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:

  1. All facts must be brief, preferably one line.
  2. All facts must include a source.
  3. Sources from obviously political organizations would be removed.
  4. A trail of edits would always be publicly available for viewing.
  5. Facts in the list would be organized by category, e.g. economics, morality, safety.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
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+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 7, 2012
One problem with Wikipedia is that it provides no insurance against "madness of the crowds". Any belief system which is sufficiently popular grows its personal, sophisticated theology. People with reputations will write papers and undertake studies, and pretty soon some manifestly irrational ideas will be hidden behind a thick emulsion of intellectual respectability.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 6, 2012
And then I realized, to what end is this fact bubbler? So we can feel informed? Or so we can have a valid way of comparing government (in)action vs. the best known facts and opinions? How will this help? If a website with user-provided data sources and opinions makes it glaringly obvious when government fails or which direction government should take, does it make a difference? We already have many government watchdogs, both from the left and the right. Unfortunately, I think government does what it wants anyway (e.g., TARP, PPACA, etc.). Write all the letters you want to your congressman if it makes you feel better. Yes, I know politicians will pander to whomever they think they can get the most votes, but this is mostly lip service. If our only way to promote change in government is to vote, then we've already lost. How many of you feel like you are voting for a leader vs. voting for the least-likely-to-do-more-damage?

And we all saw the Occupy "fill-in-the-blank" protests. Remember them? Misguided sheeple as many of those people are, I have a feeling we are going to see a lot more protests coming. Even if people are protesting for the wrong thing (because they didn't have a nice website to refer to), massive civil unrest with swarms of angry mobs may be the only action that will raise any government attention. Personally, I'd rather have a way to hit 'em where it hurts, the pocketbook, since that is usually the only way to make those in power notice, but I think the average person does not have that power, even en masse.

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer (or is that Bob Bummer?), but an awesome website will not fix our problems. I think Phantom II is on to something, especially the last two paragraphs.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 5, 2012
I am honored to be singled out in this post, but I respectfully argue that a crucial portion of my original idea has been lost.
Why did I require everyone to vote for both sides of an issue (even at a 2-1 ratio)? Because the best way to reach compromise or to change an opinion is to be exposed to new ideas. Now sure, lots of folks will just vote at random on the opposing side, but the folks who are most intelligent will read what they are voting up, and look for arguments they can support. I suspect that the items voted up would be more likely to be compromise/consensus positions, instead of radical ideas. Meanwhile, both sides of the issue are exposed to both sides' arguments, in a way that they are most likely to think instead of just reacting. Also, alternative ideas will find an especially fertile ground since folks are forced to support something other than their starting position!
I wanted an idea that pushes us to find common ground and seek new solutions, which I argue my original method would do better than your proposed change.
That said, inserting that one missing piece of code into your proposal would be trivial. What say you sir?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 5, 2012
I immediately thought of stackoverflow as another similar site. What I wasn't aware of was that stackoverflow was generalized so that the format could be used for other topics. They even have an area where people can propose new stackoverflow-ish type sites. I don't think it's a complete match to Scott's requirements, but it does have some good elements to it. One plus in particular is the use of moderators (which can be appointed or voted on from the community) and that contributors earn a reputation (which makes it easier to separate weasels from the well-intentioned).

See here for the proposed site about politics:
Jul 5, 2012
Seems like it's worth a try. Is this what you have in mind?

Fact Bubbler Test Case – Global Warming

This is an attempt to organize the relations between carbon dioxide and global warming in a “fact bubbler,” as described in Stott Adams’ blog post, “Fact Bubbler,” July 4, 2012. The idea is to list only facts and to state each fact simply and concisely. Supporting data and a more conventional description of the facts can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Warming.
Is this organization less controversial, clearer and/or more convincing than other presentations, e.g., the Wikipedia article mentioned above? If not, why not?
• Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a product of the combustion of organic fuels, such as wood, coal, oil, and natural gas.
• Unless it’s trapped near the site of combustion, carbon dioxide escapes into the atmosphere.
• Carbon dioxide gas absorbs and re-emits infrared radiation (IR).
• Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere primarily absorbs IR emitted from the earth, below, and emits IR both back toward earth and up toward space.
• Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere decreases the amount of IR emitted by the earth that escapes into space.
• Atmospheric carbon dioxide has a negligible effect on radiation from the sun reaching the earth, since most of that energy is non-IR.
• The earth is heated by radiation from the sun and cooled by radiation of IR into space.
• Carbon dioxide is not removed from the atmosphere by rain but may be reduced by reaction at the earth’s surface, e.g., by production of calcium carbonate.
• Carbon dioxide is trapped when water freezes to form ice and the carbon dioxide content of ice reflects the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere when and where the ice was formed.
• Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by plants and used in plant metabolism.
• Reducing total plant life on earth by reduction of forest area increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
• Increasing total plant life on earth by planting crops and decorative landscaping reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
• The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changes is a quantitative result of changes in all the factors that increase and decrease CO2.
• Estimates of future atmospheric CO2 concentrations are made by models that incorporate all known factors that add or subtract CO2.
• Increases in average global temperature increase ice melting in glaciers and polar ice caps.
• Reduction of ice in glaciers and polar ice caps causes increasing sea levels.
• Burning of organic fuels increases (a) as the human population increases and (b) as industrialization and prosperity increase.
• World average air temperatures are estimated by combining data from all sources.
• Atmospheric temperatures are measured by ground stations, balloons, and satellite sensors.
• Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are measured by chemical sensors at ground level and in balloons.
• Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are measured by radiation sensors on satellites.
• Historic carbon dioxide concentrations are estimated by measuring carbon dioxide concentrations in “old ice,” that is, water frozen in the past.
• The time when water was frozen to form “old ice” is estimated from the depth of ice in relatively undisturbed areas, such as the polar ice caps.
• Estimates of global average air temperature and global average carbon dioxide are more accurate for recent times when more data is available.
• [Facts needed for how CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are measured.]
• The International Energy Agency’s observed CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning have increased from 21 billion tons per year in 1990 to 31 billion tons per year in 2010.
• Atmospheric CO2 measured a Mauna Loa, HI, has increased from 315 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in 1960 to 385 ppmv by 2010.
• The NASA global land-ocean temperature index shows an increase of about 0.9 degree centigrade between 1910 and 2011.
• A Goddard Institute for Space Studies analysis has shown that, between 1980 and 2010, global average temperature increased by about 0.5 degree C, the hottest areas on the North American land mass increased by about 2 degrees C, and the fraction of the North American land mass experiencing extremely high temperatures increased from 1% to 10%.
• The World Glacier Monitoring Service has measured a decrease in average glacier thickness of 14 meters between 1955 and 2005.
• The annually averaged sea level at 23 geologically stable tide gauge sites with long-term records increased by 20 cm from 1885 to 2005.
• Estimates of future CO2 emissions are made by models of population growth, economic growth and the balance of various energy sources. E.g., estimates will be higher if fossil fuels continue to be the main source of energy and lower if nuclear, solar and or wind power become more important.
• Estimates of future atmospheric temperatures are based on models combining estimated future CO2 concentrations with the known absorptive and emissive properties of CO2.
• Models of all kinds contain some uncertain terms that are estimated by !$%*!$%*! until the model matches previous data. That is, data is needed to calibrate models.
• Models of all kinds are tested against existing data. A valid model must agree with many more data points than there are adjustable parameters in the model. A valid model must agree with the shape of trends, e.g., linear changes with time, or quadratic, cyclic, or exponential.
• Uncertainties in the model of temperature vs. CO2 lead to an estimated temperature increase of 3 /- 1.5 degrees if atmospheric CO2 doubles.
• The Goddard Institute for Space Studies surface 3D air temperature model predicts that increasing average temperature will increase the amount of moisture stored in the atmosphere and increase both weather extremes – hot dry summers and unusually heavy rainfall and floods.
• The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses its models to predict a range of future climate conditions based on different possible future CO2 emissions and a range of possible sensitivities of temperature to CO2. The models predict an increase in sea level of 0.18 to 0.59 meter between about 1999 and 2099.

+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 5, 2012
OK Scott.

Quit doinking about and pull the trigger. Set up the website. Pull together some moderators.

You have been fishing in this lake for years, pulling ideas and commentary out of us. Just friggin do it. Sure it will be bumpy at first and lots of things could go wrong and it could be highly criticized … but if you pull it off it could actually have a huge impact. From what I read, most of your many readers think this would be an amazing idea even if many see the goal of being unbiased as unrealistic. And you obviously believe you are capable of sitting in the middle of this debate and moderating and be the emperor of data vs opinion in politics. Hey, you could be the Jimmy Wales of politics. Of all the entertaining but ridiculous thought experiments you have floated over the last 10 years, this is the idea that could truly have an impact. So do it. We’re behind you. This could be the beginning of the end of sh*t slinging in politics and the path to your Nobel Peace Prize.

Do it.

What are you waiting for?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 5, 2012
Lots of naysayer's here. Bottom line, despite potential imperfections this is definitely worth a try as I cannot imagine it being worse than the vacuous political black infohole we have to put up with now.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 5, 2012
I was going to write that this sounds like a terrible idea and went to wikipedia and searched 'abortion debate' as an example to back up my claim.

I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong and that it was as reasonably neutral as that topic can be. I think you may be on to something.
Jul 5, 2012
Here in the UK my ex-wife is a councillor. Yet she polled fewer votes than I have as Twitter followers. At this level the vote can be manipulated by getting the loyal followers out and hoping the other lot fail to get their supporters to vote.

Voting only works when it is about something that matters enough to get large numbers.

We all come out and vote for president, but who cares enough for local politicians?

This is the flaw in this plan. On big issues you'll get consensus and useful results.

On smaller ones you'll get skewed results simply because only those close to the issue will know enough to make comments, amend etc.

For proof, look at the more obscure topics on Wikipedia.
Jul 5, 2012
Elected politicians are essentially the middlemen between the public (who, in theory, should be able to dictate policy to some extent - government of the people, by the people etc.) and the civil service, who do the tedious business of actually getting the laws codified, enacted and enforced. The politicians ONLY VALUE is as a filter for those policy ideas.

Record companies are essentially the middlemen between the public (who just want to hear the music they like) and the musicians, who do the tedious business of actually learning to play music and getting the songs codified, enacted and performed. The record companies ONLY VALUE is^h^h was as a method of distribution for those songs.

And then, the internet made the latter's redundancy transparent. Did they go down without a fight?

And how much MORE of a fight will two or three generations of career politicians put up against a technological solution to making them redundant? They'll make the Recording Industry Ass. of America look like compliant puppies by comparison.
Jul 4, 2012
"each policy debate would have a list of facts from the most credible sources available" I think you are already in trouble right there. Who is determining a source's credibility? What happens with facts that are nominally true but misleading or besides the point? Even the simplest "fact" needs so many attendant definitions that putting it into one sentence would be virtually impossible.

Here's an example: "The income gap between the wealthy and the non-wealthy is increasing." Is that true, or false? It depends on at least four different definitions: the units being used in the gap; how you are measuring it; what time period you are making the claim for; and what dividing line is used to separate the two groups. ANY AND ALL of these can (and will) be argued about vociferously. Should the gap be measured in absolute dollars, relative sizes of income, or percentage of total wealth? Should we measure total wealth or income? If the former, does that include things such as trust funds or IRAs that cannot be accessed? If the latter, is that just take-home pay, or does it include interest income, stock gains, etc.? And so on.

On any issue which should be of concern to the voters, it is virtually impossible to make simple statements that are (a) useful and (b) universally agreed upon, which I think would be the two main criteria for inclusion in your list. There is simply no substitute for doing your homework.

"What's really needed, IMHO, are people to teach children how to think critically." Phantom, I could not have said this any better, so I'm doing the next best thing, repeating it. I've actually thought about what would go into a high-school-level class in critical thinking. I'm convinced it really wouldn't need to be that long. There is a non-trivial amount of math involved, but it isn't anything too advanced. You would also have to cover topics like understanding the motivations of a speaker, and efficiently diagramming sentences to catch weasel phrases.

Still, I don't think it would take too long. How much better off would we be if we substituted even just a couple of weeks of one a required subject with content like this?
Jul 4, 2012
This is excellent! Now that iGoogle is heading out to pasture, it would become my home page.
Jul 4, 2012
First, let me say happy birthday to our country, the United States of America. This is our 236th birthday. Long may our country live.

On to my response to your post:

What happens when facts are actually opinions? When you're dealing in the political realm, which I assume you are, then what we call facts take on shadings based on our political bias. So if you have a site that demands facts, which source do you accept as being truly factual, and which do you dismiss out of hand?

Take one of your favorite topics: Anthropogenic Global Warming. You, Scott, are absolutely convinced that the Earth is warming and that man is the cause. You accept this as fact. So to you, any actual observation of fact that does not fit with your conclusion will be dismissed by you out of hand as either a lie or as a mistake.

[Actually, I believe the Earth is warming and that human activity is probably contributing at some unknown level. That's very different from what you just said. -- Scott]

In your scenario, then, the "facts" that could be presented would have to be vetted by. . . whom? The person or group who controls the facts would therefore control the opinions. If the only facts allowed to be presented on AGW were the ones you allowed, how could anyone post an opinion piece that refuted the theory?

As I said yesterday, trying to limit a knowledge source to a single site invites someone with a particular bias to end up controlling it. Can you imagine the political power someone could gain if they just were able to become controller of the FOAWAK (Fount Of All Wisdom And Knowledge) site?

Again, all the knowledge and opinion on virtually any topic is already available: in books, in libraries, on the Internet, etc. Why to create a site that could be corrupted when you can search on almost any topic you wish? Centralization invites corruption and unwarranted expansion of power; just look at our federal government.

What's really needed, IMHO, are people to teach children how to think critically. Then give them access to knowledge and opinion sources and teach them how to use them. The educational system in the US has moved far away from that. We're teaching our kids what to think rather than how to think.

The danger is not in biased information. The danger is in citizens who don't feel any need to learn about the issues of the day, nor how to think in a way that will lead them to logical conclusions.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 4, 2012
I've seen attempts to do this. You wind up with a very biased process, because whichever side is currently in power will arbitrarily declare that government agencies which favor its views are to be assumed objective and non-polifical when they are anything but.

For instance, the EPA's estimates of anything related to the climate change controversy are only "objective" if you're already a total believer in catastrophic human-caused climate change.
Jul 4, 2012
Absolutely brilliant! 2nd. only after Wikipedia.

Of course there are going to be 'things to sort out,' but the sooner we get closer to fact/evidence-based politics, management, ... etc. the better off the world will be.

Go for it!
Jul 4, 2012
Absolutely brilliant! 2nd. only after Wikipedia.

Of course there are going to be 'things to sort out,' but the sooner we get closer to fact/evidence-based politics, management, ... etc. the better off the world will be.

Go for it!
Jul 4, 2012
I like the idea, except you'd need a LOT of well-vetted moderation.

One of Wikipedia's hardest-to-police things as-is is politics, I imagine.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 4, 2012
You would need a mechanism to control for the fact that people who are passionate but know nothing will vote the most. Perhaps combine this with your other ideas of rating people based on their knowledge. For example, different categories would have basic knowledge quizzes, and your vote will have more or less weight based on your score. (Perhaps, the knowledge "quizzes" would have to be more than that, perhaps a robust, ongoing set of questions that folks would have to answer over a long time period, more like an official certification then a "quiz".) So, the people that vote for a particular spending package will have their vote count more or less depending on their knowledge of finance, tax policy, and the like.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 4, 2012
In my experience, Wikipedia's "anyone can edit" culture has some serious flaws, even on non-controversial topics. Making an edit is a small portion of the over-all process: you also have to make sure your edit isn't "fixed" or removed by other Wikipedians who are misinformed or lack basic reading comprehension skills. Many intelligent, well-informed people don't have the time to defend their edits, so the quality varies widely.

Add a controversial topic like politics to the mix, and you have a highly unstable situation unless there's moderation. And then you have to trust the moderators to be impartial, which is basically where we are now.

Wikipedia is a great introduction to a topic, full of useful search keywords if you want to dig deeper. As a high-quality source of the state of human knowledge, it generally fails.
Jul 4, 2012
New policy initiatives often have no existing "facts" for guidance. So much of what is done is justified by computer simulations with a multitude of assumptions, none of which are really provable or even knowable. Unknown unknowns proliferate in real life. Predictable solutions will invariably be elusive in complex systems.

One example - Minimum wage laws do provide a higher base pay for those actually employed. But they also act as a barrier to new entrants to the job market. Both have been found to be "true". However, the preponderant truth all depends on what problem *you* want to solve.
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