Link and Comments: School Debates and Motivated Reasoning

From last month: NYT, Are School Debate Competitions Bad for Our Political Discourse? subtitled, They can be a good credential for aspiring leaders, but they favor a closed-minded and partisan style of argument.

By Jonathan Ellis and Francesca Hovagimian, at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley respectively.

Why? Because school debate ultimately strengthens and rewards biased reasoning.

That means teams start with a conclusion, whether they endorse it or not, and work backward from there, marshaling the best arguments they can devise to make that conclusion come out on top.

The goal is not to determine the most reasonable or fair-minded approach to an issue, but to defend a given claim at all costs. This is an exercise not in deliberation but in reasoning with an agenda.

This also happens to be the kind of argumentation we find so corrosive in today’s politics. Politicians and pundits have their favored view and then emphasize the information that fortifies it. Evidence that threatens their position is rationalized away. Problems for the opposing view are hunted for and magnified.

Maybe this is why I was never interested in debate club. Debates are about winning, not honing in on truth or reality. Debates train lawyers and politicians and theologians, not scientists. I’ve always been more interested on what is actually real, not what my tribe or community thinks is real.

The article goes on to discuss an alternative, something called an Ethics Bowl.

Disagreeing constructively is a skill — one of the most difficult and important there is. In encouraging students to practice this skill, the Ethics Bowl fosters what may be the most important intellectual virtue of all: openness to changing your mind.

There is something of a stigma in our culture about changing your mind, especially in politics. If you do, you are often seen as weak or branded a “flip-flopper.” The problem is, holding steadfast to a belief in the face of sound objections or contrary evidence stops conversation. It’s dogmatic and stubborn. Having the courage to admit when you might be wrong, on the other hand, helps move conversations toward meaningful resolutions.

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