In early 2003, the US was convinced it had to do something about the Iraqi nuclear threat. Secretary of State Colin Powell stood in front of the United Nations Security Council, outlined the proof of Iraq’s supposed nuclear program, and urged the world leaders to take action. As evidence for some of his claims, he specifically referenced a set of documents the US government had received proving that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons via 500 tons of uranium purchased from Niger.
Just a month after this speech, the documents were shown to be forgeries.
Powell said later about the information, “It was provided in good faith to the inspectors and our agency received it in good faith, not participating in any way in any falsification activities.”
Evidence isn’t infallible. Even DNA, once thought the golden standard of evidence in forensic investigations, is vulnerable to falsification.
Why, then, do Policy debaters place such a high premium on evidence?
Evidence: The Wrong Way
One of the most common accusations lobbed at TPers is their overuse of evidence. Value debaters will typically complain that a Policy round relies more on ‘plan advocates’ or ‘expert testimony’ than on ideas that matter.
In some cases, it’s true. In TP, evidence can be used as a crutch to cover up a lack of depth, and experienced debaters are just as prone to this as novices. It’s easy to do. New debaters typically use evidence as filler content. Still trying to find their sea legs in the confusing ocean of terminology, ideas, and format, novices tend to cling to briefs and sources. They’re still figuring out how to generate content and arguments, so they grab a brief, read through the table of contents, and pick a few cards. These cards then make up the bulk of their speech. On the other hand, experienced debaters can fall into the trap of believing evidence trumps all. If you have it, you win. If you don’t, you lose.
These are mistakes we all make. They’re easy to make because, at the end of the day, it’s always easier to rely on someone else’s words instead of our own. This is true regardless of experience level.
Common evidence mistakes include:
-Claiming that, just because you have evidence, your argument or position must be correct.
-Asserting that, since the other team didn’t support their point with a piece of evidence, it must be completely wrong.
-Reading a piece of evidence that has no impact on the round at all.
-Reading a piece of evidence and then moving on without explaining why it matters.
-Claiming that your evidence trumps the other team’s logic, because ‘they’re just high schoolers and we have experts.’
-Reading a piece of evidence that directly contradicts your opponent’s piece of evidence and failing to demonstrate why yours is superior.
-Reading evidence that contains a claim but no warrant—an end conclusion, but no reason why that conclusion is true.
-Refuting your opponent’s argument solely by pointing out a lack of evidence, statistics, or plan advocates.
All of these ways of using evidence have a legitimate point. You should have evidence to back up your position. You should have experts who advocate your policy change. You should support your claims with facts and numbers when at all possible. The problem is when evidence becomes the ultimate standard of the round.
So what can we do? How can we use evidence correctly?
Evidence: The Right Way
Here’s the golden rule: always pair evidence with teaching.
Only use evidence in conjunction with your own analysis. A constructive should always be 70% your words. The bulk of your content should not be evidence. And evidence should never make or break a round just by itself. If you’re going to accuse the other team of not having enough support, then tell us why that matters. If you’re going to claim that your opponent needs more numbers, tell us why numbers are important in making this decision. If you’re going to request a plan advocate who supports the Aff policy, tell us why that is a factor. Evidence and advocates, on their own, are meaningless.
For example, I often see debate rounds devolve into ‘he-said-she-said’ arguments. Aff will read a piece of evidence. Neg will read a piece of evidence that says the exact opposite. Aff gets up and says their evidence is credible. Neg gets up and says their evidence is more credible. At this point, both sides have canceled each other out. I have no idea who to trust. Instead of just making claims based on the Ultimate All Powerful Incontrovertible Standard of EVIDENCE, you need to explain why your evidence is superior.
Ways to show your evidence matters:
-It’s written by someone with practical experience, instead of just a degree. Explain to your audience how experience influences decisions and ideas.
-It’s more recent. WARNING: Don’t just say, ‘My evidence is from July of 2016, and theirs is from January of 2016.’ Explain how much things can change in just a few short months. Give an example of a policy that had significant alterations over a short period of time. Then impact your argument: show how you need to trust the most recent evidence because it’s going to have the most accurate information.
-It’s historically proven. Showing how a certain pattern of events occurred in the past helps a judge understand how it could happen again once [this plan, this factor, this ideology] is implemented.
-The logic behind the evidence is explained. You can read a card that comes to some conclusion, but if I don’t understand how the author got to that conclusion, it won’t be as persuasive.
If one side says, ‘Evidence is better than a high schooler’s logic,’ I might not buy it. In fact, I might choose the logic side over the evidence, because it makes sense to me. You need to explain your logic to me. Teach me how to think. Show me the way I ought to evaluate this round, this argument, this idea—and then support it with evidence.
In short, use logic and analysis to justify your use of evidence. Policy debate is about ideas and how they work in the real world, so teach me how your ideas work.
Evidence isn’t always the last word. When you use it, use it well.