Thursday, April 06, 2017

Debate Made Not Simple

Kowincidentally, my last post--"The White House of Blue Lies"--appeared on what I have since learned was International Fact Check Day.  Of course, you knew that.

I only learned about it from this Washington Post piece, which also has some useful links to listicules about spotting fake news on the Internet, and otherwise fact-checking.

Apropos my piece, the LA Times has a more specific take on Why Trump Lies.  In my piece I also threatened to expound on what makes a fact a fact and related tests for what might reasonably be believed as factual.  Be forewarned that I'm about to do that now. That is, I'm about to explain how I learned to make those judgments.

First, formal education as it was in the 1950s and 1960s included explanations based on cause and effect in science and history--particularly American history-- along with narrative and propaganda.  By junior high we had a class called Civics, and in high school, social studies and Problems of Democracy.  A lot of it was sanctimonious crap but some of it was useful. It included definitions and examples of evidence and reasoning, and of propaganda , and the more common techniques or types of deliberate falsehoods such as as rumor and innuendo.

We also learned the different kinds of stories in a newspaper, which were easier to spot in those days.  News was on the front page, and all the pages of the first section, except a page or two near the front. On the left hand page, there were the editorials, most often set in a distinctive font.  These editorials were the official opinions of the newspaper, and generally were unsigned.  There would also be one or two editorial cartoons.

The remainder of the page contained letters to the editor and columns on topics in the news, written and signed by individual columnists, almost always journalists or former journalists.  In urban newspapers there might also be opinion pieces written by non-journalists, under their own names.  These are still called "op ed" pieces, because they commonly appeared on the page opposite the editorial page.

There was news later in the paper, including stories on pages devoted to business news, sports, community doings, social news, right back to the obituaries.  There were also feature stories, usually on entertainment or home-relates subjects, maybe a humorous column or two and of course, the comics and the want ads.

Admittedly, the newspaper structure made it easier to separate factual news from opinion, than in the free-for-all of the Internet.  But it was at least worth knowing that there is a difference.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, as playwright David Hare points out.  But not every opinion is equal--some are based on demonstrable facts, and therefore are better.  You know, because the Holocaust really happened.

We learned the basic rules of objective news, opinion, columns and features which some of us would practice on the school paper.  We also learned the difference between these forms--grouped under the name of "editorial"--and advertising.  We even learned basic kinds of advertising, such as "transfer" (a celebrity transfers her fame by being seen with a product) and "endorsement" (the celebrity actually says to buy the product because he does.)

For hundreds of years, basic schooling included subjects called Logic and Rhetoric.  Elements of these were folded into our subject categories, generally in what we called English.  But these civics courses also included types of logic (especially false logic) and rhetoric (means of persuasion) that especially pertained to public issues.

I believe most of my generation was exposed to such an education.  Those of us who went to Catholic schools got additional experience in argument through the legalistic definitions of morality that made up the rules and regs of Catholicism at that time.  There were definitions of sins for example, and lots of caveats and special cases.  We also were unintentionally exposed to the contradictions of Church dogma and American democratic decision-making.

Some of us got further experience in argument and in testing facts through participation in debate.  I think about this often these days.  I continue to think that what I learned in debate was basic to everything I did in journalism and non-fiction writing, as well as how I judge public issues.

  The first task in every high school debate was to define your terms.  If terms were not understood and agreed upon by both parties, there was no way to engage on the question.  The debaters on opposite sides of the question could argue over the definitions, but they had then to offer their own definitions, clearly and in public.

So let me define my terms.  Interscholastic high school debate in the 1960s had a particular form that it probably doesn't have anymore.  We debated the same topic for an entire school year.  It was set by the National Forensic League, as were the structure and rules of the debates themselves. (We also participated in the Catholic Forensic League, but it had the same topic and followed the same rules.)

Debates went like this: a debater for the Affirmative of the proposition spoke.  Generally this student was supposed to outline the Need for the proposition to be enacted.  Then the First Affirmative was questioned by one of the debaters for the Negative.  Then the First Negative speaker gave a rebuttal, questioned by an affirmative.  Then the Second Affirmative, whose responsibility was to outline a Plan for how the proposition would work.  After questioning, the Second Negative spoke, and was questioned.  I think each side got a final statement, but I'm not sure about that.

What was tricky for a lot of students--and especially for conscientious Catholics, aware of moral positions--was that all debaters had to be prepared to argue both sides, affirmative and negative.  Generally, you didn't find out which side you were charged with arguing until just before the debate (and you often had three debates a day.)

It was considered part of the experience to be able to see an issue from both sides.  That was interesting, and there were ways to do that.  But basically the problem remained: how could you argue against something with the same persuasiveness as you argued for it without being a hypocrite?

One way was to agree with the Need but suggest your opponents' Plan was so flawed that it wouldn't work.  I recall that we used this strategy on the proposition in our first year, 1962-3, which was: Resolved: That the United States should promote a Common Market for the western hemisphere.  This wasn't exactly a hot button issue, although it was topical because of the European Common Market, established in 1958, that paved the way for the European Union, which became a reality in 1994.

Debating this topic required a lot of research into international trade, the economics and politics of it, and the little that was available on possibilities for free trade among North and South American nations. This was 31 years before NAFTA.  The obvious Negative strategy was to argue that free trade was bad, and protectionism was good.  But there was also the possibility for outlining a different Plan, and I believe we tried that, arguing that it could succeed only if it created a trading partner with the European Common Market.

Our topic the next year was much more topical: Resolved: That Social Security benefits should be extended to include complete medical care.  This had been debated in the U.S. Congress during the Kennedy Administration, when it was called "Medical Care for the Aged," and would result in a landmark law about a year later in the summer of 1965, now called Medicare.

(Since research--especially on poverty among the elderly--led me to strongly favor the proposition, when on the negative I believe we again resorted to arguing against the plan, or just sadly proving that the affirmative hadn't made their case.)

Opposition to providing this medical care in the real world was an object lesson, since it was largely based on scare tactics, especially ideological shouting about "socialized medicine."  That was often the Negative line of attack, along with assertions that it was unaffordable and unworkable.  (Arguments that, we found, had been made against Social Security itself.)

So research was somewhat easier in the sense that there was a great deal more information available, but that became a problem of organizing it.  You had to anticipate the various arguments of your opposition.  So we lugged boxes full of file cards, clippings and article reprints to every debate.  Why?  Because our opponents would demand evidence of the truth of what we said.

That evidence had to be accurate.  And it had to come from a credible source.
Was it truly a fact, or an opinion? Then what was the source? First of all, you had to have one. “Everybody knows that” or “the American people believe” didn’t cut it. Neither did "according to a famous study." You had to have names, dates and places, or you’d soon hear your opponent scream, ”What’s your source?”

Then the source had to be credible. What qualified the source to make that statement? Was the information tainted by self-interest? Was the source of asserted fact generally reliable and unbiased? Was the opinion by a real authority?

If the fact is from a scientific study, how was it conducted? Are there other studies of this phenomenon and what did they conclude? And if it was a statistic, what did the numbers really mean? For instance, if the rate of rabies incidence in the population of Argyle, Nova Scotia went from 1% last year to 2% this year, there are different ways of saying it. You could say the rate went up by only 1%, and I could say it doubled.

 That's the cry heard most often in rebuttals--"what's your source?"  We learned so much about facts this way.  Facts were only as good as sources--and providing the credibility of the source was vital.  (It was also helpful to have the very same evidence as your opponent, so that if their use of it was selective, we could say, "but your source goes on to say...")

We had to be aware of possible bias by the author, organization or publication quoted (or the basis of our opponent's accusation of bias) so we could defend or attack the source's credibility.  So we had to approach what we read partly as our opponent might, to anticipate objections or--better--to find support for our contention from an unlikely source.

So we might point out when a study was financed by a biased entity, or for example when a certain speculative statistic was supplied by the American Medical Association, a staunch opponent of government funding medical care.

I expect we used what we could from other countries whose government funded medical care, like the UK and Canada, to suggest that it worked and that scary predictions hadn't happened. (As indeed, they haven't in the US.)

We learned about statistics--how to frame them and how to question them for what they really said.  There is a big difference, for example, between "average" and "median," with median (income, etc) usually telling you more.  You had to show how they applied to what you were talking about--or (arguing about your opponent's numbers) how they don't.

We also learned about relevance.  A blitz of facts wasn't enough--you had to demonstrate how these facts support your assertions and your case.  How does historical precedent, and even broad assertions of purpose, actually apply?

Manipulating information was also the intent of various forms of argument. We ran into variations of the classic logical fallacies, like “poisoning the well” (invalidating all arguments on the basis of a single assertion,) “begging the question” (restating your assertion as the conclusion, as in “big government is oppressive because it curtails your freedom”) or relying on a "straw man" argument, as well as various ad hominem attacks, such as mud-slinging, name-calling and emotionally loaded language. The argument from precedent or the simple but colorfully described assertion that all will end badly, without providing actual reasons. But mostly we dealt with inconsistent arguments that didn’t justify the particular conclusion. We could spot somebody confusing categories, making false analogies

Another aspect of debating was the importance of listening to your opponent, and especially of listening critically.  Listening critically to yourself and your partner was equally important in preparing.  These habits served me well in journalism as well as in evaluating public issues and arguments.

By debating both sides of a question, we learned that few issues are one-sided, and that general propositions may sound great but you need a workable plan. But most of all we learned how to test evidence and argument for validity, relevance and meaning.

All of this was in service of principles, of a vision, of a moral question, usually with historical roots.  Articulating those was kind of my specialty.  They were essential, but so were the facts, the argument, the plan.

I learned other lessons (such as the arbitrary nature of success--I still have ballots in which I was rated the best and the worst speaker in the same debate by different judges.) But in any event, my partner and I (Michael D. Krempasky, both years) were effective enough to win both the National Forensic League and Catholic Forensic League championships for our district in 1964.

These high school debates forever exposed the flaws in the presidential debates, and in turn, public affairs debates in general.  Evidence for assertions is rare, and facts are not disputed but simply ignored or countered with other "facts" with no evidence.

They illustrate for me as well that merely "fact-checking" is inadequate.  Some facts may be accurate but irrelevant, in either a positive or a negative sense.  Facts can be blown out of proportion, or applied wildly, or they can be said to prove what they don't come close to proving.

Fake news is only the beginning.  Fake debate, fake discussion that isn't about finding solutions but only gaining advantage is rampant.  And it's killing us.

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