Improving the Norms and Practices of Policy Debate

(1/1)

Nate Cohn:
The short-version:
-I'm not convinced that "USFG should" is the problem
-I think "passive voice" is problematic
-I think the norms and practices of policy debate are the problem, and I offer ideas on how to make policy debate more inclusive, accessible, and realistic.
-I think we should add a topic about race and diversity to the forced topic rotation.

The long-version:

I’m heartened by the recent turn on Facebook. My regular participation in policy debate has come to an end, so I won’t play a great role in the talks on the future of the community. But I strongly support negotiations and can testify that they’re conducted in good faith.

But I think an important step, maybe the first step, is clearing up some intelligence gaps. I don’t have a complete understanding of what policy debate’s discontents think is wrong with modern policy debate or its topics. Or put differently: what are the specific elements of debate that need to be changed in order for teams to forthrightly engage the topic?

And in particular, I’m interested in the extent that the problem lies in the formulation of the topic (USFG should), the subject of the topic (demo, war powers), or the norms and practices of modern policy debate, which make it difficult to engage “structural” impacts or philosophical questions, no matter the topic.

Based on what I’ve read to date, I’m not yet convinced that the problem is an active voice topic with an actor, USFG or otherwise. Perhaps more important, I believe there are serious problems with a passive, agentless resolution. Instead, I think the real problem is the subject and norms of modern policy debate—both of which can be changed. I’m getting the impression that the real problem is the subject and norms of modern policy debate—both of which can be changed.

---
For years, I’ve heard it’s problematic to require certain debaters, particularly black debaters, to grapple with an irredeemably racist federal government. Most of the Facebook discussions seem to be proceeding under the assumption that this is the main reason for non-topicality, the main reason why non-traditional debaters feel excluded.

To be blunt, I find this a little hard to believe. I’m open to the possibility that an extraordinarily small number of debaters are troubled by “USFG should.” But if I went up to an Oklahoma or Towson debater and asked “should the judicial/legislative branch restrict the president’s authority for targeted killing?” I find it pretty hard to imagine that they would say, “Sorry, can’t think about the USFG, it’s irredeemably racist, traumatic for me to engage it, and it’s racist for you to ask.” And if that question was “should the legislative branch do XYZ reforms (suppose XYZ are supported by the debaters) to the prison system?” I’m all but positive they wouldn’t offer the response we see in debate.

When I’ve indicated these reservations to people on the other side of the “aisle,” I’ve basically been told to “take the debaters at their word.” Fair enough. But on the other hand, Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle clearly supports engaging and reforming the government. Dayvon ran for office. Oklahoma agreed to a switch side resolution with Northwestern over government policy. Most of these students attend public schools and compete with public dollars.

I’ve also noticed something similar on Facebook. Since I wrote that paragraph, Rashad said the argument that black debaters can’t defend the USFG is a tactical argument to get past framework, not the real problem with debate. If true, I find that pretty upsetting. These arguments have been framed as authentic narratives. As a result, they’ve been shielded from scrutiny and they earned additional and apparently undo credibility.

So although I’m open to the possibility that a very small number of people genuinely feel conflicted about discussing federal policy, I just don’t think the actual evidence is consistent with the arguments in the debate round. And so far, most (though not all) of the people aggressively pushing passive voice topics are white “critique” debaters and coaches, not black “project” or “performance” students and coaches. And quite frankly, I’m just not as interested in what relatively traditional, white coaches and debaters have to say about this issue. So let me genuinely ask black debaters and coaches: What do you feel comfortable debating or not, and why?

Let me add a critical point of clarification: I’m not doubting the authenticity of the broader criticisms of debate or the debate community. I am extremely sympathetic to most of the critiques of modern policy debate. It is undeniable that modern policy debate makes sophisticated discussions of white supremacy and injustice extremely difficult. The confluence of ideology and race has undoubtedly and predictably reinforced whiteness in the debate community, including de facto interpersonal segregation and the consignment of a disproportionate share of black judges to the strike zone. The part I’m doubting is whether active voice topics and “USFG should” is really the problem here, or whether “passive voice” solves anything.

--
I am open to changing “USFG should.” But so far, the “new idea” is an old and, in my view, bad one: “passive voice.” I don’t think “passive voice” is a compelling alternative: it would either fail to address our problem or it would be a catastrophe.

Look, I get why “passive voice” seems appealing: the affirmative could defend either federal or personal action. But if the community continues to write resolutions that can be affirmed with single examples, and the resolution doesn’t specify an agent, then the affirmative can affirm the resolution with any example by any agent.

Take “resolved: the death penalty should be opposed,” which Justin Green floated. Any example of any agent—not just the USFG or the debaters—who should oppose the death penalty would justify an affirmative ballot. Maybe you don’t think teams would read “X candidate should oppose the death penalty to get an ACLU endorsement in the primary,” but you’re wrong. Everyone plays around at what they perceive as the edge of the topic if it advances their chances of winning. That’s not going to change.

One alternative is a more precise, but still passive voice topic. It would make the desired outcome the object of the resolution. For example, “resolved: there should not be a death penalty in the United States” is passive voice and limits the agent, de facto, by requiring a more specific outcome. Or, it arguably removes agent and process from the discussion entirely, since defending a topical outcome is sufficient to affirm the resolution.

Yet that would make topicality a question of solvency for teams who choose to engage an actor, not just the prescribed outcome. That would all but preclude “non-traditional” affirmatives (at least by the literal standards of the policy community). My assumption, then, is that this proposal is a non-starter—a “compromise” that makes no one happy and puts us in the same spot next November.

So I am not optimistic about “passive voice.” And to be clear, this isn’t a matter of “USFG”—it’s a matter of active voice and agent specification good. I want topics that force clash and in-depth preparation. Specifying an agent or an outcome is, so far, the only proposal that does this. I’d rather have “The NAACP should oppose the death penalty” than “the death penalty should be opposed.” I’d rather debate “The city of Baltimore should make X changes to Y police practices” than “Y police practices should be opposed.”

This also illustrates why the policy people support the “USFG should.” It’s not that I think the USFG is the only interesting agent. Far from it. I’m just not sure there’s enough literature to support a full year of rigorous, in-depth, research-intensive policy debates for most alternative actors. I’m totally willing to consider another actor, by the way, and strongly prefer another actor to “passive voice,” but overcoming the literature issue is important. I don’t think we can sustain a year-long topic about Baltimore’s police practices, for instance.

I’m hopeful that the community’s smartest minds can craft a solution. But since I have doubts about whether “we can’t talk about USFG should” is the problem, and since I think the main alternative is fatally flawed, I can’t help but have doubts.

--
So let me offer another possibility: the problem isn’t the topic, but modern policy debate. The unrealistic scenarios, exclusive focus on policy scholarship, inability to engage systemic impacts and philosophical questions. And so long as these problems characterize modern policy debate, teams will feel compelled to avoid it.

It might be tempting to assign the blame to “USFG should.” But these are bugs, not features of plan-focused, USFG-based, active voice topics. These bugs result from practices and norms that were initially and independently reasonable, but ultimately and collectively problematic. I also believe that these norms can and should be contested. I believe it would be possible for me to have a realistic, accessible, and inclusive discussion about the merits of a federal policy with, say, Amber Kelsie. Or put differently, I’m not sure I agree with Jonah that changing the topic is the only way to avoid being “a bunch of white folks talking about nuke war.”

The fact that policy debate is wildly out of touch—the fact that we are “a bunch of white folks talking about nuclear war”—is a damning indictment of nearly every coach in this activity. It’s a serious indictment of the successful policy debate coaches, who have been content to continue a pedagogically unsound game, so long as they keep winning. It’s a serious indictment of policy debate’s discontents who chose to disengage.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been any effort to challenge modern policy debate on its own terms—just that they’ve mainly come from the middle of the bracket and weren’t very successful, focusing on morality arguments and various “predictions bad” claims to outweigh.

Judges were receptive to the sentiment that disads were unrealistic, but negative claims to specificity always triumphed over generic epistemological questions or arguments about why “predictions fail.” The affirmative rarely introduced substantive responses to the disadvantage, rarely read impact defense. All considered, the negative generally won a significant risk that the plan resulted in nuclear war. Once that was true, it was basically impossible to win that some moral obligation outweighed the (dare I say?) obligation to avoid a meaningful risk of extinction.

There were other problems. Many of the small affirmatives were unstrategic—teams rarely had solvency deficits to generic counterplans. It was already basically impossible to win that some morality argument outweighed extinction; it was totally untenable to win that a moral obligation outweighed a meaningful risk of extinction; it made even less sense if the counterplan solved most of the morality argument. The combined effect was devastating: As these debates are currently argued and judged, I suspect that the negative would win my ballot more than 95 percent of the time in a debate between two teams of equal ability.

But even if a “soft left” team did better—especially by making solvency deficits and responding to the specifics of the disadvantage—I still think they would struggle. They could compete at the highest levels, but, in most debates, judges would still assess a small, but meaningful risk of a large scale conflict, including nuclear war and extinction. The risk would be small, but the “magnitude” of the impact would often be enough to outweigh a higher probability, smaller impact. Or put differently: policy debate still wouldn’t be replicating a real world policy assessment, teams reading small affirmatives would still be at a real disadvantage with respect to reality. .

Why? Oddly, this is the unreasonable result of a reasonable part of debate: the burden of refutation or rejoinder, the responsibility of debaters to “beat” arguments. If I introduce an argument, it starts out at 100 percent—you then have to disprove it. That sounds like a pretty good idea in principle, right? Well, I think so too. But it’s really tough to refute something down to “zero” percent—a team would need to completely and totally refute an argument. That’s obviously tough to do, especially since the other team is usually going to have some decent arguments and pretty good cards defending each component of their disadvantage—even the ridiculous parts. So one of the most fundamental assumptions about debate all but ensures a meaningful risk of nearly any argument—even extremely low-probability, high magnitude impacts, sufficient to outweigh systemic impacts.

There’s another even more subtle element of debate practice at play. Traditionally, the 2AC might introduce 8 or 9 cards against a disadvantage, like “non-unique, no-link, no-impact,” and then go for one and two. Yet in reality, disadvantages are underpinned by dozens or perhaps hundreds of discrete assumptions, each of which could be contested. By the end of the 2AR, only a handful are under scrutiny; the majority of the disadvantage is conceded, and it’s tough to bring the one or two scrutinized components down to “zero.”

And then there’s a bad understanding of probability. If the affirmative questions four or five elements of the disadvantage, but the negative was still “clearly ahead” on all five elements, most judges would assess that the negative was “clearly ahead” on the disadvantage. In reality, the risk of the disadvantage has been reduced considerably. If there was, say, an 80 percent chance that immigration reform would pass, an 80 percent chance that political capital was key, an 80 percent chance that the plan drained a sufficient amount of capital, an 80 percent chance that immigration reform was necessary to prevent another recession, and an 80 percent chance that another recession would cause a nuclear war (lol), then there’s a 32 percent chance that the disadvantage caused nuclear war.

I think these issues can be overcome. First, I think teams can deal with the “burden of refutation” by focusing on the “burden of proof,” which allows a team to mitigate an argument before directly contradicting its content.

Here’s how I’d look at it: modern policy debate has assumed that arguments start out at “100 percent” until directly refuted. But few, if any, arguments are supported by evidence consistent with “100 percent.” Most cards don’t make definitive claims. Even when they do, they’re not supported by definitive evidence—and any reasonable person should assume there’s at least some uncertainty on matters other than few true facts, like 2+2=4.

Take Georgetown’s immigration uniqueness evidence from Harvard. It says there “may be a window” for immigration. So, based on the negative’s evidence, what are the odds that immigration reform will pass? Far less than 50 percent, if you ask me. That’s not always true for every card in the 1NC, but sometimes it’s even worse—like the impact card, which is usually a long string of “coulds.” If you apply this very basic level of analysis to each element of a disadvantage, and correctly explain math (.4*.4*.4*.4*.4=.01024), the risk of the disadvantage starts at a very low level, even before the affirmative offers a direct response.

Debaters should also argue that the negative hasn’t introduced any evidence at all to defend a long list of unmentioned elements in the “internal link chain.” The absence of evidence to defend the argument that, say, “recession causes depression,” may not eliminate the disadvantage, but it does raise uncertainty—and it doesn’t take too many additional sources of uncertainty to reduce the probability of the disadvantage to effectively zero—sort of the static, background noise of prediction.

Now, I do think it would be nice if a good debate team would actually do the work—talk about what the cards say, talk about the unmentioned steps—but I think debaters can make these observations at a meta-level (your evidence isn’t certain, lots of undefended elements) and successfully reduce the risk of a nuclear war or extinction to something indistinguishable from zero. It would not be a factor in my decision.

Based on my conversations with other policy judges, it may be possible to pull it off with even less work. They might be willing to summarily disregard “absurd” arguments, like politics disadvantages, on the grounds that it’s patently unrealistic, that we know the typical burden of rejoinder yields unrealistic scenarios, and that judges should assess debates in ways that produce realistic assessments. I don’t think this is too different from elements of Jonah Feldman’s old philosophy, where he basically said “when I assessed 40 percent last year, it’s 10 percent now.”

Honestly, I was surprised that the few judges I talked to were so amenable to this argument. For me, just saying “it’s absurd, and you know it” wouldn’t be enough against an argument in which the other team invested considerable time. The more developed argument about accurate risk assessment would be more convincing, but I still think it would be vulnerable to a typical defense of the burden of rejoinder.

To be blunt: I want debaters to learn why a disadvantage is absurd, not just make assertions that conform to their preexisting notions of what’s realistic and what’s not. And perhaps more importantly for this discussion, I could not coach a team to rely exclusively on this argument—I’m not convinced that enough judges are willing to discount a disadvantage on “it’s absurd.” Nonetheless, I think this is a useful “frame” that should preface a following, more robust explanation of why the risk of the disadvantage is basically zero—even before a substantive response is offered.

There are other, broad genres of argument that can contest the substance of the negative’s argument. There are serious methodological indictments of the various forms of knowledge production, from journalistic reporting to think tanks to quantitative social science. Many of our most strongly worded cards come from people giving opinions, for which they offer very little data or evidence. And even when “qualified” people are giving predictions, there’s a great case to be extremely skeptical without real evidence backing it up. The world is a complicated place, predictions are hard, and most people are wrong. And again, this is before contesting the substance of the negative’s argument(!)—if deemed necessary.

So, in my view, the low probability scenario is waiting to be eliminated from debate, basically as soon as a capable team tries to do it.

That would open to the door to all of the arguments, previously excluded, de facto, by the prevalence of nuclear war impacts. It’s been tough to talk about racism or gender violence, since modest measures to mitigate these impacts have a difficult time outweighing a nuclear war. It’s been tough to discuss ethical policy making, since it’s hard to argue that any commitment to philosophical or ethical purity should apply in the face of an existential risk. It’s been tough to introduce unconventional forms of evidence, since they can’t really address the probability of nuclear war.

Yes, the affirmative would still need to debate counterplans. Sometimes, I get the impression that’s a point of controversy, too. Quite frankly, I think counterplans are good. I don’t think the negative should only be forced to exclusively debate about harms. There’s no way we can have a fair topic about, say, prison reform, if the negative can only defend the status quo. That’s especially true if you don’t want to debate the political cost of the action—which, in many instances, is the reason why the government hasn’t made obvious policy changes.

Yet at the same time, I think it’s probably time to retire a few genres of generic counterplans. I think it’s time to retire the “alternative actor” counterplan, which isn’t a logical response to the affirmative.

I also think it’s time to require that teams read evidence at a comprehensible speed. Comprehensible in front of me would still be “fast” by non-debater standards, but it would make debate far more accessible, it would solve the apparently rampant issue of card clipping, and, well, I don’t really know why it wasn’t required in the first place. I still think judges should call for cards, but they should call cards for additional scrutiny, not to make up for the fact that they never understood the content in the first place. Top policy judges and coaches should consider leading on this issues by writing and endorsing a pact establishing norms for clarity. The standard should be simple: the relevant warrant and argument in the card should be on your flow.

There are certainly other problematic norms that I haven’t addressed. I’d love to hear others comment on specific norms and practices that they find problematic.

--
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m both a hardliner on T, and optimistic about making USFG-focused debate accessible. I think many policy debate coaches and judges are spending a lot of time thinking about the future of the activity and agree with much of what I’ve written. It’s also possible that norms just aren’t the problem for some debaters and teams. Maybe they just don’t want to debate about policy, no matter how the debates proceed. If that’s really the issue, then maybe we do need separate venues.

Personally, I'm not convinced that's the issue. I really don’t. I see Dayvon running for office, for instance, and believe that he’s genuinely interested in engaging questions of government policy. I see the LBS webpage, and believe that Towson is genuinely interested in engaging questions of government policy. The solution, I hope, is to make policy debate a space where we can engaging with government policy also means engaging with race and diversity, not just a race to extinction.

In addition to contesting the self-evidently problematic elements of policy debate, I think the community should add a topic about social justice, race, and diversity to the forced topic rotation. The community has concluded—wrongly in my view—that it has a responsibility to offer legal education to debaters. The community does, however, have an obligation to ensure that debaters discuss a broad suite of policy subjects (law not being a subject, but a mechanism for engaging policy). In the past, policy debate norms have made those questions difficult to engage, but that’s not an excuse—especially since those norms can and should be contested. And if policy coaches, judges, and debaters can do so, perhaps we'll create a space where debaters feel comfortable engaging with important questions of government policy.

kevin kuswa:
Some good stuff in here—certainly a few things worth responding to specifically....

1. Yes, we should have more breadth and depth in the topic rotation and adding a “race and diversity” topic may be a good place to start, but the proposal has to be a bit more developed and comprehensive.  In other words, if we want to add something akin to a “social justice” topic every four years, does that automatically mean that the usfg would be the agent responsible for creating social justice?  The two arms of this post are strangling each other a bit.  We need to think about the agents changing every four years as well—perhaps even on a different rotation than the topic areas so that the Mr. Potato Head does not always wear the “nuclear proliferation top hat” with the “usfg ears and nose.”  We might want to have the top hat paired with the broad grin every so often so we can debate about the grassroots peace movement or individual forms of resistance to state militarism on the aff.

2. The other piece to this is how the rest of the topic rotation is reconfigured and what the timing of that rotation looks like.  We have been wedded to a four-year wheel based on the timing of the undergraduate degree, but we could always think about changing that to three years, five years, two years, etc. if there are good reasons to support that kind of shift.  Most importantly, what are the categories themselves?  We talked about this at the Lexington topic meeting a bit and a number of compelling taxonomies were advanced—everything from a rotation between “1. pollution and the environment, 2. trade and the economy, 3. rights and equity, and 4. security and weapons treaties,” to a rotation between “1. the congress, court, executive agent, 2. an international actor or different nation-state, 3. a non-traditional actor such as corporations, NGOs, a social movement, etc., and 4. no actor.”  Another interesting idea was to create a dozen or so topic areas every four or five years and then vote on a two- or three-year rotation from the dozen choices.

3. Finding a way to make the process extend further ahead than just a year might allow for more balance and compromise.  We are not only dealing with the agent of action or the specific content of a given controversy area, we are also dealing with things like “a stable stem,” a “series of verbs vs. a single verb,” the “list vs. broad range” debate and a number of other wording choices.   In terms of topic rotation, these proposed categories are not independent of one another and they leave certain things on the outside, but the brainstorming process is still helpful.  We may be fine with the rotation as it is, but signs point to the need to at least consider a change.  Jason, if you are reading this, add me to the topic diversity working group (kuswakd at Whitman dot edu).  Thanks.

4. The rest of this “anti-passive voice, pro-change” post makes claims about passive voice leading to “catastrophe” or “not be able to sustain enough research.”  These arguments have been answered countless times, particularly in the passive voice section of the “economic inequality” topic paper and the “Agents” wording paper from the current war powers topic committee work.  Keep in mind, we have had passive voice topics in the past and debate has survived (How many times has that observation had to be noted?).  Ironically it may be our blind adherence to the usfg that threatens to destabilize the debate community more than any attempt at experimentation.  I agree that the agent is only a tiny piece of the many challenges debate is facing, but it is not a meaningless piece and it may help open some spaces to some of the other intractable divisions we are trying to bridge.  The permutation seems clear here: it is possible to believe that some of the norms and practices of debate are flawed and that the topic construction is outdated and is a contributing factor in some of the ideological clash confronting our students.

5. The other “solution” in this post is to recognize that arguments are bound together by long chains and we need to scrutinize those claims with more voracity.  Sure, but much easier said than done.  That is an observation about argumentation and logical proof that goes back to the Gorgias (as well as Buddha, the Black Athena, etc.).  In other words, noting that a DA often has troubling uniqueness and then trying to put a number or percentage on its likelihood is not the fundamental solution to the problems confronting debate.  To contend that poking holes in a team’s shoddy uniqueness evidence on the politics DA will overturn decades of problematic debate practices is just not compelling, unique, or insightful.  Texas went exclusively for a “no internal link” argument against Wake Forest’s politics DA in the semis of the NDT quite some time ago and one of the five judges found it to be enough of an answer to discount the “huge scenario” in favor of a victim impact statement advantage concerning the emotional state of criminal juries.  We do need to refine our argumentation to reverse that 4-1 decision, but that’s a constant quest of debaters and debate—how do we combine pedagogy, reasoning, evidence, and critical thinking into the optimum combination of advocacy skills?  Such argumentation—a point raised by the “qualification” and “argument about arguments” discussions—does happen now and should happen more.  I think we would all agree to that.  Let’s make our evidence better and more qualified, let’s stop clipping (a grossly unethical practice), let’s stop highlighting to the point of turning our cards into words unrecognizable from the original, let’s stop letting the speech document stand in for actual communication, let’s stop substituting speed of delivery for distinct reasoning, let’s stop creating ideological barriers between judges and students before rounds even begin, let’s stop gravitating to impact scenarios that are wildly unrealistic, let’s find ways to alter our practices of evidence citing to re-center what a good “source” might be, let’s attach those qualification questions to standards and deliberation surrounding the differences between a good and bad argument, and let’s foreground pedagogy, critical thinking, and academic achievement.    

I appreciate this post and echo the call to debate about our norms and practices—the “debate about debate” continues its path, swinging from peripheral to central and back again.  What we need to do is to make sure the pendulum itself is not just in a museum, Facebook post, or dusty debate journal, but instead becomes an ethical practice of academic scholarship, engaged critical thinking, meaningful evidence comparison, and communication that we are all proud to shape and represent.

Sincerely,

Kevin

ClintEhrlich:
I have not been directly involved in policy debate for a few years, and my connections to the college community were always indirect. But Nate Cohn's post echoed several thoughts I've had in the period since I stopped coaching high-school debate and began trying to find arguments to actually persuade appellate justices.

There is no reason that policy debate needs to be dominated by preposterous extinction scenarios, either at the high-school or college level. Although I will always have a soft spot for some of the contrived DAs that I read and wrote at various points, it trivializes the activity when these arguments succeed at the expense of realistic discussions of public policy.

By stringing four or five cards together, teams are able to manufacture custom-built extinction scenarios for ANY policy change, no matter how small. These are not serious arguments, for all of the reasons offered in the opening post. They make claims that no one outside of policy debate has even thought of, much less taken seriously. Their popularity doesn't just make debate look bad; it makes debate bad, period.

It may well be true that the viability of these arguments makes it strategically difficult to initiate discussions about social justice. But that is just one symptom of a deeper problem: by fetishizing long strings of improbable internal links that culminate in extinction, we make it impossible for debaters to restrict themselves to making credible, serious arguments for or against AFFs.

The race to snag improbable extinction impacts also prevents many of the most interesting impact debates from ever occurring. Most of us agree that ending a racist policy is not worth causing nuclear war . . . but is it worth risking a recession? What if that recession would cause hundreds of people to die substantially earlier than they otherwise would? As long as everything supposedly risks extinction, nothing but extinction will be worth talking about.

But not all discussions of nuclear war are made equal. In my eyes, the problem is not that policy debates often involve extinction scenarios; it is that 95% of those extinction scenarios are made up. That is, they are only discussed in policy debate, not the actual literature about the topic area.

Many affirmatives do actually relate to credible risks of human extinction, which are worth deliberation. Our government's policies on Co2 emissions may dictate whether today's debaters will live to be grandparents. And given how terrifyingly close the world has come to nuclear war in the past, our government's deterrence posture and treaty obligations could determine whether you and everyone you love will die a horrific, painful death. The same is true of myriad issues in policy debate —  from the deployment of space weapons to the coordination of disease surveillance — which may have a substantial effect on humanity's odds of survival.

Or they may not. But the very nature of existential risk and self-selection bias (a.k.a, the anthropic principle) means that their absence from our past does not provide us meaningful evidence about their probability in our future. I fear that many (most?!) members of the community will not understand why that last sentence is true, despite having participated in numerous debates involving extinction claims. That reflects the lack of epistemological discussion in most "traditional" policy debates. In real life, probability analysis and the epistemology of risk are central issues in policymaking.

The phenomenon discussed in the opening post, in which even the most tenuous risks of extinction still trump other impacts is simply a variation of "Pascal's mugging." (See, Bostrom, Nick. "Pascal's mugging." Analysis 69, no. 3 (2009): 443-445. http://www.nickbostrom.com/papers/pascal.pdf.) Dividing infinite utility by a finite probability is a conceptually flawed approach, because it allows even the most absurd claims (e.g., the Wage Inflation DA) to receive infinite credence.
 
How can we eliminate the bad extinction arguments while retaining the worthwhile ones? The primary answer is surprisingly simple. Judges should be willing to seriously discount arguments for or against a policy whose thesis cannot be supported by any single author. These Frankenstein arguments, often cobbled together from unrelated newspaper clippings, account for the vast majority of the junk arguments in debate. Eliminating them is essentially an extension of the concept of solvency advocates, broadened to require advocates for DAs and advantages.

This minimum requirement for plausibility does not mean that every argument made in an op-ed piece or a white paper is true or even well thought out. But there is a certain plausibility threshold that a risk of extinction must overcome before any qualified author is willing to discuss it in print. For example, there are plenty of qualified authors who argue that we shouldn't deploy space weapons because that policy would result in extinction. But good luck finding someone who actually argues that reforming prisons will undermine Obama's political capital and thereby trigger global thermonuclear war.

The proposed standard is not a bright line, because that would be neither practical nor beneficial. Many credible authors will provide arguments for why an AFF will cause or prevent some obviously important impact, like global economic collapse or certain regional wars. If a team can provide legitimate evidence from another author that the specified impact would result in extinction, then the absence of an express extinction claim from the first author should be relatively unimportant. The alternative would be to reinforce the existing practice of hunting for those authors who make the most explicit extinction claims. This perversely causes teams to seek out and rely on hacks, because careful authors rarely throw around such bold proclamations.

Forcing teams to advance the arguments that are actually found in the literature would make policy debate less absurd to outsiders, who are right to roll their eyes at most of the positions that teams invent. And it would create a powerful incentive for debaters to truly engage the nuances of each topic instead of just trying to hunt for contrived links to the same cobbled together, generic arguments about extinction.

Given the very tangible effect that the federal government's actions have on all of us, irrespective of our skin color, I am unpersuaded by the argument that its policies are intrinsically of little interest to minorities. Even if someone feels that the federal government is an inherently untrustworthy or discriminatory entity, there is still tremendous educational value in engaging in switch-side debates regarding the viability and desirability of government action.

I had the pleasure of debating alongside and later coaching black, gay, native american, and ESL students. I'm in favor of increased minority participation because I'm in favor of increased access for all students. Policy debate is an amazing activity; everyone should have an opportunity to enjoy its benefits, irrespective of race or socioeconomic background. But it needs to be reformed, not destroyed.

Navigation

[0] Message Index