The futility of debate


I recently watched the final debate of William Buckley’s Firing Line, filmed in 1999. Firing Line, and perhaps this farewell episode in particular, demonstrates a level of companionship and vigor that we rarely see in public debate in the United States. But even with this in mind, it also demonstrates a fundamental problem with debates: Debates are too adversarial to explore nuance, leading to simplified solutions and misunderstandings of the problem at hand. Complicated problems sometimes need complicated solutions, and a debate will always miss this. I want to focus on one small exchange in this episode that typifies this problem.

Firing Line debates are formal and focused on a particular resolution. In this episode, the resolution is “the federal government should not impose a tax on electronic commerce.” We will focus on an exchange between Senator Wyden and Professor Fox on this issue. Senator Wyden’s opening statement begins here. The exchange itself begins here.

Reading from a prepared sheet, senator Wyden announces:

In a survey of 1,500 mainstreet business districts nationwide, 74% have gone online since 1997. Because of that, many small businesses that had been on the verge of collapse, threatened by mega malls, retail giants, and mail order companies, are now thriving, and economically depressed towns that had been losing population are now growing.

After a few moments of back-and-forth, Professor Fox raises his main objection:

Senator, I’m sure that you’re aware that 75% of the internet activity that takes place occurs within just 50 firms, so the notion that this is broadening out to large numbers of firms is simply inconsistent with the facts of the situation.

Senator Wyden retorts:

So you’re saying that the ABC study of 1,500 mainstreet districts is wrong? I think it’s clear.

Professor Fox clarifies his position, but the issue is dropped for time.

Before explaining what went wrong here, let’s hit the theoretical problem. Debate is, at its core, a method to uncover truth. You present your points, I try to refute them, then we exchange roles. This is supposed to work like a crucible for contrasting ideas. The stronger argument will convince the audience, taking us one step closer to discovering the “truth,” or “right answer.”

The problem is that debate can only paint in broad strokes. Given two ideas, it can vote for one or the other. It cannot blend two together. For example, what if your point is comprised of five or six smaller points? If I take your main point, do I have to take the smaller ones as well? What if I changed your mind on one of those points? Can we modify our positions or reach a compromise? In a debate, the answer to these questions is always the most restrictive possible. You must take all of the smaller points, we cannot explore them in detail, and we certainly cannot modify our positions. In short, debate can never say “you’re both right.”

Let me summarize the exchange between Wyden and Fox:

  • Wyden: I care about the success of small businesses, and 74% of business have adopted internet commerce.

  • Fox: The adoption rate does not equal the success rate, and there is good evidence that the success rate is much lower than 74%.

  • Wyden: My evidence is foolproof. If you doubt my position, then you doubt my foolproof evidence, therefore you are wrong.

If Wyden’s concerns for the little guy are genuine, then Fox’s objection should cause concern. Maybe the internet isn’t as good for small businesses as we thought! We should talk about it more a find out what we mean by “good for small businesses.” Is the “success rate” what we care about? If so, how do owe measure it? What rate is “good enough”? Whatever the case, the “truth” must clearly take these questions into consideration. If the men were interested in devising a real solution and actually understanding the issue, then they would have stopped to discuss these points. But because Wyden and Fox are in a debate, they are only interested in winning. Wyden makes an objection that completely misunderstands Fox’s point, and the two never return to the subject. The nuance is lost.

It is a travesty to lose valuable discussions because of a bad format. Had Fox and Wyden been interested in conversing, we would have been privy to a much more interesting conversation. We would have seen real disagreement and progress towards understanding. Instead, they had to read from their prepared sheets and hope that their argument pandered to the audience enough to win.

Avoiding this problem is a major benefit of longer, less structured discussions. Podcasts sometimes have great examples of these conversations “in the wild.” Shows like the Joe Rogan Experience and Making Sense with Sam Harris successfully cover a pretty wide variety of topics in depth because there is no pressure to “win.” There is only a conversation to be had. You can’t dodge questions and you can’t appeal to an audience—you’re just having a “regular” conversation. These feel closer in spirit to a Socratic dialogue than any public debate I’ve ever seen.