Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Will decide, but he won't debate

Listening to Iconoclast and reading Sunny Hundal's views on whether the BBC should allow BNP MEP Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time (preview: Sunny's agin' it) it occurs to me that most TV/radio debates are fundamentally flawed. On Iconoclast there were four guests and one chairman. IIRC Question Time has five guests + one Dimbleby brother + a studio audience.

Partly as a result of this Sunny Hundal describes Question Time as:

...basically a populist shouting match where facts and figures don't have time to get checked. Someone such as Dan Hannan MEP can claim 84% of our laws are made in Europe and no one calls him out on his rubbish. Nick Griffin could similarly claim he's not racist and repeat lies that go unchallenged live on air. BNP pamphlets have repeatedly featured lies in the past. Who will have the research on hand to challenge that? His fellow QT panellists won't.


My preference would be to limit the number of debaters to two, and have only a few distinct issues discussed for a reasonable period of time, say 20 minutes each for three issues in an hour-long show.

Assertions made by debaters would have to be based on robust, ideally peer-reviewed, evidence that is cited by the debaters before they go on the show. These citations would be made available to all some time before the programme is broadcast so that they can be analysed by a panel of experts appointed by the programme and those that are found wanting can be made inadmissable.

In other words more like a court or parliament.

This view may seem elitist, but it isn't really elitist to claim that the views of ordinary people aren't as valid as the evidence-based views of experts. We demand a high standard of evidence in medicine, so why not demand a high standard of evidence in political debate?

Deliberative democracy is not best served by treating the truth as something relative or subject to an individual opinion.

It annoys me when people conflate respect for democracy with the idea that everyone's opinions are valid and useful. Most people don't know enough about enough to be able to make meaningful contributions.

For my own part I know my ignorance of most matters is such that I should avoid commenting, but that does not mean I cannot take down the ideas of others I know to be false.

Call it the Statler and Waldorf school of political debate: ideas are cheap, but the truth is expensive.

As such it is the democratic duty of we bloggers to attack bad ideas and incorrect assertions. Negativity is a powerful creative force. Our society will only begin to evolve when bad ideas are allowed to be called bad ideas and dismissed as such.

Update:

As per badconscience's point in the comments "Question Time" is teh suck and I need to crank up the Mills and dial down the Plato.

Both philosophers are hovering somewhere in the middle of my prodigious to-read pile (Mills is definitely a serious contender for my next big Amazon raid [i.e. this has moved from "wish list" to "shopping basket"]).

For my part elitism does piss me off, but not nearly to the same extent as ignorance and crass populism.

Update update: actually reading badconscience's blog post over on Liberal Conspiracy he makes the same point but somewhat better.

3 comments:

badconscience said...

Oi, let's be clear about who got their first with the "Question Time isn't a debate show, it's a load of idiots sounding off" line, eh!?!

:P

badconscience said...

"This view may seem elitist, but it isn't really elitist to claim that the views of ordinary people aren't as valid as the evidence-based views of experts. We demand a high standard of evidence in medicine, so why not demand a high standard of evidence in political debate?"

Thought: this reasoning sounds very plausible when you lay it out like this...

...the trouble, however, is where such thoughts end up leading. Namely, systems that privilege the views of "elites" (pray tell, how to define them?) end up trampling all over the rights of non-elites.

Too much Plato, not enough Mill...

TJ said...

You are absolutely right, there are plenty of potential failure modes in this notion of evidence-based public debate.

To defend the point though, I would say:

1) It would be desirable if there was a cultural trend towards greater respect for the pursuit of truth via evidence and rigorous analysis. I not only think that such a move is desirable it is also reasonably practicable (Dawkins, for example, is fairly pro-evidence).

2) It doesn't matter who the "elite" is. I used the term to highlight a word that could be used to decry attempts to build a polity around the notion that *evidence matters more than ill-informed opinion*.

So there isn't really an elite: we are all subject to reality and what matters is the evidence. Populist soundbites are OK, but there is a time and a place.