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The “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” (SNR) is an engineering term that has come to be applied more broadly to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant information in communications ( As long as I have been aware of the phrase, it has been a favorite of mine. If we were to attempt to construct a comprehensive and maximally useful paradigm of public discourse, this phrase would have to be a cornerstone. SNR refers to the density of meaning in what is being said, the quantity and quality of relevant information that is being communicated, in proportion to the quantity and quality of everything else that obscures and displaces it.

Most political discourse is characterized by an extremely low SNR. Traditional unidirectional mass media (television, radio, newspapers) used to be tempered by trying to appeal to broad markets, which led to a reduction in SNR in order to offend no one. More recently, the balkanization of traditional mass media, appealing more to ideologically targeted markets (particularly on the right), has led to a different kind of reduction of the SNR, an ideologically intense but analytically poor set of insulated messages, reinforcing the creation of ideological islands of selective information reverberating among the faithful. Even the best mass media programming today tends to focus too much on politics as competition among existing ideologies, and not enough on politics as the on-going search for the best policies by which to govern ourselves. Programs that address head-on the questions underwriting the ideological differences are few and far between.

If you visit message boards and political blogs, you find mostly angry tantrums, flame wars, ridicule, arbitrary assertions and opinions, and even, often, an open hostility to analysis. Many of the most active participants in public discourse not only indulge in a low SNR, but privilege it as preferable and superior. In some places, such as on SquareState, the signal-to-noise ratio suffers from adamant ideological insularity, reinforcing a somewhat informed but assiduously narrow and stagnant ideology.

In other places, such as Colorado Pols, the SNR is particularly low, nuggets of information buried in avalanches of chatter. The combination of comradery among accepted insiders and antagonism toward rejected outsiders (placed within and shifted between these categories according to how well they reinforce the ritual of empty discourse that defines the blog) creates a strong group identity. Shared pride is taken in accommodating “everyone” while accomplishing nothing. Virtual friendships are forged among ideological opposites, and arguments resolved, on the basis of the shared ideology that all political orientations are arbitrary and equal. And a strong sense of community is maintained by means of an ethnocentricity of political ritualism, in which saying nothing knowledgeably is perceived to be the height of discourse.

Obviously, the highest SNRs are found in the most inaccessible forums: Professional journals, symposia, and other venues in which highly distilled information is presented and exchanged. Due to the fortress of jargon, and the assumption of a shared expert foundation on which to build, these “ivory tower” forums exist in a world apart, with too few bridges to the realm which most of us occupy.

The challenge to those who want to improve political discourse is to combine the virtues and avoid the vices of each of these various forums. The most important virtues to be combined are the comradery and accommodation of diverse views that characterizes Colorado Pols with the information intensity of academe. The most important vices to be avoided are the ideological insularity of SquareState, the reduction of political discourse to mere arbitrary opinion of Colorado Pols, and the inaccessibility of state of the art information and analysis characteristic of academe.

What we need to work on creating is an all-inclusive, information-intensive, friendly but robust national, state, and local discussion. What we don’t need is to keep reproducing and investing in the clubhouses that currently exist, the clubhouses of ideological insularity, of superficiality, and of esoteria. We need, as individual information consumers, to exercise the discipline to switch the channel from “Reality TV” (including the blogosphere versions) to “National Geographic,” and as individual information producers to be more informative and less offensive. But no one needs to be an expert to contribute to an improved SNR (and few if any are in all things): Asking cogent questions is as important as providing cogent answers, and learning is as essential as teaching.

Premature false certainties are the bane of high SNRs, because they stagnate individual understandings, and balkanize ideological camps. We all need to consider what aspects of opposing views might be valuable to consider. (For instance, our growing national debt, and our undisciplined spending as a nation, major Tea Party issues, are legitimate concerns, and merit our attention.) We need to avoid the meme that compromise is bad, and embrace the meme that pursuing the best and most informed policies is good. We need each to fight against our own pettiness, and discourage it in one another. We need to recognize that we have a civic responsibility not just to be engaged, but also to become ever better informed, and to develop ever deeper and broader understandings of the issues that confront us. And we have to, all of us, exercise that civic responsibility publicly, together, helping one another to develop those deeper and broader understandings, and seeking from one another our own on-going education, for responsible self-governance benefits first and foremost from an increasingly better and more richly informed electorate.

(This theme is continued in Un-Jamming the Signal.)

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  • I have been of the opinion for awhile now that one of the biggest problems of the “left” is that the messages are not clear…simple and clear. As an example of how a simple and clear messages works would be the Republican reaction to the Health Care Bill. “Death Panels”, that’s what they said, over and over, and all American’s can understand those simple words. The weren’t telling the truth, but in the absence of a clear, simple, message from the left, people will remember only “death panels”. I also don’t believe in compromising when it comes to my beliefs, although I recognize everyone else’s right to staunchly stand behind their beliefs. I believe in right and wrong, and I am not afraid to say “if you stand firmly on the right, you stand for suppressing human rights and civil rights for the poor, you subscribe to the Trickle Down Theory which has never been shown to work and has only fed the greed of those on top. You control with fear instead of hope and you are more patient than I can believe”. I dream of hearing the left stand firm, to hold the line no matter what and to stop talking about compromise. Right and wrong matter. If you sa your a Repulican and disagree with how I described the Right, do us both a favor and re-examine the platform of the Right…go all the way back to the 1700’s because the players have changed, but the game has remained the same.

  • Kathryn, I agree completely that we must stand firm in favor of what we deeply believe to be right, and against what we deeply believe to be wrong. But I also think that we have to allow that we all feel that way, on both sides of any issue, and that the stalemate of mutually antagonistic deep convictions isn’t going to get us where we need to go. Somehow, we have to find a way to create a movement that recognizes that some of us are right and some of us are wrong on many given issues, to suspend judgment on who fits into which category, and to agree to a more disciplined methodology by which to arrive at conclusions which settle the matter in each instance.

    Currently, we are in a war of false certainties, with a process to settle the disputes, but not a process (in politics) to determine where truth and reason resides. We need a movement that improves our ability to come to useful conclusions, even if only marginally. Yes, we should continue to stand our ground, but I believe that our ground is more rational, better informed, and more internally consistent (which is why we embrace it), just as, I suppose, some who oppose believe of their ground as well. Since we all (or nearly all) believe that, or agree in principle that reason and goodwill should guide us, then let’s try to create a movement that puts our politics where our mouth is, and submit to a process that relies on reason and evidence in service to goodwill.

    I know that little or no discernable progress will be made in such efforts, that our political warfare will not fundamentally change. But those who have the most confidence of the justice and wisdom of their positions should be most eager to embrace such a movement. Those who don’t embrace are announcing their own hypocrisy.

    One thing I firmly believe: Until we strive to make advances not just on the levels of acquiring political power and advancing particular political ideological agendas, but also on the level of improving the degree to which reason and justice determine the outcomes of our political struggles, we will be neglecting the more fundamental political challenge, the one that holds the most promise. I’m not willing to surrender to our fundamental folly.

    And thanks for contributing to the discussion! Your historical perspective is a part of the essential sanity we have to somehow introduce into our political ideological landscape.

  • Steve, wouldn’t it be nice if we could find truth through civil discourse, but didn’t our Government just prove to us that we can’t play nicely together? Didn’t we just watch two years of Yes vs No? I think maybe in Eisenhower’s time, there was a better chance of creating that kind of movement, but I simply don’t see it in today’s political environment.

    I do believe in civil discourse and I have a very open mind but, I do not need to hear the other side of things like the death penalty discussion as I firmly believe it is wrong and why someone would support it does not matter to me. There is no middle ground and it’s wrong. There are many issues I can and do openly discuss because I subscribe to the belief that contempt prior to investigation is a true form of ignorance.

    I had a discussion this morning with someone about “support the general welfare” in the constitution. In today’s world one interpretation could be in support of social responsibility the those with the least in our country, but another interpretation is that when the Constitution was written, and described in Article 1 section 8, this clause was describing Congressional power of taxation to pay for debts and provide for our common defense and promote general welfare of our country. In this example, how is there a truth? There are interpretations of facts and there is no truth to be found, only opinion, interpretation and belief. This is just one example, you know there are too many to discuss.

    We could discuss “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” until we turn blue, but there will always be interpretations that we subscribe to, and others we disagree with. I have read what some English philosophers have interpreted, including what Richard Cumberland said regarding the pursuite of happiness, and although I agree with what he wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness, that doesn’t prove the truth of what our framer’s meant.

    I am on the side of reason, common sense, civic responsibility, and moral obligation. I would love to find the truth, but I’ve accepted that with some things, there is no truth to find, only opinion.

    I say what I believe because I’m not afraid of to do it. I honestly don’t always say “I’d like to hear your side of it”, like with the death penalty. To me, that would be equal to listening to a rapist explain why he did it and what he was thinking.. Who cares WHY he did it, rape is WRONG.

    I wonder if this makes me seem narrowminded and I hope it doesn’t. Defending the abuse of the poor and needy, its wrong and I don’t need to know why someone supports it. Controlling people with fear and intimidation, its wrong, and I already know why it’s done and doesn’t require a discussion. Supporting a theory with no practical purpose except to make the rich, richer, its wrong and its harmful.

    There have to be some things, for me, that I stand for, no matter what. It’s about common decency and common sense.

  • I don’t disagree with you at all, Kathryn, and, if I see any error in your approach, it is an error that I engage in at least as often and at least as egregiously. My only point is that results matter, as do long-term as well as short-term goals. I am not eager to fight for civil discourse because I enjoy trying to show some respect for what I consider to be poorly argued and inhumane ideological convictions, but rather because improving our civil discourse, and creating a movement for bringing in more of the methodologies that work so well in the courts and the universities for settling conflicts with an eye to the value of procedure and evidence, is, in a sense, “the last best hope for humanity.” I’m not content to be stuck on this treadmill of combat between sanity and insanity forever, with both being accorded equal weight simply because both have roughly equal numbers of adherents. I want not only to stand up for sanity, but to actually see it prevail, and not just occasionally in some cases, but as a fundamental systemic reality.

    I agree with all of your conclusions stated above, and with your conviction. And there’s nothing wrong with standing up for it; I wouldn’t recommend anything else. I just hope we continue to strive to stand up for them ever more effectively, and ever more enduringly so.

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