In praise of referees – Social, political and academic debates need to apply rules of fairness

I think debates are in some ways quite similar to sport. Sports, whether we’re talking about soccer, basketball, tennis or any other code, need rules. The rules aren’t just necessary, they define the game itself.

If we’re coming together with friends for a casual game, those rules spring from a friendly agreement. We and our friends all know the rules, agree to abide by them, and refrain from violating them because the game’s objective is shared – we just want to have fun. Neither party wants the rules, and hence the game, to break down. Our biggest motivation is probably just fun. We’re not looking to win at any cost.

As a sporting group grows larger, the rules become much harder to coordinate. A more varied set of people join, members are less known and trusted by each other, allegiances and loyalties form between players and within teams, participants become more competitive, and winning becomes more and more important. In these circumstances, friendly agreements just won’t cut it. Cheating appears – the breaking of the rules while superficially appearing to obey them. Cheating can slowly grow like a cancer, twisting the rules and ultimately destroying the game itself. The methods of cheating are specific to the game being played, but often the most direct path is intimidation or an attack on the opponent – playing the man or woman instead of playing the ball.

Cheating can be the result of that one scumbag individual for whom ‘winning’ is much more important than integrity or fun. Other times, it can be an incremental and reciprocal process. Team A, experiencing the natural human bias favouring themselves and their in-group, decides Team B is cheating, and thinks “if they’re going to break the rules, so will we”. Team B sees this, and responds in kind. And so on, ad infinitum, escalating until the game is destroyed.

Cheating sucks because it advantages the dishonourable (who typically lack the skills to win fairly), and because it creates a vicious cycle that drives away honest players and furthers the likelihood of cheating. If it’s not addressed, the match, and ultimately the sport itself, is finished.

No-one expects the rules to be followed in competitive sport without refereesThe universally recognised solution to this problem is umpires and referees. They act as neutral observers and managers of the game, controlling its flow, reminding everyone of the rules, and punishing those who break them (deliberately or otherwise). They’re usually not someone simply plucked from street or from one of the teams – they’re experts on the rules, they’re impeccably neutral, and they’re skilled in the subtleties of the game as well as the ways cheating can undermine it. Referees also need management themselves, because any bias hiding behind their position is especially harmful. But if they’re good, they love managing the game to its optimum – an encounter with total fairness, one that brings out the best in the players.

Political, social and even academic debates aren’t like a friendly match between buddies, they’re more like huge, ultra-competitive sports. Even if it’s a debate between just two people in a random chat forum on the Internet, those people are part of a larger clash of ideas, of tribes. In these ‘sports’, the stakes are immeasurably higher, the teams larger and more ruthless, the rules less agreed upon. There’s a huge incentive to cheat. Players will misrepresent their opponent, intimidate, appeal to emotion to cover a lack of evidence, equivocate and play word games, dance between motte-and-bailey, take quotes out of context, avoid addressing an important issue. And if they don’t do any of this, sometimes even their own team can attack them for being ‘soft on the bad guys’.

Yet somehow humanity hasn’t figured out that we need referees for such things. Debates need referees. And not just referees of the passive kind that we see in a presidential debate, simply allotting each ‘player’ a poorly-enforced space to talk. We need ones that will actively enforce a structure and flow that we know gives the best chance for the insightful truth to become clear to the audience, if not the participants themselves. At the same time, they must enforce these rules but remain neutral in regards to the content and arguments.

The spikey-pit-trap of all this is, of course, “what should those rules be, and who should be chosen to enforce them?” After all, if there’s even the slightest bias in the rules or the referee, the entire endeavour is fatally undermined. I would argue that we have one set of rules that has stood the test of time in neutrality and integrity – the rules of logic and the restriction of fallacies. The referees should actively point out fallacious arguments, ask for evidence for suspicious empirical claims, and demand clarity from the participants. And these referees can’t be a player for one the teams, nor an unskilled person off the street. It certainly is not a role to be entrusted to the media – they’d prefer Team A to brawl with Team B at every opportunity, because it sells more papers and baits more clicks. To select the wrong referees, or to let the rules become politicised with even the slightest hint of an agenda would undermine everything. No, to prevent disastrous consequences, the best referees must be drawn from a skilled group who take absolutely pride in their neutrality and reason. We can never ensure perfection, but perhaps such a group could work towards it with careful use of reputation, background (no foxes guarding the hen-house), and transparency. With the right referees, perhaps we can start to pull the discussion of our most important issues out of the stinking swamp of tribal warfare into which it has sunk.


  1. Referees are awesome for very large discussions, and unnecessary for very small ones, just as you say. You can easily see this looking at moderated and unmoderated websites. But I don’t think the rules of logic get you very far. A large and important part of those rules are revisable and debatable. The few that aren’t (propositional deductive logic for instance) don’t get you very far. Most debates hinge on judgments like which scientific theory is simpler – for which there is no known algorithm that cleanly decides all cases.

    You don’t need perfect referees. You just need lots of different games, many of whose referees make calls similar enough that players can confidently play in multiple games, and gain something useful from each. Then they can spread the word, when they find convincing arguments.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Your point that a lot of debates don’t hinge on pure logic is well taken. I’m also interested to know what you’re referring to when you talk about a large part is debatable/revisable – it’s certainly important that the rules are neither to succeed. I want to point out though that logic fallacies and misleading rhetoric move complex debates from tricky to impossible, and so logic, while not being sufficient, could certainly be neccessary in many cases. I’d tentatively say that cleaning up that fallacious rhetoric has two positive effects. Firstly it adds clarity to the discussion itself, stripping away everything but the actual reasoning and arguments of each side, allowing a thoughtful observer to better process it. Secondly, it discourages language that incentivizes people to join and fight for tribes – ad hominem attacks for example.

      Having a lot of different games is an interesting point. I do think we sort of have this, more than ever – countless blogs, fourms, websites, journals, news media etc. Yet we also seem to have extremely polarized, binary social and political discussions, many bearing the same inflammatory, fallacious language. That makes me think that though many games is probably a good thing, our failure to understand and apply standards means that we simply have many low quality games all echoing the same failures to constructively talk through issues.

  2. I like where you’re coming from on this. I think logic, empiricism, and fallacies should be the main focus of any referees, assuming of course that the matters under discussion, and the participants discussing them, are interested in such things. If the debate is whether Moonstone or Agate best heals a physical ailment, then applying such standards will prove difficult. Getting to the truth of a matter relies on a persons subjective experience mapping as closely as possible to what can be considered objective reality (and I understand the difficulties with how to attain what can be considered objective reality).

    The great difficulty with your proposal is the implementation of real-time refereeing, as logical fallacies sometimes go undetected and are obfuscated, and are only picked up on careful examination after the fact. Also fact checking of claims, as a debate is unfolding, is also time consuming. The speakers and referees may be subject matter experts, however if one speaker makes a claim of fact by referencing an unrelated field by analogy, real time checking may be cumbersome. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt, and it doesn’t mean that, on the whole, debates wouldn’t be significantly improved by adopting the methods your propose.

    1. Thanks for the interesting comment. I think that you’re spot on that real-time refereeing is the big challenge of what I’m proposing. Evidence and empirical claims are particularly hairy, as you point out.

      Even for fallacies it would pose a challenge – we often need to think about what someone is saying before we can identify fallacious reasoning, and fallacies can often be skillful hidden from the listener (or even hidden from the person themselves!). However, what I suspect is that it would be possible to train somebody as a referee to a level of skill that is far quicker and more effective than an untrained person. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t be difficult to practice either – you really just need three people, all of whom understand the principles being applied, to sit down and run a small debate. Starting simple and building up, or perhaps tasking one person to try to slip fallacies past the referee might make for an interesting meta-game during a debate of this kind.

      Still, you’re right that it would always be imperfect, and I wonder if we’d need to employ a ‘third umpire’, that is, someone who could go over the conversation carefully and announce any found fallacies afterwards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s