The Meta Debate

Well, the debate is off to a great start. Many folks have responded on the pro-war side, with a significantly lower (but growing) number of responses supporting the anti-war position.
I wanted to open something of a meta-debate, however, as I found some of the discussion around which questions we selected — and how they were phrased — rather interesting.
To summarize: some folks were concerned that the questions being raised by the pro-war side were “loaded” with preconceptions. In the final version, I attempted to tone this down, but even then, it could be argued that bias remained in the questions. Shelley Powers, on the anti-war side, sent me the following in e-mail (reprinted with her permission):
NZ, great idea, but a couple of questions from the pro-war side for the anti-war gang to answer are what is known as a leading question, and considered bad form in debate. An example is:
“American and British military force has allowed Northern Iraq to develop a society which, while imperfect, is clearly a freer and more open society than existed under Saddam Hussein’s direct rule”
A debate should always have question that doesn’t have built-in assumptions of value, and that don’t begin with leading questions. Debate questions should never have built-in emotional triggers. A better question would be (with assertions attached to delimit the components of the question):
A society independent of Saddam Hussein’s rule has developed in the northern part of Iraq (this is a fact). This area of the country is also supported by a no-fly zone, enforced by British and American military forces (this is a fact). Do you see an association between the formation of this society and the no-fly enforcement (between these facts, please form and articulate your opinion)? If so, do you feel that the no-fly zone is beneficial (same)? Should this type of no-fly enforcement be extended to all of Iraq (again, opinion asked based on facts)?
You’re also using ‘liberated’ in your last question which is, again, a loaded term. A debate should be based on facts and allow the debater to debate from a neutral platform rather than one based on trigger words and emotion, and pre-suppositions, as well as bias.
I know you’re going to say that I have a bias on the anti-war side, but if you look at the questions provided by this side, there are no trigger words in the questions, and no pre-suppositions. Even something such as “The Bush Administration has issued numerous allegations about the threat represented by Iraq, many of which have been criticized in some quarters as hearsay, speculation or misstatements”, is a verifiable fact and makes no opinion about whether the question asker believes that the criticism is justified; the debater is then allowed to debate from a neutral platform.
If this had been worded “President Bush has made misleading statements about….leading to justified criticism….”, you would have had the same type of question the pro-war side asked.

I responded as follows:
Thanks for the comments; appreciate you being interested enough at least to reply. (Somehow, I had a feeling you’d have opinions one way or another! 🙂
I did what I could to assemble a sensible set of questions from the input I received; I was trying to balance my own opinions vs. the input of the group. In general, I will confess that I am not terribly troubled by the issue of leading questions — although I did try to keep the leading to a minimum in the final set of questions. In my personal opinion — and it is only that — in this debate, since it is one side asking the other side questions (not a supposedly neutral moderator), I think it is to be expected that some of each side’s beliefs will be revealed through the questions themselves. And I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing.
I would also argue that the opposing sides’ questions *did* have trigger words and presuppositions, although perhaps to a different degree: Why, for instance, is the phrase “regime change” presented in quotes in question 3? I’d argue those are “scare quotes”, meant to imply disapproval of the term — a bias in itself. And question 2 asks ‘What do you feel are the prospects that an invasion of Iraq will succeed in a) maintaining it as a stable entity’ — which completely pre-supposes that a Iraq being a stable entity is a desirable goal in itself. (Many would argue that it is not, given the Kuridsh situation and Iraq’s arbitrary borders).
But anyway, I do appreciate the feedback, even if (or perhaps especially if!) we have different perspectives — and I don’t think your comments are based in an anti-war bias at all. (There was discusion of the same issue of ‘loadedness’ among the pro-war group as we developed the questions).

And finally, for completeness, Shelley’s last brief response:
I guess my hope was that we could see a debate in the weblogs that wasn’t so emotional. Perhaps one that would put the politicians and the journalists to shame. But ’emotion’ is what most likely forms the basis of each person’s opinion anyway.
As for your comments on the anti-war side, I concede the quotes, but stable entity — no matter what you think of Hussein, Iraq is a stable entity. Saddam Hussein uses ruthless tactics to ensure this. However, neither here nor there.

So I toss the following meta-questions out to the peanut gallery:
1) What questions (on either side) do you consider “loaded” with preconceptions or assumptions, and why?
2) For the purposes of our debate, do you think this was a bad thing?
At this point, of course, the question-selection is done; we ain’t changing them now. But I’m still curious to understand how widespread Shelley’s concerns are — and how the perception of bias is different depending on your starting position…