Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Reverse Debate

One observation about Google’s diversity memo firestorm: neither side seems to be changing their minds. Ideally, at least one side would be able to learn something. Maybe have a public debate?

There are two universal problems with public debate. First, they’re more a measure of debate skills than statistical strength of evidence. Second, confirmation bias means they often just increase polarization. (Third, in today’s environment, anything said by either side will likely be twisted beyond recognition by opposition reporters.) The net effect is that public debate rarely changes anyone’s mind about anything.

This creates an interesting challenge: design a public debate format which actually makes people likely to change their minds. Ideally, people would be more likely to converge on an answer, and sides would become less polarized rather than more.

(I’m about to present my solution, so if you want to try this challenge yourself, pause reading now.)

My solution:
  • Side A must present the arguments of side B.
  • Side B judges whether their arguments have been presented accurately.
  • They then switch, back and forth, for as long as the debate allows.
If you’re familiar with the Ideological Turing Test, this is the same concept projected into a debate setting.

The format can vary somewhat depending on the scoring, but the simple pass/repeat rule is my favorite:
  • Side A presents the arguments of side B.
  • If side B is not satisfied with the presentation, then side A must try again.
  • This repeats until side A succeeds, at which point the two teams switch roles.
Of course, repetition would grow dull in a public debate setting. To avoid actually needing to repeat a lot, both sides would practice together exhaustively before the public “debate” - in all likelihood they’d converge on a common view before the spectacle even began, and the public debate would consist of each team trying to convince those on their own side!

One important question remains: how would anyone be motivated to participate in such a debate in the first place? The sort of people attracted to an honest, collaborative effort of this nature are unlikely to be those most in need of it.

In the context of the recent Google firestorm, motivation would have been simple: people’s jobs were on the line. The publisher of the memo had his job on the line already. On the other side, plenty of people threatened to quit if he wasn’t fired. So, invite one of those people to challenge the publisher in a metaphorical debate to the death! Once either participant finished the debate, successfully representing all of their opponent’s arguments, they’d be asked if they still thought their opponent should be fired. Both participants could potentially lose their jobs, if they both passed the debate and decided to fire each other.

Of course, we wouldn’t really hope/expect that to happen. Really, we’d hope that at least one side saw the light, and then turned around to preach to their own tribe. The point, after all, is to actually change people’s minds.