IRL (in real life – meaning not online) debate groups are bad. they do it IRL for social, not intellectual reasons.

this is an old issue. around 1800, William Godwin complained about some his critics giving IRL speeches, rather than written arguments, because they wanted to inflame the emotions of their audience rather than have a serious, scholarly discussion.

IRL makes it hard to reread, quote, respond to exact wordings, take your time replying, discuss asynchronously, keep a record of everything for others to learn from later, provide and research sources, keep track of everything, schedule taking in information optimally, edit your thoughts, and generally do anything well.

People go to IRL discussion groups to socialize. Some of them pretend to be intellectual, but if they cared about scholarship they'd primarily use a written format and make it widely accessible. And if they cared about learning, it'd be public so others could learn and comment. (There are lots of ways to handle comments. There should be something. It doesn't have to be totally equal, e.g. it's OK to write blog posts and commenters can only post in blog comments under a post but cannot post blog posts on your blog.)

If IRL debate and discussion groups were at all serious, they would be posting public transcripts with some mechanism for people to comment and discuss.

And lots of debate questions are not real problems. They're prompts designed to get people arguing, not to actually solve some problem in life. They will argue about abortion, but no one present expects to create new knowledge to resolve the controversy. They aren't working together on truth-seeking to figure out the answer. They aren't acting like scientific researchers working on a scientific question. They're looking for things to split hairs about and ways to try to catch each other out.

They aren't trying to read and study the best thinkers and ideas in the field. They aren't working together to organize that project and sort things out. Making up their own bullshit is part of the "fun". They aren't trying to understand and contribute to human knowledge. It isn't a serious project designed to do that.

At Fallible Ideas, we discuss real problems. Issues like how to live better, how to handle some situation. Or suppose it's about politics which people won't be personally using in their daily life, the goal is to figure out the truth and resolve issues objectively. We are actually trying and expecting to solve problems and figure out answers. (Lots of people who deal with philosophy and politics questions just expect to talk but not to get any actual conclusions or solutions.) And we study and try to improve on what's already known.

Our criticism is meant to help with the truth-seeking – to rule out mistaken answers, help find better ones, help correct and improve ideas. Most discussion groups use criticism as a way to score debating points against a person.

Online discussion groups are mostly bad, too, because discussion is hard. But at least they are trying more. They are writing ideas in public instead of traveling somewhere to socialize.

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By Elliot Temple, Dec 2015 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!