|The problem in more detail
We spend much of our lives debating with each other—and living in the consequences of those debates. But how often do we do it well? And can the process be improved?
- Public debates tend to be complex; with multiple data sources and perspectives and conflicting demands and values. Even relatively straightforward arguments can challenge our capacity to hold all the pertinent factors clearly in our minds. And, in complex debates, the volume of information and arguments can seem like an overwhelming obstacle to someone trying to develop a comprehensive understanding of the essential arguments advanced by all sides.
- Public debate is all too often characterized by repetitive contributions, digressions, argumentative fallacies, rhetorical flourishes, manipulative framing, obfuscation and personal attacks that result in a high noise-to-signal ratio and confusion rather than clarity.
- Conventional media reporting of public policy debates often struggles with the challenge of conveying nuanced, reasoned positions in a compressed linear form, when simple heated oppositions deliver a more dramatic and rewarding effect.
- This, in turn, makes it harder for established public figures to think tentatively and creatively in public about new policy approaches and to acknowledge strengths and common ground in opponents' positions.
- The human tendencies toward homophily (mixing with like-minded people) and group polarization (the self-reinforcing movement towards extreme positions in groups of like-minded people) can, if left unchecked, limit the diversity of arguments heard and stifle the creative discovery of new options in the clash of diverse arguments.
- Moreover, the significance people attach to arguments is often shaped by broader frameworks of value and belief, which are in themselves debatable; making the pursuit of a comprehensive appreciation of major debates harder still.