Why Not Pre-Debate Talk?

Reading this (poor) debate between Steven Pinker and George Lakoff in the May Public Policy Research reminded me of a complaint I’ve long had about debates: the parties usually don’t seem to have talked much ahead of time to try to iron out their differences.  They arrive to the debate knowing at most the other side’s previous published positions and arguments, and haven’t bothered to privately ask clarifying questions.  I suspect this is because such debates function more as duels; the spectacle of combat is intended more to reveal relative mental abilities than to illuminate which conclusion is right.

I speak today on disagreement at a workshop here at Oxford where I’ve been visiting; here is the audio file.

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  • I would say that you are absolutely correct in saying that debates are not truth-seeking activities – and there you have it!

    Or rather, debates are not about seeking truth in a scientific sense of predictive explanation but derive from the adversarial legal model of truth seeking.

  • Debates should be viewed as a spectacle — as intended primarily for the spectators. Watching two smart people argue (even if they spend some time quibbling over terminology) means getting the kind of Socratic education you’d expect if you had Pinker’s intellect and inclinations. It’s no great loss if they’re no closer to the truth — as long as they’ve illuminated things a bit for the rest of us.

  • Byrne: Of course, if it’s obvious they don’t know understand each other’s points properly, then they’ll be neither entertaining nor very illuminating…

  • TGGP

    The debate you linked to is not free for everyone, but a Pinker-Lakoff debate is analyzed by a cognitive scientist and presented in full here. Well, not right there, but both of those are linked to from there.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    To what degree has it been studied whether our affinity for debates and duels comes from a primate decision making social aesthetic. Something like an aesthetic of having an alpha male and a challenger male battling it out for group decision making supremacy (with a clique of women serving as a check against an alpha male running amuck and doing things which harm the health of the women and children of the group).

    Could this be a type of genetic cognitive bias?