Creating Better Evidence Norms

A few months back, one of my fellow Triumph Debate contributors, Katie Humphries, wrote an article on “How To Indict Pieces Of Evidence”. As I was reading through it to be able to give friendly reassurance, I noticed some things that slightly bugged me. It wasn’t anything Katie said in the article itself, it was more about a forwarding of bad norms that exist currently in many debate circuits.

Let me explain what I mean with the first example that comes to my mind, Katie’s initial disclaimer about “cheap wins”. If you haven’t read Katie’s initial article, I would recommend you do that first before continuing with my comments about it. This initial disclaimer, in sum, stated that you shouldn’t indict all evidence introduced in the round because it’s annoying to judges. As someone who loves comparing evidence in debates, this statement struck me as odd. However, it doesn’t surprise me that judges find evidence indicts annoying, as so few debaters execute these arguments well.

Evidence comparison is one of the major ways that local debate circuits differ from the national circuit in that, typically, it doesn’t exist. I have heard countless stories of laughably bad evidence, including cards from critically underqualified writers, making up evidence, or blatantly exaggerating/misapplying the authors arguments and conclusions. This norm of letting people get away with bad evidence makes many circuits focus more on “spinning” academically unsound or non-existent arguments rather than learning about and arguing existing literature bases. It also hurts local debaters who want to travel on the national circuit, where the emphasis on evidence is tenfold that of the local circuit.

Because of my concerns of existing evidence norms, I have come up with a few suggestions on how to change our circuit to place a greater emphasis on the quality of scholarship we produce, along with how to bring evidence indicts into debate without making judges more upset than they already are.

1.) Indict What Has Implications In The Round

Strategically choose how and when you indict evidence. You may have multiple ways to try to indict their evidence, but it’s likely more advantageous if you emphasized an indict that has implications in the debate as a whole.

For example, in a hypothetical debate, you want to answer your opponent’s piece of evidence (Dal Pra, 2019) arguing that cat overpopulation causes environmental destruction. You could respond back with your own source (Humphries 2020) that found environmental collapse can’t happen from cat overpopulation. From here, you might compare qualifications. You might say that “Dal Pra doesn’t have XYZ experience, meaning she is not qualified to write about environmental processes.” On the other hand, your source, Humphries 2020, is qualified – She has XYZ degree which makes her comparatively more qualified to draw conclusions about environmental science than Dal Pra.”  You clearly gained some leverage in that indict. You have evidence that is back by a more qualified author, meaning the judge has a better chance of assigning your defense a higher risk than the cat impact.

Now, you could try to make a recency argument too – your source is from 2020, theirs 2019. But, doing so doesn’t get you much leverage unless a major development on the environment or cat populations has taken place. Otherwise, the scenario that Dal Pra and your author are both writing about hasn’t changed much, meaning that both pieces of evidence assume the same events, and a potential recency indict doesn’t have the same impact as the qualification indict you did above. Therefore, it is likely not as strategic for you to make an evidence indict based on recency.

You might ask yourself, “How do I be strategic in indicting evidence?”. To know which pieces of evidence to indict, and how it can benefit you, you should know how each piece of evidence interacts with each other and how taking out those pieces of evidence impacts the judge’s view of the round.

That sounds like a lot, and it is. Strategic vision is an extremely difficult skill that even more experienced debaters need to develop. Some good ways to improve your strategic vision include judging practice rounds or novice tournaments. As a judge, you gain a unique perspective on how arguments interactive to inform a RFD. Another way is to analyze how a debaters’ decisions in round impact the round as a whole. For example, think about how the constructive speeches made it possible (or impossible) for debaters to go for certain arguments later on in the round.

The point of this article is not to guide you on how to gain strategic vision, so, I’d recommend watching an informative lecture by Bill Batterman, Associate Director of Debate at Woodward Academy, here.

Overall, you want to focus on critiques of your opponent’s evidence when it is both blatant and has implications in the round. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you can’t layer indicts (i.e. have multiple reasons as to why a piece of evidence is problematic), rather, the point is that you don’t want to be indicting for the sake of indicting. Focus on indicting your opponent’s evidence when it is blatantly problematic and when pointing that out will have implications in the round

2.) Judges: Ask To Be On An Email Chain

The NSDA has finally allowed access to internet in rounds. The peasants rejoice! Not only can debaters in NSDA districts now cut evidence in round, but we can also cut down the time it takes for a round to happen by switching from flash drives and employing email chains. Judges should feel free to ask to be on the email chains of debate rounds. Doing so forces accountability in evidence ethics, preventing issues like falsification, straw person, and clipping. If judges and debaters all consent to a sharing of evidence between all parties involved, then there should be no issues with any state-based ethical standards.

3.) Debaters: Create Disclosure Norms

Having good debates about the qualifications of certain authors will naturally come easier if the debaters know the authors they will hear beforehand. It’s high time for all circuits to adopt standards of disclosure for debaters. This forces debaters to do the best research possible for the most academically sound arguments, rather than reading a bad piece of evidence and relying off the element of surprise to gain any benefit. Try starting a discussion with your coach, partner or team about disclosing your cases, or talk with your friends from other schools about it.

If you need a more substantial, better structured argument about why disclosure is good to convince you to adopt better norms, I’d recommend reading these excellent articles written by Victory Briefs Institute Instructor Jacob Nails, here, and Lawrence Zhou, LD Director at Victory Briefs, here.

I hope this article has been helpful in illustrating some of the solutions to bad evidence norms, and I hope that we, as a community, can push to make these necessary changes universally.

About The Author:

Sophia competed in Policy Debate at Wooster HS. She qualified to the OSDA state tournament all four years, advancing to elimination rounds three times, including semi-finals and finals. She also qualified to the NSDA National tournament twice, advancing to elimination rounds her junior year. Sophia plans on continuing her debate career next year in college at the University of Kentucky, where she will be studying Political Science, Foreign Language & International Economics.

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