A Better Way To Discuss Controversies

Polarization is a great thing when it is used to keep the sun out of your eyes, or as a way to measure quantum mechanical effects. In public debate? Not so much.

All to often extreme  and often simplistic positions get the attention and subtlety is drowned out. Just as frustratingly, we often see people coming in claiming to represent a middle ground. Often this is fake, they’re really expressing the one point of view with a few tiny concessions. At other times it really is a middle ground, splitting the difference with no acknowledgement one side might have more merit than the other. It’s debatable whether the Internet is making this worse, but hey, the problem is big enough already.

My small contribution to dealing with polarization is to suggest we start describing our position not as “pro” or “anti” but using numbers. To pick an example, replace “Are you pro or anti nuclear power” with “On a scale of zero to ten where do you stand on nuclear power?”

My answer to this would be that I am a 2. Maybe a 2.5. I don’t share the horror of the word nuclear that many of my colleagues in the environment movement do. I would support fusion power if it ever becomes viable, and I support putting some money to research into it, although probably not the amounts that have been spent. Moving me further away from the zero position, I’m also interested in the potential of thorium-fuelled fission reactors. Nor am I opposed to the use of uranium at all times. I’d rather a nation without access to good sources of renewable energy chose nuclear power over coal or gas.

However, most of the time I think nuclear is a bad choice. The majority of the world’s population lives closer to the equator, and get more sunlight, than Sydney, let alone Melbourne. Even many high latitude regions have access to extensive wind and wave power. Already these options are often cheaper than nuclear power, and their prices are certainly falling faster. Even where the price difference marginally favours nuclear, eliminating the dangers of accident, terrorism or proliferation seems to me reason to support renewables.

On that basis, when asked the simplistic question I would have to say I’m anti-nuke. But that covers up the fact that I think it’s probably the best option for Finland say, or Belgium.

Of course, even a single scale covers up plenty of complexity. Your definition of middle ground may not be the same as mine. Even if we agree on that, one of us may think in a more logarithmic fashion, while the other might be more linear. Saying you are a two or an eight could mean that you lean one way but are rather uncertain, or that you are very certain but have exemptions to the hard line position (as in my case on nuclear power). And of course the boundaries of debate shift with time.

Nevertheless, I think the more we use scales like this the more it will become part of our thinking. Getting used to talking in numerical scales could be helpful in lots of way. It exposes the fact that there are subtle differences in views that currently get buried, and that is really good. By identifying as a 4 or a 6 people make clear they are not simply taking a cop out middle position, but have done some thinking. It also allows us to place ourselves, and others in ways that might attract less stereotyping and hostility. I was prompted to write this partly by a really nasty personal attack I received for the views of a friend of mine. I won’t talk about the issue because I might represent her views, but this woman is often held up as the exemplar of a particularly hard-line position in the debate that caused this attack. Yet having heard her talk about it, it sounds to me like her position is a 2, or at least a 1, rather than the zero it is characterised as being. Yet because she is clearly an “anti” she gets lumped in with all the other antis, and her position conflated with their’s. Saying “X is a 2 in this debate, and Y is a zero” is probably a more useful way to speak than the five point scale we usually use of hardliners and moderates in each direction, with neutrals in between.

All very well, you might say, but what is this doing on a science blog? Well it seems to me that such a system is so advantageous it is puzzling it is not taken up more often. We’re used to describing things such as pain or enthusiasm on a scale of zero to ten. At least in some circles, the idea of using the zero to six Kinsey scale to describe sexuality has contributed to greater understanding of human diversity.

My (very tentative) theory is that it comes down to math-phobia. A lot of people hated maths at school so much that they prefer to avoid it wherever they can. Of course this is not the whole story. Some people just like the us-versus-them approach to things, and will resist any attempt to complicate the situation. Some don’t think it goes far enough, since it fails to describe the full complexity of views. Still, I suspect if people developed more enthusiasm and self confidence when it came to maths they might be more amenable to seeing the world in even simple mathematical terms, such as the one I have described.

Anyway, all that said, I thought I would start by putting numerical values on some  debates with strong technological involvement. I’m  doing this partly as a test of the response. I’m wondering whether I will be attacked for being insufficiently hardline on any of these issues, although of course such attacks might require people to actually read this post.

In all cases zero represents complete opposition to the thing mentioned, and ten means full support.

Nuclear Power 2

Genetic Modification of Food 3

Windfarms 9

CCS funding 1


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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1 Response to A Better Way To Discuss Controversies

  1. Pingback: Dream and Revelation | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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