Andres Aullet


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What are the advantages of the debate format? what are its pitfalls?

A lot of the discussion we see around us happens in some form of a debate format: a topic, a proposition side and an opposition side, constructive arguments, and rebuttals

Here in TED there are three formats for starting a conversations, yet, regardless of the initial format selected, most of the discussions end up being sort of a debate.

While i see some advantages to the debate format, in terms of narrowing down the discussion, and keep a single focus in mind, I am of the opinion that a lot is lost when we leave out of the discussion any intermediate positions, and when we demand that an all or nothing stance is taken on the discussed topic

What is your idea about the debate format? does it help advancing understanding? Does a different discussion format work better if the objective is understanding? Is debate just a tool to segregate people between those in favor and those against a specific point of view? Is it then, essentially divisive?

  • Oct 4 2012: In most cases, seemingly divisive, not essentially.
    It is true that while arguing, people get aggressive and defensive. Clearly it seems a lot messy.
    But in hindsight, people having an argument realize they’ve learned quite important messages from the debate.
    For me, after having an intense debate with others, I either reinforce my argument or instead, open my mind and understand the value of others’ thoughts.
    But in order not to ruin the value of an argument, emotional or too aggressive reactions shouldn’t be followed by the basis of your opinion. (We need to be able to calm down even if the opposite person literally makes your blood boil.)
    You might say, “easier said than done!”
    Well, there’s no perfect way. However biting a dispute may be, all you can take advantage of is just enjoying the process, while having a debate or after.
    And I think there are more advantages of the debate format than its disadvantages.
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    Oct 2 2012: You are right about the trend on TED. What we do mostly is debate.
    It is a good thing that most people on this forum are grounded in their beliefs, ideas and worldview. If not, they would just be confused people dithering to and fro, standing for nothing and falling for anything.

    Every idea and question could turn to a debate on TED because it is a cosmopolitan forum. The outcome of the arguements is a better understanding of the world. Now, the understanding part is an individual responsibility. Some people do not give any consideration to the arguements against their stand in order to rexamine their beliefs; some would do that and learn more.

    There are also people who do not contribute to the debates but are weighing both sides of the arguement in other to know how to beam the searchlight of knowledge on the issue.

    There are also people who do not even believe in what they are saying. Their arguements are based on 'what ifs' and 'maybes' and the things they've heard and believed without examining critically. On TED they would know that their beliefs are not rooted in sound reasoning.

    We should also note that the fact that an arguement is well-presented does not mean it is true.

    In the end, debates helps in advancing understanding, because there is always a wise person, listening, rexamining his or her beliefs, changing, or strengthening his or her resolve.
  • Oct 9 2012: Hi, Andres !
    People usually are so committed to their opinions that any format tends to gain a debate 'momentum'
    Maybe you'll be interested in David Bohm's idea to create a new 'genre ' of human communication, a kind of ' thinking the thought together "
    Check out here , 16.10 mark.
    For me, the whole interview is a real feast :)
    Hope you'll enjoy it too !
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    Oct 2 2012: I like to wander around emotional issues related to what I'm talking about, and tell a story, before bringing the weight of my argument on, and tryin to support it with facts. In reality, because of the internet, TED is actually a step better than most debate formats, in that you can link to relevant resources, and if people are truly interested in your position, the can take the time to actually learn how you came to it.

    At the same time, I enjoy having a strange voice, and constantly remind people "What we're doing right now, is not normal, or okay, it's crazy, and if we were watching us do it from space... that would be obvious. Just because you're used to it, doesn't make it acceptable behavior". I think someone needs to rage a bit, and I'm writing a dystopian TV series for fun, so... I can't help but let it seep into my voice on here.

    At the same time, taking people on emotional journeys, especially dark ones, is not necessarily an effective form of debate. Humor, sarcasm, and even rage have their place, but they also turn people off. Didactic fact based points with 30 pages of links can shut people off just as well.

    I like to think about it as a heated conversation among friends. I debate my friends all the time, but it rarely devolves to mudslinging... It often devolves into people acting out skits or telling crazy tangential stories though. I have fun trying to engage this way in a text format, but it's not for everyone.

    I used to talk about this a lot, but I think that a "spirit of friendly competition", is the balance most of humanity is seeking. A spirit of non violent competition, with a sense of humor, but intense willingness to see your ideas clash up against those of your friends, whatever the result may be.
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      Oct 2 2012: David, I think you belong to a quite unique group of debaters. Having followed some of your conversations and comments, I sometimes begin to grasp that path that you trace, down some dark alleys or down some apparently absurd routes, but I end up with some new understanding in most cases

      I used to play guitar semi-professionally with a friend of mine when i was in college. From experience, we were well aware of the way you lay out a concert, not just a random selection of songs, but you try to trace an emotional path to follow... you get yourself into it, and then you watch the audience follow you, up and down. Your comment about the emotional issues around a debate made me think that I too, try to "see" that emotional path that a dialog follows (just like the one during a concert), since it has a lot of impact in the success or failure of communicating more fully

      That ability to stand back and see yourself embedded in a dialogue and be able to criticize not only the person you are debating with, but yourself and your own line of argument is something that is mostly lost in debates here (and in presidential debates, as TED Lover would say)

      I particularly like the way you put it at the end of your comment: "intense willingness to see your ideas clash against those of your friends, whatever the result may be"

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      Oct 3 2012: David you bring a good point to the table and I would like to add, we all suffer from change in mood and sometimes this can be visible to the crowd. I like to use the delete/edit button when I discover I have falling into a mood slump. What I don't know is weither TED, sends out the email that someone "changed" a post you commented to or deleted their comment or post that you replied to.

      I think we need a better notification process.
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    Oct 2 2012: Agree totally with Feyisayo, except for one area.

    "What If's" presented by a debator don't necessarily indicate the debator has not examined the subject critically, or that they don;t believe in the "argument" they are presenting.

    "What If's" are an essential part of decision making. It is the part of incorporating Risk Management into a decision process. You can be aware of possible pitfalls to any decision or course of action you are considering. Being aware of both the possible positive and negative consequences of the decision or action...the "What If's" part of any critical thinking decision making process.

    Of course, the "What If's" should be rational assumptions of the future possible consequences of the decision or action. If they are irrational, then I would agree with Feyisayo...the debator wouldn't be using "sound reasoning" in the Risk Management portion of the decision making.

    As for the qualities someone needs to become a "successful" debator? Objectivity is one of the primary ones. The ability to see, comprehend, understand, and tolerate another's dissenting opinion is primary. I learned that way back in high school when I was on my Debate Team. How? We were given topics to debate and WE didn't get to choose the side we got to debate. Many times I had to set my own personal views aside, research the opposing view, and then be able to present a credible argument in FAVOR of it...even though I didn't believe the argument myself. That is how I learned about "critical thinking", and it has served me well my entire life since then. I'm still guilty of logic errors and irrational thought sometimes. I don't know any Human Being who isn't. But the ability to step back and take an objective look at any criticism of my opinions, views, and beliefs has prevented me from making a total fool of myself on numerous occassions. And...sometimes it hasn't, too.
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      Oct 2 2012: Hello Rick,

      Thank you for your comment. As I have stated several times here on TED, my background is physics, and I even when participating in a debate, i try to approach the dialog using a scientific inquiry methodology.

      You make a great point... not all "what if's" are the same. Nor they should be given the same weight. In particular, "what if's" should be followed by plausible alternatives, or at least alternatives that could be pursued logically. It is quite different to say :"what if geometric curvature is a good way to model gravity on a macro scale, but a non geometric model is more accurate on a micro scale", than it is to say: "what if everything that science knows about gravity turns out to be wrong?", and yet i see variations of this second type of argument used more often than variations of the first one

      But maybe I am asking something from debate that goes beyond its purpose: maybe i am asking debate to be a tool to inquire about the truth, whereas it maybe just a tool to understand somebody else's point of view

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        Oct 2 2012: (Quote): "But maybe I am asking something from debate that goes beyond its purpose: maybe i am asking debate to be a tool to inquire about the truth, whereas it maybe just a tool to understand somebody else's point of view"

        I don't think you are wrong. I think it depends on the circumstances.

        Within your physics background, debate is conducted for the purpose of achieving BOTH exchange of ideas or beliefs (which may actually lead to the acquisition of a "truth"), and "truth" itself. Of course, "truth" itself is a debatable conclusion. We accept some things as being true just because of our everyday experiences, and some things as only accepted "true theories"...the best "truth" we can assume at the time about a current unknown.

        And the above concept can apply to many, many other disciplines also.

        A good example of a useless debate is in this link:

        In 2002, the then Secretary of Defense for the U.S. made the following statements during a speech to the public:

        "[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
        There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know.
        But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know."

        The general public, by and large, thought he was insane. They could not comprehend what he was saying, and he got lambasted for it, not only by the general public, but also in the news media.

        Others who had experience in the concepts understood exactly what he was saying. Sometimes you have no choice but to make certain decisions based on those 3 possibilities about the level of "what you know". Debating about it is meaningless. But try and explain these reasons to the "general public" in making a certain decision, and you may face total ridicule. Yet "the people" want you to tell them the "truth".

        The "truth" is meaningless unless someone can comprehend it.
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      Oct 3 2012: Rich you have just described Law school 101... :)

      It doesn't matter if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Most trials are just a debate on the issue of innocence or guilt. An attorney's debate skills can have a big impact on your freedom.
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    Oct 2 2012: I would say the main disadvantage of debate is that it requires a judge to determine who won the debate. There is no judge on TED unless you are not "civil". I don't find this useful because it is more about emotion and ego than truth or logic.

    Some on TED definitely practice the Dialectic method or Socratic method and are mainly interested in the truth which is what I would call real communication and it is quite interesting and pleasant.

    IMO one of the down falls of the Dialectic method is when it involves one of the individuals bench marks or true north's, as he will not consider or understand anything that is contrary to that bench mark. These bench marks are often unwittingly adopted and effect the individual into perpetuity as it is only defended and not inspected. This is the definition of a specious or dangerous meme. For example all "big business is bad" yet the standard of living that we now enjoy was brought about by big business. If the guy will inspect this meme he will be set free of this self imposed disability. The problem is that he will not inspect the meme.

    Now this is not true with a person who has the ability to genuinely communicate, if nothing else because of this quality they can consider other ideas and alleviate themselves of these fallacies. The person who does not have this quality cannot and so is forced to regurgitate the meme into perpetuity. I might add that this quality alone makes the difference between a successful life and an unsuccessful one.
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      Oct 2 2012: Thanks for your answer and the links Pat, indeed, even if the Dialectic method is used (or if one tries to follow it as closely as possible), it does take great effort to jump put of our memes and see someone else's point of view

      Countless occasions i have seen the example that you mention, the clash between the "big business is bad" meme against the "totally free market is always best" meme here on TED.

      Even I have jumped in the wagon, i guess we embrace these memes because we have some emotional attachment that strengthens our bias towards them.

      When i recognize my memes creeping in my comments, i to keep in mind the asymmetry inherent in every discussion (my memes don't need to mean anything more than mere opinions to others). I try to go back to common ground, as little as there is, and try to build again from there upwards

      I am of the opinion that scientific inquiry is the most neutral way to investigate the truth behind the unknown, but to some this sounds like a biased point of view as well
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        Oct 2 2012: You will not find any conflict between the scientific method and logic.

        Another angle on this is what is the participants intention and demeanor. Some of the participants demeanor is antagonism and there intention is to antagonize, what do you know who would of thunk it. The reality is that they are regurgitating a meme that has been given to them as all conflict is created by a 3rd party.

        At the other end of the spectrum are individuals like Fritzie who's sole purpose is to serve and bring individuals up a notch and his demeanor is reflective of that. Notice that the ones who teach the best are the best students as well, me thinks not a coincidence.
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    Oct 9 2012: I see opportunity for individuals wanting to reach out to the opposition by debate for a more intelligent perspective on different sides of an issue, or position, because communications are written. To write something down involving a debate demands more of us and a bit more risky by legacy and therefore more self regulating and obviously elevated over verbal battles, war, etc.

    TED did away with thumbs down as a feedback mechanism. I didn't like this at first, but have since adjusted. Thumbs down is the ultimate debate or position negative response and the easiest. It's likely also the least effective at influencing others to change how they think or feel about something. Note that this activity is not confined to the direct participants, but to the vicarious audience following along and subject to being influenced by the exchange.

    The written word enables and allows the writer a more thoughtful, and/or creative means of involving the focused attention of the opposing debater with a clashing view. An inaccurate, superficial or vested position is more likely to be exposed by this written debate format.

    The fact that TED allows longer written response is also a plus for some of these debated subjects which need adequate space for argument and/or explanation.

    TED's debate format is perhaps not through evolving, but I enjoy being an active voice and also a vicarious reader of many of my fellow members. It appears to me the pitfalls of this format are outweighed by the positive aspects of the overall setup.
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    Oct 9 2012: I wont answer about advantages or disadvantages but I will say that I think it would be fair, equitable, logical, more interesting and maybe even illuminating if at every close of discussion a further period of time is set apart for the author of the thread to complete a must do, self created synopsis of the topic. A gathering of his/her thoughts and considerations on the new knowledge that has been revealed to him/her. In this fashion perhaps we can see the fruits of the communities labour, a idea/new concept spring into being, a acknowledgement thqat the author posted a well thought out question or topic (instead of grandstanding) and also feel a sense of closure to the topic. It could also stop some contributors trolling to add the last comment...which is just nasty.

    Then the synopsis should be put up with all the rest in a library type part of TED so that a) we can see the enlightened synopsis b) a quick index to topics c) a sense of Perpetuity and value/connectedness d) that the Topic has already been covered
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    Oct 4 2012: I would say that this is how perspective is gained. You can not have a serious conversation with someone or even trivial conversations without someone without asking a question? Hows the weather? How would you get to know someone with out asking questions about them? But then ego gets in the way that's what makes it a debate instead of a conversation.
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      Oct 4 2012: You are absolutely right Casey, it is by posing ever deeper questions and trying to let go o four ego that we stand to gain the most.

      Debate, specially as practiced in politics is very structured. Like a sparring match. It is not so much about advancing deeper understanding on a topic as much as it is an attempt to defend (or attack) a particular position.

      I know sometimes this format helps by keeping the dialogue narrowed down, but personally i find in it more cons than pros

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        Oct 4 2012: yeah debating should be to diving deeper into the actual topic. Not who can give out the most zingers
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    Oct 3 2012: I have often wondered if it would be possible to train the regular crowd to use a work around to the weaknesses in the TED posting/comment structure.

    What if we limited the replies to a statement with one reply each and we edit our reply as the post is edited to support or enhance the argument offered?

    I hope this is clear. Instead of a long line of argument we have an evolving idea of each issue being proposed, or question offered with the burden placed on the poster to edit their post to reflect the positive or negative relationship of the commentary to the post. This could give the appearance of an evolving debate with issues pertaining to the topic growing in relevance to help lead towards a closing argument for the topic.
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      Oct 3 2012: Hello John,

      But by constantly editing a single response, wouldn't we be losing the trace and evolution of the dialog? how do we achieve continuity by using the edit format that you have in mind?
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        Oct 3 2012: Yes. we would lose the dialog that led to the conclusions or propositions but we would end up with a conjecture or conclusion that would lead to the next proposal. I'm busy right now but I will try to do a simulation of this proposal on my forum to demonstrate my suggestion. I should get back by this time tomorrow. It could be that such a solution is not possible because not all members would participate correctly, in fact, I'm sure of it. :)

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        Oct 4 2012: I would also say that when we play a game of chess, the moves we make work us towards a win.
        We lose the positions of previous moves as we continue to play.
        After we win, the previous moves are not there to justify our win but the win itself proves we followed a true course, a winning course.

        Likewise, so could a good argument be similar in course.
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    Oct 3 2012: If the debate topic is not narrow enough, it can grow into broader detail and become cluttered with elements not related to the topic of debate.

    EX. "what is the difference between atheist and theist?"

    Because the topic relates to religion, it will ultimately grow into a topic of "Atheism vs. Religion" Associative relationships can be introduced in any debate.

    It could be fun and it does, in my opinion, educate everyone in using logic, informal and formal, and the use of natural language. I see people become better debaters, as they engage in more debates.

    The debate format does enhance understanding, lead one to search ideas and highlights the gaps in one's personal knowledge on the topic. With this in mind, I would have to say debate is good for understanding and developing knowledge.

    I would say one more thing, if the regular crowd of debtors does not take note of newbies and treat them with the proper respect and manners, they can be turned off from joining in debates. One can be both new at debating and have much to offer but be turned off forever by the way they are treated in these online debates. It would be a detriment to us all to discover we sent an Einstein packing with a sour attitude towards participating in debates.

    I also see some problems with semantics -- not properly offering a comment, suggestion, or question.
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      Oct 3 2012: I do agree, semantics tends to be problematic. We can all do a little bit to try and improve in that regard (i'll be the first one confessing i am one of those)

      My main issue with the debate format is when every conversation is attempted to be framed under that format.

      Debate is great for yes or no, for or against dissertations, and it is narrow enough that indeed one can reach deep levels of argumentation. But I propose that before we jump to make every one of these conversations a debate, we should allow for the possibility that there might be more than two sides to the topic at hand, and treat it as such
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        Oct 3 2012: We are limited with the tools we have at our disposal and the degree of honest participation with other members. There is an atmosphere of entertainment on TED that might not exist in a formal forum. We can flag comments or request they be removed but so far I have not seen many people cooperating is this way. Very few actually.

        In fact. That is what my forum is all about, but it is still a work in progress. I've combined a word press display format with my SMF forum. In the forum we will debate these issues, formally, and then after careful editing, present them in the word press format for public scrutiny. It is possible, by doing it this way, we could generate materiel for a book which could be sold on Amazon in eBook format.
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    Oct 2 2012: I don't wish to start a debate here, but doesn't anybody define terms anymore? What, exactly, do you mean by the word "debate"?
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      Oct 2 2012: Hi Ed!

      I tried to use this as my definition above:

      "a topic, a proposition side and an opposition side, constructive arguments, and rebuttals", but I would take any comments or corrections to make it more accurate if that serves to clarify the debate at hand!

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        Oct 2 2012: Many of the response comments you are getting, Andres, seem to be addressing more informal, extemporaneous conversation/argument type exchanges. Is that what you want?
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          Oct 2 2012: I welcome all responses Ed... those informal and the more formal too... I stand to learn from all these opinions!

          My main point with this question is to address a deep rooted feeling that i have: namely, that the framework under which we debate issues sometimes constrain our discussions as much as our opinions or biases... In other words, a format that only allows for two positions (for or against) regarding a subject seems to me that leaves a lot out of the conversation

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    Gail .

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    Oct 2 2012: Debate, as it is commonly used is divisive. If there were more options than two, they would be more effective. But sometimes an either/or is effective, if there is actual PROOF that needs to be presented. Debates about theoretical ideas without evidence are a bit of a waste of time, thus are misleading.

    the forthcoming presidential debates are an example of misleading. Debaters are preaching to the audience in order to get elected, not in order to educate. Thus you will hear no LEGITIMATE evidence.

    You can discern who is lying though. It is said that you can learn more from a debate by turning off the sound and watching, than you can by listening to the debaters.
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      Oct 2 2012: Hi TED Lover. Thanks for your comment. Indeed, the presidential debates will give us plenty of examples of useless arguments with little or distorted basis, meant to lead an audience towards certain goal without fully telling this audience what the goal is

      I was curious to ask if there is such a thing with a debate with more than two sides. I am not very well versed in the debate format, but from what i have read about debate clubs and debate formats, it seems to me that it is mostly limited to one subject and two positions (which in my view limits it tremendously)

      I am glad you bring the analogy of some debate to preaching. It is well known that preachers use emotions in order to convey ideas to their audiences, and many times the audiences are not even aware of the subtlety in which ideas are formed by those emotions

      It is a fact that i cannot turn off my emotions when listening to a debate, or while participating in one, but i always try to be very aware of this, and try to see why a particular emotion was used attached to an idea, and try to filter the emotion from the idea to give it a more "appropriate" weight

      I like the idea of watching the presidential debates with the volume down... Is it too bad that i would like to watch some of those debates using the soundtrack of a southpark episode? :)

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      Oct 3 2012: I would add it works both ways. turn the sound on and the video off, but I see what you are saying and it makes sense to me.
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    Oct 2 2012: Pat has raised some important points about debate. All debates are not of equal value.

    Serious debate can be an effective vehicle for clarifying the strengths and weaknesses of opposing positions when the debate is about content with claims supported by logical arguments and verifiable evidence.

    Debates that are, rather, about theater, mud slinging, or going off on unrelated or illogical tangents or debates in which people alter the facts to suit the moment will not typically clarify the strengths and weaknesses of opposing positions and only confuse people.

    Pat mentions that there is no judge, typically, in informal debates to determine whose case was better presented. In informal settings there also tend not to be ground rules that define what sort of debate it is. People will stay in as participants or observers only as long as it remains the kind of debate they find valuable or entertaining.
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      Oct 2 2012: Hello Fritzie,

      I fully agree with you and Pat... Not all debates are born equal.

      I must confess that i am not particularly fond of the debate format. I may be wrong but it seems to me that in most debates, form takes precedence to substance (the way arguments are presented, persuasiveness, etc).

      Maybe the reason behind my question is the fact that in science, debate is rarely used to decide between two competing points of view

      And as a physicist, I am biased towards science and the scientific method of inquiry. When i hear about claims and verifiable evidence, I immediately think about a courtroom, about a lawyer trying to make a case in front of a jury. And I always try to make a clear distinction between that and a scientific theory and the data that supports it.

      Here in the US there seems to be a bigger culture for debate (clubs in high school, for example) compared to other countries, hence my curiosity about the cases where it might be preferable over scientific inquiry

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        Oct 2 2012: When I think of claims and evidence, I think of empirical evidence. I think of translating a theory into a testable hypothesis and then gathering empirical evidence that could be used to distinguish the hypothesis from alternative hypotheses. The exercise should be replicable.

        Alternatively, I think of the thesis in an exposition, written or oral, and the arguments and evidence one puts forward to support the thesis.

        I don't think of a courtroom.

        I too am not trained in disciplines in which debate is a common.