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November 29, 2018


B.L. Zebub

For my own reasons, I've been giving this very same subject some thought lately.

I think you were onto something until you mentioned this:

"There are strict rules on how court cases should be conducted and what evidence is admissible. The same should be true for political deliberation."

I've come to believe the problem with political deliberation is precisely that it follows the same adversarial pattern as court cases.

It's not the lawyers' job to argue for Truth. Their job is to argue their client's interests.

I recently read an anonymous commentator explaining that Jack Ruby (the guy who killed Lee Harvey Oswald) was only convicted because his defense attorney had chosen the temporary insanity defence. A relatively unknown Texan law, according to that commentator, provided better odds of acquittal.

In his long exposition the question of Ruby's insanity was never touched. When I asked the commentator (if one believes him, an American trial lawyer) about that, he couldn't answer. Ruby's alleged insanity was a mere afterthought.

I can never recommend Deirdre McCloskey's "Kaynes was a sophist, and a good think too" article enough.

B.L. Zebub

Sorry, two typos. McCloskey's article is "Keynes was a sophist, and a good thing too".

Read that article. It reveals the same extremely instrumental view of "truth" (lowercase) versus "Truth" (uppercase) one finds in public debate.

Graham J.

Great timing on this piece - The Outline just published something very similar yesterday (https://theoutline.com/post/6709/debate-is-stupid), about the pointlessness of debate (and how, in its more formal guise, it is never about facts themselves):

"...any form of debate is inherently flawed. The aim of debate is not to provide a detailed, cogent, well-sourced answer to the question at hand. The aim of debate is to be the most convincing, not the smartest, and anyone who’s good at debating knows this. This is how former Breitbart scribe Ben Shapiro has a reputation as an intellectual warrior when his arguments mostly consist of saying incorrect things very fast. This is why conservative political commentator Steven Crowder has a series called 'Change My Mind' in which he ambushes random college kids with a big binder full of pre-prepared talking points, and pulls the mic away from them anytime they seem like they might actually change someone’s mind. This is how a call to murder pedophiles got my high school audience onside better than my scribbled stats on deterrence rates did."


"I think you were onto something until you mentioned this:

"There are strict rules on how court cases should be conducted and what evidence is admissible. The same should be true for political deliberation.""

Agreed. That's a truly nifty idea.


In most televised debates people are invited on because of their entrenched opinions and no one comes on with the intention of changing their mind. Division and conflict are the aim, and this is exacerbated when viewers are asked to text in their own opinions, just supporting one side or another. No one goes away better informed or with food for thought, only with their views more firmly fixed. The farce is often made worse by interviewers being poorly prepared and failing to follow up on dubious claims. We need to be looking at the ethics of those who produce and broadcast these pointless 'debates'.


From a barrister training manual:-

"In the Common Law countries a trial is NOT an exercise designed to discover the truth.

The rules of evidence are mainly designed to exclude. They often operate to prevent the evidence actually presented from showing the truth of the matter at all.

The jury rarely asks questions and if it does it is often told it can't have the answer.

The judge is not an investigator but more like an umpire.

The jury is not a committee of inquiry.

Impression and timing is everything".

Our politicians are trained in the same tradition, a debate, like a trial is an exercise in playacting. Both sides have an interest in concealment, the audience is not there to be enlightened.

Dave Timoney

Given the number of barristers already in Parliament, the suggestion that court-room procedure should be an example for better political debate is dubious. The Commons is already highly structured, with extensive rules on debate and what is admissible. If anything, it is too lawyerly.

If the aim is to establish facts, then the better example would be the scientific method, but that comparison highlights a key difference. While science is open-ended, politics is constrained by deadlines and consequent uncertainty. The one seeks to understand, the other to decide. Debate is an imperfect tool for making decisions, but it may well be the least-worst option we have available.

Dennis Smith

The Westminster system has always been absurdly adversarial: it's no coincidence that the design of the Commons chamber was shaped by the length of two opposing swords. But it has got visibly worse in recent decades.

There are many reasons for this, not least the rise of social media which sharpen tribal divisions and erode the space for reasoned debate. Another related factor is the decline in internal democracy within political parties. Labour in particular used to develop its policies through an endless (and no doubt tedious) process of discussing and voting. This participatory ideal has been usurped by a cult of personality worship (another feature of the Twitter generation). In this respect at least Corbyn is a true heir of Blair.

The Pedant-General

Totally with you on the objection to TV debates in general. Just consider for a moment if a participant did not have the precise figure to illustrate a particular point. Even to suggest a moment to look something up would invite ridicule. This is clearly nonsense.

That said, the participants are at least debating _something_ and actually trying to advance an argument or make a case. The thing that _really_ gets my goat is some talking head on the radio - the R4 Today programme in particular - saying that "we need a debate" as an apparently complete answer to something without specifying immediately the principles at stake or the rights that are in conflict.


nicholas ford

I would say that Chris's reference to £350 million for the NHS under Brexit being a 'bare faced lie', is 'open to debate'.
Careful analysis would show that various Brexiteers such a Johnson made statements along the lines of 'taking back control' of the money, or 'the majority of the money "could" be spent on the NHS'. There was a deliberate vagueness about these statements that would allow their originators to claim that were 'essentially' true, or, they could claim they were merely exaggerations. Even after the rebate the UK sends £280m /week to the EU. Even after the EU has passed a good part of that money back to wealthy UK landowners, there is still a net contribution of around £180 million a week, that could pass as 'the majority' of £350 million.
Sorry Chris. But to say that £350m/NHS narrative was a 'bare faced lie', rather than being an exaggeration, or being misleading, is itself an exaggeration, and perhaps verging on 'a bare faced lie'!
Surely it behoves someone bewailing the lack of honesty in debate to set a good example?

Andy S

One of your best blogs in recent times..

Ralph Musgrave

An important part of the explanation for peoples' lack of interest in facts or reality is that there's evidence that about half the population is more concerned that statements are kind than that they are true (and it tends to be women who make up that half). Unfortunately I've lost he link to that research.

That explains why politicians and others get away with the "Adolf Hitler big lie" trick. That is, if you tell an outrageous lie, at least half the population will swallow it because they don't want to be "unkind" and accuse anyone of telling an outrageous lie.


A typical example of what you refer to occurred this week with Tim 'Wetherspoons' Martin on Question Time. Mike Galsworthy dissects it here.


The Gish gallop, if unchecked by a moderator, is almost impossible to respond to on these sorts of programmes. There simply is not the time.

You can, of course, learn to use the same emotive and simplistic techniques to respond to nonsense, and hope to win over some of the audience, but then you risk simply perpetuating the same dismal pattern.

The BBC is particular, both TV and radio, has been gamed by this approach for years now. Its bosses and journalists need to brainstorm an adequate, up-to-date policy approach towards propagandists and liars of all stripes. Using more graphs and visual aids would be a start: Bloomberg manages to do this usefully.


Most recent debates and phone-ins never get past the first assertions. The follow up questions never asked are the key to moving forwards. No one knows what is required of them in the future, no one knows how the UK transformation will be organised nor into what. No one questions why do we agree to provide the EU with £8B a year net. If you say because for every £1 we pay in we get £13 out in extra trade and extra inward investment into UK they would just gawp open mouthed. If you ask what extra do we produce that we can trade with far off countries that we do not already trade - no one has ever asked that? A R5L caller asserted that the EU forbids any UK trade with China and Australia - no one calls them out or even points out that UK shops are full of Chinese goods and Australian wines. No one ever asks why FE colleges to skill up UK citizens has had 40% of its budget cut when it is vital to be building that public service up to new heights. If you ask whether a Government that has taken over 15 years not to build a third runway at Heathrow and 2 years to produce a departure agreement so vapid it could have been knocked up in two weeks how do they think the Government is going to cope transforming UK after Brexit which is a 1000 time more complicated and draining, at the same time carrying out complex free trade deals with countries far more powerful than UK? If you ask how a country that is completely divided can make a success of Brexit when half will be bitterly disappointed that things have not improved for them and the other half want the whole project to fail because they never wanted to leave in the first place and after the vote their views were totally ignored?

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