Policy Debate: A Critique of the Appeal to Authority

Some time ago I argued that consistency in debate should be required between as well as within rounds. Today I’d like to tackle the other major problem I see with forensic policy debate: the fallacy of appealing to authority—the idea that a judge should by default believe an orator’s position because he has presented the words of another like-minded author or speaker.

For considering questions of fact, appealing to (true) authority is unavoidable—there are people whose job it is to come up with various statistics, for example, and the ethics of academia require us to cite their work when we use it. And it is not unreasonable to build on the previous work of earlier scholars in answering questions of value and of policy, just as we do in other academic work. However, in practice, debates tend to come down to preponderance or even existence of “evidence”—one side either having far more “cards” behind the crucial points, or having found someone making a point none of their opponents’ cards could answer—instead of using true authorities to bolster truly superior arguments.

This problem can, I think, be addressed by a few teams occasionally using a “critique” (more commonly known, using the German spelling, as a “kritik”) of this fallacy, along the lines I outline below. The kritik is a comparatively recent (the past decade and a half or so …) innovation in debate, an argument that criticizes one’s opponents’ argumentation itself; rather than answering their arguments, it advocates that they be dismissed out of hand without regard to their validity or soundness.

This kritik is “linked” to the opponents’ arguments by the very fact that they cite supposed experts as “evidence” for their arguments in re questions of value or of policy.

We follow this proof of the “link” by arguing by logic from common knowledge, intuition, and first principles that the “appeal to authority” is a logical fallacy—in academia, proof is established only by repeatable experiment and by logic, not by “the preponderance of the evidence”. Debate is not a courtroom.

To demonstrate the problem with this, we enter a thought experiment. We suppose for the sake of argument that the round’s judge is a rational being, within the technical meaning of that term in philosophy, and that the four interlocutors in the debate may be rational beings, but that everyone outside the debate is not only irrational but wrong on any point relevant to the debate, except for questions of fact. This taints any point on which outside “evidence” rather than intuition, general knowledge, or logic from first principles is used as support. And, further, any orator who falls into this fallacy has thereby proven himself to be irrational (again, in the technical meaning of that term in philosophy), and so should not be trusted on any point of value or policy.

Finally, the impact: Since our opponents have proven themselves unreliable by producing invalid arguments in the debate, nothing they say should be trusted in deciding whether or not to endorse the resolution.

I note that this kritik is not necessarily only a negative argument. It would be entirely possible to run a plan and support it with arguments based purely on intuition and logic from first principles, then run this kritik in the second affirmative constructive after the negative response, though this would be rather risky.

If I were faced with this kritik, I would argue that, as in all academia, I was building on others’ work and must cite them. Second, I would make the above point about the necessity of referring to trustworthy experts in answering questions of fact, and the reasonableness of it in answering questions of value and policy. Third, I would assert that I have been careful to only use trustworthy sources in building my case, while this kritik was invented because of the problem of untrustworthy sources being used. And fourth, I would make a counter-kritik based on my earlier essay, arguing that since my opponents relied on the same fallacy in previous debates, they are no more rational than I am, and if my arguments should be dismissed a priori so should theirs—and since their kritik is thus spurious it should cost them the round.

What do you think of these lines of argument? Or do you have a better solution to the problem I’m trying to solve?


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