Wikidebate/Guidelines

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This page contains some general guidelines about wikidebates.

Neutral point of view[edit]

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]

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Do not quote classic arguments verbatim.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]

Refer to the evidence in footnotes, to keep arguments brief, clear and concise.

Referring to the evidence is the best way to avoid objections requesting evidence.

Brevity, clarity and order[edit]

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 and objections, so they can naturally evolve over time.

If someone posts an objection pointing out a superficial flaw in an argument, it's ok 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 main question of the debate is Should abortion be legal? and someone argues against it saying "Abortion sometimes occurs naturally, and we shouldn't punish people for natural occurrences", then don't object saying "We meant induced abortion". Instead, rename the debate to "Should induced abortion be legal?", or clarify it in the description, and then remove the argument as being no longer relevant. This improves the overall quality of the debate for other readers while shortening its length and complexity.

If an argument or objection 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]

When a branch grows, it's often possible to shorten it by reformulating an argument so that a superficial objection doesn't apply anymore (example). Do not be afraid to delete content if you're trying to improve a debate. All changes are recorded and can be easily reverted. No content is ever really lost and all changes are usually checked by at least one other user.

Do not mix arguments[edit]

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.

Similarly, do not anticipate and answer objections within the argument. Sometimes it's tempting to answer an obvious objection before it's even posted. Instead of doing so, post the argument, then post the objection yourself, and then post the reply to the objection (example). This enriches the debate structure and keeps the arguments shorter and clearer.

How to argue effectively[edit]

The best way to argue (for or against) is to produce 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]

If the best way to argue is to produce sound arguments, then the best way to object will be to produce sound arguments that show 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]

The dialectic algorithm computes the current status of the arguments, but says nothing about the main issue. The final conclusion is left to the reader.

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.

Bear in mind that applying the methods described below only makes sense if you agree with the current status of all the arguments in the debate (but not necessarily of all objections). If you don't agree with the status of some of the arguments, you should improve the debate until you agree with the current status of the arguments, and only then attempt to draw a conclusion.

Debates about facts[edit]

Binary debates[edit]

For binary debates, the conclusion is:

  • YES: At least one SUSTAINED argument for, and no SUSTAINED arguments against.
  • NO: At least one SUSTAINED argument against, and no SUSTAINED arguments for.
  • MAYBE: Neither YES nor NO.

Some important logical consequences are:

  • The number of arguments doesn't matter, there can 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 YES. Wikidebates are not a popularity contest.
  • It isn't necessary for all the arguments on a side to be sustained for that side to be the winner, just one is required (and none on the other side). In fact, if an issue is truly controversial, it should even be expected that both sides will have some refuted arguments.

Non-binary debates[edit]

For non-binary debates, one ought to believe a given option only if there's at least one sustained argument for it, and no sustained arguments in favor of any of the other options.

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 truth. However, if one side of the debate has few arguments, all refuted with several objections, and the other side has many arguments, with few objections which are refuted in various ways, then there's good reason to believe which side is right. 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 laid down, 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.

Debates about conventions[edit]

In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how. When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us. To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly. And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to make a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra. Wishing sincerely that you may determine for the best, I am ever, my dear Friend, Yours most affectionately,

—Letter by Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Priestley, September 19, 1772

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 both sides, and deciding may become 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 or relevance relative to the issue that the convention is trying to deal with. 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.

If we consider all arguments to have the same weight, then the side with the most sustained arguments will win. However, if some arguments weight more than others, the balance may lean to one side.

Binary debates[edit]

The answer to a question about conventions should be YES when the sustained arguments in favor outweigh the sustained arguments against (refuted arguments don't count). So if an issue has one sustained argument for, and three sustained arguments against, but the argument for outweighs the combined weight of the arguments against, then the answer to the question should be YES. In other words:

  • YES: The sustained arguments for outweigh the sustained arguments against.
  • NO: The sustained arguments against outweigh the sustained arguments for.
  • MAYBE: Neither "yes" nor "no".

Non-binary debates[edit]

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 non-binary debates, select the option with the best balance.

Reusing arguments[edit]

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]

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

<div class="debatetree">
<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" />
</div>

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]

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:

<div class="debatetree">
* 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.
</div>

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

<div class="debatetree">
* Argument about something else.
** First objection.
*** {{#lst:Title of the debate|name-of-the-objection}}
</div>

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

<div class="debatetree">
* Argument about something else.
** First objection.
*** {{#lst:Title of the debate|name-of-the-objection}}
**** Extra objection.
</div>

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.

Elements of a debate[edit]

Title[edit]

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

Description[edit]

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]

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

<div class="debatetree">
* Argument for or against something.
** Objection to the argument.
*** Objection to the objection.
** Second objection to the argument.
* Second argument.
** Objection to the second argument.
</div>

Essentially, debate trees are nested unordered lists wrapped in divs marked with the class "debatetree".

See also[edit]

External links[edit]