A framework for national opinion-finding


The widespread inability to and disinterest in forming the own opinion based on facts has exasperated me for a long time. All humans are imperfect and incapable of perfect logic all the time, but there are avoidable and actually fairly obvious obstacles to good opinion-forming and thus to good decision-making.

Some of these obstacles are cultural and by my limited lifetime experience, they were not as prevalent in the late 20th century. Call me anti-American if you want, but many of the intelligence-trashing cultural obstacles appear to be most intensely applied and followed in the United States where a large fraction of the population is outright preferring to live in fantasyland. Their disdain for actual information and actual reasoning is appalling.

- - - - -

So I'll lay out a format for how a nation could have a sensible and fair discussion based on known facts with unusually good conditions for reaching opinions based on good faith and known facts. It is in large extent optimised to counter the American bullshitting culture. This format would be very much suitable for a weekly primetime one-hour TV show on a major TV network.

The first thing you need to have is proper fact-checking and an offence database. The fact-checking needs to be reputable and quick. The hosts would choose the fact-checkers, and take responsibility for their choice. The conflicting parties would have no say in this choice.

Second, you need a clear, concise and published rule set that discourages the usual bullshitting culture moves:

  • bad faith arguments
  • hypocrisy
  • attempts to keep a discussion from reaching a conclusion as long as the own side doesn't seem likely to win
  • lies
  • "plausible deniability" cover for lies and other unethical behaviour (dogwhistles)
  • moving goalposts
  • logical fallacies 
  • irrelevant distractions and trivialities

The host selects a topic and gives two conflicting parties (not necessarily political parties; it would also be something like PETA vs. Association of not assholes) few weeks time to prepare and announce their small delegation. Both side begins with an argument-free opening statement of their conclusion and both sides begin with 100 points. The pro-change side begins by making their first (time-limited) argument, and announces how heavily it weighs this arguments in points (example: 10 points weight), but with a limit of maximum 20 points.

The fact checkers check the argument, and if they find bad faith, hypocrisy, lies, disinformation, dogwhistles, logical fallacies, irrelevant or trivialities, this is an instant defeat and they lose all those points (example: -10 points). In case the argument was fine, they don't lose any points but the other side does (example: -10 points). In case of the argument being found to be plain wrong (lies or wrong information, lacking in logical reasoning) they lose the points twice (example: -20 points).

Next, it's the other side's turn. There's a check if any side is at or below zero points after every such round, and if so, the part with less points is declared  to have lost the argument on the issue.

The following week, there will be a one-hour special prime time TV show providing all the real world facts about the issue that the winning side wants to be known to the public (and that can be stuffed into one hour of TV).

  • Lies get punished
  • Bad faith arguments get punished
  • Dogwhistling gets punished.
  • Logical fallacies get punished.
  • Distractions at topics when the other side deserves to score get punished.
  • Hypocrisy gets punished.
  • No moving goalposts or keeping the discussion open indefinitely because of the finite points pool.

And most importantly; any delegation found to have lied will be admonished for lying and be excluded from the show for one year. A liar will be branded a "liar" and banned from not only the TV show, but the entire network for lifetime for the second offence. Known serial liars won't be permitted into the delegation in the first place. Again, the host accepts responsibility for this and has to lay out evidence of serial lying for every proposed but then rejected delegate.

- - - - -

There are imperfections such as that I found no accurate way for the points to reflect the actual importance of the argument. A party could "win" with 10 rather unimportant arguments while losing against four heavyweight arguments, for example. A way out would be to let the host allocate all or additional points to an argument, but this only moves the imperfection around. Likewise, the factcheckers could fail, and indeed would very likely fail on some very unusual topics. a 17th century factchecker would have gotten ethics of slavery wrong, a 1950's fact checker would have made rulings about gay stuff that would be appalling in the 21st century and so on. There's also a time problem; to give fact checkers much time becomes impractical, and they might be tricked with new lies if they have too little time. The debate that's being concentrated into a two-hour TV show should probably happen over several days' time with a non-disclosure condition until the broadcasting.

Still, a framework that discourages bullshitting culture and reduces it to some rule-tricking efforts that are but a fraction of the unregulated bullshitting would be a huge improvement. Such a framework could also be used in and by large institutions (large corporations, military bureaucracies) to support better decision-making while under attack by one or another bullshitting culture.

We won't have such a Saturday evening TV show. We do need to stem the tide of bullshitting culture, though. It's about time we do something, for the old-fashioned institutions fail against bullshitting culture.




  1. There are two important approaches to regulating human behaviour: laws and mores. An approach through laws always offers the option of loopholes that can be exploited to violate the intent of the law. Courts do law while comedians do mores. Find a shared non-partisan comedic format that makes fun of all these faults and the problem gets solved.

    1. There's a problem if one party is objectively much worse (more crooked, lying more) than the others. The satirists would naturally (and deservingly) focus on it and thus be perceived as partisan even if they're fair.

      There are certain cultures in which seemingly most people confuse the concepts of fairness and balance with 'identical amount and severity'.

    2. Currently, most comedians with major shows in the US are migrants holding views more compatible with the US-left than with the US-right. I agree that there are a bunch of challenges for a comedian to set things straight. This lying on the right side of the spectrum might be due to an underrepresentation in publicly celebrated culture which allows such a boastful subculture to flourish. It's in a way similar to gangster rap in its loose connection to truth and heavy importance of shocking and posing.

  2. Sven, I like your idea but cannot see how it would work. Too many people are too invested in their personal fantasies, they just wouldn't watch the show.

    I'm also appalled by the lack of interest in facts in the US at this time. The only idea I've had to improve the content of the conversations is to ban social media, which is at least as much of a non-starter as your TV show.

    The problem does not lie with the technology, it lies with the very human desire to only read/hear what interests them and the large number of people who exploit social media to pass off their fantasies as truth.

    The only way I can see this ending is when reality rears its ugly head in such a way that nobody can ignore it and survive. I'm not looking forward to the day that happens. The death toll will be in the hundreds of millions.


    1. The civil society could recognize the fair arena as what it is and would need to push back decisively against smears that would be aimed at it.
      Technology, formats, customs - nothing matters if too many people are passive and not willing to defend anything that's worth to defend.

      Part of our current problems (not just in the anglophone world) is that matured establishments have displayed so many faults that the motivation to defend what's good about the established order and customs is too weak. Thus the success of the relentless smears by extremists.

      Just look at what people the biggest German (actual conservative) party had on its shortlist for party chairmanship. All of them were so terribly flawed that they should retire from federal- and state-level politics for good, not get promoted.
      Same issue with their traditional opponents; their top candidate for chancellorship was a terrible failure in one scandal after another, most importantly CumEx and Wirecard.
      This is unilateral disarmament against extremists.

      Meanwhile, the greens follow their habit of pissing people off with emancipation overreach(multiples), give up direct democracy in expectation of not being opposition party any more and don't really care about the lower income half of the country's households.

      The civil society needs something worth defending, or it won't show up for a fight against extremists.

    2. Thumbs up for that analysis of Germany.

  3. I strongly disagree with your ideas both about fact checking and about the formalized ranking of arguments and "winning" of debates. The arbiter of these will not be trusted and will almost certainly appear partisanal to the reprimanded side. The imperfections you mentioned will further make the entire format seem unfair. And remember, the people most likely to ignore facts are also the most likely to distrust the "mainstream" media in the first place.
    The idea of assigning time slots on the other hand is an idea so obvious it is almost criminal our publically funded broadcasters ignore them for talkshows full of arbitrary speaking rights and interruptions.

    So what would I suggest instead? I think it would be a good start to exercise more modesty in what can or cannot be found as true or logically sound. And the arbiters of these have to be firmly separated from the partisans. For example, logical fallacies or other bad forms of arguing should be determined by an extra person or team - I'm thinking of some wizened philologists and philosophers (and throw in a mathematician for the inevitable bad statistics). They would not enter the argument itself and can credibly convey that they are not on any side in this debate, but will purely point out flawed argumentation. Facts should be conveyed by independent experts - scientists first and foremost. And the debaters should have some say in whom they want to represent them - lest the arbiters be accused of bias once more. Only the most open and credible kinds of information should be conveyed by the show team itself. To given an example: If a climate activist and a climate change denier wish to debate, their respective experts should both be heard - but the team would give some background info: The credible climatologist is supported in his opinions by hundreds of other scientists, the denier by very few.

    I'd like to add (but that is a more general problem): credibility and plausible impartiality are paramount for the actual sources and distributors of information. And that means they must refrain from inducting any sort of value into the facts they determined. This is understandably hard for them - scientists are invested into their topics because it has meaning to them, journalists most often want to improve the world through their work, not distribute raw facts - especially not of the kind that might have negative effects. And the sensationalist and entertaining nature of the media does its part as well. But this very overeagerness eventually hurts their credibility. If you listen to climate deniers, they will often state that scientists are partisanal - given in to some environmentalist agenda that goes above and beyond what is actually in their (the climate deniers) interest. And that's not even wrong - climate scientists and environmentalists have an understandably greater interest in the environment than the common man for whom a carbon tax means a serious budget problem. That the vast majority of them are still honest scientists despite this personal interest is a fact they are not privy to. They will cite previous exaggerated predictions that did not come true - which certainly were made by journalists, or activists, but not by scientists. But the difference is hard to tell when journalism is your only access point to these very different groups.

  4. First off, being anti-American is one of the stupidest accusations I've ever heard. As if there is anything inherently wrong about criticizing one nation in particular.

    Anyway, I like the concept, especially the bans, since they would counter the false equivalence fallacy. However there are some limitations. Imagine a debate about the pros and cons of abortion. Sure both sides could make rational arguments, but in the end it's a question of morals, that cannot be answered rationally.

    Or if we had a discussion about climate change between an environmentalist and an economist. One would argue that if we continue having economic growth, we will end up with an environmental catastrophe, whereas the other would argue, if we limit our emissions and pollutions to the necessary levels, we will face economic decline. And both sides could be factually correct, but this doesn't answer the question, what would be the better decision.

    Finally, the best long term safeguard against misinformation would be including logic and critical thinking into the basic school curriculum, although IMHO today's younger generation is way better informed and more critical than the 40+ generations.

    1. Well, if one party doesn't think that a topic can be discussed to a rational decision because it's all about beliefs or feelings then it can state so and decline the invitation. That's the same as admitting that you have no absolute truth, though - so the anti-abortionists would participate and there would be an exchange of arguments instead of blind emotional zealotry on the topic, for once.

      About education; I keep saying that theory of sets is super important and neglected in primary schooling.
      It's way more important than integrals and nobody should graduate from primary education without a perfect score on a comprehensive, text-based test all about set theory judgments.

    2. About the environment discussion; your whole premise is wrong. An ACTUAL economist would not argue against environmental policy, he or she would argue for efficient environmental policy. ACTUAL economists understand the concept of external effects market failure and have the tools to recommend against it.
      The economist might rebuff the environmentalist on some inefficient proposals.
      For example, many German greens think that we needed a higher petrol price for the environment. That's objectively wrong, as the cost of filtering CO2 from the atmosphere (=least efficient method to counter greenhouse gases) per ton of CO2 is less than the existing extra taxation (extra to VAT) of petrol.
      It is more efficient to counter climate change in other ways than to make driving more expensive in Germany. This is objective truth, it can and has been proven with indisputable math.

  5. Last Dingo:

    You are for sure not anti-american, you are an misantrope and still do not fully realize this fact. Not only the americans live in an fantasyland, most of mankind do this. Have you ever talked to people from india, from thailand, from uganda or lets say bolivia for a longer period and listen actually what they are telling you? The difference between the american fantasy community and that of other countries is only, that the americans are louder, and are standing in the center of the attention because of their importance for all other countries. The stupidest people i ever talked to were radical hindus (with an european study graduation), followed by several people from africa (again with an european study graduation) and despite their qualification this people lived in an fantasyland next to which the most bizarre ideas of the americans already sounded reasonable.

    So the problem is the human beiing such at it is. As i think that this has genetic reasons i assume, that it is not fixable.

  6. 'Faith in institutions has never been lower.' etc...

    Another institution isn't going to fix this. There are infinite FAKE NEWS memes in the social media SAN cluster.

    I dont know where this ends. But the line is continuing to go the wrong way.


  7. In the US bring back an updated version of the Fairness Doctrine. But it must also include the internet. 'Social Media' is no longer exclusively social - it has turned into a platform for so-called citizen journalists to spread fake news.

    Alas I don't see that happening. Opponents will scream Freedom of Speech and throw in mega-billions of dollars to defeat it. They would do the same against Sven's proposal.

    1. As mentioned, it takes the civil society to stand up and push back the dangerous idiots.
      The problem is that the establishment isn't exactly inspiring such a fight with all its accumulated faults.
      The U.S. just barely avoided becoming a full-blown fascist dictatorship a few days ago and they're already moving back to business as usual and benefit of the doubt for known bad faith actors.