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.
I appreciate the response!
However, we think these issues are not inherent to the format.
I do basically think the problems are kind of inherent to the format and pretty hard to fix. Like, I don’t think it’s physically impossible to fix these issues, but I am very skeptical of any efforts that try to fix them that stay within the existing debate context.
Overall, I am not sure where the key causes of our disagreement lies. The above didn’t really feel like it addresses my core concerns with the sport, and while the list of benefits is nice, it feels like a list that I can basically construct for an arbitrary sport (like, not this specific list of debates, but something of equal benefit), and below I give some pointers why I think some of them don’t hold, or at least don’t hold with the forcefulness that one might expect based on your descriptions.
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.
To be clear, neither the complexity of the topics or the limited time are at all anywhere close to the central reason why I think debate isn’t very truth-seeking. I can totally have a meeting with a bunch of friends of mine about a complicated issue with only an hour of time, and we can easily make good approximations and solid progress on understanding it. I am quite confident we would not if we instead spent that time in any competitive debating context. Indeed, it seems likely to me that we would leave the competitive debating context with worse beliefs than we entered it on the relevant topic.
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.
None of these (inclusion, extracurricular education or “exploring complexity is a virtue) have really much to do with my concerns for debate, so at least from my perspective, describing these as trends that are gaining momentum in the debate community does very little to make me less concerned. Some of these seem mildly bad to me.
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.
I don’t really think debate is really helping you understand how arguments relate to each other, at least not in a truth-tracking way. In most debate formats, it’s usually much less about actually making good arguments, but much more about abusing the way judges are told to score various arguments, in a way that has very little to do with the cognitive patterns I would encourage someone to use if they were trying to figure out whether an argument makes sense or not.
I think this is actually useful, and learning the skill of generating steelmanned-arguments for positions you don’t believe is quite useful. Though because of the problem I pointed out above with the arguments that you are generating having very little to do with actual truth-trackingness, this benefit does fall quite a bit short from the ideal you describe here.
In my experience it creates a kind of “fallacy-of-grey”-like mindset where you are avoiding having any beliefs on these issues at all, or don’t really think of it being your job to actually decide which side is right, which I think is quite bad. Ultimately the goal of understanding both sides of an argument is to still judge which side is right (or of course to do a more complicated synthesis between the two, though that’s I think pretty actively discouraged in the debating format).
I don’t really believe this? The debating community is overall really insular and narrow, as far as I can tell, being really heavily selected for being full of all the standard ivy-league people that we already have a ton of. I like cognitive diversity, but I don’t really think the debating community is very exciting from that perspective. Indeed it seems to have very similar selection filters to the way the EA community is already filtered for. I might be wrong here, but I currently don’t really believe that recruiting from the debate community is going to increase our cognitive diversity on almost any important dimension.
Following up on this, as part of me trying to understand the format of BP more, I was watching this video, which is the most watched WUDC video on Youtube. And… I find it terrifying. I find it in some sense more terrifying than the video where everyone talks super fast:
I encourage other people who are trying to evaluate debate as a method for truth-seeking to watch this themselves.
There is no super-fast-talking here, but all the arguments in the opening speech are terrible rhetorical argument. The speaker leverages the laughs and engagement of the audience to dismiss the position of his opponents, and this overall really felt more terrifying to me than many of the big political speeches I’ve seen this year.
Like, I… think I am more terrified of the effect this would have on epistemics than the effect of the super-fast-talkers in policy debate? Like, at least in policy-debate it’s somewhat obvious you are playing a game. In the above, I wouldn’t be surprised if the participants actually come to believe the position they are trying to defend.
I was surprised, this video was much less goodharted than I expected (after having been primed with the super-fast talking example). I was expecting more insane things.
Though overall it had the level of much broad public debate/discourse I’ve seen. I watched the first three speakers, and didn’t learn anything. In good debates I’ve seen I’ve felt that I’ve learned something from the debaters about their fields and their unique world views, these felt like two opposing sides in a broader political debate with kind of no grounding in reality. They were optimized for short-scale (e.g. <30 seconds) applause lights for the audience, when objected they’d make it a fight saying things like “Don‘t even try to win that example”, their examples seemed false yet rewarded (primarily attributing China’s rise out of poverty in the last 50 years to ‘redistribution’ and getting applause for it, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is not at all the primary reason, they had massive growth in industry in part by copying a lot of the west). I wouldn’t expect to learn anything, it just seemed like nobody understood economics and they were indexed off what was like 0-1 inferential steps from what the audience as a whole understood. I guess that was the worst part, how can you discuss interesting ideas if they have to be obvious to an audience that big and generic within 10-20 seconds?