Tag Archives: debate

Against epistemic closure

Really superb article in the New Yorker, you should read the whole thing:

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

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If you haven’t seen a college policy debate round before, watch this, but read first

One of the most intellectually rewarding and challenging parts of my life has been my participation, in high school and college policy debate, first as a competitor and then a coach. Unfortunately this is an activity that is poorly understood by non-debaters because it is a hyperspecialized, academically rigorous activity. The popular impression is that people argue in some sophisticated, rhetorically eloquent format. While this is true, it is an inadequate characterization of policy debate, especially college policy debate on the NDT/CEDA circuit.

It is true that the best debaters argue in sophisticated, elegant ways. But policy debate has also evolved in some ways that make even sophisticated, eloquent argumentation inaccessible to the general population. College policy debate specifically is an activity that promotes hyper-specialization in the technical aspects of debate. Most noticeably, the existence of a stable judging pool has allowed debaters over the last 3 decades to increase their rate of delivery so as to maximize the argumentative potential of the round. Coterminously, college debate has also developed incredible intellectual diversity and any varsity level debater of merit has the ability to fluently argue a staggering amount of topics with very little in-round preparation.

What this functionally means to you is that college policy debate is an activity where competitors speak at speeds of up to 250-300 words a minute. Very few non-debaters can comprehend, let alone understand, speech at that speed. But this is only a matter of familiarity; I am told that the human brain can theoretically comprehend speech input that is twice as fast.  Here is an example. This is the second speech given by a negative team (in this case, from the University of Iowa) during a debate round against an affirmative team from Harvard.

If you watched that speech without being able to distinguish more than a couple scattered words, play the video again and focus. Don’t worry about understanding initially; let your ear get attuned to the rhythm and cadence of the speaker and you’ll start being able to form a coherent impression of what he says. His speech is a finely structured, efficiently presented set of arguments that are impressively developed with both cited evidence and intricately developed analytical arguments. This is the part of debate that is most like pure science, with its hyper-specialized nomenclature and development.

Yet in a grander sense debaters who are able to perform at this level are also very multidisciplinary thinkers. To be a good policy debater one must be able to incorporate an understanding of the technical aspects of argumentative structure with an understanding of a very broad set of positions and the ability to adapt to accelerated communicative norms. And let us not forget the intensive research load; by the time a debater has spent 2 or 3 years competing seriously in college policy debate, they have done work equivalent to a masters in international relations or domestic policy.

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2010 Missouri High School Speech and Debate Tournament

If you are interested in judging the 2010 Missouri High School Speech and Debate tournament, here are the details:



Debate judges are being hired for the 2010 Missouri State High School Activities Speech and Debate Tournament, which will be held on the MU Campus on Friday, April 23.

There are four preliminary rounds and judges can work one or more rounds at the following rates:

$  7.00 per flight for Lincoln-Douglas Debate

$  7.00 per flight for Public Forum Debate

$10.00 per round for Cross-Examination Debate

Bonuses are paid for judging 3 or more rounds

(This includes availability to judge the evening elimination rounds)

Qualifications: Judges must have at least one year of experience with debate and have been out of high school for at least one full year.  Semi-professional dress required.

Contact: Submit your availability to judge to Scott Jensen via e-mail (jensensc@webster.edu) or telephone (314-968-7439)

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Thoughts From A Debate Tournament

I judged several rounds of debate at the Heart of America National Forensic League District tournament at Liberty High School in Kansas City this past weekend with my friends Carl Werner and Rick Puig, both former Kansas City public forum debaters; they also own DB8Zone, producing quality LD and public forum briefs.

My high school debate career was 4 years of policy for Parkway North in St. Louis. Later on I debated at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I spent 2 years debating policy on the NDT/CEDA circuit. Curiously, for some time I was involved in Cross-x.com, through which I met, virtually speaking, Phil Kerpen. I had many great conversations with Phil over the years and he has an exceptionally sharp mind, though he is far more radically libertarian (dare I say conservative?) than I am.

At this tournament I saw some interesting rounds of value debate (Lincoln-Douglas) over the topic of jury nullification. Debaters on this topic tended to make extreme arguments, getting away with claims like ‘jury nullification overturns entire bodies of law’. That’s true when multiple juries nullify multiple trials over the same issue with the same law, but doesn’t generally exist in the more common and likely example of juries nullifying specific trials on a one time basis. I thought the argument was generally stronger in favor of the affirmative on this topic, though I did vote negative in one of these rounds.

Policy debate results were mixed. I think I judged all three teams who qualified to nationals, and was fairly impressed by one. They ran an affirmative expanding Medicaid reimbursement to midwives, making an argument that the existing restrictions on reimbursement excluding midwives constituted a meaningful and illegitimate restriction on women’s reproductive rights, linking it to larger claims about biopolitics and governmentality. The negative made arguments about topicality, federalism, and the economy. The level of debate seemed fairly comparable to St. Louis debate and the debaters seem to know what to do when they recognize that their judge is familiar with the structure and language of policy debate. I do remain concerned about the short and intermediate viability of policy debate teams particularly in the state as school districts face budget shortfalls.

The sole public forum debate round I judged was the break round to nationals (a 7-judge panel). The topic was affirmative action. I believe I was the only judge with any policy experience, and also the only judge to vote negative in a 6-1 decision for the affirmative. I’d voted on a framework argument advanced in the initial speech by the con side making the claim that we should evaluate oppression and inequality from a class-based, not a race-based, perspective. I’m not sure I can claim to have made a correct decision, but I found it curious that I was the only judge in the round that evaluated that framework.

I am hearing good things about debate in Missouri this year. More high school teams are traveling and receiving TOC bids, and the team at Missouri State did fantastically well at the NDT last year. I don’t know if my anecdotal sample lets me come to any conclusions about how vibrant the circuit remains, and it’s hard to comparatively evaluate teams from this year against teams I remember. I find good argumentative development and not a lot of strategic development, but that’s generally true of high school debate in all years.

After the entirety of my experience, I conclude the the single most urgent problem facing debaters is the lack of consistent quality judging at tournaments. It is a hard thing to get qualified former debaters to high school tournaments, mostly because they’re in college and the short distance they’re willing to travel is inversely proportional to the amount they get paid. I am gratified to see several former debaters continue to be active in the activity, coaching and teaching debate at high schools, and I am gratified to see the restrictions on competition imposed by the Missouri State High School Athletics Association ease after years of diligent pressure.

The other problem facing high school debate programs is the one no one wants to talk about. Where does the funding come from in rocky financial times?

Thought: do any charter schools offer debate programs?

Oh, and if any former debater or interested person is interested in judging at state and national qualifiers in the upcoming month, information on tournaments is available on Cross-x.com, here.

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Traiberman-Li Blog

Two of my former high school debate friends, Sharon Traiberman and Jimmy Li, have graduated college and have started a blog. I highly recommend it for people interested in good analytical arguments, particularly with regard to economics and ethics.

On an aside, Sharon Traiberman remains one of the people I felt were truly treated unfairly by the the politics of Missouri high school debate. He has always been a brilliant thinker and unfortunately innovation outside of the narrow political box of Missouri high school debate has never been consistently rewarded.

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Great Last Lines, Healthcare Edition

I attended a debate sponsored by the Residence Halls Association last night and am quoted in the Maneater along with funkbrother and Truman Scholar Eliseo Rick Puig. Here is the article. It would be more accurate to say that 47 million Americans without healthcare represents more than just a market failure; in some demographics, it does represent a market failure, in others, it represents the limits of what the market can do. But a nuanced comment like that isn’t a terribly great sound byte.

The College Republicans (led by Brett Dinkins) were embarrassingly underprepared for this debate; they at one pointed cited an article in the Washington Examiner as countervailing evidence against budget analysis prepared by the Congressional Budget Office, seemingly implying that the CBO was itself responsible for a 11 trillion dollar national debt. Such a statement shows ignorance of the structure of Congress and the way money itself is spent (politicians write appropriation bills and pass them; the CBO is essentially a glorified secretarial/research agency that calculates the fiscal impact of a proposed bill). And worse, they stuck to a terribly inarticulate “markets are best” prescriptivism that is at best really annoying and at worst extremely dangerous; I made the argument that markets are not homogenous and and behave vastly differently depending on the parameters. The market for subprime mortgages is far different from the market for lemons, for instance, or for national security; these markets behave differently and we treat them differently, for good reason.

More later.

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Policy Debate in Missouri

I was a 4 year policy debater for Parkway North High School in St. Louis. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, I debated for 2.5 years on the NDT/CEDA policy debate circuit, achieving some competive success (though constrained by lack of institutional funding). I have coached and assisted high school teams to 2 state tournaments and 2 national tournaments and donate my time on request to teams looking for advice, coaching, or help. I also donate time to judging debate tournaments when I can.

I have a discussion on the state of debate in Missouri as well as some arguments on why the circuit has been less than smart about maintaining interest and integrity here at the Missouri forum on www.cross-x.com, the premier high school debate website. If you’re interested in the subject it is a good read.

If you don’t know much about the activity, I can assure you that debate is one of the best things for high schoolers to engage in. It was one of the most intellectually stimulating activities I’ve ever engaged in and provided me with a solid intellectual foundation for approaching knowledge and advocacy. If you can ever advocate for something germane to secondary education, advocate for the institution and support of debate activities in high schools. The benefits are profound.
Full disclosure: I was affliated with Cross-x for many years have great respect for Phil Kerpen, the guy who owns the site. Phil’s politics are a little different from mine (he’s a right-leaning libertarian and I’m a left-leaning libertarian but he has a mind of tremendous precision and I’ve learned tons from his work.

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Former NDT/CEDA Debater Hired to Read Climate Bill

Republicans on the committee have said they may force the reading of the entire 946-page bill — as well as major amendments that measure several hundred pages — all aloud. This is a procedure lawmakers have a right to invoke. Republicans are largely against the bill, which aims to cut emissions of so-called greenhouse gases by more than 80% over the next half-century but would be costly.

Republicans haven’t tried the tactic, but Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) is prepared.

A committee spokeswoman said the speed reader — a young man who was on door duty at the hearing as he awaited a call to the microphone — was hired to help staffers. After years of practice, the panel’s clerks can read at a good clip. But the speed reader is a lot faster, she said.

“Judging by the size of the amendments, I can read a page about every 34 seconds,” said the newly hired staff assistant, who declined to give his name. Based on that estimate, it would take him about nine hours.

From the WSJ. Link here.

Edit 4/14: I just noticed I was getting a lot of traffic from debaters on this point, and want to note that I don’t actually know that the staff assistant was a former debater. But without commenting on the specific size of the bill, I think it would be very strange if a speed reader were not at least a former debater on the high school policy circuit or the college NDT/CEDA circuit. I can think of no other activity that trains for such a skill.

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