Discourse dysfunction

From Dag Forssell (20220928_15:00 PDT)

I have been committed to PCT since 1989, and in my role as Archivist am proud to say that through my efforts from the beginning of the PCT discussion group (CSGnet, now Discourse), a complete record of all teachings, discussions, and yes, fights is available for students and researchers to peruse for decades and, I think, centuries to come.

The attached PDF file contains primarily my email conversation with Bill Powers over a period of years. This began as a private exchange between us, and then as you will see Bill chose to share these threads with others who are mentioned in it. These threads are not pretty, but I believe this part of our history is important and needs to be shared. This discussion of a difficult period, by participants in it, struggling to reach a common understanding, sheds some light on the dynamics of CSGnet discussions more generally.

Many years have passed, and our present Discourse platform is less vulnerable than email, but some underlying issues persist, and unavoidably so. As the expression goes, we are all human. I hope that a look back at difficulties that can befall even the best of us might provide some support and guidance in our collective control of professional, courteous communications.

These email exchanges are in three threads:

  1. Bill & Dag discussing CSGnet, 2005 pages 2-42
  2. Bill and Tom Bourbon pages 43-56
  3. Decency Check, 2009 pages 57-68

At the end is a very relevant email that Clark McPhail sent privately to me.

My heart still aches as I review these threads. I will let them speak for themselves.

The email is archived from Eudora, an ancient but well loved program. In place of the convention of indented text, I have inserted initials to identify who wrote what.

Note: If your browser warns http://www.livingcontrolsystems.com/.… is not a secure connection, be assured that the links are valid. It is because your browser is configured to insist on secure (https://) links.

Best to all, Dag

DiscourseDysfunction.pdf (279.4 KB)


I have spent hours reading this interesting and historic set of emails.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the file should be openly posted since it contains a number of insulting references to a number of persons, living and dead.

However, a main idea expressed in the file is worthwhile: that our emails on Discourse and related PCT forums should be friendly, cooperative, constructive, and non-insular without personally negative and insulting attacks upon others whose views we may disagree with.

Rich Pfau

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I agree with Rich here, that I don’t think this should be publicly shared. It is a long thread of people talking about people, with many painful parts for all involved. Unfortunately, for all the time and energy spent in those discussions, there is little to learn about PCT. I’d rather direct my energy to interesting and collaborative discussions.

Hi Richard and Eva,

I agree that this is quite a heavy document (in many ways) but still I think it is good to publish and archive it here. There are no worse insults than in some autobiographical works or such often have. Science is collective project of human beings and it is good to face the truth of its darker sides too. We can bear it up – and learn from it.

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My opinion of the threads that Dag collected is that it is good material for a future historian of the development of PCT, but says nothing about the science of PCT.

It helps me, however, to understand a few things about my personal history as a PCT experimenter (before I retired) that had puzzled me. One was why in a set of PCT tracking experiments around 1994 in which the subjects were sleep deprived, one of the experiments was either programmed by Tom Bourbon or was done according to his specifications, but when it came to analyze the results of the whole set, Bill said he could not (or maybe would not) do it, and I never heard from Tom about how to go about analyzing “his” part of the study.

Also, reading through this long set of threads, I learned for the first time that some people perceive me as intellectually domineering, something I never guessed and not at all how I would like to be perceived. I guess I have to clean up my act in some way, but at the moment I don’t know how, other than perhaps by refusing to use what I learned as an Engineering Physicist about topics such as basic thermodynamics.

One thing I do realize, however, is that nowhere in PPC at the moment is such a situation discussed, and it probably should be.

I agree with Eetu and Martin that it was a good idea to post these communications and I think so for the reason you state: So that we can use them as a basis for suggesting ways that we might be able to control for having more professional and courteous discussions about PCT on Discourse. I think PCT itself suggests ways to do this, some of them alluded to by Bill Powers in these communications.

I think a good way to kick things off might be for you to explain why you posted this now. Was it because you perceived dysfunction in some recent discussions on Discourse? If that was it, maybe you could post an example of such dysfunction and explain what might be done to make things less dysfunctional in he future.

Best, Rick

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Rick, probably we need go no farther than Dag’s statement of his motivation, namely, a long-standing recurrent phenomenon disturbs his perceptions of the progress and future of PCT away from values for those perceptions that he cares about. Recently, the Board has asked him to identify a video clip of Bill to show at the conference. However long ago he assembled that email compilation, I can easily imagine that he came across it during that search, was reminded by it, and that this was the immediate occasion for posting it, rather than any recent examples of ‘troubled discourse’. But my imaginings about this may be wrong. Dag can speak for himself.

Well, I hope his posting those old discussions got that perception under control for him. But I did find it very interesting and illuminating so I appreciate his posting it.

Yes, indeed.

But whether he does or doesn’t, I think there is some very good grist in the discussions Dag posted for a PCT-based discussion of how to have scientific discussions – and disagreements – in a more professional and collegial way.

Best, Rick

I’ve been thinking about why Bill would in 2009 have been using the expression “When Martin comes on with his intellectual superiority act.” After reading this long set of threads, I now think that “act” is likely to have referred to my having used something I had been taught that Bill didn’t learn in his academic career and hadn’t invented for himself or had decided for himself that it was of no value and should therefore not be mentioned on CSGnet.

I think 2009 was around the time I had been trying to explain to him how useful Laplace Transforms could be with analysis of linear systems, not realizing that Bill already “knew” that Laplace Transforms were useless mathematical nonsense. Since Bill “knew” that the very idea of a Laplace Transform was mathematical nonsense, my attempt to demonstrate their value (which I had learned in second-year undergraduate engineering physics) was ipso facto an “intellectual superiority act”.

Could be. He did know and apply the convolution theorem for image processing and in the artificial cerebellum. I understand that these and Fourier analysis are all related, but I have no expertise in these matters.

I have had a repeated impression that his lack of credentials was an easily disturbed perception. I can personally affirm that being on the nether side of privilege is a tough thing to get past, and conversely privilege is invisible to the privileged. I understand that you have a family background associated with intellectual ‘aristocracy’, maybe comparable to what I know of Gregory Bateson’s background. I think it is likely that on occasion what for you was a casual reference to presumed common experience felt like a dig at a felt lack of that experience and a lack of commonality. That seems to me a much better fit to the phrase ‘intellectual superiority act’. But I may be no more than projecting onto him what I have experienced in academia and in wider areas of life.

An example that recurred from memory today, your account of playing cricket and having caught and perhaps played the ball at a level of perception faster than your awareness, or something like that. Someone expressed his irritation with what he perceived as pretentiousness, I don’t remember who (not Bill or Rick). I remember being a bit puzzled. Maybe just the reference to playing cricket seemed somehow pretentious to him, or maybe it was the reference to athleticism in your youth. My attention was on remembered experiences in which attention apparently shifted to the Event or Configuration level and time seemed to slow.

‘American exceptionalism’ is one aspect of an American ‘inferiority complex’, especially wrt Mother Britannia. So what’s perceived as ‘an English accent’ we perceive as pretentious.

There’s much to-do about the centenary of Eliot’s ‘The waste land’. We I think often lose sight of Eliot the ex-patriot American who moved to Sussex. I wonder how much he felt himself a poseur or even a fraud, tapping Oriental plunder of the Raj for axel-tree and world-weariness, and the playful ditties of ‘Cats’ more comfortable by far.

Envy, privilege, disadvantage … not just in Oz do we wear green-colored glasses.

When I referred to that, I was thinking of it as an example of the speed of non-conscious, highly practiced, control as compared to conscious control using what we normally call “thinking”. At that age, the captain of a visiting English select team said that he thought only one professional player in English cricket was faster at the “gully” position I played. How could I talk about how that feels from inside without referring to myself? I simply don’t know what other elite players of any sport or game feel inside when they do what most other people cannot do. Is it pretentious to ask that kind of question having a data point in hand?

I suspect all high-level athletes (which selection for Canada asserted that at least some people thought I was) do the same, make the right move much faster than they could do by conscious thinking control, as do chess grand masters who are said to require thousands of hours to attain their standard. Is it pretentious to use one’s personal experiences as a data point in a scientific discussion when they are not the kind of experiences most people ever have?

Right now, I think as I have written in PPC and as many people have suggested in different ways, we learn non-conscious control at least in part by synaptic strengthening and weakening when the same thinking leads to the same control actions many times – the “I’ve seen that before and fixed it this way” effect at a grand scale when “many times” is inserted before “before”.

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I see in the mail header that you posted this to discourse, but I don’t see it there so I’ll answer it here to you directly.

You have a better chance of being correct than I do, so I will defer.


Pretension is always a perception by the other guy. We’re kind of powerless what they make of their perceptions. At best, maybe we can follow the example of Odysseus, when it was his turn to speak holding the speaking baton awkwardly like some country bumpkin so as not to remind his fellows of rhetorical skill and his clever and devious ways to achieve his goals. We can understand the social dynamics and compensate. Odysseus got away with it, but it certainly can backfire if it rings false and feels demeaning, like ‘slumming’.

On the relatively rare occasion when we perceive ourselves being pretentious it’s as though we were an independent observer. How we do that is an interesting question, but no doubt we can.

You were I think proud of the attributions and praise of your elite athletic skills, and justly so. But do note that this had no bearing on the technical PCT point about more deliberate conscious control and well-practiced non-conscious control (Bill’s distinction between transitions and events). Mentioning it was elective. Somebody may have perceived it as pretentiousness, though ostentation is probably closer to the mark. I’m sure you made the connection to the long practice that creates such skill, and by perceiving pretension that person may have revealed that he was missing the point.

My valuation of perhaps unusual vocabulary and phrasing might be seen as pretentious. The literary allusion to The Odyssey might seem pretension. I try to make such things always serve immediate purposes. More I think is out of my control, Plato’s shadow-play over in someone else’s cave than mine. (That last allusion is at least familiar coin in the CSGnet archive.)

This conversation develops better than I imagined, so I am no longer sure that Dag shouldn’t have posted the conversation. It seems to serve as a good start for reflections.

I’d like to contribute to this conversation but I’m not sure I know what Dag is referring to as the “dysfunction” on Discourse. I would appreciate it if someone (preferably Dag, since he brought it up, but anyone will do) would describe it here for us so we know what problem we’re trying to solve.

Best, Rick

Rick, I doubt that you truly lack the perceptual input functions to understand this. If you did, that would be truly alarming.

The PDF is an archive, not a ‘live’ conversation, and three participants in the email are not present. Given that character, and the personal nature of the examples, I think it’s best to identify issues and take them up in distinct topics in this subcategory or possibly elsewhere. I’ve recently done the latter.

One thing that this archive shows, I think, is how perceived personal injury and self-defense (often by counter-offense) has often been a major distraction. A couple of recent posts of mine were intended to open discussion of PCT models of how that works. This is the principled reason for not devolving this into an personal conversation between you and Dag.

I could be wrong.

That’s another principle, too often neglected in the heat of contradiction and perceived injury.

I’m suddenly recogizing an ambiguity that may very well be a root of confusion. In the topic title ‘Troubled Discourse’ and the topic title ‘Discourse dysfunction’ the word ‘discourse’ is ambiguous as to whether it refers to the Discourse platform and conduct in it, or to discourse (small-d) and to conversation in general.

In the historical record that Dag posted, it can only be discourse in general (small d), as exemplified during several decades of CSGnet.

Maybe we can identify characteristics of ‘dysfunction’ in small-d discourse, learn to perceive them clearly in an agreed-upon way, and bring them under collective control. Some have been changing already, maybe because the more clearly structured environment of cap-D Discourse better identifies collectively controllable variables (obviously e.g. staying on topic). My perception is that the kinds of ulterior conflicts that were too frequent in the unstructured email of CSGnet are becoming less frequent and less disruptive since we migrated to the more clearly structured Discourse environment. (This structure will be less obvious to those who only look at email and do not navigate the web interface.) For example, one problem identified in the archive was responding to each paragraph in turn, separately and out of context, without first taking in the whole. I recall the emotional tone of this, for the recipient, as disrespect. Other, less neutral words have been applied. I don’t see that kind of disorganized shoot-from-the-hip style happening here nearly as much. That’s a good change. As usual, I may be wrong. It is impossible to tell if someone has left and only their inactive account remains; no news is no news. A good many people have joined and I assume they are exploring the archives and listening in. I think we had an excellent conference, some of it already reflected here.

In the subcategory ‘Troubled Discourse’ the ambiguity remains. This is a subcategory of the category ‘IAPCT’. The quality of discourse (small d) in the Discourse (cap-D) environment is of concern in our control of the success of IAPCT in its purposes, which we have so far collectively agreed are as follows

The purpose of the corporation is to encourage and support research based on
William T. Powers original perceptual control theory, its continuing development, and its
use as a theory informing a wide range of applications. The corporation promotes
activities such as publishing and conferences in order to disseminate the results of such

(The word ‘original’ is an echo of defenses against Carver & Scheier, Glasser, et al.)

I really have no idea what dysfunction Dag is alluding to. I know he posted some relatively old discussions about problems on CSGNet which centered around me. I thought what Bill said in those posts indicated that he saw things pretty much the same way I did – that I was an easy scapegoat for people who really wanted to bash him – and I thought he handled it rather well in his public and private posts.

But this is now, and apparently Dag doesn’t like the way the discussions on Discourse have been going. I have seen some ugliness in these discussions but it didn’t seem to bother the people in these discussions and I tried to let it role off my back when it was directed at me. So I really don’t know what Dag is talking about.

I can guess at what Dag is concerned about and answer based on that guess. But I think it would make more sense to deal with the problem that Dag (or, frankly, anyone else) sees in the discourse on Discourse.

Instead of focusing on instances of how things can go off the rails (and risking a self-fulfilling prophesy, or the skiier colliding with that tree between the open paths), or trailing off on who’s to blame, I think it’s best to focus on what keeps a conversation in balance.

Conflicts are inevitable, but contention is elective. Bill suggested not sending a potentially contentious response until after reviewing it the next day.

Bill proposed that the issues on CSGnet were about pathological social relationships. OK, so a PCT perspective on relationships is in order.

I quoted Bill Leach (no slouch) about Bill’s ‘expedient teaching’:

… one needs to think about the purpose of one of Bill’s writings before drawing too many conclusions. Especially when answering questions, Bill’s discussion could be using a very narrow (or very broad) meaning for a term depending upon which is more useful for the listener/reader to understand what he was trying to convey. By that I mean that when taken out of context it is also easy to misunderstand what he meant.

Take this as context for contentions around purity of PCT-talk. This amounts to taking observed behavior (the precise words used) to represent intentions (grasp of the concepts behind the words). With equal justification, or lack thereof, the language purist could be accused of not properly understanding PCT. They failed to test to find out what the person is controlling. Is the deficit on the input side (does she not grasp the concepts and recognize instances) or is it in verbal/memory output functions? Does he have the right CVs and reference values but poorly organized output functions for controlling them? Bill often turned attention to nonverbal control of PCT concepts and led from there back into various verbalizations.

In my experience, there was a noxious ‘gotcha!’ flavor to too many CSGnet exchanges. I think that we should avoid adversarial relationships like “obviously you don’t understand PCT because you said that wrong” and instead cultivate collaborative relationships like “I think maybe you’re trying to say this, is this what you want to say?” and expressing it in a way that we perceive as more correct. Not long ago I saw a recollection or a quoted observation that Bill had a way of guiding the conversation even more gently than that (even as disturbances in the Test ought to be gentle nudges), so that his interlocutors eventually arrived at an apt conclusion and then perceived (correctly) that they had arrived at their own conclusion themselves. Very Socratic (without hemlock). There are many examples in his long dialog with Phil Runkel.