The narrow path to truth and wisdom

Essay: what's wrong with our public debates and how to fix it

Part 1: the problem

Addicted to sensation(s)

Just as a heroin addict finds his next shot more important than his future, we threaten to find witted one-liners more important than a thorough analysis in our public debates . But what is enjoyable in the short term is not always good for you in the long run. In this essay I argue that political debates and public discussions are too much focused on sensation, entertainment and the short term, at the expense of truth and wisdom.

I have been working as a trainer and coach for 12 years now in political debating skills. With great pleasure, I facilitated trainings like Persuasion skills for professionals. What I like about these trainings is to help people develop their ability to express themselves and to stand for their views. There is a lot of interest in these kinds of training: who would not like to be right after all?  Yet something is bothering me: I noticed that persuasionskills seem to be ever more important in our political arena while the role of truth and wisdom seems to diminish. This is a problem: if you manage to persuade someone, that does not necessarily mean that what you said is right, true or wise! We need to appreciate the importance of truth and wisdom and this essay is meant to set the record straight.

Ideals versus reality

Ideally, I would say the search for truth and wisdom should be the highest goal in any discussion. In such debates propositions are thoroughly substantiated, ideas are tested and underlying concerns are carefully weighed against each other. In such a tradition, debates help a society to test ideas. It’s the oxygen of democracy and a necessary tool to good policies and can be the symbol of our trust in democracy.

Unfortunately, this is not self-evident: there are perverse incentives that lead to shortcut behavior in our public discussions. In this essay I investigate the importance of an honest debating tradition and how you as a politician, journalist, trainer, moderator or active citizen can contribute to better ways to deal with public disagreement.

Debating to “win”

When winning a debate becomes the highest goal, then you will do what is needed for that. But you can easily win a debate with other means than truth and wisdom. This is a problem and provides perverse incentives. Two illustrations:

Penguins on the North Pole: One of the first times I was confronted with this was during a debating tournament I joined. During the semi-finals someone talked about the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker that wrecked near Alaska in 1989. With a tearjerking argument about thousands of tormented oil-suffused penguins, one of the speakers managed to win the room. Penguins? On the north Pole? No! They live on the southern hemisphere (of course), but nevertheless it worked. I suspect the speaker did not even do it consciously. What particularly shocked me was that he got away with it. Winning a debate is no guarantee that what you say is true.

Crooked Hillary: Someone with a similar pragmatic attitude in debates is Donald “alternative facts” Trump. For example, consider the following analysis of Donald Trump’s debating style. The video below clearly explains what Trump does during a debate and why it works. It is not the quality of his arguments that works so well. As you can see, Trump often uses fear and plays the anger card. Fear is a powerful emotion that can block our reasoning: we want to get rid of our fear and be protected and therefore we demand powerful action. In a context of fear, a strong man often does well in the polls. With texts like “no-one else, keep you safe”, Trump played the strong-man. He profiled himself as a successful, dominant force that could offer a solution for the fears he himself nourished. With bullying such as “Croocked Hillary”, “Low energy Jeb Bush” or “Little Marco Rubio” he put his opponents down.


These two examples are diametrically opposed to the principles of what the Ancient Greeks called dialectics. In dialectics, interlocutors seek the truth in a sincere way. Nasty discussion tricks, superficial one-liners and nasty fallacies are avoided. The goal is to understand how the world works and based on this make the most wise and rational choices. You would sharpen your own ideas to those of the other. Together you grow in wisdom. Dialectic is: looking for the truth through conversation. You probably guessed: I like dialectics!

But there is also Eristics

In the case of dialectics, two parties of a debate jointly seek the truth through a critical analysis of their arguments. In politics, however, there are never two parties; there are at least three. In addition to proposition and opposition, there is also an audience (citizen, voter etc.) who must be persuaded. You will have to win favor of such third party.

Because of the existence of such a third party, dialectics may make room for eristics. With the word eristics, Plato was referring to rhetorical techniques where winning is more important than truth. The word eristics comes from Eris: the Greek god of chaos and striving. Eristics is about winning debates and defeating the other side. It is therefore about convincing rather than finding truth. In eristics, truth is only one of your instruments to be able to persuade. But you can also use other instruments.

What instruments do the patrons of eristics use? Think of sensation-enhancing techniques such as claptraps (how do I get applause?), framing, marketing tricks (like the 6 principles of Cialdini), rhetorical techniques that conceal the truth and rouse emotion. But it can even be worse with falsehoods, lies, fallacies, fears, deception, manipulation etc. With erestics the shortest route to winning the debate is chosen.

Part 2: The harm of Eristics

In the public debates I see many examples in which winning is considered more important than truth or wisdom. And at first glance this does not seem so crazy: politicians obviously like to win elections and like to achieve the maximum result for the people they represent. What is wrong with wanting to win for your constituents?

Tragedy of the commons

The problem with this mentality is that it bears witness to a narrow interpretation of democracy. Is democracy really only about winners and losers? Maybe in elections, but democracy is much more than elections. Isn’t democracy also about easing decision-making processes, solving problems and conflicts and continuing to improve our society?

The problem is that creating fear and creating anger can only work in the short term. Does it work in the long term? Simply put: no. If someone sows fear, spreads lies or applies fallacies and it works, then others will also start doing it. This is how we create a race to the bottom a so-called the Tragedy of the Commons:

The original Tragedy of the Commons is about a common meadow (the commons) that is eventually exhausted because individual livestock farmers let their cattle overgraze the field such that it is no longer usable for anyone. Individually and in the short term you may benefit from selfish behavior, but in the long term the collective (including you!) experiences major setbacks. In debates we often forget there is also a common interest, namely the credibility of and therefore the trust in democracy. Good debates help societies to make better-informed decisions. When individual politicians conduct eristics (sometimes forced because of eristic debate formats), they destroy the commons.

A tradition of debate in which winning is the highest good thus forms a Tragedy of the Commons for our democracy and stands in the way of qualitative and inclusive decision-making. For example, look at the USA where every now and then a complete shutdown of the government takes place. These kinds of short-term victories are pyrrhic victories; your own parish will love it if you vanquish the other, but the rest of society will check out! They have seen that such debate is merely a shadow-play not representing their long run interests.

Escalating polarisation

Another reason why we shoot ourselves in the foot with an eristical culture of debate is something psychologists have known for a long time: if only the majority gets their way, it eventually leads to polarization.

That is why psychologists from South Africa have developed a decision-making method that they call Deep Democracy. See here an introduction:

The name chosen for the method was no accident. The narrow interpretation of our democracy does not tak the minority into account: most votes is what counts. Deep Democracy however assumes a deeper interpretation of democracy in which all votes are regarded valuable.

Deep Democracy is a complex method, but in short it means that you always strive to keep the minority involved in joint decision-making processes. Why? Simply because a minority that does not feel heard and involved will resist the majority. In the beginning, such resistance may still be innocent; think of satire or yammering at family parties. But if a minority is not taken seriously, such resistance will escalate into disruptive forms of resistance such as protests, strikes and at the very end of the spectrum ultimately war.

Not involving a minority also leads to a polarized debates in the long term. When certain parties are disqualified in advance, it becomes impossible to build bridges, there is no longer a common framework for what counts as the truth and it is impossible to solve major problems of the future.

A properly functioning democratic process should aim to prevent serious forms of polarization and social disruption. That is why we have an interest in a culture of debating in which we can disagree, but continue to involve each other and keep listening to one another.

Society as a marriage

Why is something that is completely logical in normal social interactions so complicated in politics? Smooth resolution of a political disagreement is in essence not much different from smooth resolution of a disagreement between two people. For example: I am happily married. My wife and I share a house and a child and we really care for each other … And yet we do not always want the same thing. What would happen if we were both to use erestic techniques? If we wanted to achieve the maximum result for ourselves, without considering the truth and each other’s well-being? If I stubbornly stick to my position and she would do the same thing, everyone who has ever had a relationship will agree: we will pay a price later on. You do not have to be a therapist to see that our marriage would then be short-lived. So what you do is be a little bit considerate with each other. As we all know, it is about giving and taking.

Likewise in our society! We need a debate culture that allows us to debate sharply and substantively without creating unnecessary polarization. A debate culture with integrity is essential for a well-functioning democracy. Now the question is: how do we get there?

Part 3: Five principles for honest debates

ONE: Away with compartmentalized politics

It starts with the question: who do politicians really represent and do they really act in their interest? You could say that there is a broad and narrow interpretation of politics. The narrow interpretation is simply standing up for the people who voted for you. But if everyone only defends their own groups, it reinforces mistrust in politics. The principle of the Tragedy of the Commons shows very beautifully how the collective will lose when everyone only stands up for their own interests.

There is also a broad interpretation that allows politicians to debate from a broad vision that for society. One way to do that is through the Veil of Ignorance by John Rawls:

Rawls asks the question: if you do not yet know who you will be in a society, how would you organize that society? You have to take into account every group in society. After all, you do not know whether you will be born with good health in a beautiful villa or if you would end up in a wheelchair.

The first principle for a good debate is: never argue for a target group, but for a society-wide vision. Such visions can be liberal, conservative, socialist, green or based on any other principles, but it takes the wellbeing of all members of society into account.

TWO: Debating is also listening

A few years ago I walked across a market where on a stage a car was placed full of ping pong balls. If I guessed how many ping-pong balls were in the car, the car was mine. Unfortunately, my guess was far off. But if you let many people guess, the average of those guesses is usually very close to the actual number of ping pong balls. This is the effect of the Wisdom of the Crowds: together we approach the correct answer.

The big question is, could we also use the Wisdom of the Crowds in politics? Everyone could make a decent guess about ping pong balls. But what about complex issues? What if you must first really understand something in order to be able to say something meaningful about it? It turns out that for such matters the Wisdom of the Crowds method does not work well. Political decision-making is often complex and many political controversies cannot be so simplified. What about a discussion about migrants, climate change or Brexit?

Yet there is a way to also utilize the Wisdom of the Crowds in political decisionmaking. For complex problems, a large group of people can still use the Wisdom of the Crowds and find optimal solutions when they are allowed to exchange their guesses and adapt their guesses based on what they hear. See this video for a fascinating explanation of this principle:

It turns out that exchanging ideas is key. However, there is a big ‘unless’… When some voices in such exchange are more dominant than others, the system still does not work. Dominant votes bend the average away from the best outcome.

In short, Wisdom of the Crowds works when exchanges take place on the basis of equality. You must continuously try to involve everyone in order to arrive at sensible results. Now think about our current media landscape where certain politicians and media figures dominate the debate. That is a problem. With complex issues such as the Brexit, it is very important that we discuss the content, so that there will be a well-considered choice. Taking all perspectives into account is essential.

THREE: Look for what’s behind the position

In their famous book, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William Ury & Bruce Patton outline two different strategies of negotiation. One is focused on positions, the other on underlying concerns.

Their starting point is that a position is truly different from the underlying concern. Imagine the following true story: two people want to go on holiday together, but one wants to go to Iceland and the other to Spain. The discussion proceeds as follows: “I want to go to Iceland, that’s great!”, “No, Iceland is stupid, I want to go to Spain” … etc. This is a positional debate. The relevant question to ask is: why do you take this position? What importance is behind it? Now it turns out: “I want to go to Iceland because you can take beautiful pictures” and “I want to go to Spain, because it’s nice and warm”. The point of Getting to Yes is that positions are often incompatible, but underlying interests are certainly not! The two friends therefore decided to choose a destination where it is nice and warm and where you can take beautiful pictures: the Grand Canyon. Another example of this principle is this:

Politicians are expected to take a position; at least then you have something to choose! But what concern do they try to address with their position? And are there other ways to meet that concern? When a debate is only positional, few alternatives are explored and a narrow interpretation of democracy is inevitable. The majority takes the loot and the minority remains defeated. By being honest about the real concern behind your position opens a door to possibilities that overcome traditional contradictions. This means that disagreement does not necessarily has to lead to conflict and polarisation. You may start to see that on a fundamental level we actually share a lot of concerns.

It is precisely an eristical debating culture that stands in the way of this possibility and the media also plays a major role. When you as a politician only have 30 seconds to make a point, you kind of have to be positional. In such a setting you do not have time for depth, research each other’s points of view and recognition of each other’s concerns. And worst of all, after the debate is over some “expert” is asked: “Who won this debate”? I would love to see an evening of political debate between two politicians who are allowed to probe each other for hours with depth about each other’s vision for society, a discussion in which differences and similarities have a place.

FOUR: Precision required

The more you know, the more you know that you do not know anything; according to Aristotle. How much do you really understand about our society? How many of your opinions are really thoroughly substantiated? Take a look at this great Dilbert cartoon for example:

“It takes so much work to get informed that it defeats the whole point of having an opinion in the first place.” How important is it really to have an opinion at all? Shouldn’t the core of the issue be about the underlying concerns and arguments rather than about the opinions itself?

We often have strong opinions about complex issues such as foreign policy, health care or macroeconomics. In a fascinating study, Philip Fernbach asked participants to score themselves on how well they understood a particular subject about which they had an opinion (eg sanctions against Iran). He then asked them to explain in detail how their opinion would work out in practice. Then they had to score themselves again on how well they thought they understood the subject. What happened? Not only did the participants score themselves lower when they realized that they understood much less about the subject than they thought, more importantly their opinion also became more nuanced! Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize-winning psychologist who has done a lot of research on cognitive biases) calls this the Illusion of explanatory depth. When you are forced to reason with precision, you will become more nuanced. But the problem is we often debate issues in very general terms, which renders much of the debate meaningless. It would be good to narrow topics of discussions down and be specific in what we address.

An example: Dutch MP Thierry Baudet recently made the following statement (translated from Dutch): “Malicious, aggressive elements are introduced into our social body in unheard-of numbers, and the actual circumstances and consequences are obscured.” Many people had an opinion about that statement right away, but the problem of this is that this statement is actually quite vague. What and who does he mean specifically? Why not first make it explicit by asking questions, for example: “Mr. Baudet, what do you mean specifically? Who do you mean by malicious, aggressive elements? What are those consequences you talk about specifically? And how exactly are they obscured from us?”. By forcing Mr. Baudet to be specific you could take away any “plausible deniability”.

To argue sharply, one should not draw conclusions too quickly, but ask questions with precision. A debate should be an ode to doubt; allowing yourself to postpone your judgement; to research and be curious. Honest debating asks for something terribly difficult: the courage to question your own opinion.

FIVE: do not fight fire with fire

A good debate always revolves around arguments. With the help of arguments one can make an assessment of concerns at play, test ideas and create transparency for the voter and find solutions to problems. The goal is to deal with disagreements in an honest way.

The enemy of a good debate is not your opponent; the enemy of a good debate is the fallacy. There are many fallacies, but they have in common that they are used to distract from good arguments.

A few years ago during presidential elections campaigns in the USA John King asked the following question to Newt Gingrich:

“You asked your wife to enter an open marriage, would you like to take some time to respond to that?” The question by John King was not aimed at the vision of Newt Gingrich for America, neither was it aimed at testing his arguments or ideas. The question was aimed at sensation, it was a fallacy. At first it seems that Newt Gingrich did a good job responding to this question, but it turns out he all too happily liked to defend himself against the allegations. He then fails to address the real political issues. As a result the real losers are people watching this debate. They learn nothing new.

Fallacies work especially well if the other party cannot deal with it. But dealing with fallacies requires advanced debating skills that are often even beyond the most experienced politicians. For example, how do you deal with Donald Trump’s eristic style of debating? The art of good debating is that you do not let yourself be tempted to join the other persons foul play. But that is exactly what happened in the case of Trump. One of the low points of the recent American presidential elections was the “small-hands” discussion. Marco Rubio tried to get back at Trump in a rather painful episode by insulting Trump with his small hands:

As a result, Rubio lost in the polls and Donald Trump benefited. You cannot beat a cunning fox with its own weapons: by joining Trump’s game, the message of Rubio was lost.

For an honest debating culture, you need to devevelop yourself in the art of the debating. You should learn to recognize fallacies and learn how to bring a debate back to the relevant issues. A fallacy is best exposed by explaining to the public what is happening and why that is irrelevant to the discussion. And then of course you do not linger in meta-analysis, but return to the content, to the core of your message. In this video you will find a nice textbook example of how dealing with fallacies should be done (starting at 4.50 am):

When well refuted, a fallacy turns out to be a huge show of weakness. Therefore, never be tempted to play along with the other person’s nasty game. If you remain sharp and focus on the content, the other person will expose himself. Do not fight fire with fire.

Recommendations for an honest debate

Eristics of course only work when politicians can get away with it. When we understand the perverse incentives that lead to poor debating and do not accept a lack of thorough analysis and depth, our debating culture will change for the better. However, this requires detoxification from our addiction to sensation. It requires being disciplined and focusing on the long term. Whether you work as a politician, journalist, trainer or moderator. With these seven recommendations you can contribute to a more honest debate with less sensation and more content:

1. Wisdom instead of winners

After a debate, never ask who won. Ask: what did we learn?

2. Specific instead of general

Insist on concrete debating topics instead of debates on generalities.

3. Concerns instead of positions

Ask for someones underlying concerns instead of asking for someones position.

4. Explanation instead of reasons

Make “how” a central question. Do not ask for reasons. Ask for an explanation.

5. Society wide instead of compartmentalized politics

Always ask for someone’s plans for other groups.

6. All perspectives instead of just the majority

Listen to all perspectives. Also involve the minority in decision making.

7. Argumentation instead of entertainment

Do not judge an argument on the entertainment value but on the quality of the arguments

Politicians are trained to persuade audiences. But persuasion is not the same as being right and entertainment is not the same as wisdom. When you master the art of being right you have a great responsibility. Debates have an important role to play in democratic decision-making processes and we should not erode the debate. This requires politicians to debate honestly, trainers to teach dialectics, moderators using formats that lead to depth, journalism that asks for specific arguments and citizens concerned enough to judge arguments on their merits rather than their entertainment value. In short, let us not use the debate as entertainment, but as an instrument to arrive at wisdom and truth.