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Three Ways to Improve Your Argument Comparison
I believe that argument comparison is most often the skill that distinguishes good debaters from great debaters. It is the fundamental skill behind many of those intangible elements we identify with top tier competitors, like the ability to debate “above the flow,” talk about the “big picture” without neglecting the line-by-line, and deploy great “strategic vision.” All of this has to do primarily with how arguments interact with one another. Below are three tips to help you improve your argument comparison.
1. Think backwards.
Because of the importance of the standard in our activity, LD debaters tend to think about strategy from the top of the flow down. Oftentimes this leads debaters to overcommit their time and energy on the standards debate and ultimately fail to articulate a coherent advocacy on the topic itself. So contractualism (or whatever) is the best moral system – what should we DO about it?
One way to help you bring the same gusto you employ on the standards down the flow is to think of the debate from the bottom up. First, identify the most important impact in the round. Next, think about what arguments you are making that generate that impact, and what arguments your opponent is making. It is the clash of these arguments which we call “controlling the link” into a given impact. Because debaters have generally failed to commit enough time in the speech and mental effort in planning for this part of the debate, it is often unclear. Debaters try to extend as many links as possible instead of doing meaningful work to describe which link or links are the strongest and why. Thinking from the bottom up, or “backwards,” will help you articulate these issues more clearly.
Suppose you are debating the March/April topic on targeted killing, and it is apparent going into the 2AR that the biggest impact in the round is the prospect of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. How do you control the link into this impact? The affirmative might argue that using targeted killing undermines the operational effectiveness of terrorist groups in Pakistan. This, in turn, reduces hostilities between the two nations because it is less likely that attacks in Kashmir or against targets in India will spiral into an open confrontation between the two states. The negative might argue that the unpopularity of drone strikes in Pakistan weakens the government and makes it more likely that Islamist groups could take control of the government or a faction of the military. This in turn might make a nuclear exchange more likely because of Islamist ideologies or destabilizing the already tenuous diplomatic situation.
Narrowing the focus of the debate on the comparison of these two arguments will help you tell a much clearer story about how links interact and therefore what is the best advocacy to adopt. Is your evidence better on this question? Does their link story require a questionable assumption? Does common sense or common knowledge indicate that your link story is more likely? Or are both sides’ arguments sufficiently speculative that the debate should be decided somewhere else on the flow? There are many different ways you could compare these arguments. Thinking through the issues in this way will help you improve your argument comparison.
2. Strength of link is not the same as probability.
How often have you heard this refrain: “He concedes disadvantage – this argument has 100% strength of link. If you affirm nuclear war is a certainty.” This debater has made a common error. Strength of link is about the degree to which your argument has been called into question by your opponent’s defensive answers. An analytical claim answered by a strong empirical indictment has weak “strength of link.” This is not the same thing as the probability that the impact of your argument will happen.
Most of our arguments in debate are probabilistic – they indicate a reasonable possibility that an impact will happen, but not a certainty. When I argue that using deadly force as a response to domestic violence puts the victim in danger by escalating the situation, I only mean that this is the most likely of several possible outcomes. Even if my opponent concedes this argument (I have “100% strength of link”), there is still only a probability that this outcome will happen. That is important – just because an argument is conceded does not mean that it is now 100% probable. The debater conceding the argument can no longer call that link into question, but they can argue that a different impact (which is also probable) outweighs. For example, even though violence is likely to escalate when victims use deadly force, an affirmative debater might argue that even escalated violence is only marginally worse than the cycle of domestic violence to begin with, and so even a small probability of escape is more important than the risk of escalating violence. In other words, conceding the original argument did not make it certain that violence would escalate – there is still a possibility of escape, and that possibility may or may not be the more important impact.
One of the most important places to remember this is when you are facing a long link chain with a big impact at the end. Remember, each link in the chain has only a probability of being true. If you combine those probabilities, the likelihood of the impact at the end might be very small. For example, I have seen several debaters argue that if victims of domestic violence use deadly force against their attackers, they are likely to go to jail, and in jail they are likely to be raped, which is a terrible impact that may well be worse than domestic violence.
Think of the progression of links in this argument as a series of concentric circles getting smaller and smaller. The biggest circle represents all domestic violence victims. A certain percentage of those will use deadly force successfully enough to warrant a substantial criminal charge – this is a smaller circle because it is a subset of all victims. A certain percentage of those individuals will be arrested (the police will determine it was that individual and make a successful arrest). A certain percentage of those individuals will be charged by the prosecutor with a crime severe enough to warrant significant jail time. A certain percentage of those will be successfully convicted (they didn’t make a plea bargain for a lesser punishment, be convicted of a lesser crime, get acquitted because of self-defense or temporary mental incapacity, or have their charges thrown out on a technicality like police misconduct). A percentage of those will be sentenced to significant jail time. A percentage of those will go to a prison where there are not adequate safety procedures in place for the inmates. A percentage of those will be victims of rape. (We could reduce it even further by considering appeals and commutations).
If each of these links happens to 80% of people in the previous group (a very generous estimate), some 21% of victims of domestic violence would be subject to prison rape. If each link happens to 50% of people in the previous group, the number goes down to .7% of all domestic violence victims. Of course, all of these figures are just estimates. The point is that even a conceded argument with 100% strength of link can still be so improbable that it has a minuscule impact.
So, when engaging in argument comparison, don’t give too much credit to very big impacts. You may well be able to demonstrate that they are so improbable that they should be discounted relative to your impacts.
3. A smaller number of developed arguments are better than a larger number of underdeveloped arguments.
For some reason debaters tend to get extra-blippy when it comes to weighing. This is a total mystery to me; one sentence non-arguments like this are virtually meaningless. “This outweighs 1) on magnitude because everyone dies, 2) on scope because people all over the globe die, 3) on timeframe because it happens right away, 4) on reversibility because you can’t take back extinction…” etc. Each of those suggests a potentially viable argument, but none of them is a complete argument in itself. The best debaters will deeply warrant their impact comparison (preferably with evidence) and use that analysis to explain why it is the most critical consideration in the round. You can draw a tenuous link story to mega-impacts from just about any advocacy, but that should only succeed against the most credulous and unthinking of opponents and judges. As I've written and said more times than I can count, people tend to overestimate the strategic utility of patently false arguments.