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?