Archive for the ‘Deliberation’ Category

In an excellent post Ben Rattray, founder of change.org,  suggest that technology can help improve democracy by addressing  what he calls three core needs:

  1. Mass Civic Participation: Citizens need effective outlets for expressing their voice on the issues that matter to them more often than every 2–4 years, and at the local as well as the national level.
  2. Responsive Government: Elected officials need to be responsive to citizen concerns and directly engage with them in a way that ensures they feel authentically heard.
  3. Trusted Information: We need a new channel of distribution for political information that elevates trusted sources to guide citizens as they take civic action — a trust graph for politics.

Later in the post he elaborates  the idea of a trust graph for politics:

This isn’t something we’ve yet developed, but since we believe it will be a crucial component of any successful democratic system and an important part of our future, I’ll outline our current thinking here.

The foundation of this trust graph for politics is based on asking each citizen to follow the people and organizations whose political perspective they most trust — whether they’re friends, public intellectuals, business leaders, former elected officials, or public interest groups.

We would use this data to create a trust ranking index, similar to Google PageRank. The measure of how trusted a source is would not be based simply on their total number of followers, but on the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, whose trustworthiness would be measured by the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, and so on. The result would be to surface the people and organizations of all political perspectives who are highly trusted both by the trusted members of that community and by trusted people with different perspectives.

There is a striking similarity between this concept of a trust  graph and the notion of “credibility” we implemented in the YourView platform.  

The challenge we tried to address with YourView was that of identifying public wisdom on major public issues. Our idea was to create an online forum  which would encourage large-scale participation in high quality public deliberation, and to divine from that deliberation a collective viewpoint  which gave more weight to those participants who had more credibility which we defined as a demonstrated capacity to effectively engage in public deliberation.  Credibility was calculated automatically by algorithms embedded in the platform.  These had a pagerank-like quality in that  one of the key factors in building a strong credibility score was contributing in a way that met the approval  of high credibility people, particularly those who disagree with you. YourView thus encouraged participants to engage productively with people of the opposite persuasion rather than just preaching to the converted. 

Now, with major funding from the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency we are embarking on a project to build a platform for crowdsourcing intelligence analysis.  our plan is that the new platform will use YourView -like mechanisms, though in much more sophisticated ways, to identify the best analysts and to take advantage of that information in various ways to improve the quality of the results.

My hope is that what we  develop and build in this project will be of sufficient generality that it will also be able to be used  to address problems of democracy in broadly the manner  described  by Ben Rattray  and in our writings on the YourView project.

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John Stuart Mill, in his classic On Liberty, said

three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it.

In this spirit, the second lesson of our free email course, Argument Mapping: Make Your Case Clear and Compelling covers the importance of anticipating and responding to objections to your position, and shows how you can use argument mapping to organise these arguments.

A participant, Chantal, asked: “My question would be about how to produce objections. You are saying we can train for that. Sometimes I try and no interesting idea will arise :( What type of question should I be asking myself to create this other point of view?”

This is an excellent question.  How might one actually go about identifying the strongest objections to one’s own position?

Here are some things you can try.  Of course not all of these may be feasible in your situation.

1. Ask Opponents, or Bystanders

Perhaps the most obvious strategy is just to ask one or more people who strongly disagree with your position.  Such people are likely to be quite happy to help, and are likely to know the best objections.

If you can’t ask somebody who strongly disagrees, you can try asking somebody who is neutral on the topic.  Having no emotional involvement in the matter, they may find it easier than you do to see the problems with your position.

2. Research the Topic

If your position is on an issue that many people may have considered, a little digital sleuthing will often quickly uncover the main arguments on the other side.  For public issues, it should be easy to find op-eds or magazine articles, government reports, and so on.  For more technical or academic issues, scholar.google.com is a great resource.

3. Adapt Objections to Similar Positions

The best arguments against your position might just be adaptations of the best arguments against similar positions.  For example, if you are proposing that there should be a new freeway to the airport, you could look at proposals for freeways elsewhere to quickly get an idea of the kind of objections you are likely to encounter.

4. Use Standard Form Objections

This is a closely related suggestion.  There are many standard types of objections to positions of various kinds.  For example, any position which involves restricting people’s behavior – e.g., a proposal to ban vaping in public places – will encounter objections from based on individual rights and liberties.  (See the rest of Mill’s On Liberty).  If your position is that your group or team should pursue a certain course of action, there will be objections based on risk, particularly worst-case possible outcomes.  And so on.

5. Construct Objections from Interests

Consider what interests are threatened by your position.  Objections might be direct or indirect expressions of those interests.  For example, if your position is that our future energy needs should be met by large nuclear fusion plants, your position will threaten anyone with an interest (commercial, ideological, or any other type) in standard renewable energy industries such as wind or solar.  Those interests will lead to objections such as the impact on jobs in regional areas.

6. Identify and Challenge Assumptions

Any position will depend on a range of assumptions.  You can identify objections by ferreting out all or most of your assumptions and challenging those yourself.  One way to do that is covered in the email course, Lessons 4 and 5.  This is using principles of logic to expose the hidden assumptions in your own arguments supporting your position.

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The question of who actually wrote the works attributed to “William Shakespeare” is a genuine conundrum.  In fact it may be the greatest “whodunnit” of all time.

Although mainstream scholars tend to haughtily dismiss the issue, there are very serious problems with the hypothesis that the author was William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon. However all other candidates also have serious problems.  For example Edward de Vere died in 1604, but plays kept appearing for another decade or so.  Hence the conundrum.

Recently however this conundrum may have been resolved.  A small group of scholars (James, Rubinstein, Casson) have been arguing the case for Henry Neville.  A new book, Sir Henry Neville Was Shakespeare, presents an “avalanche” of evidence supporting Neville.  Nothing comparable has been available for any other candidate.

Suppose Rubinstein et al are right.  How can the relevant experts, and interested parties more generally, reach rational consensus on this?  How could the matter be decisively established?  How can the process of collective rational resolution be expedited?

A workshop later this month in Melbourne will address this issue.  The first half will involve traditional presentations and discussion, including Rubinstein making the case for Neville.

The second half will be attempting something quite novel.  We will introduce a kind of website – an “arguwiki” where the arguments and evidence can be laid out, discussed and evaluated not as a debate, in any of the standard formats, but as a collaborative project.  The workshop will be a low-key launch of the Shakespeare Authorship Arguwiki; and later, all going well, it will be opened up to the world at large.  Our grand ambition is that the site, or something like it, may prove instrumental in resolving the greatest whodunnit of all time, and more generally be a model for collective rational resolution of difficult issues.

The workshop is open to any interested persons, but there are only a small number of places left.

Register now.  There is no charge for attending.


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A colleague Todd Sears recently wrote:

I thought I’d write to let you know that I used an argument map last night to inform a public conversation about whether to change our school budget voting system from what it is (one meeting and you have to be physically present to vote), to the (of all things!) Australian Ballot system (secret ballot, polls open all day, and absentee ballots available).

So, I went through the articles, editorials, and opinion pieces I could find on the matter and collapsed those into a pretty simple argument, which it is. Simple reasoning boxes get the job done.  Our voters had never really seen this kind of visualization.  It’s nice to be able to see an argument exist in space, and to demonstrate by pointing and framing that a “yea” vote needs to buy into the green points, but also that they need to reconcile the red points, somehow. It had very good response.

Ultimately, the AB motion was defeated by five votes.  Still, it was a good example of a calm, reasonable, and civil dialogue.  A nice change from the typical vitriol and partisan sniping.

Here is his map (click to view full size version):


When I suggested that readers of this blog might find his account interesting or useful, he added:

Let me clarify what I did because it wasn’t a classic facilitation.

1. I reviewed all of the on-line Vermont-centric AB content I could find in the more reputable news sources, and put a specific emphasis on getting the viewpoints of the more vociferous anti-AB folks in my town so that I could fairly represent them.

2. I created a map from that information and structured it in a way that spread out the lines of reasoning in an easily understandable way. I could have done some further abstraction and restructured things, or made assumptions explicit using the “Advanced” mode, but chose to focus on easily recognized reasoning chains.

3. I sent the map out to the entire school board, the administrators, a couple of politicians, the anti-AB folks and some of the other more politically engaged people in town.

4. The session was moderated by the town Moderator, who set out Robert’s Rules of Order. Then discussion began. In fact, the first ant-AB speaker had my map in his hand and acknowledged the balance and strength of both sides of the argument.

5. I let the session run its course, and then explained what I did and how I did it, and then reviewed the Green and Red lines of the debate, explaining that a vote for or against means that the due diligence has to be done in addressing the points counter to your own position, and I demonstrated how this should be done. Though I was in favor of AB, I maintained objectivity and balance, rather than a position of advocacy one way or another.

Overall the session was very civil, informed, and not one point was made (myriad rhetorical flourishes aside) that was not already on the map. Many variations on similar themes, but nothing that hadn’t been captured.

And followed up with:

BTW, just 30 minutes ago I received an e-mail which said this:


I love the map of the issues around Australian Ballot that you sent out. Is there an easy way to make such a map? We are tackling some issues that have our faculty at Randolph Union High School pretty evenly split and I think two such maps would be a powerful way for my colleague and I who are leading this change to communicate. It looks as if it was created in PowerPoint. If you are too busy to elaborate that’s fine too.

Thanks for your leadership on the Australian Ballot issue. I appreciate it.

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We knew things were pretty dire, but a new poll has put some numbers onto our fears.

The “Citizen’s Agenda” survey from the University of Melbourne has found that voters are “pretty appalled” at the standard of political debate, with 57% of voters saying things are getting noticeably worse. Not surprisingly, the overall level of interest in politics is sliding as well.

These numbers underscore the numerous criticisms made in recent years by people who’ve been in the political trenches. Diverse luminaries such as Barry Jones, Lindsay Tanner, and Malcolms Fraser and Turnbull have complained that public political debate has never been so bad.

What’s happening here? Why, when Australians are more educated and connected than ever before, is political discourse being degraded?

A natural instinct is to search for somebody or something to blame – some dark force degrading public discourse for its own greedy purposes. The news media and politicians are popular suspects; others point to campaign managers, advertisers and spin merchants; or to television, the internet, or mobile devices.

Alternatively, we can view the problem through the lens of a simple and familiar metaphor: that people are, increasingly, just not playing by the rules.

Consider chess – a game with a limited set of clear and accepted rules. Rule-governed play typically delivers a clear outcome, with everyone agreeing who won or lost.

If we think of public debate as a kind of game, then the rules are the laws and conventions of logic and disputation, as articulated by logicians and rhetoricians over the centuries.

Public debate is of course not a game. It is a deadly serious business, often literally so. But that just makes it all the more important that people respect the rules.

So what’s going wrong?

One problem is that people often don’t really know what the rules are. For the most part, they have never been educated in logic and disputation, and would be pressed to give any account of the rules. It’s hard to play correctly when you’re foggy about what’s OK and what’s not.

Second, there will always be incentives to cheat. This can be straightforwardly foul play, like a rugby player throwing a punch under cover of a maul. Witness climate change deniers who trot out the argument that temperature hasn’t increased since 1998, no matter how many times its flaws have been decisively exposed.

Worse than breaking the rules is subverting them. This amounts to changing the game, or even destroying the game entirely. This sounds extreme, but Paul Krugman and others have been accusing US Republicans of precisely this gambit – of “refusing to live in an evidence-based world.”

Third, there’s no effective umpire. There’s no authority or expert whose role is to judge what’s legitimate and whose calls are accepted by all the players.

Finally, we all suffer from the problem that our mental machinery is poorly designed for the task. Public debates can get complicated, and the brains bequeathed to us by evolution don’t have enough “RAM” to comprehend the evolving state of play. And we are all subject a wide range of cognitive biases which reliably lead us to make errors of logic and to violate norms of constructive debate.

Surveying these factors, the prospects for any substantial improvement seem remote. Three – the incentive to cheat, the lack of an independent umpire, and cognitive limitations – are deep features of what is sometimes called “the human condition.” Education can in principle help people know what the rules are, but is a slow and unreliable way to effect social change.

Fortunately there is another option.

Think of public debate as taking place in various arenas. The floor of parliament is one; commentary in the mainstream media is another. The internet has allowed the emergence of new online arenas such as the blog- and Twitter-spheres.

The subtle but critical point is that these various arenas promote or discourage playing by the rules in different ways. Twitter, for example, makes complex chains of reasoning almost impossible, and promotes follow-chambers in which contrary views are all too easily ignored or ridiculed. Another example is comment forums on news websites, which encourage trolling by having the discussion open to all, and allowing anonymity (via pseudonymity).

However the programmability of the internet makes possible a great variety of arenas, and new ones aimed at improving public debate, and democracy more broadly, are proliferating around the world. Oursay, a partner in the Citizen’s Agenda project, is just one example, increasingly prominent in Australia.

Some of these forums are being designed to gently guide participants towards higher quality participation in political debate. One way to do this is to scaffold “nudge” participants to stick to the rules more often, perhaps by giving greater prominence to those who do.

An example is the German “Faktencheck” (Fact Check) project, which works in collaboration with mainstream media entities such as Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung to host public debates on current political issues.

Our project, YourView, is another example.

Forums such as these will continue to evolve and play an increasingly large role in public political debate. Lindsay Tanner has spoken of a “revolt of the engaged”. This revolt can go beyond just online fundraising and petitioning; if the forums are designed correctly, it can start to halt or reverse the slide in the quality of public political debate.

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This is an excerpt from a chapter to appear in a volume edited by Margaret Simons on “new media entrepreneurs”. 

What is the bare minimum a citizen needs to know in order to have a reasonable, informed opinion on a major public issue? This is not a trick question. Boiled down to the basics, a citizen needs to know what the issue is, the basic facts, and the key arguments for and against.

Consider negative gearing of real estate investments. Perhaps you think it is wise economic policy, or perhaps you think it an expensive rort. Either way, you really ought to know what negative gearing is (not everybody does.)  You should know critical facts such as how much it costs the government each year, who gets the benefits, and what other effects it might have, such as making rental housing more available and affordable. You’d need to be aware of the best arguments for keeping it on one hand, and the best arguments for abolishing it on the other.

Of course, having the bare minimum knowledge does not automatically lead to a reasonable opinion, and ideally a citizen would know much more than the bare minimum about the merits of negative gearing as one component of an efficient, equitable and sustainable taxation system.  My point is just that unless you have at least the bare minimum then your opinion is seriously ill-founded.

The trouble is, citizens often don’t have this kind of minimum knowledge. Choose an Australian adult and a major public issue at random and chances are that if they understand the issue at all they will be ignorant of key facts,  or misinformed and unaware of major arguments.

For example, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of negative gearing; indeed I’d even negatively geared the occasional investment. But when I sat down to draft a succinct summary of the pros and cons of negative gearing as a tax policy, I immediately discovered how incomplete and uncertain my knowledge was. It took the better part of a day of reading online, filtering, digesting, sorting and drafting to come up with a short written summary of what I needed to know. Only then did I really appreciate how half-baked my previous views had been.

Now, I will not rehearse here the reasons why this kind of ignorance is a problem for democracy. Nor will I heap blame on the usual suspects. Nor will I hand wave about how the schools, or the government, or the media, or someone should be doing something about it. Finally, I will not indulge any utopian fantasy of a fully informed citizenry.

Rather, I’ll make a simple suggestion.

It is not too hard for someone with suitable expertise to assemble the bare minimum information on a given issue in a short article with a fairly standard structure. You could call this a “backgrounder,” or an “explainer”. I like the phrase “issue clarifier”.

The suggestion is that for all major public issues, these clarifiers be produced and made easily accessible. Then, any interested citizen could rapidly obtain the most essential information on any issue whenever they wanted it. This alone wouldn’t solve the ignorance problem, but it would surely help.

An issue clarifier is a journalistic product. Writing issue clarifiers is a kind of journalism. Doing it well requires broad awareness of the political landscape, the ability to research, analyse and synthesize, and to write succinctly and clearly for a wide audience.  In our democratic system, we usually regard journalism as having a special responsibility for keeping the citizenry informed. Since issue clarifiers would obviously be useful in this regard, they should already be a mundane feature of the media landscape.

In short, my suggestion should be redundant. But it is not. Nowhere in the major media can you easily find such clarifiers. Very occasionally, something along these lines appears, but it is quickly lost under the torrents of news, the deluges of opinion, and the tsunamis of mass distraction such as sport, cooking, fashion, celebrity gossip, and so forth.

Why? Partly because issue clarifiers can be a bit  dull. They aren’t breaking news; they don’t exploit our appetite for the latest, freshest and most titillating.  Unlike opinion pieces, they don’t incite our tribal instincts. Being even-handed, they don’t comfort by stroking our prejudices, or enrage by challenging our convictions. The media survive by attracting attention, and issue clarifiers will generally struggle to compete.

It might also be argued that issue clarifiers are superfluous. The media already provide far more information and debate about major public issues than could ever be conveyed in a short issue clarifiers. Why add to this abundance?

It was once said that there are two ways to keep decision makers in the dark. One way is providing too little information; the other is providing too much. Similarly, the vast quantity of fast-changing news and vigorous debate in the media may actually be counterproductive, with respect to the goal of helping the public be basically well-informed on most major issues. Rather than educating, the net effect may be to bewilder and alienate; or to leave people under the illusion that they have much better knowledge than they do.

This can be seen as a market failure. There’s an obvious public good, the provision of issue clarifiers, not being addressed by “business as usual” in the Australian media. So, following the adage that a problem is merely a situation which has not yet been turned to your advantage, there is also here an opportunity. Can a new media player t this empty niche?

This is one way of looking at the YourView project…

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Prediction markets can be a remarkably effective way to divine the wisdom of crowds.

Prediction markets of course only work for predictions – or more generally for what I call “verifiable” questions.   A verifiable question is one for which it is possible, at some point, to determine the answer definitively.  For example, predicting the winner of the Oscar for best picture.   This is what allows the prediction market to determine how much each player wins or loses.

The problem is that many issues we want addressed are not verifiable in this sense.

For example, decisions.  Would it be better to continue to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, or should a military strike be launched?   We can speculate and debate about this, but we’ll never know the answer for sure, because one path will be taken, and the other never taken, and so we’ll never know what would have happened had we taken the other path.

Wouldn’t it be good if we had something like a prediction market, but which works for non-verifiable issues?

Amazon.com book ratings are an interesting case.   Whether a book is or is not a good one is certainly a non-verifiable issue.   Yet Amazon has created a mechanism for combining the views of many people into a single collective verdict, e.g. 4.5 stars.   At one level the system is just counting votes; Amazon users vote by choosing a numerical star level, and Amazon averages these.   But note that Amazon’s product pages also allow users to make comments, and reply to comments; and these comment streams can involve quite a lot of debate.   It is plausible that, at least sometimes, a user’s vote is influenced by these comments.   So the overall rating is at least somewhat influenced by collective deliberation over the merits of the book.

Amazon’s mechanism is an instance of a more general class, for which I’ve coined the term “deliberative aggregator“.   A deliberative aggregator has three key features:

  1. It is some kind of virtual forum, thereby allowing large-scale, remote and asynchronous participation.
  2. It supports deliberation, and its outputs in some way depend on or at least are influenced by that deliberation.  (That’s what makes it “deliberative.”)
  3. It aggregates data of some kind (e.g. ratings) to produce a collective viewpoint or judgement.

YourView is another example of a deliberative aggregator.   Yourview’s aggregation mechanism (currently) is to compute the “weighted vote,” i.e. the votes of users weighted by their credibility, where a user’s credibility is a score, built up over time, indicating the extent to which, in their participation on YourView, they have exhibited “epistemic virtues,” i.e. the general traits of good thinkers.

Many other kinds of deliberative aggregators would be possible.   An interesting theoretical question is: what is the best design for a deliberative aggregator?  And more generally: what is the best way to discern collective wisdom for non-verifiable questions?

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