Debate Is Broken. How to Improve It
An Example: Will China and the US Go to War?
I write a lot about exchanging ideas:
In last week’s premium article, I explored disagreement over the Internet.
Today, I talk about why debate is broken online and propose a way to improve it.
Why do I pay so much attention to this? Because I believe this topic of Internet disagreement is the single most important problem of humankind. Why? Because exchanging ideas is how we make decisions in society, and how we make decisions drives everything else. If we can do that efficiently, humankind will solve every other problem more efficiently.
I’m curious what you think about my analysis of the problem and proposals for solutions. So here it is. Enjoy!
We all know how broken debate is online. You’ve all seen them on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit… They quickly descend into snark, name-calling. Our conclusion is that humans are bad at debating online, that there’s something about us that’s broken, that the Internet brings the worst out in us.
The tool determines the communication.
Think about Twitter, for example.
Your first tweet is meant to call attention the most, so that it gets reactions, which pushes it further up in the distribution algorithms. So you’ll go for something incendiary.
Responses try to do the same, but they fear being buried under hundreds of other responses. So they’ll try to be even more incendiary, appealing to those reading the responses thread. Many times, that means appealing to the opposing crowd.
If you really don’t want to be buried, you might do a “quote tweet”, to post it to your audience, breaking the debate with the original poster altogether.
The problem is not Twitter, however. It’s all debate, online and offline.
Offline Debate Is Broken
Twitter is the equivalent of your Thanksgiving1 debate: nobody listens, people talk over each other, everybody wants to be right, heart rates increase, faces redden, carotids dilate, vocal cords quake.
In contrast to the wild west of family shoutouts, the most civilized version of offline debate could be the Oxford-style debate, where people take turns explaining their positions and retorting to each other. I think even that is flawed. Let’s break down why.
A company called Pairagraph has ported2 the Oxford-style debate to the online realm, which is extremely convenient to break down what happens in such a debate and why it’s broken. Here, two people argue their positions in two rounds: A, B, A, B. Each intervention is short, about 500 words or less. Let’s take an example: Are the U.S. and China Headed Towards War?
An Oxford Debate Example
1. David Daokui Li’s first argument
My opponent is a friend.
Assertion: China and the US will not go to war, hot or cold.
Support argument: China and US interests benefit from cooperation more than from conflict.
Goals of both sides: (1) more economic prosperity, (2) inclusive distribution.
To achieve both goals, trade and investment between them is crucial because their economies are super interconnected.
War would upend both trade and investment, and since they’re so important to both, they will avoid it.
The US wants liberal democracies around the world. It’s worried about China’s challenge there.
But China doesn’t want to challenge that. It will never go to war for this, as long as others let China be.
The US wants to remain the global police.
China is not a fan of that arrangement, but it doesn’t bother it much, as long as it’s not threatened directly.
China does care a lot about Taiwan and is willing to invade it.
But the US would not be willing to go to war for Taiwan: it is very far away from the US, less important than Vietnam was in 1965, and the US now knows its military limits there.
Chinese people love America and China was an ally of the US in the two WWs.
2. Niall Ferguson’s response
My opponent is a friend.
I know a lot about the history of war and US foreign policy.
It doesn’t matter that China and the US trade and invest with each other. That was true of European powers before WW1 and look what happened.
Xi Jinping disagrees vehemently with the US vision of the world.
The US signed an agreement with Taiwan 50 years ago and is bound by law to protect Taiwan against a forced change of status.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has an ultimate goal of displacing the US globally.
The US might not act coldly here. It might enter a hot war.
3. David Li’s response
China definitely does not want to replace the US as the world’s dominant power. Believe me, I’m an expert.
China supports the current world order.
China has never tried to dominate the world. It’s big enough for Chinese leaders to worry just about itself.
Chinese culture is superlocal. Impossible to export. China knows this. It won’t try. Look at their COVID response: super Chinese-specific. Nobody can do it like that. It also requires a massive, loyal bureaucracy. China can’t find that anywhere else.
I can’t find a reference saying that the US is bound by law to defend Taiwan.
The 100+ countries that maintain diplomatic relationships with China all agree Taiwan is part of China.
4. Niall Ferguson’s final argument
China and the US were allies in the WWs… Kinda. Then there was the very hot war in Korea.
Many experts already agree that we’re in a cold war between China and the US.
China wants to go back to its place as a leading power. But its loss was China’s fault.
China is building an alternate system to the current world order that is based on the UN: eg, Belt & Road, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.
China has influence ops in some foreign countries, showing it wants to dominate the world.
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 says a forced change in the governance of Taiwan would be a grave concern to the US, and commits to resisting it.
Even the Oxford Debate Is Broken
How do you feel about this debate? Do you feel illuminated? Do you feel you’ve found resolution?
Traditionally, people would say “this is a nuanced debate, full of insightful points”. What I see instead is confusion.
It’s hard to remember all the arguments
Which ones matter most to each side
Which ones are most convincing
Where we’re landing with them
Whether any argument failed tot get a response from the other side
What were the supporting points for each
Which facts are true
A Better Online Debate
To improve upon this, I entered a Pairagraph debate myself on Will Digital Technologies Kill the Nation-State? I tried to keep the debate as structured as possible. I think I succeeded better than the average debate—you be the judge—but even then, it’s still inefficient and plagued with problems.
Other tools try to create better debates online. For example, this is one of the debates about China–Taiwan on Kialo:
Kialo tries to balance the pros and cons of every debate, by taking specific questions, and letting people vote and comment on the arguments that resonate the most. The arguments:
Although this is much better, I’d still argue it’s broken. You still don’t have an easy sense of the arguments that matter most, which ones are most contested, the facts that are missing…
So I took a stab at transforming the China | US Pairagraph debate into the graph below. You can see in yellow the main contention points on each side. The more yellow, the more important. On blue and red, you have the main arguments of each side for each contention point.
Obviously, this is not something final, but a sketch of what a better solution could look like. The goal here is to show in a snapshot what matters and what doesn’t. For example, from just having a look at this, you can tell:
There are about seven contention points. Many of them were not contentious and didn’t appear to matter much.
One argument matters above all others: the one thing China really wants is Taiwan, but Niall Ferguson argues the US would be willing to go to war to protect it. We don’t have resolution on whether that’s true or not.
The argument that weighs in the other direction is the very strong economic ties between the US and China. Everybody agrees on that. But Niall Ferguson says that those ties are not enough to prevent a war, because economic interdependence was in place in the past and didn’t matter—for example, in WW1.
The other two arguments that matter somewhat are around how expansive China is. David says China’s history and acceptance of the current world order prove that China won’t try to expand ideologically or militarily. Niall thinks it will expand through economic power (eg. Belt & Road initiative, Investment Bank) and shows signs of a growing ambition through influence operations.
Put in another way, you get that this debate boils down to how much the US cares about defending Taiwan militarily compared to its economic ties to China.
And you understand the data points you’re missing to resolve this tension, along with all the other open questions.
As I mentioned, this is not final. I welcome your comments on how to make this better.
Now imagine a world where every debate was portrayed with a tool that does this, but even better. One where any person could consult the state of any debate and see where things stand. Where they could contribute in the areas they know about. Where they had an incentive to be right.
This is a better world.
Now expand that from online debates to any decision you might need to make. And imagine you could reuse the pieces of arguments from other people into your own arguments.
This is a much better world.
Tell me what you’d change about this approach to make it better.
We’ll get there.
or any equivalent event that gathers your large family, for those of you non-Americans.
“Porting” in the context of software means “taking something from a system and bringing it into another system, with the additional work involved”. For example, you port one videogame from one console to another.