Adam Rawnsley broke a story today at The Daily Beast that should prompt serious reflection by debaters and debate coaches. It highlights a disturbing trend in the information ecosystems we depend on for the evidence that shapes our debates. In light of these revelations, it’s important for debate teachers and coaches to individually and collectively revisit our norms about what constitutes “credible evidence.”
So, what’s going on? Titled “Right-Wing Media Outlets Duped by a Middle East Propaganda Campaign,” Rawnsley’s article reveals a sophisticated conspiracy by an unknown actor that included “a network of at least 19 fake personas that has spent the past year placing more than 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications. The articles heaped praise on the United Arab Emirates and advocated for a tougher approach to Qatar, Turkey, Iran and its proxy groups in Iraq and Lebanon.”
The type of articles that this network publishes are exactly what debaters are often looking for: relatively short, direct, strongly-worded works of political advocacy from apparently-qualified expert commentators. The authors seem real: they have photos, Twitter accounts, and bios, and most have been published in legitimate (sometimes even well-respected) news sources. If you were to come across one of these articles while doing debate research, you would have no qualms about cutting it. I know, because I unwittingly cut at least one article from this network. I’m sure others have, too.
One of the most intriguing things about the surveillance topic is that there are a relatively small number of experts on this subject area. Because the Snowden revelations are only a few years old and new information about NSA programs continues to surface, diligent (and ongoing) research is required to stay up-to-date and well-informed. To understand these complicated issues also requires competency in a wide range of disciplines—including a background in information technology and the Internet, constitutional law, and security policy.
While preparing for this topic, debaters have the opportunity to become true subject area experts with wide-ranging and thorough knowledge of the NSA’s surveillance programs, the legal challenges being mounted against them, and the breadth of policy and legal arguments marshaled for and against them in Congress and the courts. To fully participate in an informed democratic debate about surveillance policy, citizens need deep content knowledge about the issues involved. Thankfully, the opportunity to become a citizen-expert in NSA surveillance policies is open to any debater willing to invest the time and effort to do so.
But how? Where should one start? Below the fold, a five-step guide is offered to help students dive in to the NSA surveillance debate. Working through this material won’t be easy, of course. But for the dedicated student, following this blueprint will provide the deep background knowledge needed to fully delve into the intimidatingly broad and complex surveillance policy literature base.
Like podcasts, Twitter is an excellent indirect research tool for debaters. While tweets should rarely if ever be directly quoted as evidence in contest rounds, Twitter can be used as an important part of a student’s overall research process. By finding the right accounts to follow, debaters can leverage experts to guide their research for them by drawing attention to important events (like court decisions or congressional hearings), linking to insightful content (books, articles, interviews, videos, podcasts, etc.), and engaging in a continuous, interactive commentary about topic-related issues. For the surveillance topic, there are many “must follow” accounts that will greatly aid students in their preparation. Below the fold is a list of fifteen Twitter users debaters should follow for surveillance-related content.
Debaters in the current generation have access to a staggering array of information. As preparation begins for next year’s surveillance topic, one underexploited resource available to debaters is the podcast. Because domestic surveillance has been part of the national conversation for several years, there are many useful podcast episodes dedicated to topics that students will be debating next fall. This article will offer suggestions for how to use podcasts as part of a student’s debate preparation. It will also provide an introductory list of links to helpful episodes about the surveillance topic.
There are many factors that go into how you should prep for the beginning of the year: the size of your squad, how much time you have, what tournament you are going to etc. For the purpose of this series I will assume the following:
1. Your squad has 2-4 people (coaches or debaters) who can reliably be counted on to produce useful debate work
2. You will be making your debut at Greenhill or a similar large TOC tournament
3. You have a decent chance of making it to the doubles (4-2 record or better)
This is a pretty funny exchange between a debater trying to find author quals and an author pretty reasonably responding to their rudeness.
It reminded me of this classic when a debater emailed a think tank leader to ask if they had published a good card just to affect the outcome of a debate tournament. The responses from Friedman are pretty hilarious, and imo pretty dead on.
Main topic authors are often bombarded with emails from debaters/coaches. Most often they are emailed questions that could be answered with 5 seconds of googling, and often the emails are in the form of a demand, not a polite request. I have emailed many authors and so I offer some general tips for what you should do
1. Be polite.
2. Don’t say you are a debater- they don’t care. Also if you say you are a debater and then be a moron you are tainting the rep of every debater who follows you.
3. Write an intelligent email. Emailing someone and saying “you give realism cites plz? kthanxbai” is not likely to get a good response because who wants to respond to a moron. Use proper English/spelling/punctuation (in other words do as I say not as I do)
4. Explain why you are emailing them specifically-i.e. “I am emailing you after reading your article about platypus extinction in the International Journal of Platypai…”
5. Their time is valuable. If you can form questions that have short, direct, easy answers to give they are more likely to respond. If you ask an IR prof to teach their class to you through email, they are less likely to respond.
There are many reasons politics is a popular disad on every topic, one of them is that it is generally a quick way to get to nuke war. No matter what the issue is, if its on the presidents agenda its a safe bet there will be people making hyperbolic statements about it. While most disads/advantages are always exaggerations, the impact evidence selected to read for politics is generally some of the worst.
That the evidence is bad, and more specifically that it is often biased, is an issue frequently brought up, less frequently focused on, and even less frequently a round winning issue. It should be.
I’m somewhat baffled by many of the debates I see lately (as well as with the decisions of other judges when I listen to them) with the strange focus on terminal impacts, both in what percentage of time is spent debating them, and then even after a lot of time is spent arguing defense to them with how large of a “risk” judges assign them. Especially with people who I have had conversations with about how to debate or adjudicate impacts who when they are then in a debate seem to disregard/not employ the views they had previously expressed.
So below the break are some thoughts on what is going wrong in these debates and in the deciding of said debates.
An interesting real world discussion over a recent op ed recommending Obama announce he will not seek re-election in order to foster bipartisanship.
This was less of a problem in the bad old days, when powerful gatekeepers to the opinion industry weeded out the non-mainstream viewpoints. Of course, the best and the brightest of the mainstream had some galactically stupid ideas too. I’m not suggesting we return to that world — it’s neither possible nor desirable.
When it comes to policy debates I’m always on the side of John Stuart Mill — the best way to deal with stupid arguments is to counter them with better arguments in the public sphere. That said, there’s a serious cost to this philosophy in a world in which the stupid ideas can command the policy agenda. The opportunity cost to the inordinate amount of time that is spent swatting away these ideas is that less time is spent debating policies and ideas that have a real chance of being enacted. Furthermore, sometimes the dumbass idea just goes into hibernation among a few die-hard believers until a propitious moment arises for its zombie revival.
In the end, I think Mill still carries the day. Still, every once in a while, it sure would be nice not to have to waste the energy and the attention on stupid policy ideas.
One of the topics that was discussed in the first podcast episode of season two was the quality (or lack thereof) of most terrorism impacts. As if on cue, Charles V. Peña of The Independent Institute has written an excellent new article about the relative impact of terrorism — a card from the article is below the fold.