The debate visualizer, explained

Argutopia is based on a visual model that illustrates the otherwise-abstract moves that may be made in a debate.

If you'd prefer, you're welcome to review the paper on which the visualizer is based or access a recorded lecture that covers much of the material discussed below.

Why does debate need a visualizer?

Debating has been recognized as powerful pedagogy since Plato was engaging his students in arguments at the Academy over 2000 years ago. And despite the fact that almost everyone argues on a daily basis, we are neither very good at constructive argumentation nor do most understand what's happening when they argue with someone.

Arguments--as they represent our values, preferences and desires--are abstractions without form or substance. As such, they can be difficult to explain and understand. But not only are arguments abstractions, the process of exchanging arguments may itself be considered an abstraction. What we're arguing about, what the other side's position and main arguments are and how to engage those arguments effectively exist only in our perceptions of the interaction.

Productive debates depend on the ability of advocates to identify, understand and engage competing arguments to test the best of opposing ideas. As anyone who's engaged in a heated exchange can tell you, this isn't always easy to do. Between the vagueness of language, the partisanship of opposing sides, the nearly-infinite options for ideas to express and the emotional dimensions of disagreement, argumention can be complex, confusing and not at all clear.

Working with abstractions in an abstract context is challenging for seasoned advocates, much less for students just cutting their argumentative teeth. Hence the need for a concrete representation of what happens in a debate.

Our visualizer illustrates the abstract territory in which a debate occurs and the moves available to advocates in a debate. By illustrating where arguments may be positioned and where argumentative efforts may be applied, the visualizer structures students' debating, resulting in a more productive and satisfying experience.

The visualizer is based on the metaphor of a playing board, where the players are guided toward certain moves to accomplish a particular objective. The players are the Pro and Con debaters, the moves are the strategic options available to them and the objective is for the debaters to make arguments more likely to be favored by their audience. The visualizer serves as a blueprint for debaters' preparation, a scaffold for the audience's attention during the debate and a representation of the audience's preferences for Pro or Con efforts after the debate. As such, itl functions as both a playing board and a scorecard for the debate.

The territory of controversy

The visualizer begins by defining the territory of debate, separating arguments relevant to the topic from those which are irrelevent. The boundaries of the controversy are set by the topic being debated. In a debate about banning the sale of tobacco, for instance, arguments about public health, the economic consequences of a ban and whether users have a right consume tobacco products are relevant; arguments about colonizing the moon or requiring COVID vaccine passports are irrelevant.

The territory of the controversy is divided into Pro territory--all the potential arguments available to those arguing for the the topic--and Con territory. The line dividing Pro from Con is a point of clash, where those arguments compete. Broady speaking, the objective of the Pro and Con side to to make arguments (and engage their opponents' arguments) to move the line in their favor, thereby occupying more territory:

The territory of a controversy may be subdivided into issues representing smaller, more focused points of clash within the larger controversy.

Issues direct the debaters' and audience's attention, making the debate more predictable and easier to follow. If we were to debate about whether we should ban tobacco products, the issues we explore might include the public health, economic and individual rights dimensions of the topic.

The moves in debate

The exchange of arguments is the essence of debating, but exchanging arguments actually consists of a number of discreet moves debaters may make.

Definitional argumentation

Definitional argumentation involves the contest over what the terms of the topic mean. If arguing about a ban on tobacco products, debaters may disagree over whether a ban on tobacco products includes nicotine delivery devices such as vaping pens. If "tobacco products" means "all substances that deliver nicotine" then a ban would include such devices. If "tobacco products" includes only those products that are made of tobacco, vaping devices wouldn't be banned. Such a distinction may be material to the debate and subject to the arguments made by the debaters.

Constructive argumentation

Constructive argumentation involves building arguments to establish, advance and hold territory in the debate. When a debater makes a claim--particularly about a theme or subject not yet introduced into the debate--and substantiates that claim with evidence and reasoning, they are engaged in constructive argumentation. Constructive argumentation also involves assembling a series of arguments to make a complete case for the Pro or Con side of a topic or defending an argument from an opponent's critique.

Deconstructive argumentation

Deconstructive argumentation consists of engagement with an opponent's arguments in an effort to diminish the strength of that argument in the eyes of the audience. Typically comprised of direct refutation, deconstructive argumentation occurs when a debater identifies a competing argument, offers critique of that argument's evidentiary foundation or reasoning operation and explains how the weakening of that argument affects their opponent's overall effort.

Comparative argumentation

Comparative argumentation occurs when debaters move beyond the (constructive or deconstructive) consideration of individual arguments and focus on the big picture. Debaters are engaged in comparative argumentation when they explain why the arguments they're winning should be considered more in their audience's evaluation of the debate than the arguments their opponents may be winning.

These moves may be prioritized in the order of their function and complexity. Definitional argumentation establishes the meaning of terms in the controversy, which is foundational to the constructive argumentation that builds arguments on that foundation. Deconstructive argumentation by an opponent follows, interrogating the constructive arguments made by the other side. Finally, and most challenging, is comparative argumentation, where opponents attempt to convince the audience that the points they're winning are more important to the audience's consideration than their opponents' points.

The moves and the board

The moves that debaters make in a debate affect the "board" on which the debate is "played." Through their effort to define territory, establish their own arguments, critique their opponents' arguments and compare their effort to their competitors' efforts, debaters attempt to accomplish the objective of occupying more territory than their opponents.

Construction & Deconstruction: the axis of preference

Recall that a point of clash is where the Pro and Con arguments interact. On the visualizer, this effort is represented by a vertical line dividing each issue. The arrows indicate the argumentative efforts of the opposing sides to advance the line in their favor, thereby occupying more of the controversy's territory.

The distribution of space within each issue representsthe audience's preference for the Pro or Con arguments. That preference depends on which side makes the more compelling arguments that can withstand the scrutiny of their opposition.

Comparative argumentation: the axis of significance

Debaters may also direct their efforts at arguing that some issues are more important than others. This comparative argumentation highlights for the audience the issues that the debaters may argue should be more relevant to the audience's decision. The visualizer represents this effort along the axis of significance.

The distribution of space among issues reflects the importance of particular issues in the audience's decision. As the audience allocates more space to a particular issue to reflect their perception of that issue's significance, the remaining issues recede in significance.

The debate's scorecard

As noted earlier, the visualizer both structures the debater's efforts and scaffold's the audience's attention in the debate. As the debate unfolds, each audience member may record arguments in their respective spaces and allocate the territory to reflect their evaluation of the competing arguments. Thus, if the visualizer looks like this before the debate:

it may, after the debate, appear as follows:

The audience has recorded the Pro and Con arguments in their appropriate locations on the board. Based on their assessment of those arguments, the audience has allocated the territory according to their preference for the Pro or Con position within each issue and the significance of each issue relative to others. In this case, the "scorecard" represents a Pro win earned by convincing the audience not only that tobacco use poses a significant public health risk but also that such a risk was more important than the economic or individual rights consequences of implimenting that ban. The audience was convinced that tobacco products should be banned.

Last updated