Wikidebate/Guidelines

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This page contains some general guidelines about wikidebates.

Neutral point of view[edit | edit source]

Wikidebates are organized compilations of arguments surrounding an issue. Therefore, you should try to add and improve arguments on both sides. Being neutral or unbiased implies considering both sides and being open to change your mind if the arguments or evidence require it. You should be willing, almost eager, to change your mind, in order to judge opposite arguments more objectively. Who knows, you may even learn something.

Clarifying arguments on the opposite side also makes the weak points easier to spot.

Do not be afraid to debate with yourself! If you can think of an argument, an objection to the argument, and an objection to the objection, go ahead and add them all. Other readers may have the same concerns and will appreciate it.

Arguments belong to no one[edit | edit source]

Do not sign the arguments. The original author of an argument can always be traced back by looking at the history of the debate. If the argument was first brought forth by someone else and you'd like to credit the original author, do so in the edit summary or with a reference.

Do not quote classic arguments verbatim. Instead, rewrite them in your own words (improving brevity and clarity, for example) and give credit to the source or author with a reference or in the edit summary. This is because when an argument is quoted directly, any improvements become distortions. But the point of a wiki is to be able to improve on the work of others. If there is a better way to write the same argument, respect for the original shouldn't be an obstacle. We're not trying to reach historical accuracy here.

Avoid all references to 'you', 'me', 'we', etc. There are no sides here, we're all working together, collaborating.

Refer to the evidence[edit | edit source]

Referring to the evidence is the best way to avoid objections requesting evidence. Refer to the evidence using footnotes to keep arguments brief, clear and concise.

Brevity, clarity and order[edit | edit source]

Debates can easily become long and chaotic, so we should strive to keep them as concise and clear as possible.

Wikidebates are not aggregates of posts by different users. Successive users may collaborate in improving the same arguments.

If someone posts an objection pointing out a superficial flaw in an argument, try to fix the flaw and remove the objection, rather than answering the objection or posting another argument without the flaw. If someone argues against an issue exploiting an ambiguity, don't object saying that what the question "really" meant was something different from what it says. Instead, rewrite or clarify the question and remove the argument if it's no longer relevant. For example, if the debate is about abortion and someone argues saying "Abortion sometimes occurs naturally, and we shouldn't punish people for natural occurrences", then don't object saying "We meant induced abortion". Instead, clarify it in the debate description and remove the argument as being no longer relevant. This improves the overall quality of the debate while shortening its length and complexity.

If an argument relies on many premises, and each premise needs proof, don't include the proof inline. Instead, use the <ref> tag to link to the works that prove your premise. If the premise is still considered controversial by someone, that someone will object to it, or may even create a debate about it and link your argument to it.

Keep it flat[edit | edit source]

When a branch grows, it's often possible to reformulate an argument so that a superficial objection doesn't apply anymore (example 1, example 2).

Do not mix arguments[edit | edit source]

If two or more arguments are independent from one another, don't post them as one! Keeping them separate will allow others to refute one argument without affecting the rest.

How to argue effectively[edit | edit source]

The best way to argue is with sound arguments. An argument is sound when the premises:

  • Are true
  • Imply the conclusion
  • Don't assume what must be proved

How to object effectively[edit | edit source]

If the best way to argue is to produce sound arguments, then the best way to object is with sound arguments showing that the target argument isn't sound. In other words, that the argument:

  • Has one or more false premises
  • Doesn't imply the conclusion
  • Assumes what must be proved

Reaching conclusions[edit | edit source]

The methods described below only apply if you agree with the current status of all the arguments in the debate (but not necessarily of all the objections). If you don't agree with the status of some of the arguments, add your objections, reconsider your beliefs or don't use the methods described below.

There are two kinds of debates: debates about facts and debates about conventions. For example, Does God exist? is a debate about a fact, while Should abortion be legal? is a debate about a convention. The proper way of drawing conclusions is different for each kind of debate.

Debates about facts[edit | edit source]

In debates about facts, infer the option with at least one sustained argument for and none against, if every other option has no sustained arguments for.

Needless to say, the current results of the debates aren't necessarily right or wrong. It's impossible to know, for certain anyway, if the current result of a debate is the absolute truth. However, if one option has few arguments, all refuted with several objections, and another option has many arguments with few objections refuted in various ways, then there's good reason to believe the second option. If the state of the debate is clear enough, one may, and should, infer the conclusion, but there will always be a leap of faith somewhere, even if tiny. Absolute certainty can never be achieved. However, when all arguments and all objections have been considered, the result will be our best guess as to the truth of the issue at hand. This is the most humans can aim for, and we should aim for it.

Some important logical consequences are:

  • The number of arguments doesn't matter. There may be just one argument in favor and a hundred against, but if the argument in favor is sustained and the hundred are refuted, the answer will be that. Wikidebates are not a popularity contest.
  • It isn't necessary for all the arguments for an option to be sustained for that option to prevail, just one is required (and none on the other options). In fact, if an issue is truly controversial, it should even be expected that all options will have some refuted arguments.

In pseudocode:

function getBalance( option ) {
    balance = 0
    arguments = getArguments( option )
    for argument in arguments {
        balance = balance + weight( argument )
    }
    return balance
}

function getWinner( debate ) {
    if ( getBalance( option1 ) > 0 and getBalance( option2 ) < 1 ) {
        return option1
    }
    if ( getBalance( option1 ) < 1 and getBalance( option2 ) > 0 ) {
        return option2
    }
    // And similarly combining any extra option
    // Else return nothing
}

Debates about conventions[edit | edit source]

When debating conventions, use your best judgment to weight the sustained arguments on each side, but ignore the refuted ones.

Debating about conventions (among which we count laws) is different from debating about facts. When debating about facts, all arguments on the false side must ultimately be wrong, otherwise reality would be contradictory. By contrast, when debating about conventions, there may be sound arguments for all options, and deciding becomes a matter of weighting the sound arguments for each option.

But what is the "weight of an argument", and how do we measure it? The weight of an argument is its importance and relevance to the debate. And how do we measure weight? There's no agreed method (so far). Each reader must use his or her best judgment to weight the arguments.

The balance of an option is the combined weight of the sustained arguments for it, minus the combined weight of the sustained arguments against it.

In debates about conventions, infer the option with the best balance.

This can be put in pseudocode thus:

function balance( option ) {
    balance = 0
    arguments = getArguments( option )
    for argument in arguments {
        balance = balance + weight( argument )
    }
    return balance
}

function winner( debate ) {
    if ( balance( option1 ) > balance( option2 ) ) {
        return option1
    }
    if ( balance( option1 ) < balance( option2 ) ) {
        return option2
    }
    // Else no winner
}

Elements of a debate[edit | edit source]

Title[edit | edit source]

Try to phrase the main question in its simplest, most popular form. Leave the explanations and clarifications for the description.

Description[edit | edit source]

An extremely important aspect of every debate is the definition or explanation of what is being debated. It too often happens that different people completely agree regarding the facts of the matter, but they use different words to describe them, so they disagree nominally and delve into fruitless debate. For example, different people may agree as to what computers can do and can't do, but some may consider that being able to do certain things amounts to "intelligence", while the others do not. Thus, they will disagree as to wether computers are intelligent or not, but only because they don't agree in the use of the word "intelligent", not about what computers can do. So the debate is no longer about computers, it's about words.

If you realize there is a disagreement about the use of words, clarify the meaning of the words in the description and then edit or delete the misguided arguments.

Of course there is a limit as to how deep we can go in the definitions and explanations. All definitions and explanations must end up somewhere. Luckily there are some words which every English speaker understands and agrees upon. Our definitions and explanations should try to end up there, and not in words that are obscure or vague to some, such as "intelligence".

The debates most fit for discussion are usually those on which everyone agrees about the meaning of the words. For example, the meaning of the words in Should we colonize Mars? is much less controversial than the meaning of the words in Does God exist?

Arguments[edit | edit source]

Add arguments for and against the issue using the following syntax:

*{{Argument}} Argument for or against something.
**{{Objection}} Objection to the argument.
***{{Objection}} Objection to the objection.
**{{Objection}} Second objection to the argument.
*{{Argument}} Second argument.
**{{Objection}} Objection to the second argument.

Essentially, debate trees are nested unordered lists where each item is preceded by an appropriate template.

Reusing arguments[edit | edit source]

It often happens that an argument written for one debate is also relevant in another. Similarly, an objection to one argument may also be relevant in another, either in the same debate or some other debate.

For such cases, it's possible to transclude the arguments as well as the objections to these arguments. This method has several advantages

  • Reduced maintenance: changes done to the original arguments are immediately spread to all the debates using these arguments.
  • More collaboration: editors from all debates are pushed to contribute to the original arguments, rather than working on the various copies in parallel.
  • Enhances the quality and coherence of the debates, as all relevant arguments are shown everywhere, rather than some arguments at some debates and some others at other debates.
  • Better attribution to the original authors of the content, by minimizing copy-paste without attribution.

Transcluding arguments[edit | edit source]

To transclude an argument, we use the Labeled Section Transclusion functionality, first we mark the argument we want to transclude with <section> tags.

<section begin="name-of-the-argument" />
* Argument about something.
** Objection to the argument.
*** Objection to the objection.
** Second objection to the argument.
<section end="name-of-the-argument" />

Then we transclude the argument into another debate using the {{#lst}} parser function, like so:

{{#lst:Title of the debate|name-of-the-argument}}

It's also possible to add objections that aren't relevant to the original debate. Like so:

{{#lst:Title of the debate|name-of-the-argument}}
** Third objection to the argument.

If some objections are only relevant in the original debate, you can put them last and insert the closing <section> tag right before them. This kind of technique allows you to control which objections are transcluded and which are not.

Transcluding objections[edit | edit source]

If we want to transclude an objection, the procedure is similar, but we must take care to insert the opening <section> tag after the asterisks, so that we can later control its nesting level. For example:

* Argument about something.
** <section begin="name-of-the-objection" />Objection to the argument.
*** Objection to the objection.<section end="name-of-the-objection" />
** Second objection to the argument.

Then we can transclude the objection (together with its objections) on any other debate, like so:

* Argument about something else.
** First objection.
*** {{#lst:Title of the debate|name-of-the-objection}}

It's even possible to add objections that aren't relevant to the original debate. Like so:

* Argument about something else.
** First objection.
*** {{#lst:Title of the debate|name-of-the-objection}}
**** Extra objection.

If some objections are only relevant in the original debate, then it's possible to put them last and insert the closing <section> tag right before them. This kind of technique gives a lot of control on which objections are transcluded and which are not.

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]