"I'm just tryin' to fight my way out of this dream."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On "Intelligence?" and To-Blog

(Editor's note: hello visitors from Google+! You haven't missed much. I hope you like what you read; if so, subscribe to RSS or follow the blog on Twitter. And if you want Google+ for yourself, leave a comment and I'll try to get back to you.)

I've been wondering if I should have a typical "introduction" to these entries. Other forms of media have theme songs, or a regular first bit. One of my many podcast subscriptions, The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons, typically gives a Southern California weather report. While I could certainly track the ebbs and flows of King of Prussia weather patterns, you can just as easily check that for yourself.

Instead, at least for now, I think my introduction will be an update on my job situation. So here goes: another slow day on the job front; applied for a position that was suspiciously similar to a job I almost got before it disappeared due to "reorganization", and registered with the Pennsylvania Planning Association job board...which is currently completely empty. As you can see in the sidebar, my current job application number is up to 13. (I should probably get it off of that number soon, just for superstition's sake.)


Today, I have a short semi-rant on "Intelligence Squared" debates, and I will start the list of future blog entries I owe to you, the reading public.

I went for a walk around my neighborhood (more on that later) tonight in the surprisingly dry air (see, you got your weather report after all!), and finally got around to listening to May's edition of the "Intelligence Squared US" debate series, which was entitled "Don't Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses". If you haven't heard these debates before (which I listen via the podcast, which is hosted by NPR), the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU hosts teams of debaters (anywhere between 2 and 4 per team) in an "Oxford-style debate" to discuss a particular motion. This series, which started in the UK and has been duplicated in other countries, professes to:

"provide a new forum for intelligent discussion, grounded in facts and informed by reasoned analysis; to transcend the toxically emotional and the reflexively ideological; and to encourage recognition that the opposing side has intellectually respectable views."
This month's debate was ostensibly about immigration policy. Debating for this motion were noted transcendents of reflexive ideology: Mr. Tom Tancredo (last seen losing a governor's race as the American Constitution Party candidate), and Kris Kobach, who serves as Kansas' Secretary of State but was also instrumental in helping Arizona draft its "SB 1070" immigration bill. On the other side was San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Tamar Jacoby, the CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA - both likely identifiable as "liberals", but probably not quite as extreme as the "for" side. But that's OK, because IQ2 isn't looking for a partisan battle, necessarily. And to give them credit, the debate was largely not carried out along partisan lines, though the partisanship could likely have been extrapolated if any of the debate participants had desired to go that far.

I have two problems with these types of debates - one potentially solvable, and one that is much more systemic. The potentially solvable one revolves around the facts and studies cited during the debate by the participants. In a debate such as this one about such an incendiary topic, these debates can be useful to allow facts, figures, studies, and reports from respected individuals and organizations to shape reasonable positions. Unfortunately, much as with the rest of America's contemporary political dialogue, it is extremely hard to agree on just what "facts" are indeed factual. Studies were cited by both sides of debate on the economic cost or the economic benefit of illegal immigrants to the economies of the states and the federal government. One side said illegal immigration costs the country over a billion dollars every year in lost revenues, while the other argued that this amount is made up for in the sales and goods taxes that all people pay whether they are legal or not.

It wasn't just that the numbers each side were citing differed on the total impact of illegal immigration, it was that at one point each side cited THE SAME STUDY, drawing completely opposite conclusions from it. This point applies to debates far beyond immigration; we as a nation (as a planet?) are having a hard time A) agreeing on facts and B) agreeing on basic interpretations of facts (not opinions, but logical extensions). I understand that getting to point B is often difficult to reach without straying into opinion territory; I'm just talking about fact interpretations along the lines of "if you stand in water, you will get wet". But it's point A, the "this is truth" statement, that really should be something that a Oxford-style debate can use as firm ground to build interpretations in one direction or another. (Never mind the fact that by the end, Mr. Kobach was saying statements like "well, any sort of path to citizenship is amnesty, and that would let them jump to the front of the line of the process", which, at least in the few proposals that have been floated, is wrong on two counts in one breath.)

This could change in the near future. Right now, the moderator (John Donvan from ABC News) does little more than play traffic cop, allowing debators to take turns but rarely, if ever, challenging participants on their statements. I don't see any reason why "live fact-checking" could not be incorporated into this type of event, with a "neutral third party" (yes, I believe they do still exist) giving occasional updates on the validity of statements made by the debaters. Though, considering PolitiFact's recent dubious handling of the Jon Stewart vs. Fox News tussle, where fact-checking one particular word prevented the interpretation of the bigger picture, it's clear that fact-checking even in the age of instant information access still has a long way to come.

My second issue is slightly more ingrained in the "Intelligence Squared" model. Each debate is staged as a contest, with winners and losers. The audience is polled about their feelings on the issue both before and after the debate with "undecided" being an acceptable answer each time; the "winning team" is the side that changes the most minds, not the side that has the highest percentage of people agreeing with their viewpoint. Take this debate as an example of what can happen. Before the debate, only 16% of people agreed that the USA should not accept the "tired and huddled masses" of immigrants, while 54% were against this motion and 30% were undecided. After the debate, 52% were still against the motion, while 35% were now for and 13% remain undecided.

So, according to the debate rules, even though more than half of the voting audience felt that the side against the motion was correct, since the side for the motion gained more support from beginning to end, they were declared the "winners". I suppose this is done to reward a side for debating a difficult position, but in this case, the winners were still supported by a serious minority of the audience. (Sort of like Bush/Gore 2000.)

Does this seem a little strange to you? Right now, you could get 35% of the country to agree with you on pretty much anything, factual or not. Should we really reward those who got more people to get off the fence (no pun directly intended), even if their realm of potential people to convince is smaller overall?

And another thing. How can anyone go into a debate like this without a stance on the issue, let alone 30% of the audience? If you told me you wanted to take me to a live debate about a particular topic, I would probably do a least a little bit of research beforehand to figure out where I stood on the issue. Are you really telling me that 30% of an audience that can get to Lower Manhattan on a weeknight for a debate have no idea how they should feel about millions of people in the United States right now?

I recognize that there is some use for these debates; they at least try to keep the conversation on a reasonable track instead of allowing the discourse to flit to the newest distraction of the day. I just wish that a forum such as this one would spent more time ensuring that the participants are on a mutually-agreed upon playing field of factual information, and that a greater emphasis was placed on the ramifications of the voting outcomes beyond simply "who swayed more people".

I still have June's debate to listen to; I peeked at the results and the side I agreed with won, breaking a 4 month losing streak for my position. I'm slowly trying to reduce my podcast backlog; thanks to tonight's "factfest", I'm down to 27 hours of stored podcasts, of which nearly 20 hours is "This American Life". (I've been over 36 hours of backlog before, so this counts as progress.)

I mentioned multiple times last entry and this entry that I would like to write more on particular subjects in the future. Mostly for my reference, but somewhat as a sneak peek for you, here's my "to-blog" list for future entries. I hope to add links later on when the entries are completed.

  • Further explanation of each of the five "tools" and my experiences with each (likely will happen over time)
  • My employment (and current job search) history
  • My planning background/beliefs/philosophy
  • My planning career goals (and how it relates to the Olympics)
  • My life background/beliefs/philosophy
  • The site logo (coming soon!)
  • The subtitle
  • My crazy summer trip idea (all within the United States)
  • The Plymouth Meeting Metroplex (if you've ever been there, you know it's worth 1000 words easily)
So I have some work to do. I realize these first two entries have been somewhat light on the "planning", but I hope to correct that in the future. Thanks for reading all of this; I wasn't really expecting to have my first 2 entries clock in at a combined 3500 words. We experience, we adapt, we move on. Your comments are welcomed and appreciated.

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