"[W]hen people argue they move back and forth between strong claims that are weakly defended and weaker claims that are strongly defended." ~ Ross Douthat, https://www.vox.com/21760348/trump-2020-election-republican-party-ross-douthat
What is judge intervention?
Let's start out first by explaining what judge intervention is NOT:
- Judge intervention is not when a judge prefers your opponents' argument to yours. This is, ya know, "judging."
- Judge intervention is not when a judge ridicules your argument. This is rude, but that's about all it is.
- Judge intervention is not when a judge jokingly says, "Extra points to anyone who can avoid saying the President's name," or some such. Silly, and perhaps annoying, but that's about all it is.
- Judge intervention is not when a judge declines to discuss their decision after the debate. In some cases, talking after the debate is disallowed by a tournament; in other case, it may just be the judge's personal preference. So be it.
- Judge intervention is not when a judge grants your opponent favorable treatment (e.g., more prep time than is allowed by the tournament, advice, extra speech time or do-overs, etc.). This is unacceptable behavior and should be reported to an adult in charge of the tournament.
- Judge intervention is not when a judge ignores the debate, falls asleep, or in other ways is derelict in their duty to be a full participant and educator. This is unacceptable behavior and should be reported to an adult in charge of the tournament.
- Judge intervention is not when a judge demeans you personally. This is unacceptable behavior and needs to be brought to an adult's attention, preferably your coach and/or the tournament.
- Judge intervention is not when a judge votes based on the school, sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or socio-economic class of the debaters, and not the arguments. Let's point out that it's beyond unacceptable and could be illegal.
- Judge intervention is not when a judge creates a hostile environment of harassment or fear or sexual joking. Or implies wins or speaker points can be traded for personal favors unrelated to debate. Beyond unacceptable and definitely illegal.
As you can see, judge intervention is not a catch-all term for rude or inappropriate judging behavior. Judge intervention falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: beyond merely rude, but well short of truly inappropriate behavior. Judge intervention is perhaps in some cases murkily unethical, although it would be very, very hard to prove any specific instance as unethical and will probably never result in an overturned ballot.
In many cases, judge intervention is the inevitable result of how YOU debated; it is, in at least some key ways, an inevitable part of judging even good debates.
So, what it judge intervention? Simply put, judge intervention is when a judge has to use their own prior knowledge to resolve an issue in the debate. Consider the following exchange:
Team A: "X is a fact" [no evidence provided]
Team B: "X is not a fact" [no evidence provided]
Judge: "… fudge you all"
In this instance, neither team provided any evidence to back up this point. If X is a crucial fact for the debate, then the judge will have to insert their prior knowledge to resolve it. (If X isn't important, then most judges will happily ignore it as irrelevant so as to avoid intervening.) Of course, this example is not the only one where a judge might be forced to intervene:
Team A: "The sky is green" [no evidence provided]
Team B: "…"
Judge: "Come on, team B!"
While the judge should be open minded, this doesn't extend to being completely gullible. We expect everyone to bring at least some prior knowledge into the debate with them. To assume the judge knew nothing would actually be an exhausting way to debate; in every round, you would spend the bulk of your time explaining how the government worked, that people were bipedal and how they used language to communicate, and so on. To paraphrase the T.V. show Archer, "Why is there conflict in the Middle East? Well, a long time ago there were dinosaurs, then they died, and their bones are what your car uses for food." Giving every bit of backstory would slow debates to a crawl. The judge should be allowed to have some degree of common sense without being accused of wrongdoing, even though it's technically intervening to ignore Team A's insane green-sky claim.
There are in fact many instances in which we should actually expect the judge to intervene and reject your argument, even if the opposing team said nothing against it. Looking at Toulmin's model will help us delineate all the ways. Toulmin's model of an argument contains the following parts:
Claim: your argument
Evidence: your supporting facts or expert opinion
Warrant: the logical connection between evidence and claim
Relevance: the meaning of your claim to the debate
A judge might reject your claim because it's muddled and unintelligible; they might reject it because it contradicts claims you make in other parts of the flow. A judge might reject your claim because it's of the wrong type. There are four types of claims: (1) factual, "X is true"; (2) causal, "If X happens, then Y will result"; (3) value, "X is right and good" or "X is more important than Y"; and (4) definitional, "The word X means…" These types of claims are not interchangeable, so don’t go answering a moral question with a factual claim. Definitions don't really address cause and effect questions…
A judge might reject your argument because you provide no or weak evidence. What if you argue the economy is doing well and your evidence is several years old? What if your source is, unbeknownst to you, a widely discredited conspiracy theorist? There are some real gray areas here. In some instances, we might say, "The other team didn't point that out, so the judge merely needs to accept any evidence I provided at face value," but in other cases, that feels absurdly deferential to a team reading, say, neo-Nazi propaganda or other gibberish. The judge should accept most reasonable seeming sources at face value, even if they perhaps know of a specific flaw with the evidence or source, but what is a reasonable source? Judges may have to walk a very fine line here because, though they are no experts on the topic, they may know more than you do. The line I often draw is,"What would be reasonable for a student at your age and experience level to know?" Do I expect you to know an insane conspiracy theory website when you see one? Yes. Do I expect you to know how respected an academic at a good university is in their field? Not really. So I would throw out the conspiracy website, even if it's unchallenged, while allowing the academic—even if I know something specific about their work—if your opponent says nothing. But if your opponent does say something, I will definitely let my skepticism fly free. My initial, naive presumption you shouldn't know something at your age goes right out the window when your opponent knows it.
A judge might reject your argument for lacking a warrant connecting the evidence back to the claim; the evidence might appear senseless and irrelevant. But the judge might also reject some kinds of warrant that you do provide. We don't expect judges to be subject matter experts in every single field a debate might touch on: they are not scientific experts, legal scholars, linguists, logicians, political theorists and strategists, pollsters and statisticians, and foreign policy gurus and intelligence analysts, all rolled into one. It's quite possible our explanations are too "inside baseball" for a lay judge to follow. Debating is a communicative act, so we need to do a bit of audience analysis. Our explanations, our reasoning, and our warrants need to assume that we are persuading an intelligent but lay audience; after all, our judge is not a subject matter expert but a smart generalist. In other words, yes, it's reasonable that a judge could reject a warrant you've provided that's perfectly intelligible and correct simply because it's over the judge's head—and it's reasonable to expect you to know it would have been.
A judge might believe everything about your argument but simply not get why you believe it's relevant to the debate.
In short, there are many, many reasons why a judge may intervene in a debate. Rather than the problem being that judges intervene, the problem is that you think it's an aberration. Judge intervention isn't an aberration. It happens all the time. It's the norm. It's a normal part of human decision-making to use one's prior knowledge and common sense to evaluate arguments in holistic ways. It's called critical thinking, yo. Judges don't accept everything you spoon-feed to them, and if they did, they wouldn't be able to reach decisions. A truly blank slate judge would be like a computer program that fritzes out before returning an answer; a spinning rainbow; a blue screen of death. Judges are thinking human beings with their own life experiences and assumptions who are trying to be—but not always succeeding at being—open minded to your arguments.
The problem with judge intervention is not that it happens in the first place but that you don't know how to use that fact to your advantage. A great debater knows how any judge, any human being, likes to reason; knows when, why, and how a judge is likely to intervene; and uses that knowledge to win. To be clear, I'm not talking about judge adaptation (changing your speed, style, or argument selection in order to appeal to the judge's preference). I'm talking about using the human psychology of decision making so as to find ways to "stitch" the inevitable gaps in arguments so that the judge won't notice them as flaws.
A winning debater is ultimately a good storyteller, and those stories operate on the micro level (warrants and reasoning) and on the macro level (relevance and voting issues). Those stories are crucial to winning over a judge. Judges need cohesive stories to justify their ballot, and if you don't supply it, the judge will. While you might not do a perfect job on every issue and position in the debate, telling a good macro story enables you to persuade the judge that you are, overall, winning. Likewise, not every claim or piece of evidence is perfect, so a good micro level story enhances your credibility; you paper over any holes in logic by demonstrating an overall cohesive understanding of the disadvantage or the case.
Lacuna in your arguments and direct contradiction by opponents are just inevitable in close debates. The latter, because your opponents are good; the former, because under the pressure of a close debate, you won't get to everything. There will be holes; the judge has to intervene to pull together a cohesive picture.
Consider a close football game, where the final score difference is less than 7 points between the teams. Either team could have won. A bobbled pass that was caught, a different penalty call, a timeout left—any of these could have made the difference in the game. Both teams had a near 50% chance of winning.
So too in debate. In a blowout debate, you are able to put together full, complete arguments and full, complete strategies. Your opponent isn't able to contradict you and isn't prepared to put together a competing narrative. You perhaps have a 90% or 95% chance of winning; there is but a slim chance that your opponent successfully throws a Hail Mary and makes a lucky good argument or that your judge happens to find one of your arguments completely unbelievable (i.e., you've unknowingly used a conspiracy website, so far as the judge is concerned). Pure judge intervention like the latter is rare, but it's just a part of human reasoning. Take the 90% or 95% chance of winning and be glad. There's no way to be 100% airtight in front of a thinking human being with experiences different than your own. They will have different assumptions and thought processes than you do. Mostly airtight is good enough.
A close debate, however, is like the close football game. Any play or argument could make the difference. Your efforts to complete every argument, although valiant, are impossible under the time pressure and constant barrage from your opponents. There will be holes. Therefore, the most important thing you can do is to tell good stories to paper over any holes. You want the inevitable judge intervention to slide your way. You won’t be able to increase your odds to 80% or 90%, but you can perhaps up them to 60% from 50%. In this instance, judge intervention isn't a bad thing, either; it's just part of the round being so close, so use it to your advantage.
When the round isn't close, out-of-clear-blue-sky judge intervention should be rare. It stinks, but all you can do is build your arguments as carefully and as air-tightly as you can—and learn from judges' rare interventions how to improve upon your techniques.
When the round is close, and judge intervention become inevitable, do your best to push the judge to intervene for you. Do this by using solid evidence, being clear and consistent in your positions, and most of all, telling compelling logical stories and impact analyses. Credibility and persuasion matter.