The Myth of Debate Truthiness by Jake Nebel

In “Tycoons of Piety,” Rebar Niemi warns against blurring the line between debate and the real world. I would warn against just the opposite: pretending there is such a line.  
He writes:

I think that it would be incredibly damaging to both students and educators to attempt to bring debate more in line with the real world. It is impossible to fully separate it from being a game, and I think acknowledging that it is an educational game – but a game nonetheless would serve us well. When we start to believe that debate is a reflection of the real world is when we start actually becoming desensitized to death, tragedy, and horror. I think that one of the main reasons I have developed a strong sense of personal moral honor and belief is that I never thought that the things said in a debate round were identical to the real world. I consider debate to be a sort of test space or even just a game world.

This argument is interesting, but I think it is guilty of equivocation. Thinking that debate should be “more in line with the real world” isn’t to say that the things you say in a debate round are identical to the real world. The view is just that the arguments you make in debate are about the real world. So, when a debater says that domestic violence doesn’t hurt anyone, or is morally awesome, you are making a claim about domestic violence. If that claim is false in the real world, it doesn’t take anything extra for it to be false in a debate round. Truth and falsity are just truth and falsity. There is no special “debate truthiness.”

Rebar might object that this view doesn’t account for the current state of debate on the national circuit. If that were true, then I would think the current state of debate on the national circuit is out of whack. When someone argues that affirming would lead to nuclear war, they are making a claim about what would happen in the real world if we implemented the affirmative advocacy. If the other debater shows that actually (i.e., in the real world) nuclear war would still be highly unlikely, then this defeats the other side’s claim. The other side can’t just say, “No, you misunderstand! I meant that, in the debate world, there will probably be a nuclear war.” There is no separate debate world — I don’t even know what that would mean.

Rebar might respond that there is a clear difference, since the aff advocacy is not implemented in the real world. We’re evaluating a hypothetical world in which the aff advocacy occurs, which may or may not be the actual world. Isn’t that the point of fiat? Correct: the world of the aff (or neg) advocacy may or may not be our world. But the hypothetical world we evaluate is the same as ours in all respects except for the advocacy and its expected consequences. It’s the closest possible world in which we do the advocacy. Closest to what? The real world.   

In any case, this objection may be irrelevant to fundamental moral principles, which many philosophers believe to robust over possible worlds. If Scanlon’s contractualism is true, it’s not just true in our world. It would have to be true in all possible worlds, because it doesn’t depend on any contingent feature of our world. What contingent change could cause Scanlon’s contractualism to be true or false? Similarly, what could cause morality to be one set of principles in the real world, but an entirely different set of principles in the imaginary world of the aff? Or for the Holocaust to be wrong in reality, but perfectly permissible in the debate world? Morality doesn’t change in this way.

Why is this imaginary line bad? In short, it leads to bad arguments. It encourages debaters to think (incorrectly) that the truth value of a claim is irrelevant to its quality in a debate. It also gives people an excuse to say unjustified things that offend real people in our community. If you claim (without argument) that domestic violence is good because the victim deserves it, and your opponent is a victim of domestic violence, you shouldn’t expect to be let off the hook of a pre-fiat objection on the grounds that you weren’t talking about real victims of domestic violence. Because you were. What else were you talking about — the fake ones?

Ditching the imaginary line between debate and the real world doesn’t mean that you can’t run interesting arguments with surprising conclusions. Academics make interesting arguments with surprising conclusions all the time. Are they making claims with the special status of academic truthiness, or claims of an imaginary academic world? Their conclusions can’t be true behind the ivory tower but false in the real world. If you believe (as I do) that debate is best when it best reflects and uses the academic literature, then this is an additional reason why the imaginary line is bad for debate.

To clarify, here are some things I’m not claiming:

1. My claim isn’t that debaters have to show that their claims describe reality perfectly, just that they’re more accurate than their opponents. But “more accurate” means more accurate description of the world, not more accurate description of something else.

2. I am also not claiming that the judge should vote for whichever side’s arguments best correspond to what the judge believes about the real world. My view is compatible with judges not inserting their knowledge of the world at all. My point is about the best understanding of what debaters are doing when they make arguments. When debaters claim that something is true, they’re claiming that it’s actually true — not that it’s sort of truthy in a debate-specific sense.

3. I’m not claiming that real-world education is an important theory impact. It probably is, but that’s not supported by the argument I’ve made here.

For those who believe in a special species of debate truthiness, I raise the following questions: What is the “debate world”? How is it different from the real world? How could a debater claim something to be true of the debate world but false of the real world? 

[We discussed some of these issues a bit in earlier comments, but I wanted to create a separate thread for this issue.]

  • I think the point Jake is making is right on the money. I have been judging and coaching for years, and in the past have ascribed to the "if it's dropped it flows through." I have accepted some pretty ridiculous arguments on that basis, and felt very badly about it over the years. We need to have a higher test for claims made in a debate round.The starting point has got to be logic. If a claim doesn't make logical sense, it isn't an argument worthy of weighing. If the probability of the impact is so low that no rational person would ever weigh it in a decision calculus, it's not a real impact. I have gotten into the habit of warning debaters that they must link to their impacts very strongly, especially when the impact is a large one. When the impact is extinction I tell them they would be better off not bothering with it. I do feel that this isn't the best way to judge, but the alternative is worse. I'm so tired of seeing good debaters lose to arguments that make no sense whatsoever. I have seen debaters that did everything right in terms of strong argument lose because of the flow. And we all know that the flow can kill, especially in the 1AR. It is unfair that claims that we all know to be false are allowed to harm good debaters. It penalizes them for running good arguments, and encourages them to run bad ones in the future. Sorry for the rant, but this is an issue that has plagued me for years. So I have a question for this involved that might focus the discussion a bit:Should a judge be able to drop an objectively false claim, like 2+2=5, from the debate the way the debaters in a round might kick an argument?Further question:If the answer to the above question is yes, should a judge be able to penalize a debater for making a false claim, basing the penalty on the assumption that the debater should have know that the claim is false?

    • Well, the claim that the affirmative will cause extinction is almost certainly not true. But the claim that the affirmative increases the risk of extinction may very well be true. And, even if that risk is negligible, it is an open question whether small differences in the probability of extinction should dominate our decision making. It seems to me plausible that they should, but also plausible that they shouldn't — there are good arguments on both sides. So I would hesitate to say that a link to extinction must be illogical, because ignoring it might very well be just as illogical.

      • JustinB

        I was on a rant, and spoke too strongly. I think that the argument that the aff increases the risk of extinction is a legitimate argument to make. However, I think most debaters miss a very important part of the argument; why this should matter to the actual decisions we have to make. I think part of the metric should be based on the link chain. Some debaters put forth complicated link stories that make it seem as if our every action causes massive impacts; butterfly wings flapping us all to death. If we were to follow the advice of most of these arguments, no one would ever do anything and we would likely all die anyway.I'm sure there is a middle ground between a strong position like mine and the opposite position of allowing any and all impacts and arguments, but it seems like no one is trying very hard to find it.That's why I think it's great that you're starting this sort of dialogue. Thanks Jake, and keep it up.

  • I don't think that anyone is claiming arguments made in debate rounds are about something other than the real world and real people.Your position, however, that whether something is ACTUALLY true is the central question of debate is fundamentally incompatible with switch-side debating, unless it is the case that either (a) debaters hold no genuine personal views about the topic's truth or (b) there is no genuine truth about the topics we debate.If I believe that it is permissible for a victim of domestic violence to use deadly force, literally every possible argument I make on the opposing side justifies a proposition which I find to be morally repugnant. If there is a genuine truth concerning the topics about which we debate, it is the case that 50% of the time debaters are forced to argue for something morally repugnant.If you hold that a particular moral theory is true (presumably a necessary premise in order to reject skepticism), then that moral theory almost certainly endorses one side of the resolution over the other. Why is being on the wrong side of that moral battle any less repugnant, then, say, arguing for the nonexistence of ethics? If consequentialism is true, then every deontological position is repugnant, as it justifies the unacceptable sacrifice of infinite persons for a single human being– thereby justifying whatever intuitively awful things creative debaters can conjure forth from their imaginations. And yet, to say "reject deontology because it justifies letting thousands die" is to make a bad argument. Even if your judge is an avowed consequentialist, you have messed up. You have not actually debated. Or, more, specifically, you've begged the question.Just as we require a debater to respond substantively to such a framework, we ought to require substantive responses, rather than emotional appeals, against skepticism. Your vision of debate seems to thus do two things: a. require that debaters just refuse to debate one side of a topic if it is the case that the other side is true or that they believe it to be trueb. justify appealing to a judge's ethical intuitions in every case possible.These outcomes seem both logically inconsistent with the basic structure of debate, and educationally bankrupt.I think this reply has gone off the rails a bit, so my apologies if it's a tad disorganized. In conclusion: "How could a debater claim something to be true of the debate world but false of the real world?"By saying the following: "I think this topic is true, but I flipped neg so I ran my NC."

    • Just because a moral view is false doesn't mean it's repugnant. And believing that a moral view is false doesn't require you to believe that it's morally repugnant. Do you think that everyone who disagrees with your moral opinions has repugnant beliefs?More importantly, I don't think I ever said that debaters should only make claims that they believe to be true. You might accept my thesis in the article but think that it's okay for debaters to make claims they know to be false, either because lying is okay or because it's okay to entertain false beliefs for the sake of argument. I disagree with your view that counterexamples are not "substantive" objections to philosophical principles (they have been the most substantive objections since Socrates), but that's a topic for another article. And, as I said, doesn't bear on my point above, so I'll discuss it later.

      • Rebar Niemi

        i am now a proponent of endorsing false beliefs for the sake of advocacy skills.

      • Rebar Niemi

        also like christian tarnsey thinks we're all simulations anyway. can a simulation have truth value?

      • For a moral view to be false, unless it is the case that all moral views are false, it is almost certainly the case that it endorses something immoral. Sometimes, it will endorse very immoral things, at least according to other potentially correct ethical theories. Hence, the deontology example.Even while you don't say that debaters should only make claims they believe to be true, that seems to be the implication of claiming that we ought not separate debate as a space for argument separate from the "real world." After all, I would not advocate and try to make compelling arguments for what I believed to be a misguided moral view outside of a debate round. However, both the structure and educational aims of a debate round make that not only acceptable, but necessary in that context."I disagree with your view that counterexamples are not "substantive" objections to philosophical principles (they have been the most substantive objections since Socrates), but that's a topic for another article."I take it that you're hinting at a debate about the purpose of ethics? I.e. whether ethics is a matter of clarifying/systematizing our intuitions, or instead a matter of rationally deriving truth? If you believe ethics to be the former, I understand how your response makes sense. I have other problems with that view, but you're right that those issues are pretty tangential to this discussion. If you do, however, believe that there is a truth about ethics, discoverable rationally, can you then explain to me what special status our intuitions have when compared to warranted reason-giving?

        • My point wasn't about the purpose of ethics. It was about methodology. There's a huge literature on the epistemic status of intuitions, but the basic argument I would make is a non-unique. "Warranted reason-giving" ultimately appeals to some assumption(s) for which no argument is given. If those assumptions are justified, it's not by evidence or argument. They are non-inferentially justified — i.e., intuitions.Right, *sometimes* a moral view with which you disagree will endorse things that you find very immoral. But not always. So debaters are not arguing for things they believe to be morally repugnant 50% of the time, unless they always run extreme, implausible ethical views. You might not make arguments for claims you believe to be false in most settings, but we do (justifiably). For example, maximizing consequentialists sometimes make arguments for options that they believe to be sub-optimal . And we often make arguments for things we believe to be false when playing devil's advocate, e.g., in a seminar room or a paper. My point in the article wasn't that it's always wrong in debate to make claims that you believe to be false (e.g., when your credence in them is .49). It was the more modest point that, when I argue for the claim in a debate, I am arguing that it is true. And "true" means that it's the way things are… In the real world… Not anything else.

        • So, there are two claims here:1. Claims in debate are claims about the world.2. (1) matters in some important way to how we debate.To clarify, I think #1 is self-evident. I take issue with #2.Suppose the following hypothetical: I think that innocent noncitizens are forced through torture because of our failure to extend to them due process. I think that to make any argument justifying taking away due process from such noncitizens is to justify their torture.If I believe #2, it seems that I must just opt out of debate for the duration of the topic. Why is that not the case?

        • Bed time in Oxford, so this is my last post for the night. But, quickly, (2) doesn't entail that you must opt out of debate for the duration of the topic. That's because (1) might matter to debate in some important way, but not the way you thought it did. Your objection assumes that, if (1) matters to debate in some important way, then it must entail that you can never make arguments that you think justify the torture of a noncitizen. I don't find that obvious…I can think of (1) being important in other ways. For example, it may help us understand what's going on in theory debates or other pre-fiat debates. It may undercut the arguments that some people take to obviously justify an "anything goes" view of debate. (There may be other, better arguments — just not ones that rely on this illusory distinction between debate- and real-truth.) And it bears on an objection to the article I wrote on Monday, when many people denied (1).

        • Fair enough. I'll have to check that out. I don't know why this has become my distraction from packing, but so it goes.I think I may have been unintentionally projecting on to you arguments commonly associated with you/your post's claim rather than what you were actually saying. My bad.

  • I make only one observation here: Last season we debated extra-terrestrial exploration. Almost every case I saw/heard about landing a rover on Mars ends in extinction. More often than not, the Neg won these debates. As such, if we were to accept debate truth = real world truth, then this entire thread is irrelevant… you see, this week's landing of NASA's Mars rover has doomed us all to extinction. Enjoy your weekend.

    • Not my argument.

      • Guest


      • Wow. I should know better than to introduce satire, sarcasm, and humor into a discussion of policy debate theory. #SatireFail. Seriously… it was a JOKE, Dude! Relax. You'll live longer.

  • Rebar Niemi

    "one of the parties in a disagreement must be wrong""you can't know what you don't know""you don't know what you don't know"actually, i decided to change my mind. you're right – debate truth is equivalent to real truth. but the real truth is that people say and believe untrue things all the time, and sometimes we think one thing occurred but it's not true that it occurred so the truth is that untruth is a necessary part of the truth because no one can know the truth all the time. and also sometimes people enforce a version of the world and make that the new truth, which is what happens in conclusion: debate truth = real truth, but real truth is a constantly shifting, variegated, and illogical thing. just like debate! go tigers!

    • Dude… What are you talking about?

      • JulianSwitala

        rebar's point makes 100% sense to me, but it's also, as you have said about other statements, guilty of equivocation.after reading through everyone's writing on this page, i can only assume that you may be incredibly annoyed at the lack of clarity and precision in others' writings (especially when taking into consideration the crystal clarity of your writing). i also notice the 3+ different ways in which i could justifiably interpret a sentence. it sucks sumthymez 🙁

    • i wish i could upvote this 500 times

    • Guest

      @facebook-1108410131:disqus rebar's point makes 100% sense to me, but it's also, as you have said about other statements, guilty of equivocation.after reading through everyone's writing on this page, i can only assume that you may be incredibly annoyed at the lack of clarity and precision in others' writings (especially when taking into consideration the crystal clarity of your writing). i also notice the 3+ different ways in which i could justifiably interpret a sentence. it sucks sumthymez 🙁

      • Guest

        @facebook-1108410131:disqus = @ Jake Nebel

  • TylerBC

    If an argument is dropped in a round, it becomes functionally true in the "debate world" – at least that's how I think most people evaluate drops. However, clearly if an argument is dropped in a round, that doesn't make it true in the "real world." That would seem to suggest, in fact, that there is some difference between the types of truth in both worlds.

    • A more precise way of stating this would be that the judge *supposes* the claim to be true — that is, the way things are — and decides accordingly. They're not different types of truth or different worlds in which they are true.What does it mean to say that the judge "supposes" the claim to be true? On the version of tabula rasa I mentioned in comments on my earlier article, it means that the judge increases her credence in the claim. The tab judge starts with uninformative priors, updates her beliefs based on the arguments in the debate, and decides based on the posterior credences. But those beliefs are about real things. (This is just a rough sketch for now, but I hope to expand it in an article.)

      • So is this whole discussion really just "can something be actually, transcendentally true in a debate round while simultaneously being actually, transcendentally true in reality?" If so, that's asinine. Obviously that can't be the case. The real question seems to be whether we can advocate for something in a debate round that we know to be false, and nonetheless be both ethical and logically coherent. It feels like you're equivocating between that discussion, and the obvious/unproductive one I mentioned above.

        • What does "actually, transcendentally true" mean? Does it just mean "true"?My point is that things cannot be true-in-a debate-round but false-in-reality. So my point above was that drops do not make things true, but rather justify greater degrees of confidence by the judge. I agree that what you've identified as the "real question" is more important. But people sometimes think the answer to that question is fixed by an answer to the question I raised. People say something like, "Obviously it's ethically and logically fine to argue for claims we know to be false… Since we're just arguing that they're true of the debate world, not of the real world. Silly Nebel!" So I think it's important to clear up this question first. I don't think I've equivocated between that more difficult question and the one I've discussed, because I haven't said anything about it…

        • Oh. I may have missed the whole point of this discussion then. As I just posted above, I agree with you that claims in debate rounds are claims about the world.And yes, "actually, transcendentally true" was my way of distinguishing between the debate-world-true some folks think exists, and "real world" truth.When we're having a discussion about different interpretations of what "truth" refers to, it seems silly to mock an attempt to clarify that.**If not meant mockingly, and just unintentionally snarky sounding, sorry.

        • My "Silly Nebel" comment was about people who take my view (in the article, once clarified) to be obviously false. Since you take it to be obviously true, it wasn't mocking you.If you meant anything else in my comment, it was not meant mockingly.(You did call the discussion "asinine," which is a bit strong–and overused in controversial discussions about debate.)

        • (Yeah, my bad. One of the reasons I generally avoid VBD discussions and other online discussions is that I have a bad habit of choosing rhetoric that is way more vitriolic than I actually feel.)

        • Hey no worries man. Happens to everyone. I guess that's what downvoting is for. Hope you comment in the future.

        • TheBerkeleyBear

          It seems like the only reason to accept that drops confer truth value in rounds is that that's the fair thing to do. What's fair in debate doesn't seem to be a claim about the world. It's just us deciding how we want to discuss the world. So it seems like drops don't confer non-debate truth value.For example, if I clearly and slowly say "the sky is green because in Canada, milk comes in aluminum foil," dropping that argument under your paradigm means the judge gives its truth value more credence. But no judge could ever give it any credence in the world because it's so damn absurd. It only makes sense that it has its own debate truthiness as determined by what's fair.

        • What's fair in debate is a claim about the world. Normal claims about debate are certainly claims about the world. So unless you think fairness claims in general are not about the world, then you're stuck.You don't *decide* what's fair. You figure it out, and then you do it. For anything that is not incoherent or logically necessary, we give it a credence between 1 and 0. I'm pretty sure that the sky isn't green, and I'm willing to bet a LOT of money on it, but there are some bets that I would pass up — e.g., I wouldn't bet my immediate family against a penny on the proposition that the sky isn't green. That's because, even though I'm extremely confident that I wouldn't lose (very close to 1), I'm not 100% certain. And I would only take that bet if I were 100% certain. Not sure how the proponent of "debate truthiness" fares any better with incoherent things. As I said, I don't know what it would mean to say that something is true only in the "debate world," but I'm especially puzzled if you think impossibilities can be true of this imaginary world. How can "2+2=5" be debate-true?

        • TheBerkeleyBear

          If you justify an ethical system in an abusive way and that ethical system implies rules are irrelevant, you're disregarding the fact that theory is just a question about how we ought to discuss the world. Its not a claim about the world. In other words, theory helps us effectively determine the truth-value of arguments that are about the world. Thus to assert post-fiat arguments take out our ability to discuss our world is to miss the point entirely.I agree with paragraphs 2. I think paragraph 3 is mostly correct, except I think some incoherent thoughts get more than just zero credence in the real world. Some people are superstitious but walking on cracks breaking backs is certainly incoherent.As per paragraph 4, we just imagine there are constraints on what we establish to be true. 2+2=5 is true if it's dropped much like many other absurdly stupid arguments being made (like condo logic). 2+2=5 is also true if you're Thom Yorke.

        • I'm afraid I don't fully understand your argument in the first paragraph — in particular, the first sentence. Does "you" have the same antecedent throughout the sentence?As I said in the original post, fundamental moral claims cannot be pre- or post-fiat. Events (like links and impacts) and advocacies can be pre- or post-fiat. But moral claims aren't events. Fundamental moral principles are necessary, not contingent. If you disagree with this view, you have to do it on philosophical grounds, not on debate grounds. Otherwise, your view of debate is incoherent: debaters are doing something that just doesn't make sense.Walking on cracks breaking backs is not incoherent. There is some non-zero likelihood that, by stepping on the next crack, I will trigger some micro-physical process that ends with the breaking of my mother's back. And it's possible that this will happen for every subsequent case of stepping on a crack. Of course, that's extremely unlikely, but it's not self-contradictory. Don't say "certainly incoherent." You don't have credence 1 that you have credence 0 in the superstition. That's exaggerating your confidence on both ends. You could only have credence 0 in the superstition if you had credence 0 in one of the following:(a) That you would have all the evidence you've accumulated in your life, given the superstition being true.(b) That, ignoring all of your evidence, the superstition is true.Now, your credence in (a) is very low but not 0. In a world where the superstition is true, you might still have all the evidence you now have. It may not have kicked in yet, or you may not have noticed, or your eyes have deceived you, or whatever. (b) is also not 0. Suppose you're born, and you're perfectly rational but haven't opened your eyes yet. Do/should you assign credence zero to the superstition? No. You have made no observations about whether you're in a normal world where mothers are safe from back-breaking crack-stepping, or whether you're in a weird world where superstitions are true. So although it's probably more likely that you're in a normal world yet, you don't know for sure, so your credence is non-zero. And my point is that, even if you disagree with what I just said, you shouldn't be *certain* that you're right.If a debater asked me to suppose that 2+2=5, I would find that impossible. That proposition could not be true, in any sense of the word. So, no…