July 4, 2012
In my prior post I asked for ideas on making political debates more fact-based. A reader of this blog, aaror2, made an interesting suggestion that I will now borrow, tweak, and present.
Let me start by saying that had anyone asked me prior to the launch of Wikipedia if it would be a good idea I would have laughed and scoffed and maybe mocked whoever asked the question. It would have seemed obvious to me that you can’t trust the public to sort out facts from fiction. But I would have been wrong about that. In my opinion, Wikipedia is one of the great accomplishments of civilization. But what makes it work?
For starters, Wikipedia insists that you show your sources and do so publicly. That’s a powerful concept. We know that pundits and politicians will lie through their teeth when they don’t need to show sources. A politician can look straight into a camera and make claims that contradict all known science. Politicians can get away with it because they know their lies will be separated by time and space from any fact checking. But on Wikipedia, any claim without a credible source is eventually removed or labeled as iffy. It’s not instant and it’s not perfect, but it evolves in the right direction.
A second powerful thing that Wikipedia gets right is letting everyone participate. A Wikipedia page never feels like an enemy opinion that must be rejected by reflex. If you don’t like what you see, you are literally invited to correct it and show your sources.
Wikipedia is a great way to capture and organize information. But I think public policy debate needs a simpler model that borrows the proven concepts from Wikipedia.
I’ll call this idea a Fact Bubbler. The basic idea is a web page for any policy debate in which short statements of fact are submitted by citizens and organized in a list. The rules for submitting facts might look like this:
- All facts must be brief, preferably one line.
- All facts must include a source.
- Sources from obviously political organizations would be removed.
- A trail of edits would always be publicly available for viewing.
- Facts in the list would be organized by category, e.g. economics, morality, safety.
- Users would vote for the facts that are most important. Facts with the most votes would “bubble” to the top of their categories. For example, the most important fact about the economics of a policy debate would show at the top of that category.
- Moderators might choose to make some facts “sticky” with others that are closely related, so some facts would stay together as they bubble up. For example, the fact that a tax will cost $1 billion would be sticky with the fact that it only applies to leprechauns.
After a policy topic has been populated with facts, and the most important ones have bubbled to the top, a citizen could easily scan the list to get a quick feel for the issue. For facts that come from disputed sources, I could see those showing up as a different color on the list, so you can click through and read why some people doubt the source.
Part two of this idea is that proponents of any side of the argument can also submit opinion pieces that use ONLY the facts shown on the page and introduce no new facts. The best arguments for and against a particular policy would also bubble up to the top of their own section. I would also include a category for alternative approaches (neither pro nor con) that would also be voted up in a separate category.
This idea might also need a section for precedent and analogy. We citizens like to argue that a new policy is making the same mistake as some policy from the past. It would be helpful to see the best historical examples along with a list of what went right or wrong, and how that is similar or different from today. Perhaps the similarities and differences could be organized as short statements of facts as well. The important thing is keeping the analogy/precedent discussion separate from the list of facts and the opinion/interpretation pieces.
In time, each policy debate would have a list of facts from the most credible sources available, organized with the most important facts at the top of each category such as economics, morality, safety, or other. Below the list of facts you would see the top user-submitted arguments that reference ONLY the facts in the list. Beneath the best arguments you would see user comments, and the best of those would also bubble to the top.
No system is perfect. But I think this approach would do a good job of evolving any argument toward whatever level of objectivity is possible for a given topic.