Let the Research Guide You

Debate teaches this most valuable skill: research. “Let the research guide you,” Vance Trefethen says in the new Blue BookConsider it “the Force” in debate. There is even a “light” and a “dark” side to it.

Research itself is neutral. But it can be used for good or evil.

Debaters become masters of research, but there is a “light” and “dark” side to the discipline.

Observe first the neutrality of the skill of research. Whether using research for good or bad, debaters are trained to wield its persuasive effect. The best debaters delve deep into understanding particular issues to either (1) develop a rock-solid case that will win every round, or (2) develop a negative brief to bring down the most rock-solid opposition.

I’m very proud of my students who advocate for good things. In a debate arena, they sometimes have to attack good things, but everyone understands the academic nature of the scrimmage. In life, these students often take up political action, some pastoring, others teachers. They use research to guide their advocacy, and I love this.

But there is a dark side, a misdirection of this masterful discipline of debate.

The dark side settles in when debaters reverse the Yoda-like command to “let the research guide you.” Instead, they come up with their conclusion and set out to make sure their research confirms it. Sort of a reverse syllogism. They want a desired outcome, and they cling to any citation that validates it. They “wag the dog” of research.

I’ve caught debate teams cheating, even, to make their case say what they want it to say. At the risk of losing a round or even expelled from a tournament, they sometimes fabricate evidence or power-tag their research to come to their desired conclusion. These debaters bring disgrace to the discipline, as do coaches who allow such behavior.

Such is life, I suppose. Some will choose darkness. The light is the better choice.

This is where “truth” finds its home in your research. At the beginning of the year, debaters study everything there is to study about the resolution. Whatever the topic the league puts forth for their members, debaters devour all of its advocates, perspectives, opinions and solutions. They “let the research guide them” and eventually come up with their most rock-solid, persuasive case. They advocate that which has already been proven, and they develop claims that can be validated with the research they find.

  • Dark Side: The debate resolution releases, and you come up with an idea to solve the dilemma or conflict. You set out to find support for your idea. If (or rather, when) you don’t find it, you fudge the research to make it advocate your case.
  • Light Side: The debate resolution releases, and you study everything there is to know about the dilemma or conflict. After thorough study, you choose a side to advocate and reference the material you gathered in your research.

Honestly, I do not know why debaters choose the dark side—or, at least, continue after they learn about the light side. It is harder to start the year off with your own uneducated ideas and try to set out to validate your own ignorance. It is no wonder that these debaters sometimes resort to unethical research.

It is an “easy yoke,” you might say. Choose the Light Side of research and “let the research guide you.”