Monday, January 30, 2012

Why I like motions about aliens and robots.

Many motions about aliens and robots are really debates about meta-ethics in disguise.  Without using any jargon or requiring formal training in philosophy, they make us consider genuinely novel entities, and ask ourselves what moral obligations we might owe to them (or they to us).  They are ideal debates to test moral reasoning from first principles, and the ostensible absurdity of their premises makes many of the cliché arguments seem out of place.  No one will argue that we owe obligations to aliens under some mythical social contract.

I'd like to set debates about Chapter 3 of Kant's Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, but that would be a bit unfair.  So until such a time as we can run the Philosophy IV, I'll have to content myself with aliens and robots.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

An apologia for knowledge in debating

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.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

watch this space

It's a bit of a busy week, but I've some ideas bouncing round that I'd like to write down.  When I get some space in my schedule, expect to see:

  1. An apologia for knowledge in debating.
  2. A statistical testing method for determining whether motions are fair.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Advice for new CAs setting motions

As it stands, knowledge about how to debate well is pretty effectively passed on from one generation of debaters to the next.  There are typically training regimens and/or coaching arrangements that pass on institutional knowledge, and good debaters will debate publicly often enough for many to learn by imitation.

However, there is one important bit of knowledge that has (so far) stubbornly refused transfer from generation to generation; namely, how to set good motions at a debating tournament.  Most of the process behind setting good motions happens out of the public eye, and even though the quality of the end result is plain to see, frequently the mistakes CA teams make are subtle and difficult to diagnose.

Setting good motions is difficult.  But I've been at this rather a long time, and I thought I'd make a list of recommendations.  Hopefully this will eventually lead to some kind of overlapping consensus on what constitutes best-practice for a CA team.

  1. Start thinking of motions months in advance.  Don't try to come up with motions on the day itself. When you set a motion at a reasonably sized IV, you are deciding what more than a hundred people will think and talk about for the next hour of their lives.  Take the time to do it right; if you've come up with a motion half an hour beforehand, it's unlikely that you'll have thought through enough of its implications to know how well it will turn out when eight intelligent debaters argue about it for an hour.  There are two reasons you should do this.  First, setting balanced motions requires thorough motions testing, which frequently cannot be accomplished on the day of the IV.  Second, setting interesting or inspired motions is a contemplative process.  Inspiration may strike five times over the course of a month, if you're being reflective and alert to world events.  Inspiration will almost never strike five times in the course of a day; so don't show up needing to create interesting motions on the fly.
  2. Be self-critical about your own ideas.  Have lots of ideas for motions, and winnow down ruthlessly.  Whatever you do, don't 'own' a motion and treat it as your child.  Frequently, ideas that seem cool or interesting at first sight may not turn out to be good debates, and you need to be able to acknowledge that in order to set motions well.  Most of the motions you initially think of will turn out to be problematic.  I typically generate dozens of motions for each IV , in the knowledge that less than a quarter of the motions I create will eventually make it through the testing process.
  3. Test motions thoroughly for balance and depth.  Ideally, you should get pairs of debaters (of varying skill levels) to prep each side of the motion, to make sure that they 'get' it.  But at a minimum, you should conduct the following tests:
    1. Ask yourself whether a debater who reads (but doesn't remember every detail from) reputable mainstream news sources would know what the debate is about.
    2. Check that there are at least five logically distinct, individually persuasive arguments on each side of the motion that are accessible to non-specialists. (Sometimes five isn't enough; this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a motion to have depth.)
    3. Check that neither side has a silver bullet, that is, a persuasive argument that is so strong as to admit no effective answers.
    4. Ask yourself if experienced debaters whose only concern was victory would split roughly 50-50 on whether they would rather be prop or opp.
    5. For early rounds in the tournament, check that there are few ways for Opening teams to doom Closing teams by their incompetence.
    6. Ask yourself if it is possible for opening teams to 'break' the debate via sneaky definitions or policies.  (Put yourself in the mindset of an opening team looking to win the debate by whatever means necessary, however unsporting they are.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Konami Code for APDA Debating

Suppose you're a BP debater about to debate on the APDA circuit.  Still, you're bewildered by all the jargon, and those Americans do speak awfully fast and seem to be judged on a metric you don't quite understand.  Two facts conspire to help you:

  1. APDA allows Government teams to list "caveats"; viz. propositions accepted as true by both sides for the purposes of the debate.
  2. APDA allows debaters to make meta-debate appeals to the judges.  (viz., that a round should be judged according to such-and-such a metric, for the following reasons.)
Therefore, when speaking in first prop, can one not caveat that victory should be determined according to the standards of BP debating?  Or, more appropriately, that victory should go to whoever is more persuasive, regardless of who "wins the flow" or answers every argument?

Also, after complaining about the misuse of the word "logical" in the worlds briefing, I encountered this weekend, for the first time in my life, a debate case that could be rebutted purely mathematically.  The policy constrained debt to follow one path, and net government spending to follow another path.  The problem:  Net government spending is the first derivative of the debt, so it was mathematically impossible for both paths to be followed at once.  By contradiction, QED.  Opp, of course, did not make this objection.

a statement of purpose

Straightforwardly: I'm an old dinosaur of debating, and after many conversational rants about motions and meta-debate issues, someone pointed out to me that this may be of interest to a wider audience.

This is not going to be your standard debating blog.  There will be almost no news about ongoing tournaments, and no hand-wringing about which-teams-will-break-on-what-points-this-weekend.  It will, hopefully, be an accumulation of interesting observations, thought experiments, and personal opinions about debating.  In many cases, I'll be wrong.  Someone once said something about the vivification of truth through its collision with error.