How to construct a debate summary
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|The Debate Guide Project|
|How to construct a debate summary | Proposed debate summaries | Prototype|
Introduction to the Debate Guide Project
Imagine, if you will, a dynamic summary of a debate--a guide to the competing positions. The closest existing and familiar type of document would be the Voter's Guide often handed out before elections, in which each candidate is given the same amount of space to express his or her position on current issues. But this is only the roughest of approximations. Suppose we go further and say that:
- any topic of controversy is open to this treatment, from political and legal issues, to philosophical issues, to scientific controversy, to vexed problems from every area of inquiry and interest;
- instead of political candidates or their staffs, the editors of a position's statement are the leading exponents of that position;
- there is an editorial "staff" morally and legally committed to fairness and neutrality;
- the debate is conducted with the research and composition help of an enormous interested public;
- remarks are fully supported by references;
- the thing grows gradually, each side fine-tuning its responses to the other(s), until all sides are satisfied that their positions are treated as strongly and sympathetically as possible;
- distinguishable issues are prised apart and treated separately and given a logical organization; and
- participants are absolutely required, by moderators, to avoid obvious fallacies, such as ad hominem (personal attack) or ad verecundiam (fallacious appeal to authority).
In short, imagine that there were a free resource where, for any issue of controversy, you could expect to have the leading arguments on all sides clearly and carefully explained, with links to supporting evidence. This could be an enormously influential and useful resource for both decisionmakers and the public to have--to say nothing of its educational value.
This could not happen without strong collaboration. That's what the Debate Guide Project is for. What corporate editorial staff, following traditional top-down methods, could produce something as enormous as what is envisioned here, with constant back-and-forth adjustment among positions, and the necessary participation of scores of thousands, or even (eventually) millions of disputants?
The purpose and potential of the Debate Guide
The purpose of a debate summary is to help people make up their minds rationally about questions. It should serve as a resource where users--students, teachers, debaters, college bull sessioners, policymakers, lawyers, academics, and in general everyone who cares about the details of arguments--can find a debate summed up correctly, elegantly, and neutrally, for a wide variety of purposes, such as decisionmaking, simple learning, policymaking, and scholarship. Users should also be guided to the most important literature behind the arguments, if they want to do further research. There are a lot of ways of achieving these purposes, but, just as with encyclopedia articles, unless the desired item is carefully defined against what it is not, we will probably end up with garbage.
The Debate Guide Project is potentially the most popular of the four originally proposed Textop projects. Already, Collation Project node pages on this wiki, such as causes of insanity, are attracting traffic from Google. As with Wikipedia, the more nodes we have, the more traffic we get from Google; the more traffic from Google, the more people we get interested in the project; and thus the cycle gets started. More than Collation Project node pages, good debate summaries would be "hot items" to link to from blogs and centers of controversy, driving up the PageRank of those pages and exposing a large variety of people to Textop.
Imagine thousands of debate guides, burnished to a fine luster, masterfully laying out the competing positions in most of the important political and policy controversies; suppose this work were guided by some of the most influential people in those controversies. Such a resource might well become the central clearing-house for information about those societally important controversies generally--and if so, it could not fail to have deep repercussions on the larger debates themselves.
That's what we're going to try to create.
The content of a debate summary
The Debate Guide will be divided into many "debate summaries," that is, pages that summarize a debate about a particular question.
As a whole, a debate summary should be a very readable, clear prose "narrative." In other words, it should not be a mere database of structured information. Everything from the question, to what arguments are included, to what rebuttals are included, etc., must be carefully, artfully designed and then written in clear, entertaining, and persuasive--but fair--prose.
Each debate summary should have the following components:
- Definitions of positions
- Managing personnel
A debate summary should run too long; it is always possible to create a new question, and new sides, on more specialized questions that inform broader questions. For example, a debate summary on the question "Is the Iraq War [or whatever we'll call it] just?" might go so deeply into Abu Ghraib that we decide to create another debate summary: "What took place at Abu Ghraib and does that demonstrate that the U.S. military engages in war crimes?" (we might not want to use that precise question). Then the first summary could, at the relevant place, simply link to the second one (with a summary, of course). More definite guidelines can be proposed after some prototyping is done.
Debate summary layout/format
An individual entry, or "debate summary," in the Debate Guide should have the following components (to be expanded):
- Question and clarification thereof
- List of personnel
- Corresponding arguments, or arguments-vs.-rebuttals, set side-by-side in a table
- anything else?
How a debate summary is constructed
Here are the steps the community goes through to construct a debate summary (note: these steps will be revised in light of "best practices" as we do some prototyping):
- The proceedings begin when someone proposes a debate summary question.
- Others vet the question, if necessary rewording it for exactness, conciseness, and neutrality.
- At the same time, volunteers sign up to play the role of summarists and moderator.
- The Debate Guide Project Director chooses a moderator.
- The moderator chooses lead summarists for as many distinct positions as are necessary (one for each of at the very least two sides), and declares that work may begin. (The reason for these personnel restrictions is to ensure that partisans of any sort do not "take over" the project. A maximally useful debate summary will be as neutral as possible: the sides will state their views as best they can, and it will be up to the reader to decide what to think. Neutrality requires getting at least minimal representation.)
- The moderator at this time may request that someone post an announcement on an appropriate mailing list.
- Next, the moderator creates a new wiki page, with the title being some very brief version of the question and including a question mark (?) in the page title. See template: Debate Summary Template
- The wiki page is linked from The Outline in an appropriate place, according to this example: "Is knowledge possible?"
- On the wiki page, both (or all) sides first list out arguments in very summary form (one sentence per argument).
- The moderator oversees the matching of any arguments that directly respond to each other (i.e., that argue for contrary claims: the Iraq War increases the global terrorist threat vs. the Iraq War decreases the global terrorist threat). Such matching arguments, if any, are placed in a two- or multi-column table.
- Next, list "X side arguments" and "Y side arguments," i.e., arguments that are advanced by one side, and to which the other side might have some defensive response. These are placed in the leftmost column of a two- or multi-column table. In any given row of the table, one reads left-to-right: the argument, followed by replies to it.
- Once the argument list is developed, the actual arguments are filled out. Word limits for individual arguments (if other than the default--which is not yet determined) are decided by the moderator or by agreement by the competing sides.
- Rather than a "rebuttals" section, as arguments grow, they are sorted into logical groupings. The very first argument grouping should contain the broadest, most general arguments. The next groupings should contain debates about the key premises of the arguments in the first, more general arguments. Also, within each grouping, the first argument(s) in each grouping should be the most general or fundamental, leading to the more derivative or specialized.
- Finally, when the debate summary is in good shape, precede the whole with word-limited summaries of the arguments on each side.
Rules for the construction of a summary
It is the duty of everyone involved in the project, not just moderators, to ensure that debate summaries are fair and neutral. Among many other things, this means that all positions are to be treated as strongly and sympathetically as possible. It also means that moderators absolutely must not "play favorites."
An essential question about projects like the Debate Guide Project is the level of "granularity": what is the "size" of a basic entry in the Debate Guide? A very fine-grained approach would make the "units" individual statements; a slightly less fine-grained approach would make the units individual arguments; then there are varieties of sizes of groups of arguments. In other words, should individual "entries" of the Debate Guide be individual arguments (or even individual statements), or should they be collections of arguments (and, no doubt, other relevant material)? We favor the latter, and here is why: the purpose of the Debate Guide is to allow the user to make up his or her own mind about a question, and to do so by presenting (in summary form) all of the relevant arguments. The best way to do that, then, is to craft a summary of the debate not piecemeal, but as a unitary whole. This means that we might state the same argument in several different ways throughout the entire Debate Guide, because what is essentially the same argument can have a different purpose (and, for example, a slightly differently-worded conclusion) in different contexts.
There is no rule against "original research," but the lead summarist (or other summarists) may request that an argument be removed if it is merely an idiosyncratic variant on a better-known argument, or of course if the argument is simply weak.
Citations and footnotes
We may distinguish citations and footnotes. A "citation," we will say, involves actually citing the source in the text of an argument itself: "According to a 1994 study by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory..." A "(mere) footnote" involves not citing the source in the text, but merely adding a helpful footnote to a claim.
This is a useful distinction because while citations can be said to be essential parts of arguments, footnotes are not, i.e., their presence or absence does not appreciably change the strength of the argument. Citations are used actually to increase the strength of, or play the role of major premises of, arguments; footnotes are mere resources for further reading or research.
In general, footnotes listing the leading sources on a point are desired. By contrast, citations are not to be made except when essential to the argument itself. The participation of experts, who are familiar with the various relevant fields, serves as a better guarantor of reliable information than the citation of possibly questionable sources to which few people have access. In particular, citations are not desired for items that are not matters of clear and confirmable fact, as in philosophy, religion, public policy, and the like (although footnotes on even such matters are quite welcome). A citation of such work amounts to an implicit "appeal to authority": purely argumentative work can be reproduced in the Debate Guide itself.
The upshot of this policy is that, while helpful footnotes to leading resources are generally welcome, and citing (and perforce footnoting) the source of a piece of supporting data is required, naming the source of an argument itself in the text of an argument is to be avoided.
The formulation of questions
This is a project to construct an educational reference work. A huge variety of topics of actual and serious controversy are open to treatment in the Debate Guide, from political and legal issues, to philosophical issues, to scientific controversy, to vexed problems from nearly every area of inquiry and interest. Questions and summary content that are simply humorous or uninformed ("Is the Earth flat?"), vulgar ("What is the best insult?"), offensive ("Which race is superior?"), or lacking in educational value ("Has JLo jumped the shark?") will be excluded.
The formulation of questions must be done in a way that does not imply that one side is correct ("Do superstitions such as Christianity have any merit?").
Generally, only the leading positions on a question will be represented. On any given question, there is a virtually endless number of variant answers. For the sake of clarity, there should not be more than two or three answers. It is not the role of the Debate Guide Project to help people sort out the best from an enormous number of choices all at once.
Note, however, that the variant positions may be canvassed in separate, more specialized questions. So, for example, a question about the mind-body problem might be couched as a debate between so-called type-type materialism and Cartesian dualism, while more specialized debates might examine the relative merits of various kinds of physicalism and various kinds of dualism.
Which positions are to be offered in answer to a general question is a matter that must be decided by reference to "the leading controversy" or whatever statistically are the leading positions on a general question. It may be better to avoid general questions altogether, but which positions the wording of the question itself allows can be prejudicial (the question "Which is better: X or Y?" excludes Z). The actual decision as to what positions to pit against each other is one that must be taken from the fairest and most neutral point of view.
We will devise a comprehensive set of ethics guidelines for the topic, but among the guidelines are these:
- Regardless of how common such shoddy argumentation is, summarists are to be absolutely required, by moderators, to avoid obvious fallacies, such as ad hominem (personal attack) or ad verecundiam (fallacious appeal to authority).
- For questions about upcoming elections, neither political candidates nor their staffs may serve as lead summarists or moderators.
- Even potentially libellous content will not be permitted. If, as a result of this rule, it is impossible for a neutral summary of a debate to be given, then the debate will not be summarized by the Debate Guide Project. This means that, generally, debates that specifically concern living individuals who are not prominent public figures will not be permitted.
Debate Guide Project personnel
Who may participate
The project welcomes very wide participation. While this is a very open project, that does not mean that it is either egalitarian or anarchical. Just as with an encyclopedia, there is a great deal of preliminary work, or drafting, that can be done by people without any special qualifications. For the Debate Guide Project, therefore, there are no special requirements for participation. But participants should be willing and able to meet certain conditions of participation.
Conditions of participation
- be willing to contribute under their own real names. No effort is being made to check names at this time, but we will not tolerate duplicity when it is discovered.
- be able to do work that actually advances the quality of debate summaries. There are many college students, and some bright high school students, who will be able to meet this requirement, at least in the early stages of the project, if not for some time to come after launch.
- be willing ultimately to defer to the judgment of the most expert persons involved, as well as project management, but see below under "dispute resolution."
- bear in mind that the privilege of contributing to the project depends on their willingness to follow the rules in good faith. Persons who violate rules and in other ways disrupt the smooth production of high-quality work in the project should not expect a lengthy, hand-wringing, and silly "trial" a la Wikipedia. Administrators will be mature adults, empowered to make relatively summary decisions (in consultation with other administrators). There is not a blanket right to contribute.
Unlike the case of Wikipedia, there is not one generic, interchangeable role that all wiki participants play. Instead, for any given debate summary, there are essentially three different sorts of players: (at least) two representatives of opposing sides, called "summarists," and (at least) one moderator. There is, in addition, the director of the Debate Guide Project (who selects moderators).
The summarist role
A summarist articulates one side of a debate, and only that side of that debate. A person who articulates an affirmation position on a question must not also edit the negative position as well.
A person is encouraged but not strictly required to take the side that he actually agrees with, or at least not strongly inclined to disagree with. In any case, the position must be represented in the clearest, most powerful, and most generally persuasive way. A person who is shown to have taken a position with which he disagrees with the intention of attaching inferior or embarrassing arguments to the position will be summarily excluded from the project.
A person should declare a side immediately after editing a debate summary for the first time; furthermore, a person should actually edit the debate summary before adding his name to the list of summarists.
The lead summarist role
Lead summarists are summarists, chosen by moderators, who make "tie-breaking" decisions when internal disputes arise on a give side. They are generally expected to be the best-qualified person on a side who is willing to put in the time necessary for the active summarizing.
The moderator role
The moderator is responsible for "dividing questions" and organizing the order of arguments, and making any decisions that affect all parties to the dispute. The moderator may not be listed, or serve, as a summarist. Thus, the moderator should not edit articles except in order to resolve standing disputes (not "potential" disputes) or in some other way carry out the role of moderator. The moderator and only the moderator has the right to create the debate summary page, if the lead summarists and sufficient number additional summarists are available. The required number of additional summarists is determined by the judgemenet of the moderator.
Persons who refuse to accept the judgment of a lead summarist may "appeal" to the moderator, who may be considered to "outrank" the lead summarists for purposes of decisionmaking, but who is expected to "overrule" the lead summarists only in unusual cases.
The moderator names the lead summarists on both sides, and revises the assignments as necessary, i.e., as more qualified people arrive. The moderator may more generally edit the list of summarists (removing the names of people, for example, who do not actually do work).
The moderator role may be played by any person who (1) has offered to be moderator for the question, (2) is (one of) the most knowledgeable of such people, and who (3) does not have any strong feelings about the topic, with special weight given to someone who declares no partiality at all.
Persons who are interested in playing the role of moderator for a newly-proposed question indicate their willingness on the proposed debate summaries page; the director of the Debate Guide Project then chooses the moderator.
The Debate Guide Project Director
The director of the Debate Guide Project plays two special operational roles in the project: choosing a moderator for a summary and declaring that work on a summary may begin (which will typically be done at the same time).
The director may be considered a higher "court of appeal" than moderators, but is expected to support the decisions of moderators in all but the very most unusual cases, such as cases where the moderator does not understand, or is not committed to following, the rules of the project.
If the project expands so that the director becomes a bottleneck, subdirectors, devoted to particular disciplines, will be named, according to a process not yet determined.
In the future, the position of director will be elective and filled by a process defined by the to-be-drafted Textop charter. Initially, Larry Sanger will serve as director.
One nice thing about the way we have things arranged (there are well-defined positions, and a person taking one position may not edit the other position's arguments) is that there is less occasion for dispute across positions about how different arguments are formulated. Each side takes responsibility for its own.
There will inevitably, however, be "internal disputes" (i.e., disputes among people on one side) that cannot be resolved by discussion and compromise. Furthermore, there are bound to be instances of disputes among positions about matters that affect the entire debate summary--for instance, one side might complain that the number and kind of arguments on the other side is getting out of hand.
When a reasonable dispute arises, please first make a serious effort to discuss and reach a compromise or consensus. "Giving way" to the other side, at least a little, is essential to the success of collaborative projects.
If, however, a dispute does not seem reasonable to you, or two reasonable disputants have clearly reached an impasse, then follow the following "escalation path":
|If the dispute involves...||the person(s) to consult are...|
|two summarists on the same side||the lead summarist of that side|
|summarists on different sides||the debate summary's moderator|
|any lead summarist(s)||the debate summary's moderator|
|the debate summary's moderator||the Debate Guide Project Director|
See above for notes on the roles of each of the named personnel.
What the Debate Guide Project is not
The Debate Guide Project is not:
- yet another debate forum. Unlike mailing lists, Web forums, Usenet, and the like, the Debate Guide Project is not devoted to giving a forum to people to air their personal opinions. It is devoted to summarizing existing debates in a fair, entertaining, and relatively concise way.
- an "academics-only" project. While we will be inviting experts, many (not all) of whom are academics, to lead the project, the bulk of the work will be done by ordinary volunteers.
- an opportunity for you to advance your cause. While arguments on all sides of controversial issues will be represented, the project as a whole will remain steadfastly neutral. Among other things, this means that ideologues and partisans of all sorts will be ejected from the project as soon as they demonstrate an inability to work with others for the good of the project as a whole. We will not be doing battle here; we will be representing the battles.
- a technical argument-representation project. The result is meant to be read by humans, not computers.
- finished. It is currently a work in progress. Particularly as long as it is on this wiki, it is a pilot project.
- debate summary: any one of many concise guides to particular debates that make up the Debate Guide.
- Debate Guide: (a proper name) the collection of debate summaries, placed into the Textop outline
- Debate Guide Project: (another proper name) the name we're giving to the people and the processes and tools they use to produce the Debate Guide.
- summarist: a person who is working on one side of a debate summary.
- moderator: a person who does not work on the content of arguments but who is publicly and morally committed to resolve disputes between sides fairly and according to project rules.