26 August 2008

Discussion vs. Debate

How do you have a discussion when you disagree? Unless, no one should disagree be cause "its settled". was asked over at http://expeditionportal.com/forum/showthread.php?t=17837&page=6 by TheGillz. That's a point near and dear to my heart, and to what bothers me about much of the public ... words ... that are spoken regarding climate (actually most science, I just know this area better than most others).

It really isn't hard, just not the sort of thing we're used to seeing any more (in the US at least). We're used to seeing debates and listening to them on talk radio. It's also something of how cases are tried in court and we have many courtroom shows on TV. Namely, you set up two people and they have to defend some position (or attack the other guy's -- often they never present any positive information about their own). There are good reasons for doing it this way in law. But it isn't good for public understanding. I'll leave aside formal debate, but this captures what I think most of us have in mind regarding debate.

So what does discussion look like between two people who do disagree? No problem. My wife and I don't agree about everything, so we discuss the matters. Some things we'll probably never agree on, but we can understand why the other person thinks as they do even without agreeing with their conclusion. This is an important part of a discussion -- part of what you're after is to understand the other person's view and reasons. Time to be neutral and just listen. Just what do they think? Why do they think it? Sit back a little and let them speak for themselves; there'll be time for you to explain why their evidence is shoddy and their conclusions unsupported :-) But you can't have a civil discussion without understanding the other person.

Conversely, you have to think some about just why you have reached your own conclusion. Can't explain it without thinking about it yourself. This is related to the business that you generally understand things better yourself if you try to teach it to someone else. It is easier to hold a conclusion than to explain one, and far easier to hold it than to defend it. So the two of you explain your conclusions and how you got there. If it were debate, then you start the mutual attacking and never budging from your original point. That, I find boring.

Discussion, on the other hand, is interesting. In discussion, you may both change your minds. You had some good reasons that lead to your conclusion, but so did your partner in discussion. (At least assume that to start with!) As you discuss, your partner may point out that one of your sources doesn't really support your conclusion (as, say, I have in looking at some sites). This doesn't make you a bad person, but it does mean that you need to find a stronger source to support that point -- or else modify your conclusion. Also doesn't mean that you have to abandon your eventual conclusion, just some portion of it, or maybe to place less confidence on it. Conversely, as you look at your partner's sources and reasons, they may well have encountered some information that you haven't -- and those different sources might lead you to a new position for yourself.

In a really good discussion, you both leave with different conclusions than you started with. In this vein, I've also had a discussion where a group of us started out in agreement in one direction (that a certain proposal was good) and as we discussed our reasons, wound up in agreement that the proposal was not good. People in general agreement can have discussions too, and wind up far from their original opinion.

Since the point of discussion is understanding, rather than 'winning', you can also relax a bit about ego. If you have a discussion and your new understanding has you change your mind, great! You understand more. If the person you're talking with changes their mind some because of the good information you provided, also great!

There are plenty of other places to go if what you want is debate. And plenty of others where you can see only one view, which is, to me, even less interesting than debate. Here, I'm looking for discussion, or at least helping folks do some learning.

Anyone else have a (brief) example of a good discussion they had?


Anonymous said...

Without having read a single other line of your blog, I aplaud you on your breakdown of what discussion is. I agree wholeheartedly.

I used debate in that other forum in my mind more like discussion, but have since been corrected on the respective definitions.

Clark a.k.a. TheGillz

Anonymous said...

I like that you're trying to engage Mooney in a productive discussion. I enjoyed his books, but find myself less than sympathetic with his and Nisbet's caricaturizations of scientists' ability to communicate, where the burden lies in the breakdown between science and mainstream media reporting, and their handling of the "Expelled" and framing issues in general.

I'd like to see an honest discussion between the Nisbets and Mooneys and the full spectrum of science communicators- from the Sagan, Gould, Dawkins, Tyson, Hawkins et al. to the scientist-blogger to the interviewee of a university-funded study press release to the average journalist.

jules said...


could you give some more background on how you're coming to that conclusion on Nisbett & Mooney ?

The focus of their message to me isn't about caricaturizing scientists and their way of communicating, but putting the emphasis on how a message gets distorted by the bias of the audience? Am i missing something ? (the things i know of them, are on my blog)

Anonymous said...


Here's a small sampler:

Greg Laden (several links at the bottom as well)

There is so much more.

I should probably do a write up of the decline of my opinion of their arguments with a sort of timeline.

Apologies to Robert for the slight derailment.

Robert Grumbine said...

Not exactly derailing. A brief word here for folks who might not already be familiar with the 'framing issue'. The thing is, Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet have been arguing in the science blogging realm, and elsewhere, that scientists are doing a bad job of communicating to the public. They are also the people, rather than journalists or other people who studied such things, had talent for such things, and interest in such things, who have to be doing the communication to the general public. This, because the journalists can't do the job due to various systemic forces. Somehow scientists are immune to those systemic forces?

Part of my reaction is for the same point as I've had elsewhere. Same as engineers aren't scientists, there being a specialized body of knowledge, experience, and talents that differ between the two, scientists aren't journalists. The PhD (which not all scientists have anyhow) is not a grant of universal knowledge and talent!

On the other hand, I do think it's a good thing for scientists, not every one of us, but those with interest at least, to talk about science with non-scientists. To that end, I do this blog, some other things, and will be talking at the Annapolis, MD science cafe at the end of October (about the sea ice season).

If people have ideas for how I can do it better, I'm interested. Unfortunately, most of what they've said (Mooney and Nisbet) has been to tell me that we scientists are doing it wrong, without telling me how to do it right. The erv link thingsbreak gives captures some of my frustration pretty well.