Road to Delphi

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A modern painting of the Oracle of Delphi moderating a US Presidential Debate, via DALL.E-2

You can also check out this piece and the Minket Puzzle on Substack

I did something that I don’t like to do.

I wrote about a current event.

My reflections and brainstorming this week revolved around a particular theme, and this piece forms a small part of a broader conversation I aspire to engage in.

Recently, I’ve been pondering an episode of a podcast I enjoy, My First Million. The discussion centered on a controversial episode of The Joe Rogan Experience featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Dr. Peter Hotez, a physician-scientist and previous guest, expressed concerns about health misinformation, particularly regarding vaccines, on Twitter. This reaction led Rogan to suggest a public debate between Dr. Hotez and RFK Jr on his show, promising a $100,000 charity donation as a prize.

Predictably, this stirred up the digital peanut gallery on Twitter, with the usual suspects adding their words, memes, and donations to sweeten the pot.

Dr. Hotez declined the invitation.

At first glance, the debate seems valuable. What’s wrong with a discussion between competing views to determine whose ideas prevail? It turns out, a lot. The format is flawed. Our media landscape prioritizes spectacle and aesthetics over substance, catering to immediate gratification and flashy presentation. This is an issue I understand all too well.

Growing up with a stutter, I observed something peculiar about what we value in communication as I became more fluent. Even mediocre ideas can gain acceptance if they’re eloquently expressed.

People tend to favor bombastic, emotional, repetitive messages, which often become accepted as truth, regardless of their validity.

This is the crux of the problem with media debates. They’re performances. They aren’t designed to advance human knowledge but to reward the loudest voice and most appealing images. This is nothing new. For those surprised by the circus that recent presidential debates have become, look back to 1960.

Incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon faced off against a young Senator from Massachusetts and RFK Jr’s uncle, John F. Kennedy. This debate was a masterclass in aesthetics, a theme that would come to dominate public discourse.

TV was a novel medium, and their debate was the first to be nationally televised. According to popular accounts, Nixon declined to wear makeup or groom his stubble, which made him appear sickly and sweaty. This left an impression. Kennedy, being four years younger and aware of the power of presentation, seized the opportunity to appear confident and resolute, which helped him to victory.

We need formats that map out the path to strong arguments and good ideas.

What might this look like? The My First Million episode discussed a potential solution that I found interesting. First, we must venture back to the town of Delphi.

Delphi, a town of antiquity, represented a gateway to the unknown. The Oracle, ensconced in the Greek mountains, was believed to see the future. The Oracle of Delphi comes up in different artistic representations, including the cinematic powerhouse of our generation, 300 (Kidding). Oracles catered to the human longing to know our path, encouraging us to continue or correct our course—if we listen.

From this sentiment emerges the Delphi Method, a structured process fostering constructive group discussions to comprehend various perspectives and achieve consensus.

Originally developed at the Rand Corporation during the Cold War to forecast the impact of technology on warfare, the process morphed into a tool used in many disciplines. It involves multiple rounds of anonymous input. Participants respond to a series of questions posed by a moderator, who collects the responses, summarizes the group’s views and any areas of disagreement. This process is repeated until a consensus is achieved or all perspectives have been explored.

This technique removes flashy spectacle and encourages thoughtful, introspective processes. In essence, it neutralizes the emotional component of complex decisions. 

In other words, it is boring but effective.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman delineates two types of thinking: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 thinking is fast, automatic, intuitive, and effortless. It operates unconsciously, relying on mental shortcuts or heuristics that facilitate rapid decision-making without extensive reflection or analysis. However, this type of thinking, while essential for survival and daily life, often reinforces biases and is susceptible to emotional manipulation. 

In contrast, there is System 2 thinking: slow, deliberate, reflective, and effortful. The Delphi Method promotes System 2 thinking, urging us to pause, reflect, and make informed decisions with more information.

Although both systems of thinking are essential for effective decision-making, we tend to lean too heavily on System 1 thinking because it’s simpler and more efficient. Our media landscape thrives on this, as System 1 thinking, with its inherent biases and judgment errors, is more conducive to rapid reactions.

If we desire a genuine discussion about important topics like vaccines, we must ensure that the format allows for informed positions to be shared, and bad ideas to be replaced slowly and deliberately with better ones in a safe manner. Regrettably, the current format for this is far from a thoughtfully-constructed debate, and closer to a Digital Coliseum with people calling for death with their fingers.

There’s value in less exciting, more deliberate forms of decision-making. While these may not offer thrilling viewing, they foster better understanding, solutions, and probably most important, community. This form of dialogue would likely take the form of long-term media engagement spanning weeks, months, or even years, a timeline that may frustrate those engagement managers seeking rapid growth in media outlets.

So, how do we establish a platform for these crucial, thoughtful discussions? That’s what I aim to explore in the future. I invite you to share your thoughts. 

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

 

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