Saturday, 3 Jun 2023

Opinion | Debate Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive

There are good debates and bad debates. The bad ones are like the argument sketch from the old British television show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” A man who has paid to have an argument complains that his interlocutor is simply contradicting him. “Argument is an intellectual process,” he insists. “Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.” The interlocutor responds, “No, it isn’t.”

Monty Python was a half-century ahead of its time. A lot of debate today is nothing but gainsaying, bludgeoning and maneuvering for tactical advantage without regard for the truth. The modern exemplar of debate-as-conflict is former President Donald Trump, who in defiance of what everyone saw continues to describe the attack on the Capitol in 2021 as a mostly peaceful act of love.

What makes debate a topic for economics is that free markets don’t fare well in free-for-alls. They require social cohesiveness. To do business, people don’t have to agree with one another, but they do have to treat one another with respect and fairness. Bad debate deepens divisions; good debate can heal them.

That brings me to Open to Debate, the new name of what was founded as Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates. Since 2006, the nonprofit New York-based organization has staged more than 200 debates on propositions and questions including “Declinists Be Damned: Bet on America,” “Is the Democratic Party Too Far Left?” and “Artificial Intelligence: The Risks Could Outweigh the Rewards.”

Until Covid hit, Intelligence Squared used a live, gladiator-style format. Members of the audience would vote for the side they agreed with before the debate and again after it. The side that managed to shift opinion in its direction won, even if it still commanded only minority support. One gratifying finding was that, on average, 32 percent of those in the audience changed their minds.

In April 2020, Intelligence Squared stopped having live events. In July 2022, it stopped declaring a winner of the debates. It has since resumed some live events, but it hasn’t brought back the declaration of a winner, and doesn’t intend to. It has been using a kinder and gentler format for a less kind and gentle era.

Last week, Intelligence Squared took another step away from the gladiator format by changing its name and website and announcing a new focus on outreach, vowing that “at scale” its approach “can change the direction we’re headed in America.” Its first debates as Open to Debate: “Is Florida Eating New York’s Lunch?” and “Are Men Finished and Should We Help Them?”

Can better debate really change the nation’s direction? In a small way, maybe. To find out more, I interviewed Clea Conner, the chief executive of Open to Debate, as well as John Donvan, who is the moderator of the debates and a former chief White House correspondent for ABC News.

Conner told me that the organization abandoned “the whole win/lose construct” because it was hindering its mission of promoting dialogue. She said Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a contributing New York Times Opinion writer, is working with Open to Debate on finding new data points to measure “how debate opens minds.”

A skeptic of the project would say that people don’t debate to get at the truth, but to vanquish their opponents, and that’s true whether you’re Donald Trump, Monty Python’s John Cleese or anyone else. “Reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found,” the French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber wrote in the journal Behavior and Brain Sciences in 2011.

The Open to Debate people are well aware of this dissent on debate; I know because Grant is the one who emailed me the link to the motivated reasoning paper.

But they remain hopeful. “We should be able to disagree without having to hate each other,” Donvan told me. In the old days, he said, his main job as moderator was keeping time. “Increasingly, my role is to kind of protect the integrity of the arguments,” he said. “I want to make sure people are at least hearing each other. Finding common ground is not the point, but common ground may be exposed.”

In moderating, Donvan said, he has begun borrowing ideas from other arenas in which people come into conflict, such as couples counseling. “If we can get out there and show that on tough issues there is a way to have conversations that doesn’t have to be mired in acrimony, that’s good,” he said. “We’re all worried about polarization, demonization, separation. I really would love it if in our small way we contribute to the idea that we can disagree but we have a ton of shared interests.”

“I don’t think that’s Pollyanna,” Donvan said. “I very much believe in the pivot that we’re making.”

Outlook: Parisha Saimbi

As recently as September and October, a euro was worth less than $1. It quickly rebounded to around $1.09. And it’s likely headed higher, Parisha Saimbi, a Group of 10 foreign exchange strategist in the London branch of the French bank BNP Paribas, wrote Friday in a report to clients. “Tighter credit conditions could limit the need for more Federal Reserve tightening,” she added, while the European Central Bank could choose to keep hiking rates. She said the team looks for the euro to reach $1.14 by the end of the year.

Quote of the Day

“If you happen to be browsing through the statute books some restless night, you can find the anti-complexity clause in Subsection IX of subpart (ii) of Section 7803(c)(2)(B) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

— T.R. Reid, “A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System” (2017)

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