Dan Lahav (firstname.lastname@example.org)
EA Debate Championship & Lecture Series
Hi, thank you for your thoughtful response, I appreciate you taking the time to write it. You presented a complicated issue, and I think discussions like this are further complicated by the fact that debating can vary wildly depending on how it’s taught and practiced, so different people can have extremely different experiences (like in the different comments on this thread). Many people already responded to parts, but I’d like to stress a few things that I believe are worth highlighting.
1) The effect of the tournament. The question of the quality of debating as a tool to evaluate the truth is somewhat orthogonal to the question of whether it is worthwhile to engage the debate community with EA-related concepts. While there is value in discussing the former (and I’ll address it later in the comment), the main purpose of the project was the latter. That is to say that rather than convincing EAs to adopt debating as a tool, the aim of the championship was to engage people that already debate with EA. We believe it is a worthwhile effort for all of the reasons stated in the post - e.g. there is potentially a big future gain due to the prospective influence members of the community are going to carry, the project is positively positioned to generate insights for EA advocacy that may be beneficial broadly, etc. It is of course very valid to hold an opinion that there are issues with debating itself, but somewhat like issues with the conducts of tech companies should not prevent us from nudging them towards an EA direction, we think the same applies here. The way we’ve structured the tournament is focused on this - we’ve publicized this tournament to debaters (not non-debating EAs), the process included lots of exposure to EA content, and so on. Therefore, when evaluating the project we primarily took the prism of the value of engaging the debating community.
2) The opportunities of the EA championship. There is truth to the claim that when debating is taught poorly it can lead to suboptimal habits. However, we think these issues are not inherent to the format. Specifically, in this project we assembled a team with a specialty in global debate education that had successfully organized hundreds of international events, built the complimentary lecture series that allowed people to explore EA more deeply before/after the tournament, created additional channels so that people can reflect on content (e.g. a FB group and Discord channels that were used during the tournament), and had a dedicated team of people that were tasked with making sure that the atmosphere in the tournament is positive & inclusive. While it is hard to prove that such an effort was successful, the anecdotal evidence of participants indicating that they wish to learn more on EA, the adoption of donation norms in other tournaments, and the very positive feedback participants provided serve as evidence that (hopefully) the message was conveyed well and that participants were responsive to the educational element of the tournament.
3) Norms of learning. The norms of debating have shifted quite heavily in recent years and the BP-community is very different from the policy-community (the one featured in the video). There are ample discussion groups for debaters that seek to deepen their knowledge, there is a lot of emphasis on inclusion, and extracurricular educational videos are a rising trend. Therefore, most debaters operate in ecosystems where exploring complexity is a virtue.
4) On debating itself. I think it is fair to say that many debates do not result in figuring the truth on the topic at hand due to the complicated nature of the policies & ideas that are discussed and the limited time per discussion. However, there are multiple benefits to the activity that, in my opinion, make debating a useful tool. To name a few:
a) To debate well one needs to carefully listen to the arguments the other side is making, be able make rapid yet thoughtful responses, build arguments and understand how they relate to each other, predict critical points of disagreements and update them dynamically as the discussion progresses, understand how to work well in a team, etc. There are of course other ways to pick up these skills, but debate provides a useful way to practice them. Further, since debating improves your ability to understand how arguments relate to one another, these skills can aid in figuring which position makes more sense in complicated discussions in real life, which can be helpful in seeking the truth, or at the very least in identifying falsehoods.
b) Debating incentivizes you to learn more about the world. Even if winning is one's key motivation, being competitive requires a lot of preparation between tournaments. This usually involves researching ideas, discussing thoughts with peers, reflecting on previous rounds, etc. From my experience, the general culture is one where debaters are nudged towards challenging their current perceptions and to enrich their world-views.
c) Debating forces you to engage with multiple perspectives. Positions in debating, i.e. being for or against the topic, are randomly allocated. This feature compels you to think on a topic in ways you might not have otherwise, and ultimately assists in developing a more nuanced world view.
d) The debating community is truly global. In competitions you can hear voices that are hard to find in other places. The ability to gain the perspectives of people from around the world on a plethora of important issues has benefits for those that hold EA values.
The bottom line is that I agree that the tool is not perfect. However, I think that since the competition primarily introduces EA to debaters rather than promotes debating as a tool, that should be the main consideration in prioritizing this project. I also tried to note in the above why I think debating as a whole, and these kinds of competitions in particular, are potentially beneficial.