Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Purpose of Debate

Reflections on the Passing Scene - Thomas Sowell - Townhall Conservative

I was struck by the wisdom of this particular comment in the column:
More disturbing than any of the issues of our time are the many people who debate those issues as contests in talking points, rather than as attempts to get at the truth. Too many people debate as if the point is to show who is smarter, rather than which conclusion is correct.
I think Sowell is on to something here. The purpose of NFL football games is to entertain -- and that is gained by the teams doing what it takes to win, which ALWAYS involves pushing at the edges of the rules and using them to your advantage. As an offensive lineman, you are taught how to "hold correctly" with your hands on the jersey or pads inside and your elbows outside. Receivers regularly discreetly push off, the edges of the field are used with amazing gymnastic moves to put the ball where only your receiver can catch it -- and get two feet down. The list could go on and on -- it's a game, and it is meant to be entertaining, and I for one find that it usually is.

Debate is also played as a game in High School and I assume college -- not so much for entertainment, but under strict rules of evidence and time, and judged by a known set of criteria. It is an excellent mechanism for the debaters to understand the topic, because they must have arguments set up so they can debate either side (one could only wish for this to be more common for Americans). The purpose isn't necessarily to get to "a right answer", but to understand the formation of rational arguments.

Shout show cable, and really all of our news media are "shows to make money" -- with more in common with football than debate. Some of the media folks of all stripes are seeking to win converts for a given political position, but the coin of the realm is ratings and money -- the very best, most reasonable, well thought out, well delivered arguments for a point are completely useless if they don't bring people to the set, the radio, the web page, the newspaper or what have you.

None of this is about truth. The vast majority of people look for evidence that supports the world view they already have, and the big change in the modern information buffet is how much it is to do just that. There are a number of great arguments that can be made for things that are widely accepted to be false -- people go through life with all sorts of "stories" for northern lights, "heat lightning", inflation, unemployment, dry skin, terrorism, the price of stocks, gold, oil, coffee, snoring ... the list is infinite, and often what is being searched for is not "the truth" per say, but a "reasonable story" that "feels right" and fits well with whatever set of other stories make up our world view.

My view is that most people DON'T debate -- they want to share their stories and they mostly want others to listen to them and generally agree. If the other person has a similar story, they might like listening so they can improve their story, but the incidence of actual debate, where new information might enter in and stories could be changed is VERY rare.

"Should" it be different? I might personally enjoy it if it was, but I've been around long enough to know that view is very rare. My belief is that the best way to change the general mind is through "improved story quality", and finding ways to increase the factual content of stories while still having them be palatable to a broad set of people. It is something much more excelled at by the more "liberal" in our world, and it is an area that those that want to preserve liberty will need to much improve in order to save the remaining liberty we have.

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