Being Open to Debate (and Judging Intellectuals)

Ways to be open to debate, ways I'm open, and ways I might not be.

Table of Contents

Two people, A and B, claim to have good ideas. Their ideas contradict each other. How can you tell who is right?

You could learn both of their ideas, learn the field, and judge for yourself.

But that’s a lot of work. What can you do that’s faster/easier? Something that gets a less ideal result but is still useful.

Look at who is open to debate and who isn’t.

Will A debate with B, but B refuses to debate? That’s a significant indicator.

Commonly, everyone says they’re open to debate, but they don’t all act like it. They don’t just admit they’re closed to debate. Then what? How can you consider openness to debate in more detail? Here’s some stuff to consider:

  • Does either of them have a written explanation of how they think rational debate works? Or do they cite or link to an explanation that they endorse and will follow? A good explanation of debate should include policies for how to end debates non-arbitrarily without mutual agreement. It should also cover when/why debates are conclusive or inconclusive, what to do to try to make debates conclusive, and how to know when an inconclusive result is OK or someone (who?) did something wrong.
  • Does either of them have written policy saying under what circumstances they will debate? Saying what topics they will debate? Saying who they will debate and how they decide?
  • Do they explain what they do to avoid social status influencing these decisions? How are their policies carefully designed to not use proxies for social status or things that correlate with social status and to avoid unconscious biases about social status?
  • Do they make any public guarantees which commit themselves to certain rationality behaviors? That could include guarantees to engage in some debate and follow some methodology for both who/what to debate with and also what actions to take during a debate.
  • Do they have transparency for how they making debating decisions?
  • Do they have any specific, transparent, written policies for avoiding bias when deciding who/what to debate with or taking actions within a debate?
  • Does B give a reason he won’t debate A? Does he allege A is doing something wrong that would make debate unproductive? If he would write down such an allegation, that would be the start of a debate. (Debates don’t have to be in real time – people can debate just by writing things on different days.) Debates should start with big picture issues like how the debate should be organized, what the goals are, and what the requirements for success (meeting the goals) are and whether those requirements are met; talking about that stuff is good.
  • Will either of them debate in writing with at least a few days allowed per reply? Slow, written debate is more about the issues instead of about thinking fast on your feet, voice tones, or charisma in front of a live audience. It gives people time to carefully think through what they want to say, fact check each other’s citations, etc.
  • Video responses can be good too. An upside is you can show images and animations to help explain things. Also some people like unscripted speaking, but videos without scripts are less precise than writing. A downside is videos are inconvenient to quote from or analyze in full detail unless a transcript is provided. They’re also harder for the audience to skim (a transcript doesn’t fix this unless none of the visuals in the video are actually important). And some accents can be hard to understand. And making videos with animation and editing can take way longer than writing (if you just want diagrams, you can easily include those in your writing – and actually you could embed a video with an animation in a written piece, too). I generally wouldn’t ask for or expect video responses – writing is the gold standard for serious discussion – but video can be useful for some things, or at least acceptable, if people want to make it.
  • Will they debate in spaces that allow freedom of speech and aren’t controlled by gatekeepers, moderators/censors, etc? For example, academic journals limit the length, speed and number of replies, and won’t let most people speak at all – and the result is that disagreements are rarely resolved through debate in journals.
  • Debating many people and/or having long debates can be very time consuming. They need to have some policies and ideas about how to deal with this problem. Some intellectuals just say “It’d take too long so I can’t do it” and then arbitrarily avoid whatever debates they don’t want to do. That is a bad approach. Part of an intellectual’s job is coming up with good solutions to problems like debate being time consuming. If they can’t come up with anything (or find and use anything that someone else came up with) that is an intellectual failure. If they were actively working on the problem but didn’t have a good answer, that would be understandable and forgivable, but many intellectuals just deny it’s a problem and seem happy to have a good excuse to dodge most debate.

In short, intellectuals should either accept debate requests or explain why not – what they are doing instead (such as debating other people or doing some activities other than debate) and why that’s better. Intellectuals should be expected to explain their relevant decisions and be held accountable for those decisions. Ideally, they should have general purpose policies, in writing, which they publicly commit to in advance.

If intellectuals won’t debate, you should suspect that they’re making errors which could be exposed by debate. You should suspect they’re wrong and not debating is contributing to them staying wrong even though staying wrong is avoidable (since better ideas are known).

I’m Open to Debate

I think I’m a good intellectual who is willing to debate. I have a written debate policy and a public forum. In my experience, other living intellectuals are broadly unwilling to debate and should be judged accordingly. For deceased intellectuals, it’s worth looking at their living advocates/fans/followers – are any of them open to debate? This issue of being open to debate is one main reasons for why I think I’m right and my opponents are wrong – and why you should reach that conclusion too.

I establish my openness to debate in the following ways (I don’t know of any living intellectual who claim anything similar):

  • I have public contact information.
  • I have a public forum where people can post criticism, questions, etc.
  • I have a public, written debate policy committing me to accept debates.
  • I have a public, written policy to govern how debates end. It doesn’t use arbitrary limits based on e.g. time or number of replies. I will consider and discuss alternative policies if someone has one that they think is better.
  • Debate requests can be posted and discussed on my forum where everyone can read them. I don’t choose which debate requests the public gets to see. If debate requests were sent to me by email, I could publicly show only the ones I accept or have a good reason to reject.
  • I have a long history (~20 years) of participating in online discussion and debate, including with low status people. I have online archives of most of it available for people to look through (and critique, and reopen issues).
  • I have a public history of going to other people/forums seeking debate, not just sticking to my own forum.
  • I have articles and videos explaining my ideas so people have targets to criticize. They can find issues to debate without needing to ask me.
  • I don’t declare things off limits. E.g., if there’s an important argument in a book that I haven’t read, you can bring it up and ask me to read it (which generally makes more sense than you rewriting the argument in your own less-edited or less-expert words and then me reading that). You can endorse it as-is or specify some modifications to it. I have a long, public history of looking at and replying to books/articles/papers/videos/etc. chosen by my opponents.
  • I am happy to treat debate in a cooperative manner, e.g. people can ask how to accomplish something in the debate, ask about the right rules/policies to follow in the debate, or ask how to bring up an issue that they have trouble formulating as a clear argument.
  • I will discuss meta issues including whether issues/arguments are important and worth our time to debate. Another meta issue I’m willing to discuss is the principle of charity, whether interpretations are reasonable or in good faith, rudeness, etc. I’m also willing to discuss signs of bias, social climbing behaviors, or other meta-errors.
  • A fair debate format I like is two-part replies. One part is controlled by each person. When you reply, you say one thing of your choice for your half of the debate and you respond to the other person for their half. This splits the debate into two conversations in parallel so both people can bring up whatever they want and get responses. This addresses disagreements about what topics to focus on or what order to do things in.
  • Another debate format I like is explicitly specifying your important, polished comments, which then go in a tree diagram of the debate. Attention should be focused on those key claims. Everything else is treated as informal comments which don’t need to be answered.
  • I like when people specify goals and goalposts, and I’m willing to do that too.
  • I want to debate with a single person. He may have helpers but there has to be a leader who is responsible for his position in the debate. I don’t want to debate with a group of people who contradict each other or who give incomplete reasoning (on the non-specific basis that other people can probably cover the gaps). But I am willing to do separate, individual debates with multiple people with similar ideas.
  • I want debates to be fair and productive. All activity within a debate should be reasonable from the perspective of both participants. We always should find ways of proceeding that make sense given both of our belief sets. In other words, I think X, and you think Y, and we need to do something that will work well if X is true or if Y is true, so we get a good result either way. When this is difficult, splitting the debate into two parts, as above, can be a solution (because if I’m right, then my half of the debate will be productive, and if you’re right, then your half of the debate will be productive, so either way we’ll make progress).

Ways I Might Not Be Open to Debate

For the sake of being upfront and transparent (and because it’s interesting), let’s talk about some reasons people might not regard me as open to debate.

Note that I’m open to discussion/questions/criticism/debate about whether there’s anything wrong with my debate policies. Discussion of the policies themselves partially follows my usual policies, but I’m also extra willing to try to discuss my policies using other methodology including common sense, popular or traditional methods. It’s important to be extra open to discussion, even if it doesn’t follow your preferred methodology, for discussing your methodology itself. Otherwise, if you had bad methodology and insisted on using it at all times, you could get stuck with no (reasonable) way to be corrected.

Ways I might not seem open to debate:

  • I may ask why you want to debate the issue, whether and why you think you have something important to say, what you’ve done to get knowledge about it, how you’ve checked/tested your knowledge for errors, what relevant practice you’ve done, etc.
  • If you want a practice debate for learning purposes, rather than to say an important criticism of one of my beliefs, then I might accept but I might decline.
  • I may bring up and wish to discuss signs that you’re being biased or dishonest (which I consider a relevant issue that affects our ability to achieve goals in the debate).
  • I may ask if you believe you’re saying something original. If not, what sources did you learn it from? If you’re just repeating their ideas, I’d rather debate writings from experts, not your sloppier rewrites, unless you claim to have improved on them in some way. So I might ask you to research your own side and primarily use quotes, cites, key passages, etc., rather than focusing the debate on your own arguments.
  • I may want to stop debating if I think the debate has turned into me teaching you stuff. I often try to help people understand stuff but I think teaching and debate should be clearly differentiated. I don’t like to shift between them in unclear ways in one discussion. In other words, it’s hard enough to teach people normally, and much harder when they are trying to debate instead of trying to learn/study.
  • I may refer you to answers to your points that I already gave in a past discussion or wrote in an article. Or I may refer you to books/articles/etc by other people, which answer you, which I endorse and take responsibility for.
  • I may ask you to make and update a tree diagram or use some other organization technique – or propose an alternative to solve the same problems.
  • I may ask you to stop flooding the debate with too many open issues and to choose one at a time to focus on.
  • I may say that I believe you’re making multiple errors per paragraph and it’s too much to even list them all let alone explain them in detail. Then I’d want to discuss options for proceeding given that problem.
  • I may ask you to proceed in a way that is reasonable and productive conditional on me being right about something. E.g. suppose I’m correct that you’re making multiple errors per paragraph. What is something we could do that would still be productive? I am of course happy to make the way of proceeding also be reasonable given your premises/framework/beliefs/judgments. Debates should proceed in ways that both participants consider productive. Crucial problems that one person sees should be raised and addressed, not ignored. People shouldn’t be assumed to be right or wrong, and shouldn’t be ignored – we have to consider their relevant opinions and figure out a rational way to address them.
  • In general I expect symmetry and only doing things that both people agree make sense. I won’t just do whatever you want. I do try to be lenient, charitable, willing to try things, etc., but there are limits (I’m willing to debate the limits themselves). In an attempt to cooperate, I’ll often answer questions even if I don’t see the point of them or I see a problem with them, but not an unlimited amount of those questions.
  • I generally want to prioritize resolving a small issue (depth first) rather than talking superficially about many issues (breadth first), although some overview is appropriate at the start to decide what to talk about. If you don’t like that, we can start by discussing methodology issues like that. If you don’t want to discuss methodology and also don’t want to use my proposed methodology (and you don’t have some alternative win/win solution), I’ll regard you as irrationally preventing progress.
  • I may ask you something like “If you’re wrong, what would change your mind?” Or “If I’m right about X, by what reasonable process (series of steps) would you find out?” If you can’t answer, I’ll regard that as an impasse.
  • I sometimes want people to consider and debate claims that they believe are unreasonable, offensive or off-limits. If they refuse (and offer no alternative solution that would make sense from both our perspectives, and also don’t actually try to argue on rational grounds that my points would be bad to discuss or debate), I then regard them as unwilling to debate. If they express some problems with my proposal and they want to cooperate to find a solution which meets both of our goals, that’s fine as long as their asks are reasonable (if not, I’ll criticize them). I’m also willing to discuss criticism of my goals or my understanding of what should be in-bounds in debates.
  • I sometimes think issues should be in-bounds in debates which other people consider personal and therefore out-of-bounds. For example, I might ask what someone has done to reach a conclusion, and they might respond that I should stop asking about them personally and only focus on whether that conclusion is true or false. Or I might think someone is being dishonest and that that problem should be discussed, whereas they might say that’s a personal attack which should be disallowed from consideration with no attempt to discover whether it’s true. Or I might ask about someone’s educational history, and they might say their credentials are irrelevant to which ideas are true – I agree there are common ways to misuse credentials but I also think they can be discussed rationally and be useful or relevant sometimes.
  • Sometimes I want to talk about patterns or bigger picture issues instead of addressing each argument one by one, but people don’t like that and want their latest argument to be addressed directly (and if I refute it, then they come up with a new one and want that one to be addressed directly, and so on, indefinitely).
  • I may bring up some details which you think are obviously unimportant, so you uncharitably assume I’m doing it in bad faith – you think I’m just being a pedantic hair splitter. If you think I’m doing something wrong, you should point it out or ask a question about it, then listen to my response. I try to bring up important things and I’ll tell you a reason I think those details do matter. Occasionally I do mention unimportant or off-topic things as asides that I just thought were fun or interesting in some way, but not actually important to the current debate. I often label those asides but some kind of miscommunication is possible. I try to avoid asides when debates are less friendly or aren’t going smoothly. There’s a chance I’ll just agree with you that something isn’t important. Or I may say that I think it’d be a good way to continue, but it’s not necessary, and if you don’t like it then I don’t mind using a different argument instead.
  • A common failure mode is I say some things that are literally true, the other person is not very literal or detail-oriented, and so we have a problem. OK so far. Next, they get upset and assume without saying it out loud that I’m being a pedantic hair-splitter who is debating picky details in bad faith in order to score debating points, not to be productive. I think I only brought up details that are important, but they never ask why those details are important or state a list of details they think are unimportant. The basic problem is they don’t know why some issues I raised are important and also don’t ask. Their refusal to state the problem from their perspective ruins the debate and leads to them getting more and more upset as I continue to ignore their unstated concerns. In general, if you’re the type of person to get upset while giving hints, but never directly saying what’s going on, you should work on your philosophy/rationality skill set instead of trying to debate with someone like me who is going to focus on what you actually wrote down. In most debates, I can’t see your facial expressions or body language, and even if I could see I might just ignore it. If I say that you look upset and should take a break to calm down, I’d run a large risk of upsetting you further – and facing your angry denials and/or insults. In my experience, upset people often deny being upset and won’t listen about it or rationally talk about the matter. (One thing that sometimes happens is I can tell they’re upset before they can. Lots of people are pretty bad at introspection.)
  • If I think you’re upset, I may say so and propose that we stop talking. I don’t like conversing with hostile, emotional people. If debates upset you, then you’re not emotionally open to debate, and you should work on your skillset. (I have educational materials that can help.)
  • Suppose hypothetically that I insulted you. If you would respond to that by getting upset instead of rationally arguing with it (e.g. pointing out it’s off-topic and poorly reasoned, or discussing the boundaries of rational arguments vs. insults and what the difference is and how to tell what’s in what category), then you’re not in a position to debate. Miscommunication will inevitably happen sometimes, and you will probably misinterpret something as an insult, and then get upset. To debate, you need to have enough emotional and intellectual stability to handle variance in how well things are going including some things going wrong like misunderstandings or disagreements. You should see anything that seems bad as some kind of misunderstanding or disagreement to be discussed, and you should be initially optimistic or at least neutral about solving the problem, not immediately assume (and thereby create) disaster.
  • I may ask if you have enough time allocated to reach a conclusion, how much time you think that is, why you care enough to allocate those resources, what you’re willing to do to commit yourself to the debate (so you don’t quit half way on me and waste my time), or propose debating stakes. Many people find this kind of thing offensive, perhaps because they don’t have good answers.
  • Broadly, I want unbounded debates, not debates where people quit in the middle with no conclusion. If you don’t want that, I may not want to debate. One reason is that I have a lot of debating experience and the beginning of debates is often somewhat repetitive for me. That’s primarily because what people say is more similar in the beginning of debates and they diverge more later on, and secondarily because beginning parts happen more. I don’t want to go over common issues/arguments and then stop without talking about anything unique, and I want to actually reach conclusions.
  • I may say debating you seems like a bad use of my of time and give reasons, and be willing to discuss that (meta) problem but not proceed with the debate topic while the meta issue is outstanding. In general, I may bring up something that has logical priority and then refuse to discuss lower priority issues until after addressing a higher priority issue. (If there is a disagreement about priority, discussing that would take priority.)
  • I may propose methods of approach a problem that require effort on your part – reading a book, learning to make grammar trees, etc. You can either do that or bring up an objection and propose something else that makes sense from both our perspectives.
  • I’m open to unbounded rational debate. If you’re not, I recommend you don’t sign up for it. You may have a bad time because I may violate a boundary that you didn’t state and don’t want to talk about. (You might then regard me as not open to debate because you think I’m sabotaging by talking about the wrong things – but note both that in that scenario I’m talking not refusing to talk, and also I’m willing to discuss debate methodologies and boundaries.)

These are things people sometimes don’t like. They may regard them as ruining the debate, as preventing the debate from going the way they want it to, or as creating unnecessary problems in the debate. They might say some of these are tactics which prevent debates from being productive.

What do I say to that? People are welcome to criticize any of these things with specific arguments. They’re also welcome to share a great debate methodology, explain why it’s rational, explain how it’s good for reaching debating conclusions, and explain how/why it disallows one or more of the things I do. People are also welcome to ask why I brought something up, why I think it’s relevant right now in this discussion, why I think it’s important, high priority, or worth focusing attention on, etc. Before concluding that something is bad, you should try to understand the other guy’s point of view!