The wisdom of debate

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Something interesting about Any Questions question on Radio 4 today about the muslim preacher Anjem Choudary; paraphrase, ‘should someone who represents small extreme view be given airtime?’ (UK link here, overall show link here).


The debate was interesting for the thing it lacked, IMHO.


He was given an interview on the popular Radio 4 morning news and discussion show a few days previously. The wisdom of this was discussed.


Many commentators talked in the deliberative space (there are news reports subsequent in a similar vein; Telegraph, Evening Standard). On the radio the panel talked of Choudary’s views, his positioning, in some cases eloquently calling-back to similar scenarios and doing a read-across to today (particularly Portillo and his view then-and-now of silencing IRA spokespeople). But no one talked of the reflexive-automatic comprehension that comes unavoidably with any presentation of opinion.


This is important to consider.


A view presented without placing it in context of the total range of views is likely to be over- or under-weighted. This itself may not be of consequence, but why not try to attenuate error where possible?

Mindspace and Max

Mindspace is the well-known report and behavioural mnemonic written by The Institute for Government, LSE, and for the UK Gov back in 2010 fathered by Dolan (LSE) and Halpern (UK Gov/IfG). In it is a description of employing the norm condition in schools.

A programme that brought back to school teenaged mums in order to help the non-parenting teenagers understand the reality of having a child so young in order that they may make considered and principled decisions about contraception back-fired tremendously by normalising and over-weighting the perception of the prevalence of teenaged parenthood.

‘the local practice of having previous teenage parents come and talk . . . helped them imagine themselves in that situation (Salience), made it seem more normal (Norms), and the young mothers themselves seemed rather impressive and grown-up (Messenger).’


This reflexive-automatic comprehension was attenuated by asking schools to bring back a more representative range of lifestyle outcomes for young people;

‘A typical panel of 20-something ex-students had three who were not parents, of whom one was recently married, one was in a long-term relationship, and one who had recently broken up. The fourth was also recently married and had just had a child. The fifth, on some of the panels, had been a teen parent.’


As is often the case with young people, they were articulate and impressive, and made concrete the consequences of a choice. And the presentation of a more representative sample delivered the norm that most people who leave school do not become teenage parents.


Similarly, Choudary’s views are delivered as real for him, but not representative of a norm.


Max Boykoff – of whom I have written before – saw similar effects when observing a decade of newspaper reports in the US and UK of the anthropomorphic climate science debate where the intra-arcticle structure pitted ‘for’ and ‘against’ opinions generating the automatic-reflexive inter-article impression that the science was ~50:50 in favour despite the science being ~90:10 in favour.


The presentation of the whole range of option/opinion presents an automatic-reflexive ‘below the water line’ impression that is both a more accurate representation of share-of-voice and recognised. It is not a choice, nor playing at the margins. The lack of understanding without the spread really screws our understanding.

I suggest the challenge isn’t should he be given a voice, but that he should be given a voice in a representative ratio. The leads to another question; should that be inter-interview, inter-programme, or inter-broadcaster? Or more?
That needs some more research.

• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
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