21st Century Debate

Although the series has been on the air for over five years, I discovered Intelligence ² within the past twelve months. Last night, I watched Malcolm Gladwell argue that college football was a bad idea because it involved the bashing of heads, and that, surely, there was some other game these people could play that would not, you know, involve bashing the heads of students (or anybody else, for that matter). On his team: Buzz Bissinger (he created Friday Night Lights, a popular TV series about football). Bissinger (see in the screen shot below) was strident, fierce and passionate in his well-researched beliefs: (a) colleges and universities should not be in the business of entertaining the masses, and (b) they should not be in the business of providing a farm system for professional football. On the other side, predictably, were two articulate football players who have moved on to bright careers (presumably, they, too have been beaten on the head several thousand times, but seemed to be okay with the way things turned out). Both were associated with FOX Sports: Tim Green and Jason Whitlock. In the advanced game of debate, their arguments proved to be less convincing.

Football is not high of my list of things I care about, but the debate was compelling (and, having now watched several episodes, it’s fair to say that some are very passionate and others are not as much fun to watch). The series is called Intelligence Squared. There are two teams and three rounds. First round: each team member presents his case, his ideas in detail. Second round, they mix it up by arguing with one another. Third round: closing arguments. What’s the point? At the start of each show, the audience at NYU’s Skirball Center votes on a straightforward question: “Should college football be banned?” (yes, the question is black-white and there are grey areas, discussed during debate, but not a part of the ultimate vote on the simple question). Panelists answer questions from members of the audience. End of show: now that they have been presented with convincing arguments, the audience votes again. One team wins (Gladwell-Bissinger), the audience applauds, and we’re done for the evening.

The influence of Stanford Professor James Fishkin is evident here. Deliberative Polling also involves a baseline vote, then immersion in fact-based information seasoned by strong opinion, with a re-vote after the information has been received and processed.

A look at the website suggests that this is modern media done properly. Of course, you can watch or listen to the whole debate (or an edited version, audio+video or audio only). You can listen on about 220 NPR radio stations, or watch on some public TV stations. Or, you can watch on fora.tv. For each episode, the site features a comprehensive biography on each of the four debaters, a complete transcript, and a rundown on the key points made by each debater, along with extensive links to relevant research. In short, you can watch an episode, then read a lot more from the debaters and from the thought leaders who influenced the debaters’ opinions. It’s presented in a  clean, easily accessible (non-academic) way. You can easily dive right in, learn a lot in a short time (if you wish), or spend a few hours to deeply consider what was said, why it was said, and why the voting audience did or did not change its collective mind.

The topics are provocative (and always simplified so they can be stated as a yes/no question for voting). Some examples:

BTW: If you like this sort of thing, you should spend some time at fora.tv, which features an abundance of intelligent, well-informed, well-researched lectures and discussions. Much of the material is free (advertiser and foundation supported). Fora.tv goes in directions that TED does not. And isn’t it interesting that there are now hundreds of these smart media outlets now available on the internet? In their way, they are taking the place of the 20st century dream of public television…with a broad range of ideas presented from every part of the world, abundant links to related ideas and research. Much of it is free, much of it is provocative, and very little of it is actually seen on television.
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