Lies, Dammed Lies, and Statistics…

This link is getting a lot of attention in the debate world… and it got me to thinking.

The argument contained in the story is that debaters, when compared to a control group of high school students, have higher levels of academic preparation and higher graduation rates.  Thus, debate good…

I’m not about to argue debate bad — I spent too long as a debate coach to make that conclusion, but I do have to wonder about the validity of the study.  I also have to wonder about the academic habits that debate teaches, as well as the skewed communication skills that I’ve seen displayed… So, in that order…

1) The story itself notes that debate is like sports for the academically gifted student, giving them a competitive outlet and a context in which to develop their research and critical thinking skills (more on that in my 2 and 3).  I have to wonder about how a control group could be accurately selected in order to compare debaters to “normal” students.  It’s unfair and an obvious skew to the study to make the control group out of typical students at the school.  It seems to me that the group of students who self-selected as debaters has a higher chance of graduating high school than an average student at the school, after all — debate is like sports for the academically inclined, right?

2)  Debaters call premises “arguments” — this has been a complaint of mine for a long time.  Arguments have at least one premise and a conclusion — they aren’t just statements.  Also, the research elements are useful in other academic contexts, but the intellectual strategy of going for the “card” with the biggest impacts isn’t how a complete and honest lit review works.

3) Much of debate has lost the art of public speaking and persuasion.  This is because there’s an “argument(d)” arms race and the most “argument(d)s” win.  Debaters typically talk fast and the only people who really follow them are former debaters.

So, while I do think debate is a worthwhile activity — much more so than sports, I’m always a bit critical of the articles about it… hmmm… those pesky critical thinking skills of mine seem to be rearing their ugly heads again.


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