I’ve heard some version of the following tale from many a depressed student:
“The round was going swimmingly, when all of a sudden, my opponent challenged the credibility of my most important source! I didn’t know what to do about this, so I ignored it. When I got my ballots at the end of the tournament, I discovered that this had cost me the round.”
(Okay, none of my students use the word “swimmingly.” But they should.)
If you’ve found yourself in this situation, there’s good news: it’s totally avoidable. Here are three things you can do to maintain credibility with your judges.
1. Pick Expert Sources
Whenever you quote somebody to make a substantive point, you must quote a genuine expert. That almost always means someone with a PhD. (Here are two rare exceptions: (i) the person you are quoting has a terminal degree that is not a PhD; (ii) the person you are quoting has no terminal degree but is, by popular acclaim, a genius who has substantially shaped the course of intellectual history.) A blogger with a master’s degree in economics from Salem State University is not an economist, and a Harvard freshman writing for the school newspaper is not a criminologist, even if she’s really smart. (If you’re an LDer in Stoa and spent all of last season quoting Liz Benecchi on AFF, I’m looking at you. If you’re Liz Benecchi, no hard feelings. It’s a good article.)
Here’s a controversial take: you shouldn’t quote politicians in debate rounds, unless they have expert credentials that are independent of their political career (i.e., they have a PhD and were once a professor). Most politicians don’t know anything, even though it’s their job to talk about everything.
The easiest places to find credible resources written by PhDs are in reference works, like encyclopedias, handbooks, or companions. For Lincoln-Douglas (and philosophy generally), I always start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Each article in the SEP includes an extensive bibliography of books and articles written by experts. If you pull from encyclopedia bibliographies, you’re guaranteed to find only credible sources. Google Scholar is a good way to filter out less-than-high-quality sources, too, if you’d rather use a search engine.
2. Gather multiple sources
What’s better than one PhD who think you’re right? Two PhDs who think you’re right. If you can get three or four, you’ll be unassailable, at least when it comes to the my-opponent’s-sources-are-dubious critique. (A caveat: gathering a large number of sources is no substitute for gathering quality sources. I can find at least one hundred people online who have claimed in writing that the earth is flat, but that isn’t a good reason for anyone to believe that the earth is flat. Step 2 only matters if you’re sticking to Step 1.)
3. Fill out your citations
Here is how you should cite anything you intend to quote as evidence in a debate round:
Chomsky, Noam (professor of philosophy and linguistics at the University of Arizona, formerly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; known for his historic contributions to psycho-linguistics and the cognitive science of language-acquisition). 1975. “Recent Contributions to the Theory of Innate Ideas.” In Innate Ideas, edited by Stephen P. Stich, 121–31. Oakland: University of California Press.
Notice that I’ve inserted a parenthetical after the author’s name detailing his credentials. Including this information in your citations allows you to immediately return fire if and when someone challenges one of your sources. (By “immediately,” I mean in the next speech, of course.) Better yet, including this information will deter any opponent looking at a copy of your evidence from challenging it in the first place. Better yet, reading some of the information in the parenthetical when you first present your evidence will add to your credibility with the judge.
If you follow these tips, you’ll never end up lost in the blogosphere while writing your cases, and you’ll never lose a round because your sources weren’t airtight.
Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and a PhD student in philosophy at Purdue University. He has been coaching Lincoln Douglas debate for six years.