How do you assess a speaker who has not taken any points of information?

doorBionda Merckens

How do you assess a speaker who has not taken any points of information?

The debate is heating up about the new ideas on how to offer, accept and adjudicate POIs that Manchester EUDC proposes. This is Shengwu Li’s further explanation of the reasoning behind the new policy, offered in response to Michael Shapira’s earlier constructive criticism

Ideally, people should engage with each other in good faith to have an interesting debate.  Part of that engagement includes taking POIs; but sometimes, whether by mistake or intent, speakers forget to accept a POI.  Until now, judges have been advised to use their discretion when penalising lack of engagement.  Discretion is often a good thing; but in this case it means that some judges do not penalise speakers at all, while other judges penalise speakers very heavily.  This inconsistency is neither fair for the speaker, nor their opponent.

This inconsistency is not the fault of judges.  It comes from a deep ambiguity in the status quo of judging.  Suppose you’re an experienced judge, watching a debate in which a speaker is frequently offered by POIs both teams on the other side, and he accepts none.  He gives a competent speech, but it’s a strong debate, and the teams are (otherwise) very close.  What should you do?  Has the speaker made an error?  If so, how should you assess that error?

Insofar as there is a status quo in the world debating community, it is this:  Speakers should generally take one or two POIs in a speech.  If they don’t, even though they were offered frequent POIs, then they should be penalised for lack of engagement.  The degree of the penalty should be according to the judges’ discretion.

That’s all very well, but when I’m trying to judge cases such as this, that doesn’t give me much guidance as to how I should use my discretion.  What does “lack of engagement” mean?  I’ve been involved with university debating for seven years now, with moderate success – and I still don’t really know how to apply this standard.  If a speaker makes a strong argument, and her opponent fails to answer it, I know how to assess that situation.  The opponent should be penalised (and the speaker rewarded) to the degree that the argument was persuasive and relevant to the debate.  To say a speaker “failed to engage” just means that he answered an actual argument with silence – which is seldom a persuasive answer.

But the case of the missing POI is quite different.  There, I am asked not asked to assess a speaker’s non-answer to an argument.  I’m being asked to assess his non-answer to a non-argument.  There are many points that could have been made, if the speaker had accepted a POI.  But I’ll never know which one would have been made.  How on earth am I meant to use my discretion to decide this case?  All non-answers to non-arguments are alike – so why don’t we just apply a fixed penalty?

Here the folk wisdom has another thing to say: Assess the missing POI as though the speaker had accepted a very damaging POI, but failed to answer it.  (I originated this standard in the EUDC Galway 2011 judges’ briefing, and it seems to have become widespread.)  But this answer is also unsatisfactory.  Is the judge to imagine an averagely damaging POI, given the level of the debate?  What is an averagely damaging point?  Is the judge to imagine a maximally damaging POI?  If so, since some judges can imagine more damaging POIs, do these judges get to apply heavier penalties?

For any example of a missed POI, if we ask five great judges how heavily we should penalise it, we’ll get five different answers.  We fully trust judges to assess actual engagement – to weigh the arguments and answers that they observe in the course of a debate.  But we don’t think judges should be asked to assess hypothetical engagement, with points they’ve never had a chance to hear.  This is unfair on the speaker, his opponent, and the judge.

We (the CA team of Manchester EUDC ’13) arrived at the new rule for compulsory POIs while we were writing the judges’ briefing.  We tried hard to answer the question, “When a speaker is offered frequent POIs, and takes none, how should her speech be assessed?”  We couldn’t find a satisfactory answer within the current judging paradigm – so we modified the rules, so that judges get to assess actual engagement, not hypothetical engagement.  One of the roles of a CA team at an international tournament is to clarify or incrementally improve the ‘common law’ of debating – the messy set of judging norms, rules, and rules-of-thumb that accrete as unwritten knowledge.  This is our contribution to it.  In making this rule, we adapted it from experimental rule changes at competitions in the UK in the past year.

We’ve decided that, if a speaker neglects to accept a POI, the fairest outcome is to simply require that they accept one.  This means that:

(1) The opponent has a chance to offer their POI and make a contribution.
(2) The speaker has the chance to respond and possibly defeat it.
(3) The judge does not have to assess the impact of a point she has never heard.

The ideal situation is that POIs are taken earlier in the speech.  But should that not happen, this is the fairest of all the other alternatives for each person involved.

Simultaneously with this, we decided to call for stricter and more consistent enforcement of the existing 15-second allowance for POIs.  One reason for this is already clear:  Cutting a POI off early can be close to not taking a POI at all – it’s one more circumstance that the current judging paradigm has no good answers for how to assess.

But, more than that, we aim to reverse a trend towards cutting POIs off sooner and sooner.  This problem is especially prevalent in the European circuit, where speakers seldom take more than one POI, and are loathe to give away precious seconds to an interrupting speaker.  In our experience, many other debate circuits – the Australasian and South African circuits in particular – have judging norms that heavily frown on cutting off POIs, with the result that few speakers ever do so.  Our hope is that consistent enforcement of the 15-second allowance will move European speakers closer to the world norm for handling POIs, rather than further from it.

This does mean that answering POIs might be more challenging, since one can’t cut an offering speaker off in the middle of her first sentence.  But that challenge will lead to better debates, with more meaningful interjections.  We expect that most POIs will still take less than 10 seconds to deliver – brevity can be striking.  But we’d rather (subject to a short time limit) that the speaker offering a POI decide when her point is done, rather than the speaker receiving the POI, who out of haste or gamesmanship may cut it short.

We should have announced these changes earlier – the lateness in that respect was my own individual fault, and I’m sorry for it.  Our assessment is that speakers who didn’t try to exploit the old system will, if anything, be advantaged by our rulings.  Effectively adapting to the new regime can be summarised as:  Offer several POIs, be sure to accept at least one, and don’t cut off POIs before 15 seconds are up.  These are already good habits of debating, and we don’t expect debaters to have trouble abiding by them.

You can find our rulings on how POIs operate at: http://tinyurl.com/judgebrief  and http://tinyurl.com/eudcqa .

Shengwu Li
CA, Manchester EUDC 2013
Writing on behalf of the CA team.

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