One of the frequently asked questions about deliberative forums, is:
What role do facts play in the forum? or an even more frequent question:
How can you have an intelligent and worthwhile deliberation unless people learn the facts about the issue?
There is a delicate balance between providing a base level of data that is necessary for the deliberation to be based in some authority, and too much data that overwhelms people or worse yet, becomes an academic exercise. Every moderator whose been at this for a while has stories about the self-appointed expert who comes to the forum with facts – not just facts, but THE facts. And of course, when we hear THE facts and they don’t support our own position, we pull out OUR facts because we’re all armed with the facts that we love – you know, the ones that prove we are right. We gloss over any facts to the contrary.
Once each side has hurled their favorite facts across the room, the deliberation can easily degenerate into a fact war and it becomes a challenge for the moderator to delicately lead the participants through the fact-filled mine fieldback to the remnants and possibility of common ground.
I’m reading the book, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson and found a passage that supports the idea that we must be diligent in avoiding fact wars in deliberation. Tarvis and Aronson write:
“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justficiation.”
In other words, not only does the deliberation degenerate into debate, but the divides become even greater and the possibility of reaching common ground even less likely. The purpose of this book is to understand the inner workings of self-justification. I’m just in the introduction (ok, I cheated, I’ve read ahead, too) but already this looks like an amusing and insightful book with lessons to apply in our civic discourse.