Friday, September 21, 2007

Debating Debates

I found this piece while looking for something else. I wrote it before I realized how very naive I used to be. The writing is stiff but the points might be worth debating!

I have always hated public debates on issues, whether in politics, academia or the general media. For a long time I felt that this was due to some personal defect in my character or my intense dislike of gratuitous aggression, a common flavor of these encounters. But I have finally come to understand that the defect is not in me.

Public debates stink from an intellectual point of view. They are based on the innocent-seeming assumption that the best way to learn about a controversial question is to have the proponents of each side openly discuss their arguments with each other, and then to decide on "the truth" by declaring one side as "the winner". But in reality almost all controversial topics have many more sides than two, the discussion is anything but open, the meaning of "truth" is frequently unclear and the concepts of winners and losers much more difficult to define than a superficial glance might suggest.

Most debated questions are treated as if only two initial opinions on them mattered: the most extreme ones. These are then marshalled forwards as the two "sides" in the debate. Consider a trivial example: whether people like the taste of broccoli. In reality most people probably enjoy broccoli in varying degrees, depending on the foods it is combined with, the time of the day, the season, the eater's nutritional requirements, the skills of the chef. But if a debate was held on this matter, only extreme broccoli lovers and haters would be asked to represent a "side" in this debate. What about all the other perfectly reasonable positions? The example may be trivial but the principle it shows is not: most public debates are caricatures of the ideal debate.

The dualism of choosing two views for debates would be pernicious even if these views were not the most extreme ones. But their extremeness makes the situation even worse: it suggests that the proper stance to adopt is at one endpoint of a dimension (such as the preference for broccoli). When one considers that in many cases the extreme views are initially quite rare, the overall impact of debates may well be one of polarizing views and ignoring the initially existing consensus.

But surely, you might say, the audience of a debate is capable of seeing this and coming to a critical conclusion possibly indicating some third more moderate position? Yes and no. Some people certainly do exactly this. But many won't. My experiences in highly competitive colleges have shown me that it is a rare student who can easily deviate from the dualistic script before the junior year. Even many graduating seniors fail to reach this point. If many intellectually gifted students have difficulty accomplishing synthesis, what about the rest of us?

Debates are often seen as a way to "air" a topic, as an honest, open exchange. But most debates are neither open nor honest. Not only are there "sides" which remain unrepresented but even the represented ones seldom present anything but partial arguments. It is regarded proper in most academic debates to deny any weakness in ones own arguments even when such weaknesses exist. The task of unearthing them is left to the opponent. If the opponents skills are insufficient, the weakness remains hidden. If the opponent manages to raise a relevant criticism, the proper response, once again, is not to acknowledge it, or to acknowledge it but argue that it is insignificant, or to acknowledge it but argue that the opponent's views are even more riddled with similar holes. Yet all the time the researcher advocating a point of view is the one most likely to have spent time carefully thinking about its weaknesses and the one with most information on the topic. This information is not made readily available in the debate format.

Things are much worse in political and media debates. At least academics respect their sources. More general debates routinely employ unfounded arguments and appeals to supposedly credible research findings which turn out not to be credible at all. Because debaters in such a forum are selected mainly for their popularity, shock value or other characteristics only vaguely related to expertise, they are often unqualified to demonstrate that their opponent's argument is based on false evidence. Even in the best circumstances media debates deny the debaters the time needed to explain difficult evidence to an uninformed audience.

Debates are intended to get us closer to "truth". But as I have already argued, we are normally presented only two views, often extreme ones, and the arguments may be neither open nor honest. Add to this the importance of all sorts of characteristics of the debaters, such as their looks, voices and rhetorical abilities, none of which are likely to be related to the "truth", yet important in determining the final appeal of the defended positions, and it is easy to see why debates are as likely to confuse as to clarify. Rhetorical ability and training are, in particular, crucial and well known determinants of the audience's final perception as to the "winning" side of the debate. Yet there is no necessary correlation between being good at making a point and the relevance of that point.

Finally, debates are frequently viewed as games or wars where one side is declared the winner, the other the loser. Given my earlier arguments it should come as no surprise that I believe the real loser is the honest search for facts. This makes the audience of most debates also into losers.

What are the alternatives to the polarized dualistic lip wars? I would argue that there is no substitute for allowing more sides to the debates and more time to make and clarify arguments, or for requiring the audience to make a greater effort to become informed about the issues beforehand. But more importantly, we should cease the practice of regarding debates as battles or wars. A much better analogy is that of a cooperative construction of a jigsaw puzzle. While each player can argue about the size and shape of a missing piece and try out different options, the focus of the game is not in determining whose puzzle pieces fit best but in the completion of the puzzle.

Granted, constructing a jigsaw puzzle doesn't give one the same heightened sense of excitement and self-worth as going to war for an idea. But the former also produces many fewer casualties than the latter, and may in the end save the most severe casualty of the warlike debates, the elusive truth.