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Jan. 5, 2012, 2:30 p.m.

Hacking consensus: How we can build better arguments online

A modest proposal for a new way to structure and assess the claims we make — and the conclusions we draw — in the digital space.

In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman argued that we should impose a tax on financial transactions, citing the need to reduce budget deficits, the dubious value of much financial trading, and the literature on economic growth. So should we? Assuming for a moment that you’re not deeply versed in financial economics, on what basis can you evaluate this argument? You can ask yourself whether you trust Krugman. Perhaps you can call to mind other articles you’ve seen that mentioned the need to cut the deficit or questioned the value of Wall Street trading. But without independent knowledge — and with no external links — evaluating the strength of Krugman’s argument is quite difficult.

It doesn’t have to be. The Internet makes it possible for readers to research what they read more easily than ever before, provided they have both the time and the ability to filter reliable sources from unreliable ones. But why not make it even easier for them? By re-imagining the way arguments are presented, journalism can provide content that is dramatically more useful than the standard op-ed, or even than the various “debate” formats employed at places like the Times or The Economist.

To do so, publishers should experiment in three directions: acknowledging the structure of the argument in the presentation of the content; aggregating evidence for and against each claim; and providing a credible assessment of each claim’s reliability. If all this sounds elaborate, bear in mind that each of these steps is already being taken by a variety of entrepreneurial organizations and individuals.

Defining an argument

We’re all familiar with arguments, both in media and in everyday life. But it’s worth briefly reviewing what an argument actually is, as doing so can inform how we might better structure arguments online. “The basic purpose of offering an argument is to give a reason (or more than one) to support a claim that is subject to doubt, and thereby remove that doubt,” writes Douglas Walton in his book Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation. “An argument is made up of statements called premises and a conclusion. The premises give a reason (or reasons) to support the conclusion.”

So an argument can be broken up into discrete claims, unified by a structure that ties them together. But our typical conceptions of online content ignore all that. Why not design content to more easily assess each claim in an argument individually? UI designer Bret Victor is working on doing just that through a series of experiments he collectively calls “Explorable Explanations.”

Writes Victor:

A typical reading tool, such as a book or website, displays the author’s argument, and nothing else. The reader’s line of thought remains internal and invisible, vague and speculative. We form questions, but can’t answer them. We consider alternatives, but can’t explore them. We question assumptions, but can’t verify them. And so, in the end, we blindly trust, or blindly don’t, and we miss the deep understanding that comes from dialogue and exploration.

The alternative is what he calls a “reactive document” that imposes some structure onto content so that the reader can “play with the premise and assumptions of various claims, and see the consequences update immediately.”

Although Victor’s first prototype, Ten Brighter Ideas, is a list of recommendations rather than a formal argument, it gives a feel of how such a document could work. But the specific look, feel and design of his example aren’t important. The point is simply that breaking up the contents of an argument beyond the level of just a post or column makes it possible for authors, editors or the community to deeply analyze each claim individually, while not losing sight of its place in the argument’s structure.

Show me the evidence (and the conversation)

Victor’s prototype suggests a more interesting way to structure and display arguments by breaking them up into individual claims, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what sort of content should be displayed alongside each claim. To start with, each claim could be accompanied by relevant links that help the reader make sense of that claim, either by providing evidence, counterpoints, context, or even just a sense of who does and does not agree.

Each claim could be accompanied by relevant links that help the reader make sense of that claim by providing evidence, counterpoints, context, or even just a sense of who does and does not agree.

At multiple points in his column, Krugman references “the evidence,” presumably referring to parts of the economics literature that support his argument. But what is the evidence? Why can’t it be cited alongside the column? And, while we’re at it, why not link to countervailing evidence as well? For an idea of how this might work, it’s helpful to look at a crowd-sourced fact-checking experiment run by the nonprofit NewsTrust. The “TruthSquad” pilot has ended, but the content is still online. One thing that NewsTrust recognized was that rather than just being useful for comment or opinion, the crowd can be a powerful tool for sourcing claims. For each fact that TruthSquad assessed, readers were invited to submit relevant links and mark them as For, Against, or Neutral.

The links that the crowd identified in the NewsTrust experiment went beyond direct evidence, and that’s fine. It’s also interesting for the reader to see what other writers are saying, who agrees, who disagrees, etc. The point is that a curated or crowd-sourced collection of links directly relevant to a specific claim can help a reader interested in learning more to save time. And allowing space for links both for and against an assertion is much more interesting than just having the author include a single link in support of his or her claim.

Community efforts to aggregate relevant links along the lines of the TruthSquad could easily be supplemented both by editor-curators (which NewsTrust relied on) and by algorithms which, if not yet good enough to do the job on their own, can at least lessen the effort required by readers and editors. The nonprofit ProPublica is also experimenting with a more limited but promising effort to source claims in their stories. (To get a sense of the usefulness of good evidence aggregation on a really thorny topic, try this post collecting studies of the stimulus bill’s impact on the economy.)

Truth, reliability, and acceptance

While curating relevant links allows the reader to get a sense of the debate around a claim and makes it easier for him or her to learn more, making sense of evidence still takes considerable time. What if a brief assessment of the claim’s truth, reliability or acceptance were included as well? This piece is arguably the hardest of those I have described. In particular, it would require editors to abandon the view from nowhere to publish a judgment about complicated statements well beyond traditional fact-checking. And yet doing so would provide huge value to the reader and could be accomplished in a number of ways.

Imagine that as you read Krugman’s column, each claim he makes is highlighted in a shade between green and red to communicate its truth or reliability. This sort of user interface is part of the idea behind “Truth Goggles,” a master’s project by Dan Schultz, an MIT Media Lab student and Mozilla-Knight Fellow. Schultz proposes to use an algorithm to check articles against a database of claims that have previously been fact-checked by Politifact. Schultz’s layer would highlight a claim and offer an assessment (perhaps by shading the text) based on the work of the fact checkers.

The beauty of using color is the speed and ease with which the reader is able to absorb an assessment of what he or she is reading. The verdict on the statement’s truthfulness is seamlessly integrated into the original content. As Schultz describes the central problem:

The basic premise is that we, as readers, are inherently lazy… It’s hard to blame us. Just look at the amount of information flying around every which way. Who has time to think carefully about everything?

Still, the number of statements that PolitiFact has checked is relatively small, and what I’m describing requires the evaluation of messy empirical claims that stretch the limits of traditional fact-checking. So how might a publication arrive at such an assessment? In any number of ways. For starters, there’s good, old-fashioned editorial judgment. Journalists can provide assessments, so long as they resist the view from nowhere. (Since we’re rethinking the opinion pages here, why not task the editorial board with such a role?)

Publications could also rely on other experts. Rather than asking six experts to contribute to a “Room for Debate”-style forum, why not ask one to write a lead argument and the others not merely to “respond,” but to directly assess the lead author’s claims? Universities may be uniquely positioned to help in this, as some are already experimenting with polling their own experts on questions of public interest. Or what if a Quora-like commenting mechanism was included for each claim, as Dave Winer has suggested, so that readers could offer assessments, with the best ones rising to the top?

Ultimately, how to assess a claim is a process question, and a difficult one. But numerous relevant experiments exist in other formats. One new effort,, is aiming to add a layer of peer review to the web, reliant in part on experts. While the project is in its early stages, its founder Dan Whaley is thinking hard about many of these same questions.

Better arguments

What I’ve described so far may seem elaborate or resource-intensive. Few publications these days have the staff and the time to experiment in these directions. But my contention is that the kind of content I am describing would be of dramatically higher value to the reader than the content currently available. And while Victor’s UI points towards a more aggressive restructuring of content, much could be done with existing tools. By breaking up an argument into discrete claims, curating evidence and relevant links, and providing credible assessments of those claims, publishers would equip readers to form opinions on merit and evidence rather than merely on trust, intuition, or bias. Aggregation sites like The Atlantic Wire may be especially well-positioned to experiment in this direction.

I have avoided a number of issues in this explanation. Notably, I have neglected to discuss counter-arguments (which I believe could be easily integrated) and haven’t discussed the tension between empirical claims and value claims (I have assumed a focus on the former). And I’ve ignored the tricky psychology surrounding bias and belief formation. Furthermore, some might cite the recent PolitiFact Lie of the Year controversy as evidence that this sort of journalism is too difficult. In my mind, that incident further illustrates the need for credible, honest referees.

Aggregation sites like The Atlantic Wire may be especially well-positioned to experiment in this direction.

Returning once more to Krugman’s argument, imagine the color of the text signaling whether his claims about financial transactions and economic growth are widely accepted. Or mousing over his point about reducing deficits to quickly see links providing background on the issue. What if it turned out that all of Krugman’s premises were assessed as compelling, but his conclusion was not? It would then be obvious that something was missing. Perhaps more interestingly, what if his conclusion was rated compelling but his claims were weak? Might he be trying to convince you of his case using popular arguments that don’t hold up, rather than the actual merits of the case? All of this would finally be apparent in such a setup.

In rethinking how we structure and assess arguments online, I’ve undoubtedly raised more questions than I’ve answered. But hopefully I’ve convinced you that better presentation of arguments online is at least possible. Not only that, but numerous hackers, designers, and journalists — and many who blur the lines between those roles — are embarking on experiments to challenge how we think about content, argument, truth, and credibility. It is in their work that the answers will be found.

Image by rhys_kiwi used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 5, 2012, 2:30 p.m.
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