The Growing Need For Evidence Ethics in Debate

Adit Pakala | 4/9/22

As debate has shifted to virtual tournaments, it has become easier for competitors to misuse evidence. Upholding evidence ethics is essential to the competitive ethos of debate because evidence misuse corrupts debate’s value. When evidence is misemployed, debates are degraded from intellectual arguments to trivial squabbles. Unfortunately, the inefficacy of theory, the difficulty of identifying misrepresented evidence, and the inconsistency in tournament rules hinder the ability to rectify conduct, but there is still potential for change. 

Theory attempts to protect the sanctity of debates by prescriptively addressing deviations from  debate norms. However, theory struggles to establish evidence violations because debaters rarely have explicit proof that evidence is mis-cut. In a time where the scope of available evidence proliferates, it is becoming increasingly difficult for theory shells to corroborate theory shells with explicit proof of evidence misuse. Sharing resources between debaters can remedy theory’s purpose in maintaining evidence ethics. Furthermore, people will continue to flow because debaters will not always read their entire speech.  

Another detriment to detecting evidence ethics infractions is the difficulty in identifying misrepresented evidence. It is hard to find misrepresented evidence because what qualifies as a misrepresentation is vague. There is still contention surrounding the scope of an author’s argument that can be carded and the methods for altering the original text. When part of an author’s argument discusses an issue but does not correspond with the author’s belief, the evidence should only be used when the author is asserting the evidence used. For example, if an author writes that “cars cause mass pollution” while believing that it is permissible to drive cars, that text can be appropriately cited as evidence because the author makes the assertion even if it does not support their argument. In contrast, if an author were to write a counterargument to recognize opposing beliefs, it would be inappropriate to cite that evidence out of context, because it claims the author made an assertion they did not.  

In regards to modifying evidence, using brackets and ellipses should never alter the meaning of the original text, or it is fabrication. If someone changed “pollution does contribute to global warming” to “pollution does [not] contribute to global warming,” for instance, that is clear fabrication of evidence. By comparison, changing the same text to “pollution…contribute[s] to global warming” is not fabrication because the original meaning is intact. In some cases, however, fabrication is ambiguous because of semantic unclarity. For example, if “the sinkhole was harmful, causing $100,000 of property loss” is changed to “the sinkhole…[caused] $100,000 of [devastating] property loss,” calling the alteration a fabrication of evidence may seem absurd. The most prominent change in meaning is the substitution of “harmful” with “devastating,”which arguably exaggerates the gravity of the damage. In a nebulous case as such, it is better to err on the side of caution by choosing not to modify the argument this way, as it is less risky and prevents the truth from being distorted to bolster an argument.  

The final obstruction to improving evidence ethics is inconsistent tournament rules regarding evidence ethics. Although some tournaments follow NFL rules, there are some tournaments with unclear evidence use rules. Tournament rules for evidence ethics do not have to be universalized, but they need to be detailed. Principles of evidence ethics should be emphatically elucidated throughout the debate space, for with the combined efforts of organizations that host tournaments and the debaters who compete in them, debate can evolve.