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Tabula Rasa (1/2)
This essay is rather lengthy. It is a response to the tabula rasa discussions
occurring on the CEDA-L of late. It also addresses some of the other, older
threads - the NEDA thread etc. It consists of two parts. The first part
explores some underlying assumptions upon which I think the opposition to
tabula rasa is based. The second part develops a discussion of the benefits of
tabula rasa judging and compares those benefits to the problems identified by
tabula rasa opponents.
At the outset, I want to address two issues not dealt with here. The first is
any and all "perfect objectivity is impossible" claims. That dog has, I think,
been kicked quite thoroughly. The second is any and all critiques of the
behavior of tabula rasa advocates. Claims such as Mr. Whitney's that tabula
rasa labels are misapplied, or that tabula rasa people exert peer pressure etc.
are not relevant to the merits of the philosophy. The philosophy exists
independent of its advocates and the mistakes or misbehavior of the advocate
does not discredit the philosophy. The assumptions I do wish to address are 1.
Debate is about truth seeking, and 2. Low probability scenarios are plentiful
DEBATE IS NOT ABOUT TRUTH SEEKING
Before I explain the implications of my claim, I would do well to warrant it.
Accordingly, I will supply a list of characteristics of debate which strongly
suggest that it is not about truth seeking.
a. Time constraints: Trials etc. (forums dedicated to truth seeking) apply
none. Certainly none as harsh as 8-3-5 (or 9-3-6). Debates do. Ergo, the
competitive necessities are judged more important than the pursuit of truth.
b. Discovery: Debate doesn't have it. My teams don't have to disclose cases
before coming to tournaments. If we wanted to find truth, they would.
c. Rewards: We give trophies etc. As I heard Mr. Herbeck put it once, "my
teams don't get in the van to go home from a tournament and say 'Gosh, we're
really happy, we made some truth.'" The rewards debaters get are related to
competitive development, not truth seeking.
d. Administrative justification: I have before me the Colbert & Biggers article
on "Why should we support debate?" I have long regarded this as one of the
definitive pieces in support of our activity. It lists three reasons to
support debate (Colbert & Biggers, 237). Truth seeking is not among them.
e. Decisions based on untrue arguments: To use an example chosen by Mr.
Whitney, have you ever voted on the ice age? If so, did you promptly
begin stockpiling food? If the answers were yes and no respectively, then
you have voted on an argument you believe to be untrue. Not something you'd do
if you were engaged in truth seeking.
Having warranted that claim, I should like to apply it to the critiques of
tabula rasa judging. Most of the critiques revolve around the risk of
accepting untrue claims (where untrue can mean literally untrue, or unlikely,
or outlandish, or whatever the adjective du jour.) However, debate is not
about finding truth. Debate is about providing a competitive environment in
which students can hone research and argument skills. Debaters generalize and
carry the general skills with them when they leave debate. They don't carry
the specific facts acquired. For example, my debaters now have no utility for
the top 10 reasons to airstrike the Serbs. Does that mean every affirmative
round UMKC had in January and February was pointless? No. They learned much
in the course of those debates: where to find thoughtful discussions of
military policy, what sorts of factors enter into military decisions, how to
defend aggressive military actions, etc. etc. Voting on an untrue claim does
not detract from that education. For an advocate to win a debate based on an
untrue claim, two things must happen. One, the advocate must be able to
present the untrue claim and explain it's application in such a manner as to
warrant a ballot. Two, the opponent must be incapable of refuting either the
untrue claim or the implications drawn from it. When the untrue claim then
carries the ballot, a lesson is taught. That lesson is "fend for thyself."
The loser will learn how to cope with untruths and the winner will be on notice
that he (or she) too must learn to cope. This is skill development.
Furthermore, even if truth seeking is a desirable goal, it is not a goal for
any specific debate. Rather, the entire semester should be seen as a gestalt
truth seeking experience. Mike Bryant writes (May 17, 1994):
To look at a single debate as dialectic misses the broader purposes of the
activity of debate. While each single debate adds to the process, it is the
broader realm of discovering arguments and evolving them through progressive
game runs that enables debaters to more closely approximate dialectic. Each
individual debate, or game run, may be viewed as a structured exercise to help
facilitate both dialectic and the development of speaking skills.
This is an extremely accurate assessment. No debater who relies on untrue
claims and long lists of one or two word responses will be consistently
successful. Look, for example, at the final rounds of nationals. None of the
final round teams in my memory relied heavily upon untrue/unlikely arguments or
poorly developed arguments. Further, teams that did were eliminated early.
Furthermore, I have noted comments by NDT observers to the effect that
arguments have appeared to increase in development in CEDA. My internal
perspective confirms this claim. This shows us that the system works - relying
on debaters to beat the bad arguments of other debaters still results in those
bad arguments being beaten. It takes longer than if the critic takes it upon
him or herself to beat the arguments, but the resultant gains in self reliance
on the part of the debaters is well worth it.
Finally, it should be remembered that voting for a position does not entail
placing your personal stamp of moral authorization on it. For example, the
four critics who voted for KSU/MSU in Finals did not say "we hereby place our
moral authorization on the slaughter of 1000 children every month. Please pass
the automatic weapons." Rather, they said "in this debate, UMKC did not
adequately overcome the arguments presented by KSU/MSU. Accordingly, they have
not established that the threat to aforementioned children is sufficient to
overcome the risk of the China disad." Each debate is that way - a decision
reflects what is true within the imaginary world of the round, not a claim
regarding what is right within our actual world.
I believe this to be true of everyone. If it were not, people would be unable
to adjudicate fairly on any issue that they have an opinion on. However, it is
certainly true of the tabula rasa judge, as we explicitly claim to remove our
personal opinions from the decision we make. Accordingly, at a bare minimum,
any critique of tabula rasa judging that focuses on it's propensity to endorse
bad claims must address this paradigmatic difference. One who wishes to
critique tabula rasa on these grounds must go beyond his/her paradigm, as well
as beyond tabula rasa, to find some common foundation upon which to base a
claim that casting a ballot for undesirable arguments is bad. Until this is
done, such critiques are no more compelling than Christians attacking Judaism
for not recognizing the divinity of Christ. One cannot attack a paradigm for
not recognizing an assumption of a competing paradigm without warranting that
assumption independently. If this has been done, it has escaped my notice.
LOW PROBABILITY SCENARIOS ARE NEITHER PLENTIFUL NOR PROBLEMATIC
Let us begin by considering the reasons why one might dismiss a low probability
scenario. Mellema claims that there are two - one can either believe that the
risk is sufficiently small to justify taking it, or one can believe that the
expected gain is so great as to override the risk (Mellema 3). Obviously the
latter principle is not being invoked by advocates who protest minimax
reasoning, rather they are invoking Mellema's first condition - the risk is so
small as to justify taking it. Schell (and others) have pointed out that
extinction is an infinite valence impact. (The reason, by the way, is that
extinction of the species destroys all future generations. Assuming, as we can
because we are assessing the significance of an act of extinction, that the
extinction doesn't occur, then there will be an infinite succession of those
future generations.) Obviously taking Schell's dictum at face value
immediately destroys the validity of this claim. If extinction is the impact,
then no risk is small enough to justify taking it.
Now, assume that such a framework has been set up in a given debate. In all
probability, the negative has presented a disad and argued that due to the
infinite nature of the impact, any risk of the disad is enough to outweigh, for
example (assuming we are burdened by the horrendous sports topic) the
destruction of the purity of the game of baseball. The scenario would,
presumably, be one which tabula rasa opponents classify as so low in
probability as to merit exclusion. However, within the analytic framework set
up for the debate, it is not so low as to merit exclusion. Accordingly, the
critique of tabula rasa decision making assumes a prior imposition of another
analytic framework. One cannot critique a paradigm from the ground of another.
We must find a neutral ground upon which to stand and discuss our different
frameworks. In an attempt to do so, I will look to the writings of risk
Initially, the proliferation of low probability scenios is unlikely. As Grose
Imagine scenarios being written by all kinds of people with all kinds of talent
about all kinds of situations. They will vary - a profound insight. If you
evaluated and placed them in a spectrum that ran from ridiculous to
inconsequential, they would probably fit the normal distribution shown in (a
bell-curve). The vast majority would be feasible and credible. (Grose 228).
Please do not respond "oh, but that doesn't happen in debates." It certainly
does. You remember the outlandish scenarios because they stand out in your
mind. Remember, however, that many many debates revolve around high
probability scenarios. NWL's Angola case, for example, depended upon the
claim, verified by UN monitors, that 1000 people a day were killed in the
Angolan war. They won many debates on that very claim. Also remember that
skilled advocates can overcome low probability scenarios. To toot our own
horn, for a moment at least, when my team won Finals this year, they did so by
overcoming a China disad (one example of a low probability scenario) with 1000
dead Haitian children each month. We were able to explain to our panel why
that high probability/low valence scenario was more important than KSU/MSU's
low probability/high valence scenario.
Furthermore, a quick foray into the field of games theory supports the use and
acceptance of low probability scenarios. Making a decision based on a desire
to avoid a low probability, large significance impact is, essentially, the
minimax strategy employed in games. Davis explains the utility of such
The virtue of the minimax strategy is security. Without it, you must resort to
the double- and triple-cross world of Poe's precocious student. With it, you
can obtain your full value, and you have the assurance that you couldn't do
better - at least, not against good play (Davis 39).
Fryer describes the minimax value of any given game as "the most favourable
value" (Fryar 37) and Luce & Raiffa note that the minimax theorem is true under
general conditions (Luce & Raiffa 2). Finally, Colman has demonstrated that
people intuitively reason in minimax fashion (Colman 61). Given that experts
in the conduct of theoretical games accept minimax reasoning, it is perhaps
inappropriate for critics to reject it out of hand, simply because it doesn't
comport with their particular intuitions.
The field literature suggests two possible reasons why the critics of tabula
rasa judging reject so- called "low probability scenarios." One is the denial
which inevitably accompanies futuristic speculation. Bjorkman laments that:
People seem unable to get involved in and evaluate future events other than
those that are very close in time and space to themselves. This holds true for
catastrophes like a nuclear war as well as for beneficial events like the
invention of effective methods to obtain food from the sea... This leads to
the reflection that risk factors, negative effects with a low probability of
occurrence are underestimated... Limitations of cognitive time and
underestimation of risk probabilities may have the effect that decision makers
overlook long-term risk effects which are small per unit of time. (Bjorkman
The second reason concerns the lack of empirical evidence. Crouch and Wilson
distinguish between historical risks and new risks. Historical risks are those
which have already occurred and may occur again, such as diseases, motor
vehicle accidents etc. New risks are those which haven't already been
observed, such as meteor impacts, nuclear conflicts etc. (Crouch & Wilson
51-52). Obviously new risks will appear less probable than historical risks,
because we haven't observed the dynamic which leads to their actualization.
However, that appearance is misleading. All historical risks were, at one
point, new risks. The probability of a scenario is determined by the
conjunction of factors which drive it, not by the presence or absence of
empirical evidence. Hence, we shouldn't arbitrarily subordinate new risks to
historical risks. We ought always to remember, AIDS was once considered a new
risk, as was a global depression.
Finally, I would like to point out that multiple link levels don't necessarily
correspond to reduced risks. Recognized authorities on risk analysis reject
the concept that multiple link levels are necessarily reductive of the end
probability. Gawlak and Byrd note that frequently chains with thirty-three or
more causal steps can be perfectly legitimate (Gawlak & Byrd 41).
| Matthew K. Roskoski | "You have the right to free speech. As long as |
| UMKC Debate Forum | you're not dumb enough to actually try it. Know |
| Kansas City, MO | your rights. These are your rights!" The Clash '82 |
Archive created by Jonathan Stanton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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