Peter Zhang

Debate Thoughts, Vol. 1

Today, I spent 10 hours greying my hair at an online debate tournament. Here are some thoughts drifting through my head:

  1. Stop the dogshit. I just listened to a round where the negative asked “so… why don’t PICs and CPs negate?”

    The aff replied: “Well I don’t think I’ll go for that but… it’s sorta like… it doesn’t disprove my principle.”

    Arguments of the fecal flavor tend to be short and high impact. They exist primarily to distract and waste time. It’s bad for clash. It’s bad for debate. Defend your speech. When you surrender in cross, I’m inclined to agree with the trad judges: actual debating matters.

    Speaking of terrible arguments…

  2. Presumption debates are needlessly circular. Leading aff warrants include “otherwise we couldn’t drink water” and “if I told you my name was Peter, you’d believe me”; leading neg warrants include “there are more false statements than true statements” and “we can’t assume everything true because there would be contradictions.” Obviously, these arguments commit the strawman fallacy. Neither side really proposes that all statements should be presumed true or false. It’s about whether the resolution should be presumed false—a much narrower question. Suggesting that we shouldn’t adopt policies by default doesn’t mean that you can’t drink water, or that you should assume everything true by default.

    In this light, the proper role of presumption is fairly intuitive. The default should be the status quo. This is for two reasons. First, any policy will have implicit costs in floor time and resources; the burden should be on the affirmative to show some proactive benefit. Second, policymakers should err against catastrophic. The bigger the change, the bigger the potential harms. The Precautionary Principle suggests we that should opt for the best worst case.

    Defaulting to the status quo is not the same as “presume neg.” If the negative defends a radical counterplan (e.g. “eliminate all nuclear weapons”) or an equally dramatic alternative (e.g. “overthrow capitalism”), presumption should flip: the affirmative would be closer to the status quo.

  3. Need more numbers. Public Forum has a strange obsession with quantifying links and impacts. I like it; I hope it persists.

    In my junior year, I dabbled in both LD and PF. I tried to import big stick impacts from LD to our PF cases. On a topic about the UN Convention on the Law Of the Sea, I pushed for us to read a contention about oil prices and oil wars. To my mind, it made sense. The oil price DA had well-worded impact evidence and a strong topic link. Sure, neither of them were quantified, but we could debate the DA in qualitative terms.

    My teammates didn’t understand it. They wanted to know: how far will prices drop? Exactly who will go to war and when? How many people will die?

    They have a point. Reading Cost Benefit Revolution and Superforecasting has strengthened my belief that numbers matter. Qualitative predictions are infected by ideology, scope insensitivity, and a litany of biases. It let’s debaters get away with saying “spending tanks investor confidence which triggers econ decline and world war 3.” It also let’s judges get away with thinking the Econ DA outweighs the immediate benefits of the plan. I suspect—in fact, I’m 90% sure—that if LD debaters demanded quantification, the quality of arguments and clash would improve tremendously. Plus, fewer people would make fun of us.

  4. Aff’s need to get flex. I see debaters reading the same aff the entire topic. I’m a little disappointed when my students say “I’m reading this aff on this topic.” No—that aff is one of the affs you can read. And, that aff should change from round to round.

    I don’t think debaters fully appreciate the strategic value of aff flexibility. The strategic environment of a debate round is defined by three variables: you, your opponent, and your judge. Even if your aff works for you, it seems very unstrategic to be unable to adapt to the two other variables. What if your opponent always reads a particular K? What if your judge despises Kant? Shouldn’t that be relevant?

    To start with, people need to write more affs. Probably like 2-3 per topic. At least. You’ll learn more!

    And don’t get me wrong, I love topical debate, but the topic offense in the aff should be 3-4 minutes max. Everything else—framework, method, underview, preempts—should all be modulated. If you’ve got a stock aff, have a big stick version and structural violence version. Swap out the corresponding method sections. Change up the underview every now and then (hit ‘em with Plants when they least expect it!). Modulation is king.

  5. People misunderstand argument discovery. It’s not, “pick a argument, then find cards.” You’ll end up with dogshit cards. It also isn’t, “cut the first 25 pages of Google results for ‘what are LAWs.’” You’ll end up with Wikipedia-quality arguments (and a fat file of dogshit cards). The right strategy is somewhere in between.

    Start with the literature and scope out the contours of the existing academic debate. Keep an eye out for promising lines of thought. You might find an article that mentions AI research. You could find a footnote that talks about liberal militarism. Keep an open mind and you’ll be surprised how many gems are right in front of your eyes.

    After you have a core understanding of the topic, pick the most enticing starting point and dive in. Since you’ve done the background research, you should have a rough idea of what keywords to use, which authors are relevant, and what the final position will look like, so it should be easy.

    This is the important point—if you don’t end up finding a good card for it, that’s totally fine. Maybe the electric vehicles PIC was never meant to be. There’s another position out there, with better evidence, waiting for you to unearth it. Lucky for you, you already have a big list of promising leads.

  6. Pragmatic perms. This was inspired by a round. Against a Mosquitos PIC, the aff contested competition based on normal means, a definition of “lethal,” and a definition of “autonomy.” There was a bunch of confusing bickering over intentions to define, terminology of art, and author qualifications, none of which were weighed and most of which didn’t end up mattering. It devolved, in other words, to a bad semantics debate.

    Why not read pragmatic justifications for perms? “Lethal” may or may not technically include force against insects, but there are strong pragmatic reasons to exclude animals. A new meta with animal brutality affs and PICs out of every anti-animal weapon would be a prep nightmare and alien to the topic lit. 1AR permutations should feature these pragmatics-based warrants.

  7. Perfcon-perm combo. When debating a K, pair your perms with two or three perf cons. If you’re lucky, the 2NR might doc bot through their perf cons good block. That block is chock full of arguments that you can use to strengthen the perm.

  8. Punish the spec shell. If the 1NC reads a-spec, retaliate by reading four or five 1AR spec interps. The strongest responses to spec shells are those that apply to all spec shells, so the 2NR will have a real tough time. Some ideas: spec status, spec advocacy, spec K vs. theory, spec in-round abuse vs norm setting.

  9. (LD) debate doesn’t change policy. K teams should read more defense to policy education. The most common response to “fiat is illusory” is discussing policies empowers students to pass them later on. This claim seems very wrong. Debate is distorted by competitive incentives—just look at the Space Elevator CP or the average Kant framework. The Hester 13 card is a decent response.

  10. Batterman is awesome. Bill Batterman’s educational YouTube channel is a treasure to the debate community. Some of his best lectures include “The Art of…” series, “Judge Psychology,” “Mental Toughness,” and “Intro to IR.” I won’t proselytize for Policy here, but I’m certain that even the dankest swamp monsters of northeastern LD debate would love these videos.

More tournaments ahead; stay tuned.

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