The Parody of Debate

(An essay in progress)

This essay is an review of Wikidebates and Wikidebate policy at the time of writing, as well as a few remarks about debate and discourse in general. Genuine public discourse is essential to any free society. I believe that Wikiversity and also brick-and-mortar universities should be venues for discourse, yet there often seems a remarkable lack thereof. Of the Wikidebates extant at the time writing, about four out of five are either very nonspecific, excessively broad in scope, or in general removed from any actionable objective. Most of them seem not very far removed from being outright parodies. It wouldn't be much a stretch to add the following:

~ Should humans use tools?

~ Is AI a good thing?

~ Should we abolish government?

These are ridiculous and vapid questions at face value, but hardly very different in character from many of the debates on the list. Similar debates often appear on popular discussion boards as well. These questions and those like it do not typically bear out meaningful discussion. In another essay I make the case that poor-quality dialog or the absence of productive discourse altogether is often a result of bad policy and design. I believe Wikidebates are no exception and that a few small changes to policy will encourage higher-quality discourse. My suggestions are simple:

  • Recommend that users sign their arguments.
  • Do not require users to contradict their own arguments. It must be understood by readers that a user is not promoting a viewpoint by contributing an argument, but rather inviting others to scrutinize it.
  • Make clear to readers and contributors that an argument in favor or against any given conclusion is not per se a political statement but a necessary component of the socratic method.
  • A question or subject may be general, but should not be vague or needlessly abstract and vacuous e.g. "Does everything happen for a sufficient reason?"
  • No topic concerning public policy, law, honesty in the media, or any other matter of public concern should be prohibited.
  • The statement of purpose at the top of the wikidebate guidelines should be rewritten.

The wikidebate guidelines advise the reader to "Produce sound arguments". Naturally debate participants should aim for logical soundness, and one would expect the rest of the guidelines to respect this self-evident principle. Everyone is fallible, so arguments will not always be sound. Most debates are not comprised only of certain truths and certain falsehoods, formal logic only serves as a model. Yet nobody should knowingly put forth an argument they believe is truly unsound. The first three sentences of the guidelines read "Wikidebates are organized compilations of arguments surrounding an issue. Therefore, try to add and improve arguments on both sides of the issue. Being neutral or unbiased implies considering both sides and being open to change your mind if the arguments or evidence require it." Two sound arguments cannot arrive at opposite conclusions. One cannot refute the conclusion of a sound argument without either assuming a falsehood or making an error in inference. That is the essentially the definition of logical soundness. It's certainly useful to question one's assumptions and, as the third sentence suggests, consider other arguments. But critically, considering an argument is not the same thing as making an argument. The second sentence contradicts soundness or at least some generalized conception of soundness. Certainly, it's fine to develop an opposing argument. This is not inappropriate in and of itself. The problem is that it's stated as a directive or positive obligation. If it's strictly optional then the sentence should be qualified to that effect. How would one argue something they have concluded is a likely falsehood? Doesn't this encourage people to attempt making the evidence fit the conclusion rather than vice versa? One should speak and reason from what they believe to be true and acknowledge when they've made an error or when their assumptions are refuted. How should one interpret the first sentence? Is this a statement of intent or simply an observation? For the second sentence to follow from the first, one must take it as a statement of intent, but in this case Wikidebates would amount to little more than a gross enshrinement of unsigned and unsourced weasel-words that may or may not be sound. If Wikidebates are not actually debates, nor documentative e.g. as journalism or historical scholarship, and presumably not a form of digital kleptomania, then what's the point? If one follows the current guidelines to the letter, the result is not honest discourse or debate, but a debased simulant thereof. While debate won't always resolve an issue nor will it always please everyone, the aim of a debate should be to resolve differences in belief when possible. That is, to produce a result and not to ventriloquize 'both sides' or amass a set of talking points.

There's a superficial argument to be made for leaving debates unsigned. People are probably less reluctant to make an assertion or criticize one if it's understood they're doing so in the context of socratic debate, rather than promoting their own beliefs or making a certain argument with ulterior motives. Is anonymity the proper solution to this? Why should one's beliefs be a social liability, particularly if one is open to criticism and debate? If an argument is wrong then debate will tend to bear that out, so it would be completely absurd to say a contributor is willfully ignorant or promoting "their own point of view". Quite the contrary, they've put that argument on the chopping block. Without signatures, the format feels very stilted and impersonal.

What should be prohibited as a debate question? There should be no prohibitions except obvious spam or profanity. There was a topic on the colloquium page about this question, which suggested that certain topics should be verboten. The basis of this argument and those like it seems to be that censorship is necessary to prevent injustice, violence and crimes against humanity. Yet of those regimes that committed the worst such such crimes, did any of them favor (or tolerate) criticism, open discourse or free speech? I'm not a historian, but to the best of my knowledge they all tried to silence criticism and prohibit open discourse in one way or another. If the reader can think of a counterexample, do let me know. Lacking at least a few examples, this assumption is empirically unsustainable. The net effect of open discourse, critique and inquiry is the refutation of anti-social, regressive ideas, and the development and communication of socially beneficial ideas.

What is a good debate question? One can at least say that a good question is not vague, vacuous or irrelevant. As an example of vacuity, take my own parody question "Should humans use tools?". This is not vague, it's quite a specific question, whose grammatical subject and object are well-defined. Yet it's so broad and grandiose in its scope that it's obviously of little relevance to any practical political or social objective. While this is admittedly a strawman, it's quite similar to many of the actual debates. Questions about public affairs, honesty in the media, policy etc. are probably good questions. As an example from the colloquium, the question "do vaccines cause autism?" seems entirely acceptable to me. Better still might be "should the public be forced to take vaccines?" This is a question of public policy, something that the public has a say in regardless of whether they have medical expertise or not. Another example, "was 9/11 an inside job" has to do with accountability and honesty in the media and government. Not at all bad questions, or at least they make the cut, having greater relevance than many other extant wikidebates.

The "structured debate" format requires contributors to mince their argument and find places for all the pieces: "Split distinct arguments ― If one argument is essentially two, split them apart. Keeping them separate will enrich the debate, allow others to object to each argument independently and prevent unnecessary confusion." This is often awkward, an objection to someone's "argument for" could just as easily be a standalone "argument against" in and of itself, so what do you do with it? I also have caution about a gamified format of itemized or sequential argument, as in the page "debate algorithm" and which the current format goes some distance toward by itself. Suppose P(A|B),P(A|C),P(A|D),P(A|E) are all relatively small but P(A|B,C,D,E)=.99, Person 1 provides evidence B, Person 2 concludes that P(A|B) is small and assigning them "winner" suggests that P(A|B) = P(A), and so on until P(A|B,C,D,E) is reduced to merely the prior P(A). Exactly how much this factors into a reader's impression I do not know, but such a feature is suggestive in any case.

The most bizarre and disagreeable feature of wikidebates, though, is that they are not debates at all. They comprise a set of short, unattributed, unsigned talking points that have been organized to somewhat resemble debate. One is not allowed to sign their contributions. One is not allowed to make an argument proper to begin with, but instead must contribute in short, discrete statements that are small enough for twitter, which is the worst website on the internet. One is expected to contribute opposing arguments. For the participant, they are a pavlovian exercise in conformance and mimicry. This is not real discourse, it's exposition.

AP295 (discusscontribs)