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I've finished reading through all the old discussions and the original Welcome to Azimuth post announcing the Azimuth Project and all its comments. I have also read a smattering of the comments from some of the blog posts, and all of the comments from the most recent two or three posts. So I think I have a decent handle on the prior comments that discuss politics.
John's comment in the comment section of the Welcome to Azimuth post said:
1) Politics is the mind-killer.
2) There are already many blogs devoted to explicitly political aspects of environmentalism, taking all possible sides on this issue. Whatever you believe, you can find one that agrees with you.
3) Since whatever reputation or authority I may have comes from my work in science, I think scientific rather than explicitly political issues should be my focus. I realize that this could be a dangerous limitation, but for now I think it’s the right thing.
This makes good sense. Bickering back and forth about whether or not global warming is an issue is clearly something we want to happen elsewhere.
Later in the same post comments after a mention of mathoverflow.com, John said:
Any system like this that shows signs of incipient success will probably be attacked by people of ill intent. There are strong forces working to maintain ‘business as usual’. This needs to be considered right from the start.
The distinction between people of ill intent and people of good intent who happen to disagree with what we think can be hard to determine. (Here “we” stands for any group of people who have come to some agreement about what’s good.) There is also the danger of groupthink.
A system like MathOverflow might indeed be good, to reduce the amount of time any one person needs to spend weeding out comments from people of ill intent. Of course it needs to start with some core of self-appointed “good people”. I am willing to decide who those are, being good myself.
Mathoverflow works pretty smoothly, I imagine, because math is not a highly controversial subject. Everything relating to climate change, economics and especially politics is highly controversial. So the dynamics will be different, and more difficult.
In my blog I’ve decided to tackle this difficulty in part by banning discussion of politics, at least in the sense of “partisan politics”. Some discussion of political theory, decision theory, ethics and the like may be necessary! I’m worried about where to draw the line, but the line basically gets drawn when people start fighting in the idiotic childish way that politics so often engenders.
Please, everyone, check out the n-Forum and compare it to MathOverflow. I think a setup like the n-Forum is better suited to conversations among people who basically agree on goals and are working on projects together. Mathoverflow seems to be optimized for people asking questions and getting answers. I bet we’ll eventually want both.
I hope that ultimately my blog will be just a small part of a big machine, my way of contributing material to a kind of repository of information and ideas on how to help ‘save the planet’. I hope that lots of people will join in and I can focus on doing the few things I’m good at.
Are we reinventing the wheel? How could we be the first people to think of starting an online forum for serious technical discussions on how to deal with global ecological problems? Maybe we’re just the first mathematicians and physicists to do it? Maybe there’s some pre-existing structure to latch onto.
As John noted in 1. above, as we go forward we will necessarily get involved in politics as we will be advocating a particular plan of action with many parts. That plan will be attacked by many, and supported by many, solely because they perceive that it hinders or helps their goals; and those goals may have nothing to do with the overall good of the planet or its inhabitants. It won't just be science versus corporatism, there are those in both groups who will try to hinder our progress here.
Because this issue has the potential to "kill minds," derail fruitful discussion, and cause the project to fail, as John noted in 1.: "This needs to be considered right from the start." So I thought it makes sense to discuss this further here now, and then to clearly articulate our position with respect to politics on a section of the Wiki so new people don't have to read through all the old comments and discussions to understand our position.
I also think it makes sense because in addressing the issues of 8. and differentiating what the Azimuth Project is all about as distinct from the thousands of other related "save the planet" groups out there, perhaps the key part of that differentiation will be how we address politics. It will also be important as we determine how to "fit into the big machine" as alluded to in 7. above.
So to start the discussion off:
First, are the quotes above a reasonable description of the current thinking with respect to politics?
Second, how do we keep discussions from degenerating? How do we discuss politics without becoming partisan? John notes some ways above but the guidance for newcomers needs to spell things out for those who may not be regular readers of John's blog.