What would you say if you saw a warrior do battle and lose—because he never thought to use his strongest weapon? What would you think if you saw a chess player who refused to ever bring out his queen? And what would you think of a football coach who never threw to his receivers? Well, sometimes, this is what I see when I look at debate rounds in the NCFCA. Most teams are making it harder for themselves by not using perhaps their strongest weapon: Impact Calculus.
Most debaters have a vague concept of what impact calculus is, and many have a notion that they should be doing it, but it rarely is done. I don’t understand why—this is a sure-fire way to pick up judges that may be leaning towards a vote against you. In this article, I hope to reveal the secrets of this mysterious tool.
The vast majority of debates I’ve seen in the NCFCA look something like this: Both teams spend the constructives making well-structured arguments, and are forced to uphold and clarify their points. But once they hit the rebuttals, teams no longer know what to do with their arguments, and usually end up just reiterating their points over and over again, like two rams butting heads atop a mountain, hoping the other will fall off and die.
Here’s the deal folks: THERE IS NEVER GOING TO BE A ROUND WHERE EVERYTHING YOU SAY IS TRUE, AND EVERYTHING YOUR OPPONENT SAYS IS COMPLETELY FALSE. There’s just not. Every case out there has at least one legitimate objection to it. So just refuting and denying every point the opposition makes not only makes you look a bit unreasonable—if the judge actually buys one of their points, your round is sunk because you attempted nothing more than denial.
This, my friends, is the sad story of many rounds. We need to stop butting heads with our arguments, and start using them as leverage to throw the round in our favor. Don’t let a judge vote one way just because they buy a certain argument. This is where impact calculus comes in.
So what is impact calculus? Put simply, it’s a weighing of the impacts of your best points against the opposition’s best points, and hopefully in your favor. (Don’t be fooled by the word calculus; there’s no high-level math involved. Unfortunately.) Don’t stop with “it’s not true.” Continue on with “even if it were true, it doesn’t matter.” The idea being that you won’t be able to disprove every point, so you’ll have to outweigh every point.
So how do you do it? Here’s impact calculus in three easy steps.
Step 1: The Dismissal
Refute their arguments like you normally do. (Direct refutation combined with impact calculus is a VERY good strategy.) Leave nothing unaddressed, and point out the responses that were not adequately rebutted by the other team.
Step 2: The Extension
Pull through your best arguments, both mitigation and offense, especially the ones that were wholly dropped by the other team. Next, comes a tricky part: assume their points are true. Not to say you should concede—you have already refuted their points—but use the phrase “…but even if it were true, it wouldn’t matter because….” This improves your ethos with the judge by giving the other team a little ground, and it sets up an argument that is near-indestructible. Well-done impact calculus is nearly impossible to defeat.
Step 3: The Calculus
Weigh the impacts of their best points against your best points, and show why yours are better. Constantly ask the question: “what matters more at the end of the day?” There are infinite ways to doing this, but you just have to come up with a reason why your argument matters more. Here are some of the most common ways to weigh:
- Magnitude. How many people does this effect? For example, if a case offers to make a few businesses happy, but results in deterioration of US-Russia relations in the long run, we hurt a lot more people by making the change. If it has a bigger impact, it’s obviously going to be more important.
- Severity. How severe is this going to be? Yeah, if we make the economy lose one billion dollars in GDP, that’s about four bucks out of everybody’s pocket. If we cause people to die by air pollution, we cause serious illnesses in 20,000 people a year. Life is more important.
- Probability. How likely is this? Sure, if we let START go unsigned, it might allow Russia to proliferate, which possibly would result in an arms race, which could potentially result in global nuclear holocaust. However, if we do sign it, we will cripple our nuclear defense shield, which was proven to deter hostile nations from rash actions. And simply because the disadvantage is far more probable, it should have more weight in the debate round.
- Link/brink strength. There are a lot of advantages and disadvantages that claim ridiculous impacts on a shred of a link. If they claim something like double-dip recession from enacting trade sanctions, point out that the link is horrible, that we’re nowhere near the brink, and the more solid advantages should be considered more heavily, because the links are simply stronger.
- Timeframe. Which will affect us more in the short-term/long-term? This can go either way—you can argue that short-term is more important, or that long-term is more important. For example, you could argue that your advantage of increased relations with Russia outweighs the disadvantage of lost money, because our relations are going to be way more important ten or fifteen years down the line than any temporary loss of money.
- Reversibility. Can this be undone? Example: if we lose a million dollars, we can gain it back. If we lose a hundred lives, they are gone forever. If your disadvantage can’t be undone, it should be a whole lot more significant.
- Moral imperative. This is a moral issue, and this is more significant because to let this happen would be immoral. For example, you could say that it morally reprehensible to bend to a regime of secret police and corrupt beurocrats, and we should therefore hold strong with the Status Quo. (Be careful with this one… it’s too close to ad-hominem for a lot of judges.)
These are just some of the more common ways to weigh. Don’t think the list is exhaustive, and don’t think that you are limited to just one method. In fact, the more weighing mechanisms you use, the stronger your calculus will be. The best debaters use this not only in rebuttals, but throughout the round. Also, bring your mitigation and solvency into the equation—you can make their impacts smaller, while yours stay the same.
(One note: impact calculus is impossible to do if you haven’t been impacting your points throughout the round. Strong impacts are vital. If you find yourself in a situation where the other team didn’t really impact their points, assign them all reasonable, yet conveniently-small impacts. It helps with weighing.)
If you use impact calculus, you will see why we give teams rebuttals. Rebuttals are meant for more than just re-iterating your best points. They are meant for taking your points, and showing why you’ve won the round. Your final rebuttal should be just filled with impact calculus. Don’t leave the decision up to the judges—show them that even if they agree with the other team, they can’t vote for them. The last thing you want to happen is the judge to sit there and just deliberate which points he thought were more important. Wrap everything up in a neat little package, and hand it to the judge. They won’t be able to resist.
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.
So go out there, and convince those judges.
Thank you for your undivided attention.