Evidence and Intellectual Honesty

I have recently decided that some evidence read in debates, while not being “unethical” as in cut out of context, cut in middle of paragraph, or totally fabricated, is still intellectually dishonest to read. I have certainly cut many cards that do the things I am about to list in the past, but I will from now on be discouraging my teams from reading them.

1. Hypotheticals- these are cards where an author says something like “collapse of the economy could have many ramifications, such as these 5 in particular”. They then go on to list from 1-5 in order of terribleness the things that could happen as a result of economic collapse. Usually when a debater reads this article they cut no 1 (the least bad) as impact defense, then cut no 5 (the worst) as an impact and move one.  Sometimes the author will also assign probabilities to things (with the worst case scenario often having the lowest probability), but even if they don’t I don’t think it is “honest” to cut a piece of evidence like this and tag it as if the author is making a causal claim- economic collapse –> worst case scenario.  I think people do this because they don’t think its as bad as cutting a straw person card, something along the lines of “while the author doesn’t think this is the MOST likely outcome, it is still a likely outcome, and since they don’t proceed to argue against this later (as they would with a straw person) it is acceptable to cut as a card.” The reason I think this is unacceptable is that while the other team could respond with the card that says “this is unlikely” it is obviously impossible to have these cards ahead of time for every possible impact. The only way teams get them is when an impact card rises to a level of sufficient popularity that it is well known and people look into it. These sort of “surprise” strategies (like terrible 1 round affs) I am conflicted about – I don’t really take the extreme Roy Levkovitz position that they are awful for the activity, but I am certainly moving in that direction.

2. Misrepresenting internal links- The example of this that sticks out most in my mind from this summer is the broadband aff’s answers to the states cp. The plan would be like “provide poor people broadband” and the neg would say “the states can do that”. The aff would then respond with a slew of cards about why the federal government was the best at doing XYZ, none of which were the plan. Instead XYZ would be things related to the advantage, like “the USFG best responds to bioterror” or “only the USFG can can coordinate something that isn’t the plan” etc. I have a few thoughts about this

-I feel this is less bad then the example above becuase here the negative could definitely read the affs card ( and in most cases the un-underlined parts of it) and figure out that the aff is pulling a fast one. However, this does require the neg to know a little bit about what the aff does, and to be pretty smart. I don’t think those are “unreasonable” requirements, and in a college elim I would have no qualms voting against the neg for not being able to do that. But in a HS debate between a couple of sophomores who are new to the activity, trying to balance debate with academics and a sport etc and just aren’t that used to picking things apart logically, I think this is a lot bigger problem when the aff does it.

-The states CP is ridiculous- I acknowledge this sometimes requires the aff to push the boundaries when researching answers. The pressures created by absurd counterplans often force the aff to do absurd things. I guess I am starting to feel like the remedy should just be calling out shenanigans and not re-raising with shenanigans of your own. Another good example of this is like spark/wipeout- nuclear war good and extinction good- killer arguments. In order to respond to them , however, most affs get pushed into reading ridiculous crap instead of just saying “this is stupid,these authors are clinically insane” and moving on. I don’t know if its the cult of offense defense or if its that there are so many weirdos in debate for which arguments like these push their buttons in the right way because they are exciting and out there, but it would certainly be difficult to explain to someone in the administration or outside of debate why these things have a place in the activity that is allegedly founded on reasonable arguments. I know I know I’m starting to sound like one of those old fogies in the judges lounge complaining about modern debate, but I think that modern debate is obviously better than older crappier debate and this kind of crap makes it harder to intellectually defend.

-Interpretation- I realize there is no objective authority on whether or not there is an internal link and if there was one it would probably not be me. There is clearly not a black and white dividing line here. I don’t really know how to establish a standard or guideline that would make sense so this may be a useless rant. I do know that whether the states or fg provide you with the cables for broadband does not determine who responds to a bioterror attack.

3. Cards that do not actually say extinction – when I was in highschool there was not this fixation with extinction that there is now. Winning your impact was nuke war was generally good enough. I think this is around the same time the “timeframe probability magnitude” mantra got started up (although this may have been prominent in college and the HS national circuit before I had any exposure to it). Somehow this magnitude thing just pushed us over the edge into absurdity. Mead in 92, Kzhad 95, etc etc do not make extinction claims. Thats not a bad thing- certainly a global nuclear exchange is still going to ruin the average persons day. But the proliferation of things like Alexander 03 and other cards that say like “destroy civilization” or “damage the systems that sustain life” (which also, for the record, do not say x causes extinction) have put pressure on people to trump up already weak impact claims into extinction. Lets get a few things straight

-there are few, if any, things that would actually kill every single person on the planet

-comparing an impact that kills everyone vs one that kills all but 2 is an exercise in futility and extremely stupid. This may be an exaggeration but it is close to what happens in many debates.

-it is much more important to focus on the probability of your impact than on the absurd magnitude unless the other side is not making any defensive arguments against it.

-the “disad” turns the case is different than “war” turns the case- what i mean is this: if you read the cap and trade good politics disad and the aff has an economy scenario, it is a good idea to say “cap and trade is key to the economy”, that turns the case. This is good because if you lose your original impact or have it mitigated you can have another backup impact argument to go with it. Saying “war hurts the economy” is useless- it presupposes you have already won 100% of your war impact- if that is true you are probably going to win anyway because nuclear war is bad. So the first argument has utility- as a backup plan. The 2nd argument is borderline useless. The second argument has come to prominence I think from when then the 2 teams are arguing totally disparate impacts, like say the aff says disease and the neg says war. If the aff says “war doesn’t cause extinction/escalate”- then it is useful to say “war causes disease”- that is a good argument to make. However, when the aff reads X internal link to Y random war scenario, saying “war causes Y” is stupid, because the impact to Y is war. So you have effectively said “War is bad, because the impact is war”.

3 thoughts on “Evidence and Intellectual Honesty

  1. gulakov

    SP, why do you feel that “comparing an impact that kills everyone vs one that kills all but 2 is an exercise in futility and extremely stupid”? It seems like there are some smart people that consider it an important topic.

    Take this card from Carl Sagan:

    Some have argued that the difference between the deaths of several hundred million people in a nuclear war (as has been thought until recently to be a reasonable upper limit) and the death of every person on Earth (as now seems possible) is only a matter of one order of magnitude. For me, the difference is considerably greater. Restricting our attention only to those who die as a consequence of the war conceals its full impact. If we are required to calibrate extinction in numerical terms, I would be sure to include the number of people in future generations who would not be born. A nuclear war imperils all of our descendants, for as long as there will be humans. Even if the population remains static, with an average lifetime of the order of 100 years, over a typical time period for the biological evolution of a successful species (roughly ten million years), we are talking about some 500 trillion people yet to come. By this criterion, the stakes are one million times greater for extinction than for the more modest nuclear wars that kill “only” hundreds of millions of people. There are many other possible measures of the potential loss—including culture and science, the evolutionary history of the planet, and the significance of the lives of all of our ancestors who contributed to the future of their descendants. Extinction is the undoing of the human enterprise.

    Or this card from Parfit (fellow at Oxford, Professor at Harvard and NYU):

    I believe that if we destroy mankind, as we now can, this outcome will be much worse than most people think. Compare three outcomes: 1. Peace 2. A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population 3. A nuclear war that kills 100% 2 would be worse than 1, and 3 would be worse than 2. Which is the greater of these two differences? Most people believe that the greater difference is between 1 and 2. I believe that the difference between 2 and 3 is very much greater . …The Earth will remain habitable for at least another billion years. Civilization began only a few thousand years ago. If we do not destroy mankind, these thousand years may be only a tiny fraction of the whole of civilized human history. The difference between 2 and 3 may thus be the difference between this tiny fraction and all of the rest of this history. If we compare this possible history to a day, what has occurred so far is only a fraction of a second.

  2. Scott Phillips


    That sentence probably requires more explanation than I gave it. What I am trying to get at is that it is probably more important to debate the likelihood of the 2 impacts than it is to debate trivial differences between the 2. For example when teams each read a vague laundry list style impact (like say mead 92 vs spicer 96) debating the magnitude of each is almost useless. Saying all dead vs all but 2 dead was an exaggeration, but what I was trying to get at was trying to argue Mead 92’s nuke war kills more than spicer 96’s nuke war is not a great debate, and instead debaters should focus on the probability of each of these impacts instead. The cards you posted make an obvious argument “dead people can’t reproduce”. I find these obligation to future generations style of arguments to combine with absurd extinction impacts and warp seriously the way debate is resolved. I guess the classic example of this is like, neg drops aff heg adv with regional nuclear wars and just goes for the space politics disad with a 2nr like “an asteroid will hit the earth at some point, so even though we dropped their advantage we gotta get off the rock future generations etc”. This line of reasoning may appeal to Sagan, they don’t to me. Obviously there is a place for these style of arguments- if both teams were winning a comparable risk of their impacts, and one side had a small impact and the other had a reasonable extinction impact then that would be a good place for them. But in that instance, it probably isn’t necessary to read them. I guess I am annoyed by the recent trend where each team tries to prove only they have access to an “existential impact” and therefore should auto win because it distracts too much focus from other, in my opinion more important, parts of the debate.

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