Precious Silence, Lost

In a classic debate, two people stand toe to toe and argue, free form, about a clear claim, for a fixed time of an hour or more, in front of an attentive audience.  The best moments in such a debate are awkward "silences":  X makes a good point, and the audience can clearly see Y has no good response.  Y may change the subject, but X may soon say "But what about that point I just made, what do you say to that?"  If Y changes the subject again, an attentive audience can see clearly: Y has no good response to X’s point.  Y’s silence speaks volumes. 

Unfortunately, precious silences get lost in non-classic debate formats.  If the debate has no fixed end time, Y may say "sorry, I have to go now."  If there are only a few back and forth rounds, it may take most of those rounds just to clarify the claim, leaving too few rounds to clearly show a silence. 

Debates in academic journals suffer this problem; usually X speaks, Y responds, X responds again, and the debate is over.  Debates between bloggers are little better; if blogger Y responds to blogger X, usually X says nothing more.  Even when bloggers have roughly equal status, they have too many good excuses to ignore someone’s point.  So the fact that a point was ignored offers only weak evidence about its strength.  When the bloggers have unequal status, it is almost hopeless; high status people usually ignore low status people, no matter how good or bad their points. 

This issue was brought home in my recent medicine debate at CATO Unbound.  I wrote a lead essay, three health policy experts of far higher academic status responded, and then we had a one week "informal discussion."  I thought I made a sharp clear claim, that crude policies to "Cut Medicine In Half" are feasible and better than the status quo.  The three respondents, however, chose to discuss other not-yet-feasible policies they liked more.  My first informal comment tried to focus them back on my claim, but two of the three had little energy for further discussion.  While they all named reasons for opposition, there were too few rounds to show clearly the weakness of those reasons.  And from blogger reactions it seems no one reads the informal discussion anyway. 

This is why I so lament, and am puzzled by, the rarity of the classic debate. 

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  • One explanation for this rarity might simply be that it does run the risk of showing one participant to be in the wrong. Participating in non-classical debates were views are merely expressed in front of an audience will give the participants exposure, convert some undecided and perhaps trigger further debates where they are the experts. Having a weak point clearly exposed on the other hand may diminish status and influence.

  • Unknown Healer

    Becoming an expert on ‘smart cuts’ is potentially lucrative, financially and in academic status. It is much easier for laymen and policy-makers to accept than the unpopular claim that medicine does not or barely works (on net, I noticed the respondents tended to neglect iatrogenic deaths from medicine, tending to set up an opposition between harmless mildly beneficial and quite beneficial medicine) at the relevant margin.

    Without strong incentives, it’s hard to get people to make costly unpopular statements, even if they are true. At Harvard during the Summers imbroglio many individuals thoughts that Summers had made a reasonable presentation of possibilities and data, but were unwilling to say so publicly, or said (in private or in public) that hypotheses about group differences had to be subjected to a higher standard of proof before being discussed. In order to reduce the social cost of admitting the standard results, it might be helpful to convene a large group of health economists so as to spread and diminish the reputational cost. One model would be the APA task force report summarizing the IQ consensus in psychology back in the 90s:

  • Is the “classic debate” that you describe a zero-sum game set up to produce a winner and a loser, or is it a process whose goal would be to find The Truth about an issue?

    In a court trial, lawyers are engaged to advocate for each side of an argument. The process doesn’t work if one lawyer becomes persuaded of his opponent’s position and abandons his clients position. To keep the justice system going, some attorneys need to be “devils’ advocates.” Does a debate process require that the debater arguing on wrong side of a question must adhere to his wrong position?

    The role of “devils’ advocate” must be confusing, difficult or impossible to play with a pure heart. The selfless objective of playing one’s part well in a just process would be aligned one’s self-interest and vanity. But if the result of the process is just and true, the devil’s advocate will be a loser in the end. If the devil’s advocate hopes for justice, he cannot hope for his own victory.

  • Floccina

    I read all the post in the thread and I agree with you they did not correctly address your claim. I was left hoping for more debate.

  • Tyler Cowen

    Lament, yes, “puzzled by,” no.

  • Douglas Knight

    Is that really how “classic” debates work?

    If that were the focus of them, it would be a pretty strong incentive to develop rhetorical techniques to avoid or muddle through the silences. The specific technique I thought was the current seemingly stable equilibrium was always to keep a lot of balls in the air at any one time.

  • Silas

    In classical debates, did people actually stand with their toes touching?

    Are you saying that bloggers, today, should not debate unless they can stand in the same room with their toes touching?

    Or were you just using an unclear metaphor in post lamenting how lack of clarity in argumentation makes it harder to detect bad arguments?

  • Tyler, perhaps you had Anders’ explanation in mind. But if so, why do audiences tolerate this effort to avoid scrutiny? Even if audiences did not really care about which side is right, wouldn’t they care about seeing which side is a better arguer?

    Silas “toe to toe” is a metaphor for high bandwidth and fast response.

  • It is striking how rare awkward silences have become. Most people learning to debate today seem to learn how to press on, regardless of how deadly blows the opponent inflicts.

    I noticed it this summer when I encountered one of the grandest awkward silences in recent Swedish politics: Inti Chavez Perez is a young pundit/politician making a career out of politically correct immigrant identity politics, the need for more immigrants in positions of power, arguing for recapturing the currently derogatory term “blatte” as something to be proud of etc. In a radio debate he invited the liberal/libertarian MP Mauricio Rojas, a Chilean immigrant with a generally sharp mind – and an old hand at debate. Bad move. Inti spent most of the program proposing his views, apparently running circles around Rojas by always turning everything into a joke. Until finally Rojas in a devastating short and intense 1.5 minute comment (I timed it) distilled Inti’s views into a clear package and demonstrated that they were identical (except for who should be in power) with the extreme right racist views. A *long* awkward silence was heard in the ether. The last minutes of the program were a desperate rear guard action by Inti trying to regain some dignity, with little success.

    This is very rare today. I doubt a more experienced pundit would have been silent that long (or invited someone with so much bite). But few pundits or politicians ever demonstrate that ability to succintly express their opponents views and what they think is wrong with them. It takes a considerable cognitive effort (you have to listen to the opponent, remember what he has said, see the problem, communicate both in a stressful situation). This makes me wonder if there has ever been a time when “classical” debates were ever the norm. We do not have many records of awkward silences following Cicero’s speeches, and I would not be surprised to find that the good points of many great speeches were completely ignored by opponents.

    This suggests that we might want to find better ways of setting up “classical” debates, either online or physically. Ideally they should clearly show what arguments have been un-addressed. Maybe a tool like the argumentation maps of MacroVU might be helpful:

  • Anders, yes, “classic” form debates were probably always rare. I’m not sure we really lack the right ways to set up such debates; we (debaters and audiences) seem more to lack the will to do so.

  • I fear that you can also lose out on precious silence by being too verbally intelligent. The sad fact is that I doubt that I would ever be struck genuinely dumb, no matter how wrong I had just been proven. I will just have to hope that I can find the words “Guess I was wrong,” in place of silence.

    During video interviews where I know my silences have been edited out, I not uncommonly fall silent after a question while I think about how to organize my response. Perhaps if I find myself doing something similar during a debate, I should say, “Let me think about that.” If silence always indicates a loss, then no one will ever be able to stop to think during a debate – an uncommon practice to begin with, but one which is to be encouraged.

    I had not quite realized the selfish motives against debates. I will push harder for the Singularity Institute to do more of these, now that I realize the cause of their absence.

  • If you’re judging by how often a claim goes un-responded to, might you end up with this? It’s not inevitable, but there’s a risk.

  • Anders, that radio debate sounds like something I wouldn’t mind hearing. Is it available online somewhere? (Yes, I have a pretty good grasp of Swedish.)

  • Floccina

    Forget the debate, what we need to come up with is some way that we can act on the fact that marginal medicine does not improve health much or at all, that will allow us to prosper as individuals. The thing about this information is that acting on it personally will benefit others as much as it benefits the person that acts on it and for each individual that acts degree that we benefit is insignificant. One person proposed dropping our health insurance, IMHO that only works out for you if you are either young and healthy or very rich. For example you cannot capture that much of the benefit of signing a living will. BTW I have some hope that computers and technology will get us out of this situation. Sometimes high spending on stuff that does not work encourages people to invent stuff that does work.

  • You might look into BeContrary as a potential place to foster “classical” debate: given its emphasis on the debate process, it’s conceivable that less pride and ego is tied up in the ideas, and more in how you argue them. (Note: I’m unaffiliated with them, just excited by the idea of debate as recreation.)

  • Doug S.

    David Brin discusses this in detail here.

  • Constant


    The best moments in such a debate are awkward “silences”: X makes a good point, and the audience can clearly see Y has no good response.


    If silence always indicates a loss, then no one will ever be able to stop to think during a debate – an uncommon practice to begin with, but one which is to be encouraged.

    Eliezer’s point makes me wonder whether debates are so great after all. If someone makes an unexpected point that the other side has not thought about and prepared for ahead of time, then a rational truth seeker ought seriously to consider allowing the other side all the time it needs to prepare a response, fully discounting “awkward silences”, provided there is an eventual answer.

  • Constant, perhaps an even better debate format would be ten minutes per night for a week. That might give debaters more time to think of better responses.

  • Laura

    I agree with Constant. I think the “akward silence” has been rooted out of most debates because the debaters think it makes them look bad, and so fill the space with babble, or a convoluted nonsensical argument, or change the point, or twist what the other debator has said instead of taking time to evaluate the claim. That they care more about appearing wrong indicates they are not actually trying to determine what the truth is. I think this is to be expected though. Who that debates in public really is a truth seeker?

  • Laura

    By the way, as regards your article on medical spending, do you know where to find reliable statistics on where money in medicine is spent (ER, OR, outpatient, medication, etc.). I’ve been working in an ER, and I feel a sense of general outrage by the number of medicare/medicaid recipients that use the ER as a primary care medical facility, thus clogging the system. The average wait on Mondays is over 9 hours to be seen by a doctor, but only 5 on Fridays. Coincidence?

  • What about “adversarial collaboration” as an alternative to both classic and written debate? Here is how Daniel Kahneman describes the format in his intellectual autobiography:

    One line of work that I hope may become influential is the development of a procedure of adversarial collaboration, which I have championed as a substitute for the format of critique-reply-rejoinder in which debates are currently conducted in the social sciences. Both as a participant and as a reader I have been appalled by the absurdly adversarial nature of these exchanges, in which hardly anyone ever admits an error or acknowledges learning anything from the other. Adversarial collaboration involves a good-faith effort to conduct debates by carrying out joint research – in some cases there may be a need for an agreed arbiter to lead the project and collect the data. Because there is no expectation of the contestants reaching complete agreement at the end of the exercise, adversarial collaborations will usually lead to an unusual type of joint publication, in which disagreements are laid out as part of a jointly authored paper.

  • Pablo, “adversarial collaboration” is intriguing, but I suspect the reason we do not see more of them is that journal referees do not give resulting submitted papers the extra priority needed to compensate for the extra effort required to create them.

  • “and the audience can clearly see Y has no good response.”

    At that moment.

    “Y’s silence speaks volumes.”

    About Y’s having no good response at that moment. I’ve occasionally taken 3 or 4 years to come up with a good response to an opponent’s argument, which has then proved decisive. So, so what? The whole adverserial model is flawed anyway.

  • Gene, the fact that one supporter does not know of a good response at one moment does not prove that a good response will never be found. But it is at least evidence that responses tend to be weak. If it were not evidence, then we could never take anyone’s arguments made as evidence about the strength of arguments on a topic, and so shouldn’t listen to anyone.

  • Anders and Kaj. I don’t want any misunderstandings to be done here. The interview with Mauricio Rojas that I made for Swedish National Radio was not a debate. I was in charge of editing and my mission was to create feelings, images and thoughts in the head of listeners, not to win a discussion.
    Actually, if I had been any clearer with my own views during the interview, I would have been convicted by “Granskningsn√§mnden”, an organ that garantees the objectitity of Public Service-media in Sweden.

    And Anders, please don’t call me pundit nor politician. I am a journalist. There’s no reason for you to treat me in a disrespectful way, right?