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English I-II: Debate Tips

General information for English I and II classes (including Honors), as well as specific research pages for projects or topics

on Argument

"Argument" vs "arguing"

is a word that has multiple meanings. For our purposes, it is NOT a synonym for "Debate".

Sound & Valid 

Valid argument is one where, if the supporting premises (evidence, statements) are true, the conclusion will be true.  Certain Logical Fallacies will make an Argument "Invalid".

Sound argument is one that is Valid  AND the supporting premises are actually true. 

Examples: 

  • I am human. All humans are mortal. Therefore, I am mortal.    
    •  is Sound (and therefore also Valid); the supports are true and the logic works.
  • I am human. All humans can hear. Therefore, I can hear. 
    • is Valid, but Unsound; the logic works, but deaf humans cannot hear.
  • I can hear. Humans can hear. Therefore I am human.  
    • is Invalid;  even though the premises are true, the logic doesn't work, as many other non-human creatures can also hear. 
    • Note, even though the Claim also is actually true (the writer of it is a human), the argument is still Unsound and Invalid.
Argument vs Persuasion

an Argument succeeds by using factually true evidence and logical reasoning (premises) in support to prove a statement (claim) to be true. Debates should be won by the side that presents the strongest Arguments, or most successfully defends their Arguments.

Persuasion succeeds by using any means available (no requirement for Sound Arguments)  to get someone to think, act, or feel in the way you want them to. One can (and should) use Sound Argument in service of Persuasion, but you can persuade with bad arguments (and it happens often).  Logical Fallacies can be very Persuasive.

 

Debate Research Strategies

5 Tips for Better Debate Research:
  1. Start by researching about the Topic (not the position): don't just dive into the "sides" of the argument. First you need to get an informed understanding of the issue. Who is affected? What are the harms? How long has it been happening? Who has opinions about it, and why?
  2. Define the key terms: In a debate it is important to be very clear about what you actually mean, so having a specific definition of a key term (from a quality source) is important.  ex. when people debate "Racism" it makes a huge difference if one side uses the word to mean "a top-down, institutional structure that privileges one race over others" and the other side says it means "treating someone differently because of race".
  3. Source credibility and authority matters in a debate -- research about your sources:  information that 'sounds to good to be true" just might be.  Secondhand information (when the article you are looking at has quoted from another source or report) is less useful than finding the original source.  Information about vaccination that comes from celebrities or memes or random people with opinions online is less credible than information from individual medical doctors, who are less credible than the donsensus reputable global health organizations/hospitals/etc.
  4. Use the WHOLE article: Don't just cherry pick for facts / quotations / soundbites.  Reading the whole article will give you more context and help you discover ideas and information you didn't know you were looking for.  Also, use the article's bibliography or sources to find more places to research:  do they quote from a "study" or "research"?  Then track down that study yourself.
  5. Research BOTH positions (not just your own):  You should spend almost as much time researching what the other side thinks about your topic as what your side thinks.  This is important for two reasons. 
    1. Firstly, you need to anticipate the arguments that your  opponents will make so you can refute (argue against / try to disprove) them, and also the ones they will make against your arguments that you will have to rebut (make counter arguments to rebuild your position).
    2. Confirmation Bias , only looking for information that confirms your side, and putting more trust in things that agree with you, is a problem in debate (and the real world).
  6. (The wider your research, the more likely you are to find topics and arguments your opponents have not)  Using multiple research sources  (like using Opposing Viewpoints  AND Points of View AND SIRS Issues Researcher) means you will have a larger selection of arguments and counter arguments at your disposal than someone who only uses one database or source. This will help you craft arguments that are harder to refute AND better prepare you for your opponents' possible arguments.
A Note or Two on "Bias" 

It's okay to use a "Biased" source (i.e. a source that has an opinion / position / side on your topic) as long as you are aware that the source is biased , recognize how that bias will affect the quality of the information presented, and are prepared to defend it.  However, "biased" sources can be easier for your opponents to attack, though just being "biased" doesn't automatically make something wrong.

The word "Bias" has multiple meanings (remember how we talked about definitions being important?).  When we talk about bias in terms of Argument and Persuasion, it could refer to having a preference for a certain opinion or side of an argument, but it could also be refering to "Cognitive Biases," which are shortcuts the brain takes to make decisions, or unconscious preferences the brain may have, that have been demonstrated by psychologists or other scientists and social scientists.  "Confirmation Bias" is one example we will discuss below.

Debate Preparation Strategies

5 Tips on Preparing for the Debate

Once you have done some research (though RE-Search is an ongoing process), it's time to start preparing for the debate.

  1. Go Deep, not Wide: it is better, in this kind of debate, to focus on the 2-3 best arguments, rather than try to list the most arguments.
  2. Be Clear: Each of your main arguments should be presentable as a  single sentence (just like a Topic Sentence from a paragraph), so that your opponents and audience will remember and understand them.  Argumentation is not about trickery or deception  (though Persuasion might be).
  3. Be Accurate:  when using statistics and quotations, know where they came from, understand what they mean generally and for your side, and be prepared to defend them.
  4. Look for the Flaws in your Own Argument:  if you don't see any... look harder.  Also look for/ be aware of the biases that your sources may have. Then, think about how your opponent might attack them, and how you would defend against them, and have rebuttals, with evidence, already prepared.
  5. Prepare More than You Plan to Use: you should have counter arguments, with evidence, ready to refute several of the possible arguments your opponent's may make, so you are ready for whatever they present.

Debate Participation Strategies

5 Tips to Help in the Actual Debate
  1. Be Clear About What You Say (Signposts)  :  when...
    1. ...you introduce your topic, give us a preview of your main points  (like a "Thesis Statement"), and make sure you provide clear definitions of the main issue.
    2. ...you introduce your first argument, say something like "Our First  Main Argument Is....", (like a "Topic Sentence) and make sure you clearly announce when you are switching to another argument
    3. ... you introduce quotations or evidence make sure to be specific about where it is from. DON'T say things like "according to the New York Times / Time.com / 'studies' / 'people' / etc.".  Who said it, and their credibility, matters.
    4. ...you conclude the debate, be sure to tell us Why your side has won the debate: point out how your arguments are still 'standing' and how your opponents' arguments have been dismantled.
  2. Take Notes:  write down your opponent's main arguments, and main evidence, as you will be expected to argue against that...
  3. Argue Against What Your Opponents Actually Say:  not what you thought they said, or what you wish they would have said,  or what you think they might say, and definitely don't argue against things that they did NOT say.  Ultimately the debate should be decided based on what is said in the debate, and which side best defends their position.   DO feel free to question the quality of un-credible sources.
  4. Facts over Feelings:  stories, anecdotes, 'beliefs', and appeals to emotion are all techniques of Persuasion,  but in a true debate the goal is to provide the best evidence and use sound arguments to prove something, not to play with the audience's emotion.
  5. If You Don't Cite It, It Doesn't Count:  you need evidence to support every claim you make,  but so do your opponents!  "My opponents have provided no credible evidence" is an acceptable counter-argument (if it's true).

(6.  Finally, Remember that a formal, oppositional, Debate is only one method of discussion on controversial issues. Be aware that in the real world its often better to find and build consensus and understanding, rather than just the "attack and defend" of a debate.  Also be aware that, in the real world, not everyone "plays fair" with evidence-based arguments, and that slick Persuasion and fallacy-based arguments may be more common than well reasoned arguments.)

Logical Fallacies

Logical Fallacies

Logical Fallacies are things that "break" a logical argument and make it "invalid".

Pointing out Logical Fallacies in opposing arguments can be part of a strategy in refuting them

Note, however, that just because an argument is fallacious, it doesn't mean that the claim/conclusion is False. Instead it means that the argument is invalid and cannot be used to "prove" the claim.  Claiming otherwise is called the "Fallacy Fallacy"

ex.  Fortnite is a very popular game (claim), because millions of people like it (premise/support). 

Is an example of  the Fallacy of "Begging the Question."  (you can't use the claim as support for itself, and "popular" means "lots of people like it").    The flawed argument doesn't mean that Fortnite isn't popular, just that your argument hasn't 'proved' it is.

Some 'persuaders' intentionally use logical fallacies in their arguments to make their claims seem to be true or more appealing, or in their Refutations and Rebuttals.  This might work for "Persuasion", but it's not okay as an "Argument".

ex. "Whataboutism"  

Learn More about Logical Fallacies

Cognitive Biases & Heuristics

Cognitive Biases & Heuristics

One of the reasons people can be easily Persuaded by fallacious Arguments has to do with the workings of the brain. This is a complex topic in Psychology. 

Here are simple definitions provided by Psychology Today

"Bias" in this case doesn't mean "Racial Bias," which might be what first comes to mind when you hear that word,  but rather it is "... a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone."

"A Heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows an individual to make a decision, pass judgment, or solve a problem quickly and with minimal mental effort. While heuristics can reduce the burden of decision-making and free up limited cognitive resources, they can also be costly when they lead individuals to miss critical information or act on unjust biases."

Congnitve Biases aren't fallacies, but can make people susceptible to believing fallacies or affect ones ability to see fallacies.  For this reason, it is useful to know about them.  See also this explanation from the Logically Fallacious website.

 

Learn More about Cognitive Biases