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.

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.

I realise that this is more knowledge than many new debaters have.  But new debaters who aim to become excellent should get into the habit of reading about the world around them.  Debating is about persuasion, and ignorance is seldom persuasive.  There are many interesting topics to debate about that would be ruled out by a lowest-common-denominator standard of knowledge.  At the same time, it's important for the future of the sport that novices not be frustrated by losing every debate simply due to a lack of general knowledge; which is why it matters that CA teams set a mix of general motions that can be debated a priori, and specific motions that require a bit more knowledge in order to debate well.  The general equilibrium effect of CA teams requiring a moderate level of knowledge from debaters is that many debaters will acquire a moderate level of knowledge.

At the same time, I think it's important that CA teams avoid the following pitfalls to do with knowledge:

  1. Knowledge about a debate should, generally, form a background to the debate that both sides can agree on.  Avoid setting debates that turn crucially on assertions about empirical facts.  Such disagreements are very difficult to settle within the context of a debate, and frequently adjudicators have no better metric than to trust whoever sounded more convincing.
    1. An addendum:  Precisely because BP debating is not well-suited to assessing competing empirical claims about the world, I think an important standard for the role of knowledge in debating is this:  Knowledge should be the (mutually accepted) terrain upon which a debate is fought, not itself a weapon for one side or the other.  More on this in future.
  2. Be wary of debates where knowledge of an obscure fact confers a large advantage to one side.  There can be silver-bullet facts as well as silver-bullet arguments.  Otherwise-balanced debates can become very unbalanced if one side is in possession of these facts.  For instance, "THW require individuals to donate all their wealth, above 5 million USD, to philantrophic projects." becomes trivially easy to opp if you understand the distinction between the economic concepts of wealth and income.  Opening opp can pretty much win the debate in their first speech if they are aware of this fact.  How to do so is left as an exercise for the reader.
    1. As an addendum:  Sometimes debates that would usually not be balanced in the absence of a silver-bullet fact can become balanced if that fact is provided.  In such cases, consider providing that fact via an infoslide.  For instance, at Galway Euros we set: "THW ban all EU arms companies from selling arms outside the EU."  This seems like it would have little effect, unless one realises that EU arms companies supply more than a fifth of the world market.  We ran an infoslide to remedy that problem.
  3. Avoid debates where having specialist knowledge is an overwhelming advantage.  It is pretty inevitable that any debate about an issue that matters will have been studied by some schools of the academy.  Students with backgrounds in those fields will generally have an advantage.  (Though I can recall some instances where knowing lots about a subject was an impediment to being persuasive.)  That's well and good; to some extent, being knowledgeable is a component part of being persuasive.  But avoid debates where specialists can, by sheer weight of facts or appeal to authority, win even against debaters who are substantially better than they are.  (One example:  You should almost never set debates entirely about macroeconomic policy, unless there are clear moral and political implications which could override purely technical arguments.)  It's not enough to set a variety of motions, and let each academic specialty have its turn winning.  The point of a competition is that the better teams should win, not that each team should win its fair share of debates.
With those precautions in mind, I think that CA teams should set motions that would be debated well by well-read, intellectually curious, open-minded individuals.  Here's a sufficient (but not necessary) condition:  If a team could have acquired the knowledge necessary to debate a motion effectively by reading the front page of any reputable international newspaper (of their choice), then that team has no reasonable cause for complaint.  This may create some real howlers at the start; but debaters do tend to care about winning, and I'm sure they'll remedy gaps in their knowledge quickly.  The world is too interesting a place to do all of our debating in abstraction.


Postscript: Having written this, it occurs to me that there is an important distinction to be made between knowledge about facts and knowledge about arguments.  Everything that I've written so far is about knowledge about empirical facts about the world.  Of course, one can also be advantaged in a debate by knowing strong arguments in favour of one's side.  But this isn't particularly unfair or problematic; being able to deliver strong arguments is obviously just part of good debating.  Also, it's clearly reasonable to expect debaters to create good arguments spontaneously.  The same cannot be said of facts.


  1. Great stuff. This attitude you suggest also would decrease CA motivation to use info slides, which have many of the same pitfalls, with the additional problem of discouraging independent research and reading - after all, anything significant to the debate will be told to the debaters via powerpoint.

  2. I agree mostly. In your "Standard of knowledge in BP debating" I would specifically add

    "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, the natural sciences and other policy-relevant fields."

    I know you've slightly covered your back with the "other policy-relevant fields" but frankly, i've sat through way too many dire debates and adjudications about reproductive ethics, death, energy policy and other science related topics. Too many CA teams shy away from such motions where many interesting debates are to be had.

  3. I agree with most of the stuff you pointed out. However, accepting the standard you set, I think many people would think this standard legitimizes motions like "THW partition Sudan" or "THW hold election in Sri Lanka". I'm certain both issues cropped up in the Economist at some point in time.

    Setting debates about such topics guarantees poor debates, precisely because the debaters know just a shell of basic facts about the subject and generally make up the rest. I shudder to recall how Yoni and I won the Sri Lanka debate, essentially replacing the word "Hams" with "Tamil Tigers" and going with it.

    Specific topics are fine. Specific topics that really *ought* to require extensive knowledge on both sides to be discussed in a way that's not sheer abomination are a problem. Numerous IR debates meet this standard, and I think they should be avoided.

    Also, with regards to what you call the Naturalist Fallacy - caution is needed. I would feel very uneasy sentencing 85% of adjudicators in Euros to endure horrible lie-fests about the situation in South Sudan (to say nothing of the debaters themselves). The level should be pulled upwards gradually. Humor them gently to the light, rather than assume an unrealistic standard of knowledge.

  4. Excellent stuff.

    I've had many a battle over sports debates over the years. I'd hope that is covered by your ''other policy-relevant fields''.

    1. I'm not a big fan of sports debates, but maybe that's because I know very little about them! I found that the winning strategy was to say whatever Jonny told me to say.

  5. Somebody more proactive than me (Shengwu) started doing something which I think is an excellent idea (writing down thoughts about BP debating) – this led to lots of interesting discussions. Someone shrewder than me (John McKee) suggested that such discussions would be better had on Sheng’s blog itself. So now someone sadly only as proactive and shrewd as me (me) is doing so. Before doing so, though, I do want to thank Shengwu for starting this discussion, and others for contributing to it – no disagreement I have is intended to connote any lack of respect for other views, but rather to take seriously the value of discussion in improving and enriching our perspectives.

    I disagree slightly, but only slightly, with Sheng – I’d tweak slightly the standard of knowledge he expects. I disagree more with some other perspectives sometimes held. What I’d like to do is first plot out the different positions I’m aware of out there, then explain why I hold mine, before making a general statement about the debate, and ruthlessly plagiarise Shengwu to suggest a solution to it. I’m far more interested, in fact, in this discussion being able to happen functionally, than in my own personal perspective on it.

    People differ wildly about the extent to which they think topics set should expect knowledge from participants. Some would suggest that debating should be about nothing other than the ability to spontaneously persuade people, without preparation or foreknowledge. They might argue that setting debates that require/substantially reward anything other than the most general of general knowledge skew those debates in favour of people who know things and away from the best debaters. They might also say that debating should be totally open to everyone, regardless of how much they know. They would probably also observe that knowledge-using debates can be unbearable if that knowledge is lacking.

    I disagree with this because I think it relies on an essentialisation of ‘debating’ that basically defines debating as ‘persuasion not including knowledge’ then points to the fact that knowledge should not be included in debating. I also think it pretends knowledge is the only thing that shuts people out of debating or makes debates unbearable. We all know there are many things that do that, and that we can try to mitigate their effects, but could not for a moment imagine expunging them on that basis (we’d have to rid ourselves of ‘analysis’ and ‘confidently talking out loud’, for a start). Interestingly, I think some people think I hold the ‘no-knowledge’ belief I describe in the paragraph above. I do not. This error is, however, probably my own fault for having playing up to the stereotype far too much. While this probably serves me right, consider this a correction.

    A quite different group of people follow what I’ll call the ‘normative’ school of knowledge. They would like to set motions that require people to learn things because they think those people would be better people if they learned more. This group might argue that people ought to know certain facts about the world to be a good, well-informed citizen.

    1. Regarding that last point - though I don't think you ought to call it the 'normative school of knowledge', unless your goal is to irritate moral philosophers - it is worth noting that this is one of the virtues of debating used to justify to schools the promotion of debating at an extra-curricular activity. It might be worth considering whether you think the norms of debating (what debating ought to be about) ought to be continuous throughout all debating or if you're happy enough with a discontent between 'why schools should do debating' and 'why university students should do debating' or if as might be the case you think such 'norms' are just advertising and practice for things like motion-setting should be driven by purely pragmatic considerations ((n.b. the antithetical view to this would be a 'normative' view in a much more normal sense of the term, which is to say 'norm-guided')).

      So; if you think schools ought to teach debating because it encourages the pupils to learn about politics etc (and this presumably influences motion setting in order for this to be the case) ought you not to also think that university students might benefit from debating for the same reason, with a similar (justifiable) influence on motion-setting.

  6. While I have a lot of sympathy with the outcomes they want (who could oppose the existence of intelligent well-informed citizens?), I disagree simply because I think it is up to individuals whether they want to spend their time reading about the world, or doing something else. I also disagree because I think the sorts of debates that this vision can actually lead to do not help us become better people with a greater understanding of the world as much as we might imagine. Expecting a very high standard of knowledge can lead to people having debates where lies abound and hopeful assertions are the currency of debate – I have done several debates in which I knew nothing about the topic and did not learn much through doing so. Conversely, where I am able to understand at least the key details of a situation I’m discussing, I find my understanding does become richer. If we did want to make debaters better people by the topics we set, I think we should set topics that most of them can engage with and learn from. That is why I do not agree with this position; nor is this, as far as I judge, Shengwu’s position: I believe him to think something more moderate.

    In my understanding, Shengwu and I agree about many things here. I agree that ‘knowledge should be the (mutually accepted) terrain upon which a debate is fought, not itself a weapon for one side or the other’. We both think that a certain amount of knowledge should be expected, but that this should be tempered by the desire for having a certain piece/field of knowledge to not constitute a huge advantage. This does not, of course, mean that knowledge should never be the deciding factor (if it is never the deciding factor, it is never meaningfully a factor at all), but just that we should not set motions where we think a good way of guessing the winner is by asking ‘who knows about this’. Equally, that ‘being able to deliver strong arguments is obviously just part of good debating. Also, it's clearly reasonable to expect debaters to create good arguments spontaneously. The same cannot be said of facts’ – or, that facts are part of debating, but that making arguments is more core to what we consider debating to be. This is not to echo the essentialising of debating I criticised earlier – I’m just saying that there are various elements of debating, but we generally consider ‘making arguments’ to be unequivocally the key one.

    Shengwu’s conclusion is that we should set motions as if participants read front-page news and as if they thoroughly read a paper once a week, with limited recall. Setting motions like this widens the range of topics we can discuss, and opens up some which offer a sense of immediacy, rhetorical power and the avoidance of debates where the solution to the quandary depends on the particular instance you envisage.

    I conclude slightly differently – I think we should only require the ‘front page news’ and not the sort of information that limited recall of a weekly paper would give you. This is not because I disagree with Shengwu about the benefits he cites. I do think that in their actual renditions in competition very specific IR debates, say, can inhibit rhetorical power in their complexity and subpoints as much as enable it, but, that aside, I think Shengwu is right. Nor is it because I’ve spotted/invented some harms of highly specific debates that Shengwu has not – I do not think anyone would disagree that the way knowledge-requiring debates can break if people know nothing is a downside, or that it is regrettable when a team just dumps a lot of facts on the table instead of making arguments, particularly where that ends up winning. Equally, stronger knowledge requirements do unequivocally put people off early on, something Shengwu notes we should guard against.

  7. This note now bifurcates – I would like to explain why I prefer my conclusion, but also make a comment about the fact that Shengwu’s and my positions can agree on so much yet conclude differently. I shall do the former first.

    The reason I prefer my conclusion is that I think it constitutes a better guide to CAs, and is a more reasonable demand on teams. Imagining the imperfect recall of a weekly paper can often be a license to set whatever that CA happens to recall from their reading of the news rather than setting something that those who actually read a paper once a week will remember (bearing in mind many CAs substantially overfulfil this knowledge criterion themselves).

    Secondly, I think that when topics from the ‘whole weekly paper’ set are run as motions, there are incentives to know huge amounts more than just the key salient details, and, consequently really very extensive research requirements on speakers. I think it is hard to avoid the thing both Shengwu’s position and mine would like to – that is, knowledge conferring an overwhelming advantage – if you set such topics. You can, for instance, debate about, say, Sudan, or Chinese acquisitions overseas, with only the ‘key elements’ of the stories weekly news reading will give you. But you won’t win against someone who can name names, regions and details. This is particularly true because judges tend to value highly the mere citation of such facts when judging what they perceive to be ‘fact-y’ debates. Of course, it is right to credit such facts – they can establish authority and make you compelling. But, given that this is done to such an extent, it does mean that this knowledge confers a very great advantage.

    By contrast, I think saying ‘front page news’ provides a useful encouragement for motion-setters to ensure that the topics they are setting really are ones which keeping broadly abreast of the news will enable you to do. I suppose really what I mean is: ‘debaters should think of themselves as being required to read a paper weekly with reasonable recall, and to know what’s on the front pages each day; CAs should think of themselves as setting topics which require/substantially advantage only that front page knowledge; that way, nobody should be disappointed’. I think I’m also influenced here by a precautionary principle: we can be sure that asking people to come up with arguments on things which don’t impose substantial knowledge demands is broadly OK. Extra knowledge-demands might open up new areas positively and legitimately, but they might also overstep a line beyond which we think of things as not entirely fair/not key to debating, so let us stay on the safe side.

    But the difference I’m arguing for is small – in fact, I don’t disagree substantially with what Shengwu wants to happen, but merely think that tweaking the phrasing might better ensure that it does. My disagreement with what he wants to happen is, I think, relatively small.

  8. What is interesting, though, is quite how much of Shengwu’s analysis I can agree with and still come out with a different conclusion (I think I disagree with nothing he says except a few scattered examples). Equally, one of the discussions that my articulation of this minor difference prompted was invigorating but largely dysfunctional. In so far as a person is at fault for this, I’m sure that person is me; but I think there is something more interesting than that going on. We traditionally have this discussion in terms of ‘how much’ knowledge one thinks should be required. Because of that, no matter how big or small the distinction between positions might be, we discuss oppositionally, one of us standing for ‘more’ and one for ‘less’. This is great for an impassioned rehearsal of the arguments, but does not get us close to knowing anything more as a community. Equally, I can agree with Shengwu’s concerns but not his conclusion because we both get to ‘so, some knowledge, but not too much’ and choose different visions of not too much.

    This sounds like a problem, and I do not claim to have the solution. I think its start, though, is in something Shengwu posted in our discussion elsewhere: a clarification that ‘knowledge should be the (mutually accepted) terrain upon which a debate is fought, not itself a weapon for one side or the other’ (now added as an addendum to his main blog post). Vitally, this does not make a statement about how much knowledge should be expected of debaters, but rather about what role such knowledge should play. I also think it is incredibly apt, suggesting, as it does, that knowledge should be a facilitator of debates, and not a test. For me, there are a few things that flow from this.

    Firstly, we should reconcile any desire to expand the frontiers of what debates can be had in the future with the need to ensure debates are good today: we should aim for something between ‘what we’d like to expect’ and ‘what people actually do know’ if they are different.

    Secondly, we should look at creative ways of ensuring people have the requisite knowledge to do a debate. Information slides can help. Shengwu uses the example of the debate about Mein Kampf. He and the EUDC 2011 adjudication team used an info slide to make sure people knew the bare minimum of facts necessary to do this debate without silver-bullet knowledge ruining it (such as the fact that the text was already available in a censored academic version). There might be other ways too – such as advanced warning of the broad issue on which a particular debate might be on. Certainly, there are downsides to all these things, but if we are serious about using knowledge as a facilitator of good debates rather than just a chance for an easy win when our topic comes up, there are serious upsides too.

    Thirdly, we as judges of individual rounds should be vigilant against those two temptations when judging rounds we consider knowledge-heavy: extensively crediting listings of facts devoid of argument, and going into debate rooms with the preconception that Team X will win because they know all about Africa, healthcare or metaethics. Shengwu is right that ignorance is unpersuasive, but we should not make the mistake of assuming therefore that knowledge in itself should persuade us in debates – just as rabble-rousing persuades many in real life, but we demand logic in debates, so too should we be suspicious of knowledge without reason.

    These conclusions are suggested rather tentatively – you may well disagree with this formulation of what the role of knowledge should be or with my reading of it. The key point I’m making here is that a constructive discussion of the role of knowledge in debating may best start by asking what it should be for, and what it should do, rather than how much of it we should have. That is substantially more important than any individual take on this discussion.

  9. Sam: I think what you've written is genuinely excellent and explicates the points of consensus and disagreement very clearly. I do agree with the problems to do with adjudicating brute empirical facts in a debate (something I intend to write on in future). We do need to think very carefully (1) as motion-setters, with respect to whether we should set motions that pivot on factual assertions, and (2) as judges, when deciding whether to trust a speaker's assessment of reality simply because he happens to know the names of the actors involved.

    One thing I'd take exception to is this, though: "when topics from the ‘whole weekly paper’ set are run as motions, there are incentives to know huge amounts more than just the key salient details, and, consequently really very extensive research requirements on speakers."

    I think that motions should be set in a way that means that debaters who read a good newspaper (as though for leisure!) once a week would be able to debate well about them. But that doesn't mean that there aren't _further_ returns to investing time that top teams can (and indeed should) accrue. If a speaker wants to just go to a competition, have a good time, deliver strong speeches and know what she's talking about, then she should read the paper and be intellectually open-minded. If a speaker wants to be competitive at the very top tiers of debating, it's entirely reasonable that more effort is required.

    For my part, I think that I never spent more than a total of two or three days per year preparing a matter file for Worlds. I also occasionally read books on motions-relevant topics that caught my interest; not because they had anything to do with debating, but because they were genuinely fascinating! I seem to have done alright on knowledge-heavy motions even with this laid-back attitude to preparation.

  10. Shengwu: Thanks for the kind words - I would of course, say at least the same of what you wrote in the initial post, particularly because it started such an important conversation (or, rather, brought it out of the shadows of post-tournament bitching into an environment more suited to making progress).

    I'm not especially attached to my side of the disagreement you allude to (if everyone agreed exactly with the criteria you've outlined, I think we'd be getting things right much more than we do at present and would happily sacrifice my small variation from it!), but I do think it has something going for it:

    I don't mean to suggest that your criterion 'debaters should be able to engage in debates we set so long as they read a weekly paper' suggests there cannot be 'further returns' to investments of time in knowledge-acquisition. I was referring to two other criteria which I believe we both support - that knowledge differentials should not give 'an overwhelming advantage', and that knowledge should be the foundation that facilitates a debate, not a weapon for one side or another in that contest.

    I think that setting the bar of expected knowledge at 'partial recall of a weekly paper' can lead to situations where the 'further returns' of additional knowledge are so great that they do give an 'overwhelming advantage' and lead to knowledge becoming a weapon not the 'terrain on which the debate is fought'. This is very much for the reasons I give above - principally, that as we set debates on issues which are decreasingly central to news agendas, the amounts of knowledge debaters have on them falls, both leaving more space for substantial differentials and increasing the likelihood one side will have 'key' information that the other won't. That is, if the debate is about Afghanistan, then the information at the margins of what we expect people to know is less likely to be debate-winning than if the debate is on Eritrea. In the latter case, information we wouldn't expect people to know from their weekly paper-read might be easily made very important to the issue being discussed.

    I think my emphasis on the research requirements speakers experience is probably misleading vis-a-vis the core reasons for my differing from the position you lay out - it is more that I agree with the two criteria I cite in the paragraphs above for the reasons you outline. Personally, I dislike the experience of prepping for worlds/euros and find I do have to spend time doing so in a way which is not enjoyable (perhaps as it is less part of my routine/broader intellectual interests than it is for you, it feels more like work). This being a reason not to set motions, though, relies on there being at least a substantial minority who experience things the same way as me - this empirical question not being settle-able, my stance rests far more on the sense of the appropriate _role_ of knowledge that I believe we share - my impression is that we disagree only on the instrumental question of what applied criterion as to 'how much' knowledge should be assumed best achieves the goal of optimising the _function_ that knowledge ends up having.

  11. That said, I emphasise - in order to undercut the unduly oppositional tone that often haunts discussions like this (though thankfully not this one) that I think the vast majority of the important things here are agreed - I really do think we disagree mainly on what criterion CAs should imagine in order to achieve the best results. I suspect, inevitably, that neither of us has exactly the right formulation yet, and hope that (if this is indeed the matter of our disagreement) this is far from the end of creative and exploratory thinking on how such a criterion-for-use can best be phrased.

  12. Sam: Definitely, and I agree with your concerns that CA teams frequently go too far and set motions that one could not reasonably pick up on by reading a weekly paper. I think detailed knowledge of the situation in Eritrea (unless one happens to be from the region) is reasonably the province of academic specialists in politics. Well-informed international citizens may be blamelessly ignorant about what is going on there. Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, though, are plausibly very different matters; it's quite difficult to _not_ pick up the core details about those by reading the news.

    I very much agree that we should avoid debates where knowledge-differentials are likely to be so large as to be near-sufficient conditions for victory.

    But I think that these are assessed relative to what a reasonable baseline for knowledge is: If you know (for instance) that Libya had a recent civil war where native forces backed by NATO airstrikes overcame a long-standing dictator, and I lack that knowledge, then that knowledge differential may be sufficient for you to win a debate set about the intervention in Libya. But that's clearly just a fair loss that I should take; because my knowledge in that case isn't even up to the baseline levels that CA teams should require of debaters.

    So I do think that CA teams should be careful to avoid motions where, in a debate between teams that are all generally well-read, specialist knowledge conveys an overwhelming advantage. But I'm entirely happy with cases where quite basic knowledge constitutes an overwhelming advantage against teams that seldom read the news or know about the world around them. (To take the extreme case: In a debate about UN peacekeeping, knowing that the UN does not possess a standing army will be a pretty decisive advantage against teams ignorant of this fact. But that's fine; no teams should (under a reasonable information criterion) be ignorant of this fact.)

  13. Agreed entirely - as I say, I just think that imperfect recall of weekly papers across the year would plausibly give you an (imperfect) assortment of knowledge much wider than Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and Syria (and similar) - I picked Eritrea because I remember reading something about it in a weekly newspaper in the past few months or so. I agree with every example of things-we-ought-to-have-the-gist of you've used. But - I do think that CAs thinking they can set things someone should be able to do if they've read papers cover-to-cover weekly (except the sport. And I'm guessing any weekend-based supplements.) will end up setting 'Eritreic' topics which you *can* do with this knowledge (even if you imperfectly recall the details) but where you'll be at a disadvantage to someone with spec knowledge it is unreasonable to require. That's why I think teams should read papers weekly, but motion-setters should stick to the most central topics therein (the 'front-page' items). Otherwise, the knowledge just beyond the margins of what is reasonable to require will often confer the sort of advantages we want to avoid. I really do think this is our disagreement - you've not yet used an example of something that should or should not be required which I've not thought was obviously correct. I just think the criterion suggested runs the risk of allowing some knowledge neither of us wishes to require becoming determinative of results where spec knowledge is present.

  14. It's good to know that we're in agreement about many of the particular cases that teams should know about! I wonder, though, if the basis of our disagreement could be summarised as such:

    We both think teams should be expected to know what's in the papers (both front page news, and the level of general knowledge one would acquire by reading them in depth once a week with imperfect recall).

    You advocate that CAs should adopt a rule that errs on the side of caution, and require that teams only know what's been regularly on the front page.

    I advocate that CAs should adopt a rule that precisely matches the requirement for teams; namely that they should assume a level of knowledge consistent with both regular acquaintance with the front page, and a deeper read once a week. I also do think that they should be reasonably self-critical, in that they should be careful not to set motions that would be a mystery to teams who happened to read the paper more deeply on a different day of the week.

    So at heart, this is pretty much the difference between Rule- and Act- Utilitarianism, which is a wider debate that may be tricky to settle conclusively.

  15. Shengwu,

    Out of interest, and not wishing to foist myself upon you (I'm not sure I have anything to add, have you considered opening access to the blog up for other contributors.

    Your thoughts (typically) are excellent and very well-informed. Sam's point that having a place where debaters can come and chat through various issues is spot on and this seems to be the place.

    My thought was if people like - well, Sam - had access to posting on the blog then the range of thoughts and issues would widen and you'd have lots of content.

    Anyway, it is your blog and therefore we play by your rules. If it stays ''just the Shengwu show'' then I'm very happy to keep returning but a resource allowing lots of people access may be very interesting.

    Just a thought.

  16. If a major terrestrial provider does not immediately commission a primetime programme called 'just the Shengwu show', I will be very disappointed.

  17. Rob,

    I had thought of that myself, mostly because Sam's piece is so excellent and well-written that I'd like to see it formatted properly and without all the breaks in it. What worries me is this: There are a fair number of very smart debaters with time to write, and an even larger number who would fancy themselves smart with time to write. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable having the role of some kind of gatekeeper, especially among my friends. I'd do it if there is some reasonably clear-cut metric that avoids me having to make awkward decisions. Is there some sensible middle ground I'm missing? Can you see a way forward?

  18. Hi All,

    Would just like to weigh in on the most recent discussion. About 18 months ago, I tried to set up 'Prop Up Online', which was almost exactly as you are describing the ideal blog. I didn't renew the domain as traffic was too low for it to be worth it, and Robert's 'Debating Reading List' was the only article with any interest in it. If you like, I still have all of the code, and I could re-set-up the website. It's more or less an open blog with an administrator to prevent spam and stuff. It also had a tournament calendar, which might be useful in the current BD-less situation. Is there enough interest to warrant me re-purchasing hosting?

    Rich Coates (for some reason it won't let me put my name at the top)

  19. Richard: I think that would be an incredible resource, and that we should do what we can to stimulate buy-in from credible sources. I sense that there's no lack of willingness to write articles about debate issues in a public forum online.

  20. Richard has beaten me to it, but I'd also be happy to maintain something like this. Perhaps if you'd like a hand with it, Richard, we should have a chat?

    I sense there might be a middleground between full openness (which may mean nobody reads it if quality becomes strongly variable) and total gatekeeping - perhaps some way of picking out featured articles but allowing people to also post others should they so choose. Kind of like the huffington post, but less readily monetisable.

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  22. As a possible alternative to publish articles on this blog, some other blogs have regularly published articles about the English-language debating world already. I myself am an editor of the Dutch debating blog SevenTwenty (, where we have in the past run English-language articles, about such topics as the past EUDC ESL motion, and have linked two of the fine articles found on this blog.

    If people are willing to publish well-informed pieces about debating - in English as well as Dutch - you can always contact us. We can serve as gatekeepers. Just mail us at