Ragged University As An Agnostic, Open, Space For Discussion

Ragged University is not about an organisation presiding over who gets to share or discuss ideas but much more a social enquiry into our means of learning; it is socially and intellectually agnostic. The notion that as an organised practice ‘Ragged University events’ are setting up people as authorities on subjects is a misapprehension of what is happening – events are situations where people have come together to share what they have invested their time in.


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The subject is authority in the context of the events which are set up and a collection of individuals are involved in a form of dialogue. This is not about setting people or ideas up to be infallible or to create a sort of self appointment of authority to decide who can say what.


From the parameters of meeting together in social spaces and taking the time to listen to and discuss the ideas put forth, the boundaries of what one individual can impose on another are limited in scope. The aim is to be able to set up the circumstances for learning through opportunities to discuss. Pre-deciding what is scientific and un-scientific moves knowledge from the realm of experience to that of politics; it is politicising science and learning in ways which are unhelpful.


It has become political who gets to say what. The agency for people to discuss, explore and contend ideas in a safe social environment is essential for deliberative individuals. This involves the capacity to engage with the facts published from a variety of independent sources in making their own mind up independently of trending opinions.


There is a hazard in shutting down the capacity to discuss points of public interest which carry within them controversy as there are many competing perspectives. To be able to say to one person that they are allowed to speak and not another is inequitable; if someone is making a genuine attempt to discuss and share their thinking behind something, then it is in our interest to listen and to discuss – even if we do not share the viewpoints.


Ragged University is not a university organisation like that of the formal world. Ragged University is referencing a philosophy and practice of learning whereby a means has been set up to discover what people have invested their lives in understanding. There is an intellectual imperative to engage with the issues which are offered, and as a ‘coordinator of events’, I see these as my opportunities to get to listen and hear perspectives which are sometimes outside my own.


Not only this but I get to ask questions, I get to analyse what I encounter and I aim to learn something valuable each time. Education and learning are very much viewed from a personal perspective of encounter.


How Events Are Scheduled

With regards to scheduling the events the mechanism is thus. I invite people who love what they do to share their knowledge; when people get their speakers information sheets back to me, I put their talk into the next available slot. People come along; we listen, I try and audio record the talk. Then following the talks I go through a reflective period where I investigate what I have encountered and what I have thought about.


So long as what people are offering fits within the loose bounds of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it avoids being political, religious or corporate, then the methodology of learning which I do through the Ragged University practice of creating gatherings creates a curriculum which takes me (and anyone) out of the social and intellectual echo chambers we as mammals are vulnerable to.


This is to actively step back from the political and the mode of politicising thought, learning, questioning, dialogue and social intercourse. What Ragged University as a practice – not as an organisation – should be aiming to do is deinstitutionalising the activity of human development.


As there are mixed opinions, varied sources and differences of opinion, it is necessary to search for methodologies which resolve the issues of understanding. As such, Ragged University events and people speaking and sharing in them do not constitute anything more than a public instance of dialogue.


Suggesting that Ragged University is attempting to set up a hierarchy of legitimacy by who gets platformed and in which order is an entirely false apprehension and understanding of the organising practice.


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From whence disagreements do arise, this sets forth the conditions for a process of social enquiry through engaging the multiple perspectives which are clashing. From an educational point of view it provides the opportunity to learn by scrutiny the multiple perspectives at work in the disagreement.
Science and the agnosticism of practical enquiry are pivotal parts of the capacity to develop as a deliberative thinker. This necessitates spaces in culture where people are allowed to discuss and examine ideas and work which one part of culture has deemed to be faulty in reasoning.


Having mutually applicable rules for what knowledge is allowed to get discussed is a very obvious tenet for a deliberative culture. Without such mutuality and equity knowledge would merely be a system of political trading. However popular you are would define how much your thoughts were valued.


What gets referred to as scientific method is a ‘method we have developed to keep us from fooling ourselves’ [Richard Feynman]. Peer review is a critical part of this method we use to access collectively understanding. People test and write about their ideas publishing them in a system where other individuals look critically at the work.


The publishing system of peer review is the chief resource for people researching and drawing together understandings of complex phenomena. People who cannot provide a rationale for their assertions via reference to an independent group of researchers published findings are making posits which are less reliable in context with collected knowledge.


This is one of chief foundations of how we societally test knowledge so that it becomes known as increasingly reliable. Knowledge is seen as moving on a scale of increasingly or decreasingly reliability as more questions and tests are done.


Making assertions without reference to independent researchers results in decreasingly reliable knowledge. Categorical statements within science need to be treated in such a way as to qualify a context. Only then can they be meaningful.


Statements such as ‘all the science has been debunked’ require qualification. For example, which studies or ‘science’ has been found to be debunked and which people authored the studies. In emergent areas of science simply saying that “all the science” for a particular point of view has been shown to be wrong is not sufficient enough to qualify as a scientific approach.


If a counterpoint has been made in a dialogue about the science of something, then the same scientific conventions much apply to the critical as the constitutive. Articulating the terms of language and provision of the sources of information for each statement is vital. As such, the whole practice of open, deep listening could otherwise give way to forms of pseudoskepticism.


As a coordinator, learner, social reporter and analytical thinker I would be errant to shut out ideas on a basis that I had ‘heard’ that they were ‘bad ideas’. Shutting out what people have to say without having examined the content is antithetical to an educational process and discovery.  Instead, in the Ragged University activities a view that the educational process is a social enquiry which agnostically necessitates learning multiple viewpoints allows for a process of human development which relates context to activity.


In 1987 a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University, Marcello Truzzi gave the following description of pseudoskeptics in the journal Zetetic Scholar:


“In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded. The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says the claim is not proved rather than disproved. He asserts that the claimant has not borne the burden of proof and that science must continue to build its cognitive map of reality without incorporating the extraordinary claim as a new “fact.”


Since the true skeptic does not assert a claim, he has no burden to prove anything. He just goes on using the established theories of “conventional science” as usual. But if a critic asserts that there is evidence for disproof, that he has a negative hypothesis—saying, for instance, that a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact—he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof…”


Both critics and proponents need to learn to think of adjudication in science as more like that found in the law courts, imperfect and with varying degrees of proof and evidence. Absolute truth, like absolute justice, is seldom obtainable. We can only do our best to approximate them.

— Marcello Truzzi, “On Pseudo-Skepticism”, Zetetic Scholar, 12/13, pp3-4, 1987[5]


Truzzi attributed the following characteristics to pseudoskeptics:[5]

  • Denying, when only doubt has been established
  • Double standards in the application of criticism
  • The tendency to discredit rather than investigate
  • Presenting insufficient evidence or proof
  • Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof
  • Making unsubstantiated counter-claims
  • Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence
  • Suggesting that unconvincing evidence provides grounds for completely dismissing a claim


He characterized true skepticism as:[5]

  • Acceptance of doubt when neither assertion nor denial has been established
  • No burden of proof to take an agnostic position
  • Agreement that the corpus of established knowledge must be based on what is proved, but recognising its incompleteness
  • Even-handedness in requirement for proofs, whatever their implication
  • Accepting that a failure of a proof in itself proves nothing
  • Continuing examination of the results of experiments even when flaws are found


So it is in the spirit of enquiry, conversation, deliberation and the opportunity to develop that the Ragged University events are set up. As a coordinator of my own educational experience I am involved in navigating the world with its conflicting messages, ideas and camps. As someone who is interested to try and develop an understanding of complex issues I need to engage with perspectives other than my own.


Outside of this kind of practice which is open to discourse I am at a loss to enculture the diversity we need for developing real critical thinking skills.  If someone has any suggestions for how the issues of demarcation of what and who get to speak, please get in touch.  This is a live issue as there has been a talk disapproved of by people expressing that it should not be spoken about or allowed.

by Alex Dunedin