Sunday, 21 September 2014

Knowledge Basics - Learning for debating and how to win when you know nothing

This is part of a series of introductory articles. Where I try to explain basic concepts of debating.

This post is based on some of my teaching notes and aims to briefly introduce the basic usage of knowledge in competitive debating.

The first thing is try to know stuff.
Read broadly about current issues, so that you have a general understanding of topics that are likely to come up in debates and the general state of the world (this is probably good in an abstract engaged citizen sense, but winning debates adds some self interest).

CC attribution Michael Casey
You are not looking for 'facts.'

I often say that facts don't win debate but that's a simplification. The ability to quote the GDP of Angola on demand, while impressive, won't win you a debate.There a few things you need a basic understanding of to do debates about them, e.g. in debates about the EU its useful to know the distinctions between the EU, the European Convention on human rights, etc.

In general what you should be looking for are general concepts and arguments you can extract from articles about a specific topic and apply to a lot of different debates. For example if I'm reading an article about Zimbabwe, I am unlikely to get a debate specifically from that, but I can look at things like how a dictator retains power, refugee crises, etc. which I can then apply to other debates. The general idea is to be able to make plausible stories and characterisations of how people and countries will behave in particular situations.

Examples can be useful as a way of illustrating a point, but don't depend on them. People often use them in place of an argument, without analysing the general point or explaining how its relevant to the particular debate you are having.

When you know nothing extrapolate from the motion, you can probably tell a lot about the important arguments by the wording of the motion and the mere fact that it has been set.

E.g. if the motion is “This house supports the independence of Republika Srbska” and you've never heard of it, you can assume a few things just of the bat. There is a place with that name which is not currently independent. The fact this motion is being set at all means that some people there want it to be independent, and some people don't. You can then run some standard arguments about tensions etc. There is probably a central government who doesn't want it to be independent for the normal reasons, so if it becomes independent this government may react badly, and harm them economically or militarily. You can also make a few educated guesses from the name, it is probably somewhere in eastern europe, so you can make a few guesses about the nature of the government (probably democratic but not amazingly so) and international issues (Russia is nearby).

Debating judges are not supposed to use external knowledge when judging debates. But evaluate how well explained or plausible a point is. If you say something truly absurd (Sweden is run by Viking warlords...) they don't have to believe that, but if a judge happens to have written their Ph.D. thesis on the politics of Syria, they shouldn't punish you for not knowing as much as them.In theory they should judge by the knowledge level of an average reasonable voter. 

Oddly, often when people know a lot about a specific topic they argue it worse than people who know absolutely nothing. As they will start with a set of preconceptions about what is important in the topic, or will have particular issues they want to discuss and not talk about the simple important things that the judges need to be told (“Here's why this is a good thing....”). For example my former colleagues at St Andrews learned that they could bait me into going off on tangents about Philosophical issues I found interesting, rather than discussing what is important in that debate. 


  1. Nice blog John! Really appreciate your concise articles and POVs as a veteran debater. Will keep these basics in mind when I run into a debate.

  2. Thank-you so much. Helped me a lot. Thank-you so much.