- In order to inform ourselves, we humans resort to several
different strategies. We discuss the issues with friends (and sometimes
‘enemies’). We read newspaper columns and magazine articles.
We read whole books or sections thereof. Sometimes, we catch juxtaposed
pro and con articles in the op-ed sections of the Sunday newspaper. We
listen to those who agree with us (and sometimes to those who do not)
on radio talk shows. We watch debates on TV. And, if we're especially
brave, or foolhardy, we argue on the Internet.
- But, all the above strategies are seriously flawed and problematic.
In large part, we listen to and read only those pundits with whom we tend
to agree already. If we read or listen to those with whom we disagree,
we get ulcers (we can't effectively respond to all their lies and general
foolishness). The juxtaposed articles may be a good start, but these tend
to leave numerous and critical loose ends. Oral debates on radio and TV
are usually side-shows, with lots of name calling and little headway.
And, even if we do somehow “get somewhere” in oral debate,
the direction we get may be based upon the relative speed of the speakers
-- and ultimately, we may end up wishing that we had not made the headway
in the first place. As it turns out, written debate on the Internet is
hardly any better than oral debate – we still end up calling each
other names and going around in circles.
- So, our strategies for informing ourselves tend to be significantly
incomplete and basically dishonest (biased) and leave a great deal to
- And consequently, our opinions and decisions re these different issues
are very often seriously misguided and problematic...
- I contend, moreover, that some of our more recent decisions (past 100
years?) have placed our very survival in jeopardy.
- Even though our ability to inform ourselves these days
is incredible as compared to what it used to be, the results are still
highly incomplete and biased.
- And the thing is, the misguided conclusions fostered by this faulty
data gathering are much more likely to be acted upon these days than were
analogous conclusions in past centuries.
- And then, they are also much more likely to be spread.
- In other words, what used to be a nuisance has become a serious problem
-- and, requires our serious attention...
- If, for instance, “global warming” is the fact and the horror
it appears to be, we owe our predicament to incomplete and biased information
gathering – industrialization has its serious side effects and pitfalls,
of which we, "the people," were never properly informed. And
now, saving the world may absolutely depend upon setting this record straight
– providing complete and unbiased information to the masses.
- These days, we are much more likely to experiment than we used to be,
and our faulty conclusions are much more likely to be acted upon.
- And then, communication-wise the world has ‘shrunk’ incredibly
and our misguided 'forays' are much more likely to spread and spread further.
- These are two serious ingredients with which past soothsayers didn't
need to concern themselves.
- We all know what happens in our own
personal arguments – it isn’t pretty.
- But, this is also true for debate between our best and brightest. Look
at the somewhat formalized debate in our legislatures and in the media
– between our most intelligent and prominent figures, and over our
most important issues. If anyone has developed actually effective debate,
it isn’t being used in the most important and likely places.
- And then, look at the different formalized
methods we’ve developed for the different situations that call for
some sort of negotiation, and you’ll see that they only skirt this
kind of situation. There are relevant "disciplines" we’ve
tried to develop, and some of them work to one extent or another –
they’re just not relevant enough.
- There is formal debate, “Fair Fighting,” arbitration, mediation,
“Roberts Rules of Order,” parliamentary procedure, “pilpul”
and courtroom procedure, for instance. But none of these are on the mark
in regard to effective sociopolitical discourse.
- Formal debate is formally concerned with winning, which is exactly what
we’re trying to avoid.
- “Fair fighting” does involve dialog in good faith, but it’s
really only aimed at very personal arguments, and focuses very narrowly
on the emotional messages going back and forth.
- We could learn a lot by studying arbitration and mediation, but these
also have a narrow, albeit complicated, focus and also do not address
the critical issues of effective evidence presentation.
- Roberts Rules of Order and Parliamentary Procedure are simply structures
for maintaining order.
- Somehow, we seem to have never tackled the problem head on in regard
to day- to-day, sociopolitical controversy -- the kind that occurs on
TV, in the newspapers, in election campaigns, in congress, in court, at
town hall meetings, over coffee, whatever.
- I found lots of references to “effective debate” on Google,
but checking the first few pages, these were all about good guidelines
for oral debate and had little to do with effectively seeking the truth.
We have scientized the game of debate, but
again, the game of debate is explicitly about winning.
- I also found lots of references to “written debate” on Google
-- but these were simply examples (interestingly enough, most examples
on the first few pages
were religious in nature).
- I couldn’t find any reference to “effective written debate.”
- This is where the old couple comes in -- we humans seem to have accepted
ineffective debate as a fact of life. We've been caught napping –
for 5,000 (or
- Now, I didn’t address courtroom
procedure because while it has never been formally applied to sociopolitical
controversy, it does apply, and it does provide a
real jumping off point for developing an “argument friendly”
environment – which is what this is about.
- The basic problem is that once we humans
slip into debate, our reflexes are all wrong for trying to find the truth.
That’s how we humans are. Once into a debate,
we automatically slip into a fight/flight mode and become oblivious to
any truth- seeking urge we might previously have had, and seek only to
win – or at least, to
- But note that two things happen here. We slip into a fight/flight mode;
but also, we lose all sight of our seek-the-truth mode. It isn't’
like the two objectives both
have our attention, just that one of them is stronger -- it’s like
one of them slips entirely below our radar... We "zone out."
- It’s like we have two ‘background objectives’ possible
here: “Seek the truth,” or “Win.” But, importantly,
these do not occupy the same space, they cannot share
control. Once the ‘winning’ objective rears its ugly head,
we simply become oblivious to our previous desire to seek the truth. We
zone out. We may ‘wake up’ every once in awhile -- only to zone out again, the next time we’re
- It’s like falling asleep in class when we’re especially
sleepy. We wake up and think, “Wow, I’d better not do that
again.” But, the next thing we know, we’re
waking up again…
- It’s like the picture they showed us in Psychology 101 –
according to how you look at it, it was either an ugly old witch, or a
beautiful young woman. But the
main point was that you couldn’t see it both ways at the same time
– it was either one way or the other. The same dynamic seems to
be working in regards to
these two objectives. It’s like our ‘wheelhouse’ has
only enough room for one Captain.
- I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but “zoning
out” is an important aspect of human nature that, as far as I can
tell, has never been
addressed by science. Since we’re oblivious to what we’re
doing while we’re doing it, we never correct ourselves. We might
“wake up” and start to correct
ourselves, but quickly “fall asleep” again and start doing
it all over again -- oblivious to what we just did...
- For 50,000 years (or maybe, about 6000?) now, we’ve had the theoretical
“ability” to argue in good faith – to argue honestly,
objectively and fairly -- but, our reflexes still won’t let us.
Talk about your Rip Van Winkles!
- That, I claim, is our general problem.
- But then, I suggest that what we need do in order to begin correcting
our problem is to identify our specific problematic behaviors.
- So, once into a debate, we humans revert to animalistic form, slip into
a fight/flight mode and start doing everything we can to win.
- More specifically, we
1. Start doing everything we can to undermine effective presentation of
evidence by the other side, and to overstate our own case. And,
2. Start placing a supreme premium upon quick answers.
- More specifically yet, in regard to
1.1. Insult our opponents (We have numerous ways of doing this –
both overtly and covertly.)
1.2. Refuse to yield the floor.
1.3. Refuse to answer our opponents questions.
1.4. Pretend to answer their questions while ‘dancing around them’
1.5. State opinion as fact.
1.6. Raise our voices.
1.7. Grasp at straws (while pretending they’re hawsers). And,
- More specifically yet, in regard to
#2. Because of this new set, we don’t have time to
2.1. Understand our opponent’s argument.
2.2. Really understand our own argument.
2.3. Think twice.
2.4. Step back from the canvas.
2.5. Look before we leap.
2.6. Say what we mean.
2.7. Keep from going off on tangents defending things we didn’t
2.8. Realize we’re wrong.
2.9. Admit we’re wrong.
2.10. Cool off.
- So, how important would fixing this be?
- Well, you’ve gotta suspect that if we could actually stifle our
bad reflexes while enforcing our positive potentials, a lot of good things
- For one thing, our decisions – whether household or national --
would be better informed and, consequently, more likely to turn out well.
Argument is potentially the best way to get both (all) sides of the story.
- For another thing, these issues would quit dividing us so divisively.
If the other side has something to appreciate, we’d begin to appreciate
it. If the other side doesn’t really have anything to appreciate,
we’d decrease their numbers. Whereas, our current manner of debate
keeps us highly polarized and angry at the other side. And then, the media
doesn’t try to get us any closer. They emphasize the differences
– they take advantage of, and promote, the polarity.
Currently, the way that the media deals with controversy just drives the
populace further and further apart, while making themselves more and more
- For another thing, argument adds mass, energy and momentum to thinking.
We don’t use it nearly as much as we should, because it is currently
so ineffective. But, if we could clear up argument’s problems, we
could expect a whole lot more of thinking going on.
- Senators would say, “I see what you’re talking about! Maybe
we can find a compromise. You guys gave us the benefit of the doubt last
time. We should give it to you this time.”
- Candidates for office would answer the questions put to them.
- If we could somehow force opponents to argue honestly, objectively and
fairly – for brevity, I’ll call that “Argue in good
faith” – we might finally start improving the human condition.
We might begin to heal the world.
- Once upon a time, in a kingdom far,
far away, there lived a happy old couple with just ONE problem –
there was an axe stuck in their ceiling. In truth, the couple wasn’t
all THAT happy because they worried constantly that someday that axe would
fall out of the ceiling and kill somebody.
- One day a tired and hungry stranger came along and the old couple invited
him in for a rest and a meal. While eating, the couple told the stranger
about their life together, pointing out that the one sour note in all
their happy existence was that (damned) axe stuck in the ceiling. At which
point, the stranger got up on his chair, and with a quick tug, dislodged
the axe from the ceiling…
- As an example of a particular human foible, the story above is rather
far fetched -- but we probably all recognize it anyway. Often, the answer
to some problem we’re having is staring us right in the face, but
we're looking right through it. But then actually, this particular story
suggests something even more fascinating – sometimes the reason
the solution doesn’t occur to us is that we sort of take the situation
for granted as a fact-of-life to bemoan -- rather than as a problem to
- And that’s my claim about human
argument, or debate. We need to start looking upon the state of human
argument as a problem to solve…
- Argument: any discussion in which the
discussants are emotionally invested in opposing positions. "Debate"
turns out to be the same thing -- it just sounds better.
- Human argument is extremely ineffective. Everybody knows this. And,
it isn’t just that opponents hardly ever reach resolution; it’s
that the evidence relevant to the issue at hand is hardly ever presented
effectively -- which is the real problem. Those following the argument
won’t learn a whit, and will go away from the argument madder than
they were to begin with.
- Yet, once we stop and think about our experience with argument/debate,
specific problems seem obvious, and the underlying causes somewhat obvious
themselves. So, why haven’t we tried to fix it?
- It would appear that the idea of fixing
debate just does not tend to occur to the human mind…
- We are like the dog only 5 feet from his dinner, blocked by a partially
opened door that happens to open towards him. A cat would know exactly
what to do in this situation, but most dogs don’t have a clue (some
dogs do). Using his paw to open the door further is simply not a part
of the dog’s behavioral repertoire, and the thought simply does
not occur to him. We humans have been sitting outside our own partially
opened door for 6,000 (or 50,000?) years, complaing about the service…
- There seems to be no other answer. There must be types of insight to
which we humans are basically oblivious -- as there are types of insight
unavailable to the worm.
- At this point, our "glitch"
is a good thing – in order to fix this problem, all we have to do
is “wake up”! Potential solutions are staring us in the face
if we just open our eyes…
- And, if you’re paying attention, you just opened yours!
- So, now that you’re awake, with eyes wide open, let’s zoom
in and scrutinize our situation.
- The first thing to keep in mind is that our purpose in effective argument
is to properly inform the public. We are not concerned with getting everyone
– we just want to make the best evidence available to everyone.
Effective argument occurs when the evidence and logic for both sides is
presented effectively. That way, everyone can make up their own minds
based upon the best evidence. That’s what a democracy is all about
– and also, why we’re all here.
- Zooming in further, we can see that the obstacles to effective argument
come in two ‘flavors’ – or at least, we can usefully
categorize them this way. Some of the obstacles we encounter are essentially
inherent to the particular issue -- and to some extent, we’re just
stuck with them. But, most of the obstacles we encounter are “created”
(by us) and we are not stuck with them…
- Bringing about actually effective written debate should be easy, because
- So far we’ve subconsciously accepted ineffective debate as a fact
of life and simply haven’t tried -- in any conscious and focused
way -- to fix it. It’s time to wake up and start solving this problem.
- And best of all -- each major issue is composed of numerous specific
"sub- issues" and "sub-sub-issues" -- i.e., specific
disagreements -- and while we cannot reasonably expect to resolve all
specific disagreements, we can reasonably
expect to isolate, identify, clarify and classify all specific disagreements.
Theoretically, we can nail down every last nuance of every last disagreement…
It’s only agreement that we cannot, for any particular disagreement,
theoretically nail down. And, the thing is, for our purposes here, we
don’t need to nail down agreement. For our purposes here, all we
have to do is nail down the specific disagreement in front of us…
- What we haven’t understood is how “happy” we’ll
be if we just do this latter. In truth, it is our failure to nail down
the specific disagreements that has left us so confused, frustrated and
traumatized – and, has left us thinking of ineffective debate as
an unavoidable fact of life to bemoan rather than as a problem to solve.
- Here's how effective debate might finally
- Since the purpose of “actually effective debate” is to effectively
inform the public re the controversial issues of the day, these debates
will be very public.
- Since the difficulties with written debate are significantly smaller
and fewer than are those with oral debate, the first effective debates
will be written.
- Websites, or sections thereof, will be set up to provide these debates.
- Each side in a particular debate will have one spokesperson –
a recognized leader in the field.
- These leaders will participate for free as these are causes they are
eager to defend, and the website will attract a large audience -- and
if they don't participate, some lesser champion will end up representing
- But then, the leaders won't have to go it alone -- they will be encouraged
to enlist all the help they need.
- A section of the website will be set aside for a thorough discussion
of the intricacies of human argument. This section will present a theoretical
overview of human argument and its specific problems (much as I have already
attempted to begin). It will provide a set of guidelines as to the dos
and don’ts of effective argument.
- The leaders selected will approve of the guidelines, and will be urged
to stick to them -- and to politely point out infractions by their opponents.
- A separate forum will be provided for the audience. They will be urged
to study the guidelines and do their “scoring” accordingly.
They, will also be urged to point out infractions as well as unexpected
- The actual opponents will learn quickly how they are doing re the guidelines
and, hopefully, adjust their methods accordingly. Where they do not properly
adjust, they will be suspected of championing a house of cards.
- Clearly, the opponents cannot be made to follow the guidelines, but
an alert and “noisy” audience should keep them under control.
And after all, it’s only audience opinion that matters anyway; and,
out of control debaters will not score well with the audience –
which is what this is all about.
- All along, the administration of the website will be learning more about
debate. Their understanding and guidelines will be rudimentary at first,
but by paying close attention to the debate as it progresses, they should
find much to add.
- In some cases, the websites will deliberately recruit opponents who
are more interested in understanding and improving debate than they are
in winning their particular arguments.
- The audience and opponents will be constantly reminded that the ultimate
objective here is not for the opponents to agree with each other, nor
for the members of the audience to agree with each other, nor for an impartial
Judge to make the final decision for everyone. The ultimate objective
of this debate is for the evidence and logic of both sides to be presented
as effectively as possible -- so that members of the audience will be
as well informed as possible when making their own individual decisions.
- One general guideline constantly repeated to the opponents will be to
"slow down and zoom in." The natural tendency for us humans
is to speed up and miss our turns. The opponents will keep zoning out
and will need to be constantly reminded of what they're doing.
- One way to summarize the guidelines for opponents is to "argue
in good faith.” Opponents would be reminded to keep their efforts
honest, objective, fair and friendly. (Just think what the different legislatures
could do if the different legislators were able to keep their debates
honest, objective, fair and friendly! We could create a whole new world!
Maybe, we could heal the world!)
- And perhaps the primary focus ('target'?) of the opponents should be
to make sure that they understand the other side's case before they start
arguing their own. In the beginning, we should see lots of questions.
Instead of aiming for agreement, the opponents should be aiming for ‘nailing
down’ every last nuance of every specific disagreement. If that
remains their target, the audience will have its best chance at really
understanding the disagreement and the available evidence, and for making
the best decision possible (given the available evidence).
- And finally, the opponents would be urged to keep 'stepping back from
the canvas'; keep summarizing; keep ‘regrouping.’ (More about
- Each side would provide an opening statement summarizing its own case.
- Side A would then present the evidence and logic for its first claim.
- Side B would then address A’s first claim.
- If B has any reason to believe that “he” does not fully
understand A’s first claim, he would try to clear that up.
- In that effort, he might try to paraphrase A’s claim – but,
he would try to do that in “the best possible light” (not
the worst possible light, which is usually the case).
- Once that first claim is believed to be understood, B would provide
his rejoinder to it.
- A would then address B’s rejoinder.
- If B’s rejoinder includes more than one claim, A would address
B’s first claim first.
- If A has any suspicion that he doesn’t fully understand B’s
claim, A would try to paraphrase B’s claim in the best possible
- Once A has confidence in his own understanding of B’s claim, A
would provide his rejoinder.
- If A’s rejoinder has multiple claims, B would address the first
- At some point, theoretically, one of
the opponents would have no ready rejoinder, and the debate would return
to the next previous claim left unaddressed. (Here, in trying to describe
this process, a diagram would be worth a thousand words.)
- Eventually, all the branches of A’s first claim would be addressed,
and A would then present the evidence and logic for his second claim.
- Eventually, all of A’s claims would be fully addressed and B would
begin presenting his claims.
- After B’s claims have been fully addressed, A would bring any
additional claims he might now have.
- Once A’s additional claims have been addressed, B would bring
any additional claims he might now have.
- Etc., until both sides have said all they want to say – which
may never happen…
- All along, in a separate section, each
side would be providing its abstraction of the argument so far. With a
little luck, the two sides would agree upon one abstraction.
- This latter section should become the first and primary link for audience
edification on the subject. The “raw” arguments would be referred
to only as necessary for clarification and support -- and for rating the
sides on how well they follow the guidelines..
- The basic claim here is that the best
way to handle an argument as it tries to branch out exponentially, is
to follow only one branch at a time. Complete that branch, then back up
to the next “branching.”
- When opponents try to negotiate numerous branches at one time –
as seductive as that may be -- their mental set is not sufficiently patient,
they keep missing critical turns (distinctions) and the debate goes nowhere
but in circles.
- This focusing approach will be tedious -- to say the least -- but tedious
and slow is much better than exciting and circular. 10 times 1 is a lot
better than 100 times 0.
- And then, teams could be developed -- and each branch could be handled
by a different teammate.
- Being on the Internet, there would be no end of possible teammates.
- And, it isn’t that every specific disagreement would have to be
addressed. We could expose a pattern, or a smoking gun, very early on
and save ourselves a whole lot of tsuris. For these larger topics, that
would be our expectation -- or at least, our sincere hope.
- So far, I’ve had to do all the
thinking about design myself, and there could be a lot of problems with
what I’ve suggested so far, but hopefully, I’ve done enough
work so as to stimulate some help – to convince somebody else that
the idea is worth some effort.
- Now, we need to try it out and see what happens -- and, what we can