Debate Tip Of The Week: How To Handle Dodgy Evidence

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Often when I hear debaters talking about weird in-round situations that involve evidence, they treat it as either a job for tournament admin or an inexplicable annoyance that pops up on occasion to make you lose a round. While serious ethics breaches certainly should be brought up with admin, you also need to know how to handle these situations in the debate round itself. I’ve seen teams paraphrase evidence or powertag it many times. I’ve heard of a team that, when asked about evidence for their claims, handed their opponent a 100-page study for them to pursue. Here are some tips for how to combat these situations.

1. Know The Rules

If the other team is doing something odd you need to know if they’re actually breaking a rule before you call them out on that. Make sure you’ve read the league rules for the current year and have a copy with you to reference. Don’t rely on your memory of rules that may no longer be applicable!

2. Clarify What Is Happening

Let’s suppose the other team paraphrased a couple of their cards instead of reading them directly. Or, at least, that’s what it sounded like to you. Make sure you ask about it in cross-x before running any arguments about it. Maybe you misheard. Perhaps the information was in a graph and that was the most direct way for them to present it. Cross-x is the best place to make sure you know what’s going on.

3. Make Sure It’s Important

Running an argument about evidence use can take a bit of time, so make sure it’s actually about an important point before you commit that time. If the argument in question doesn’t actually affect the round very much, you’re probably better off simply explaining why their argument isn’t impactful. Remember to not get tunnel-vision, acting like every argument is equally important. They’re not.

4. Set A Standard

If you’re going to claim that the other team is misusing evidence, you need to set a standard for what proper use is. One standard that should fit most situations I’ve heard of is that evidence should be read verbatim in speeches to count as support. That means no paraphrasing, no summarizing, and no, “I have a pile of evidence on the table to support this” shenanigans. 

How can we justify this standard? By pointing out that reading evidence is traditionally a standard in policy debate. And it is one because we need to hold ourselves to a high standard of honesty where we read what our support actually wrote rather than translating that through our biased minds. Evidence needs to be submitted into the round verbally so it can be presented clearly before it is open to examination.

5. Hold To That Standard

If you’re going to present a standard for evidence, make sure you hold to it! If you’re going to say the other team can’t paraphrase their evidence, don’t do the same thing. In debate we call this a “performative contradiction” and it’s a bit embarrassing to do. We ought to hold ourselves to a high standard no matter what, and I’d hate to see the league slip into shoddy evidence handling.

6. Argue Against The Action, Not The People

This sort of argument can feel uncomfortable, because it seems like you’re accusing the other team of something actually wrong. And, honestly, you might be. But keep the argument about the action and not the people. For all you know they were never taught about how to use evidence properly or didn’t know the rules very well or thought they had found a novel strategy. Even if they are intentionally being shady, it’s not your job to confront them on a personal level in this context. Just stick to talking about evidence standards.

7. Don’t Worry

Don’t let another team throw you off your game. If something odd happens, take a deep breath and think it through. Remember, you can distill most theory arguments to a simple question. Think about why we read evidence instead of just referring to it. Know that if you think something odd is happening, there’s a good chance your judge is thinking that too. And focus on the important arguments.

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