Sometimes the Facts Matter: A Case For Information Slides in British Parliamentary Debating

Shengwu Li
Share this article

In response to Steve Llano’s article, this piece advocates in favour of Information Slides and their use at tournaments.

Debate-land is the most boring country on Earth.  It is a generic Western Liberal Democracy, where everything exists in moderation – from taxation, to social services, to ethnic divides. The only facts in Debate-land are those known by undergraduates, typically from liberal arts degrees.

If we want debating to be about real issues, and not purely set in Debate-land, then adjudication teams should sometimes provide information slides.  They should do so in moderation, taking care to be concise. In particular, they should avoid heavy-handed information slides that suggest the use of particular arguments.

One virtue of parliamentary debating is that it affords opportunities to address important real-world issues.  That is not to say that every debate should be about the real world, or that motions should be constrained by what mainstream parties would regard as politically feasible.  But we are not indifferent between a World Universities Debating Championships set in the real world, and an equivalent Championships set in the world of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing – even if debaters exhibit great familiarity with the latter.

Because debates should often address real-world issues, sometimes the facts matter.  Debating is not a pure process of creative play, where debaters freely invent arguments without any reference to the facts.  For instance, in a debate about UN involvement in nuclear disarmament, it is not persuasive to argue that nuclear weapons do not exist, or that the UN is a conspiracy controlled by space aliens.  We exclude these claims by asking judges to apply the standard of knowledge available to a well-informed layperson.  A concise and well-written information slide simply extends this precedent.  It adds, to the vast list of common-sense facts that judges already use to assess the plausibility of claims, just one more fact: the contents of the information slide.

Some debates can be argued well without requiring knowledge beyond that of most intelligent undergraduates – for instance, This House Would Make Voting Compulsory.  Other debates require more knowledge than can be conveyed in an information slide – for instance, This House Believes That Central Banks Should Not Use Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium Models.  But there exists a substantial category of debates that could be argued well, if all the participants were made aware of a small number of additional basic facts.

For instance, it would have been difficult in 2003 to have an intelligent debate about drone warfare, unless participants were informed that combat drones are typically remote-controlled military aircraft equipped with air-to-ground weapons.  Similarly, to effectively discuss the merits of expanding NATO membership in Eastern Europe, participants need to be aware of NATO’s ‘Article 5’ treaty obligations, which invoke a duty to collective self-defence.   There are a large number of topics where a little bit of information makes it possible for non-specialists to have an interesting debate that is grounded in reality.  These debates are improved by the judicious use of information slides.

Furthermore, in some debates information slides serve to establish a few non-disputed facts that are preconditions for reasonable argument.  Two people who do not agree about any of the facts simply cannot have a reasoned discussion.  Suppose we had a debate about legalising the sale of human kidneys.  One side asserts that kidney transplants are almost risk-free for the donor, while the other side asserts that they are both dangerous and extremely debilitating.  Since the relevant medical studies are not common knowledge, the debate revolves around made-up statistics and arguments from authority.  How is the judge meant to weigh the arguments and make her decision?  Far better to have an information slide laying out the basic facts; viz. that kidney donors face a .03% mortality risk during surgery, but their life expectancies and average quality of life are no worse than those of non-donors.12

One reason why mainstream political debate in the USA is dysfunctional is that there are virtually no news sources that are regarded as reliable by both sides.  One side believes that climate change is scientifically proven and caused by human beings, while the other side believes that scientists are charlatans and climate change is a foreign conspiracy.  Information slides are one way to prevent this dysfunction in British Parliamentary debating; when dealing with an unfamiliar topic, they establish a small number of empirical facts, enabling debaters to focus on making arguments.  They create common knowledge; so that there will be some facts about the situation that we know, that the other side knows, that the other side knows that we know, and so on, enabling us to argue with each other rather than past each other.  Short of allowing debaters to submit written evidence, there is sometimes no way to establish common ground besides an information slide.

When an adjudication team releases an information slide, they are assuring debaters that they have researched the facts carefully, and found these to be uncontroversially true.  They are specifying that, for the purposes of this debate, these facts are to be added to the pantheon of ordinary common knowledge that enables us to have a discussion.  This, incidentally, is why it is no objection to say that reasonable people would not believe what is on a Power Point slide.  Reasonable people do not select the sides they argue for using random number generators.  The entire rigmarole of assigning teams to rooms and sides, choosing a motion, and possibly displaying an information slide are part of the administrative procedure that enables a debate to happen.  They are not part of the debate, and not subject to the plausibility requirements that we apply to debate speeches.

British Parliamentary debates are not typically made better by arguing about brute empirical facts.  Since neither side can introduce corroborating evidence, it is better for there to be a base of mutually accepted knowledge from which arguments can begin.  Rather than constraining debaters’ freedom, a well-written information slide increases it:  It increases their freedom to think in detail about the situation, to make extended normative arguments or causal chains, confident that there are some background facts that their opponents and the judge know to be true.  For instance, it is not advisable to make extended arguments about voting reform in the IMF unless all parties know (at least in outline) the existing voting procedures.  The risk that the other team will simply claim that you are lying makes the argument difficult to defend and impossible to adjudicate.

Information slides can sometimes create a better discussion by coordinating debaters’ expectations about the subject of the debate.  They typically do this by including one or two paradigmatic examples to illustrate a difficult concept.  For instance, in a debate about providing comprehensive sex education in schools, one might consider giving a few examples of what constitutes “comprehensive sex education”.  This phrase’s meaning may vary from country to country, and Opening Government teams may set up better debates if they know that their definitions must encompass at least the cases in the information slide.  All teams may be able to use their preparation time more effectively, and produce better arguments, if they have coordinated expectations about the kinds of cases they are arguing about.

Finally, information slides can improve the experience of a debate for all parties involved.   Suppose a debate involves a key fact, X, that we cannot count on the teams and judges knowing.  Frequently, this makes everyone worse off.  Teams that do not know X are obviously at a disadvantage.  But even teams that know X are worse off, because they cannot count on the judges to believe them, and the result may be erratic and arbitrary.  And judges will have to endure a debate mired in falsehoods and half-truths.  (It bears remembering that judges are people too).  Thus, the use of an information slide can make everyone better off.

Information slides allow us to discuss real-world issues, create the preconditions for reasonable argument, and frequently make everyone better off.  There are some motions that are so specialised that they are not appropriate for general debating competitions.  But there are some motions that intelligent college students could argue well, if only they knew a limited number of key facts.  We could set these motions without information slides, in which case many debaters and judges would have a thoroughly miserable time.  We could only ever set motions that required little knowledge to debate well, in which case we should all apply for citizenship in Debate-land.  Or we could, carefully and in moderation, provide information slides.  That seems the best alternative.

  1. Fehrman-Ekholm, Ingela 2,3; Transplantation, 64(7): 976-978, October 15, 1997
  2. Ibrahim, Hassan N., et al. “Long-term consequences of kidney donation.” New England Journal of Medicine 360.5 (2009): 459-469.

Published by

Shengwu Li

While debating for the Oxford Union, Shengwu won EUDC Newcastle and ranked best speaker in the world at WUDC Koc.