Point-by-point debate fragmentation

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Point-by-point debate fragmentation

Postby Channel72 » 2012-09-22 01:37pm

There's nothing quite as satisfying as destructing your opponent's post, taking it apart point-by-point, and just destroying each point one by one. Forums which try to encourage stricter debating standards usually end up with a lot of point-by-point rebuttals. Whenever your debate opponent has a lengthy post, composed of a series of arguments, the only really thorough way to respond is with a point-by-point rebuttal. The advantage of this is that it encourages each debator to make sure they don't gloss over one of their opponent's points which might be inconvenient or particularly difficult. It's very easy to tell when someone has ignored an important argument in a point-by-point style rebuttal.

The problem, however, is that point-by-point debates very quickly degenerate into an unweildy, repetitive mess. If each original point is a node in a tree, then every response to that point is a branch into a sub-tree. The more each point is sliced up with argument/counter-argument pairs, the more unweidly the whole debate tree becomes. Additionally, in most point-by-point debates, I usually find myself having to repeat the same counter-point multiple times in the same post after about the third exchange. This often happens because generally a debate can be reduced to a few fundamental disagreements which happen to be expressed via various separate sub-arguments. For example, a debate over gay marriage is often just a thin layer over a debate about the existence of God. While an anti-gay-marriage debator might have 9 or 10 separate reasons they oppose gay marriage, most of these reasons probably contain some variation of a fundamental assumption about the existence of God. The result of this is that the pro-gay-marriage debator ends up having to repeat the same counter-argument, just worded slightly differently, to respond to each point. The alternative is to respond to all the arguments at once with a discussion about fundamental assumptions. But in practice this generally runs the risk of your opponent accusing you of ignoring arguments, and also might give an impression of desperation. Whereas, a point-by-point response usually gives an impression of confidence, showing the audience that none of your opponent's arguments are too difficult for you to handle.

I picked gay marriage as an example of a case where many separate points are ultimately reducible to a few fundamental disagreements, but you'd be surprised how many debates are similiarly reducible. Even all of your Star Wars vs. Star Trek debates, which sometimes consist of page after page of point-by-point rebuttals, are often reducible to things like "what do we consider canon" and "should visual effects trump dialogue as evidence". Particularly obnoxious debators sometimes even exploit the point-by-point format to obfuscate important arguments by "micro-slicing" their opponent's responses, further branching the debate with endless sub-trees of argument/counter-argument pairs.

It's also worth noting that point-by-point debates seem to be mostly a phenomenon of Internet forums. Organized formal debates, whether written or oral, usually consist of a series of "rounds", where each debator has an allotted amount of time (or writing space) to build a case, and to respond to arguments raised by the opponent in a previous round. Point-by-point style however, is more like an informal conversation, rather than a formal debate, in the sense that it has a higher tendency to interleave between topics and grow into an unweidly mess. Of course, organized formal debates run a high risk of too many "dropped points". Almost every formal debate I've read inevitably contains many points which fall by the wayside, either because the opponent didn't have time to address them, or found them too inconvenient or difficult to answer. The fact that this is harder to let slide in a point-by-point Internet debate is obviously the main advantage of point-by-point style.

So, the question is, when a point-by-point debate starts to degenerate into an unweidly mess, how do you elegantly consolidate the debate so you can keep it on track, without looking like you're desperate to avoid having to answer the numerous points raised? One obvious tactic would be to collapse as many argument sub-trees as possible, but this only works if the arguments are related and within close proximity. But this is often not the case. Many point-by-point responses become so fragmented that a single point ends up split dozens of times and interleaved between various other points.

So... ideas?

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Miles Dyson
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Re: Point-by-point debate fragmentation

Postby Starglider » 2012-09-22 01:48pm

Personally I like branching threaded discussion software for this but alas the concept never caught on.
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