A first look at Kialo: An online tool for rational debate

Example of an argument tree from Kialo

Kialo is a cross-over between a social network and a debating program. It went into open beta-testing a couple of months ago. I have been playing around with it and think it has great potential. Its main goal is to promote rational debate on the internet. Here are some of my first reactions to Kialo’s design.

How does it work?

In short, Kialo allows users to create discussions. A discussion is a kind of tree structure. At the top is a claim such as “The U.S. should adopt stronger gun control legislation” or “Humans should stop eating animal meat.” Users collaboratively formulate Pros and Cons for such statements. The process is designed to promote editing the wording of such claims throughout – no particular user ‘owns’ a claim. Furthermore, each Pro or Con can itself be supported by its own Pros and Cons. This way, one quickly creates a sophisticated argument structure. I particularly like the fact that users not only add Pros and Cons to the list; they also discuss the wording of each support statement extensively and move them around. This activity alone will lead to a deeper understanding of what is often a complex, layered argument.

The result is what the makers of Kialo call a discussion topology. This is an apt metaphor, since a complex argument requires one to dwell ‘in several places’. The interface reflects this basic aspect of argumentation on a visual level.

Browsing through the discussion topologies of discussions created by other users is an interesting experience. One often feels compelled to start editing claims or to add new ones. The main result of the process is the discussion topology itself. That said, there is also the option to let users vote on the weight of all the Pros and Cons. The result is graphically displayed. In other words, Kialo can be used as an argument-generating heuristic tool but also to make decisions.

It seems that Kialo can be used in at least two ways. The first is to use it as an internal tool for teams which need to attack complex arguments. But Kialo can also be used as a social network where strangers meet to discuss arguments of their choice. It is the latter option which would make it an interesting alternative to the ‘internet shouting factory’ — a phrase used by Kialo to describe what it aims to remedy.

What follows are some questions and suggestions I had after playing around with Kialo for a couple of hours.

Fallacies and other reasons to edit or discard arguments

One of the greatest features of Kialo is that it encourages users to write Pros and Cons carefully and to edit them collectively. Obviously, there can be several reasons to be unhappy with an argument. For example, it might be poorly supported by facts. Or: it might be ad hominem. Such faulty reasoning is usually described as fallacious. The different types of fallacies have been described extensively and it might be interesting to implement some sort of fallacy-tagging function into Kialo. Each fallacy also comes with suggestions to repair the argument. This way, criticism can be made constructive. For example, an argument flagged as ad hominem could lead to an invitation to its author to rewrite it shifting focus away from the merely personal aspect.

Another example of a criticism that will occur often is that definitions of key terms have shifted between arguments. It could be great to complement a discussion with a co-created list of key definitions, of which users are reminded as they type new contributions.

Whether such functions will be productive obviously depends on the setting and the experience of the participants. As the program works at present, fallacies are often countered with Cons which explain why the argument is a fallacy. I, for one, would love to experiment with different degrees of sophistication at the level of the interface to see what works best for which context.

Argument genres

The Kialo interface is remarkably simple. Each argument, however deep into discussion, is supported by a list of Pros and Cons. This roughly reflects the practice of debating, where one team argues for a given proposition, and another argues against it. If one was to evaluate an argument, one would look at the Pros and Cons, weigh them, and come to some sort of overall judgment. This works very well in cases where we work on the methodological premise that the thesis cannot be proven false or true simpliciter, such as in complex social issues or in policy questions.

However, some arguments seem to call for other methods of evaluation. A good example is when an argument has a logical character. In the Kialo-discussion does God exist? an argument appears which looks as follows: “René Descartes formulated an ontological argument for the existence of God.” One should ask whether such an argument (a logical proof, really) is best evaluated using a Pros and Cons list. It seems that one would have to list its premises and inference steps. The overall soundness of the argument is then evaluated by assessing the plausibility of its premises. The only ‘Cons’ against a logical argument are either against its premises or against the presupposed logic. It would be very nice if this could be reflected at least partially in the Kialo interface.

What I am getting at is that in reasoning we use different argument genres to support our wider claims. Another useful distinction is between arguments of value and arguments of facts. Both are supported in fundamentally different ways. Value claims are supported by embedding them in value systems; factual claims are supported by supplying and interpreting relevant data. It would be very neat if Kialo could at some point reflect some of these nuances of argumentative practice.

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I am very curious what Kialo will become as it picks up steam. Can you imagine a Kialo discussion with thousands of contributors on the content of a referendum? But also: what are the risks? How should Kialo handle editorial policy once discussions become large enough to exert an influence?


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