Bryan Caplan  

Principles of Good Debating

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While ghost-writing for the Conservative Missionary and the Libertarian Missionary, I found myself reflecting on the principles of good debating.  I realize that debating can just be a sophistical exercise.  But it doesn't have to be.  In fact, it has obvious truth-seeking advantages over the straightforward lecture format.  For starters, debaters usually have a knowledgeable opponent to keep them honest.  Even better, debate gives people a chance to put the other side "on the stand" - to publicly ask them the tough questions people normally evade, then say, "Yes or no, Mr. Such-and-such?"

In any case, here are my candidate principles of good debating.  They're not primarily about winning, but about deserving to win.  But I do think that they are crowd-pleasing as well as truth-seeking.

Principle #1: Strive to address people who don't already agree with you.  Realistically, you'll at best change the minds of the undecided.  But the best way to sway the undecided is to reach out to your most intransigent opponents.

Principle #2: Talk to your opponent like he's your best friend, even if he does the opposite.  Not only are ad hominem arguments invalid, but they send the signal that you lack better arguments.  You'll also think harder and more creatively about your position once you spurn invective.

Principle #3: Split your time between talking to your audience and talking to your opponent.  The optimal balance might not be 50/50 exactly, but you should spend a goodly amount of time both appealing directly to your opponent, and pointing out his blind spots.

Principle #4: If you're uncomfortable publicly defending aspects of your position, reconsider your position.  In extremely oppressive societies, keeping your thoughts to yourself is common sense.  But in modernity's largely open societies, your discomfort says more about the quality of your beliefs than the unfairness of the world.

Any others?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
V.A. Luttrell writes:

I would also say to make sure you understand your opponent's position before you begin attacking it. Go so far as to ask questions, even probing questions (but not attacking questions) in order to further understand the position. Once you feel like you have a good grasp of it, then you can point out its flaws.

Sometimes people don't even get past fully articulating their ideas before they (or the audience) realize the problems in their own arguments.

david writes:

Somewhat cynically, debates are really "won" when you can get your opponent to say something that will look really silly when quoted out of context. Bonus points if it continues to be silly when examined in context, but it's not really necessary. Give yourself a gold star if the silliness highlights the fundamental errors in your opponent's case, but it is rare for anyone who is so unskilled in rationalizing to accept a debate challenge to begin with.

Caplan's principles apply when in a written debate held between academics, with an expected audience primarily composed of academics or other people who can be expected to participate in good faith.

Otherwise, well... there is a reason most scientists have become a little weary and wary of debating creationists and other assorted crackpots.

PeterW writes:

Point 4 depends heavily on what subpopulation you're addressing, and I would argue that it has almost zero truth-seeking value in real life. For example, arguing that historical evidence contradicts key passages in the Bible would be heresy in a red-state small town, but perfectly decorous in a university. Conversely, questioning the data (or the conclusions) of global warming research would be acceptable in the same small town but heresy in the academy.

I can accept that the point 4 is right more often than it is wrong if you're talking about the population as a whole. In reality most of us live in (and are influenced by the opinion of) fairly insular microcultures with various biases and taboos. Following rule 4 in reality would do nothing more than empower whatever group already has control of local opinion.

JPIrving writes:

What about intolerant western societies?

I'm from Vermont where voicing even Friedmanlike libertarian opinions wont land you in jail, but will certainly alienate oneself from the audience. Whenever I find myself in Vermont and debating I need to dance around my points and hope the listener arrives at my position on their own.

Does this mean the mainstream libertarian view is potentially invalid? Or just that Americans leftists are intolerant?

Doc Merlin writes:

'Does this mean the mainstream libertarian view is potentially invalid? Or just that Americans leftists are intolerant?'

I have met very few ideologically tolerant leftists. I have met far, far more ideologically tolerant social conservatives than tolerant leftists... which is surprising to me.

Jacob writes:

"Realistically, you'll at best change the minds of the undecided."

That's assuming the purpose of debate is to change minds. But if the debate is dialectic rather than eristic (truth-seeking rather than consensus-seeking), then the best case scenario could be that you'll change your own mind.

Doc Merlin writes:

'Caplan's principles apply when in a written debate held between academics, with an expected audience primarily composed of academics or other people who can be expected to participate in good faith.'

Since when are all academic arguments in good faith? No! No! They are designed to appear in good faith, they aren't necessarily in good faith.

david writes:

@Doc Merlin

True. But an academic environment limits the harm a debater acting in bad faith can do, and reduces their incentive to turn up at all. They cannot pull the standard rhetorical tricks that crackpots everywhere have honed - the Gish Gallop, accusations of bullying, FUD, JAQing to the audience, etc. Meta-debating by using the debate as a platform to gain wider publicity is a favorite.

As for tolerant conservatives vs intolerant liberals, you need to identify what hot-buttons to press. Try immigration, or existing wars, or military policy, or drug legalization, or crime policy, or wiretapping/privacy prosecutions of past administration officials, or culture-war issues (gay marriage/ten commandments monuments/One Nation Under God/etc.). Usually at least one of these works. If you know what industry they work in, advocate removing subsidies for it - many politically-dominated industries enjoy significant protection of some sort.

Tracy W writes:

Principle #2 - have you heard how people talk to their best friends?

And has there been any scientific research into this?

bjk writes:

Don't demand scientific proof of ordinary assumptions. See Tracy, above.

Snorri Godhi writes:

The best principle was formulated by Karl Popper, but I can't remember where.
He said that you should try really hard to find the best arguments against your own position.
If you cannot counter such arguments, change your position. If you can, you should not be afraid of any debate. (Unless you think that other people can find better arguments against you than you can.)

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