Detoxyfying politics: towards an ethics of evidence-backed debating

I am almost never comfortable discussing politics. The way we make decisions on our common future sometimes seems completely off the mark: we talk about the leaders’ personalities rather than about their policies. The policies themselves appear very different according to who is proposing them: “our” budget cuts are a wise measure to curb wasteful expenditure, whereas those of our adversaries are an indiscriminate slashing of essential services. The whole thing is way too emotional, because voting according to guts is at risk of bringing about very bad things (if you are interested in this, you might want to read Bryan Caplan’s The myth of the rational voter). Last year for example, we had a string of referenda in Italy, on highly relevant issues like nuclear energy and water management. My countrymen talked surprisingly little of, well, nuclear energy and water management. You would come across statements like “I don’t trust this country with nuclear” (written, presumably, by somebody who entrusts a state hospital with her life, or a state school with educating her children) or “give our future back to our children” (meaning use more nuclear because it produces fewer greenhouse gases or using more coal and oil because they are not radioactive?).

I think (hope) that open data could help to realign these discussion. Not only data point to facts, but discussing on their interpretation leads to ever more sophisticated analysis. “Look here! Under the Grays’ rule GDP grew much faster than the measly 0.3% a year of the Colored administration!” “Yes, but consider that the years of the Colored government coincided with a world recession. The right indicator is the difference in growth rate between our country and the world average, and that shows clearly how wise the policies of the Coloreds’ government were.” To win an argument like this, the contenders need to delve deep into the datum. What is it really measuring? How to interpret it?

For this to happen, clearly, data are essential, but not sufficient: you also need a part of the public opinion that knows how to use them to build stories on our living together, and contribute them to public debate. If this is not there data can and will be used in incompetent or dishonest ways, wielded as weapons and end up reducing the quality and diversity of the debate itself. Because of this, I joined the open data movement and, within that movement, I am doing my best to bring about initiatives to boost the demand for data and data literacy. I make a case for this in the video below (Italian – 20 minutes).

You are wise, my friend.  Politics is emotional and open data will help.

However, open data by itself will not make a major difference.  People often take data and twist it to meet their viewpoints, leaving today’s citizens confused about the real truth.

However, open data can, if provided by truly independent sources, be a difference maker and I know this is more where your thought processes are at, and I agree.  The question I have, is how do we enable these independent, unbiased, sources of information and how do we ensure citizens, regardless of their location on the digital divide, have access to this data, this information?

It’s social (as always)

Agreed. I believe in open (in the sense of free to join), rational conversation as the engine to achieve, well… truth, if that’s not too big a word. Data are “only” fuel for the conversation. But, data being what they are, it seems to me that drawing attention to them could channel the conversation onto healthier terrain. Why? Because they give you ammo to win an argument, or to make a forceful point, but to use that ammo you have to argue rationally. Of course one could always pretend to do so and spread lies, but that does not really matter, because (1) in the debate someone else is likely to see through the lies and unmask them and (2) by crafting a fake rational argument one has to pay tribute to the language of rationality, and this in itself marginalizes the loudest, most drooling hatemongers and demagogues. Competition between participants should make the conversation converge towards rational argument.

Of course, the more people buy into rational argument the stronger this competitive force will be, the faster the convergence. Still a long way to go, at best.

How Mainstream Journalism plays into this

Interesting points. While reading this, the following link to a collaborative effort to produce a Handbook on data-jounalism flickered past on twitter:

I’m curious as to how professional journalism plays into generating these unhealthy debate climates, remembering how e.g. the NYT changed their article on the Brooklyn Bridge arrests during the Occupy protests:

Would be good to have more input into this topic.