Issuepedia:Structured Debate

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Issuepedia is attempting to develop a set of rules for structured debate, eventually to be turned into an open-source internet application with a web interface.


  • Every argument starts with a claim (the root claim) which states one side of the debate as fact.
  • Any (parent) claim may have zero or more supporting claims (or supports), each of which individually supports the parent claim independently of the others
  • Any (parent) claim may have zero or more requirement claims (or requirements), all of which must be true in order for the claim to be valid
  • Any claim may be answered by zero or more response arguments
  • All response arguments must relate to the parent claim in one of the following ways:
    • Support: an argument that the parent claim is true
    • Counter: an argument that the parent claim is false
  • Any claim is defeated if it has no active (non-defeated) sub-claims and at least one active counter-claim
  • Participants in a debate may indicate their approval or disagreement with an item
    • This agreement is strictly binary (agree/disagree); if a participant wishes to draw a finer distinction, s/he should create a claim with which s/he can agree or disagree unilaterally (this rule is somewhat fuzzy at the moment and needs to have some examples to look at)
    • Whenever a participant's agreement/disagreement does not match the logical outcome of the debate (e.g. disagreeing with an item with no active counterpoints, or agreeing with an item which has been refuted), resolving the discrepancy should be somehow included in a to-do list for that participant. Participants may be disqualified or downgraded for allowing discrepancies to remain unanswered for too long (exact details to be worked out later).
  • The outcome of another debate may be used as the argument for a claim, in which case the children of that debate's root claim become children of the current claim, and the same rules apply

Some further refinements will be necessary when adapting this system for making time-dependent decisions (see InstaGov).

Potential Issues

Chewbacca participants

The one major problem which seems likely to raise its head is that of an unfriendly participant (UP) posting nonsensical arguments which the system will automatically count as valid, thereby requiring a counter. Although countering them may be just as quick as creating them (e.g. "This is nonsensical"), the argument's visual presentation could be rapidly overwhelmed by the nonsense-and-counters and become practically unreadable.

There are several possibilities for dealing with this. An obvious one, which may be the best solution, is to offer the option to vote on comment relevance; comments below a certain threshhold (which each user may set for her/himself) are automatically hidden/suppressed.

Quote mapping

Another, somewhat less thorny problem is involved in the process of "mapping" an existing freeform debate into a structured debate. Claims in freeform format are often tightly bundled together and need to be "unrolled" and disambiguated. What we need is some way to take the original quote, mark it up with the claims it seems to represent, and then insert those claims into the structure of the argument while referencing the original quote.

A semi-obvious way of dealing with this is simply to treat quotes as sources. This does open up the question, however, of how to handle authoritativeness and misrepresentation; perhaps "source" needs to be a data entity understood by the system, and sources whose claims are repeatedly contradicted need to have a lower "authority" score than sources whose claims are not, or whose claims are repeatedly confirmed by other sources. Although this makes the programming substantially more complicated, tentatively it would seem a worthwhile thing to spend significant time on (perhaps not in the first version, however).


(using text terms rather than icons)

  • claim: Socrates is mortal
    • support: Socrates is mortal because he is a man.
      • requirement: All men are mortal.
      • requirement: Socrates is a man.
    • support: Socrates is dead, therefore he was mortal.
      • requirement: Socrates is dead.
      • requirement: Death is sufficient to demonstrate mortality.
    • counter: Socrates's works have endured for millennia, therefore he is immortal.
      • counter: This is an argument that Socrates's works are immortal, not that he himself is immortal.

Exploratory Option

It looks like it would be useful to have an option for a less rigorous but still structured debate, where territory is still being mapped out and participants are not so much disagreeing with each other as engaging in a sort of question-and-answer volley. A good example is here. "Exploratory" seems like a good name for this mode. It would omit the tracking of pro-and-con and focus more on identifying the individual participants, which establishes individual beliefs and positions at various locations in the issue's "terrain" without necessarily invoking conflict.

Later on, we might add categorization-tagging of each point so we could (for example) quickly look up all of a given participant's statements on a given issue, or all participants' statements on that issue. (This would also require the ability for participants to go back and clarify or comment on their positions, especially if they change in the light of later evidence.)


In order to make the flow and status of structured debate easier to understand, Issuepedia has developed a set of icons and associated templates.