Chapter 1

The Nature of Debate


What is debate?

In its essentials, debate is an extended argument. Two groups of people dispute whether a statement is true or false. The Affirmative team in the round supports the statement, while the Negative team opposes it.

Once all the arguments have been put forth, an impartial judge decides the matter in favor of one team or the other. The decision is based only on the material presented during the debate...the judgeís personal feelings do not enter into his decision. Whatís really being decided is not whether the statement ó usually called the resolution, proposition, or topic ó is true or false, but which team is better able to sustain its arguments.


What sort of things are debated?

There are three types of statements that are suitable for argumentation. The simplest are propositions of fact. Debates of this sort hinge on whether something is true or false; often they try to establish a cause and effect relationship. Of course, some propositions of fact are so simple that there are no grounds for argument among reasonable people: "The sun rose at 6:15 this morning" is such a statement; it would not require great persuasive skill to prove this either true or false.

Other propositions of fact are less easily determined, and thus are more suitable for debate: "Lizzie Borden killed her parents," for example, or the statement that "Rock music leads to devil worship." Evidence is available for both sides in these matters.

The chief place where propositions of fact are disputed are in courts of law. There the defense and the prosecution argue whether a certain person is guilty of disobeying a particular law.

The second type of statement is the proposition of value, which suggests the relative worth of one or more things. "Governmental funding for abortion is immoral," is one example. Most such propositions weigh two or more factors against each other: "Smith would make a better governor than Jones," for instance, or "College academic work is more important than college sports." All these propositions ask the judge to decide what is desirable or what we should believe.

As the governorship example shows, value propositions appear frequently in politics. A special form of debate, called value debate or Lincoln-Douglas debate, is used in high schools to discuss value propositions.

While value debate is beyond the scope of this work, itís worthwhile to note that value propositions usually have factual propositions buried within them. For example, the proposition "Art education is more important than science education" will encourage the debaters to weigh the effectiveness of each type of education and to define the boundaries of Art and Science. These factual issues will then give support to the value arguments.

Finally, we turn to propositions of policy, which concern what we as a society ought to do. Propositions of this sort are often used in academic debate. Some examples of typical resolutions would be the statements that "The federal government should finance all elementary education in the United States," and "The U.S. jury system should be significantly changed."

Issues of fact and of value are embedded in policy questions. Consider the resolution "The U.S. should increase its military budget." The Affirmative and Negative will begin by disputing what is included in the phrase "military budget" ... the Coast Guard staff? State police? The Presidentís salary, since he is commander in chief? Issues that will develop later include the merits of military increases versus the national debt, and national security weighed against an increased international arms race ó value questions.

Policy debate questions always contain the word "should." This word has a special sense in debate: it means "ought to, but not necessarily will." Itís enough if the Affirmative team proves ó in the example above ó that increasing the military budget would be beneficial; they donít have to show that Congress is likely to do it.


Iím confused about these words: "proposition," "topic," and "resolution."

The official debate topic is chosen in March of each year. That topic will be used for all high school policy debates for the coming year. In some states, the debate program is year-long; in others, such as Michigan, the season lasts only for one semester. Since the topic always involves a policy proposal, it can also be called a proposition. And since the official wording of the topic always begins, "Resolved: That...", itís often called the debate resolution.


How does the resolution divide Affirmative and Negative positions?

The Affirmative team always favors the resolution; the Negative team always opposes it.

Policy questions are always worded to suggest a change from current practices. This means that adopting the policy would automatically entail some risks, since we canít know for sure beforehand what the full effects of the change will be. Since the Affirmative team always favors the resolution, they will take the position that the risks are minor.


Who gets to speak first in the debate?

In a criminal trial, the accused is considered innocent when the trial begins. Thatís why the prosecution gets to speak first ó to establish a charge against the defendant.

The same idea carries over to debate: if the debate were never held, the Negative would win in theory, because the present way of doing things is presumed to be reasonably good. This benefit of the Negative team is know as presumption, since itís equivalent to the legal presumption of innocence before a criminal trial. At the start of the debate, we presume that the present way of doing things ó the status quo (STAT-uhs KWOH) ó is reasonably effective, that its flaws are minor, and that changing from the present system would be risky.

The Affirmative thus gets to speak first, in order to point out the severe problems in the status quo and to suggest ways that these problems can be removed. This is the Affirmative burden of proof ó their duty to attack the present system. We will talk more about this later.


Which Affirmative speaks first? And who speaks next?

Each team in policy debate has two membersóthere are two Affirmatives and two Negatives. Whichever Affirmative rises to make the first speech will be called the First Affirmative; his partner is the Second Affirmative. Similarly, the first speaker on the Negative side will be the First Negative, and his partner the Second Negative. These speakers are usually identified by a number and a letter: 1A, 2A, 1N, and 2N.

The first four speeches of the debate are used to introduce new arguments and to construct major positions that will be defended later. Each of these constructive speeches is allowed eight minutes.

The last speeches of the debate are concerned with refuting the positions your opponents have taken against your constructive arguments. These speeches are called rebuttals. Again, Affirmative and Negative speeches will alternate, but the Negative team leads off the rebuttal period.

Those are the major speeches of the debate. However, each constructive speech is followed by a three-minute cross-examination (CX) period. The speaker who finishes his speech is asked questions by a member of the opposing team for three minutes. Each speaker will participate in two CX periods: one as questioner, one as witness. Putting this all together, then, we get the following chart for a debate:

The grand total is just over one hour of speaking time. Note that there is no cross-examination period after the rebuttals.

The Affirmative gets to speak first and last in the debate. Counterbalancing this, the Negative gets a 13 minute period in the middle of the debate (2NC and 1NR, interrupted only by a cross-examination), which they can use to great effect to weaken the Affirmative position. This Negative block often is the turning point of a round; frequently, the Affirmative falls back to a purely defensive position after this point.


What supplies will I need?

You will need to establish a file of evidence, and that will require a supply of 4" by 6" index cards, a file box, and dividers. Blank dividers are best ó thereís no easy way to use those labeled with letters or months. Do not try to use 3" by 5" cards...they are much too small.

In the course of a round, you will need to take notes on the progress of the debate. This technique is called flowcharting and is discussed more fully in Chapter 11. You will want to use a pad of legal paper or large sheets of art paper for this. Of course, you will also need a supply of pens or pencils.


Why do I need evidence?

At the start of the debate season, you will be unfamiliar with much of the subject matter of the topic. As the year progresses, you will grow more and more knowledgeable. But that doesnít mean the judge or your opponents will believe everything you assert.

In a courtroom, the opposing lawyers can call witnesses and experts to testify. You donít have that luxury in a debate round. Instead, you read brief quotations from experts to substantiate the points you will to make. In order to be able to prove your arguments, you will build up a large file of evidence on index cards.

The basic equation of debate is: REASONING + EVIDENCE = PROOF. Arguments by themselves donít have any weight, if they are not backed up by expert testimony. Evidence by itself cannot be persuasive, since it lacks supportive reasoning that builds toward a conclusion. Only by giving sound reasons for your position, and backing these reasons up with expert evidence, can you prove a point.


How do I make out an evidence card?

Print neatly or type...your partner may need to read this evidence, and he or she will have to be able to understand what you have written. Use ink, not pencil. Near the top of the card, record the author of the material, and his credentials (in parentheses). Follow that with the source: the title of the book, or the article name and publication name for a magazine or newspaper. Finally, include the date and the page number. The idea is to provide much of the same bibliographic material that you would give in the references to a well-written term paper.

Below the bibliographical material, record the body of the text in quotation marks. Do not use any ellipses (three dots) to indicate material has been cut. If you only want to use the first and last sentences of a paragraph, either record the sentences separately on different index cards, or put the whole paragraph on one card and use a highlighting marker to indicate the material preferred.

Only one quotation should ever be on each index card. Try to leave the very top line of the card blank. Later, you will make notes at the top to assist you in filing this evidence.


What does an evidence card look like?


Do I have to read all the bibliographical stuff in the debate?

No. It must be on the card for later verification, but you can omit a good deal of it during the round. In a debate, you need to cite the author, his qualifications, the book or periodical title, and the date. If you have previously quoted from this author already, itís enough to give the authorís name and say "previously cited."


Where do I find evidence?

There are a number of sources. You will first want to consult the school and public libraries: remember to check the bookshelves, magazine and newspaper rack, and the vertical file of pamphlets and newsletters. Later, as your sophistication increases, you will want to consult the library of a college or university for more technical material.

Books are very good for your initial research, and they can provide in-depth coverage of a subtopic better than any other source. The disadvantage is that book material is not very current: a book published in 2001 may have been written in 1999 or earlier.

Newspapers are excellent sources for the most recent statistics and developments in the topic area. The three mainstays are the NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, and THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR. Major regional papers like the DETROIT NEWS are acceptable; avoid local papers. Indexes for these papers are available at the library. While newspapers are good sources of recent data, they donít provide much in the way of analysis.

Magazines are the most commonly cited sources of evidence. Newsmagazines such as TIME, NEWSWEEK, and BUSINESS WEEK have current statistics but limited reliable analysis. Academic magazines and technical journals, written by and for professionals in the field, often provide expert opinions. The precise list of important academic journals will vary from year to year as the topic changes. These magazines are often unavailable outside a college library. Popular magazines such as READERS DIGEST are unsuitable for debate ó the material often has been recycled from other sources, and it is preferable that you quote the primary source. The READERS GUIDE TO PERIODICAL LITERATURE provides a thorough and timely index of most magazines your public library is likely to carry; college libraries also have special indexes for academic journals.

One special magazine deserves mention all by itself: FORENSIC QUARTERLY. The issues of this magazine are devoted to analysis of the debate resolution, and each issue gives a good bibliography of primary sources worth consulting.

Government documents include Congressional committee hearings and reports of presidential commissions. These documents are among the most authoritative, but they are hard to find outside a college library. Sometimes you can find the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD at the local library, but it is a long and tedious task to scan it for useful material.

Special interest groups will sometimes send brochures and publications to those who are interested. For instance, the NRA would potentially be a source for evidence on a topic dealing with gun control. Much of this material will show an obvious bias and will be discounted in a debate round, but many special interest groups are known for fair and evenhanded treatment.

Finally, we come to the category of debate handbooks...collections of precut evidence and analysis, mass-produced for the debater. Avoid relying too heavily on handbook sources. The evidence is often irrelevant and occasionally distorted. Usually, it is poorly cited, with incomplete dates, unnamed authors, or authors without qualifications. The chief value of handbook material is to show you some issues you may have overlooked and to suggest other primary publications worth looking up.


What about the Internet?

Yes, absolutely. The growth of online material has made the Internet a treasure-trove of material for debate. Unfortunately, along with material of the highest quality, there is a lot of nonsense available on websites. You will need to be careful in selecting quotations from people who have expertise in the field they are writing about.

Citing online evidence requires taking a few special steps. The citation should have the authorís name and credentials; the title of the web-page (which may require both an article and a publication title); the date the information was placed online or revised, if that can be discovered; the phrase "Online: Internet"; the URL or website address where you found the material; and the date you accessed the information. So a complete Internet citation might look like this: Dahlia Lithwick (senior staff editor), "What War Powers Does the President Have?" Slate, September 13, 2001, Online: Internet,; Accessed September 17, 2001.

When you present the evidence in a round of competition, you would not have to read all the citation material. You would say something like, "Dahlia Lithwick, senior staff editor, writing in Slate, online, September 13, 2001."


For what sort of evidence should I be looking?

There are three main types of evidence. Factual data is pure reporting: it consists of true anecdotes and reports. Most newspapers and magazines, especially technical journals, concentrate on factual reporting. Statistics ó a type of factual data ó give concrete numbers of people or incidents. Facts can also be divided into empirical data ó that produced from scientific studies, laboratory experiments, and surveys ó as opposed to anecdotal data, which consists of individual reports. Many debaters favor empirical evidence, since anecdotes may indicate only isolated events.

The most important category of evidence may be authoritative opinion: comments by experts. These opinions serve to establish cause and effect relationships. For example, a judgeís testimony that medical malpractice cases are the chief cause of delayed jury trials would be excellent support of a resolution to reform our legal system. Similarly, opinions as to the worth of proposed reforms are vital to debate.

Avoid the third type of evidence ó conclusionary evidence, which looks very similar to expert opinion but does not establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship. A missile systems expert claiming that "decreasing the U.S. nuclear arsenal would lead to nuclear war within five years," seems at first glance to be providing a important opinion. But since the expert just reports his conclusion and not the reasons behind it, there is little reason to accept his report.


How do I know if the evidence Iím gathering is any good?

There are seven tests for good expert opinion. The best evidence will evoke a "yes" answer for each of these questions.

  1. Is the material timely? Anything more than five years old is suspect ó and statistical evidence should be more recent than that. Some exceptions are allowed, especially for economic or political theories, but the five year marker is fairly widely accepted.
  2. Is the author qualified? Opinions by people who are not authorities are not worth much. Note that the credentials should be relevant to the testimony provided. A research chemist commenting on the effects of pesticides in drinking water is probably a competent source; he would not be reliable when commenting on the economic effects of increased federal debts.
  3. Is the author unbiased? Expert opinion should be based on facts, not personal prejudices.
  4. Is the conclusion broad enough to be useful? A conclusion hedged with too many words like "may," "sometimes," and "could be" is too limited for most rounds of debate.
  5. Is the conclusion based on valid research? Statistical studies of limited geographical regions, small populations, or foreign countries may not be broadly applicable to a national topic.
  6. Does the evidence provide both reasons and conclusions? See the discussion above about conclusionary evidence. The best opinion provides solid connections between causes and effects: a causal link.
  7. Is the evidence relevant? Even if the material passes all the other tests, you donít want to bother collecting it if youíll never use it.


How do I file my evidence?

You will develop your own filing system as the season progresses. You have to develop a system that your debate partner understands: one that will allow either of you to find a particular piece of evidence at a momentís notice

One of the easiest ways to begin is by developing blocks of related evidence. Start with a major division of your file: perhaps FINANCE, which will deal with all possible ways of financing a major change in the status quo. You will then sort the evidence you have acquired into blocks: those in favor of increased income taxes, those opposed to increased income taxes, those in favor of a national lottery, those opposed, and so forth. Perhaps you will have enough evidence to break this down still further ó perhaps you have several cards, each giving a different reason why a national lottery is undesirable.

At the top of each evidence card, write a line to identify the block to which the card belongs. Use whatever code seems best for you. FIN/INC TX BAD might be enough to identify a card that says the income tax is bad for financing government programs. But FIN/INC TX BAD/BSNS HURT would be more specific ó the label (also called a tag or a slug) translates to mean that increases in the income tax are bad because they depress business activity. Write these codes in pencil, because you may wish to reclassify cards later.

Sort evidence cards into sets that belong to the same block...all the INCOME TAX BAD cards, then all the INCOME TAX GOOD cards. Then put them into your file as part of the FINANCE section. The idea is to be able to find any specific piece of evidence as quickly as possible ó and to be able to refile it all quickly at the end of the round. A secondary consideration is to have a filing system that your partner will be able to understand, so that he too can find evidence if necessary.


Isnít there a more efficient way to classify evidence?

Later in the season, you will want to develop briefs ó prepared lists of analysis and evidence, which can pulled out of your files to be presented against opposing arguments you encounter frequently. Why not start off this way? Well, briefs are used to respond to common arguments presented by your opponents. Until you know what arguments are often advanced, and until you have a substantial collection of evidence, you canít develop briefs. That limits you to later in the season.

Briefs are typewritten or word-processed documents, usually kept in a notebook or folder. When you hear a particular argument, you can respond with a prepared brief rather than dig through your file box for evidence cards. The best uses for briefs are for extensions in the Second Affirmative Constructive speech, for plan attacks in the Second Negative Constructive, and plan defense in the First Affirmative Rebuttal. See the explanations of those speeches for examples of how briefs can be useful.


Which side should I debate?

That is a question that you and your coach need to answer together. But donít assume that only one side of the issue, or just one position, will be best for you.

When choosing the side to debate, ignore your personal feelings on the matter. The resolution always deals with a topic area in which there are serious wrongs that need public attention, and many beginning debaters feel that they would have an advantage on the Affirmative side. But each resolution is carefully balanced in order to give both sides of the issue a fair chance to win. There will be as many arguments against change as there arguments in favor.

Please consider debating both sides of the resolution during the season. A debater who has tried only the Negative side will see a lot of Affirmative approaches, and will gain great insight into what Affirmative strategies are successful. At the same time, though, he will have never seen other Negative teams at work. Debating on the Affirmative side for a few rounds will allow him to put into practice the techniques he has seen as a Negative, and he can compare his own style against that of other Negative debaters for the first time. The upshot is that the speaker will become a better debater on both sides of the issue for the experience. The same argument applies to an Affirmative debater who switches over to the Negative side, of course.

Changing sides also enlarges the scope of your debate experience. Affirmative teams concentrate on a few specific cases in the course of the season, and lose sight of the breadth of the topic. Negative debaters have to be prepared on a wide panorama of issues both within and outside the topic area, but they rarely have the opportunity to explore an issue in depth. Exchanging positions allows for a more meaningful educational experience for every student.

Indeed, it would be to your advantage to debate all four positions in the course of the year. You will gain a better appreciation for the pressures your partner is under. As we will see later in this book, each speaking position has its own unique tactics and style. Varying your position is the best way to enrich your debate experience.

Talk about "educational experience" sounds all very nice, and is meant to impress your parents and the high school administration if they happen to look into this book. All debaters know the real reason why they debate: itís fun. And by switching sides, you can dazzle people with your versatility. Try it!


Introduction to Policy Debate
Copyright © 1990, 1993, 1996, 2002 John R. Prager
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Permission is not granted to reproduce this document in whole or in part, in any medium.