That things are complicated is one of the truisms that almost all scientists can agree on. Good science is aware of the limited scope of its own theories. Monocausal explanations are rightly considered to be under-complex, which is why it is rare for scientists to come up with clear instructions for policies. Harry S. Truman became so irritated with the »on the one hand/on the other hand« arguments of his economic advisors that he famously asked for a one-armed economist. Science is thus an exercise in ambiguity and therefore modesty.

But there is an »on the other hand« here too. For what is an important basis of good research can at the same time limit scientific debate. Theoretical and methodical pluralism can also eventually lead to a lack of dispute. Instead of stimulating each other with substantive confrontation, parallel societies develop in research. Or conflicts are avoided when each side concedes that it only represents part of the truth.

How can things be different? Perhaps it pays to look at so-called debating which is an activity in numerous student debating clubs across Germany. Resembling a fictional parliament, the two disputing parties are told in advance which side – for or against – they will represent. The topic of the debate can come from virtually any area: Does God exist? Should we use military intervention to prevent humanitarian crises? Are the humanities more important than natural sciences?

The interesting thing about this format is that the rulebook forces the parties to adopt a clear position. For the purpose of the debate is not to bring about a consensus or compromise between the two positions; instead, it is about argumentatively proving that one side is right and the other is wrong. Following the debate, a jury assesses the arguments and decides which side has won.

Michael Saliba and Lukas Haffert

The Value of Rule-Based Confrontation


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The idea is that new insights cannot be won by the lowest common denominator between the different positions, but by naming the fundamental differences as clearly as possible. It is about enabling a clarity of thought and elaborating on the central issues of a conflict.

However, that does not mean that the public has to clearly choose between »black« and »white«. After all, things still remain complex and it all comes down to nuances. Nevertheless, the basic idea of a debate is that the best way to find a synthesis is to first get to know the thesis and antithesis in their strongest and clearest form.

An artificially created form of debate facilitates this by holding positions only for the duration of the debate. Arguing scientists, of course, advocate their own beliefs. However, this does not mean that they do not benefit from a rule-based confrontation which demands as clear a counter-position as possible. Your audience does that in any case.

Michael Saliba, member of Die Junge Akademie since 2018, is a physicist and studies optoelectronic phenomena at the Technical University of Darmstadt.

Political scientist Lukas Haffert, member of Die Junge Akademie since 2018, conducts research at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Zurich