Why Should You Get People Talking And Thinking About Things?


Tuesday, 9.00pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness. – Julia Ward Howe

I am all for speed. Quantity counts. And it sounds like there is evidence that a strategy based on quantity is a good one. Why would fish lay millions of eggs otherwise? Why is the entire reproductive process based on the dispersion of far more seed than will ever find fertile soil? When you really think about it, is there anything more wasteful than nature itself?

Then again, maybe we’re at a point where we need to be the opposite of wasteful, where we need to think more slowly, take our time and consider all the options and look at things from multiple points of view. But that’s so ridiculously hard and takes so long to do and costs so much – surely we can just get on with it?

I came across a paper by Gregory, Hartz-Karp and Watson (2008) that talks about using deliberative techniques to work with a community and develop policy. So what are these? Well, it’s when you use techniques and methods that give people the chance to reflect on what’s happening, discuss stuff with each other, ask questions and think more deeply about the situation and problem at hand. But why would you do that? Because doing this is how people see things from different perspectives and perhaps even change their minds or adjust their positions.

The fact that much of the world, especially right now, operates in a completely different way, is so obvious that it doesn’t need pointing out. We jump to conclusions instead of reflecting, shout rather than discuss, stay silent rather than question and act rather than think.

Now, we know that we don’t use deliberative approaches in most situations. What you see, most of the time, is people sit down and come up with ideas. They they put these out to consultation and then they get responses from the public and then the people in charge agree or disagree with these responses and the policy gets made and published. It’s an efficient and low-cost way of doing things and that’s why it’s used a lot.

Gregory et. al (2008)’s paper tells you many of the things you need to think about. How do you get a diverse group of people to participate in your session? Select some or all randomly. How long does it have to be? Longer than you think – people need time to work on this. Do you do it every time? No – it depends on the situation. Is it meant for small or large groups? Yes. Do you do quantitative or qualitative evaluations? Yes. Do you involve experts or the general public? Yes. How much do you tell people? As much as you can. How do you get people to trust your process? Well, that’s hard. Have you been honest with them before? If participants start to feel like this is all for show then they’ll quickly get disengaged and sceptical about the whole thing.

Then, of course, you have the knotty problem of whether all this talking actually leads to anything, does it result in better outcomes? And that’s very hard to tell because you don’t know what would have happened if you didn’t do what you did. Maybe the consultation would have been quicker and cheaper and got to the right conclusion.

But then again, what’s “right”? Is there any real, objective “right” sitting out there, just waiting to be discovered. Or is everything contingent – depending on the situation and the people involved and the only thing that counts is making things better for the people that are there and affected by what’s going on.

Let’s look at the big example of this whole thing – the law as it works in most countries. We think of the “law” as a thing, as something absolute. But it’s really a bunch of rules worked out over decades argued over for centuries. The law seemed like an alternative to getting out your sword and fighting everyone else who disagrees with you. Instead you grudgingly make your case and try to get people to work with you. The law emerges out of all these interactions and the way a people think they should act and think is then written down in words that are rarely enough but that are better than the alternative, which is shouting and punching.

Now, you need to ask yourself whether the reason courts take so long is because they want to take time to deliberate or because they are lazy and don’t know how to do things quickly. And it’s probably six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. The courts have one thing in mind and lawyers have another and the whole thing is at one level a search for fairness and truth and at another level a game where the person with the best argument can try to win. Is there any real way to test whether a law does its job – whether it works and improves the situation?

Christian and Griffiths (2017) may ride to the rescue on this one. Old laws are probably better ones because they’ve lasted this long without being thrown out. And you can expect them, using Bayesian statistics, to last at least as long as they have lasted so far. In a rather nice example of this the oldest law on the statute books is the Distress Act of 1267 that essentially says that the only way you can get compensation for damages is through a lawsuit in a court. In a previous paragraph I thought that avoiding a fight might be the reason we have the law and it turns out that’s the case – the purpose of the law was to outlaw feuds. What this tells us is that in the year 2773 we will probably still have courts and lawyers and will file a lawsuit if we think we’ve been wronged. The courts will survive.

What this tells us is that old approaches that are still around and being used are probably good ones. New ones that haven’t been tested much will probably be around for as long as they have been so far. So that latest management fad – before you really devote yourself to following its every mandate ask yourself how long it’s been around. And if its a short while you have nothing to lose by waiting a little bit longer. On the other hand, if it’s been around for a while you can probably trust that it works.

History, it turns out, is actually a pretty good teacher.

I mentioned that I was planning to start a programme of research and that’s why my writing is now a little more formal when it comes to references and ideas. One aspect of this is that I’m trying to find a research question, something that I can look at a little deeper. And I think there’s something in this space – where you have lots of methods and ideas that people come up with and then a history of methods and approaches that are so ingrained in the way we live that we don’t perhaps stop to think about the fact that they were once new and different and something about them meant that they survived. Did they survive because they were lucky or because they were good? How can we tell?

I think I might want to look at history and community in the next post.


Karthik Suresh


Judy Gregory, Janette Hartz-Karp, and Rebecca Watson, “Using deliberative techniques to engage the community in policy development,” Australia and New Zealand Health Pol- icy, p. 5:16 (2008). https://anzhealthpolicy.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-8462-5-16.

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, p. Harper Collins (2017).

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