Spike's Afternoon Tea

My thoughts, may you gain from them.

How to: Conduct a debate.

Posted by Ian Raugh on Monday, 6 April 2009

I want to, before I actually start the significant part of the post, apologize for not posting Saturday or Sunday, those days were busy for me.

But, now for the weekly how to, this time regarding debates.  The below only applies if you wish to win in a debate due to being right, rather than manipulating the audience.  If you only wish to win by manipulation of the audience, then I suggest a quick glance at my Truth versus deceit post.

A debate is where two people argue in favour of their viewpoint and against the opponents.  A good debate is civil, informative, and has no statement lacking evidence.

A debate is where two people argue in favour of their viewpoint and against the opponent's. A good debate is civil, informative, and has no statement lacking evidence.

Good debate methods:

1. Keep it civil. A debate without civility is merely bickering, a debate with insults, typically, quickly degenerates into what is called a ‘flame-war’ where the only competition is to see who can deliver the most grievous insult.  As such, avoid insults in a debate so that your audience or opponent do not develop a distaste for you, as such can subconsciously alter their perception of your argument.

2. Demonstrate integrity. A debater without integrity is typically not trusted by the opponent or audience.  If you are caught making something up, citing a faulty study, or plagiarising, it immediately casts a shadow over all your other arguments.  You will be far less likely to persuade anyone that way and likely just seed animosity towards yourself.  Check your sources and make sure they are valid, write your own material or properly attribute quotes, and where you are wrong make sure you admit such.  Nothing helps a debater’s integrity as much as admitting a mistake, although it is still better to not make the mistake at all.

3. Provide evidence. Any point you wish to make should have at least one piece of evidence supporting it, either empirical or logical.  Do not rely on common sense, it does not have a good enough track record and your opponent will most likely point this out unless they are also relying upon common sense for their points.  If you are caught saying something and are unable to provide evidence, make sure that the point is not one which supports your primary argument.  If you provide the evidence as you are making the point, it makes your point stronger and leaves your opponent with fewer questions they can ask to challenge your argument, as you have already made their questions regarding your evidence pointless.

4. Know your limits. When you are wrong, admit it.  Avoid basless speculation and areas where you know nothing or very little.  If you are an English teacher who has not researched quantum mechanics, do not use it as evidence for your metaphysical views, study quantum mechanics first.  If you are a physicist who has not studied the nature versus nuture debate, do not use psychology as evidence for your views regarding human nature, study the psychology first.  Make sure you know what you believe due to aesthetics, upbringing, and intuition and keep that out of the debate.

Bad debate methods:

1. Logical fallacies. Any opponent you face in a debate will usually be readily able to identify logical fallacies, the audience may not.  If you use logical fallacies in such a way that your opponent takes longer to state how it is a fallacy than it takes you to state the fallacy many times over, your audience will remember your point more than the opponent’s counter point.  It is an effective debate tactic, but not a good one.  You would be winning the debate not because of being correct, but because of an audience’s inattentiveness.

2. Straw men. A straw man is when you distort your opponent’s argument in such a way as to make it easier to argue against.  It is vital to note however, you are not actually arguing against your opponent’s argument.  Depending on the audience, this might be effective.  The less educated on the subject your audience is, the less likely they are to realize a misrepresentation.  The straw man is a favoured tactic of creationists because it appeals to the uneducated masses (for some common miconceptions, see Evolutionary misconceptions).

3. Appeals to emotion. By appealing to the audience’s emotions, such as fear, you make it all the harder for evidence to work.  By doing this you are indeed more likely to win and even make those in the audience actively argue your position.  The down side is that by introducing emotion to the equation, you make proper conduct of thought (proper being defined here as that which results in the most accurate knowledge) nigh impossible.  Yes, you win, but in doing so you make problems that are all the harder to undo.  Creationism has lasted so long due to this tactic.

On a more personal note, I was in a debate club for a little while when I was in school.  We were told to use appeals to emotion, fear especially.  I quit for moral reasons.

Word Count: 828

My grattitue to condron.us for helping more people view this site.

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