GD Tutorial for Real People, Like Me, Who Want To Participate

I’ve been a Doper for a long time, but I really don’t participate in GD, partly out of fear (you guys are scary sometimes!), and partly because I simply do not know how to debate.

Most opinions that I have regarding most of the issues that come up here would be based on personal experience and simple belief. While I know that that can be helpful, I know that it’s often not enough for a good, successful debate.

I want to learn how to debate. I want to learn how not to have my fanny handed back to me on a silver platter, with scalloped potatoes and a sprig of parsley on the side. I really think that I could give and get something useful out of this.

Thanks for any help. It will be most appreciated.

Don’t be afraid! The worst that can happen is someone disagreeing with you or proving you wrong, and those are chances to learn. Just be ready to back up whatever you say with relevant information if pressed.

And if you want to learn how to identify and tear apart of some of the more common logical fallacies here is a good place to look.


I feel silly giving advice to someone with 6558 posts.

Persephone, here’s a suggestion. Start some threads taking unpopular positions. You are guaranteed to receive a large number of excellent critiques from the Straight Dope GD panel, and maybe even the Pit. :wink:

I’m only half-kidding. If you start participating and you pay attention to the other side, you will learn a lot about how to debate. You may lose your first batch of debates, but your skill will rapidly improve.

  1. I’m not sure that this is always a bad thing. I learned how to play chess, in part, by playing people who ripped me a new one now and then. :wink:

  2. You’ll probably feel most comfortable easing into topics that interest you a lot, and/or ones that you might naturally have more knowledge than the average Joe or Jane.

  3. One reason to participate in GD is to actually learn something from other posters…so asking a probing question within a thread seems like a good thing to once in awhile.

  4. You really can’t go wrong by declaring, now and then, Damn, that beagledave knows his shit!! :stuck_out_tongue:

damn that beagle dave knows shit!!:stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue:

I debated a little in high school & college, and I’ve concluded that you’re not exactly fencing with Cyrano de Bergerac in GD. Although there are people to watch out for. Mostly, I would advise a learning by doing approach.

Some things to do:[ul]
[li]Read this, and this. While the second one may be one of the funniest comedy skecthes ever written, it is also very educational.[/li][li]Check out The Logic of Real Arguments, which I’ve heard is somewhat seminal in the critical thinking literature.[/li][li]Remember that formal logic is like DNA evidence: a rock solid proof is meaningless if the premises aren’t very good.[/li][li]Remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.[/li][/ul]
An argument is like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link. Look for the links in the chain and consider each one. Often they will be unstated or skipped altogether.

Note also that in a policy debate, e.g. the U.S. should go to war with Iraq, is made up of four Stock Arguments: harm, inherency, plan, solvency. The person advocating a change in the status quo must win all four arguments. Harms means that there is something bad going on (e.g. Saddam oppresses his people). Inherency is that absent the proposed plan (e.g. going to war) the problem will not go away (e.g. without war Saddam will stay in power). Note that there are weaker versions of inherency, but that opens one up to a counter plan (e.g. give the Kurds the bomb). Then there must be a plan (e.g. go to war) and it must not be more harmful than the problem it’s intented to solve (e.g. war will cause an Islamist revolution in Pakistan, then bin Laden will have the bomb). Finally the plan must solve the problem (e.g. war will cause Iraqis to become instantly democratic and friendly to the west).

If you are on the con postion in such a debate, there is alot of material for you to work with since not only must the pro win each Stock Argument, but winning those arguments means that each internal link and piece of evidence in the argument must stand up to scrutiny as well.

Start some arguments with opinions that you don’t believe in, or that you believe are wrong, in order to get comfortable with the idea of looking at the evidence and reasoning without caring about the issue.

Pay close attention to beagledave’s point #4. It will usually get you out of a bind.

Finally remember, that this is purely for sport. If you can get even one person to step back and reconsider her position, then you’ve achieved a victory, IMO. Most people have their views and build arguments, some shoddy assertions, some very well done, to back up those beliefs and they’re really not interested in having them challenged. Very few, IMO, build their views from the arguments to obtain an examined world view.

I’m not sure there is a vast rulebook you’d find useful. Generally, when I manage to follow my own advice, it pays to stick to the following:

(a) Be polite and reasonable, no matter how utterly repellent the other position is. I’ve been caught out before by jumping down someone’s throat after misinterpreting what they’ve said, and I’ve regretted it.

(b) Read, re-read and re-read again every post. Stop to wonder if there’s a different interpretation to what you’ve just read. If you’re not sure, ask for clarification from the poster. I’ve seen nasty little spats over that kind of thing plenty of times.

©. Cites. Inevitable, really. A point backed up by authoritative evidence is generally far worthier of consideration. Of course, the quality of that evidence depends on many factors. When posting evidence, I try to pick sources that are either generally accepted as authoritative, appear to have a large amount of expertise in that area, or at the very least are as politically neutral as possible. An anti-abortion website may have absolutely correct statistics and opinion poll results, but you may find it difficult to convince someone taking the opposite viewpoint that it’s a credible source. Ditto with party politics.

(d) If you’re relying on personal anecodotal evidence and opinion, state that clearly. There’s nothing wrong with a debate stemming from opinions, but remember that your opinion is no more ‘correct’ than anyone else’s.

(e) Prepare to learn and to change your mind. If you’re so utterly convinced about something that you won’t even entertain the possibility that you could learn something new that might alter your opinion, why bother participating at all?

(f) Avoid common logical fallacies. This one still intimidates me, but I see the point. Certain arguments should not receive the same consideration as others if they rely on ‘underhand’ tactics. For example, the straw man misrepresentation of someone’s position, or attacking the person rather than their position. I know there are more formal logical rules around debating, and I’m sure there are many posters who can provide more on this, but these are the ones I try to follow.

(g) Everyone makes mistakes – be ready to acknowledge and apologise if you get snappy, or have misread a post, or if your position/evidence is proved to be suspect. That’s just me; I don’t like conflict.

To prove that I’m serious about putting out bonehead arguments that you don’t agree with to grow, I’ve put my reputation (such as it is) on the line with this sure-to-displease thread: Racism is good.

Let’s watch the fun!!:smiley:

Im new to the straight dope myself. One thing ive noticed already and quickly learned not to take personally is that many debaters are just quick to jump on other people rather than to get a meaningful debate. My view is that this is thier problem not mine, im only here to share some ideas and understand other views. I try to keep things positive and ignore people who are out to attack others and demonstrate that they are smart. The wisest people are the ones who dont claim to have all the answers…

True, to a certain extant. I would rephrase many to some.

What I’ve seen in GD is a great deal of highly intelligent people with differing viewpoints. Sure, some people attack the person and not the debate. By the same token, some people respond to others as though they’ve been personally slighted. It’s easy to do. Especially if it’s a cherished and basic belief like, say, “There Is / Isn’t a God,” or “My Politics Makes More Sense Than Yours.”

Some opinions can be made foolish-looking by facts. Either change the facts (prove your side), or change your mind. Other opinions may never be changed (by other people) because the other’s arguments don’t carry enough weight. Doesn’t mean the differing viewpoints are wrong, though. Just different.

FTR, I don’t debate well. I argue. I can write an oustanding piece of short fiction, though. And, I do have a massive memory, full of obscure trivia. Also, I have a great library. Sometimes, I can add to a GD.

Bottom line for the OP. Don’t be afraid. Just follow SDMB Rule # 1: Don’t Be A Jerk.

Then, jump in! Learn. Educate. Defend. Enjoy.

Hi, Persephone!

a) Ignore the hoots and “fresh meat” catcalls :slight_smile:

b) The important difference between IMHO and GD is that no one cares that you hold such-and-such an opinion, and may stomp all over you for simply saying so. That doesn’t make your opinions irrelevant to GD. The trick is to make an “argument to convince” or to provide examples from real life that illustrate not only why you hold that opinion but do so in such a way as to draw a lot of other people to share the experience second-hand and therefore perhaps end up holding the same opinion. (People may still not agree with you and may counter-argue vociferously but that’s different).

c) You will, in the course of doing GD threads, run up against individuals who want to go head-to-head with you, quoting back your stuff and trying to tear it apart in order to “win the argumetn” with you. Remember that your audience is not merely this individual. Make your points in such a way that even if you don’t get a concession speech from the other person, you continue to underline what you are saying to the rest of us. This accomplishes two things: you convince other people even if your argumentative opponent remains opposed, and you keep the thread interesting, without which you’ll end up spending a lot of time composing rebuttals that are only being read by one other person who is more likely bound and determined to “beat you”, not to understand you.

d) Do search for posts you’ve previously posted in with activity in the last x days often enough to see if people have replied to stuff you’ve said. I speak as a person with a bit of reputation for drive-by debating because I don’t do this enough after posting in GD. If you care enough to say something in a debate thread, you should care enough to read the replies and reply in turn to them as appropriate.

Start with the more opinion than cite threads. i.e. God, Political Leanings.

Understand the value and worth of the ancedote. It is valuable, but no substitute for actual data.

Argue the things that interest you. I quickly get over my head in the econ debates, and am happy to just read and maybe chime in with my less than completely valuable ancedotes.

If you don’t attack, you generally won’t be attacked. If you need clarification of someone’s points, ask for it (which is a debating style in itself).

And don’t take anything personally.

"Most opinions that I have regarding most of the issues that come up here would be based on personal experience and simple belief. While I know that that can be helpful, I know that it’s often not enough for a good, successful debate. "

How true. “Simple belief” is useless: when 2 people have conflicting simple beliefs, their arguments simply cancel.

To sort the issues out, one must appeal to evidence or logic.

“Personal experience” is often synomous with “anecdote”, which is to say that it is “weak evidence”. Hey that’s better than nothing.

*I want to learn how to debate. *

Why? It would be better to learn how to pose an interesting question, and to figure out how one might evaluate it, or how one might weigh conflicting evidence.

Indeed, those who want to win arguments might study some of the logical fallicies listed in some of the above links, then learn how to skillfully use them. :slight_smile: Of course, this practice may not work as well on the esteemed SDMB.

Please don’t feel silly. Sure, I’ve been here a while and have a high post count, but all that means is that…well, that I’ve managed to successfully avoid being banned. I asked for help, and if you can give it, then it’s definitely appreciated, regardless of your post count.

Thanks for the advice so far, and please keep it coming.

Oh, something else I’m interested in is what constitues “reputable sources.” If I’m going to cite something, I’d like to know that the source is a good, solid one. I know that can be difficult to do sometimes (particularly if the debate is a religious one), but in the minds of the GDenizens, what makes a reputable source?

Well, perhaps you should cite, “The best source you can”, letting us know any misgivings you have about the source.

On the whole, when the source has some sort of ideological agenda and doesn’t treat opposing arguments fairly (or doesn’t mention them at all), then it’s probably not a great source. I would think you could still cite it though: just add the necessary qualifications.

beagledave knows his stuff.

Never, ever, ever come into a debate knowing you are right; this is a sure recipe for getting upset. Come into a debate thinking you are right. Strange perspective for some, maybe, but it helps you be more polite, and if you are in fact wrong it is usually easier to see it because you end up paying more attention to what others post.

My own rule of thumb: if it can be demonstrated by evidence, it was never a debate. If dragging out evidence won’t seal the deal, then perhaps you are not as right as you thought you were, don’t get into an “evidence debate” which pretty much always tanks. Pay close attention.

This is just a request from me to you (and a semi-disagreement with Crusoe’s fourth point): please don’t pull the “but that’s just my opinion” card in a debate. We all state our opinions; in fact that’s what we’re debating. This is just a request, but I’ve yet to see anyone avoid tossing it out now and again. If you think all opinions are equally valid just because they’re opinions, start a poll! :stuck_out_tongue: :wink:

I’ve got to second some others’ comment: ask questions. Clarify. But try not to say, “what do you mean” but, “What do you mean, it sounds like you’re saying… but I want to be sure”. That helps them address the point you seem to be missing, rather than clarifying something you already understood.

Everyone else has good advice. No one follows their own advice all the time. :smiley:

“I debated a little in high school & college, and I’ve concluded that you’re not exactly fencing with Cyrano de Bergerac in GD.”

Well, we’re not exactly bound by formal debating structure, either. I think that structure changes everything from the tone of comments to the impression comments make. I’ve been far more swayed by death penalty opponents here than I have by the “actual” debates I’ve been in. My goal in a formal debate is to win, not be right. My goal here is to be right, even if that only amounts to admitting I’m wrong. :slight_smile:

I agree with flowbark. If you’re goal is to “win,” you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re goal is to learn and to examine your own positions, you’re going to be very satisfied.

There is nothing wrong with using personal opinion or experience as a springboard to a discussion. There’s a great deal wrong with trying to use it to end a discussion. An OP that says, “All my life I’ve observed X. This leads me to conclusion Z. Is this correct? If not, why not?” is fine so long as you are genuinely willing to think through your position and, if necessary, change your mind.

GD is often confrontational and that can be a good thing. The sharp clash of ideas can serve to illuminate the real issues even if they also demonstrate that those issues are insoluable. Sometimes, however, when people want to “win,” it can degenerate into a pointless “Tastes Great!” “Less Filling!” sort of thing. Remember, having the last word isn’t all that important so long as your position is clear. People draw their own conclusions based on quality, not on who posted last.

Finally, the very most you can reasonably hope for is that people understand your position. It does not follow that, once they understand your position, they will necessarily agree with you. I have remained completely unconvinced by some of the more profitable discussions I’ve had on this board. However. I now understand the reasoning underlying my opposite numbers’ positions and the premises from which they arise.

**Persephone ** I, too, am in awe of the great minds and level of intelligence found here in GD.

I tend to think of GD’er’s as a bunch of Roman’s running around in toga’s.

In real life, debating a point isn’t a problem for me, I can usually manage nicely on my own. Here, holey Moley, if I form what I feel is an intelligent response, by the time I read through all the other responses, 200 other said what I thought I was going to say, in a more cohesive, intelligent, concise manner. Leaving me to stick with my usual MO: The Drive By.

So, I just lurk.

Hell, I’ve learned here by lurking than I think I could learn in any college class.