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July 12, 2013 / compassioninpolitics

How to answer evidence in policy debate

This is an article by Alfred Snider as a part of his 16 week curriculum on policy debate which is available here as free PDF download. I’ve also included 3 additional points at the bottom:


Evidence is the support upon which many arguments rest. It is essential for the negative team to
undermine this evidentiary support by addressing major inadequacies in affirmative evidence. Here are
some simple techniques which should be kept in mind.

1. Matching the evidence with the claim.

Often the claim which the affirmative uses the evidence to support is much broader and stronger than the actual wording of the evidence. Negative speakers should be monitoring the actual words of affirmative evidence as closely as possible, and then launch challenges against important pieces of evidence which seem particularly vulnerable or important.

2. Strength of evidence.
Probability is a continuum which begins at “absolutely will not happen” and runs to “absolutely will happen.” Few ideas exist at either of these ends of the spectrum, and most fall somewhere in the middle range. The qualifiers contained within the evidence are essential to analyze and
identify. Once again, the challenge serves as the appropriate mechanism for dealing with this situation.

3. Recency and its relevance.

In general, we might say that recent evidence is better than less recent evidence, all else being equal. However, recency is very important in some evidence and not in other evidence depending on to what it refers. Competing evidence about the yearning humans have to be loved and respected would not be decided based on one piece being 6 months more recent. However, competing evidence about Algeria’s intention to acquire nuclear weapons may be decided based on recency, especially if the situation has recently changed. Lack of recency on the part of affirmative evidence should be pointed out and criticized only if events are likely to have changed since the evidence first appeared. In this case recency can be important, but it is not an ironclad standard for refuting evidence.

4. Source qualification.
The reason we use evidence in a debate is to back up our arguments with expert fact and opinion. High school and college students are not subject experts on the topics about which they debate, thus they attempt to quote subject experts to bolster their claims. Disturbingly, fewer and fewer debaters recognize this essential characteristic of evidence and read the name and the date but not the qualifications. One could hardly claim that the day on which something is said is more important than who said it, yet debaters put the date in over the qualification. Negative teams should demand source qualifications while at the same time reading qualifications for their own sources. A quick and easy standard can be established that without qualification evidence fails its argumentative role and then asking that the critic opt for qualified negative evidence over unqualified affirmative evidence in any instance where there are sources in conflict.

5. Source bias.
Often those who write about important topics are fervent believers in a specific approach to the controversy. As well, some sources have direct vested interests in making certain statements (“US foreign policy is promoting peace,” says the US Secretary of State; or, “My new invention
will replace the current gasoline engine,” says Wallace Minto, inventor). Everyone who has an opinion is not a biased source, and some source bias is rarely grounds for rejecting the evidence entirely, but serious source bias should be pointed out and the strength of that evidence should be reduced.

6. Source conclusion.

Many scholarly sources tend to evaluate controversies thoroughly,dealing with all of the relevant issues on both sides. Often these sources get quoted as making statements to support affirmative conclusions which they did not make at the end of their own analysis. This brings the use of that evidence for affirmative conclusions into question. While the evidence is not discounted 100% (since the original author did think it was a relevant issue) its support for a conclusion the opposite of the author’s should be substantially reduced.

In my experience:
1. Bias or limits to understanding
2. Warrant
3. Qualifications
4. Specific on point answers.

Also think about how the argument relates back to what they say is the most important impact or what you will be saying is the most important issue (or as Scott calls the Nexus question)

This is kind of a more advanced topic but–debate occurs at least 7 levels of analysis:
1) Big picture & how things fit together
2) Impact/Ethics
3) Argument level
4) Micro-argument level (line by line)
5) Prioritization, prioritization, prioritization (comparison, comparison, comparison)
6) Argument credibility
7) Argument warrant


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