Intelligence Squared Debates

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2006

Robert Rosenkranz made a fortune in insurance and investing, and when he began to give money away his first interest was in efforts to improve public policy and governance. He supported the Federalist Society and Manhattan Institute. He funded Rosenkranz Hall to house Yale University’s political science department and international relations program.

But Rosenkranz mourned the disappearance of respectful, meaty, intelligent public debate, seemingly squeezed out by the rise of personal, partisan, and emotional political wrangling on Internet and media outlets. Then during a trip to London in 2005 he took in a high-quality Oxford-style debate organized by a new group called Intelligence Squared. He purchased the rights for an American version of Intelligence Squared, hired a former Nightline producer to orchestrate, and debuted the first debates before live New York City audiences in 2006. Rosenkranz immersed himself in the process—choosing many of the topics, suggesting sparring partners on opposite sides of important public questions, and delivering opening remarks that framed the issues being argued over.

The Intelligence Squared U.S. debates quickly became popular, both as live events and as media and Internet phenomena—most of them are aired over NPR, streamed and posted as videos on the Web, and offered as podcasts. Not only the audience but also website visitors are given a chance to vote their own position on the debate topic, both before it takes place and right after. The statistical change in opinion as a result of the back-and-forth on stage is used to judge who won the argument.

As of 2015 there had been about 120 jousts, on hot topics in public policy like “Too many kids go to college,” “A booming China spells trouble for America,” “Global warming is not a crisis,” and “FDA caution is hazardous to our health.” Many constructive and enjoyable discussions, along with several awards for best public-affairs programming, have resulted from the mix of top-flight thinkers and lively controversialists arguing within a fair and scrupulously structured discussion format. Rosenkranz remains a central funder of the effort, but other philanthropists like Paul Singer and Gerry Ohrstrom, plus foundations like Rupe, Sackler, and Bradley, have also provided grants to keep the smart arguments flowing.