Founding Editorial: Our vision for The Tête-à-Tête

-Matt Burgess & Ian Burgess-

As a society, we face some thorny challenges that demand reasoned, pragmatic, but potentially uncomfortable conversations in public forums. We fear that the capacity to have this type of public conversation is eroding. The Tête-à-Tête’s mission is to create a safe space for reasoned and constructive conversations about any and all topics, including those that may be uncomfortable or contentious. We hope that you will join these conversations, and that, together, we will build consensus, find solutions, and make progress.

How are we going to provide food, water and energy to 10 billion or more people this century without running out of resources or trashing the planet? How can developed countries adapt their economies to rapidly aging populations? How can we fight climate change, reduce income inequality, and facilitate large public investments in education, infrastructure, and R&D, without hurting the competitiveness of our businesses? How can we make livelihoods robust to rapidly changing labour markets as we improve technology? How can we keep our societies safe from crime and terror without losing our civil liberties? How do we balance victims’ rights with presumption of innocence in criminal law? These are just some of the questions we hope to tackle here together.

We want The Tête-à-Tête to be a place where we learn from each other. Too often in public discussions, it seems like we care more about being right than learning. Sloganeering, fear-mongering, and gotcha politics are some of our favourite tactics for sidelining people that already disagree with us, and distracting, deceiving, or intimidating those that might otherwise choose to. Open-mindedness is key to learning. We learn the most when we open-mindedly engage with people who disagree with us. Or they learn from us. Usually both. When we instead construct echo chambers for ourselves, we learn nothing. As our echo chambers shrink and homogenize, we also lose the ability to empathize with each other. Solving problems as a society requires a healthy social fabric. Empathy is the foundation of our social fabric.

As important as open-mindedness is to learning, so too is rigor. We welcome and will treat all viewpoints with respect at The Tête-à-Tête, but we recognize that not all viewpoints are equal in their merit. Contributed articles and essays will be held to high standards of rigor. Importantly though, we will not screen contributions based on authors’ credentials. We care about how good your ideas are, not who you are. We recognize that the best ideas often come from unlikely sources. For example, Lord Robert May began his career in physics before becoming the world’s most cited living ecologist, and more recently, adviser to the Bank of England. Jared Diamond was a molecular biologist, then an animal ecologist, before he wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel, and his other influential books on societal development and collapse. And of course, Albert Einstein was a patent clerk when he was working on his transformative theory of relativity.

In maintaining high standards of both respect and rigor in The Tête-à-Tête, we believe it is important to distinguish normative questions from positive ones. Answers to normative questions come from our values. For example, ‘How much do we care about the well-being of our children as compared to our own well-being?’ is a normative question. Because we all have different values, we may disagree on normative issues, and we should be respectful in our disagreement. In contrast, positive questions are questions of fact, not values. ‘What impact will climate change have on our economy?’ is a positive question. To answer positive questions, we must turn to the available evidence, and evaluate evidence as objectively as possible. It is important that we not let our values bias our evaluation of the evidence.

We also believe that it is important to distinguish objectives from strategies, when addressing a particular problem. Establishing objectives usually requires answering normative questions, informed by our values. Finding the right strategy to meet our objectives requires answering positive questions, informed by the evidence. Often, we think we disagree on objectives (and therefore values), when we really disagree on strategies. In such cases, separating our objectives from our strategies can expose both common ground in our values and a constructive evidence-based path towards finding the right strategy. For example, economic growth and broadly shared prosperity are objectives, ones we suspect most people agree on. Tax cuts and public spending increases are each strategies for meeting these objectives. Determining which of these strategies (or others) will be most likely to lead to economic growth and broadly shared prosperity is a positive question that we should confront with evidence.

Lastly, The Tête-à-Tête will not shy away from asking tough, even uncomfortable, questions. As a society, we sometimes avoid important questions because we don’t want to know the answer, or the question itself makes us uncomfortable. ‘Can we keep our infrastructure up-to-date and our fiscal house in order without raising taxes?’ is an example of the former. ‘Who has the right to assisted suicide?’ is an example of the latter. We will face these types of questions head on, but will be particularly vigilant about keeping our conversations safe and respectful when dealing with uncomfortable topics.

So come join us. Together, we will ask important questions, explore new ideas, learn, find common ground, and hopefully solve problems. With your help, we can build a rigorous, inclusive, and constructive public discourse, one Tête-à-Tête at a time.

4 thoughts on “Founding Editorial: Our vision for The Tête-à-Tête

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