The Problem With Debate

Some months ago I found myself in the position of teaching debate. I had little prior experience with the details of it so I did a lot of research to make sure I was teaching it correctly. But I found something disturbing in my research, my real-life experiences with judging debate competitions, and in speaking with my students who were more experienced with debate than I was. Debate, to a great extent, is focused on the wrong things.

There are certainly noble ideas behind debating, such as the art of argumentation itself and being able to support a position with evidence and present it clearly. If we don’t debate things, we are limiting the discourse of our society. There is value in intelligently discussing different opinions. I am arguing however, that this is not what happens in high school debate.

Instead, students really learn to argue a position, any position, regardless of whether is supported by evidence or not. Debate, as it exists in schools, is about never changing your own mind and always holding a single viewpoint. Throughout dozens of debate resources I read, I found advice to students which said things like “the factual information you use doesn’t need to be 100% accurate, it just needs to support your position.” Is that what we really want students to do?

Despite logic being toted as a key part of debate, there seems to be a huge difference between what skeptics and debaters know as logic. In debate, logic is just one of many ways to make an argument and, as I’ve been explicitly told, not even a very good way. In judging debate competitions, I found myself writing down logical fallacies and unsupported claims that students made. Other judges marked my lowest scoring students the highest and highest scoring students the lowest, because logic and evidence aren’t very important when it comes to debate.

There’s also another huge problem in that many debate topics actually deal with factual matters but are discussed as though they are merely opinions. Framing something as a debate doesn’t mean that both positions are equally valid.

It is not difficult to find examples of people who were very interested in debate in school and yet seem to be unable to apply the logical tools they learned to the real world. A certain misguided food activist comes to mind, who mentions being nationally ranked on her high school debate team. While she was in debate, did she not learn about evaluating evidence and applying logic consistently to her own position? From my experiences with my own students, I would wager not.

I argue that debate, as it typically exists in most schools today, is really teaching the wrong things. Instead of “argue a position no matter what” we should be teaching “change your mind when your logic is flawed and the opposition has all the evidence.”

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. November 1, 2015 at 8:58 pm —

    Debate is very much about law and fields like advertising and (the practice of) politics, rather than about observable reality. I think of it as “persuasion” in the sense used by advertisers rather than anything to do with thinking. It can be actively un-useful for people interested in STEM for much the reasons you outline. And it will often frustrate STEM kids exactly because logic and reason are depreciated and explicitly not relevant in many cases.

    The flip side is that it can be a form of public speaking, which is handy to be able to do. And learning how to persuasively argue the truth of obvious facts without using logic is, unfortunately, a key skill for many STEM people today.

    • November 3, 2015 at 5:22 am —

      One of my main issues with debate is that, even though it can apply to the practice of politics (etc.), it is still dealing with real issues which involve actual facts. How often do politicians debate about economics? And how often do the arguments they make reflect the actual evidence found in the field of economic science? Debate has become a tool for supporting weak conclusions by adjusting argumentation to fit prior beliefs as opposed to evidence.

      In terms of public speaking skills, there is another class (which I also teach, incidentally) that does that even better. It is called “Public Speaking.” The more I teach debate and involve myself in debating, the less I am finding worth doing.

    • November 3, 2015 at 12:16 pm —

      Friendly reminder that STEM doesn’t own logic, evidence, or clear argumentation–people in other fields with a variety of interests value and rely on them too.

      I do think there is value in knowing the debater’s toolbox: if not necessarily to use it, then at least to recognise when it is being used (and counteract it if necessary).

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