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.



Any set of rules for truth-driven debate must satisfy a number of criteria, including:

  • It must be possible to determine, at any given moment, which items are agreed upon and which are still in dispute
  • It should be easy to spot when a debater is changing the subject rather than answering a point
  • It should be possible to "unbundle" any point which involves a chain of suppositions (i.e. depends upon multiple sub-points) so that the individual suppositions can be discussed separately

As much as possible, the system should be set up so that no individual has any more power than any other. There will always need to be sysops, of course, but they should not have to intervene except under extraordinary circumstances of obvious spamming or other overtly bad behavior. Creating mechanisms to deal with bad behavior will be one of the main challenges; see #Potential Problems below.


Ideally, a structured debate is represented in a manner which provides visual cues for:

  • which side of the argument is being advocated by a particular piece of text
  • whether a given point has been defeated or called into question
  • the dependency structure (which parent-point is being attacked or defended by any given sub-point)

The interface should make it easy and intuitive for untrained users to add additional points (supporting or countering).

The software should automatically track the status (supported, unanswered/open, or defeated) of each point, in order to minimize the administrative overhead of enforcing the basic debate rules. (There is a potential problem in this, however; see #Potential Problems below.)


In order to be truly useful:

  • A structured debate needs to be part of a system which recognizes it as a valid means of resolving disputes (what David Brin calls an "accountability arena") within some milieu -- even if that milieu is only a small group of people. (The larger the group, however, the more useful and powerful it is to have everyone agreeing, and the more important it is for the outcome they ultimately agree on to be one that is as rational as possible.)
  • It must be possible for any given structured debate to be used as a "point" in another structured debate -- so that:
    • determinations (debate outcomes) affecting multiple issues don't have to be argued over and over again, and so that
    • if the outcome of a debate ever changes due to new information, the logical consequences of that change in understanding will propagate to all the issues affected by it.

A structured debate module will be one of the core elements of InstaGov.


The visual structure is kind of like an upside-down chain of reasoning; we start with a conclusion, then argue over both supportive and contradictory evidence until it becomes clear whether the initial claim is adequately defended.

  • /v2010.03: the most succinct version
  • /v2009: allowance for "informal" points and "bundling"; these accommodations should probably be rewritten as addenda to the 2010.03 rules.


  • The outcome of any debate may be used as a claim, in which case the children of that debate's root claim become children of the current claim, and the same rules apply. This lets us reuse already-established truths rather than having to hash them out again each time.

In order to make InstaGov participants more accountable for their decisions, we might require that every issue up for vote be stated as a structured debate claim. If an individual votes against the conclusion reached by the debate, we might require them to sign off on each supporting argument they are thereby disagreeing with, or perhaps display each active counterargument in a publicly visible way. This will put some "peer pressure" on individuals not to simply ignore the results of the debates, require some accountability for those who do, and also give a better idea of which premises are being taken less seriously.

There should also be some way for individuals to agree or disagree with any claim in any debate. This would:

  • let us get a very quick and dynamic indication of how much support there is for any given "fact" in our debate database
  • let us provide, as an almost competitive kind of thing, individuals to be notified when claims they have "endorsed" are contradicted, e.g. "Your claim has been challeged! You agreed that (text of claim), but this has been countered with (text of counter). Do you wish to respond? [link]"

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 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.

Another is to allow voting comments as spam, with something resembling karma-point penalties for posting spam comments.

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).


Debaters need to be able to pose questions which somehow hold up the ultimate decision until answered satisfactorily. It should be possible to display a list of all questions being asked across all debates, allowing researchers who may or may not be otherwise involved in the debates to help find answers.

Graphical Aids

In order to make the flow and status of structured debate easier to understand, Issuepedia has developed a set of icons and associated templates. This will eventually be worked into an application that will automatically track the status of every point in a debate.