Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Motion Fairness Analysis for Huber Debates 2012

Alfred Snider and James Hardy have been extremely kind (and unprecedentedly open) in sending me full tab data for a very recent tournament.  The Huber Debates 2012 involved 80 teams in 20 rooms, so it's just large enough that we get valid statistical inference using large-sample approximations.  I use the fairness test I describe here, which tests the null hypothesis that every team had an expected team score of 1.5.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What does a good judge believe?

Recently, I said to a friend that I would find it deeply unpersuasive if a team made a case using the argument that homosexuality was immoral.  She was surprised by this, and told me that many debaters from her institution quite liked being judged by me, because they thought that I would give credit to any argument, no matter how weird it was.

It is probably true that I am more receptive to novel arguments than the average debate judge.  In fact, I often have to resist the temptation to reward an argument simply because it is novel and interesting.  But I'd like to think that I'm not indifferent between (for instance) a well-explained, internally consistent argument based on liberal principles, and an equally well-explained, consistent argument based on fascist principles.  So what gives?

Roughly speaking, good judges should act as intelligent, open-minded, neutral observers to an argument, willing to be persuaded by either side.  If judges hold extreme or unusual views, or hold usual views with unusual intensity, they should try as hard as possible to leave those convictions at the door and listen to arguments with a more moderate mindset.  They should be willing to have this internal monologue:  "Much as I think that this argument is not persuasive, that is in part because my views on this matter are unusually intense (or unusually well-examined).  Most reasonable people would be persuaded by this argument, and I shouldn't let the bad luck of encountering me as a judge disadvantage the team that made it."

However, that's not to say that judges should be tabula rasa, judging arguments based purely on their formal properties, devoid of moral intuitions, or assessments of whether a claim is persuasive.  It may be that some debating formats operate like this; and it may be that some debaters enjoy being judged like this.  (It takes all sorts to make a world.)  But that's not how BP debating works - and not how it should work.

Here are a few reasons why:  Firstly, almost no meaningful normative claims are purely logical.  (Non-philosophers often overestimate what is logically provable; that is, what can be shown to follow from logical axioms.)  If we are going to make meaningful normative claims in debates (e.g., "We should invade Iran if it is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons" or "We should provide for the sick, even when their illnesses result from their life choices) then we are going to need to start from more than pure logic.  If all starting points are treated equally, then debaters will always be talking past one another.  Debating will simply be a game of identifying an internally consistent ethical position that justifies your beliefs - no matter how morally repugnant that position is.