New Affirmatives and Source Credibility

In the first post on his blog (which finally inspired the creation of, an idea that had been milling around for a while), Roy criticizes the recent trend toward breaking many poor-quality new affirmatives at the end-of-the-year national championships. He concludes:

I … hope … everyone agrees that it is becoming increasingly more common for affirmatives to be afraid of defending their “house.” We do a disservice to the debaters and the quality of the debate if we allow this to continue. If you are a coach challenge your kids to find the best possible aff and learn everything about it. If you are a student, work hard, debate is most satisfying not just when you win but when your pour your heart out defending something and the work you’ve done translates into overall success. Judges, be willing to disregard bad evidence, be sympathetic to good smart arguments made by a team even if not evidenced. Winning is obviously an important function of debate, but if debate becomes a race to the bottom of crappy affirmatives what is the point? We change topics yearly to learn about different arguments and issues, why then do some of the most important rounds and major tournaments ultimately get decided on generics that can be read year round vs unsustainable new affs?

I agree 100%. One thing that I feel is important to add is that teams are far too afraid of negative teams finding the silver bullet negative strategy, especially at a tournament like the TOC where hired gun researchers are given way too much respect in terms of their ability to change the game. If you have been read an affirmative before and you are confident that it is based on sound arguments and quality evidence, chances are good that other squads have spent some time researching it, too. Between your research and theirs, it seems exceedingly likely that the “silver bullet” strategy would have been uncovered if it did indeed exist. If you haven’t found it and you haven’t heard another team read it, the most likely reason is not because the collective research ability of the high school community is poor but because no such strategy exists.

What is the silver bullet strategy against an RPS affirmative? Is there really something written that Sovacool and the other aff authors just haven’t thought about and therefore haven’t written a response to? If you read the journals every month and subscribe to RSS feeds for the major search terms relevant to your case, do you really think you’re going to miss the big new thing that came out and which the negative will catch you unprepared for?

The only reason to be afraid is because you lack confidence in the quality of your preparation. Maybe you haven’t kept up with the journals and you haven’t read all of the latest articles about your case. If that’s true, then you don’t deserve to win affirmative debates against negative teams that have worked hard to prepare to engage your case… maybe you should be reading stupid new affs that the other team will be unprepared to debate. But that is the debate equivalent of the trick play and an explicit admission that you are not as good as your opponents and that they have outworked you. If that’s an admission you’re willing to make, then so be it. But every team should strive to be the most prepared team possible when it comes to their affirmative(s), and you should feel a sense of shame and disappointment with yourself if you don’t think that’s the case.

This is decidedly not an argument “against” new affirmatives. There are times when it makes sense to try to catch the opposition off-guard with a case that you haven’t read before, and sometimes it even makes sense to read a new affirmative only once based on the teams that you are debating. But breaking new affirmatives that lack the credibility to survive even minimal negative research is an unfortunate but growing trend. If season-ending championship tournaments become battles between terrible new affirmatives and generic critiques and process counterplans, what does that say about our activity? Instead of pushing our students to become experts in the issues that they discuss throughout the season, it seems in many ways that we are telling them to forget what they’ve learned because, as critics say about Billy Beane, “that [stuff] doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

The obvious rejoinder to this line of reasoning is that the poor quality of these new affirmatives should make it easy for the negative to win. While I agree with this principle in the abstract, it doesn’t seem to play out that way in practice because of the approach that a majority of judges take. As Roy argues:

Debaters are not good at calling people out for reading bad evidence and judges have become too comfortable saying “Yeah well I agree it might not be qualified, it might be from a random blog, but I mean they’ve got a card.” It used to be only at the NDT in college that judges would use the “well they have a card” guise for making decisions, but this has now reverberated to almost every debate judged. We’re told not to believe everything we read on the internet, but it seems like in debate rounds a place for intellectual discussion on issues we often settle for evidence from people who are less qualified then the kids debating on the issue. Debaters CALL OUT TEAMS FOR BAD EVIDENCE read. Judges BE WILLING TO SAY THAT DESPITE HAVING A CITE, TAG, AND URL, THE TEXT READ IS NOT EVIDENCE.

I’m probably one of the best judges one could find for these kinds of approaches/arguments (“their ev is garbage,” “this doesn’t make sense,” “prefer qualified academic scholarship,” etc.), and I constantly tell students that they would be rewarded if they were more diligent about taking this kind of approach. Even “mainstream” cases (e.g. not stuff about alien invasions of Iraq to steal antigravity technology) often contain “evidence” that I would gladly disregard out of hand if only the negative challenged it. The Bearden card? If the neg says “he is unqualified, he said it is already too late, and he said that our only hope is zero point energy,” then it goes away. “Still evaluate his warrants” is stupid in the worst sense of that word and an excuse for judges to avoid making judgments (which, of course, is the function of the judge) about what counts as evidence and what sources should be relied upon when crafting policy.

Debaters would be pleasantly surprised by the reception they would receive if they made a bigger deal out of source quality in their debates. While there is certainly a segment of the judging pool that adheres to the “but they’ve got a card” school, I do not think that it is the majority (or even close to it). In front of most judges, arguments about source quality and author credibility will receive a very favorable listening—in many cases, you will be preaching to the proverbial choir. Remember, judges are the ones who have to listen to terrible evidence over-and-over again. After not very long, it gets old. Take advantage of that and challenge your opponents to justify the evaluation of the things they submit as “evidence” and you will win a lot more debates.

4 thoughts on “New Affirmatives and Source Credibility

  1. Rajesh

    I think new affs have their merits.

    There are two main points in this article

    First, that new affs give perverse incentives to not defend your house and rather try to out squirrel teams.

    This isn’t entirely true–maintaining a solid amount of aff work on your core aff is still a MUST if you write a few bad affs.

    The reason is two-fold; first, even if you have two new one-rounder affs (which is pretty generous at tournaments that aren’t the TOC/NDCA), those have to get you through 5+ aff rounds assuming you are in elims. Chances are even in big rounds you will have to defend your aff regardless, meaning the additional aff research you do for new affs is not a replacement, but rather a supplement for other work.

    Second, sometimes circumstances don’t lend themselves to breaking a new aff. At the TOC we had three aff prelims and an elim where we could have broken a new aff, but the circumstances (teams were more prone to go for the K, but could have a substantive strat + judges) meant we still read SPS. Meaning, if before the tournament, we just banked on SPS for one round and a new aff each round afterward we would have been screwed.

    Aside from that, cutting new affs isn’t too easy. Even one rounders require da, cp, t blocks, 1AC’s, requisite impact work, etc. Which, when all added together, probably require more time to do than, say, read the 10 SPS articles that came out in April.

    The second point is that new affs have bad evidence and are bad for debate

    I’ll spot you that these affs CURRENTLY are pretty mediocre on ev quality. BUT, i do think new affs are going to follow the trend that debate arguments tend to follow. I.e. initially its super strategic to make ludicrous claims (the K, or conditions CP, or offsets) but once the other side becomes wise to your tricks it becomes harder and harder to pull off (number of rounds being won on no v2l = way lower than last year). In this case, while i do think its strategic/bad for education that ev quality is so low for these affs, as soon as debaters start calling affs out the quality will be forced to rise and that problem will be solved. Put simply, in time this will no longer be a problem.

    Second, even if the quality of the evidence is lower, new affs test a different part of negative strategy. It’s pretty easy, for the most part unless you are hitting BG and have no idea what is going on regardless, to enter a round with a pre-made strategy and execute. It’s far more difficult to think on your feet, pull together some generics + specifics, have foresight to the 2NR, and think about what the aff isn’t ready to go on. As such, i feel like new affs open venues for critical thinking that aren’t really given to negative teams for the most part with pre-disclosed affs, and though they may not increase ‘topic education’ per se, the increase in this sort of strategic thinking is pretty worth it / fun.

    All in all I agree there is a problem with proliferation of new affs, I don’t think thats a reason to count them out as a net-negative for debate. And thats coming from the guy who lost two elims to the same team on new affs..

  2. Brian Manuel

    I agree with Rajesh – I was asked / criticized I’d have to say 3-4 times over TOC weekend. The question asked was – did you really only have 1 and maybe 2 affirmatives ready for the TOC?? My answer to this was clearly…yes…why?

    We entered the TOC with a new SPS affirmative and also a brand new Cap and Trade affirmative, with a spin to it that had yet to be read. We also had a one time affirmative that was still being finished during the tournament and would have been ready if we needed it.

    However, I was extremely confident in the 2 affirmatives we were packing and didn’t feel it necessary to have 5-6 different affirmatives like some teams prepare. I think Scott wrote about this in his blog – but WHY would you read a one-trick pony affirmative at the TOC when there is a litany of generics that a negative can read to you which are hard to answer when you have a specialized aff with lots of work going into it. I think when you take this road you swing the “new aff” call over to the negative side.

    I could be wrong about all of this – but my coaching experience, especially after last years attempts at new affirmatives failed, leads me to believe that they aren’t always the strategic choice teams make them out to be.

    I do believe there is a strategic use for them – but these affs are clearly ones that a lot of hours have been put into, not just a one-time ordeal. I also agree with Scott and to some level Rajesh when they talk about the inevitable preparation put into the affs just to get, even the one-time affs, up to debate-ready. If you prepare first and foremost against the arsenal of neg generics and then prep out more specific strategies, I think it is possible to get a one-time aff ready in a number of hours. This is all without taking away focus from your main work that needs to be done.

  3. Layne Kirshon

    Bellarmine was badass b/c they read the same aff all year with one adv. They were better on every possible neg arg. New aff win pct at the TOC was piss-poor.

  4. Pingback: The 3NR » Nudging Evidence Analysis In The Right Direction: The Case For Reading Author Qualifications Aloud In High School Policy Debate

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