Sunday, 28 July 2013

Debate: Part I

Debate is a great thing. It can be a fantastic opportunity to educate and entertain an audience and it is a great way to develop your critical thinking skills and arguments.

The Internet has a real problem with debate, however. What constitutes debate on Internet forums and chat rooms is actually closer to shouting matches and Fox News "celebrity" panels. The quality of debate varies greatly, depending on the particular forum's demographic.

The Elite Dangerous section on the Frontier forums is middle to lower in debate quality. That's not to say it is a melting-pot of aggression and insult; the moderators are very good at stepping in and calming things down. However, there is a lot of potentially beneficial debate that quickly goes down hill due to poor reasoning or debating skills. Here's three of them:

People mistaking criticism of their ideas for personal attacks

This can be an easy one to fall in to. We all feel passionate about these things, otherwise we wouldn't be debating them! However, unless you're happy to walk away from every encounter with the feeling that you're hated by almost everybody, you need to focus on when comments are directed at your ideas or at your person. 
Sometimes you may express an idea or conclusion that is wrapped up in or results in a very human concept or emotion. If people criticise this outcome then they are not necessarily accusing you of it.

People conflating their opinion with demonstrated fact

It's not even funny how often this occurs. How familiar is this story: you start debating someone who has espoused some ridiculous position. As you carefully and logically deconstruct their arguments, they're left with some nebulous assertion; at which point they claim that "it's all subjective" or "everyone has an opinion". Yeah, those people are really annoying.
You can spend tens if not hundreds of posts leading someone down a logical path, suddenly to find out that, actually, that thing they swore was gospel at the start of the conversation is just a hunch, intuition or opinion.
Tip: If your position is purely subjective then consider stating it as so from the outset. You may even want to refrain from expressing it if the conversation is one devoted to facts. If you find yourself appealing to subjectivity after debate on a regular basis you may want to start giving your posts thought before hitting the submit button.
Moderator tip: Not all opinion is equal. Some opinions are based on fact. Reward intelligent posts, not niceness.

Poor understanding of the English language (by people who supposedly have it as a first language). Also: people who think Latin is for academics only.

Let's face facts, not everyone is educated to the same level, and that's before you even start thinking about the idea of inherent intelligence. Nobody is omniscient and so there is always going to be a time when there is some idea or word that you are ignorant of. The easy thing to do is assume that the speaker is an elitist prick who is out to confuse you with big words.
I believe it was Richard Feynman who said that if you can't explain an idea to a class of graduate students then perhaps you don't know it as well as you thought. There is a lot of truth in this; I think debaters do have a responsibility for ensuring their ideas are communicable. However, the student also has a responsibility to learn. If someone uses a word, phrase or idea you don't understand why not use the power of the Internet to find out more? If a Wikipedia article exists for it then you've just learnt something. If you can't find anything, or the results are equally unintelligible then you may have a case against the speaker...
You need to be aware of words which can have related multiple meanings. Don't assume the speaker is using it the same way you would. Ask for clarification.
Don't assume words are being used as a pejorative. There are useful meanings behind the words ignorant, stupid and (this week's candidate) luddite.

That's all for now. Just waiting for the first person to comment saying that the fact I've produced a top-down critique of debate on a forum is elitist and condescending...


  1. XKCD has to be the best comic ever. Surely?

  2. I refrain from most debates on the Elite Frontier forum for two reasons.

    1. I don't have many facts at my disposal
    2. Frustration borne of the reasons you describe above.