I was recently discussing with a friend whether or not competitive debating makes you better at figuring out what is actually true. This is an interesting question, because debating influences people in a variety of different ways. The most basic is that participating in debates, or preparing for them, teaches you a lot of facts about the world; I would know much less about international politics in particular were it not for debating. It also markedly improves your ability to notice flaws and fallacies in arguments, which obviously helps you avoid falling for them. This skill can extend too far, though: debaters can be very good at rebutting even very sensible arguments. In the American Parliamentary style of debate, the proposing team is allowed to choose and prepare in advance any motion which is not so blatantly, obviously true that it would be impossible to debate (e.g. “murder is bad”). A lot of proposition teams skirt quite close to that line—but even so, opposing teams win a majority of the time. Debaters can poke holes in essentially any argument.
To be fair, debaters are aware that the existence of convincing rebuttals doesn’t necessarily invalidate a claim. But motivated reasoning can be a powerful force, especially amongst intelligent people. This is particularly true when you’ve been trained to respond oppositionally to any claim that doesn’t support your current position. I can think of several cases where I’ve been able to ignore a nagging voice of doubt by quickly finding a plausible response that turned out to be incorrect. The social media filter bubbles that we all currently inhabit can amplify this effect by caching in your mind hundreds of examples engineered to be memorable and stoke outrage; to counter it, it’s more important than ever to genuinely consider opposing arguments rather than going to the automatic rebuttal mode that debating ingrains.
The other thing that debating (arguably) does is cultivate a non-empirical mindset. At the end of the debate, the question isn’t settled. There may be more clarity over exactly which factors might swing a conclusion one way or the other, but almost nobody ever bothers to go out and do that further research, or even fact-check claims made during the debate—despite the fact that it’s now easier to access such data than ever before. Of course if you asked debaters explicitly they’d be clear that empirical results are usually required to actually draw firm conclusions. But if you spend long enough thinking and arguing in a certain way, it’s difficult to imagine that it doesn’t carry over to your reasoning in general.
At this point I want to be a little speculative. I’m not sure whether the issues I discussed above can be addressed within anything resembling a traditional debate (I’d be interested to hear your comments on this). But let’s say that we want to design an entirely new form of debating which instilled the best possible habits of thought. What could it look like? It would need to be driven by empiricism, while still having room for conceptual analysis. It would still be fun and competitive, but debates would also build up the sort of knowledge which could actually help drive decisions. Domain-specific knowledge would be helpful but not essential.
This was in the back of my mind when I read about two very interesting studies. The first was by researchers at Uber: they calculated the willingness of consumers to pay for Uber rides by comparing times when the calculated surge index was very similar, but the actual surge price was different, e.g. 2.24 vs 2.25, rounded to 2x and 2.5x price increases respectively. The study was heavily criticised for equating willingness to pay increased surge prices with overall “consumer surplus” created by Uber, but the initial methodology was still quite clever. The second studied Italy, which is apparently the bank robbery capital of Europe. Researchers analysed the relationship between duration of robberies, amount stolen, probability of being caught and prison sentence. Their hope was that there would be some consistent tradeoff between the expected gain and expected punishment; it turned out that more capable robbers behaved as if they assigned higher disutility to prison time than less capable ones. This sort of creative approach to answering important questions is something we sorely need more of; let’s consider a new form of debating, neodebating, which is aimed at encouraging it.
The core ideas underlying neodebating would be that, instead of debating about what is true, we could debate about how to find out what is true; and instead of debating what the effects of a certain policy would be, we could debate which policy would best create certain effects. In some debates this would look like both sides designing experimental methodologies like the ones I outlined above, then critiquing and defending them. In others, it would require teams to dream up specific interventions, e.g. “What’s the best way to build stronger community spirit in deprived areas?” Debates could focus on personal decisions: “Your best friend is going through a midlife crisis and feels like their life is meaningless. What do you do about it?” But they could also be about some of the biggest modern issues: “Redesign the education system to make it as effective as possible in conveying skills and knowledge.” These debates would be judged on the current standards of persuasiveness and eloquence, but also on creativity and boldness. The most fun debates I’ve ever done are the ones which introduced me to totally new ideas: in an ideal implementation of neodebating, every debate would be like that. And I think the mindset required is exactly what we should want from political leaders—an innovative, experimental approach to finding the best policies, plus knowledge of how to test and evaluate them. It would even promote the statistical literacy required to identify and argue about correlation, causation, confounders and controls. Wouldn’t that be great? If I were being really idealistic, I’d even build in a mechanism for teams in a debate to make bets about relevant future events, with points awarded retroactively to whichever team turned out to be correct.
Anyway, enough daydreaming. For now, I think my main point is that everyone—but debaters in particular—should spend some time answering a few questions. Which arguments do you critique most rigorously? Do you ever try to generate novel and creative solutions to big problems? Do you seek out enough empirical data? And when and how do you actually change your mind?