Let’s Just Abandon Debate

Last year, I wrote about problems with debate and made a few points about how the way debate is done in schools is problematic. Now, after having to make another professional dive into it, I find myself needing to clarify and reiterate a few points.

As can be said for a number of pseudosciences (alternative medicine comes to mind, particularly naturopathy) what is good is not unique, and what is unique is not good. (A phrase I’ve heard a number of times but couldn’t find a definitive original source.)

School debate (and perhaps even debates in general) is one of those things. I’ve mentioned the good things, such as learning about argumentation and using logic and evidence to support one’s case. However, these elements are far from unique about debate. In fact, virtually any subject could include these things.

The truly unique things about debate, it’s rigid structure and demand for instant rebuttals and maintaining a single position, are not good. It lacks a concept of “steel-manning” where one takes the most generous interpretation of an opponent’s argument, as opposed to straw-manning. It also, in most cases, lacks basic fact-checking. Debaters are expected to do research beforehand, not during, but if the opposing team brings up something they did not look up, they can’t properly address the evidence as evidence. Judges are in a similar situation, and we find ourselves just having to take the debaters’ words as true, even if they seem highly implausible. It also involves a lot of framing arguments in a way that makes one’s own positions seem strongest, regardless of where the best evidence and logic lies.

For the past few months I’ve been hearing U.S. Americans talk about how “debates” are a poor indicator of presidency skills, and I am yet to find an ounce of evidence to disprove that statement. Out of all the things needed in a president, the actual skills and knowledge most useful in a presidential debate are not actually the skills and knowledge needed to run a country.

Being able to stick to one position in the face of great arguments against it is not a sign of reason, but obstinance. Especially in a bipartisan society, where political ideologies overrule all critical thinking, finding common ground should be a virtue, but instead, we do debates.

I certainly vote for salvaging whatever is good and abandoning the rest. In this case, almost everything about debate is “the rest.”

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

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