Dropped Arguments Are Not True Arguments by Jacob Nails

Debaters often claim that uncontested arguments should be treated as 100% true for the purposes of the debate round. On more occasions than I can count, I have heard the negative assert that the impact of their disadvantage is now 100% likely to happen because the 1AR “dropped” it (failed to respond). This paradigm for evaluating concessions is rarely justified in round, but it wins ballots largely because it appeals to an axiom many judges already accept.

While the notion has intuitive appeal, I believe that paradigmatically treating dropped arguments as certainly true is misguided. Rarely will an analytic or evidenced argument prove its claim with near certainty. What amount of evidence would it take to convince a well-informed person that living wage would collapse the economy for certain? Hopefully far more than a single study or expert prediction. Yet, even a single card on the matter – when uncontested by the opponent – is enough for most judges to treat the claim as guaranteed, even when no rational person would give the argument the same strength outside of a debate context. Judges frequently treat dropped arguments (even very bad ones) as true. This is a mistake.

The fact that an argument was dropped should not give it any special status.

For those that do grant that dropped arguments are true arguments, it is not immediately clear where to draw the line for which claims in a round can be treated as definitely true. The simplest paradigm would be to treat an argument as given only if there are no responses, i.e. it is totally dropped. This paradigm leads to painfully arbitrary conclusions.

Imagine a negative debater whose sole response to an affirmative case was to group it and assert that no AC arguments were warranted. The five words “group the case; no warrant” (or other extremely weak arguments) should hardly play a large role in any round. However, if judges should only suspend disbelief and grant the claims 100% truth if they are uncontested, then the whole case is now significantly weaker. Strictly speaking, none of the arguments has been dropped entirely, so none of the claims is conferred the status of definite truth that comes from being dropped.

Arguments don’t start at 100% likelihood.

One possible modification which would avoid the above conclusion would be to hold that dropped arguments aren’t true because they are dropped per se but because arguments in general, dropped or otherwise, start out at 100% truth until diminished by the opponent. On this account, if the negative debater only offered an incredibly weak response, then the argument is almost no weaker than if it were dropped and remains at essentially 100%.

Granting arguments a presumption of absolute legitimacy until responded to would arbitrarily favor the first person to take a stance on a given claim.

Consider a round where one debater forwards a weak argument that economic decline would cause nuclear war, e.g. “countries will get mad and nuke their rivals in anger” (not far less warranted than some impact cards). The other debater rejoins with an even weaker reason why nuclear war will not occur, such as “all WMDs might simultaneously fail to launch from their silos.” This argument only reduces the threat of nuclear by an infinitesimal fraction of a percent, so the claim remains functionally unrefuted and thus roughly 100%.

What if the roles were reversed? One debater preemptively gives an extremely weak reason to think nuclear war won’t happen, and the other responds with a relatively weak justification for why it will. “Countries will get mad and nuke their rivals” only offers very minor evidence of one possibility for nuclear war, so it would at most only reduce the starting proposition that nuclear war won’t happen to 97-98% likelihood.

The judge cannot grant both of two contradictory claims the presumption of 100% certainty, and, given identical arguments, the judge’s evaluation should not fluctuate between near certainty of the impact and negligible risk depending on which of the two claims is treated as the proposition to be tested. While I view this as a reductio ad absurdum, I have seen some debaters uncritically argue that dropped AC arguments outweigh dropped NC arguments by virtue of being conceded first. I sincerely hope that the debaters in question do not actually hold this viewpoint. Any legitimate paradigm should not determine the weight to empirical evidence based on who talked first.

The obvious solution is to directly compare the strength of the warrants. The stronger warrant should have more weight. Neither should start at 100%.

This logic should extend to dropped arguments as well. (Carving out an exception for dropped arguments runs afoul of the same arbitrariness problems as before.) When a claim is dropped, the comparison is between the initial warrant for the claim and no warrant to the contrary. Having some evidence for a proposition and none against it is not sufficient to confirm the proposition with certainty. If the affirmative offers one empirical example of a time that economic collapse led to conflict and the negative fails to provide a counter-example, a reasonable person would not conclude that the next economic collapse will definitely cause a war. Why shouldn’t the judge evaluate the round as a reasonable person?

The modern “tabula rasa” paradigm perversely favors bad arguments.

I suspect that the most common rationale for accepting dropped arguments without scrutiny is judges’ desire to be “tabula rasa” (blank slate), i.e. to avoid bringing biases and preconceptions into their decisions. Giving an argument less than “full weight” for any reason (other than the responses of an opponent) would strike many as blatant judge intervention.

The issue with this view is the assumption that the full weight of every argument is 100%. Naively accepting every assertion with the semblance of a warrant to back it is not objectivity; it’s lazy judging. A claim with a number of strong examples supporting it should carry more weight than a claim backed by one weak example. A judging paradigm that treats either one as enough to establish complete certainty does a disservice to debaters making stronger arguments. It flips the incentives, so short arguments with extreme conclusions have more strategic value than developed arguments with reasoned conclusions. A truly objective tabula rasa paradigm would give the latter more sway in the decision, but most disadvantage impacts, theory standards, and philosophical frameworks in LD tend to reflect the former. Current debate norms do not favor objectively better arguments.

The problem is particularly stark in the case of statistical arguments. Suppose that one side asserts that economic collapses lead to war and supports the claim by citing a study showing that collapse is linked to military aggression 50% of the time. Suppose further that the other side drops this argument. Surely, the judge should not treat the prospect of war as 100%. To do so would be to go against the very argument being conceded (that the change of the next economic collapse causing war is something on the order of 50%). And if judges shouldn’t evaluate a statistical argument as 100% certain, then why should weaker arguments with more outlandish claims get a pass?

The baseline for evaluation should be the warrant, not the claim.

One last middle ground position that someone still subscribing to status quo norms of non-intervention might take would be to argue that dropped arguments should be taken at face value. Rather than deciding whether the warrants of a card justify the conclusion the author reaches, judges should accept the conclusion as sound. This view wouldn’t entail outlandish conclusions of 100% certainty because most authors make far more modest predictions.

If taken seriously, even this paradigm would substantially diverge from common practice. Take an average four card disadvantage. More than likely, each of those authors hedges their rhetoric with terms like “might” and “could” (often in multiple places per card), which don’t always make it into debaters’ underlining of the evidence. If such “could” claims appear four times in the disadvantage, and each “could” means something like 20-40% risk, then the combined risk of the disadvantage would start at somewhere between 2% and .2%. That’s only after pricing in the uncertainties admitted by the authors, not the opponent’s responses.

While that modification alone is already a far cry from the “100% risk” claims that currently beset advantage/disadvantage debates, I don’t believe it goes far enough. Evaluating an argument by the strength of the claim leaves in place the same perverse incentives for debaters to rush to bad arguments with hyperbolic conclusions. If an argument is as strong as the claim it makes, then the most strategic sources are the authors on the fringe of the literature base who make the most sweeping and radical claims. By contrast, the authors who acknowledge counter-arguments and draw restrained conclusions would have less strategic utility.

Minimizing bias does not mean treating all arguments as equally legitimate. A fair paradigm should give stronger weight to stronger arguments, so if judges striving to be “tabula rasa” find themselves consistently voting for bad arguments, this should be evidence that the dominant paradigm needs to be recalibrated.

In any case, I am skeptical that simply accepting dropped claims on face obviates the need for the judge to do “work” after the round. Authors rarely quantify their predictions precisely, and there is usually room for interpretation whether a journalist saying that a minimum wage hike “might” swing the next election intended to convey a 30% risk or a 3% risk. With analytic claims made by the debaters themselves, the task is even tougher. Each side will of course claim that their arguments prove near certainty in their conclusion, but how much is genuine conviction, and how much is strategic posturing?

In my experience, theory debates in particular are plagued by bad analytics which are falsely legitimized by “tabula rasa” judging paradigms. Debaters blitz out one-liners like “education comes first because schools won’t fund debate otherwise,” or “time skew outweighs ground skew because you need time to make arguments” in hopes that the opponent drops them. These are barely coherent thoughts, let alone well-warranted arguments. Even conceded, they should count only slightly (at best) in favor of their respective conclusions.

Most judges are reticent, and with good reason, to insert themselves and their opinions into the round, but reluctance to intervene has slid too far in the direction of outright laziness in judging, and many judges have abdicated all responsibility for evaluating arguments. This article leaves open-ended how to weigh argument quality fairly, but it definitely does not mean treating every warrant as 100% proof of its conclusion, and it does not mean taking every dropped claim at face value.

 

Jacob Nails debated for 4 years for Starr’s Mill high school in Georgia, graduating in 2012. As a debater, he won the Saint James School tournament and the Georgia state tournament, cleared at NFL nationals, and qualified to the TOC. As a first year policy debater in college, he won the JV Southeast district championship and cleared at every regular season tournament he attended with GSU. In his first year as a coach, he coached a sophomore to quarterfinals of the TOC.