The Value of Debates? Debatable

Two recent debates suggest the format is not generating much light, just heat

The Value of Debates? Debatable

At this week’s Researcher to Reader Conference, there was a debate about whether Sci-Hub has been good for scholarly communication. A proponent of the view conflated Sci-Hub with OA and presented an energetic tour of the Hall of Questionable Assertions we’ve been forced to walk up and down for the past 20 years of OA advocacy. A counterpoint view provided a more nuanced view of scholarly publishing, publishing economics, and piracy, and was far less emotional.

The stakes? Seeing if one presenter could sway opinion in the room as measured by a flash poll using an online tool visible to participants.

The ultimate effect was like watching two Muppet Swedish Chefs make a dish in completely different ways, and then each presenting it all with a triumphant, “Orn desh, dee born desh, de umn! Bork! Bork! Bork!” It was a bit of a mess, became messier as it went, was not very informative, and was only slightly entertaining.

And, of course, the more emotionally charged presentation edged out the more nuanced and considered one.

An earlier debate last year sponsored by the Charleston Conference was even less helpful in covering its premise, which was, “All scholarship must be made freely available for reading and reuse.” That debate ended up becoming an argument about copyright, simply because one advocate chose to focus on this and this alone, making his approach resemble a jackhammer. His counterpart covered far more ground, and had far more real-world knowledge, but because the premise became so rooted in emotionalism, that didn’t matter. Worse, the copyright antagonist proved to be more than willing to mislead the audience about copyright law and its practice in order to elicit anger and resentment — i.e., trigger emotional responses. I recall at the end being so fed up with the copyright antagonist that I started to argue with him in the chat session, and was later told I was making far more accurate points than he was willing to make since he was hunting the “win.” That’s how badly these things can go, and how far or wide a participant might go to secure a victory via flash polling.

Rather than premise a debate’s success on how opinions about a complex question may or may not have shifted between the beginning and the end — a winner/loser premise fed more by emotion than reason — it might be more informative to evaluate any debate and its related question on more structured debate criteria:

  • Presentation style
  • Organization and clarity
  • Use of argument
  • Use of cross-examination and rebuttal

If the audience and presenters were paying attention to these features rather than focusing on “winning,” these debates may benefit from more thoughtful feedback, deeper reflection, and more careful preparation. Audience members may more readily discern gaps and weaknesses in the approach each debater takes. Presenters may benefit from a set of criteria more nuanced than “win at all costs,” which is how some seem to interpret the current format.

So, the next time you see a “debate” presentation, maybe pause to think whether it’s a real debate, a show debate, or even a useful debate.

Given what I’ve seen recently, the value of the format as its currently executed is debatable.

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