Friday, September 28, 2007

Debatepedia: Mapping the Rational Argument

It's all quiet on the Sphereless front... Congratulations and many thanks if you're reading this, maybe via some long-forgotten RSS subscription. I'm hoping to get a few more posts out soon, if time allows.

For now, I'm hugely excited by Debatepedia, which piggy-backs on wikis but takes a much more structured approach. The idea is very similar to something that's been kicking around in my brain for too many years now (as well as others'), so it's great to see something in the e-flesh, and that's being actively maintained. (Not sure about the name though, especially if saying it out loud...)

Have a look at an example debate - say, on file-sharing - and you'll soon get the gist of it. But for the lazy, the basic idea is that you list the "for" and "against" arguments relating to particular questions. This helps break down the discussion and present a much wider array of arguments (ooh, look, coding speak sneaking in ;) to a reader.

I think this is hugely important, as too often I think people are put off debate due to the over-emphasis on certain points. For example. terrorism and safety are often used to force certain legislation through, at the expense of other arguments, and morals other than "Aie! Save myself!" This approach would (hopefully) lead to a more rational debate, and a more "considerate" (of the argument and, perhaps, of each other) society.

The second important thing is that the arena is mostly impartial. Like Wikipedia, it works because it defines a clear set of rules, and a clear aim for what should be recorded. Wikipedia records facts, not opinion. Debatepedia is the opposite, in a way - to the point where it's the same: It lists arguments as facts, such that the whole of the "logical" realm of debate is available for all to see. "For" and "Against" are equal in a sense, and this impartiality/completeness is good for encouraging participation. Strong advocacy puts many people off participation too, I feel.

One of the interesting things that comes out of the site, then, is the way it highlights the difference between "rationality" and "emotion" in politics. Don't get me wrong - I don't think you can necessarily run a debate without involving both of these. But the current climate of "debate" all too often gets the 2 mixed up - often deliberately. Emotive arguments are often backed up by supposedly "rational" statistics, for example, and we end up going round and round in circles until we're not sure what to think any more. Perhaps by jotting down the rational side of things, we can then make more informed decisions according to how we want the world to be.

Is a wiki the best way to decide which argument is best? I'm not sure about that. It'd be easy to take a technological route and add some kind of voting or rating set-up to the system, but personally I'd much rather see this kind of thing used as a tool for informing debate. Clarifying the rational, as Debatepedia does, gives you a better way of thinking about what's involved in an issue, and helps you to see things from a point of view that was muddled or obscured previously. But the philosophy and motivation behind choosing from these options - the emotive side - is far more complex, and subject to just as much rationality and irrationality as ever (a point that the Greeks turned into Rhetoric and Democracy to begin with).

It'd be great to see a simplified version, with a hugely "dumbed down" (read "user friendly") interface, and centred on one particular issue - a small trial. "Local" instances could even be used within small groups, to map out otherwise-murky and ever-twisting discussion over the course of a day or two, for instance.

I'm definitely going to keep an eye on this one.