Impact Description vs. Impact Comparison: A Better Way To Teach Impact Debating

Imagine that you’re in the market for a new car. You’re looking for a crossover, so you head to a Ford dealership and talk to a salesperson about a new Escape. She tells you that the Escape is a great car because it has great fuel economy, tons of interior space and leg room, and a powerful engine. It’s a pretty good sales pitch, but you want to be diligent and so you visit the nearby Honda dealership to check out a new CR-V. The salesperson tells you that the CR-V is a great car because it is extremely reliable, comes backed with an exceptional warranty, and gets great highway mileage. It’s another pretty good sales pitch. Wanting to make the right decision, you head back to the Ford dealership and ask the salesperson why you should buy the Escape instead of the CR-V. She reiterates that the Escape has great fuel economy, tons of interior space and leg room, and a powerful engine. But you already knew that; you want to know why the Escape is better than the CR-V. Disappointed, you return to the Honda dealership and ask the salesperson why you should buy the CR-V instead of the Escape. He reiterates that the CR-V is extremely reliable, comes backed with an exceptional warranty, and gets great highway mileage. Again, you are disappointed. You already knew that the CR-V was a good car, but you wanted to know why the CR-V was better than the Escape. Frustrated, you head home to read online reviews of the two models. While the sales associates did a good job of highlighting some of the best features of their respective models, they didn’t help you make the decision about which car to buy. For that, you were on your own.

The position you were left in is the same one that many judges are left in by debaters. Most students learn early in their careers that impact comparison wins debates. Judges love impact comparison because it helps them make decisions about the relative importance of different parts of a debate. As a judge, it is frustratingly difficult to make sense of debates without impact comparison. But much of what debaters consider impact comparison is really impact description. Instead of comparing the relative importance of each side’s impacts, debaters present sales pitches for their own impacts. While this is better than nothing, it outsources responsibility for comparison to the judge. Left with two competing sales pitches, they are on their own to decide which pitch is more believable. In the same way that good car salespersons convince potential buyers that their car is a better choice than their competitor’s car, good debaters convince judges that voting for their impact narrative is a better choice than voting for their opponent’s impact narrative. This requires comparison, not just description.

When teaching students how to debate impacts, one of the most common instructional techniques is the impact tournament. Students choose (or are assigned) an impact (typically supported by a single piece of evidence) and are slotted into a single elimination bracket. They debate one another in a back-and-forth format with relatively short speech times. The instructor or the rest of the peer group votes to select the winner and s/he moves to the next round. Students tend to enjoy impact tournaments.

While the impact tournament can be both productive and fun, it encourages some annoying tendencies. By abstracting the impact from the internal link chain from which it stems, these debates teach students to think of impacts as a discrete sphere of comparison. Is nuclear war “bigger” than global warming? Is pandemic disease more probable than deforestation? Is global poverty “faster” than U.S.-Sino war? Does economic decline hurt the environment more than environmental destruction hurts the economy? These kinds of questions can be interesting but they don’t simulate realistic decision-making situations. Judges rarely decide whether one impact in the abstract is bigger or faster or more probable than another. Instead, they decide whether one side’s relative risk is greater than the other’s. This is a much more complicated comparison that requires more sophisticated assessments than are possible in an impact tournament.

The other problem with the way that impact comparison is typically taught is that it is too reliant on simplifying jargon. Novice debaters are told that impact comparison means comparing magnitude, probability, and timeframe. While these concepts can be useful, they shouldn’t be treated like a checklist. And they shouldn’t be applied only to the “terminal impact” of a particular advantage or disadvantage. Teaching students to debate impacts in this way leads to silly rebuttal overviews:

Our disadvantage outweighs and turns the case. Subpoint A: Magnitude — nuclear war is bigger than warming because it causes extinction and warming doesn’t. Subpoint B: Probability — nuclear war is more probable than warming because great powers have their weapons on high alert and could launch them at any time, but predictions about warming aren’t reliable because the science isn’t settled. Subpoint C: Timeframe — nuclear war happens faster than global warming because it happens immediately whereas warming will take centuries. Subpoint D: Turns Case — nuclear war causes warming because of nuclear winter, and we can’t do the plan if we’re fighting a nuclear war and we can only die once.

This is a common blueprint for rebuttal overviews. Even if we set aside the weakness of the arguments themselves, the larger problem is that this “comparison” leaves undiscussed the internal links that arguably result in nuclear war or global warming. The way that impact comparison is typically taught would advise students to use this impact overview regardless of each side’s respective internal link chains. But consider two hypothetical ways that the affirmative would attempt to access global warming and the negative nuclear war:

1. The plan adopts a robust cap-and-trade system in the United States. The affirmative argues that this would be modeled globally, especially by China and India. They argue that this would dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, substantially slowing the rate of warming. The negative argues that enacting a cap-and-trade system would hurt the semiconductor industry in the United States and that the semiconductor industry is important because it provides components that the U.S. military uses in its nuclear arsenal. They argue that without nuclear deterrence, nuclear war is likely.

2. The plan deploys military icebreakers to the Arctic in an effort to contain Russia. The affirmative argues that icebreakers are helpful for scientific missions that investigate polar ice melting and that scientific information about polar ice melting is helpful in understanding and potentially slowing global warming. The negative argues that an aggressive Arctic containment strategy would back Russia into a corner, increasing the risk of tit-for-tat aggression and miscalculation that could escalate to nuclear war.

In the first example, the affirmative seems to have a relatively strong solvency claim for global warming while the negative seems to have a relatively tenuous internal link to nuclear war. In the second example, the affirmative seems to have a relatively tenuous solvency claim for global warming while the negative seems to have a relatively strong internal link to nuclear war. The impact comparisons in the first debate should be substantially different than the impact comparisons in the second debate, but most students would debate them as if they were the same.

It is understandable that students gravitate toward these abstract impact descriptions. It is much easier to use these universal scripts and to debate the impact as if it was a compartmentalized part of the debate than it is to present sophisticated comparisons of each side’s overall position. In the same way that it is easier for the car salesperson to remind the potential buyer of a notable feature than it is to explain why that feature makes the car better than a competing option, it is easier for a debater to remind the judge of a notable impact feature than to explain why that impact feature makes their overall position better than their opponent’s position. But car buyers and debate judges don’t make abstract decisions about features; they make highly contextual decisions about the relative importance of competing features.

Returning to the Escape vs. CR-V example, a buyer doesn’t decide that fuel economy outweighs leg room and then make their purchase based on that factor alone. How much better is one car’s fuel economy versus the other’s? How much more leg room does one car have versus the other? What about reliability, extended warranties, performance, storage space, overall cost, etc.? The decision might ultimately come down to something as specific as “fuel economy versus leg room,” but this is a very nuanced comparison. What is more important: the Escape’s 1.8 inches of extra leg room or the CR-V’s one mile per gallon more of overall fuel economy? Arguments about the importance of leg room or fuel economy in the abstract are unhelpful when making this decision. But the typical model of impact comparison trains students to use abstract descriptions instead of specific comparisons. This leaves judges to do the hard work — and leaves debaters disappointed in the outcome.

While there is certainly some value in the impact tournament as a teaching tool, I suggest a different way of teaching impact comparison. Instead of using debate impacts and debate jargon, this exercise presents students with difficult “real world” decisions and challenges them to present and defend their positions about the best course of action to take. The following two examples effectively illustrate the spirit of the exercise:

Hypothetical #1: Amy lives in Atlanta and is a high school senior. She was admitted to Georgia State University in Atlanta and has been planning to enroll there next fall. However, she was just informed that she has also been admitted to Georgetown University. If she attends Georgia State, she will be able to live at home and finish college with relatively little debt. If she attends Georgetown, she will incur substantial debts from the loans she would need to take out to pay for it. She likes Georgia State but she loves Georgetown. She doesn’t know exactly what she wants to study yet, but she thinks it will be a social science of some kind. What should Amy decide to do?

Hypothetical #2: James has gotten himself into a scheduling pickle. When his close friend Rose asked him to accompany her to a banquet in which she would be recognized for an award, he instantly said yes. Unfortunately, he did so without looking at his calendar and later realized that the banquet was at the same time as his mother’s birthday party, an event to which he had also committed. He doesn’t know what to do. On the one hand, accompanying Rose to her banquet is important to him. Rose is a close friend and he knows she feels sad about attending the banquet alone — she has just moved from another city on the other side of the country and her family isn’t able to make it to see her accomplishments celebrated. On the other hand, his mom’s birthday party is a big deal in his family. An annual event, it brings together relatives from several states and is very meaningful to his mom. As an only child, James feels especially obligated to attend the party so that he doesn’t hurt his mother’s feelings. What should James decide to do?

Students are given a hypothetical and asked to prepare a well-explained response. After a few minutes of preparation time, one student is selected to share their answer with the group. The response should be time-constrained; 30 or 45 seconds works well. The other students listen and flow the first student’s response and are then given time to prepare a rebuttal. Another student is selected to share their (contradictory) answer with the group. This process continues until the discussion has played out. The instructor should use the time between speeches to highlight effective comparisons, challenge unsupported premises, tease potential responses, and encourage disagreement. When students ask for more details about the hypothetical, the instructor should explain that this is all that is known about the situation. When students are frustrated with this response, the instructor should agree and note that judges often feel similarly frustrated about the lack of important details in debaters’ impact narratives. At the conclusion of the back-and-forth speeches, all students should be asked to prepare a one minute “final rebuttal” in which they explain their final answer to the question. The goal of this rebuttal is to clearly communicate one’s position while accounting for each of the arguments raised during the exercise. A few students should be selected to deliver their rebuttals in front of the group. Finally, the instructor should lead a group discussion about the debate-relevant takeaways from this activity.

This exercise is useful for everyone from beginners to advanced debaters. For beginners, it teaches a model of impact comparison that builds on their intuitive understanding of relative risk and comparative assessment. For advanced students, it deprives them of the jargon and canned impact descriptions on which they typically rely. For all students, it highlights the difficulty of making good decisions, challenges them to compare rather than describe, and trains them to use plain language instead of jargon. It is also very extensible: the format can be modified for different age groups, class sizes, and time blocks. Cross-examination can be added. And students can use this activity on their own by debating these prompts with their teammates.

Impact comparison is distinct from impact description. Unfortunately, the way that impact debating is traditionally taught encourages students to describe impacts rather than compare them. This can be remedied by approaching the teaching of impact comparison differently. Instead of an abstract and universal set of rehearsed scripts, impact comparison should be framed as the process of helping judges make difficult decisions about relative risks. This will dramatically improve impact debating regardless of argument genre or debate format.

One thought on “Impact Description vs. Impact Comparison: A Better Way To Teach Impact Debating

  1. Faber

    Another advantage of this format that you didn’t specifically highlight is that it forces the students to argue from both sides contemporaneously. Thanks!

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