Principles of Effective Argumentation

A few things to keep in mind:

  • The goal isn’t to win. The goal is to discover truth. If you lose a debate but become wider in the process, then you didn’t lose at all, and neither did your audience.
  • Quality trumps quantity. Most competitive debate at the secondary and collegiate levels is dominated by “spreading,” the practice of speaking rapidly so as to cram as much information into the allotted time as possible (and perhaps win by overwhelming your opponent). In the ACDU, we are less worried about the number of arguments than we are about the substance of them.
  • Evidence matters. Debaters are encouraged to present evidence – studies, expert opinions, data, etc. – where appropriate. Critical analysis and reason are also important in establishing the credibility of an argument. Opinions are nice, but have very little weight in the face of informed opinions.
  • Avoid logical fallacies. Wikipedia’s list of fallacies is a good place to begin your study of rhetorical chicanery, how to recognize it and how to avoid it.
  • Oratorical skills are valued, but should illuminate strong thinking instead of obscuring weak arguments. Everyone will be attempting to present their arguments as fluidly and persuasively as possible, but some people are simply stronger speakers than others. Audiences are advised not to be swayed by charisma when the less talented speaker has the better argument.
  • Data isn’t information, information isn’t knowledge, and knowledge isn’t wisdom. In the age of Big Data, too many people think that data is everything. It isn’t. Understanding the Data/Information/Knowledge/Wisdom Pyramid can be a great help to those wanting to understand how we transform what we know into higher orders of knowledge using critical thinking and analysis.

Debaters and audience members alike are encouraged to read a bit about the principles of argumentation, and a number of good resources are available online. The ACDU recommends beginning with these, and beyond that Google lists many more sites with useful information for the novice and expert alike.