Wikidebate/Guidelines

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This page contains some general guidelines about wikidebates.

Dialectic: "a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned methods of argumentation."

Eristic: "argument that aims to successfully dispute another's argument, rather than searching for truth."

The objective of a debate should be to establish truth when the issue at hand is a matter of fact, or facilitate compromise where there are conflicting interests, and not merely to practice rhetoric or promote a given issue. Therefore, dialectic is more productive than eristic.

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 it, 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 all[edit | edit source]

Unlike other debate systems, wikidebates are not aggregates of posts by different users, but a collaborative effort to compile and organize all arguments surrounding an issue.

  • Don't sign your arguments ― Signing arguments prevents others from improving them. The original author can always be traced back from the history of the debate.
  • Avoid pronouns ― Avoid words like 'you', 'me', 'we', etc. No arguments are 'yours' or 'his'. There are no sides here, we're all working together, collaborating.
  • Don't quote classic arguments verbatim ― Instead, rewrite them in your own words (improving brevity, clarity and order, for example) and give credit to the original source or author using a reference or in the edit summary. 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 an argument, then respect for the original shouldn't be an obstacle. We're not trying to reach historical accuracy here.

Brevity, clarity and order[edit | edit source]

Wikidebates can easily become long and chaotic, making them less likely to be useful and improved upon. Therefore, we should strive to keep them as brief, clear and organized as possible.

  • Use footnotes ― If an argument relies on many premises, and each premise needs proof, don't include the proof inline. Instead, use footnotes to link to the works that prove your premise.
  • Merge equivalent arguments ― If two arguments are essentially the same, merge them together into one, keeping the best of each.
  • Split distinct arguments ― If one argument is essentially two, split them apart. Keeping them separate will enrich the debate, allow others to object to each argument independently and prevent unnecessary confusion.
  • Keep it flat ― 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). 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. For instance, if someone objects to an argument exploiting an ambiguity, don't object saying that what the argument "really" meant was something different from what it says. Instead, rewrite or clarify the argument and remove the objection as no longer relevant. If, say, in the abortion debate, someone says "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.
  • Define the key terms ― Sometimes people completely agree regarding the facts of the matter, but use different words to describe it, so they disagree nominally and delve into fruitless debate. For example, people may agree as to what computers can 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 whether computers are intelligent or not, but only because they don't agree in the use of the word "intelligence". So the debate is no longer about computers, but about words. If you recognize such a disagreement about words, try to define them in the description of the debate and then update or delete any misguided arguments.

How to argue effectively[edit | edit source]

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

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

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

  • Are not all true
  • Don't imply the conclusion
  • Assume what must be proved

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.

How to draw 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 on all sides, and deciding becomes a matter of weighting the sound arguments on each side.

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
}

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]