Friday, 30 January 2009

The Which? Guide to Debates

The Which magazine's motto is "No advertising, no bias, no hidden-agenda".

Wouldn't it be great if each debate had independent sites that weighed up and explained the arguments on each side, presenting and ranking the evidence. It wouldn't be hard to implement.

Types of Evidence

Most people will support their opinions with some sort of evidence. But does each type of evidence carry the same weight and can people differentiate between them?

It may be too much to expect everyone to rationalise their decisions in such a way, but political parties and those elements of the media that pride themselves on unbiased reporting have roles to play in seeking out the evidence.

Framing the argument and influencing the vote

"90% lean meat" gives most people quite a different impression than "10% fat". This is an example of framing and how it can effect the way we feel and what we buy.

In the Interactive Democracy process I would expect serious debate about how referenda are worded, so that framing doesn't unduly effect the results. I would also expect campaigners on every side to frame their own arguments and re-frame their oppositions to counteract this insidious influence.

Lord Carter's Digital Britain

In his interim report Lord Carter has called for everyone to have access to 2mbps broadband by 2012. This erodes the "limited access" arguments against Interactive Democracy.
More on this here.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Adjustment Heuristic

Psychological experiments have shown how people can be conditioned by numbers. In one experiment people were asked to write down the last two digits from their social security number. They were then asked to submit bids for wine and chocolate. When the bidders were ranked by social security number, the half with bigger numbers placed bids that were between 60% and 120% more than the others! The idea is that we are subconsciously conditioned. This is called the adjustment heuristic.
It's not just the average "Joe" who falls foul of this trick. This link describes how demands for severe sentences have been shown to skew the actual sentences handed down by experienced judges.
During Parliamentary debates our politicians hear the same discussion and view the same evidence. This could, conceivably, make them more susceptible to the adjustment heuristic. However, if voters decide based on information from a wide range of different sources - from more information than any one person could review - they may, as a group, be less susceptible to this type of conditioning.


Cognitive psychologists have shown that many people anchor their decision-making on a single quantity. It is sometimes called focusing. A typical example is to focus on the odometer reading when buying a second hand car. Or perhaps price. Any decision may involve "focusing" to the detriment of assessing a wide range of factors and possible outcomes.
Interactive Democracy will benefit from many media channels expressing a wide range of view points in order to counteract any excessive focusing.
As anchoring can effect anyone, including professional politicians, widening the debate among a diverse population with a spectrum of experiences may result in better decisions, by having many different anchors.

Heart or Head

Psychologists sometimes refer to two ways of thinking, System 1 and System 2. They are more commonly described as Heart and Head or gut feeling and thinking.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that our instant thoughts or gut reaction are important to quickly recognise threats and are hard wired into our brains. Numerous experiments show how much of what we think is actually a basic reaction. For example, most people have an instant wariness of snakes and spiders and who amongst us would want to eat faeces shaped chocolate fudge?
It takes a bit more time and effort to employ rational thought and to overcome our first reactions. That is why Interactive Democracy should allow sufficient time for each debate and why votes could be registered and then changed at a later date.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Lord's Loot

The Sunday Times has claimed that 4 Labour Peers were ready to take cash to influence legislation. This comes after several other allegations of corruption against Members of Parliament over the years and calls into question how money can corrupt politics and democracy its self.
Because Interactive Democracy requires a Parliament it doesn't remove manipulation by money, but it may reduce its influence by diffusing power among millions of voters. ID doesn't require a House of Lords as voters have the power to check Government and Parliament and counter balance their power.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Group Polarisation

Group polarisation is the tendency for individuals to make more extreme decisions when they are in a group than when asked to decide on their own. This may be because of social influences within the group or may be because new arguments are heard that reinforce preconceptions and counter arguments are downplayed due to confirmation bias.
Group polarisation was first termed "risky shift" as groups made riskier decisions than lone individuals. Psychological experiments later showed that individuals in groups tended to become more prejudiced and jury members tended to award greater damages than what they would have decided alone.
While Interactive Democracy could conceivably suffer from some group polarisation, it may be less effected than party politics as it involves more individuals without affiliations to pre-existant groups.
While ePetition suggestions may be far flung, the tendency towards extremism can be thwarted by a limited referendum choice, carefully considered by Parliament.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a tendency to interpret information that confirms preconceptions and avoids information that contradicts beliefs. It is a problem in any debate, but is it more of an issue for Interactive Democracy, when so many people who aren't used to making tough decisions are involved in voting on individual issues?
I suspect that confirmation bias is a significant factor in deciding to vote for "your" party in a Parliamentary Election. It may be less of a problem in Interactive Democracy when votes are cast on narrow issues on which people don't have preformed opinions.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Blame the Government?

The BBC reports that, amongst other things, robbery with knives is up 18%. There is some discussion of our economic woes causing an increase in crime, as people struggle to make ends meet. Many commentators blame the government, but it seems to me that the government can't be blamed for "bad eggs", but can be encouraged to do something about them. I hope that Interactive Democracy will help create an involved society in which we all feel some responsibility for society.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Faith in Leaders

Did you see the hope and joy of Barrack Obama's inauguration ceremony and listen to his uplifting speech? Masterful rhetoric.
I wondered if his election promises would be delivered. I wondered if one man could make a difference. I wondered if it takes a powerful personality to change the direction of the enormous machinery of government. I wondered if he could inspire many millions to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country". I wondered if his one voice would be heard, and believed, around the world, when, perhaps, the chair of a committee would not. I wondered how realpolitik and unforeseen events would knock him from his path. And I wondered if what I was seeing was the effects of a population that has faith; a population that is desperate to believe that someone will save them.
I don't think that there are any contradictions between leadership and Interactive Democracy. But ID encourages more involvement in society, more effort and less abdication of responsibility to politicians.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Facts or Fictions

How often are opinions reported as fact?
The manipulation of opinion by the twisting of truth is somewhat more insidious problem for democracy than political spin could ever be and I wonder if the full weight of the law shouldn't be brought to bear on every public organisation, the government, politicians and the media, in how they report facts. Of course opinion is welcome. But maybe the public require more than their own intellect to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Perhaps there should be a national authority that would be a first port of call for complaints. This may work like the Advertising Standards Authority with a remit to mediate complaints, giving people and organisations the opportunity to correct or prove their statements, before cumbersome legal proceedings are brought.
I suspect that a demand for legal accountability would not result in a mass of convictions, but would help to wash away shoddy reporting and reinforce the value of news.

Monday, 19 January 2009

"Not in my back yard!"

From my office window I can look across a wooded valley to hills rising to 600m above sea level. It's a lovely view. But there are plans a foot to build enormous great wind turbines on the top. We received the first consultation news letter from the developer this morning, as did, I presume, every household in the area. It included a web address for more information.
With its postcode segmenting ability, Interactive Democracy could facilitate a vote by local residents on just such a plan. I imagine that many people would cast their votes quickly, but may change them in the future as the shock wears off and they are better able to way up the pros and cons: jobs, environment, the scale of the visual impact, etc. This could be an interesting measure of PR success or failure for the developer or their exponents and may motivate their campaign.
Personally I'd vote for the turbines, I just wish I was given the chance.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

"We don't do God!"

When Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked a question about belief, Alistair Campbell memorably clarified "We don't do God!". Yet, on leaving office, Tony was confirmed as a Catholic.
Is it disingenuous for politicians to hide their beliefs or is it sensible that they separate politics from religion? Should they always give full and honest answers to questions? We should demand their honesty!
Interactive Democracy involves everyone, both faithful and faithless. It also potentially removes the need for the House of Lords and, therefore, the Lord Bishops, so it changes the balance of power that religions have over British politics. But it seems likely to me that the politicians of the future would continue to fudge the God question, in the interests of building votes... er, I mean consensus.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Natural Selection and the Evolution of Ideas

The refinement of simple life forms into the complex animals that we see today has been explained by evolutionary biology. In simple terms, diverse changes in organisms have been naturally selected by the need to survive, adapting to a changing environment, changing predators and varying food supplies.

Interactive Democracy encourages diverse ideas to solve social issues and provides a mechanism for selecting those ideas. The selected solutions may throw up new issues that encourage more suggestions for improvement that may then be selected. In this way it encourages social evolution.

Cohesive Society

If everyone had the same values and believed in pretty much the same things, then society would be much more cohesive. But we don't!

Interactive Democracy is all about debating and voting on individual issues and this process can be an educative one, building empathy amongst individuals for others with different points of view and perhaps building respect for the majority decision.