Planning Discourse Support System’ (PDSS) proposals?

————————————————————————————————————————————————

So maybe we can start with the first topic there, tomorrow night?

– Gives us some time to think about it, okay. Let me see if I understand it right: The basic question is whether the form of ‘dialogue’ should be adopted for all such talk (to use a very general term that I assume includes all the potential versions: conversation, discussion, discourse, negotiation, debate…) — but that arguments, argumentation, should be avoided?

– Thanks, Bog-Hubert! Yes, I guess, basically, that’s it. For starters. Any specific issues you want me to put up on the proposed agenda, you guys decide what you want to get into in detail — for tomorrow night, leave me a note. For tonight: Last call!

== o ==

(Continued Tomorrow)


‘CONNECTING THE DOTS’ OF SOME GOVERNANCE PROBLEMS

There is much discussion about flaws of ‘democratic’ governance systems, supposedly leading to increasingly threatening crises. Calls for ‘fixing’ these challenges tend to focus on single problems, urging single ‘solutions’. Even recommendations for application of ‘systems thinking’ tools seem to be fixated on the phase of ‘problem understanding’ of the process; while promotions of AI (artificial / augmented intelligence) sound like solutions are likely to be found by improved collection and analysis of data, of information in existing ‘knowledge bases’. Little effort seems devoted to actually ‘connecting the dots’ – linking the different aspects and problems, making key improvements that serve multiple purposes. The following attempt is an example of such an effort to develop comprehensive ‘connecting the dots’ remedies – one that itself arguably would help realize the ambitious dream of democracy, proposed for discussion. A selection (not a comprehensive account) of some often invoked problems, briefly:

“Voter apathy” The problem of diminishing participation in current citizen participation in political discourse and decisions / elections, leading to unequal representation of all citizens’ interests;

“Getting all needed information”
The problem of eliciting and assembling all pertinent ‘documented’ information (‘data’) but also critical ‘distributed’ information especially for ‘wicked problems’, – but:

“Avoiding information overload”
The phenomenon of ‘too much information’, much of which may be repetitive, overly rhetorical, judgmental, misleading (untruthful) or irrelevant;

“Obstacles to citizens’ ability to voice concerns”
The constraints to citizens’ awareness of problems, plans, overview of discourse, ability to voice concerns;

“Understanding the problem”
Social problems are increasingly complex, interconnected, ill-structured, explained in different, often contradicting ways, without ‘true’ (‘correct) or ‘false’ answers, and thus hard to understand, leading to solution proposals which may result in unexpected consequences that can even make the situation worse;

“Developing better solutions”
The problem of effectively utilizing all available tools to the development of better (innovative) solutions;

“Meaningful discussion”
The problem of conducting meaningful (less ‘partisan’ and vitriolic, more cooperative, constructive) discussion of proposed plans and their pros and cons;

“Better evaluation of proposed plans”
The task of meaningful evaluation of proposed plans;

“Developing decisions based on the merit of discourse contributions”
Current decision methods do not guarantee ‘due consideration’ of all citizens’ concerns but tend to ignore and override as much as the contributions and concerns of half of the population (voting minority);

“The lack of meaningful measures of merit of discourse contributions”
Lack of convincing measures of the merit of discourse contributions: ideas, information, strength of evidence, weight of arguments and judgments;

“Appointing qualified people to positions of power”
Finding qualified people for positions of power to make decisions that cannot be determined by lengthy public discourse — especially those charged with ensuring

“Adherence to decisions / laws / agreements”
The problem of ‘sanctions’ ensuring adherence to decisions reached or issued by governance agencies: ‘enforcement’ – (requiring government ‘force’ greater than potential violators leading to ‘force’ escalation;

“Control of power”
To prevent people in positions of power from falling victim to temptations of abusing their power, better controls of power must be developed.

Some connections and responses:

Problems and remedies network

Details of possible remedies / responses to problems, using information technology, aiming at having specific provisions (‘contribution credits’) work together with new methodological tools (argument and quality evaluation) to serve multiple purposes:

“Voter apathy”

Participation and contribution incentives: for example, offering ‘credit points’ for contributions to the planning discourse, saved in participants’ ‘contribution credit account’ as mere ‘contribution’ or participation markers, (to be evaluated for merit later.)

“Getting all needed information”
A public projects ‘bulletin board’ announcing proposed projects / plans, inviting interested and affected parties to contribute comments, information, not only from knowledge bases of ‘documented’ information (supported by technology) but also ‘distributed, not yet documented information from parties affected by the problem and proposed plans.

“Avoiding information overload”
Points given only for ‘first’ entries of the same content and relevance to the topic
(This also contributes to speedy contributions and assembling information)

“Obstacles to citizens’ ability to voice concerns”
The public planning discourse platform accepts entries in all media, with entries displayed on public easily accessible and regularly (ideally real-time) updated media, non-partisan

“Understanding the problem”
The platform encourages representation of the project’s problem, intent and ‘explanation’ from different perspectives. Systems models contribute visual representation of relationships between the various aspects, causes and consequences, agents, intents and variables, supported by translation not only between different languages but also from discipline ‘jargon’ to natural conversational language.

“Developing better solutions”
Techniques of creative problem analysis and solution development, (carried out by ‘special techniques’ teams reporting results to the pain platform) as well as information about precedents and scientific and technology knowledge support the development of solutions for discussion

“Meaningful discussion”
While all entries are stored for reference in the ‘Verbatim’ repository, the discussion process will be structured according to topics and issues, with contributions condensed to ‘essential content’, separating information claims from judgmental characterization (evaluation to be added separately, below) and rhetoric, for overview display (‘IBIS’ format, issue maps) and facilitating systematic assessment.

“Better evaluation of proposed plans”
Systematic evaluation procedures facilitate assessment of plan plausibility (argument evaluation) and quality (formal evaluation to mutually explain participants’ basis of judgment) or combined plausibility-weighted quality assessment.

“Meaningful measures of merit”
The evaluation procedures produce ‘judgment based’ measures of plan proposal merit that guide individual and collective decision judgments. The assessment results also are used to add merit judgments (veracity, significance, plausibility, quality of proposal) to individuals’ first ‘contribution credit’ points, added to their ‘public credit accounts’.

“Decision based on merit”
For large public (at the extreme, global) planning projects, new decision modes and criteria are developed to replace traditional tools (e.g. majority voting)

“Qualified people to positions of power”
Not all public governance decisions need to or can wait for the result of lengthy discourse, thus, people will have to be appointed (elected) to positions of power to make such decisions. The ‘public contribution credits’ of candidates are used as additional qualification indicators for such positions.

“Control of power”

Better controls of power can be developed using the results of procedures proposed above: Having decision makers ‘pay’ for the privilege of making power decisions using their contribution credits as the currency for ‘investments’ in their decision: Good decision will ‘earn’ future credits based on public assessment of outcomes; poor decisions will reduce the credit accounts of officials, forcing their resignation if depleted. ‘Supporters’ of officials can transfer credits from their own accounts to the official’s account to support the official’s ability to make important decisions requiring credits exceeding their own account. They can also withdraw such contributions if the official’s performance has disappointed the supporter.
This provision may help reduce the detrimental influence of money in governance, and corresponding corruption.

“Adherence to decisions / laws / agreements”
One of the duties of public governance is ‘enforcement’ of laws and decisions. The very word indicates the narrow view of tools for this: force, coercion. Since government force must necessarily exceed that of any would-be violator to be effective, this contributes both to the temptation of corruption, — to abuse their power because there is no greater power to prevent it, and to the escalation of enforcement means (weaponry) by enforces and violators alike. For the problem of global conflicts, treaties, and agreements, this becomes a danger of use of weapons of mass destruction if not defused. The possibility of using provisions of ‘credit accounts’ to develop ‘sanctions’ that do not have to be ‘enforced’ but triggered automatically by the very attempt of violation, might help this important task.


 


Artificial Intelligence for the Planning Discourse?

The discussion about whether and to what extent Artificial Intelligence technology can meaningfully support the planning process with contributions similar or equivalent to human thinking is largely dominated by controversies about what constitutes thinking. An exploration of the reasoning patterns in the various phases of human planning discourse could produce examples for that discussion, leaving the determination of that definition label ‘thinking’ open for the time being.

One specific example (only one of several different and equally significant aspects of planning):
People propose plans for action, e.g. to solve problems, and then engage in discussion of the ‘pros and cons’ of those plans: arguments. A typical planning argument can be represented as follows:
“Plan A should be adopted for implementation, because
i) Plan A will produce consequences B, given certain conditions C, and
ii) Consequences B ought to be pursued (are desirable); and
iii) Conditions C are present (or will be, at implementation).

Question 1: could such an argument be produced by automated technological means?
This question is usually followed up by question 2: Would or could the ‘machine’ doing this be able (or should it be allowed) to also make decisions to accept or reject the plan?

Can meaningful answer to these questions be found? (Currently or definitively?)

Beginning with question 1: Formulating such an argument in their minds, humans draw on their memory — or on explanations and information provided during the discourse itself — for items of knowledge that could become premises of arguments:

‘Factual-instrumental’ knowledge of the form “FI (A –> X)”, for example (“A will cause X’, given conditions C;
‘Deontic’ Knowledge: of the form “D(X)” or “X ought to be’ (is desirable)”, and
Factual Knowledge of the form “F ( C)” or “Conditions C are given”.
‘Argumentation-pattern knowledge’: Recognition that any of the three knowledge items above can be inserted into an argument pattern of the form
D(A) <– ((A–> X)|C)) & D(X) & F( C)).

(There are of course many variations of such argument patterns, depending on assertion or negation of the premises, and different kinds of relations between A and X.)

It does not seem to be very difficult to develop a Knowledge Base (collection) of such knowledge items and a search-and-match program that would assemble ‘arguments’ of this pattern.

Any difficulties arguably would be more related to the task of recognizing and suitably extracting such items (‘translating’ it into the form recognizable to the program) from the human recorded and documented sources of knowledge, than to the mechanics of the search-and-match process itself. Interpretation of meaning: is an item expressed in different words equivalent to other terms that are appropriate to the other potential premises in an argument?

Another slight quibble relates to the question whether and to what extent the consequence qualifies as one that ‘ought to be’ (or not) — but this can be dealt with by reformulating the argument as follows:
“If (FI(A –> X|C) & D(X) & F( C)) then D(A)”.

(It should be accompanied by the warning that this formulation that ‘looks’ like a valid logic argument pattern is in fact not really applicable to arguments containing deontic premises, and that a plan’s plausibility does not rest on one single argument but on the weight of all its pros and cons.)

But assuming that these difficulties can be adequately dealt with, the answer to question 1) seems obvious: yes, the machine would be able to construct such arguments. Whether that already qualifies as ‘thinking’ or ‘reasoning’ can be left open; the significant realization is equally obvious: that such contributions could be potentially helpful contributions to the discourse. For example, by contributing arguments human participants had not thought of, they could be helping to meet the aim of ensuring — as much as possible — that the plan will not have ‘unexpected’ undesirable side-and-after-effects. (One important part of H. Rittel’s very definition of design and planning.)

The same cannot as easily be said about question 2.

The answer to that question hinges on whether the human ‘thinking’ activities needed to make a decision to accept or reject the proposed plan can be matched by ‘the machine’. The reason is, of course, that not only the plausibility of each argument will have to be ‘evaluated’, judged, (by assessing the plausibility of each premise) but also that the arguments must be weighed against one another. (A method for doing that has been described e.g  in ‘The Fog Island Argument” and  several papers.)

So a ‘search and match’ process as the first part of such a judgment process would have to look for those judgments in the data base, and the difficulty here has to do with where such judgments would come from.

The prevailing answers for factual-instrumental premises as well as for fact-premises — premises i) and iii) — are drawing on ‘documented’ and commonly accepted truth, probability, or validity. Differences of opinion about claims drawn from ‘scientific’ and technical work, if any, are decided by a version of ‘majority voting’ — ‘prevailing knowledge’, accepted by the community of scientists or domain experts, ‘settled’ controversies, derived from sufficiently ‘big data’ (“95% of climate scientists…”) can serve as the basis of such judgments. It is often overlooked that the premises of planning arguments, however securely based on ‘past’ measurements, observations etc, are inherently predictions. So any certainty about their past truth must at least be qualified with a somewhat lesser degree of confidence that they will be equally reliably true in future: will the conditions under which the A –> X relationships are assumed to hold, be equally likely to hold in the future? Including the conditions that may be — intentionally or inadvertently — changed as a result of future human activities pursuing different aims than those of the plan?

The question becomes even more controversial for the deontic (ought-) premises of the planning arguments. Where do the judgments come from by which their plausibility and importance can be determined? Humans can be asked to express their opinions — and prevalent social conventions consider the freedom to not only express such judgments but to have them given ‘due consideration’ in public decision-making (however roundabout and murky the actual mechanisms for realizing this may be) as a human right.

Equally commonly accepted is the principle that machines do not ‘have’ such rights. Thus, any judgment about deontic premises that might be used by a program for evaluating planning arguments would have to be based on information about human judgments that can be found in the data base the program is using. There are areas where this is possible and even plausible. Not only is it prudent to assign a decidedly negative plausibility to deontic claims whose realization contradicts natural laws established by science (and considered still valid…like ‘any being heavier than air can’t fly…’). But there also are human agreements — regulations and laws, and predominant moral codes — that summarily prohibit or mandate certain plans or parts of plans; supported by subsequent arguments to the effect that we all ought not break the law, regardless of our own opinions. This will effectively ‘settle’ some arguments.

And there are various approaches in design and planning that seem to aim at finding — or establishing — enough such mandates or prohibitions that, taken together, would make it possible to ‘mechanically’ determine at least whether a plan is ‘admissible’ or not — e.g. for buildings, whether its developer should get a building permit.

This pattern is supported in theory by modal logic branches that seek to resolve deontic claims on the basis of ‘true/false’ judgments (that must have been made somewhere by some authority) of ‘obligatory’, ‘prohibited’, ‘permissible’ etc. It can be seen to be extended by at last two different ‘movements’ that must be seen as sidestepping the judgment question.

One is the call for society as a whole to adopt (collectively agree upon) moral, ethical codes whose function is equivalent to ‘laws’ — from which the deontic judgment about plans could be derived by mechanically applying the appropriate reasoning steps — invoking ‘Common Good’ mandates supposedly accepted unanimously by everybody. The question whether and how this relates to the principle of granting the ‘right’ of freely holding and happily pursuing one’s own deontic opinions is usually not examined in this context.

Another example is the ‘movement’ of Alexander’s ‘Pattern Language’. Contrary to claims that it is a radically ‘new’ theory, it stands in a long and venerable tradition of many trades and disciplines to establish codes and collections of ‘best practice’ rules of ‘patterns’ — learned by apprentices in years of observing the masters, or compiled in large volumes of proper patterns. The basic idea is that of postulating ‘elements’ (patterns) of the realm of plans, and relationships between these, by means of which plans can be generated. The ‘validity’ or ‘quality’ of the generated plan is then guaranteed by the claim that each of the patterns (rules) are ‘valid’ (‘true’, or having that elusive ‘quality without a name’). This is supported by showing examples of environments judged (by intuition, i.e. needing no further justification) to be exhibiting ‘quality’, by  applications of the patterns. The remaining ‘solution space’ left open by e.g.  the different combinations of patterns, then serves as the basis for claims that the theory offers ‘participation’ by prospective users. However, it hardly needs pointing out that individual ‘different’ judgments — e.g. based on the appropriateness of a given pattern or relationship — are effectively eliminated by such approaches. (This assessment should not be seen as a wholesale criticism of the approach, whose unquestionable merit is to introduce quality considerations into the discourse about built environment that ‘common practice’ has neglected.)

The relevance of discussing these approaches for the two questions above now becomes clear: If a ‘machine’ (which could of course just be a human, untiringly pedantic bureaucrat assiduously checking plans for adherence to rules or patterns) were able to draw upon a sufficiently comprehensive data base of factual-instrumental knowledge and ‘patterns or rules’, it could conceivably be able to generate solutions. And if the deontic judgments have been inherently attached to those rules, it could claim that no further evaluation (i.e. inconvenient intrusion of differing individual judgments would be necessary.

The development of ‘AI’ tools of automated support for planning discourse — will have to make a choice. It could follow this vision of ‘common good’ and valid truth of solution elements, universally accepted by all members of society. Or it could accept the challenge of a view that it either should refrain from intruding on the task of making judgments, or going to the trouble of obtaining those judgments from human participants in the process, before using them in the task of deriving decisions. Depending on which course is followed, I suspect the agenda and tasks of current and further research and development and programming will be very different. This is, in my opinion, a controversial issue of prime significance.


Embracing contradictions — A Fog Island Tavern conversation.

– Vodçek, tell me, do you have a feeling Abbé Boulah has lost it?
– Bog-Hubert, my friend: you do look worried — did you overdo the testing of your new batch of Eau d’Hole? What in the world makes you ask such questions?
– Well, I just overheard him talk on the phone with his buddy up in town. Out on the deck while I was coming up the ramp; he didn’t seem to mind at all. And he was going on about how we ought to embrace contradictions, of all things. Speaking Latin and quoting Libbett, whoever that was.
– Libbett? Never heard of him. Ah, wait. Libbet’s not a person — at least not one our friend was talking about. Could he have been invoking the old logic rule of “ex contradictione sequitur quodlibet”?
– Was that what he kept shouting? What does it mean?
– It means “From a contradiction you can infer, conclude whatever”. Right, professor?
– Yes indeed. It’s also known as the rule ‘Ex falso quodlibet” It’s a warning about the fallacy of allowing contradictory claims in a system because any statement can be proven from them: anything follows, looking like ‘proof’, even though it’s nonsense.
– I don’t understand.
– Okay. Consider a statement (1) “Wine is good for you, or Abbé Boulah is a Lower Lugubrian spy”. Now we know that wine is good for you — even my doctor tells me that, so that statement is true, which means that whole claim is true. But a statement (2) to the effect of ‘Wine is not good for you’ can also be seen as true, since there are wines that are so vile they make you sick. Not in my tavern, of course. But then the fact that if (2) means the first part of statement (1) is not true would mean that its second part must be true, since otherwise the whole sentence would not be true. This ‘proves’ that Abbé Boulah must be a Lower Lugubrian spy. Or whatever you’d put in that second part.
– They teach that at la Sorbonne?
– Sure do. At least they did when William of Soissons came up with this rule in the 12th century.
– But is there even a place called Lower Lugubria?
– Right, Renfroe, I mean no. Not yet, at least. But the logic proves it, so it must be true, eh?
– Well, I’ll be dipped in Cajun hot sauce. So how come Abbé Boulah can call for anybody to ’embrace’ such nonsense? The government is going to deport him, and where will they send him if there ain’t no such place?
– Bears some looking into. Could it be that he means something else by the ‘quodlibet’ thingy?
– Interesting idea. Yes, I think he could have meant several things. You know he’s been working with his buddy on the planning discourse support platform idea for a while, where one of the problems has to do with whether there should be an ‘expert system’ or Artificial Intelligence component that could look at both the discussion entries and other data bases, and come up with useful comments to the discourse. And their concern has been, quite reasonably, that the planning discourse contains all kinds of contradictory information. Almost by definition — all the ‘pros and cons’, remember? So how can it draw any meaningful conclusions from all that?
– I get it. It’ll all be Lower Lugubrian… So?
– So they have been saying that unless the AI folks can come up with a meaningful way of dealing with the contradictions in the discourse — and in the other data bases, too, I’d guess, — there will be big questions about AI support for the planning discourse.
– Why is that?
– Well, normally, you’d trust whatever such a system comes up with because you think they are trustworthy and reliable — which depends on two things: One, that all the data from which they draw conclusions are true, or at least come with trustworthy probability estimates. And two: that the reasoning rule they use to draw conclusions are ‘valid — meaning that they will actually result in true conclusions if all their premises are true. So if you now admit contradictions in the data gumbo, how can you trust the conclusions?
– Well, isn’t the point of such systems to calculate, based on valid reasoning rules and checked-out facts, which of two contradictory claims is true and which one is wrong?
– That would be nice, wouldn’t it, Sophie. But it isn’t that easy to tell what’s what. Take the big controversy about climate change, and whether it’s all caused by human activity. There are many studies that show how warming trends seem to follow the amounts of CO2 that human activities emit. Using good, reliable data (meaning the data have been confirmed by other independent studies) and reliable scientific and statistical methods, ‘reasoning’ patterns, if you like. So those studies seem to ‘prove’ that human emissions have contributed to global warming. But there are also studies that use data you can’t dismiss as ‘false’, and equally valid statistical methods — that come up with conclusions that say there is no such connection.
– What do you mean, Professor?
– Well, Sophie: it turns out that much depends on what kind of data you are using — for example, whether you are measuring temperature changes on the earth’s surface  (on land) or over the ocean, or in the ocean, or in the air, and how high up you are measuring it. And it also depends on what time period you are looking at. So each of the studies may actually be quite ‘valid’ in themselves — reliable data and respectable methods — just looking at different data, and coming up with different results. So it takes some close scrutiny to evaluate those studies — the ‘system’ may report all of them as ‘reliable’ because it doesn’t realize that the kinds of data and the time period may make all the difference. So you still need to take a critical look at the studies.
– Okay. Let’s not get caught up in that climate issue right now. You mentioned that there were several possible reasons for Abbé Boulah’s strange call?
– Yes, thanks for reminding me. At least two, besides simply saying that we need to acknowledge all the contradictions in the discourse, and actively encourage people to express them for discussion and evaluation. Not sweeping them under the rug by pushing for ‘consensus’ or relying on ‘expert’ reports.
– Yes. We’ve discussed that — but people seem to be stuck on unified visions and leadership and consensus; well, I guess it takes time to sink in. But you weren’t done yet, were you, sorry?
– Right. We should also improve our tools for dealing with all those contradictions. Because there are actually some claims — the ‘deontic’ ones, that have to do with what people feel ‘ought to be’ — goals, objectives, concerns about things they don’t like in the current problem situation, or visions about what life might be that’s different — don’t we all wish that we could ‘make a difference’ in our lives? And those premises of planning arguments are not ‘true’ or ‘false’, not even properly assessed as ‘probable’; so logic has some serious trouble with them. Its valid syllogisms don’t apply. And we accept that people have the right to happiness in pursuing different goals. Look at even the common views of ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of proposed solutions: they aren’t the same for all affected parties: some of the ‘costs’ that some want to reduce are actually ‘benefits’ (income, profits,) for others, who want more…
– Hmm. You’re making things difficult here. So the government making decisions based of the famous ‘Benefit/Cost Ratio is actually … how should we say…
– Sweeping those issues under the rug? Yes. We need different decision tools.
– But there still could be more behind Abbé Boulah’s attitude?
– Well, maybe he is simply referring to the ‘Systematic Doubt’ method for analyzing a problem and generating solution ideas.
– What in ninety nonsequiturs’ names are you talking about, Professor?
– You never heard about this technique? It’s actually based on a nifty piece of logic — DeMorgan’s second theorem — which says that a the negation of a statement consisting of two or several claims joined by ‘and’, is equivalent to a statement of each of the negated parts joined by ‘or’:
~(a ^ b) = (~a v ~b)
Here, ~ means negation, ^ means ‘and’ ; v means ‘or’).
– So where does the contradiction come in?
– Impatient wench, Sophie. Say you have a problem and try to find a way, a plan, to fix it — eliminate it. Now make a statement consisting of several necessary conditions for that problem to exist: “a ^ b ^ c …” (De Morgan’s theorem works for any number of conditions.) You want the problem you want to go away? This can be expressed as ‘~(a^b^c…).  The equivalence of that statement to that of ‘ ~a v ~b v ~c…’ means that if only one of those necessary conditions could go away — negated, c o n t r a d i c t e d, get it? — the whole problem would not exist.
– So?
– Ah Renfroe — this gives rise to a beautiful approach to finding many possible solution ideas, don’t you see? The steps are:
* First, you look at the problem and find its all its necessary conditions
* You state those conditions in plain assertive sentences. This way of talking about problems takes a bit of getting used to; we usually just complain about it in negative sentences: such as ‘there isn’t any money in my bank account’ or ‘there’s no place to park’
* Then, you take each of the conditions and negate it: contradict it.  Write them out one by one.
* Now you look for ways to make these negated statements come true. There may be no way to do that for some statements, but often two or more. They may not all make sense — some can be plain nonsense or hilariously unfeasible, the process can be a lot of fun — but there may just be one or more good ideas for solving the problem, so you can pickup and elaborate on those.
You have been nudged to look at the problem from any different viewpoints; improving the chances of finding a good, feasible solution. All by contradicting the necessary conditions for the problem to exist.
– So Vodçek, you think this is what Abbé Boulah was talking about? It does make some sense now.
– Who knows, Sophie; we may just have to wait until next time he shows up here to ask him about that. But I can think of one more possibility of what he meant.
– Oh? As interesting as this Systematic Doubt one?
– Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that. It has to do with the meaning of ‘quodlibet’ in that old logic rule. Perhaps the professor can explain it better?
– Ah, I think I see what you are getting at, Vodçek. Yes, it would be quite in style with Abbé Boulah’s sometimes, hmm, unusual, way of thinking. Let’s see. ‘Quodlibet’ comes from ‘quod’ , meaning ‘what’, and ‘libet’ means ‘like’ or ‘please’. So maybe wasn’t referring to the meaningless ‘whatever’, random nonsense. He could have been trying to say that by ’embracing the contradictions’ in a planning situation, and using them with some imagination, we could end up with more creative, imaginative, but also pleasing solutions?
– As compared to just dwelling on the negative aspects about the problem, the complaints?
– Right. You agree, Bog-Hubert? You were the one who heard him talk to his friend — did that sound like it had something to do with Vodçek’s theory?
– Well it sure would explain the last comment I heard him say, that I didn’t understand at all at the time.
– What was that, again?
– I think he mentioned something about misquoting, or changing one of Winston Churchill’s lesser known sayings — but what I heard was: “The price of ‘quodlibet’ is responsibility.”

– Is that what they are saying in Lower Lugubria?


Have Mercy With the Powerful — A Fog Island Tavern Discussion

– My, Vodçek, you seem to have a great time today – what are you laughing about?

– Ah Sophie, did you hear our friends here complaining about the powers that be – the government, the bosses, the tycoons, the media types – all the powerful folks in the world?

– Yes, part of it, but then I went outside for a while. What was so funny about it?

– Well, then there was this fellow who got kind of obnoxious, don’t ask me what he did or said – but then they asked me – me! — to kick him out…

– Oh, was that the guy who stumbled around the ramp and almost fell into the water getting into his boat? Was he drunk?

– Yes, that’s the one. Drunk? He must have been celebrating before he came in, I served him just one beer. No he was a natural obnoxic.

– Sounds like you did the right thing. But what did that have to do with their rants about power?

– Maybe he was getting on their nerves. And yes,  it got kind of ugly, but nothing worth worrying about yet. But then for them to ask me to be the boss and pull a power decision, it was just too funny, after their complaints about anybody doing that…

– Hey, don’t get things mixed up here, Vodçek – it’s your shop – and don’t tell me you didn’t agree with our complaints…

– Sure, Renfroe, I totally agree there are problems with power, have been for ages. But our friend Wilford here – was that your friend I had to ask to leave? No? – Our mild-mannered Wilford, of all people, starting to call for immediate overthrow of the government and Wall street and the media tycoons, and throwing all the bankers in jail — that was getting a little too – well déja vu; I just couldn’t take it seriously. Sorry, Wilford.

– What do you mean, it’s not serious? Those guys are dangerous; they are hurting us all, the country, the economy, the ecology, our foreign relations – something just has to be done! They are oppressing the people with their enforcement goons, violating all standards of human decency and morals, they are criminals! A revolution is long overdue! Those guys belong in jail or tossed off their highrise towers…

– Okay, okay, Wilford, calm down. We can’t do much from this fogged in-island for now anyway, might as well take a breath and think about it.

– That’s just becoming complicit in their crimes, if you ask me, Bog-Hubert! Well, just as soon as we can get back…

– Okay – let’s say you are right. So you are organizing a revolution, overthrowing the rascals. Then what? Who’s going to run things? How?

– Well, the people, of course! The workers, the powerless folks, the downtrodden…

– Hmm. Haven’t we heard that before, many times? What I know about history, too many such revolutions have been followed in due course by the rise of another set of powerful people, who began to behave just as badly as the folks they threw in jail – or worse. It’s going on right now! The famous Arab Spring revolutions, only a few years ago – what happened to those? So how would you prevent that? Or first, how do you explain it?

– Well, there are always people –- reactionaries – that want to grasp their power back. And of course they must be kept from doing that.

– So how are you going to do that?

– Well, Sophie, you have to watch them, keep them out of positions where they can get powerful again, keep them from agitating to get the old system back. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

– And because they have been overthrown by force, necessarily, they will assume that if they can assemble some means of force again, they can do the same to the new regime – so you have to make sure that you’ll always have a stronger force available to prevent or put down such attempts … Begins to look very much like the old system all over again, doesn’t it?

– We’ll just have to insist on the democratic, legal protections against power abuse – but if the people are in power, why would they start oppressing themselves?

– That’s the big question, all right. It has happened too many times: Do we really know enough about that? Would it be useful to take a look at this idea of power, try to understand it better – before we start another bloody mess that results in the same thing, all over again?

– You just want us to sit here drinking all night cooking up pipe dreams, don’t you, Vodçek?

– Well I never would allow you to use the terms ‘cooking’ in connection with pipe dreams, Bog-Hubert. And I love to have you keep me company in my tavern, yes. But Sophie here looks like she’d like to give that investigation a try, even though she doesn’t even partake of my bodacious Sonoma Zin… How about it, Sophie?

– Okay – do you have any ideas where to start? Bog-Hubert? Didn’t you discuss this some time ago with Abbé Boulah? Did anything come of that?

– Well now that you mention it, he did have some unusual, almost paradoxical ideas about power.

– Huh? Do you remember any of them?

– Vaguely. It was a dark and stormy night, you know… Well, one part I remember was that he thought the need or desire for power is something almost like a human right.

– You are kidding, aren’t you? Abbé Boulah said that?

– Yes. Well, the way Wilford puts it, isn’t he saying the same thing – just from the lower end up? Empowerment! Power to the people! Freedom means being empowered to do things of your choice, not some bosses or superior’s choice. And you have to be ‘empowered’, have the power, possibility and resources, to do that.

– Oh. Put like that, it almost makes sense. But that isn’t the kind of power we are fighting, is it?

– No, Sophie, but the distinction isn’t always clear enough. What you are worried about is when having power to do things starts to include telling other people what you want them to do. And some of those are even what we want and agree with?

– You’ve got to explain that, Bog-Hubert.

– I’ll try. See, when it comes to things we’d like to do that could affect other people, we sort of agree that the democratic way to deal with that is to talk about it. To turn ‘my plan’ and ‘your plan’ into ‘our plan’ that we both can endorse and support. And the ‘leave our guns outside, sit down and talk’ part, the old parliamentary principle, that’s is what we are trying to improve upon. To make sure the decisions are really based on the merit of what we are talking about – not just overriding half of it with a majority vote. That’s an important task, isn’t it? Especially now that we are faced with increasingly ‘global’ decisions.

– What do you mean by ‘global decisions’?

– Well, take the example of the rules of the road, or oceans, or international flying conventions. Travel and trade rules and conventions. Some are arbitrary – like,  do we drive on the right or left side of the road? But we have to have some agreement about that.

– I see, makes sense. And more complex decisions will take some talking, and better decision-making methods. Okay.

– Yes. But then there are situations for which we need decisions that can’t wait for a long participatory discussion process. On a ship in the ocean that’s suddenly encountering an iceberg, somebody has to make a quick decision whether to pass it to the port or starboard, or stop and back up. That’s what we need the captain for. People in a position of empowerment — power — to make such decisions, on our behalf. And have everybody go along with all the actions needed to carry out the commands.

– Ah, I see what you mean: these are power decisions we expect the captain to make. — And of course he wants to be a captain, wants to be able to make such decisions: they are more significant, more important, than if he were alone in a dinghy to make his own decision.

– Right. And hasn’t history  shown that it’s precisely those kinds of decisions that are the source of the trouble?  They are, in principle, ‘legitimate’ – we expect them to be made for us. But we know they are also addictive. People in such positions of power want more and more ‘responsibility’, for more and more important decisions. Getting power-drunk. Empowerment and freedom – becoming fatally intertwined.

– ‘Fatally’ – sounds ominous. Aren’t there rules, provisions, to keep such decisions ‘legitimate’, orderly?

– Sure; humanity has invented a number of tricks to keep that under control. One of the tricks is the hierarchical organization – of governments and businesses, armies etc. At each level, a person is ‘subordinate’ to the rules and oversight – and directions – from the level above him or her – but has considerable freedom to decide things for the levels below. A kind of control, you agree?

– Ah. Except for the lowest level: the grunts, the slaves, the unskilled workers…

– Yes, Renfroe. And for the highest level… Which is where things become dangerous – in spite of the so-called safeguards against abuse that have been invented for modern governments: elections, time limits, impeachment provisions made possible by sophisticated ‘balance’ of powers of different government branches. Those things are the best we have, but they still don’t seem to work well enough anymore.

– Why?

– Well, there are several reasons why things get mucked up. One is the feature of ‘enforcement’. You made your laws, agreements, according to the clean democratic rules. But then you have to make sure that everybody actually follows and adheres to those rules. Which is why we have ‘enforcement’ institutions – police. The word itself – enforcement — indicates the poverty of the thing: we apparently can’t think of any way of making sure the laws are followed than by threaten violators with force or coercive consequences, and pursuing violators with necessarily greater force and power than any would-be violator. Otherwise it won’t work, right?

– Hmm.  I see where you are going. Now you have an enforcement agency with considerable power – and no greater power to keep it from falling victim to temptations of abusing their power.  So the sheriff – who knows that even the mayor has been recklessly exceeding the speed limit, perhaps even under, shall we say, some influence… but has not taken any enforcement action against Hizzonner, in return for perhaps some generous provisions in next years budget. I know; shocking, shocking. Some forms of power that aren’t on the books. Not even talking about campaign contributions by businesses subject to city regulations… You said there were several such snakes in the grass? The private sector gaining some undue control over government being one?

– You said it. Campaign contributions buying elections, the story is getting old. Another is the military. Sure, we need it, to defend our dear country against all those bad enemies – it must have bigger, badder weapons that anybody else, and nobody bigger to keep it from, well, losing some billions here and there in the fog of war exercises… Now think: any wonder that so many countries end up with a military takeover after a ‘revolution’ or other government screw-up?

– Heavens, it’s a miracle we don’t have bigger problems with all that…

– We do, Sophie, we do. Seems we just don’t see it, or if we do, we are in denial. See, sometimes ‘mistakes are made’. Well, I’m sure it doesn’t happen here – there are those other countries where people in power sometimes make mistakes. Not here, of course. So those mistakes may hurt some people, innocent or not so innocent. But who would now like to get the powerful miscreants out of power. What to do? Well we – the good guys in power, we can’t admit that of course: if those troublemakers would get their way, the ‘enforcement ‘ consequences would be… unpleasant, eh?  So: There are no mistakes made, at least not by anybody you can identify. And those traitorous people, troublemakers, who just claim to have been hurt but are mad or mentally disturbed and equally power-hungry, they must be kept under control. In jail, best, or in mental hospitals, or otherwise discouraged from causing more trouble.  Disappeared? Strange things happen. Some of those people are very careless, you know. Swallowing toxic stuff or getting into accidents…

Now there are smart ways and not so smart ways of doing that: Not so smart is to use police or state power directly, however efficiently and tempting. Much smarter: first, get the media to paint those people with suspicious colors, get enough citizens all worked up over the greedy, treasonous habits of those troublemakers. And then have some folks on hand about whom you have some real evidence of real misdeeds. But you don’t release that evidence, just get these goons to ‘act’ like enraged citizens to drive the fear of the you-know-who into the minds of those people – and of anybody else who might have equally misguided ideas… Of course you don’t have any ideas who those enraged citizens might be. Just patriots…

– You are beginning to really scare us here, Bog-Hubert. Enough to make us believe that a revolution might be necessary after all – if we weren’t too scared of the remedy too. So Abbé Boulah and you, and that buddy of yours up in town, you have no better ideas for how to deal with this? Stormy night not stormy enough for more productive brainstorm?

– Would we be sitting here having to ask Vodçek to get rid of troublemakers if we did? Well, maybe there are some ideas that could at least improve things a little. The power thing is too engrained to be fixed with one kind of magic stroke.

– I remember now – it has to do with that planning discourse platform you guys keep harping on? The kind of discourse contribution reward points you want to give people for meaningful information they enter into the discussion?

– Good guess, Sophie. Yes, it turns out that there are a few, you might say, ‘collateral’ effects of that platform that could be turned into a kind of control of power.

– Okay, enlighten us. I know you talked about that before, but not in connection with the power issue, as I remember it.

– Yes. Well, the basic idea behind that discourse platform is of course to find a better way to connect the final decisions with the merit of the contributions – the questions, ideas and proposals, arguments, and other information people bring into the discussion to be given ‘due consideration’. Actually, if we could achieve just that much, it might lessen the problem that decisions achieved by plain majority voting might be based on entirely different motivations than the sanctimonious promises made by officials in the discussion.

– But do you really need those contribution points for that?

– I think so. In order to develop any ‘measure’ of contribution merit, you have to have something to measure, some entity you ‘count’ and some way to indicate how meritorious that items is. So the first thing we need is some ‘point’ that identifies an original contribution to the discourse hat a participant has made. At first, it’s ‘neutral’ or ‘empty’ – just indicates how many entries a person has made. Good or bad, silly or profound. But later, in the process of evaluating plausibility and importance of that item, that point becomes ‘plausible’ and significant (in the assessment of other participants) or ‘implausible’, without merit, if it turns out to be false, insufficiently supported by further evidence or reasoning.

– I remember that, yes. So how does that help control power?

– Patience. So each participant ends up with an ‘account’ of contribution merit points. Participating in many public projects, over time, that account can become a meaningful indicator of the overall merit of the person’s contribution to public issues. It might become a valuable part of a person’s qualification for public office: an indication of the person’s commitment to public welfare as well as reliable judgment about such issues. Wouldn’t you want the official, the captain, to be able to make sound judgments – especially if they have to be made in a hurry? So that account would be another way to get people of good sound judgment into public office.

– That isn’t a guarantee yet,  that good people won’t fall victim to power temptations though, is it?

– No, or not really enough. Though maybe good judgment may make them less vulnerable? Anyway: here’s where Abbé Boulah makes a real leap. He says: If the need or desire for power is an actual, even legitimate human need, like food, clothing, housing etc. – why shouldn’t it be treated like one of those needs?

– What do you mean – treated like one of those needs?

– Well, what do you have to do to get food, housing? You pay for it. So Abbé Boulah says: let people ‘pay’ for power decisions. But of course you can’t use money as the currency for that, since money hasn’t always been ‘earned’ in quite the same way. So you use the credit point account. Each power decision will require a ‘credit point payment’. If you used up your points, no more power. I’m sure we can devise the technology for implementing that: any power decision will be ‘signed’ only with the appropriate amount of credit points.

– Wait: some officials may have to make decisions that require many more credit points than anybody can have earned in a private account? What about those?

– Good point: If you support an official and want her to be able to make such important decisions, why not transfer some of your own credit points to her account? You can perhaps even specify the precise decisions for which you designate your contribution. That way, you too, become ‘accountable’ for that decision, using y o u r  ‘power’ credit to actually influence decisions. But then you are using up your power credits just like the official.

– Shouldn’t we also be able to withdraw our credit points support from an official who is making some decisions you do not support?

– Good point, Vodçek. Now ‘power to the people’ actually begins to mean something?

– But there must be also be a way to ‘earn’ credits back for having made successful decisions? A ‘return on credit’ investment?

– Brilliant idea. It would take some technical finagling, as I said. But I don’t see why it can’t be done – the opinion polls and advertising big data collectors are dealing with complex data of this kind every day…

– If I remember correctly, wasn’t there some other mechanism having to do with power, that was somehow connected to this whole scheme?

– Yes. It was Abbé Boulah’s rant about learning from mistakes. It may not be connected to the credit points idea though, if I remember correctly.

– Sounds like you guys were having a very good time, Bog-Hubert…

– Who wouldn’t have a good time celebrating brilliant ideas?

– Well, what was the idea?

– It had to do with the fear factor, Sophie. Remember how we said that people make mistakes, and then feel compelled to cover up those mistakes, by shady means, which makes them vulnerable to criticism and unpleasant consequences if they admit to having made them, — if mistakes are ‘punished’ as they usually are. And it’s that fear that escalates the improper use of power to avoid and evade the consequences. Now Abbé Boulah also thought that this was a great loss of a very different kind: the opportunity to learn from mistakes – both our own and others. So he suggested it might be a good idea to reward people who have made mistakes – at least by not punishing them – if they would admit the mistake and give a cogent explanation of what went wrong, what miscalculations were made, — as a kind of valuable discourse contribution. And in the process remove some of the fear – of discovery, of being blamed, and punished for mistakes. The fear of the powerful that now drives many to improper uses of power.

– Mercy on the powerful? That’s a lot of powerful stuff to think about, Bog-Hubert. So what are you going to do about it?

– Good question. Cheers.