Changing Our Minds by Jake Nebel

I think debaters are particularly bad at changing their minds. This includes former debaters who have already graduated — including me. I suspect that current LD norms encourage debaters not to change their minds for a few reasons.
Some of those reasons have to do with in-round norms. Because you have to defend both sides of the resolution effectively, you might conclude that you can argue effectively for any position, so it doesn’t matter whether your position is right (or that there is no “right”). Some people think that good strategy is a function of coming up with the greatest number of arguments, so many debaters learn how to rationalize, not how to think rationally. (Rationalizing is when you come up with reasons to defend your opinion after already forming an opinion.) And you can’t switch sides in the middle of a round, so you’re used to defending your advocacy until the end. Also, if you think your opponents’ arguments are bad, then you’ll be more confident that you’re right, and this confidence can help you in rebuttals. But thinking poorly of everything your opponent says, no matter what they say, may lead you to think that no one has ever given you a good reason to change your mind.

Other reasons have to do with community norms. I used to feel like changing my mind about some issue is a sign of weakness in the LD world, so that changing my mind about something I defended publicly or to my friends would show that I was weak. The LD community, I think, is at least as concerned with status as any other social community. Status gets you respect and “rep,” which may (unfortunately) help you (a) win over impressionable judges and (b) gain allies who help you prepare by giving advice, information, or files. I think we should try to minimize the importance of status in LD, but insofar as status is important now, there may be strong pressure against changing your mind.

Why is it bad if we’re bad at changing our minds?

1. Being good at updating your beliefs in light of new evidence will win you more rounds. Issue selection is largely about conceding arguments that you’re losing. Although argument quantity is a factor here, the toughest debates require close calls based on argument quality: you have to figure out where you and your opponent are each most likely to be correct or incorrect. If you’re bad at changing your mind, then you’ll be bad at making those kinds of judgments. That’s because you won’t be used to thinking about whether you’re actually right or wrong. Debaters who are good at changing their minds are also good at pre-round preparation, since they make better decisions about which arguments are good. If you never admit that your idea was not as strategic as you thought, then your positions won’t be very strategic.

2. Changing your mind is key to being rational and having productive disagreements in life. If you treat out-of-round disagreements as debate rounds, then you’ll be irrationally stubborn, and you’ll rationalize to avoid admitting defeat. Rationalizing is bad because those reasons don’t really explain why you have that opinion, so it doesn’t advance the conversation to focus on those reasons. It’s also bad because you’re more likely to be right if you form an opinion after considering all the evidence, assuming you do a good job of considering the evidence.

3. We want judges to evaluate arguments impartially and rationally. Judges who are bad at changing their minds are bad at making fair decisions. They may decide who to vote for early in the debate and only later come up with a reason for decision. Judges may do this because, as debaters, they learned how to be expert rationalizers.

4. Changing our minds is particularly important for progress in debate theory. Theory is the ethics of LD, and people’s views about what LD should look like affect what LD in fact looks like. Everyone should want to improve their theoretical views, but stubbornness prevents us from making progress in debate theory. If we all changed our minds about theoretical issues more often, then LD would be a better activity — more fair, and better at developing the skills that we should value (whatever those happen to be).

What do you think? Do you think debate makes us bad at changing our minds? Do you think that’s a problem? If so, what can we do to improve?

  • JulianSwitala

    Hilary Whitehall Putnam changed his mind A LOT, especially when compared to other people in his field, and look at how he has been / is regarded…

  • As a former assistant coach I have come across situations where debaters are reluctant to discard losing positions for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the position is a trendy critical position, and is therefore better in their eyes. Other times they can't see the argument in question as being the losing one, either because judges haven't articulated it well on ballots, or because they don't pay attention to the ballots where the judge do say so. However, the most common reason seems to be an emotional attachment to arguments they've constructed. They often feel that a flawed argument is a reflection of their flawed ability, and will thus avoid situations where they have admit to constructing a flawed argument. In my opinion, this expectation of perfection, and thus the fear of imperfection, comes from the way in which we view top-tier debaters in the community. We speak of the most successful debaters as we would movie stars or other high public figures. They take on a grandeur that leaves everyone else feeling inferior. I think there is a deep-seated reason for this mentality as well, but I don't really have the space necessary to get into it. What we need to do is teach our debaters that being wrong is a part of the process for everyone, including the most successful debater. The case writing process is riddled with bad ideas, as I'm sure most coaches and former debaters will admit. What makes a successful debater is the ability to recognize those bad ideas early on, and avoid running them. And if one bad idea does find its way into a case every now and again, a good debater will be able to admit the mistake and rectify it.

    • This point also seems applicable to imitating more successful debaters. Trends in LD often shift so quickly because a successful debater wins with some "new" strategy (usually an old idea that crops up again and wins), and other people replicate it. This strategy continues until someone more successful beats it, and then debaters replicate that. (Obviously judges have a big role in this process — ignoring that for now…)But students often replicate ideas without a good grasp of the features that made them successful. So bad ideas are often replicated just because the person running them was good. So, again, debaters aren't thinking rationally about the arguments. I think this also happens with ideas that are criticized without good reason: when a good debater says, "That's dumb," the idea goes into hibernation even if it was a good idea. Curious to hear your thoughts about why status plays such a huge role in debate psychology. Seems important to me.

      • I think that status plays an important role in debate because it plays an important role in life. Status is an important social tool because it provides motivation for success, and debate is a social activity as well as an intellectual one. Also, I feel that people sometimes elevate others to a separate category from themselves to make themselves feel better about not being as successful. If someone is in a separate category of debate ability, then those less successful don't have to feel bad about not achieving as much. As a result, those people will never achieve as much because they've already trapped themselves in a box of inferiority.I used to coach Ted Ellsworth. He took 4th place at NFL Nats in 2010. We are from Idaho, and Ted went further than any debater in Idaho ever has. Thus, he was afforded almost god-like status in the local debate community. I would often have situations where 1. people would try to run his positions without understanding them, and 2. he would throw out a "that's dumb" to his teammates sometimes without really evaluating the argument in question. This caused a lot of frustration for me, as you can imagine. It is very difficult to teach when students aren't trying to think critically, but rather are trying to "be like Ted." In my view, education should be the first priority in debate, and status, while motivating, can be detrimental when taken to extremes.

        • All of that makes sense to me, and seems really important.

  • Kudos for great ideas and a pragmatic realization of the general absence of openness many of us take. As a "critical" circuit LD and policy judge, head coach, and head of risk management for a Fortune 250 global financial processor, I too struggle to see the normative rigidity self-imposed by so many. In my professional world, we realize that a great deal of this rigidity is imposed under the naive and rather obsolete epistemological myth of "if I just believe the doxology, the Gods will smile upon me and misfortune will find someone else."Of course, this not only fails to work, but German poststructural media theorist Peter Sloterdijk comments that the obverse is true. A baby chick lives in the structuralist bliss of Ideals and Forms inside its shell, where signifier and signified are unified, is hatched and abjected into a world where one's thinking is unable to command the behavior of the environment around it. Frustrated with abjection, it sticks its head back inside the shell where everything makes sense again, foolishly believing all will be well as long as it believes in the universals of the shell. That is… until a random coyote walks around and observes the chick with hits backside hanging out and decides to take advantage of a rather easy lunch.For educational purposes, we need debaters to understand that norms are negotiated. I'm astounded at many of the myths proclaimed as "how LD always has been," having debated LD in the mid-80s when the "rules" were quite different. Changing minds is subsequently not only important for the reasons outlined above, but also for the capacity of a debater to be prepared for the professional environments she/he is likely to encounter. I'm called to defend framework, standards and contention-level justifications for our analysis of systemic risk, scenarios, etc. (e.g. Eurozone crisis) all the time, especially when confronted with perspectives I haven't had access to previously (e.g. intelligence from a central bank indicating new concerns). I'm also required to challenge the norms of our senior executives, many of which have epistemological biases due to the desensitizing "gated community" worlds they've grown into which lack sufficient signal to let them know what's going on in broader cultural contexts.My paradigmatic recommendations to debaters, judges and coaches is subsequently to work toward the "modality of multiplicity" – a perspective of engaging different models, each of which may have a particular resonance for a given scenario. Contemporary work in poststructural theory utilizes this approach and subsequently is revitalizing philosophy; an example is the use of Lucretius (a philosopher from 2000 years ago) to recontextualize thinking around emergence and complexity theory. Debaters can use Ancient Greek virtue ethics, recontextualized and applied to provide resonance to a contemporary analysis, or utilize Kant, Hegel, Deleuze, Foucault, etc. for similar purposes. As long as these systems of thought are recognized to be contextually meaningful in a contemporary discussion (rather than having the debate police) for the purpose of exploring thinking around the topic and experimenting with the capacity for meaningful solutions, that openness is vital and provides a substantial educational link to one of the more important opportunities debate can offer.Of course, there will continue to be those that believe debate is just a game, to be played by set rules (which are constructed to favor the privileged elites – debate's 1% – as Foucault would remind). Increasingly, those people are understood to offer little to nothing in an era where our new generations are being faced with some of the greatest challenges faced. For those who will themselves closed, I expect that continued demands for new thinking on our social problems will eventually render them irrelevant.

    • Disagree with some of this, agree with other parts. I agree especially with the thought that LD norms are not fixed. I think this realization is a prerequisite to being good at theory, so it's pretty important for individual debaters to understand. It's also important for the community, since it's key to making progress.I disagree that exposure to new perspectives is the best way to promote changing your mind. Learning about a new idea can make you change your mind just because the idea is new. But we should change our minds because the evidence shows some idea to be better, and we shouldn't glorify new ideas in a way that distracts us from the comparison of evidence and arguments. (This isn't to say that exposure to new perspectives is unimportant. It's probably really good, but not good *for this reason*.)

    • anonymous60201

      As someone who has studied Lucretius in Latin at the university level I can assure you that there are few thinkers who I can imagine having less relevance to this subject.

      • Sounds like you studied history, not philosophy. How unfortunate.

  • LDGenius

    My experience with debate has been that it *encourages* me to change my mind when wrong. Aside from the obvious ways debate can enable one to discard false beliefs for true ones (i.e., by teaching what is/not a good argument or reason, encouraging us to seek and use evidence, etc.), the somewhat cavalier approach debaters have towards arguments allows us to discard bad ones at less cost – "kicking" them, if you will. We've been wrong before, and will be wrong again, so admitting to being wrong in a particular instance loses a good bit of its sting. If I was wrong about such big things as the nature of political power, the centrality of race to human ontology, and the existence of God – all things about which I hold very different beliefs from when I started debating – then being wrong about the likely effects of global warming, the ideal role for the judiciary in administrative policy, or the extent to which gender discrimination plays a role in debate round outcomes isn't nearly as big a deal. Debate has taught me that if you're in the business of taking positions on issues, sometimes you'll be on the wrong side. That's a hazard of doing business, not a source of shame.

    • My experience has been that debate tends to change one set of firmly held beliefs for another. It's not necessarily that you've been taught to admit that you're wrong, but rather you've been brought into a community where people tend to believe certain things about the nature of political power, race, and God. In a sense, you've discarded the beliefs of the societal culture of your family, and accepted the sub-culture of debate. Each one is just as capable of being wrong as the other, but we don't really see it until we are exposed to another culture that illuminates the flaws of our former thinking. That is not to say that you necessarily are wrong about the things you mentioned; just that you may not actually know what you're wrong about until you explore the issue through a new perspective.

    • Justin's response makes sense to me, but I also think the idea about kicking arguments is really interesting. I would guess that, at its best, debate does encourage students to update their beliefs. But debate isn't always taught or practiced at its best, so the question is this: which aspects of debate are most important to developing this skill, and which aspects detract from it? I think your comment about seeking evidence and distinguishing between good and bad arguments is on the money here.When I think about kicking arguments in terms of this question, I'm not so sure. Kicking arguments does demonstrate a low-stakes approach to admitting you're wrong, but it also demonstrates that approach to *being* wrong, and that doesn't seem like the attitude we want to promote. The reason we should change our mind is to avoid being wrong, so we shouldn't think that being wrong is no big deal. It also seems that kicking arguments is like making small concessions, whereas debaters can't (and shouldn't) kick their entire advocacy. See the following post by Eliezer Yudkowsky for why that distinction is important: <a href="” target=”_blank”> maybe the practice of kicking arguments is like training wheels for changing your mind. We sure need them.

      • I think the skill of knowing which arguments to kick is like all other skills; it must be properly taught and practiced in order to be used effectively. I have been in the debate world for nearly ten years, and I am still working on it. I suspect I will die having never perfected it.Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine when an argument should be discarded. I agree that we don’t want to foster an environment where students are taught to assume they’re wrong, or to have some lingering doubt in the back of their mind as they advocate a position. A balance needs to be struck between confidence and rationality in terms of advocating arguments.

      • I think the skill of knowing which arguments to kick is like all other skills; it must be properly taught and practiced in order to be used effectively. I have been in the debate world for nearly ten years, and I am still working on it. I suspect I will die having never perfected it.Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine when an argument should be discarded. I agree that we don't want to foster an environment where students are taught to assume they're wrong, or to have some lingering doubt in the back of their mind as they advocate a position. A balance needs to be struck between confidence and rationality in terms of advocating arguments.