Recently, a friend posted some thoughts and ideas on parametric theory and its relevance to our happy little world of formal, high school debate. He is not alone in his thoughts on parametric theory. Rather, there is a fairly constant, if not growing, number of current and former debaters who believe as he does – that the resolution can be narrowed, squeezed, and molded into the affirmative’s proposed method of choice for affirming said resolution until the proposal becomes the resolution itself. Of course, that’s a summary – a paraphrase of a summary, really.
This rather unusual method of metamorphosing the resolution is typically applied by the negative team who wishes to run an “alternative” plan that actually upholds the original resolution; a counter-plan that was once topical, but thanks to a handy bit of verbal magic and fancy logic work by the negative team, is now not topical. While undoubtedly an interesting area of analysis, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the theory, while conditionally valid, is rarely applied correctly. There two areas of misunderstanding that usually arise by those advocating and then using the so-called “topical” counter-plans and I’d like to address those here. First, though there’s a little background that I think needs to be explored before we continue.
As a rule, I don’t usually involve myself in discussions of this type. I find it more effective to teach strategies and perspectives to combat negative teams who attempt to implement a “once was topical, but now it’s not” counter-plan. Not only are counter-plans a risky time investment, but they’re much better as a pre-prepared attack as opposed to one that is limited to less than 5 minutes of prep-time. Counter-plans, however, are a legitimate, very logical means of pointing out the flaws in an affirmative proposal. Likewise, parametrics in its broad and general conception, is a perfectly valid line of thinking.
But let’s begin at the beginning. The resolution, as the reason for the round, and the basis for discussion, should probably be understood before we continue any further. So we’ll look first at the resolution, then at topicality. Then, we can chat about parametrics and its misunderstandings.
1. What’s this resolution thing anyway?
First, I like to define my terms. Doing so puts us all on the same page and allows us to keep direct clash in our discussion. For these definitions, I decided to go old school with Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. Because of his background in logic, philosophy, and etymology, I think Noah’s probably got the best grasp on these words that we throw around with such désinvolture.
PROPOSI’TION, n. s as z. [L. propositio, from propositus, propono.]
1. That which is proposed; that which is offered for consideration, acceptance or adoption; a proposal; offer of terms. The enemy made propositions of peace; the propositions were not accepted.
2. In logic, one of the three parts of a regular argument; the part of an argument in which some quality, negative or positive, is attributed to a subject; as, “snow is white;” “water is fluid;” “vice is not commendable.”
3. In mathematics, a statement in terms of either a truth to be demonstrated, or an operation to be performed. It is called a theorem, when it is something to be proved; and a problem, when it is something to be done.
4. In oratory, that which is offered or affirmed as the subject of the discourse; any thing stated or affirmed for discussion or illustration.
If we are to style the resolution as a “propositional statement” then, I will be speaking of it in terms of definition 4. But to improve our understanding of what a resolution is, really, I think we need to look up the word itself. Back to Webster’s.
RESOLU’TION, n. [L. resolutio. See Resolve.] 1. The act, operation or process of separating the parts which compose a complex idea or a mixed body; the act of reducing any compound or combination to its component parts; analysis; as the resolution of complex ideas; the resolution of any material substance by chimical [sic] operations. (Emphasis added)
Since we’re talking about a specific type of resolution, I suppose we ought to distinguish a policy resolution from a value, fact, or metaphoric resolution.
POLICY, n. [L. politia; Gr. city.] 1. “…policy is now more generally used to denote what is included under legislation and administration, and may be defined, the art or manner of governing a nation; or that system of measures which the sovereign of a country adopts and pursues, as best adapted to the interests of the nation. Thus we speak of domestic policy, or the system of internal regulations in a nation; foreign policy, or the measures which respect foreign nations; commercial policy, or the measures which respect commerce…” (Emphasis added)
When we speak of a “policy resolution” then, we’re talking about a conclusion dealing with actions taken to achieve a change in the art or style of governance that we have arrived at that through some mysterious chain (mysterious until the Affirmative speaks) of reasoning.
And yes, now that we come to it, the resolution is the conclusion to an argument, which as you know, is a series of statements intended to support a conclusion. To make sure we thoroughly understand what an argument is, I’ve looked up a few definitions for us. A professor at the University of Fayetteville was kind enough to put the following information up for a class:
[An] “argument,” as we will be using the term, refers to “a set of propositions, or statements, which are designed to convince a reader or listener of a claim, or conclusion, and which include at least one reason (premise) for accepting the conclusion.”
Some other definitions of argument may be helpful to you. Kathleen Dean Moore defines an argument as “a claim or proposition put forward along with reasons or evidence supporting it.” Robert Ennis defines an argument as “an attempt to support a conclusion by giving reasons for it.” (Critical Thinking, 1995) Irving M. Copi, in his Introduction to Logic, defines an argument as a “group of propositions of which one, the conclusion, is claimed to follow from the others, which are premises.” In his book, Critical Thinking, Richard Epstein provides the following definition of argument: ” An argument is a collection of statements, one of which is called the conclusion whose truth the argument attempts to establish; the others are called the premises, which are supposed to lead to, or support, or convince that the conclusion is true.”
I do find it interesting that Moore’s use of “proposition” seems to differ from Copi’s. In practice, I think we may assume that Moore’s use falls in line with D4, whereas Copi’s more closely matches D2. Interesting, but sadly, irrelevant.
So when we say “resolved: that the USFG should significantly change its trade policy with the Middle East and /or Africa,” this is not the argument. This is the conclusion. It is the resolution of complexities and ideas unknown that have been reduced, separated out, and narrowed to one thought or idea.
It is the affirmative’s job, in affirming the resolution, to show why or how we should arrive at that conclusion. What possible arguments could be made (series of statements supporting a conclusion) to support this more simple idea – the resolution? I would also submit that proving the resolution false would, by default, involve a focus on the premises presented by the Affirmative. After all, the truth or falsity of a conclusion is wholly dependent on its premises.
My friend arrives at the hasty conclusion that Affirmative advocacy can be summarized as a “proxy” for the resolution. In the broad context of my friend’s assertions, I disagree.
Let’s go back to our sample resolution:
Resolved: that the USFG should significantly change its trade policy with the Middle East and/or Africa.
How do we get to this conclusion?
As Aff, I could choose to focus on USFG trade policy changes in the ME and Africa, exclusively in the ME, or exclusively with Africa. Then, there are my many options for trade policy changes that originate with federal bilateral trade policies. No matter how I chose to narrow my application of the resolution, the resolution is still our conclusion. My argument supports the resolution’s validity, not the other way around.
So what difference does it make, you ask, whether the res is a conclusion or a part of the argument as a whole?
Because the resolution is the conclusion, Aff is no longer making a shaky parts-to-whole, fallacy of composition, but is rather attempting to find the best variables that will lead to the resolution. This business of proving a policy resolution “true” or “false” is only accurate insofar as an examination and analysis of the premises supporting the resolution proves them (the premises) true or false. As we know, false premises do not a true conclusion make.
Therefore, it is vital that the premises are scrutinized in terms of the conclusion itself. The argument is not a substitute for the conclusion. In light of this kind of thinking, I’m still slightly undecided as to whether I think Aff should be able to make a 4=4 argument. But that’s another discussion for another day.
My friend also makes the following proposal:
So let me propose a third theory: parameter theory. Assume with me that the resolution is not fundamentally a statement to be affirmed or negated, but rather just a parameter that demarcates the topics up for discussion. The resolution, then, is an arbitrary constraint on advocacy, and not the main point of advocacy.
Parameter theory consciously shifts debates from being tug-of-wars over the validity of the resolution to being tug-of-wars about the desirability of particular policy proposals within the bounds of the resolution. That’s a big difference. There are two implications of this theory:
1) that topical counter-plans are acceptable, and,
2) that, if fact, non-topical counter-plans are not acceptable.
After all, if the resolution is an arbitrary restraint and not a grounds for advocacy, then there’s no reason the restraint shouldn’t apply to the negative as well as to the affirmative. It doesn’t count to say that the negative need not be restrained by topicality because topical counter-plans refute the affirmative plan. Remember, the constraint of the resolution is essentially arbitrary and applies only because we want it to limit discussion to a topic — so even though non-topical counter-plans refute the affirmative advocacy that can’t elevate them above an arbitrary constraint.
Not having discussed this idea any further beyond the initial proposal, I’m not quite certain that I truly understand what he is trying to achieve. But for sake of continuing discussion, my initial thoughts are as follows:
- It seems like he’s asking for something that is not affirmed or negated, is just a topic header, and may or may not have anything to do a team’s advocacy.
- With my clarification on the purpose, role, and nature of a resolution, I’m not certain that this kind of “parameter theory” would have any kind of place in the current way we select, present and advocate for team policy debate topics. For the resolution to be an arbitrary constraint on advocacy, rather than the main point, there would need to be a shift in the way topics are chosen and presented.
Because I like visual images, my imagination has led me to believe that in the application of this theory, the powers that be would step forward and say:
Hear ye hear ye! Your topic for the year shall be United States policy on marine natural resources. Go forth and perform great feats of rhetorical acclaim. Wot wot, tut, tut.
There would be no direction, no real limitations, and many rounds may not even result in a policy change. Ground would be an interesting dilemma, but more importantly, burdens would disappear. Should there be advocacy? Does team B actually have to respond directly to anything put forth by team A? I suppose, when I really think about it, there wouldn’t be any clear ways to determine who wins or loses the rounds other than pure presentation skills. So the round deteriorates into four people with time limits and arbitrary speaking orders (since there’s no need for speaker responsibilities or strategies), and presenting their pre-prepared persuasive speeches on a specific topic.
Perhaps this is not quite what my friend intended. If not, I invite him to explain. As of now, though, shifting the focus from the resolution as an ends to the resolution as a means does not seem to add properly to a balanced discussion between two teams that can allow for a winner.
Continuing with one other background issue in our discussion of parametricized counter-plans, we arrive at the topicality stock issue.
2. What IS topicality?
It turns out that topicality is not this nebulous, vague land of mysterious realms. Neither is it without basis in our logical model. Topicality is so basic, so fundamental, that it’s so easy to overlook, ignore, or assign more complicated theory to than is strictly necessary.
The point of topicality is to provide a box to check for the aff and neg to assure that aff’s premises are actually relevant to the conclusion (resolution). It’s part of that concept of advocacy. Ensuring that the premises fit with the conclusion is a fundamental part of the aff’s burden of proof.
The best way, according to everybody who’s anybody in philosophy and logic, is to define your boundaries, because to define is to limit. Aff, by virtue of speaking first, has the opportunity to prove, on its face, they are topical by defining the major terms of the resolution. Here, aff has some decisions to make. They need to decide what standards they want to apply to their boundaries.
- Common man would mean using webster’s, defining individual terms instead of whole phrases, and keeping those boundaries really obvious.
- Expert, field contextuality, or definition by authority will be more policy-specific and generally more appropriate for the topic.
- Teams may operationally define the terms of the res through the aff plan. Essentially, “the plan serves as an example of the resolution” (Goodnight, 68). We’ll come back to this.
Once they have determined their boundaries, they need a plan of action that fits within those established boundaries.
But, you may ask, why? Why must it fit within the boundaries? Let’s go back to our understanding of the resolution.
If the resolution is a conclusion to an argument, then all of the pieces of that argument must be connected, in some way, to well, the conclusion. Without that connection, the Affirmative’s advocacy is moot. In fact, if they do not advocate for a course of action that allows us to conclude that “yes, policy in this area should be changed” then they have failed.
There are impacts to fiat power, to advantages, to educational value, to wasting time, and other things that affect children, puppies, and grandmothers. But logically, if they do not demonstrate how their plan connects to the resolution, the conclusion of our argument, then their argument/support is moot.
Parametrics, as everyone agrees, is just about re-shifting the ground, the boundaries of debate. How does that happen? Through argument. So the following cogently connected words will explain, I hope, why I think parametrics to be a perfectly valid, logical exercise.
The affirmative defines the boundaries one of three ways:
- By authority – usually, experts on the topic who define the resolution a little more narrowly.
- By common man – usually, piecemeal definitions of individual terms.
- By context – affirmative says “we operationally define the terms of the resolution according to our case.” Congratulations. The case is now a direct example of the resolution.
The negative doesn’t believe the boundaries are either a) relevant to the resolution or b) harmful to the quality of the debate in some way.
They redefine the boundaries.
A good negative team, applying solid parametrical theory, says:
Aff defined the boundaries, but we don’t like them because xyz. So we are going to counter their understanding of the resolution by offering the following definitions with xyz standards and impacts.
Now you may be thinking to yourself: “Huh. That sounds like a regular, plain old T-press.”
Yes! Yes! YES!
The Affirmative team begins the battle of parametrics by defining their terms. If Negative feels like rising to the occasion, they counter-define! All of this is done in an attempt to narrow the ground of advocacy or, more specifically, to narrow the ground being advocated for.
My friend mentions this interesting complaint about what he calls “traditional” debate theory:
If the debate is fundamentally just about whether the resolution is true, then the negative can’t start proposing their own counter-plans and reasons for reform — that’d mean they agree that reform is needed and therefore that the resolution is true. Even if they disagree that the aff case is the right reform, they still sign on to the broader point that the resolution is true and that some kind of reform is needed.
Yes, yes and no.
The debate is fundamentally about the validity of the resolution. The debate is wholly dependent on the premises presented by the affirmative team to demonstrate the truth of the resolution. (Remember: true premises, true conclusion.)
The counter-plan does agree that the reform, or change, is needed. However, a real counter-plan, one I doubt anyone, in Texas at least, has seen in a long, long time, says that the resolution will not let us fulfill this need, or that the resolution does not adequately allow us to achieve the fantastic advantages the Affirmative has so lucratively dangled in front of our noses.
The point of the counter-plan is not to provide an alternative policy “option,” but is intended as a demonstration, an example, of the resolution’s inherent limitations. The counter-plan demonstrates for the judge in a powerful way that the resolution is not the only way to solve the harms or to achieve the advantages.
Yes. The negative team does give up presumption – the ability to say that the Status Quo is “innocent until proven guilty.”
But if the counter-plan is well-prepared, strategically applied, and persuasively presented, they’ve got an equal chance of getting the judge’s vote.
Parametrics is a valid form of debate theory, logical, and when correctly applied, it is extraordinarily helpful in the task of testing the premises proffered by the Affirmative team in support of the resolution. When misapplied, however, parametrics creates a whole new world of confusion.
So I said there were two main assumptions most negative teams make when they misapply the use of parametrics. They are as follows:
- Teams, of either persuasion, must either uphold the Status Quo or support change
- A counter-plan is competitive if it provides better benefits.
So let’s begin.
1. Teams, of either persuasion, must either uphold the Status Quo or support change
Unfortunately, this line of thinking is incredibly prevalent among 1-2 years.
I’ve talked with teams who dislike being Negative because they feel their options are so limited and feel that they cannot compete with Affirmative advantages. Usually the first years are intimidated by having to defend an indefensible Status Quo – tax year, for example. Honestly, there is nothing good about our tax system. The second years have seen a handful of unfavorable ballots with reasoning like: “Negative team failed to show advantages to the Status Quo” or “Negative team presented no alternative to fix the problems the Affirmative presented.” These things only reinforce the Debbie Downer attitude of “Negative = I must be negative nelly about everything in order to uphold my burden.” So they start looking for ways out. Instead of logically thinking through the processes of advocacy, they turn instead to an “easy” out. Just “apply parametrics” and run your Aff as a counter-plan! Problem solved! We’ve already been through the reasons this doesn’t work.
Still, teams who miss exploring other means of negative attack in the face of so much happiness and rainbows will not ever be able to fully appreciate the value of discovering all available options. Good policy decisions require knowledge of all feasible options. Human nature resists change and the unknown. Affirmatives have an uphill battle in their presentation alone. Negative teams should, therefore, look at counter-plans as a last resort. Utilizing those pesky little stock issues to their fullest extent would enable any negative team to poke and prod an Affirmative case in so many places as to produce a leaky proposal at the end of the round. There is no such thing as the perfect plan, much less the perfect team. Unfortunately, few negative teams explore these issues thoroughly.
For the Negative to interpret the Affirmative case as a “proxy” for the resolution, either the Affirmative must have already set that up by operationally defining the resolution according to the context of their case, OR the Negative must do so. Assuming that it is so, rather than creating the argument structure, does nothing for clash, nothing for the quality of discussion in the round, and only confuses the judge.
2. A counter-plan is competitive if it provides better benefits.
This, while an important consideration, is not the sole measure of competitiveness. The competitiveness requirement for counter-plans hails back the conclusion for the round. The stated resolution: The USFG should do xyz is either proven true or false via examining the plan offered to support that conclusion. Advocacy can run two ways, but a winner must be declared, and a judge cannot pick and choose the best parts of each plan to go with. The conclusion of the round is either going to support the resolution, or negate it.
Dr. Roy Wood and Lynn Goodnight, in their book “Strategic Debate,” explain that competitiveness is directly related to the resolution. I like the way they explain it, as it makes a very logical amount of sense.
“The issue of competitiveness pertains to the question of whether the counter-plan is truly counter to the resolution. Assuming that the affirmative plan is within the topic, then if the topic is to be rejected because it forecloses a competing alternative, the counter-plan must be proven competitive (130).
They conclude by acknowledging that the uniqueness of the affirmative and negative points of advocacy be preserved.
In summary, it is vital to remember that in any counter-plan debate, the negative must prove that the counter-plan is an alternative to the affirmative plan and does not support the resolution…it should be apparent that the negative must always be wary of presenting a counter-plan that, even though not topical, is not competitive, or alternatively, even though competitive, is topical. In both instances the negative position is unsound (132).
Ultimately, the negative team must still act like a negative team. It is not required to meet the same standards of advocacy as the affirmative, even when they present their own plan to prove that the resolution should not be adopted.
Many debaters think that a counter-plan debate is just a debate between two plans, but this is not true. The affirmative still must present a prima facie case for the resolution. The second negative rebuttalist can legitimately argue that even if the counter-plan were rejected, the affirmative’s proposal should not be accepted because the affirmative has failed to support it adequately (180).
I was tired of making things up, so I started quoting. Yes, I do realize that my source is only 5 years younger than myself. Then again, how old is the Toulmin Model? The basis for our rounds, in total, rests heavily upon that model. How old is the concept of advocacy? What really has changed about these principles? I would argue that nothing at all has changed. As long as the structure of our rounds remain the same, as long as the intent for advocacy remains, and as long as resolutions continue to be presented for testing, nothing has changed.
What about Parli?
Ok. Now we need to talk about Parliamentary debate style for a minute. My friend brings this up as an example of Parli resolutions being hard to work with.
The other problem with traditional CP theory is that it’s hard to work with when you’ve got a broad Parli resolution. With broad metaphor parli resolutions (ie. This house would cut to the chase), virtually every conceivable counter-plan could be said to “cut to the chase” and therefore would be topical and therefore should lose. Finally, traditional theory isn’t very real-world because, “in the real world” people don’t say “you can’t propose that alternative solution! it’s a topical counter-plan!”
I see two real issues here: metaphor resolutions require parametrics and real world application
As always, we can begin at the beginning.
1. Metaphor Resolution require parametrics
YES! They do. Just like any other resolution. Metaphor is a term for a literary comparison between two things that does not use the words “like” or “as”. This adorable article on the HandMade in America’s Appalachian Women Entrepreneurs’ convention in Asheville makes a pretty good real world application for metaphors. Still, their use in a resolution is always fun! Resolutions like “this house would cut to the chase,” or “this house would mute the red phone,” are both examples of how important it is to define ground and establish appropriate linkage between affirmative (or Government) advocacy and the resolution they advocate. I’m not entirely certain why, exactly, this is truly any different from a normal policy resolution. The affirmative narrows the ground for advocacy by defining “cut to the chase” or “mute the red phone.” They may, just to keep things simple, choose to operationally limit the ground with their case. Opposition need only pay attention to those pesky definitions instead of hunting for pens during the first few moments of the PM’s speech.
2. Real World Application
Ah. Now we get to the real fun. Real world applications for ”traditional theory” are very, very real. Keep in mind that our debate exercise is not a mini-Congress simulation. There is nothing at all remotely comparable to that situation. If you’d like a real world comparison for our exercise in competitive debate, it is more comparable to contract bidding.
X Corporation, or more commonly, the government, says “We would like a shrubbery. A nice one.” Then all the shrubbery makers (affirmatives) in the land begin to offer shrubbery designs for the consideration of the government. The government looks at each design offered and begins examining the cons of the designs.
Designs offered for trees or grass pallets will not be accepted (non-topical). Submitters may offer a variety of designs, and interpret “shrubbery” and “a nice one” in whatever way that will showcase their company’s assets the best. Cons that include improving the design are sent back home to the submitter, not redesigned on the government’s dime (application of minor repairs and so-called topical counter-plans). The fewer negative ramifications the shrubbery design has, the better rank it’s given. Finally, the government is left with the choice they like best.
Topicality and parametrics in action. Business meetings, college coursework, etc are all areas that parametrics are applied. Anything that requires reasoning, advocacy and competition will use straight-up, average joe, normal, regular ole’ traditional debate theory. Why? because it works. Because it’s been tested for hundreds of years and we’ve discovered, that by applying this kind of theory, by taking a concept, defining the key ideas, identifying the key issues that fit under those ideas and then by testing them, we advance our understanding of our world.
Isn’t it funny that in a thousand years, mathematics really hasn’t changed all that much? Yes. We find more complicated ways to apply it, and discover new constructions that combine mathematical theories, but the theories, the laws of mathematics don’t change. Logic, in its sister field, is much the same. Yes. We are constantly testing new philosophies and ideas and ways to achieve a better understanding of our world, but the the theory behind it all rarely changes. The Toulmin Model is merely an application of Aristotle’s original understanding of logic. Wittgenstein and Russell argue and bicker about the nature of propositional statements, what they really mean, and how they’re tested, but at the end of the day, isn’t that what this is all about?
At the end of the day, we walk out understanding that the world is not black and white. The world is shot through with a myriad of colors and a brightness that is sometimes difficult to take in all at once. We see those colors through the uniqueness of our own experiences, and give them interpretations unique to our own discourse communities. But as Wittgenstein so aptly summarized, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” So the practice of debate allows us to come together on the same page, speaking the same “language” (through the practice of parametrics), and provide perspective and insight on a specific conclusion. It allows us to sharpen one another and give each other a more realistic idea of what the truth of a matter may be. This, in a nutshell, is why parametrics is important, and why a resolution, for this specific type of activity, is an absolute necessity. I suppose, if you were to say “well, why can’t we talk about whatever we want to talk about? this still isn’t very real worldy of you.” I might go back to Wittgenstein, who put it so cleverly in his 1922 “Tract on Logic and Philosophy” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), that :
Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits. So we cannot say in logic, “The world has this in it, and this, but not that.” For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either. (5.61)
So I would say to you that even logic has its limits. Those limitations are what allow us to communicate with one another and to establish those specific ideas and perspectives on life, on our world. Without limits, we would only have nonsense.
[That was the conclusion. Thanks for reading.]