A Debate Champion’s Guide: How to find the truth.

Competing in debate, our Fairmont High School team accumulated an impressive series of wins, ultimately landing us in completion for the state championship in Minnesota.

Debate wins come by accumulating points.  Not only the “quality and reasonableness” of an argument, but the sources used to back it up.  We learned the hierarchy of what was credible and what was not – which sources the judges gave the highest scores and the ones not worth mentioning, even if they contained good sound bites.

This comes to mind as so many of my friends and family members attempt to make sense of what is going on in today’s politics.  Reliable sources are known for accuracy, objectivity, and lack of bias and are transparent about their methods for data collection and analysis.  You want authorities with relevant credentials and experience. While my diagnosis of what is wrong with your 1975 Triumph motorcycle might sound good, having someone like Frank Del Monte give you his assessment would make far more sense and be something you could trust. Eliminating a lingering and disturbing smell in our house was accomplished by conferring with and trusting Jason Smith, a talented and experienced plumber, and not the neighbor who said, “Hey, we had a smell too..”

In my desire to be helpful, here is what I know about various sources of information to support your arguments and beliefs:

BEST: Scholarly, peer-reviewed research papers. These are typically written by recognized experts, scholars, or institutions with a reputable track record with relevant credentials and experience in the subject at hand. They’re most likely unbiased and stress to present information objectively without distorting facts to fit a particular agenda.  A big plus is peer review, and most scholarly articles and academic research are peer-reviewed, with experts in the field evaluating the content before publication. Professional reputations can be made with good work or destroyed if found lacking. The good news, this source is typically the best.  The bad news, it often takes greater effort to read, digest and evaluate.  Great accuracy does not always lend itself to brevity or catchy phrases.

NEXT BEST: Legal documents. These hold significant weight and authority. They are official records of court filings and rulings. Getting facts and information wrong in legal documents is rare as the consequences for errors or misstatements are significant. Judges can throw out a case for even minor flaws and will fine or even put someone in jail for not being truthful.  If you want to be certain what you are hearing is true, listen to what is said in court.  At the risk of seeming political, it was interesting to hear attorney Sidney Powell defend herself in court documents in the defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems by arguing that “no reasonable person” would ever believe her claims that the machines were inaccurate. These claims were made (see below), on television.

VERY GOOD: Reliable and reputable news outlets adhering to high journalistic standards and fact-checking procedures. We knew quoting The New York Times or Washington Post would score us points whereas quoting from Reader’s Digest or The National Enquiry would score far less and could even prejudice a judge against our argument.  Good newspapers are good for current events and societal issues, although they’re not as rigorous as scholarly research or legal documents, they can still provide well-sourced and credible information. Dan Gilmore, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in the early 2000s provided me with an invaluable lesson. Admiring his stories about various Silicon Valley startups, I reached out to him to cover us.  He agreed to meet at a coffee shop near our offices. After ordering our coffee, I reached to pay, and he pushed a $5 bill onto the counter for his coffee.  A bit surprised, I asked him about it after we sat down.  He explained as a reporter for the SJMN, he was not allowed to take any form of consideration from an individual or company he was writing about – not even a cup of coffee. “It would get me in trouble with our ethics board,” he said with a smile. He wrote about us several times and would call me on background for other stories.  Once I sat next to him at a conference and during a break, he bemoaned not having enough American Airlines frequent flyer miles for an upcoming trip.  He had lots of United miles but was short on AA.  I said I had tens of thousands of unused AA miles and would be happy to swap.  We quickly went online and “traded” 50K of our respective miles. I didn’t give it another thought.  A few months later I reached out to him about covering an upcoming new product and he said he couldn’t cover my company anymore. When I asked why, he said, “Because now we’re friends – we exchanged miles.” He said he’d contact the editor and they would send a different reporter to cover our announcement, but he could no longer write about me or any of my companies. And never did. I’ve no doubt all top journalistic publications have similar ethics rules. Too bad politicians do not.

VERY GOOD: Expert testimonies can be good if they’re unbiased: Statements and opinions from recognized experts in the relevant field carry considerable weight in debates and provide insights from individuals with specialized knowledge and experience. But be watchful for bias.

VERY GOOD: Government Publications: Reports and publications released by government agencies can be considered relatively authoritative. They typically base their content on thorough research and data analysis. Of course, I am not including publications from political parties to sway voters in one direction or another.

VERY GOOD: Academic books and accredited educational institutions: Books by reputable scholars can provide insight and in-depth analysis on specific topics, though they might not undergo the same level of peer review as scholarly articles. Information from well-established and accredited educational institutions can be considered reliable, as these institutions prioritize academic rigor and integrity.

VERY GOOD: Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): Credible NGOs specializing in a particular area can provide valuable data and research findings relevant to issues related to social, environmental, and humanitarian issues.

GOOD: Industry reports and studies conducted by reputable industry organizations can be useful in debates about economic, business, or technological matters – but watch for bias.  A study showing the health benefits of raisins should be met with skepticism if sponsored by the “Raisin Growers of America.”

SOMETIMES GOOD: White papers released by reputable organizations or companies can offer insights and analysis on specific issues but may have some bias.

NOT SO GOOD: Opinion pages and editorials can provide alternative perspectives, but they are subjective and should be used cautiously, especially in formal debates. Most newspapers draw a clear line between their reporting (which must be backed up with multiple sources with writers subject to strict ethical scrutiny – see note above) and editorial pages, which do not have those same controls.

BAD: Opinionated television networks (mostly all of them) full of “talking heads” espousing a particular line of thought reflecting what their audience most wishes to hear and which will keep them tuning in, creating a large group of people to sell to advertisers.  Don’t get me wrong, this can be fun to watch and entertaining.  But keep in mind, this low-cost content generates exceptionally high profits – and that is its purpose. As an information source it is very poor. There is little to no fact checking, much of what is discussed is sensationalized to maximize entertainment value.  Analysis, when there is any, is shallow, lacking depth, nuance, and accuracy.  These outlets also fail to provide any diversity of perspective, only inviting those with similar views to reinforce the echo chamber they’ve created.

VERY BAD: Blogs and personal websites, social media and Internet forums largely contain unverified information and can be highly biased and misleading. Neither Ted Hasse, Nancy Hagerman, Jim Oden or I would NEVER have used these types of sources in our debates.

Just as it was crucial for us as debaters to prioritize information from the top spots in this ranking, these sources offer the highest credibility and authority for most other topics as well.  If something sounds too good (or too bad) to be the truth, see where on the list the information is coming from. Finally, another source of information is fact-checking websites. The following sites adhere to high journalistic standards and rigorous fact-checking methods, second only to the fact-checking and redundant witness approach found in legal filings:

  1. PolitiFact (politifact.com): PolitiFact is a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website that focuses primarily on claims made by politicians and public figures in the United States. They use a “Truth-O-Meter” to rate the accuracy of statements, ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire” for the most egregious falsehoods.
  2. FactCheck.org (www.factcheck.org): FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. It evaluates the accuracy of claims made in U.S. politics and public policy debates. The website is nonpartisan and highly regarded for its thorough research and unbiased analysis.
  3. Snopes (snopes.com): Snopes is one of the oldest and most well-known fact-checking websites. It covers a wide range of topics, including urban legends, rumors, and viral internet claims. Snopes is particularly useful for debunking viral misinformation.
  4. The Washington Post Fact Checker (washingtonpost.com/politics/fact-checker): The Washington Post Fact Checker provides comprehensive and in-depth analysis of political statements and claims. It uses a rating system from one to four “Pinocchios” to assess the accuracy of statements.
  5. The Associated Press Fact Check (apnews.com/hub/ap-fact-check): The Associated Press (AP) Fact Check is a dedicated section on AP’s website that evaluates the accuracy of news stories, political statements, and viral claims.
  6. BBC Reality Check (bbc.com/news/reality_check): BBC Reality Check is a fact-checking service provided by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It covers a wide range of global topics and claims, focusing on UK and international politics.

Best practices before publishing anything is to use more than one of these fact-checking sites. You’ll get a more well-rounded and accurate understanding of an issue. Cross-referencing claims across different fact-checking sources helps identify potential biases or inaccuracies. Always look to reputable and non-partisan fact-checkers to avoid falling victim to misinformation.

This list was fun to put together and I enjoyed going back to my old debate notes, looking over the various quote cards and the small scribbled numbers on the top right corners where we rated the quality of the source.  If you found this interesting or informative, feel free to share it.  Or, let me know in the comments section below what you think.  Thanks for reading.

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