Bad Debate Lessons

Debate is life, the rest is just preparation time.

As a student, I played classic Karl Popper-style debates with elements of a political case. This is such a KVN for those who like to argue. In the sense that this is a game, it is for students, and such activities optimize some skills. But what exactly, it is interesting to understand. Let’s take a look at how good arguing has an impact on your thinking.


The first thing we were taught was sparring. The rules are as follows: two people are given some topic in the style of “an orange is better than an apple” and randomly determine who is for, who is against. After that, without preparation time, the speaker of the statement (the one who is in favor) is given 30 seconds to argue the position. Then the denial speaker gets his half minute of fame, and one more round for both. All this is given up to a theoretical base on logic, logical errors, rhetoric exercises and, in general, any serious preparation. It suddenly turns out that the average person can come up with arguments for the most delusional topic and position, and quickly, and sometimes even convincingly. I was delighted with this fact.

Further more. Block for detection strangers logical errors. Study of rhetorical devices. Development of oratory skills. And all this in an atmosphere of intense competition.

Separately, the ability to look at the issue from the point of view of different areas is being developed. Is smoking bad for health? Yes, but look at the economy. And what a wonderful networking and psychological relief!

Disputes in life have become a field for honing skills. Because seem being right is much easier than being right. Other things being equal, people who have a lot of arguing practice (whether in formal debates, on the Internet* or just in life) have a significant advantage in seem audience persuasive.


The insight caught me during an exercise called shadow boxing. This is such a sparring, but with yourself. You put forward arguments one by one, break them down, then restore them, and so on. The quality criterion was the equal strength of both positions.

This is what I suddenly realized clearly: there is no truth, only the ability to be convincing. How could I ever think that there are any right and wrong things? After all, for any position, I can put forward both arguments and counter-arguments. I think this is the thought that most debaters have, because the very idea of ​​debating prowess is pushing for it.

I felt much wiser, because now I no longer divided everything into black and white. The world is no longer one-sided, it has become complex and multifaceted. At the same time, I felt that I knew something important that others did not know. They then think that it is possible to be right, and not seem so. Nothing, they will grow up and understand that no one can be right, everything is relative.

Bad advice

Next, a little about thinking in the style of a debater. I will describe a number of points that need to be worked on if you convince someone in a public debate at any cost (I will consider public debates to be any where there is at least one viewer of your dispute). I really hope that after reading the article, you will not use these bad tips.

• You need to be able to quickly view information, understanding how it works in your interests and highlight it. If you come across information that is mostly counter-intuitive, keep looking. This especially valuable technique is called “motivated search”. If, on the contrary, you have found a couple of good confirmations of your position, this is an occasion to urgently stop, such a technique is called a “motivated stop”. Why study something else if the scales are already tipped in the right direction?

• Over time, you will learn to automatically ignore information that plays against you, and choose the right statistics and arguments. Pay attention – no forgery. You do not invent statistics, but simply choose the right one. When an opponent cites “unnecessary” ones, you can always refer to unreliable sources or look for an error in linking these statistics to the issue under discussion.

• You can not give your opponent a single argument. This means that you must carefully record each voiced fact, and figure out why it is untenable. If you leave at least one argument untouched, you will definitely begin to put pressure on it. And if you commit the main sin of the debater and recognize the opponent’s argument, then this will show your low class in the art of arguing.

• Aerobatics, to prove why the opponent’s argument actually proves your position?

• Follow the structure of the debate. Some arguments can be rejected simply because the opponent has not bothered to connect them logically with the main idea. Yes, he can re-establish that connection later, but it will take time and attention. The dispute will not last forever, pulling is sometimes very beneficial.

• By the way, another similar tactic (which is really forbidden in formal debates) is to overload speech with technical terminology. An audience not familiar with the terms considers this as a deep understanding of the topic, and the opponent will overload his processor, trying to understand phrases that are elementary in meaning.

• You should be familiar with common logical fallacies and cognitive distortions. This will allow you to find vulnerabilities in your opponent’s reasoning.

• If the dialogue dangerously approaches the weak points of your position, then you should use everything, up to frankly sophistical tricks, in order not to let your opponent in on distant approaches (this will be discussed in a separate article). Another great tactic is duck substitution, a weak argument that you’ve worked hard to recover. Thus, it is possible to control the opponent’s attention and force him to play on the prepared field.

• If you are in denial (that is, you refute your opponent’s position, and do not put forward your own), then boldly offer a third alternative. Most likely, the speaker is ready to fight only against the opposite position, and the proposal of something else will knock the ground out from under his feet.

• If you’re debating in a team, there’s an important rule: you should never contradict your team’s speakers. Always support whatever nonsense your partner comes up with. Then you will figure it out, the main thing in the public field is to show the solidity of your position. In formal debates, there is even a penalty for contradicting your team speaker.

Something is wrong?

At some point, you realize that not all topics are equally convenient to defend. Some are easier to refute, some are harder.

Defending some positions is a very difficult task for the mind and shows a high class of you as a debater. It’s boring to defend other positions, because they seem to speak for themselves, preventing you from showing your persuasion skills.

And here I would like to take a step further and think about why this happens and what is the difference between these positions. Thinking maybe they are not so the same and not everything is so relative? Maybe the fact that they are all gray does not mean that they are all the same shade and cannot be distinguished?

I confess that I did not take this step then. But it would be a step towards common sense. But I returned to it much later.

The idea, which I didn’t get at the time, sounds surprisingly simple. Rationality is about making an honest choice of beliefs that are easiest to defend. AT roller Veritasium one commentator suggested thinking of your beliefs as a stack of papers. If you suddenly find out that there is an error in your leaflet, you simply change it to a more up-to-date copy. Sometimes a piece of paper can be connected to another and then you have to correct it too. Unfortunately, on some leaflets people’s self-identification is quite strongly tied, but this is a separate topic.

This approach to your beliefs seems to imply endless preparation for debate. But only in these debates can you choose your position on any issue in advance. And you always strive to choose the easiest position to defend (for which there are the most real arguments). And what’s even weirder about the rules of this debate is that you can change your position at any time. The goal of the game is to be on the side of the winners at the end of the debate. The main thing is victory.

Unfortunately, the thinking of a debater or a street fighter* is built on exactly the opposite principles. The more counterintuitive principle you manage to prove, the higher your class. And to change the opinion or the team – what could be worse?

On guard of the world

As if there is a question. Is it necessary to apply the skills of debating, being a warrior of light bearing the truth? Considering the fact that everyone will do this, and everyone will be sure that they are wars of light that bring the truth?

Now I wouldn’t use the bad advice in this article to defend what I consider to be accurate maps. Because this, along with the obvious advantages in the ability to persuade, carries significant risks for my own thinking. My brain is just waiting for the opportunity to slide into “debate mode” and show in all its glory acquired millennia of evolution cognitive distortions. He really wants me to divide everyone into friends and foes and show me where I need to direct my intellect. The better I argue, the further I will get from reality. It will not work to keep control, it will become not just an instrument of eloquence, it will penetrate into my thinking. You probably noticed how, while defending the position “as a joke”, you began to believe in it a little?

But this post is not a call to abandon the dispute. In no case! Refusal of the dispute usually means that you have already decided that there is your position and the wrong one. And you don’t even want to hear the arguments of “outsiders”. There are more productive tools for arguing, but they certainly don’t consist of turning on “debate mode”. I will write about a rather significant tool in one of the next articles.

*- Here we need to make a digression about black rhetoric. In formal debates, the rules forbid any appeal to the personality of the opponent, and in general many sophistical tricks. In life, they are prohibited for ethical reasons, or, in extreme cases, for reasons of fear of physical argumentation from the opponent. On the Internet, these bans almost do not work. Therefore, anonymous debaters on the Internet are real street fighters. Their training is as different from the training of formal debaters as the training of people involved in a bunch of fights with improvised means and athletes. Yes, with good lighting and other things being equal, athletes have an advantage. But athletes usually don’t have the practice of handling a broken bottle and choosing the right pickets to inflict grievous bodily harm.

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