Happy Friday!  Today’s How I Innovate guest blogger is Shane Greenup co-creator of rbutr, an exciting community-driven app that seeks to bring the spirit of debate and balanced perspective to our online reading.   Shane’s comments follow. 

rbutr is a project I have been working on for over a year now which has grown from a very simple humble origin, in to a dream to create a critical thinking revolution on the internet.

The original concept came shortly after a friend shared an article which praised a ‘study’ that was flawed in several ways and produced biased results. The article was both misleading and potentially harmful in the information it contained, and my friend had just promoted it to all of their friends as good worthwhile research. This wasn’t a divided issue. There was no grey area. The article was bad, and I thought it was important that everyone should understand exactly why that was the case.

It wasn’t going to be enough to say “Hey, that article is bad”. This would require an actual explanation. It would require details, facts, arguments, and most of all, it would require some element of persuasion.

And that is when it struck me… Surely someone else has already seen this article, and had these same thoughts, and gone to the trouble of writing an elegant, articulate, compelling rebuttal of the article. In fact, I would be willing to bet that more than one person has done it. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get all of the rebuttals ever written against this ‘study’ and find the very best one, and show it to everyone who reads the article?

And that is how rbutr was born…Image

I just wanted a strong rebuttal to this article, but being unable to find one myself I realised a new solution needed to be made.

We started to manually connect rebuttal articles to the pages they rebut and storing those connections in a database. One by one we were mapping the ‘claim-rebuttal’ connections which exist all over the internet, and then using a browser plugin to tell people when they were reading a rebutted page.

Open, Honest Discussion and the Principle of Charity

Coming from a Philosophical background, I do hold some ideals that open, honest and rational discourse can indeed solve most of our problems. Overcoming out natural biases and flaws is not going to be easy though.

I believe that things like the scientific method show us how we can create systems and processes to overcome our individual flaws. That is, in science we demand that researchers follow a systematic approach to collecting and reporting evidence and reasoning. We expose their reports to a rigorous system of peer review, and then expect the researchers to share their methods and results with their peers so that their experiments can be reproduced. Claims which are fabricated or mistaken inevitable get found out as such, while genuine results will stand through all of these tests.

And so similarly, we can use other processes to overcome other biases and flaws. For example, the Principle of Charity is a powerful philosophical idea which allows people to discuss ideas without small mistakes being taken advantage of to ‘score points’ and ‘win’ the debate. Instead, it allows people to help each other correct their own errors in order to get closer to the truth, which is far more important than their own egotistical desires.

Unfortunately, we don’t always apply this principle perfectly. Sometimes our ego gets in the way, and sometimes we are so heavily invested in our beliefs that we forget that the real purpose of discussion is to find the truth; not validate our beliefs.

So what if we could set up a system which mimicked the principle of charity without requiring anyone to give their opponent the benefit of the doubt, or to improve their opponent’s argument for them?

I see an internet where rbutr could provide such a service. By allowing tens, hundreds or thousands of people to write their best counter-argument to a claim, and then letting other people vote on those counter-arguments, we could get ‘the best’ possible counter argument to any claim. With the best possible counter-argument presented to each claim, there is no longer a need for people to remember to use the principle of charity because there should be no logical fallacies or errors in the argument which need overlooking or correcting!

And by removing individual focus from the discussion taking place (which is now a global discussion between many people), a lot of the ego may be dropped and the discussion may focus on the facts, the evidence, the logic, and the claims being made. As each response comes from a different person, but in each place is still the best possible rebuttal, perhaps we can finally make some genuine progress in the discussions which have been happening on repeat over the last 3,000 or more years?

Longer Term

Since first coming up with the idea behind rbutr my own understanding of it has progressed substantially. No longer do I see rbutr as just a way of getting a counter-argument to a specific article, nor do I even see it just as a way of getting the best argument and progressing humanity along in oft repeated discussions. Instead I now see rbutr as a way of teaching skills of critical thinking to everyone who uses the internet.

ImageThe way the internet currently works is incredibly passive. The internet gives us whatever we ask for. There is no filter, there is no editorial process and there is no critical component. Most of this is a necessary part of the internet and cannot be changed.

However, if we build a secondary layer to the internet which reminds people to question the information they are accessing, they may be a little less passive in their consumption of information. They may acquiesce less, and actually refrain from accepting the information without critical reflection.

Better still, when we provide them with a high quality critical analysis of the information they just read, it will actually help educate them in how they might be able to think critically in the future. They will learn how to deconstruct arguments, how to spot logical fallacies, how to identify cognitive biases and other such skills; just by watching other people use them.

Of course this isn’t an ideal way to teach those skills – but surely it is better than letting people consume information without any critical reflection at all? Surely it is better to integrate critical reflection in to their daily lives, ever present, ‘part of the furniture’, completely normal, rather than leaving them to continue thinking that critical thinking has no part in their lives.

Now we have an internet which is no longer just a passive delivery system, but an active cautionary one. A gadfly included internet, where no one is allowed to simply believe the first thing they read, but instead has to accept the fact that ideas are contentious, that conclusions are hard won, and that beliefs should be settled upon only after much careful consideration.

ImageHow I Innovate

As this story hopefully demonstrates, my innovation essentially comes from noticing a frustration and identifying things which would resolve it. It was frustrating that I was unable to find rebuttals to the article shared by my friend. The idea of building a list of rebuttals of that page, and with it, any other pages on the internet, seemed like an obvious one at the time so we just started working on it.

Working on it consists of making something small, then asking people what they think, then improving it, then getting more feedback, and repeating that process. Ideas need to evolve under some selective process. The bible of innovation at the moment is The Lean Startup by Eric Reis, and I think anyone looking to innovate in the modern world must read it. Innovation is not just an idea and then work – it is a long line of ideas, each better than the last, all working towards a worthwhile goal.

The most important thing is just having a worthwhile goal.

rbutr and Education

rbutr is a tool which is designed to be used by everyone on the internet. I believe that it can make a huge difference by bringing critical thinking skills to the average person in a way which is not threatening. However, reaching the wider public as a successful viable beneficial project is going to be our largest struggle. We need lots of users adding lots of rebuttals and constant growth.

We have already established a solid foundation within the Skeptic community, who have taken to rbutr like ducks to water. We are also forming partnerships with a number of large websites; one of which has over a million visitors per month. We expect integrating rbutr directly in to their website will give us our largest and fastest growth ever.

However, I believe that rbutr’s best chance of reaching the wider public, and having its most powerful impact is to find a way to fit in to education itself. To become a useful tool for teachers, and students alike.

We have heard many people say that they wish rbutr was around when they were students, so it seems the benefit to students is immediately apparent to most – the ability to find a range of perspectives and arguments on topics they need to understand. Similarly, teachers will be able to use rbutr to find examples of good and bad arguments to teach principles of analysis and critiquing for the purposes of demonstration. Other teachers have talked about possibly integrating rbutr itself in to their course work (usually college level teachers and lecturers).

This is something we would love to see happen, and given the right direction, feedback and partnership, will happily make a reality.

If you have any ideas, questions or suggestions for us, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to share this page with your colleagues and hopefully we will be able to find an ideal solution in the near future where rbutr can be the perfect teacher assisting tool, worldwide.

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