Debate: Entertainment, Persuasion, and Knowledge

Debate in general has three uses: entertainment; persuasion; and knowledge. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but I’ll explain each of the three uses separately. Then I’ll tell you what I know about how to be successful at them.

To begin with, almost all media discourse about politics and ethics is about entertainment. This is what cable news, talk radio, and much of social media are largely for. People generally watch not because they expect to be persuaded, and people produce these media generally not because they expect to persuade anyone. Instead, it’s pure entertainment. We enjoy feeling good about ourselves. We feel good about ourselves when people tell us we’re correct about things and that the bad people are wrong and evil. And some of us enjoy being in the middle of these debates; we like to show off, or we just like the feeling of competition. Talking about political topics is also a major source of social bonding; people use political discourse to strengthen their social relationships. We get together with our friends and family and talk about how the other side is evil.

The next use of debate is persuasion itself. This is merely convincing someone to believe something. And it’s a zero-sum game; if I convince you to agree with me, then you must disagreewith someone else. Whether I win or lose, itself, doesn’t have anything to do with whether I’ve actually taught anyone anything, or learned anything.

It can be frustrating to feel that you’ve given someone (especially a family member) good reasons to believe something, but they still don’t agree with you. It can also be deeply hurtful when people close to you have immoral beliefs and you can’t change these people’s minds. It’s natural to feel upset about someone’s having immoral or offensive beliefs, but know that your friend’s or relative’s beliefs will have little-to-no effect on the actual laws that get passed, because no one’s vote ever changes who wins a national election. Also, remember that most of the people who disagree with you haven’t really carefully and clearly thought about all their views and all the implications of their views. People often just choose a side because they have in the past, or because their parents did, or because it’s easy, and they don’t realize how harmful the view can be. That may be some comfort.

The third use of debate is to actually teach us knowledge. We can reject false beliefs and affirm true beliefs. We can understand the evidence necessary to justify our beliefs. This is a positive-sum game: we’re all better-off when more people learn. But of course this result of a debate is the rarest of the three. You not only have to persuade someone, but also, you have to persuade them of something true, and you have to have given them good reasons to believe it.

Now, what’s my role as a professor? I want Spring Hill students to be good at debate, because I want them to be good at entertainment, persuasion, and teaching. I want them to be good at the first two because it’s my job to benefit our students, even if (because this is a zero-sum game) that comes at a cost to otherschools’ students. I want our students to be good at teaching because I want the world to be a better place.

To understand how to use debate to entertain and to persuade, we need to look at social science and rhetoric. To understand how to use debate to teach, we need to look at philosophy. Social science is about how people actually behave, including how they form beliefs. Philosophy is about how people should behave, including about how they should form beliefs. So I’m going to talk now about how to accomplish these goals. But I also want you to be realistic about these goals. As I said, whether you actually persuade your friends or family-members of anything won’t ever actually affect public policy or the laws we have, and merely having offered someone a good argument doesn’t at all guarantee that they’ll change their minds.

We know from psychology and rhetoric how to be entertaining and persuasive. I’ll just summarize some of those results.

First, appearance matters. It helps to be attractive and tall, if you can. (I know that’s unfair, but people don’t generally react to debates in a fully rational way.) Speak confidently, even if you’re not confident. Use mathematical claims and cite specific numbers if you can, even if they’re not totally relevant to the case you’re making. Learn public speaking and practice it as much as you can; it will help your confidence if nothing else. Read your audience; if they expect a friendly discussion, then feel free to seem very agreeing with a lot of what your opponent says, but if they expect a fight, try not to concede anything to your opponent.

Second, you should seem to be on your audience’s side, or if your audience is just your opponent, seem to be on your opponent’s side. Don’t challenge their beliefs directly; instead, try to move them to a position of agnosticism about the debate. Ask questions rather than making direct challenges, questions such as ‘How do you know that?’ or ‘Where can I go to see this research?’ Try to hide your own position if possible. Give people an “out”; give them an opportunity to save face by claiming that they agreed with you all along, or that the disagreement was just a misunderstanding. When we change our position, we feel that we’ve surrendered or lost, so make this as painless as possible. Also, commit to as little as possible, because every time you commit to something, you give your opponent an avenue of attack, and you give your audience an opportunity to disagree with you. Remain neutral where you can.

Third, try to resist temptation. We all want to decisively “win,” especially if there’s an audience. It can also be fun to attack your opponent personally. This contributes to the entertainment purpose of debate but often detracts from the persuasion purpose. At the end of the day, audiences will tend to side more with the person who seems more competent and smarter, and that usually means keeping your cool and appearing friendlier and more-knowledgeable. Even if you can score “fun” points by insulting your opponent, keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t appear too emotional. If you seem angry or insulting, your audience might discount your views as irrational. (Again, this is unfair; it’s rational to get angry about some views, and emotions are sometimes a valuable source of knowledge. But from a purely strategic perspective, try to resist the temptation unless you can tell that your audience shares the emotion.) Those who disagree with you are constantly looking for reasons to discount your views, so always try not to give them any ammunition.

I’ve explained the most-effective strategies for persuasion and entertainment, but I want to add that some of these strategies may reinforce social inequalities that already exist. Arguably, oppressive social norms dictate whom we listen to and whom we consider to be knowledge-producers. We may have a responsibility to fight those stereotypes, a responsibility that outweighs our self-interest in appearing convincing.

Now how do we actually use debate to confer knowledge? We have to trust reliable evidenceand reject unreliable evidence. But how do I know what to trust, in general? This is the branch of philosophy we call ‘epistemology.’ How do I sort the true beliefs from the false? This can be an extremely complicated topic, but I’ll say a few things.

First, study psychology so you can know about cognitive biases. We all make cognitive mistakes. We trust evidence more when it comports with what we already believe. We ignore the background, base rate of some occurrence and pay too much attention to particular, specific, recent evidence. Our judgments change depending on how a question is framed, even when the question is asking the very same thing either way. We believe things when we think that the people like usbelieve those things. We believe the things that we think the person we want to be likewould believe. We make up stories about why we believe the things we do, when the actual causes of our beliefs are far different. We remember our successes and forget our failures. We form conclusions about some empirical matter before actually looking at the evidence. By the way, the more you know these biases, the more you can take advantage of them to persuade people.

Second, know about common fallacies. Appeals to authority are only cogent when the authority is actually an expert and has actually weighed in on the debate. Watch out for circular reasoning: when someone assumes the very claim they’re trying to prove, usually in a disguised way. Watch out for ad hominem attacks: attacking the person is only cogent when the trait you’re attacking is relevant to whether they’re trustworthy. Watch out for equivocation and ambiguity; a lot of debates stall and don’t make progress because it turns out that the parties are using different definitions of the key terms.

Third, know whom to trust. I want to say a few things about this.

To begin with, trust experts when there is a consensus. Try to find a way to discover whether there’s a consensus and what it is; here, you can ask your professors. There are lots of people out there who have an incentive to pretend to be experts in a field, but the real experts are in the respected colleges and universities. But don’t absolutely trust your professors about everything, especially not when it’s not in their area of expertise, and not when there’s some detectable bias or when they completely dismiss an opposing position when that position actually has lots of serious, apparently sincere adherents. Trust professors and other authorities more when they can convincingly explain some position in such a way that you can’t tell what the speaker actually believes. Trust them less when they claim that there’s simply no remotely plausible argument for that position and everyone who believes it is acting in bad faith. Only a relatively few positions--typically explicitly racist, sexist, and homophobic positions--can be dismissed without serious engagement. But recall that actually seeming to fairly engage with the immoral positions may help you persuadepeople to reject those positions.

Next, I want to tell you to watch out for conspiracy theories; people trust conspiracy theories because they’re entertaining, even though the standard story is almost always the true one. Remember that people are flawed and selfish, which makes large-scale conspiracies almost impossible to keep secret for long.

Last, trust people’s beliefs and predictions morewhen those people actually stake money or personal reputation on those beliefs. It’s easy to sayyou think someone will win the next election; how much do you want to bet? People have an incentive to make contrarian predictions because if they get it right, they look like geniuses, and if they get it wrong, then few people will bother going back and finding their predictions as proof. Online, you should trust anonymous people much less than named people, because again, look for when people have a personal stake in getting something right or wrong.

In conclusion: One of my teachers argued that political irrationality is the worst social problem, because it’s the problem that prevents us from solving all the other social problems. If we know how to persuade, then we can help fix this problem. But we also have to be careful to persuade people only to the truth. We use psychology to learn how to persuade and we use philosophy and the sciences to learn what the justified beliefs about ethics and politics actually are. It’s not easy and it’s often not fun, but we have a moral responsibility to do our best to make the world a better place.