Sunday, June 24, 2012

Debate shouldn't be sophistry

In high school humanities, that is, English, history, and perhaps a semester of civics, ethics, or politics, a student is supposed to pick up five skills:
  1. empathy for others, especially those who are different; 
  2. ethical reflection; 
  3. a understanding of social and/or government functioning; 
  4. expository writing skills: putting together a coherent argument with evidence; and 
  5. critical reading skills: analyzing texts carefully. 
It has always seemed to me that doing competitive debate does a really good job teaching a student all but the first. However, I have grown more concerned as I age that what debate teaches is very deep but misses some topics. I haven't become a gray-haired proponent of "cultural literacy" in my dottage: I still think that because debate topics are current, they are inherently more interesting and relevant to students than fusty old treatises. If you think high school students ought to read Aristotle and Plato fully, then I'm not your man. I believe they're far more likely to enjoy learning a little philosophy in order to apply it to current controversies. No, my concern is that, while it is good that debaters learn a lot about their topics, they are missing a few key ideas they ought to be taught specifically. My key recommendation is that second-year debaters take some kind of general critical thinking course that fills in these gaps.

One area I've written about before is logic. It is shocking to me that debaters would not know Toulmin's model, how to model definitions with Venn diagrams, or how to model causal arguments with Ishikawa diagrams. While it's not necessary to get into the complexities of propositional logic and truth tables, the basics ought to be covered.

Another area I've mentioned before too is statistics. Debaters are woefully uninformed about how statistics are collected and interpreted. To be blunt, they'll quote just about anyone, whether or not the method makes a lick of sense. Nothing too much is required: just a little knowledge about sampling methods, sources of sample bias, how to understand different correlational studies (like regressions), and how to understand experiments.

But where I think debaters come closest to outright sophistry is on critical arguments. Critical authors can shed light on complex issues. At their best, debaters quote these authors' anthropological, cultural, economic, and psychological investigations to unpack the standard assumptions most public policy authors approach a topic with. The critical authors can help all of us get behind the positions to see how our assumptions and values shape what we believe and advocate for. At their worst, debaters quote these authors to confuse and bury their opponents under a flurry of ten-cent words.

Why is it that outlandish impacts rule the day in policy debate? This is a bit of an overstatement. But I might argue that the development of critiques was probably driven by outlandish brink-based impacts. Many critiques re-introduce linear impacts into the debate round, i.e., endemic problems that are worsened by the plan. For example, racism exists before the plan, but plan makes it worse. Yet no judge would vote for this argument stated as a simple linear disadvantage. Add on the ten-cent words about critical legal studies and it's a go. The problem for debate theory is that the voting issue on a critique brings in a lot of philosophical and debate theoretical baggage: Is the judge voting against the Affirmative's discourse? Or is he voting against the Affirmative because the false assumptions identified by the critique show the case's logic is suspect (e.g., racist arguments undermine a civil rights plan)? Or is the judge simply voting that the critique's "impact" is bad (e.g., racism bad), like a linear disadvantage?

I believe many critiques only work by stringing together a theoretically inconsistent position: the link is about the topic itself, almost a counterwarrant (a guaranteed link, no matter what the plan actually does, e.g., attempting to improve women's literacy in Africa is based on sexist assumptions); the answer to comparative arguments is about pre-fiat, in-round discourse; and the implication is about real-world, post-fiat, non-comparative assessments of the critiqued impact. I can see some truth in the criticism that critiques are utopian counterplans: even thinking about the topic leads to racism -- just look at how the Affirmative speaks -- but by rejecting this, we can magically live in a world where racism is alleviated. Anyway, back to the main point:

If critiques are just bringing in linear impacts, why not just cut straight to running a linear disadvantage? The answer is that deprived of all the hoopla and sleight of hand (of critique theory and the critical author's fancy words), I believe a linear impact would never win a round.

Part of my solution is to teach every debater in a critical thinking course and to grind to a halt the competitive advantage of poorly-argued critiques. If a debater knows how to construct an argument, she can hammer away at the gaps in a critique. If a debater has a good sense of the basic flavors of philosophy and recognizes a nihilist argument when he hears one, great. Furthermore, many debaters go on to be judges, so getting this basic knowledge in them early is important.

But the second part of my solution is to ask judges to (a) stop rewarding sophistry and (b) recognize that linear disadvantages ought to win sometimes. This is not a theory problem or a rules problem. There is nothing that says linear disadvantages are weak. It is not a problem in the topic literature -- debaters are usually stretching the literature as it is. I am skeptical of the "literature checks abuse" argument. Most debaters' positions are undercut by their own authors; no one thinks the horrible impact scenarios are very likely. We the debate community need to recognize that:

     impact = mag x (duration) x prob / timeframe.

Humans are bad at estimating probability. But debaters and judges ought to make an effort to do better. Unfortunately, as it is, we've decided between offensive and defensive arguments that defense never wins. Never.

If debate could keep critiques straightforward and bring back good old-fashioned linear disadvantages, I would have a lot more confidence saying to other humanities teachers that competitive debating does indeed teach social/governmental knowledge, expository writing skills, and critical reading skills. As it is, I worry that we're doing our own thing that's becoming too divorced from reality.

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