Debating the Undebatable

In my other non-troll-poking life, I teach and coach debating, and over the last five years I have judged upwards of 200 debates at high school level. I do this much for the same reasons I run this blog: because I am regretful of my teenage behaviour (and if you’re the adjudicator I slagged off in Year 11 debating back in 2002, well, I’m sorry) and because the benefit to the community outweighs any cost it imposes on me.

Out of those hundreds of debates, I’ve only ever had one complaint (which didn’t amount to anything more than me apologising for what was perceived to be ‘harsh tone’ in feedback), but I’ve had dozens of parents, students and teachers thank me for my judgement and say that my feedback has been amongst the fairest and most useful they’ve ever received. I came pretty close to getting a second complaint last year, and it was all about the subject of vaccines. The topic at hand that night was on the subject of banning anti-vaccine speakers from being able to speak publicly. It should, to those familiar with Australasian debating, be clear that the principle is ‘freedom of speech’ – not vaccine efficacy, not the veracity of anti-vaccine assertions, but what happens to communities and individuals when we curtail the right to publication, broadcast or of even having an audience of one group of people on the basis of their beliefs. It was a debate topic which allowed for both sides to call upon a staggering number of recent relevant examples (the Australian government’s ‘no jab no pay‘ initiative, the death of Riley Hughes, Sherri Tenpenny’s cancelled public appearances, the Disneyland measles outbreak, California’s then newly-passed SB277 law – even the public reception of the VLAD act could have contributed strongly to the negative side). It was also unfortunately a topic in which the affirmative sides engaged better with the topic itself, which is a shame as the negative really had a lot of opportunities to make winning arguments that were apparently better made in other debates as seen by other adjudicators.

The first two debates of the night went fine: the negative teams thanked me, came and got individual feedback, and I saw what I see 90% of debates, which is coaches rolling their eyes and looking exasperatedly at their team, obviously because the feedback I was giving them (that they were taking as gospel) was no doubt the exact same feedback that their coach had been giving them all along. I know that look; as a coach, I give that look. It is a classic teacher/coach/parent what have I been saying all along look.

Then I hit the third debate. Admittedly, the negative was running the most anti-vaccine case of the night (other negs had taken the wise decision to run with the actually pertinent “we know they’re crazy, but banning does more harm than good” approach which was actually what was called for in the topic). And, admittedly, they ran some interesting arguments, intelligently predicting a freedom of speech clash and pre-empting it by outlining why anti-vaccine speakers are not like other groups presently limited by laws in Australia surrounding assembly, hate speech or defamation – which was definitely the right approach, if not poorly developed. Later speakers, however, failed to respond to the actual topic at hand, and could not challenge the points raised at affirmative, which is why the debate fell to them.

Running through the structural flaws in my verbal adjudication, I noted a parent in the room shaking their head in frustration whenever I made a comment like “compare anti-vaccine speakers to other groups like the 9/11 truths or the Obama birthers in order to make points about speech we allow to stand” or “as a neg in topics like this, it’s not appropriate to ignore what is common knowledge – that would be like being the neg in a topic about banning smoking and getting up to say smoking is excellent”. I might reiterate that at no point was the debate supposed to be about the veracity of the anti vaccine platform: it surrounded freedom of speech and the impacts of a ban.

Upon finishing, I invited the speakers to my table to hear my adjudication, and after the debate was officially declared closed, the parent who’d been shaking their head at me made an immediate beeline for the table – odd, given that typical etiquette is that this is time for student speakers to get feedback. This parent then launched into a tirade about how wrong I was, telling me that I was sorely lacking in knowledge on the issue.

At times, I tried to head the parent off, pointing out how late it was and how there were children who needed feedback, which was ignored. Any time I attempted to respond (to such claims as “did you know the government banned the hormone replacement therapy vaccine” and “the Gardasil vaccine is being used as a cure for cancer”, which as a non-scientist even I know is laughable), I was met with “that’s not what I said”, or “that’s irrelevant”. This went on for quite some time as the venue coordinator looked on, frustrated at being unable to lock up, and indeed the conversation followed in my wake as I attempted to make it to my car with this parent following me all the while.

The experience was frustrating – not least of all because it was 9.30pm on a weeknight (shut up, I’m awake at 4.30 for work), the tirade prevented me from giving feedback to students (you know, the actual reason why I adjudicate) and at every turn I was prevented from responding. But it was an experience that made me grateful for what the Australasian format offers in terms of quality and depth of argument – and it also allowed me first-hand experience of what it is like experiencing an onslaught of unadulterated anti-vaccine rhetoric.

For those uninitiated, Australasian debating comes with strict rules relating to time, structure and number of arguments. Speakers are only allowed to give 2-3 points of their own material, and are punished for presenting new material if they are solely a rebuttal speaker at third. Speeches are disregarded if they speak over the 30 second grace period. Arguments are designed to be ordered around the analysis of a case study or concrete example: the point of a debate isn’t to vomit up a lot of decontextualised numbers, but to actually logically engage with the case at hand. Likewise, successful rebuttal is likewise ideally a logical response to why a previous opposition argument is fallacious, rather than equivalent fact-vomit of their own material.

What it allows for is quality over quantity; succinctness and clarity of expression over verbosity and long copy-paste screeds; engagement over bloviation. It seems on every level to run at odds with the style of debate on offer from anti-vaccine advocates – especially the parent I ran into.

What I experienced in addition to blatant hostility and discourteousness towards me and the other parents in the room was a barrage of gish gallop arguments, JAQing off and decontextualised statistics, given without an opportunity to clarify, confirm or respond. There’s no shortage of posts with titles like 200 evidence based reasons not to vaccinate – the point is that the fatiguing quantity of false allegations and just-so stories is enough to frighten most people into thinking there is some veracity behind it when there isn’t, and dissuades people from disassembling the points.

What I’ve experienced elsewhere (including in a conversation on my own blog) is goalpost shifting and often inconsistent personal narratives entirely. (I had the pleasure of an anti-vaccine commenter telling me that “I am lucky in that I come from a family of scientists who help me out” with analysing raw scientific data, only to claim less than an hour later that “I studied science and mathematics at university and plan on completing my PhD“. Rightio, cobber: surely with that sort of education one wouldn’t need a family to help you with this? Also, surely with the stuff you were spouting this would be the first thing mentioned, right?)

Here’s an example of this failure to actually engage in the arguments at hand, and merely responding with a shift goalpost and an ignorance of the rebuttal. A poster at Mamamia spread the false rumours about the very-much discredited Mexican vaccine ‘scandal’: IMG_0001Frustrating, yes, and arguably par for the course for most in the antivax community, whose ideas are so heavily reliant on clickbait websites, poor scientific literacy and an unwillingness to actually engage with challenge.

So, what’s to be done? A number of prominent sceptics now refuse to engage in public debates with anti-vaccine and Big Alternative shills, and more respect to them for it. Brian Dunning’s excellent podcast on the matter clarifies why:

The very nature of a debate presents science as if it is merely a competing opinion. When we agree to a debate, we are agreeing to drag science down to the level of a view that competes with pseudoscience. Simply by agreeing to the debate, we present the scientific method as being vulnerable to disassembly by fallacious pseudoscientific arguments. That’s the message we send: Science is not fact, science is merely opinion; and it’s as weak as any other.

LIkewise, Science Based Medicine has addressed the issue with exceeding clarity, making the interesting point “what is it with “live debates”? It seems that cranks always want to challenge those who criticise their misinformation and pseudoscience to “live debates.”

My experience has shown me that they know how they look online: they know that the typically illiterate blather of most anti-vaccine supporters weakens the cause, that audiences are becoming increasingly more savvy of how disreputable Natural News or Green Med Info sources are, and that with posting comes right of response from us. They know the power of non-vocal rhetorical devices, the notorious inability of the human mind to distinguish individual arguments when given a generous slathering of decontextualised rot, and – in the case of my vexatious parent – that when one speaks, one can literally silence another person if they really want to.

My feeling is that, if pushed to it, the anti-vaccine movement would struggle in actual competitive debating. Requirements of sticking to topics, avoiding badgering in points of information and time limits would serve as a death knell to their typical approach of bogging their opponent down in lengthy, often incoherent diatribes. That they continually seek public debate itself is quite amusing and hints at them perhaps never having actually learned how to debate.


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