Paul Krugman Says Debates Are Worthless

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Paul Krugman “debated” Ron Paul yesterday, and afterward he had an epiphany: debates are useless.

Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there’s no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said “Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!” — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down; I don’t think my supporters are quite the same, but opinions may differ.

Krugman is right, but I think he’s also missing the point here. Wars of ideas are typically won in print: in journals, in books, in magazine articles, and in monographs. The audience is fellow professionals in your field, the language is often technical and abstruse, and you keep score by counting citations, being invited to conferences, and amassing disciples.

Public debates, including their gruesome modern variant, the three-minute hit on cable TV, aren’t about that. They’re solely designed to influence public opinion, and you keep score at the ballot box. Nobody cares if Ron Paul is technically right about the Romans debasing their currency, and nobody cares whether that really has anything to do with the modern global economy. All that matters is whether he’s found an analogy that moves a few of the rubes to his side. Truth isn’t just an obstacle in public debates, it’s a handicap.

If you want to increase your understanding of a subject, public debates are worthless. But that’s because that isn’t their purpose. Their purpose is emotional appeal, and understanding actively gets in the way of that. Ron Paul already knows that. I hope Krugman does too.

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is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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