An apologia for knowledge in debating

doorBionda Merckens

An apologia for knowledge in debating

After an earlier article with advice on how to create motions for tournaments, Shengwu Li now turns his attention to explaining what level of knowledge CA-teams should presume debaters to have.

There is some controversy over the right level of assumed knowledge when setting motions.  I don’t think very knowledge-heavy motions are particularly good debates, but I also think that motions should occasionally address specific issues, with proper nouns.  I’d like to defend a middle-ground standard as to the correct level of knowledge CA teams should assume of their teams, and then warn of certain potholes CA teams should avoid when setting knowledge-specific motions.

I think reasonable people can agree that it’s no fun to lose debates due to ignorance of obscure facts.  It’s frustrating to lose simply because the other side has an encyclopedic knowledge of the issue at hand, rather than because the other side is better at making and rebutting arguments.

At the same time, there are lots of fascinating issues in the world that involve specific people, policies and places.  It would be a shame never to debate about these.  Moreover, these are frequently more interesting when debated in specificity; that is, with reference to the particular people and places involved.  Compare the motion; “THBT Germany should ban the publication of Mein Kampf indefinitely.” to the motion  “THBT Western Liberal Democracies should ban historically important racist texts.”

Abstracting specific motions to a high level of generality has several harms:

  1. The motion loses its sense of immediacy; it frequently becomes harder, not easier for new debaters to see what the debate is about.
  2. It becomes harder to put together good rhetoric when your statements have to encompass a messy gaggle of cases with many caveats and exceptions.  It is easier to condemn, applaud, regret, or be morally outraged in the specific rather than in general.
  3. Very general motions create the problem that in mid-level rooms debaters will trade examples rather than clash directly.  When a motion is abstracted to a high level of generality, there will typically be a few instances that serve prop and a few that serve opp.  Teams will frequently try to make sure that the instances that favour them get more airtime, which leads to a lack of clash in the debate.
  4. A related, but distinct problem:  Frequently the right answer to a very general motion is, “It depends.”  Should we conduct airstrikes against repressive dictatorships?  It depends on the dictatorship, and the political situation in it.  Should universal primary education be a government priority in developing countries?  It depends.  In Malaysia?  Obviously.  In Somalia?  Obviously not.  Such motions risk having very arbitrary victory conditions; since most teams cannot prevail with their side in full generality, the question comes down to which side has covered ‘most’ of the cases in the world.  This is an empirical question that is very difficult to settle conclusively in a debate, and deciding which way it has been settled actually demands a very high level of knowledge from the judges.

For the above four reasons, generalised debates about the same ‘issues’ are frequently poor substitutes for specific debates that demand some degree of knowledge from the teams.  Debates about general principles are frequently valuable and interesting; debates about specific situations are also valuable and interesting.  Neither is a perfect substitute for the other, and we should aim to have both kinds set as debates.

What, then, is the right standard of knowledge in debating?

The answer to this will vary from one circuit to another, and from one format for another.  Clearly university debaters should be expected to know more than schoolchildren, and the level of knowledge expected should be increasing in the length of prep time and the availability of written resources under the rules.  I’m probably not qualified to comment on the right standard of knowledge in many formats; but I’m quite happy to comment on the right standard of knowledge for British Parliamentary debating.  (And, of course, any ‘relevantly similar’ formats.)

In my opinion, the right standard of knowledge in BP debating is this:  Teams should be treated as though they regularly read high-quality, mainstream, international news sources, (albeit with imperfect recall) and have an acquaintance with very basic concepts in law, economics, politics and other policy-relevant fields.

Let’s unpack the above statement a little bit.  Notice that it is an answer to the question, “What is the right standard of knowledge in BP debating?”, not the question, “What should CA teams expect debaters to know?”  The latter question (because of the ambiguity in the word “expect”) could be taken to imply the answer:  CA teams should never set motions that exceed the general knowledge of a significant proportion of teams at their competition.  But that, of course, simply commits the naturalistic fallacy:  It assumes that the existing level of knowledge is the correct standard for knowledge.  Thus I say:  “Teams should be treated as though…”

By high-quality, mainstream, international news sources:  I mean, in essence, reputable journalism about current affairs.  The hypothetical debater I have in mind reads front-page news from a source such as Al-Jazeera, the IHT, the Guardian, the Economist, etc, every few days.  Perhaps once a week or so, she will read such a publication (almost) cover-to-cover, and recall most of the salient points (but not every detail!) of the important stories.

By “very basic concepts”, I do mean very basic concepts.  I do not mean the level of understanding that comes with doing the first year of a degree in the subject (or even the first term of the first year of a degree). I mean the level that would be attained by an open-minded layperson who perhaps read a short, popular introduction to the subject.  In economics, for instance, the expectation should be that you understand the concepts of supply, demand, perfect competition and monopoly pricing.  Motions should not assume a grasp of Spence-signalling models, Akerlof’s market for lemons, or subgame-perfect equilibrium…

Read the rest of the article here.

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Bionda Merckens subscriber

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Eric StamGeplaatst op11:31 pm - feb 1, 2012

Good points, especially the point about abstracting specific motions to a high level of generality. I always hated those motions because of the common sense ”it depens” answer (and other reasons given by Shengwu Li).

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