Disputation Arenas

David Brin proposes a new method of dispute resolution in an article titled “Disputation Arenas:  Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness for Society’s Benefit.

What follows is my abridgement of Brin’s article, which I hope preserves his key points.


“In the long run, the Internet will serve us best if it enhances two seemingly contradictory traits — individualism and accountability. This may seem an odd blend, but their synergy is what brought us nearly everything we cherish about the modern era.”

“Forget all the noise about “Big Government.” It has only marginal importance, up or down, compared to society’s true immune system against error — fierce and reciprocal criticism.”

“The astonishing thing about all this raging individualism is how well it works at generating mutual and reciprocal criticism that is unavoidable even by elites. It is by far the best system ever created for discovering — and even preventing — errors that might cause real harm. For every crisis that takes us by surprise, there are a thousand bullets we seem to have dodged because someone hollered in time. It makes for a noisy society — and an uncommonly successful one.”

“Consider four marvels of our age — science, democracy, the justice system and fair markets. In each case the participants (scientists, litigants, politicians and capitalists) are driven by selfish goals. That won’t change; not till we redefine human nature. But for years, rules have been fine-tuned in each of these fields of endeavor, to reduce cheating and let quality or truth win much of the time. By harnessing human competitiveness, instead of suppressing it, these “accountability arenas” nourished much of our unprecedented wealth and freedom.”

“The Net has potential for creating a fifth great arena, equal to the others. Many of the traits it would need are already there, online. Vast troves of information. The freedom to make, break and reform associations. Relatively low cost-and-skill barriers to access. A potential for every fallible idea to face relentless scrutiny. But something is also missing. Take a closer look at how science, courts, democracy and markets actually work. In each arena, the process has two phases.

First, centrifugal structures help participants go off on their own, to organize and prepare in safety. Scientists have their labs, lawyers and their clients get confidentiality, politicians rally their parties, and businessfolk lead companies. People need secure enclaves to gather allies, make plans, and prepare for coming battles. The Net has already proved magnificent at emulating this phase… What each of the older accountability arenas has — and today’s Internet lacks — is centripetal focus. A counterbalancing inward pull. Something that acts to draw foes together for fair confrontation, after making their preparations in safe seclusion.”

“How might we draw a myriad adversaries together, to face-off under rules that foster fair competition without squelching any of their righteous passion? Into arenas that compare opinions just as well as science, markets and the law handle their own fractious debates? Into realms where the ultimate punishment for being proved wrong would be to lose our attention, as we turn away from dull rants toward the next riveting argument?”

Picture a venue where adversaries can no longer get away with just screaming past each other, but must actively answer each others’ accusations, criticisms and complaints. A place where one group’s vision — or model of the world — can be tested, dented, appraised… and possibly improved under the watchful gaze of an interested public. A site where the disprovable can be disproved, the ambiguous can be pinned down a bit more, and good ideas may get deserved attention just a bit sooner.”

“One of the internet’s great virtues may be its potential for relentlessness. Unlike debates in the real world, there would be no two-hour time limits. Extended online confrontations might last weeks or months, shepherded by proctors whose picky personalities (we all know the type) won’t let go of a logical inconsistency on this side of frozen hell. Ideally each side would doggedly pursue its opponents, forcing them to relent and give real answers — while reciprocating the favor.

If people in the world at large were ever to gain confidence in such a system of well-mediated confrontations, the events might acquire the kind of moral force that men used to invest in duels of honor, incurring shame upon those who do not show up or fight by the rules. The most important enforcement tool in any arena will be credibility.

Moreover, the Net can also provide many of the implements of science, e.g., analytical projection software and statistical tools drawing on vast databases, enabling advocates to create detailed models of their proposals — and their opponents’ — for presentation in the arena. This will be crucial because, as UCSD Professor Phil Agre has pointed out, much of the so-called “data” being bandied about on the Net these days is of incredibly poor quality, often lacking provenance or any discussion of error bars, sensitivity, dependency, or semantics. These problems can best be solved the way they are handled in science, by unleashing people with the personalities of bull terriers — critics who could be counted on to slash at every flaw until they are forced to admit (with reluctance) that they can’t find any more.”

“Ideally, a new kind of Internet-based DA (Disputation Arena) can have several potential uses:

  • Offer businesses and other communities a new way to handle internal debates and decide between disparate strategic plans, by comparing them systematically and openly.
  • Offer a tool for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) between groups whose bitter adversarial stance does not encourage more communitarian approaches like mediation or arbitration.
  • Offer opportunities for synthesis or consensus-building, after initial adversarial phases are complete. Even if both sides of a lengthy, adversarial dispute cannot come together, onlookers and outsiders will be edified by the best possible presentation/critique of each case, and come away better able to find consensus solutions.
  • Offer a vehicle to solicit public comment or criticism, even when adversarial opposition is absent.
  • Move the initial phase of creating policy and legislation onto the Internet by exposing data and policy proposals to scrutiny online, eliminating obvious blunders and attempting to coalesce consensus before legislators even get involved.
  • Create a new form of entertainment — possibly profitable — attracting a myriad citizens to observe and pose challenges to intellectual champions sent by opposing sides in almost any public dispute.”

“Structured Participation:  There would have to be a prim definition of roles for participants:

  • The disputants must have sufficient status in their advocacy community that they cannot easily be disowned if they are seen conceding points or compromising. Ideally, teams of half a dozen or more will enable each side to endure months of relentless questioning.
  • There must be rules. An impartial Jury will decide procedural issues and adjudicate a myriad squabbles that inevitably rise when groups have long hated and demonized each other. Ad hominem remarks must be penalized swiftly to keep things at least somewhat civil.
  • Distinct from the jury will be a panel of Eminent Observers (or inquisitors) noted for a pitbull tenacity at asking piercing questions. Their backgrounds should be varied for fairness.
  • The Peanut Gallery… an open forum for outsiders to post comments on the ongoing debate. These comments have no formal role in the dispute, but will edify. Option: let the Peanut Gallery elevate some their most incisive members to the panel of Eminent Observers.”

“Presentation and Critique of Manifestos:  The actual dispute begins when both teams of adversaries post their manifestos or position papers plus supporting material. At this phase, no attention is paid to actual merits of either side’s case! Instead, a month or more is spent discussing the logic and consistency of each manifesto, by picking apart each advocate’s position into ever-smaller pieces, producing a string (or several strings) of logical and falsifiable statements. Each will be given its own discussion thread, so that no step of logic escapes scrutiny.”

“The Paraphrasing Challenge: After both manifestos are declared logically usable, a distinct period — say a month — will be given to each side so they may paraphrase the other side’s position. This step aims to ensure that each party has actually read and understood where the other one stands, so they aren’t simply shouting past each other at chimeric caricatures. Paraphrasing is hard to do when you’ve spent years demonizing the opposition, calling them venal or stupid and dismissing their concerns. Success at paraphrasing will be seen as a way of winning credibility. It means “I do understand my opponents… so my disagreement with them is well-informed.”

“Let the Battle Begin: Now commences an open-ended and far-flung season of debate in which any and every line of these four documents can be fair game, each with its own category and line of discussion. Attack and defense can be based on logic, evidence or morality. While the Eminent Observers (or inquisitors) will be free to criticize, comment or pose questions, the adversaries themselves will bear principal responsibility to refute (or concede) their opponents’ points… By beginning with paraphrasing, it should be possible to expose polemical exaggerations and force stipulations from both sides, eliminating many lines of disagreement. Whenever this happens, the sub-category involved gets closed with a Statement of Stipulation.

This stage continues until we reduce the battle to a limited number of Core Conflicts over Substance. These would then be the focus of further intense scrutiny and research.”

Decision-Making:  (Here, David Brin outlines three possible types of outcome)

“A. Mediation, Consensus, or Synthesis:  If adversary-participants show goodwill and substantial movement from their starting positions — if they prove able to paraphrase opponents and accept the validity of their concerns — modern mediation tools can be offered to help them travel the rest of the way… Providing that adversaries can agree on terms and definitions, the formula distributes enough partial victories for each side to feel better off than they were before.”

“B. Settling disputes within a company or command-structured entity: Suppose the Board of a corporation faces two apparently equal and yet incompatible strategic plans. A Disputation Arena would help decision makers expose every flaw in both plans as thoroughly as possible, charting the results systematically to allow direct comparison. Reciprocal learning and compromise are possible, even in a command-based system, but the main goal is to give chiefs every tool they need to choose wisely.”

“C. Beneficial results without any clear-cut decision:  Generally, there will be valuable results from a structured disputation, even if nothing more is achieved than forcing opponents to be explicit about their assumptions and desires. If they further make a few moves away from caricatures and demonizations toward conceding each others’ humanity — and perhaps a few areas of common interest — all the better.

In some cases, it may be possible to prove one side or the other definitely wrong on one or more critical sub-points that must be urgently repaired, sending them away with homework before the next time battle is rejoined. Each side will profit from criticism, even if neither actually “wins.”

The process would also expose cracks that inevitably exist within a party, between moderate pragmatists and fanatical idealists… These moderates will have learned each others views… and names. We will have opened an option for them to open negotiations without their fanatics present to interfere.

Finally, it must be noted that the principal beneficiaries to any disputation may not be those directly involved in the debate. Outside observers, perhaps far more numerous, will be free to draw their own conclusions, edified by the best arguments that both sides raised, yet free to work out new idea unburdened by the same emotional baggage.”


The ultimatum of a disputation arena won’t be to award victory to any one side, but to create an atmosphere of practical problem-solving, helping moderates understand each others’ concerns and reach for some mutually beneficial consensus, leaving fanatics isolated and impotent at the wings. In today’s political climate, we all win by forcing both sides to accept a little ambiguity.

This process isn’t meant to serve disputants as much as the rest of us, by giving us a chance to peer closely and skim good ideas from both sides, utilizing their passion and insights without getting sucked into either purist position. Innovative styles of accountability may thus provide centripetal influences to bring us together, counteracting the centrifugally polarizing tendencies that now threaten to tear civil society apart.

Ultimately, free speech is about much more than just self-expression. It is also how humans find ways to solve problems and live with one another. Ironically, this utopian aim may best be achieved by argument… by the reciprocal accountability that comes about when adversarial opposition takes place in an arena that is both open and fair.”

Read the full article by David Brin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>