2^11 ways to disagree - Reference frames in debates : Ensuring a Learning India S3 E.004

Physics teaches us an important lesson. Whenever there is a difference in the observation of an object by two people, it could be because of the observers’ difference in reference frames. Likewise, whenever there is a difference in opinion and judgment about a policy issue, it could also be because of difference in reference frame of the two parties. The reference frame here could be value set of morals, difference in sensitivity to the issues, difference in expectations and so on. This post lists out 11 different possible metrics or frames of reference on which people can differ, which is then reflected in their policy choices. It is useful to diagnose these root causes of differences in never ending debates.

0. Metric for evaluation: It seems funny but often the disagreements are because the metric for evaluation of an idea. For example, take the case of mid day meal scheme. For some people, the metric of success of this scheme is increase in attendance. For some, it is improved nutrition. For some others, it is learning outcomes. If two people don't realize that their metrics for judgment are different, then the debate never ends. Same is the case when they can't define a common metric. 

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is another example. What is the metric for success of SBA? Is it the change in mindset of people towards cleanliness or is it making the official functionaries accountable? or Is it ensuring that there is no dust and sewage anywhere in India? Depending on each of the metrics above, one can call SBA both a success and failure.

I. Absolute vs. Relative: Is the metric for evaluation absolute or is it relative? Some are ok with a policy intervention providing relatively better outcomes than the existing but some aren’t ok unless an absolute value is reached. These are the ‘Oh! But it still doesn’t reach x’ type of arguments. For example, elite private schools in India are better on an average.

II. Doesn’t exist or it exists but is acceptable? : Is the argument that something perceived as bad doesn’t exist or it exists but insignificant or exists and significant but it doesn’t matter? For example: Markets and inequality. Are you contesting the claim that market causes inequality? Or Are you saying that inequality exists but you don’t care Or Are you saying that inequality exists but insignificant or Are you saying that it exists and is problematic but there is a way out?

III. Necessary vs. Sufficient: These are the “Hey xyz is not a panacea” category of arguments. Of course not! Nothing is a panacea, not even Aspirin and Crocin. Most things are necessary conditions. The fact that working on a necessary condition doesn’t result in outcomes doesn’t mean that it is incorrect to work on that condition.
IV. Analysis of only costs instead of cost vs. benefit analysis: It is common to cite only costs related to a policy and hence argue against it. One should look at the benefits too? Is the difference in argument because there in difference of opinion in the net benefit (perceived benefits – perceived costs)? Is this difference subjective to person or is it possible to quantify? If yes, then quantification helps.

V. Argument of extremes or Argument of average: This is visible in three forms.

One, whenever someone makes a statement that private schools are better than government schools then the comparison can be any of these - average government school vs. average elite private school OR worst government school vs. worst private school or average government school vs. elite private school and so on. If the person claiming the statement is thinking of one form of comparison but the other person understands it as another form of comparison, then there is bound to be an non resolvable difference.

Two, overall population vs. specific type of population: Computers can’t teach kids. Wait! Can’t they teach any kid or only certain types of kids? If self-motivation is key issue to learn through computers then may be computers can fasten learning of only one particular set of kids, though on an average they might not show any effect. It shouldn’t be rejected just because it is not able to help certain section of people. Let it help whomever it can help.

Three, stereotypes. It is common to accuse people of stereotyping and generalizing but generalization and stereotyping is inevitable to an extent. If a person says that, humans have two eyes, that person is definitely stereotyping about humans. It only means that given no other information about a human, the expectation (on an average/ generally) about a human is that (s)he will have two eyes. This doesn’t mean that, that particular person denies the existence of single eyed humans.

VI. Outcome or agent of outcome? Are you concerned about the outcome or about the agent of the outcome? Are you concerned about learning outcomes as end goal OR concerned about achieving them through private system. For example, I would like the pollution to be controlled but I don’t want to do it by killing all people on the planet. I am concerned about the process. In another case, I want outcomes for children. Here I may not care if they get it through government schools or private schools or computers or doing transcendental meditation or by playing beach volley ball.

The other aspect of difference on similar lines is regarding the citizens vs. government debate. Who should perform the action - citizens or government? It is not necessary that a government is required to act in all cases. For example, many people argue that social engineering should be left to society and government shouldn’t involve but some argue that government has a role.

VII. Principle vs. Outcome: Is your argument based on principle or based on the assumption that it would lead to a good outcome? For example, voting rights. Voting rights is matter of principle, no matter what, everyone should have a right to vote. If tomorrow, someone proves that universal adult franchise is leading to election of wrong candidates, even then one wouldn’t scrap off voting rights, because it is a matter of principle. But on the other hand, tomorrow if someone says that some xyz policy isn’t resulting in outcomes, one may scrap it.

The other form manifestation of the principle is necessity. It is usual to cite numerous possible constraints and challenges in order to discard a policy. There are some policies which can be discarded based on the predicted challenges and feasibility of implementation but there are some which can’t be. Voting rights is an example in this case too. Another example is the Aadhar number. If one has to argue theoretically, one can list numerous challenges in its implementation but once it is decided that it is necessary to do this, it has be done despite the challenges, either overcoming them or any other method.

VIII. Causation vs. Correlation: Is the claim about the correlation or a causation?

IX. Citing historical reasons as evidence to discard a product or a proposal: Vinod Khosla calls this black swan technology. Kaushik Basu uses the analogy of Alexander Fleming. If one has to prove that ‘X’ doesn’t work, then they have to prove that ‘X’ doesn’t work. ‘All or many things of the category of X have failed in the past’ can’t be argument to prove that X will also fail. Who knows? X might turn out to be a success. Penicillin is an antibiotic. Before penicillin was discovered, 98% of all antibiotics were failure historically. Now, if the argument is, since 98% antibiotics failed, hence penicillin should be discarded, we wouldn’t have had penicillin. To prove that penicillin isn’t good, one has  to prove that this penicillin isn’t good, not use historical evidence. But there can also be cases where historical evidence is a good sign of the feasibility.

So, in an debate, is the argument about using historical evidence or is it about proving the existing idea without regards to the historical evidence?

X. Temporary solution vs. Permanent solution: Is the policy supposed to be a temporary intervention, as a relief till long term effects take shape OR Is it a permanent long term solution? It is one thing to say, anti-poverty programmes help people till growth and urbanization happen. It is another to say that anti -poverty programmes are the long term solution to poverty. Sometimes the argument is also that the temporary solutions are making us lose focus on the long term or permanent solutions.

Thus there are at least 11 metrics on which two people can differ on an issue or a policy idea. It is enough to disagree on even one of the above metrics, to create a friction. If we consider all possible options, considering that each of this metric is binary, there are 211 theoretically possible ways to disagree. No wonder, people agree to disagree.

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