The principled use and purpose of evidence has changed over the course of Lincoln Douglas’s history. At the outset of our activity a combination of factors made the use of evidence less necessary. It was used primarily to lend debaters credibility and make use of the eloquence of an author’s perspective. Obviously times have changed. As LD has moved inexorably closer toward the norms and positions found in Policy debate, our emphasis on the use of evidence in rounds has grown substantially. Most modern LD positions (particularly ones angled toward policy style arguments) are staked almost entirely on the quality and quantity of their evidence. This blog will consider the idea that LD has in some cases overemphasized the importance of evidence. That valuable skills of critical thinking and persuasion have been buried under long lists of pre-prepared blocks and our obsession with evidence has made us unable to see when evidence is less useful or equal in value to analytical argumentation.
What is the Value of Evidence?
I once sat in a round in which debater B read an impact card which argued that economic downturn would cause the president to declare an unnecessary war as a diversionary tactic to retain political power. Debater A disputed this impact on the intuitive basis that there could be intervening international agents deterring such a war, that such a declaration might lack congressional approval or popular support, and other similar objections. Ultimately the judge voted against Debater A on the grounds that their analysis wasn’t carded and therefore automatically less credible than the evidentiary claims of Debater B.
Now imagine if before the round Debater A had cut a couple Politico articles containing the exact same claims/warrants as their analysis. How would the round have substantially benefited? Presumably the assumption behind the judge’s evidence focus was that evidence is inherently more well reasoned and objectively substantiated than analytics, but this isn’t always the case. Most likely Debater A would be reading an opinion piece from an online news source written by a journalist or vaguely credentialled “contributor”. The argument’s claim and warrants would be no different and may even be lacking, and no objective data would have been offered. In a common scenario such as this why should the opinion of a journalist be considered automatically more important than that of a debater? Throughout my debate career I have heard an absurd amount of cards making an argument that could easily be made analytically, but which are privileged solely for the reason that they are “sourced”. It is clear that somewhere along the line we have lost the thread of what makes evidence valuable and we have begun to arbitrarily think less of the opinions and arguments made by debaters.
The downside to arbitrarily prioritizing evidence is that it harms critical thinking. When I speak about “critical thinking” I am referring to the ability to hear an unfamiliar argument and generate an off the cuff response using one’s personal repository of knowledge or by leveraging previously read arguments. First, an emphasis on evidence disincentives debaters from dedicating time and effort to generating unique responses. If any argument they make will be dismissed on face because it doesn’t come from the mouth of a published author why bother making non-carded responses at all? Second, evidence focus prevents debaters from ever having to think of an argument on their own. I believe as coaches we’ve often made the mistake of giving debaters too much evidence too soon. I have worked with many students who could mimic the cadence of varsity debaters by reading and applying blocks, but struggled to come up with intuitive responses to simple DAs when running drills because of their overreliance on carded evidence.
I’d like to clarify that I am in no way opposed to fostering research skills or encouraging debaters to use good evidence from reputable sources. In addition, use of evidence is by no means mutually exclusive with critical thinking. In fact, evidence weighing and comparison is a unique and incredibly valuable aspect of critical thinking. My aversion to evidence is based entirely around a troubling trend that seems to see evidence as useful for evidence’s sake. It disregards all evaluation of what actually makes evidence valuable (it’s unique perspective and objective data from expert sources) in favor of viewing evidence as just a necessary barrier to entry for any acceptable argumentation. Evidence should bolster arguments made by debaters not entirely replace them. Debaters’ ability to think on their feet and our respect for their ability to produce coherent analysis should not be threatened by our obsession with evidence.