[eDebate] Controversy area public merits

Mitchell, Gordon Roger gordonm
Tue Apr 28 20:41:47 CDT 2009

In reviewing the topic controversy papers, my interest was piqued by section II(E) of the nuclear weapons topic proposal (p. 8), which reads: 

"E. There will be a demand for your expertise in the policy analysis community. We propose the community expand the traditional 'limits v. education' topicality impact calculus to include 'profit.' But seriously, the demand for policy analysis is driven in large part by DoD requirements, and to a lesser extent the Intelligence Community and the state department. Here?s what the USG never issues a 'Request for Proposal' on: 'Should we cooperate with Russia?? Here?s what funds the Office of CSIS JY: 'How do we posture our nuclear forces in a way that is consistent with the possible alternative START follow-on stockpile targets?' or 'How do we recruit and retain the 'best and brightest? scientists at the national laboratory when the President is committed to eliminating the field of nuclear weapons design?' etc. Be relevant."

The pivot word in the above passage is "profit," which the authors seem to be deploying tongue-in-cheek, a metonymic placeholder for "relevance," which appears in a linked, hortatory phrase to close out this section. The argument, albeit tentative, caveated, clothed in euphemism, and buried as the last justification for this topic area, seems to be that voters should select the nuclear weapons topic area because doing so would position the intercollegiate debate community favorably to inflect public discussions currently underway regarding U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

It may be illuminating to consider this argument within an alalog theoretical framework for scientific argumentation recently developed by William Rehg in Cogent Science in Context (MIT Press, 2009). Here, Rehg suggests there are three interlocking criteria one can use to discern the cogency of scientific argumentation:

CONTENT MERITS: This level concerns scientific arguments as products; key questions concern whether the content of expert advice is experimentally adequate, and whether scientific truth claims are supported by evidence.

TRANSACTIONAL MERITS: Here, science's character as a dialogic process is foregrounded; level of merit depends on assessments regarding the quality of communicative interchange conducted by scientists in generating truth claims collectively.

PUBLIC MERITS: Can scientific truth claims win acceptance by wider publics? Assessment depends on judgments regarding whether scientific argumentation is rendered in a form that reasonable publics find relevant, thought-provoking, or convincing.

Adapted to the intercollegiate policy debate community's controversy area selection process, Rehg's scheme would look something like:

CONTENT MERITS: This level concerns the degree to which the controversy area contains a surfeit of readily available literature capable of supporting a full year of research by thousands of intercollegiate policy debaters.

TRANSACTIONAL MERITS: Can the controversy area yield topics that divide ground equitably, both within contest rounds (providing leverage for affirmative and negative sides), and across community demographics (i.e. providing argument invention avenues for both "small" and "mega" programs).

PUBLIC MERITS: Are actors outside the intercollegiate debate community calling for the community to focus its attention on this issue? Are there ready opportunities for translating fruits of contest round preparation to inflect wider public discussions? Are we in a "window of opportunity" to participate in wider public discussions on this controversy area?

While Jessica Yeats and Chris Jones certainly make a strong case for the CONTENT MERITS and TRANSACTIONAL MERITS of the nuclear weapons controversy area, they are pushing the envelope by asking voters to consider their controversy area's PUBLIC MERITS as well.

What say you in response to this claim? Should "public merits" play any role in topic selection? If so, how might they rate in salience versus "content" and "transactional" merits, the "traditional" (according Yeats and Jones) criteria?

As someone planning to attend the upcoming topic committee meetings in Winston-Salem as an observer, I'm invested in learning other perspectives on this issue.

Gordon R. Mitchell
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, William Pitt Debating Union
University of Pittsburgh
CL 1117, 4200 Fifth Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Phone: (412) 624-8531
Fax: (412) 624-1878

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