How to Win at Intelligence Squared US

19 April 2016
Lee Drutman

I’m a big fan of the Intelligence Squared US (IQ2) debate program, so when I learned that the program had compiled data on the 119 debates it had held since 2006, I was eager to dive in. And in doing so, I learned a few things: People do change their minds a fair amount. They are more likely to change their minds on science and technology issues; on politics and economics, opinions tend to be a little more stable, though still somewhat fluid. Also, what appears to be consensus at the start of a debate is often illusory.

Yes, this is a small and nonrepresentative sample with a self-selected audience ‘ and generally thoughtful debaters on both sides. But the relative fluidity of opinion is important. It suggests that ideas and arguments can actually matter, and that when both sides get a fair and equal shot to make their case, minds can indeed be swayed.

This matters because ideas and arguments are in fact an important part of how politics actually works. Contrary to simple explanations that it’s all about the campaign contributions or partisanship, considerable lobbying takes place on issues where the public is not deeply engaged enough for it to be partisan, and where there is campaign money sloshing around on both sides. Significantly, there are many issues with which lawmakers and their staffers don’t have much expertise, and where they are relying on the arguments that come before them.

The problem is that these arguments are often one-sided ‘ for every $1 spent by public interest groups and unions, corporations spend $34. I’ve frequentlyargued that if we could level the playing field and balance out the arguments on both sides, we’d have a more reasoned debate that might result in better public policy. Obviously, lawmakers, their staffers, and other policy elites have more external pressures and obligations than your average IQ2 audience member, voting anonymously in an auditorium. But thoughtful presentations and good arguments do make a difference. The quality of debate matters.