Truth-Oriented Adjudicated Debates

Kissing the T.O.A.D.
A Call for Truth-Oriented Adjudicated Debates

Dear California Broadcasters Association,

As our citizens are voting on this historical recall, I want to express my appreciation for your efforts to improve the candidate selection process with a novel debate format for the September 24th debate between Gubernatorial Recall candidates. I admire the way you stood your ground despite the widespread dismissive criticism about this being a ‘scripted’ debate. While much of the media focused merely on the juicy sound bites, I personally found it as least as informative about the candidate’s views — and more revealing of their personalities — than any other political debate I’ve seen.

In my view, the deepest irony of the “debate about the debate” was the presumption that somehow concealing the questions ahead of time would help reveal the candidates “true” views. That certainly doesn’t seem to happen with any other televised debate I’ve seen; unless the moderator asks some bizarre irrelevant question, any well-trained candidate knows what sorts of questions to expect, and reverts directly to their standard ‘on-message’ answer.

However, I believe trying to find out what the candidate “really” thinks misses the point. Maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t particularly care whether a candidate agrees with my preconceived biases — what I want to know is if he or she is right. That is, does their description of the problems and solutions actually reflect reality, or merely ideology? I don’t even care about the accuracy of specific facts and figures (as far as I can tell, nobody’s hands are all that clean) as much as whether their fundamental arguments are valid.

In that vein, I agree with SacBee columnist Dan Walters about how the judicial hearing over the recall was actually the best model for how debates should be conducted. In that spirit, I would like to propose a new debate format, what I call a Truth-Oriented Adjudicated Debate, or T.O.A.D. The TOAD format is designed to motivate candidates to help voters discover the truth; that is, to winnow out the core argument beneath the political rhetoric, and analyze it for factual and logical errors. I realize that many politicians would consider this about as attractive as kissing a toad. Nevertheless, just like in the fairy tales, I believe it is possible to create an environment where they realize it is in their best interest to do so.

The key to TOAD is establishing moral legitimacy for the process. One of the reasons why political decision-making is so hard is that people disagree about the criteria used to evaluate truth. What’s worse, the people being evaluated are the same ones who claim the right to interpret and define the criteria. Amazingly enough, they always find the criteria to mean that they are completely right and their opponents are utterly wrong. To get beyond this shifting-sand approach requires establishing a credible third-party for adjudicating between the candidates. This requires several phases, all of which need to be conducted in an open and collaborative fashion.

A. Differentiating propositions (DPs)

Differentiating propositions are the core issues of the campaigned, phrased in such a way that one side affirms they are true while they other claims they are false. This can even differentiate among more than two candidates, by choosing appropriate sets of issues. For example, some possible DPs for the 2003 California Recall are:

  1. The loss of jobs in the state is primarily due to a business-unfriendly environment rather than national economic issues.
  2. California income and property taxes are low relative to other states and basic principles of equality
  3. California state expenditures, in inflation-adjusted numbers, are high relative to historic norms
  4. There is no way to significantly reduce the state budget without hurting funding for education
  5. This recall is as least as legitimate as last year’s election which Gray Davis won.

The goal is not to cover all possible issues, but to identify the handful of issues that candidates harp on as their defining issues, and phrase them in such a way as to clarify the differences. Any reasonable group of journalists could easily generate such a list, and most candidacies should be happy to state which side they’re on (perhaps with caveats and clarifications). If necessary, a couple iterations of this process would quickly lead to a consensus list of DPs.

B. Argument Discovery (AD)

The next stage is to explicitly formulate the arguments each side uses to support their belief in the truth or falsehood of each of the DPs. This is often quite difficult, since candidate’s positions are more often couched in rhetoric and hyperbole than in sober logic. My proposed solution is a process of judicial inquiry, inspired by the format used in the appellate court. Representatives of the candidates would try to present the best possible case for their beliefs, and the panel of “judges” would try their best to poke holes in the logic. To ensure focus, there should be a strict time limit – say one day per DP; short for a judicial hearing, but long compared to a typical debate. At the end, the panel — rather than deciding for or against any given position — would present a report summarizing the most valid arguments for and against each DP. The report, written from a neutral point of view <;, would then provide a relatively objective context for constraining candidate dialogue in the next section.

The key to this process is having judges with sufficient moral authority to:

  1. attract qualified representatives to argue each side
  2. compel answers to awkward questions
  3. produce a highly-regarded consensus report

This requires both a credible process and credible people. If the findings of the panel are seen as credible, it is in the best interest of each candidate to submit the best possible representative (most likely a lawyer or chief of staff, rather than the candidate themselves) and have them do everything they can to win the judges’ favor. However, in the absence of an official representative, it should still be possible to find a prominent supporter to fill that role. In fact, this format would be an ideal exercise for student advocates in a college setting.

In a day when even judges are no longer seen as non-partisan, I believe the optimal panel composition is what I call anti-partisan. That is, choose panelists who have significant personal reputations and can be trusted to maintain civility and order, yet each of whom are clearly identified with the various sides of the conflict (of course, it is best to also have as ‘chief justice’ someone whose reputation is based on neutrality, to act as moderator). This ensures that each candidate can have someone whom they feel is clearly ‘on their side’, as well as someone motivated to poke holes in their arguments.

The goal is for the panel to reach a consensus and publish a concise report (say, one page per issue) about the valid arguments on each side. Not to determine which is “right” – since almost any political argument relies on some non-trivial theoretical basis or hypothetical assumptions – but to at least verify the pertinent facts, expose any logical errors, and clarify the underlying assumptions. This would also involve explicitly identifying and refuting any invalid arguments or assertions used by the candidates. This requires panelists who are sufficiently objective to be willing to honestly criticize ‘their side’ — a difficult but not impossible proposition. The panelists also need to explicitly state their assumptions and cite their sources, so that outside observers can evaluate -their- credibility.

To further enhance the credibility of the panel’s report, there should also be a brief but open review process. Candidates can submit rebuttals and corrections to the panel’s report, and the panelists are encouraged to respond to their requests as appropriate. Ideally the sponsoring organization would formally endorse the report to lend it added credibility. If for some reason the sponsors disagree with the initial report, it should endorse a ‘corrected’ version, but still publish both versions. If the report is sufficiently short, and the parties are sufficiently engaged, it should be possible to quickly finalize a consensus report.

C. Managed Confrontation (MC)

The final stage of the process is the one most resembling a conventional debate. However, the goal is to create an environment where candidates are required to ‘fight fair’. That is, there is a referee who can call factual and logical fouls based on the AD report, and ask the candidate to either drop that line of argument, state their reasons for disagreeing with the report, or be penalized by losing their turn – sort of the way a ‘personal foul’ was called during the September 24th debate. The goal is to force the candidates to move beyond sound bites to actually logically defending their position on the issues.

It might be argued that no candidate would willingly subject themselves to this sort of scrutiny, especially given the difficulty we’ve had in getting candidates to show up for California debates. However, the real issue is whether such a process is useful and legitimate. If it is, then it should be possible for the media and non-partisan groups (such as the League of Women Voters and Citizen’s Voice) to pursue the first two stages, and produce a highly-regarded consensus report on the issues (which I believe would already be far more useful than the assertion/rebuttal format used for intiatives today). If that report is well-written and highly publicized, the candidates will be implicitly forced to respond to it one way or another — especially if they see it as a way to attack their rivals on specific points. If they believe enough in the truth of their cause, they might even see Managed Confrontation as the optimal way to get their message out.

Truth-Oriented Adjudicated Debates will not cure all, or even most, of our political problems. However, I believe they will at least raise the standards of political dialogue, and provide voters with more useful forms of information. If nothing else, I hope this proposal will encourage the debate about the debate to address more substantive and constructive issues.

Yours truly,
Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D.
October 7th, 2003


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