Summary: We frequently use debates to resolve different opinions about the truth. However, debates are not always the best course for figuring out the truth. In some situations, the technique of collaborative truth-seeking may be more optimal.


Acknowledgments: Thanks to Pete Michaud, Michael Dickens, Denis Drescher, Claire Zabel, Boris Yakubchik, Szun S. Tay, Alfredo Parra, Michael Estes, Aaron Thoma, Alex Weissenfels, Peter Livingstone, Jacob Bryan, Roy Wallace, and other readers who prefer to remain anonymous for providing feedback on this post. The author takes full responsibility for all opinions expressed here and any mistakes or oversights.


The Problem with Debates


Aspiring rationalists generally aim to figure out the truth, and often disagree about it. The usual method of hashing out such disagreements in order to discover the truth is through debates, in person or online.


Yet more often than not, people on opposing sides of a debate end up seeking to persuade rather than prioritizing truth discovery. Indeed, research suggests that debates have a specific evolutionary function – not for discovering the truth but to ensure that our perspective prevails within a tribal social context. No wonder debates are often compared to wars.


We may hope that as aspiring rationalists, we would strive to discover the truth during debates. Yet given that we are not always fully rational and strategic in our social engagements, it is easy to slip up within debate mode and orient toward winning instead of uncovering the truth. Heck, I know that I sometimes forget in the midst of a heated debate that I may be the one who is wrong – I’d be surprised if this didn’t happen with you. So while we should certainly continue to engage in debates, we should also use additional strategies – less natural and intuitive ones. These strategies could put us in a better mindset for updating our beliefs and improving our perspective on the truth. One such solution is a mode of engagement called collaborative truth-seeking.

Collaborative Truth-Seeking


Collaborative truth-seeking is one way of describing a more intentional approach in which two or more people with different opinions engage in a process that focuses on finding out the truth. Collaborative truth-seeking is a modality that should be used among people with shared goals and a shared sense of trust.


Some important features of collaborative truth-seeking, which are often not present in debates, are: focusing on a desire to change one’s own mind toward the truth; a curious attitude; being sensitive to others’ emotions; striving to avoid arousing emotions that will hinder updating beliefs and truth discovery; and a trust that all other participants are doing the same. These can contribute to increased  social sensitivity, which, together with other attributes, correlate with accomplishing higher group performance  on a variety of activities.


The process of collaborative truth-seeking starts with establishing trust, which will help increase social sensitivity, lower barriers to updating beliefs, increase willingness to be vulnerable, and calm emotional arousal. The following techniques are helpful for establishing trust in collaborative truth-seeking:

  • Share weaknesses and uncertainties in your own position

  • Share your biases about your position

  • Share your social context and background as relevant to the discussion

    • For instance, I grew up poor once my family immigrated to the US when I was 10, and this naturally influences me to care about poverty more than some other issues, and have some biases around it - this is one reason I prioritize poverty in my Effective Altruism engagement

  • Vocalize curiosity and the desire to learn

  • Ask the other person to call you out if they think you're getting emotional or engaging in emotive debate instead of collaborative truth-seeking, and consider using a safe word

Here are additional techniques that can help you stay in collaborative truth-seeking mode after establishing trust:

  • Self-signal: signal to yourself that you want to engage in collaborative truth-seeking, instead of debating

  • Empathize: try to empathize with the other perspective that you do not hold by considering where their viewpoint came from, why they think what they do, and recognizing that they feel that their viewpoint is correct

  • Keep calm: be prepared with emotional management to calm your emotions and those of the people you engage with when a desire for debate arises

    • watch out for defensiveness and aggressiveness in particular

  • Go slow: take the time to listen fully and think fully

  • Consider pausing: have an escape route for complex thoughts and emotions if you can’t deal with them in the moment by pausing and picking up the discussion later

    • say “I will take some time to think about this,” and/or write things down

  • Echo: paraphrase the other person’s position to indicate and check whether you’ve fully understood their thoughts

  • Be open: orient toward improving the other person’s points to argue against their strongest form

  • Stay the course: be passionate about wanting to update your beliefs, maintain the most truthful perspective, and adopt the best evidence and arguments, no matter if they are yours of those of others

  • Be diplomatic: when you think the other person is wrong, strive to avoid saying "you're wrong because of X" but instead to use questions, such as "what do you think X implies about your argument?"

  • Be specific and concrete: go down levels of abstraction

  • Be clear: make sure the semantics are clear to all by defining terms

  • Be probabilistic: use probabilistic thinking and probabilistic language, to help get at the extent of disagreement and be as specific and concrete as possible

    • For instance, avoid saying that X is absolutely true, but say that you think there's an 80% chance it's the true position

    • Consider adding what evidence and reasoning led you to believe so, for both you and the other participants to examine this chain of thought

  • When people whose perspective you respect fail to update their beliefs in response to your clear chain of reasoning and evidence, update a little somewhat toward their position, since that presents evidence that your position is not very convincing

  • Confirm your sources: look up information when it's possible to do so (Google is your friend)

  • Charity mode: trive to be more charitable to others and their expertise than seems intuitive to you

  • Use the reversal test to check for status quo bias

    • If you are discussing whether to change some specific numeric parameter - say increase by 50% the money donated to charity X - state the reverse of your positions, for example decreasing the amount of money donated to charity X by 50%, and see how that impacts your perspective

  • Use CFAR’s double crux technique

    • In this technique, two parties who hold different positions on an argument each writes the the fundamental reason for their position (the crux of their position). This reason has to be the key one, so if it was proven incorrect, then each would change their perspective. Then, look for experiments that can test the crux. Repeat as needed. If a person identifies more than one reason as crucial, you can go through each as needed. More details are here.  

Of course, not all of these techniques are necessary for high-quality collaborative truth-seeking. Some are easier than others, and different techniques apply better to different kinds of truth-seeking discussions. You can apply some of these techniques during debates as well, such as double crux and the reversal test. Try some out and see how they work for you.



Engaging in collaborative truth-seeking goes against our natural impulses to win in a debate, and is thus more cognitively costly. It also tends to take more time and effort than just debating. It is also easy to slip into debate mode even when using collaborative truth-seeking, because of the intuitive nature of debate mode.


Moreover, collaborative truth-seeking need not replace debates at all times. This non-intuitive mode of engagement can be chosen when discussing issues that relate to deeply-held beliefs and/or ones that risk emotional triggering for the people involved. Because of my own background, I would prefer to discuss poverty in collaborative truth-seeking mode rather than debate mode, for example. On such issues, collaborative truth-seeking can provide a shortcut to resolution, in comparison to protracted, tiring, and emotionally challenging debates. Likewise, using collaborative truth-seeking to resolve differing opinions on all issues holds the danger of creating a community oriented excessively toward sensitivity to the perspectives of others, which might result in important issues not being discussed candidly. After all, research shows the importance of having disagreement in order to make wise decisions and to figure out the truth. Of course, collaborative truth-seeking is well suited to expressing disagreements in a sensitive way, so if used appropriately, it might permit even people with triggers around certain topics to express their opinions.


Taking these caveats into consideration, collaborative truth-seeking is a great tool to use to discover the truth and to update our beliefs, as it can get past the high emotional barriers to altering our perspectives that have been put up by evolution. Rationality venues are natural places to try out collaborative truth-seeking.





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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:56 PM

Not to disagree with anything in particular I would like to make a case for for another option for seeking truth that is highly undervalued these days: thorough non-discussion and non-collaboration.

The search for good hypotheses can be very difficult. Often breakthroughs require deep conceptual insights. Consider for example Special and General Relativity, interpretations of probability, and I would argue Quantum Theory and artificial general intelligence are in need of such things. Collaboration--even good collaboration--has at least two problems in regard to deep conceptual insight:

  1. These insights may take years of thought and much energy maintaining focus for such a long period of time. Keeping in touch with a discussion can impose a large cost in focus, energy and time.

  2. Discussion and collaboration require communication but that can only occur to a greater or lesser extent when concepts and meaning of language used is roughly settled upon. Novel conceptual insights require by definition a change in concepts and meaning. These changes often cannot easily be communicated without a large amount of work outside of the discussion.

In order to seek truth we must consider the kinds of answers we expect might be necessary. If we consider normal methods and concepts are appropriate and we just need a lot of brainpower, then collaboration can be great. If however we need new concepts, an individual approach may be more appropriate.

Right on for individual insight! The Collaborative Truth-Seeking strategy is only for cases when you disagree with someone and want to figure out the best approach for going forward to get at the truth.

I like this a lot. A lot of similar thoughts here.

I think the biggest issue is not coming up with a list of techniques etc., but with taking care to explicitly set a frame for interaction which is different from the "default" (i.e. debating with all its pitfalls), and having it register with everyone on a deep enough level.

As the biggest hurdle to success, I'd identify not a lack of tools or rationality skills, but having enough training/awareness to remember to stick to the frame throughout the interaction.

having enough training/awareness to remember to stick to the frame throughout the interaction.

Yeah, awareness is key, as is the emotional trust, which is fundamental to helping be emotionally invested enough to make the awareness easier.

Yet given that we are not always fully rational and strategic in our social engagements, it is easy to slip up within debate mode and orient toward winning instead of uncovering the truth.

To be fully rational is to orient toward winning.

Me, I'm not fully rational. I'm a moron. I typically do what you suggest instead - orienting toward truth (epistemic truth). It's taken me decades to realize the foolishness of that, but it is still my natural inclination.

-- Recovering Truthaholic

To be fully rational is to orient toward winning.

Keep in mind that "winning" has a specific meaning here that's different from the colloquial. It doesn't mean winning debates or winning contests, it means guiding your experiences to the world-state you prefer. And if this isn't pretty deeply tied to truth-seeking, you probably have pretty trivial terminal goals.

it means guiding your experiences to the world-state you prefer

What does this mean? The straightforward interpretation is "reshape the world to your liking".

And if this isn't pretty deeply tied to truth-seeking, you probably have pretty trivial terminal goals.

Counterexample: election debates.

In general, sometimes you want to figure out the truth, but sometimes you need to remove roadblocks. In the latter case winning doesn't have much to do with truth-seeking and that does not imply the triviality of the terminal goals.

Counterexample: election debates.

Uhm... you still need to know what truly persuade potential electors. In a formula:

truth-seeking =/= truth-telling

you still need to know what truly persuade potential electors

Yes, but you don't find it in a debate with your opponent.

There is time to figure out what to do, and there is time to just do it.

reshape the world to your liking

is a fair restatement, but doesn't capture MWI and my model of decisions as anthropic measurement rather than universe mutation. Everything possible actually happens; your choices are just a selector/cause of which timeline your observer finds itself in.

Figuring out the truth of election outcomes (your expected experiences conditional on different actions you take and the outcomes that occur) seems fairly important to me. My current estimate on the topic is that my debating or voting will have almost no impact on my future experiences. And getting correction and updates if that is NOT true would be extremely valuable.

Everything possible actually happens

This statement is vague, but if you mean something broad (i.e. all that you can imagine and more), I certainly don't think this is a consequence of MWI.

Maybe I don't know something, but the statement that "everything possible actually happens" seems to me like a collation between MWI and fairy tales/poor science fiction.

Please correct me if it's me who is ignorant.

but doesn't capture MWI

Do you claim that accepting MWI is a necessary part of rationality and/or do you claim that there is empirical difference between an MWI world and a Copenhagen world?

Figuring out the truth of election outcomes

I should have been more clear: I meant debates between candidates, e.g. debates between candidates for the presidency of the United States. Clearly you want to win such a debate rather than truth-seek, and clearly your goals aren't exactly trivial.

Sorry to bring in MWI - it is how I model actions and decisions, but it's not necessary to the conversation.

you want to win such a debate

Agreed, and I was unclear above. Many times you want to "win" by convincing people to follow you, even if you are encouraging untruth in them. You still benefit by knowing the truth, as it will help you manipulate them. I'd argue that this drifts from rationality to ethics pretty quickly, but you're absolutely right: the point of debate may not be rational truth-seeking in the first place.

Very droll.

But define winning. In many situations, finding the truth is winning.

For example take global warming. Maybe I'm lobbyist for big oil and for me winning means making sure no one takes global warming seriously. But even then knowing the facts is still in my interest. So if I'm amongst fellow lobbyists who I trust it is in my interest to take an open, truth seeking approach. This will help me identify the strong and weak points in my opponents' arguments. It will help in formulating distractionary strategies. Etc. I will just have to make sure no one records the meeting and then leaks it.

I agree that there are definitely situations where orienting toward the truth is not winning, although they are rare. The technique here is specifically for use in the vast majority of situations when orienting toward the truth is optimal.

When you are

striving to avoid arousing emotions that will hinder updating beliefs and truth discovery

And otherwise being diplomatic where do you draw the line between that and motte-and-baileying them or otherwise being rhetorically manipulative?

When I'm talking with a view very different from my view, if I offer a watered down version of my view (that I still believe is true) so that there will be less inferential distance, am I being collaborative or deceptive? I fine this question particularly troublesome on the internet where it's hard to build up a deep understanding of someone's position.

Yeah, this is a tough one. I think the key is to share your intent with your collaborators. Use Tell Culture, explain your uncertainties and your desire to avoid triggering problematic emotions, and work with her/him to figure out the best path forward.