Dec 032014

The good debate

I am an active member of the local debate society. I love it – even though I suck at it (at least half the time – see later why).

Good debating requires a lot of different skills, including:

– seeing both sides of an argument
– finding logical flaws
– applying tricks to come across convincingly
– apply tricks to crush the opposing side
– team working skills with your partner (if you have one)
– linguistic fluidity

In this post I define debating as it is used as the competitive sport – world wide. A debate is won if neutral judges think your side has presented the better arguments. Did I learn something after a debate? Yes, I exercised my debating skills.

What about the topic? Did anyone watching the debate learn something? Certainly, provided some arguments or counter-arguments are new and reasonable. But that’s it. I argue most people including the debaters themselves could have learned a lot more about the topic by moving on to a more flexible type of conversation (see next section or skip ahead to the table at the end).

The sport of formal debating is rather similar to the debates we see in politics. Similar rules – similar outcomes. Debaters – just like in politics, skilfully avoid answering good questions and arguments. There is a lot of ignoring, side stepping, rephrasing, distracting through rhetorical means. Nobody will change his own opinion in a debate. It is a big no-no to admit the other side has a good point without refuting it instantly.

My biggest problem in these formal debates is that I get distracted by good counter arguments. I suffer from a disease called empathy. Empathy has no place in debates. Debates – like many types of competition – naturally favour people with limited or no empathy. It is the home ground of sociopaths. I often get lost admiring a great counter argument and forget the “dirty tactics” we are supposed to use. I am also too curious to take more questions than I should. I love questions. Questions help discover other perspectives – but this is risky in debates.

The other problem is that I have this urge to improve the reliability of my knowledge and values in life. Winning a debate can be fun and it is great to feel I have improved my debating skills.  However, outside the sandbox of the debate society, learning and improving the reliability of my knowledge trumps the joy I feel when winning a debate by miles. I do not want to waste time going into a wrong direction or valuing the “wrong” things.

I should note that in the sport of debating we are randomly assigned which position to take on an issue (for or against the proposal). So half the time we need to argue for something we would not support in “real life”.

The good discussion

I am much more comfortable discussing things than debating. I am also convinced we learn much more in a good discussion than in a good debate. A discussion as I define it, is a conversation with rules designed to make life harder for sociopaths – not easier. In a good discussion everyone wins. Participants (and listeners) are encouraged to change opinions based on good arguments. There should be no fear of losing.

To enable a discussion participate need to trust that they will not loose heir  face / reputation, nor any income sources, jobs or sponsorship – or friends in case they upgrade their knowledge by admitting a mistake. Those who had the strength and courage to change their opinion based on good arguments win by improving the reliability of their knowledge. They also benefit from not wasting time walking the wrong anymore. A round wheel will also work better for former square wheel believers not just those who discovered the round wheel first.

Have you ever seen a debate where someone changed an opinion or acknowledged a good argument without refuting it immediately? If so, you probably witnessed a discussion – not a debate. Feel free to share this experience in the comments below.

With a quick search I could only find one example* on YouTube:  Stephan Moleneux changed his stance on Robin Williams’ cause of death based on the rather convincing arguments brought forward by Joe Rogan. Ironically Molyneux has been a competitive debater on a national level in Canada. However, he is also able to <discuss> things – in public, I was very impressed.

If someone “discusses” a similar skilled and knowledgeable debater, the debater, for most people, will appear to “win”. I do believe though that the learning value (for both including the audience) is still higher with one person discussing (being open minded) than two debaters debating.

During elections we mostly see debates. Why not more discussions?

Open mindedness, the ability to change your opinion based on better arguments, is an essential skill to improve reliability of skills and knowledge. It has long been associated with critical thinking and is part of my own definition.

Insisting on being <right>often  gets in the way of learning. Good arguments and honest responses and acknowledgements of these are the drivers of effective innovation and problem solving. I try to remember this next time my 8 year old asks why he should not sit in front of the screen as much as I too 🙂


good debate good discussion
aim is to win a fight (compete) aimed is to find solutions (collaboration)
strong arguments are only welcome to one side and refuted or disregarded by the other strong arguments are welcome and acknowledged by both sides
both sides are determined to (appear) to be right – no matter what both sides are open minded – ready to admit a change of mind
to include a discussion is risky and avoided to include a debate is encouraged (to learn about different arguments) as a starting point
participates need to be of different opinions participants can have the same opinions but need to explore different angles / arguments



Example of a discussion – the link points to moment, 2:12:45,  shortly before Molyneux changes his opinion, which he published in an earlier video: The Joe Rogan Experience with Stefan Molyneux (#538)



tags: debating versus discussing, good debate, good discussion