In recent years, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among Team Policy debate, both in Stoa and in NCFCA (although most of my experience has been within the Stoa sphere). As debaters progress in their skills, one idea I almost never hear brought up within the debate round is impact calculus. Regardless of how net-benefits the argumentation leans, or how many impacts are at play, nine times out of ten, neither side even attempts to weigh their arguments against their opponents’.
In my opinion, this is a great loss, as not only are debaters failing to utilize a strategic goldmine of argumentation, but they are missing out on one of the most important educational aspects of debate theory. Impact calculus is not simply a tool in your debate toolbox that you can whip out in certain circumstances. It is an essential aspect of any debate that centers on net benefits. Without impact calculus it is impossible to understand which side wins out on the net benefits front.
First, what is impact calculus? Simply put, it is a framework for comparing the impacts of the arguments of both sides. It requires that there be both 1) impacts to weigh, and 2) a dimension to weigh them on. Ethos blog contributors have said much about impact calculus in the past (see Allen Scheie’s article here, and Harrison Durland’s follow up here), so I will not use this article to explain what it is or how to do it well. Rather, I undertake a defense of impact calculus, so that all who read this might be convinced of its seminal importance.
Why is impact calculus important? Scheie gets at the right idea when he says the following in 2010, “Unquestionably, impact calculus can be the most powerful tool in your arsenal. Don’t ignore it. Not using impact calculus in a debate round is like never using your queen in a chess match. I have seen college parli rounds where teams have absolutely awful arguments, but have excellent impact calculus—and they win. If you think debate is all about making the best argument, you’re wrong. Debate is about using your arguments better. This is the difference between a good debater and a great debater.”
Scheie’s point here is that impact calculus opens up an entire new dimension of debate. Debate is not about who has the best arguments. Debate is about who is best able to use their arguments in the context of the round. Impact calculus gives the essential framework to analyze your arguments on an impact level to maximize their potential.
How does impact calculus do this? By focusing on a particular aspect of the argument, impact calculus breaks down what makes an argument strong/weak, and shows why one side wins out and the other loses. It functions like those old-fashioned balance scales. Without it, it’s difficult to tell when one object is heavier than another. But if you place the objects on both sides of the scale, it becomes much more apparent. Impact calculus provides the framework to do just this, but with a whole host of argumentative aspects, not just heaviness. You have magnitude, probability, timeline, moral imperative, and so many more. In short, impact calculus tells you what, fundamentally, makes an argument good.
The primary reason a robust understanding of impact calculus is crucial to the debater’s mindset has to do with something called round vision. Round vision refers to the ability to keep track of which arguments matter in the round and which do not. It’s like a high level strategic view of the round, and it’s most important when the round is in progress. Without a good understanding of impact calculus, good round vision is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
Strategically, Scheie is also spot on when he notes that “…impact calculus can be the most powerful tool in your arsenal.” Teams who know how to effectively do impact calculus can take an argument that was not convincing to the judge and seemed to have little place in the debate, and turn it into a formidable point that wins them the round. If you feel like your arguments in your briefs are not strong enough to beat the best cases, your issue is likely not with the arguments themselves. You probably need to revamp your presentation of those arguments and work on utilizing them well as the round progresses, and to do that, you need impact calculus.
In conclusion, I fear that impact calculus is rapidly becoming a lost art in Stoa/NCFCA. Now is a better time than ever to practice and implement impact calculus into every single round of debate. Impact calculus is a great tool in its own right, but it becomes downright unstoppable when your opponents are not well-versed in its theory. So, get out there and start doing impact calculus! You may find, as I did, that it’s quite fun.