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Side Bias: A Closer Look

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This post was written with both LD and policy in mind, as such it's worded so that it assumes side bias favors the negative.

In theory discussions it's usually just assumed that side bias is inherently bad and there's no serious discussion of it. When the issue is discussed, it's usually argued either that bias is bad because it's inherently unfair or the argument is made that because bias turns the round into a coin flip there's a disincentive to doing serious research.

However, I think both of those arguments are oversimplifications. They either ignore the broader context of the debate or assume bias is binary and insurmountable.

First, while bias would create a disincentive to doing serious research if the negative invested as much effort into their case as the affirmative did, because both teams need to debate both sides of the resolution intelligent teams usually spend less effort on the negative side of their case than they do on the affirmative. In other words, it seems as though limited non-binary forms of bias are self correcting because people will respond by reallocating the amount of total research they do, thus making the debate competitive again.

Second, bias is undoubtedly unfair in the context of any specific established round, but when you recognize that each debater has a similar chance of flipping affirmative or negative, it becomes almost perfectly fair in the context of the overall tournament. Fairness isn't the relevant issue here because a coin flip gives equal chances, so whatever is really being appealed to by this argument remains mysterious to me.

Perhaps the real idea here is that debaters should control the outcome of the round, and the conditions of the debate should not. This makes much more sense to me, but my intuitions are clashing here. I feel that even if the round is structurally skewed towards one team it's still that team's prerogative to not screw it up. Debaters are in complete control of the round, no one else's decisions will determine who wins or loses. Yet for whatever reason I still feel like side bias prevents debaters from controlling the round, and I can't make that feeling go away. Does anyone have a justification for that view?

Third, it seems like limited forms of bias would either do nothing or actually incentivize further research, because it forces people to go that extra mile to get the edge over their opponent, whereas they otherwise might have slacked off. Bias both raises and lowers the difficulty curve of debate, in other words, depending on what side you flip. Doesn't that mean that it makes unbalanced debates more interesting about 50% of the time? I recognize that it also makes debates that would otherwise have been closer farther apart, but for whatever reason I can't shake the feeling that the overall effect is beneficial.

[Deleted - a much less confusing explanation of this part can be found in my post below.]

This is the point that I'm confusing myself most on. I'd greatly appreciate an explanation of what I'm doing wrong here, because my thoughts don't make sense yet I can't point out where they're going wrong, which is very frustrating.

Fourth, is there any good literature on questions of side bias that anyone has to recommend to me, such as old theory articles?

Thoughts?

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I think this is a question of how much of a side bias there is.

 

Switch side debate seems to solve this back.  The only time this seems like an issue is if tournaments have an uneven number of rounds and in elimination rounds.  

 

I think the flip of a coin in elimination rounds at least gives each side a theoretically even chance.

 

Side bias is also in the main--one of the main strategies of debate is to pick a place where you see a unique advantage (perhaps that others don't see) or passion.

 

That said, debate and life is never going to be 100% fair.  This isn't a resignation to averageness, but just an honestly about life.

 

Seen from another perspective: The idea that truth favors one side....is actually something we can embrace.

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I might add that judges have a tiny say..

Debaters are in complete control of the round, no one else's decisions will determine who wins or loses. 

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I might add that judges have a tiny say..

 

Without a doubt, sorry. I didn't mean to give the wrong impression there.

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I think you have the right idea in general, but there are a couple of issues I see.

  1. Elims. In elimination rounds, the side bias gives the debater who flips neg a greater chance of winning, and the single-elimination mechanism means that switch-side debate doesn't solve back like it does in prelims, and means that the better, more prepared debater doesn't win
  2. I don't think you're right about the benefits of side bias. I think it encourages tricks, surprise and other compensatory mechanisms that do nothing to actually enhance the educational debate. In national-circuit LD (where the problem of side bias in LD is most prevalent) it's led to abusive paragraph theory, AFC (for policy debaters: In LD, the "framework" in question refers to the ethical framework for the round (util, deont, naturalism, etc.) and all kinds of tricks that do nothing for the educational value of the activity.
  3. I think the point of side bias is that it takes the debaters out of control. A debater is starting from a disadvantage when the begin, so external factors are deciding if they win or lose.

My thoughts are a little jumbled right now, so I might come back with some later thoughts soon

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I agree with your first argument and don't have anything interesting to say about it.
 

I don't think you're right about the benefits of side bias. I think it encourages tricks, surprise and other compensatory mechanisms that do nothing to actually enhance the educational debate. In national-circuit LD (where the problem of side bias in LD is most prevalent) it's led to abusive paragraph theory, AFC (for policy debaters: In LD, the "framework" in question refers to the ethical framework for the round (util, deont, naturalism, etc.) and all kinds of tricks that do nothing for the educational value of the activity.


Makes sense. Full disclosure, I was writing theory arguments trying to figure out how to argue against "err aff because of neg bias" when I wrote this, and I converted it into a more neutral form to facilitate discussion of these issues because I wanted to be able to make my argument stronger (that said, there is a serious lack of discussion of these issues). I think that the affirmative will be reluctant to characterize their own tactics as uneducational.

I think it's possible to argue that these tactics are inevitable. Even if the affirmative and the negative were equal, they'd both win through whatever means worked best for them. Since these means are working for the affirmative now, wouldn't they pursue them anyway under other conditions?

 

 I think the point of side bias is that it takes the debaters out of control. A debater is starting from a disadvantage when the begin, so external factors are deciding if they win or lose.

 

This assumes bias is binary and that the negative automatically wins if there's bias in their favor. Since that's not true, the debaters still retain just as much control over the round. The round might have skewed initial starting conditions, but why exactly does that matter? One team has an easier challenge and the other has a harder challenge, but both have a challenge. Together, they balance out, so it's fine.

If anything, they do more than balance out, they allow people to get a rest during some rounds and to have a difficult intellectual challenge in others. I expect that having 3 really hard debates and 3 easy debates each weekend for three months would be more educational than having 6 medium debates over the same time period. The kids who currently lose all their rounds would be competitive in three of them. The kids who currently win all their rounds would have to step up their game further. It's a system designed to push the lowest tier to the middle and the middle tier to the top. Does this explanation seem right? It feels flawed to me.

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Is it generally agreed that Neg has the advantage is policy?  I know i personally love being aff and really don't like being neg.  I just feel like its easier cuz i know my case inside and out, and just feel more in control of the round and can see through bullshit easier

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Is it generally agreed that Neg has the advantage is policy?  I know i personally love being aff and really don't like being neg.  I just feel like its easier cuz i know my case inside and out, and just feel more in control of the round and can see through bullshit easier

 

Neg definitely has an advantage in LD. The times are set up in such a way that it incentivizes negs to spread affs out of the round.

 

Even with the widespread acceptance of an offense/defense decision making paradigm, I'm not so sure this is the case in policy debate. The aff still has absolute control over the amount of work they put into their 2AC/1AR blocks, and a lot more of the round is (or should be) predictable. If you're halfway decent, for example, I don't see much excuse for losing to the same argument twice on the aff.

 

If you're debating policy in more traditional areas, there's a marked side bias for the aff, but I'm not sure about the numbers of debaters in more traditional circuits (slower, less likely to see critical arguments, strong belief in presumption) versus more progressive circuits.

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I think it's possible to argue that these tactics are inevitable. Even if the affirmative and the negative were equal, they'd both win through whatever means worked best for them. Since these means are working for the affirmative now, wouldn't they pursue them anyway under other conditions?

 

In a sense this is true: I would probably do all of these things even if there wasn't side bias. However, I think judges would be far less likely to buy them. AFC, for example, is a far less compelling concept in a world where the only benefit is topical education than in a world where you can say, with statistically significant data, that there's a neg bias and this is the way to compensate for it. 

 

This assumes bias is binary and that the negative automatically wins if there's bias in their favor. Since that's not true, the debaters still retain just as much control over the round. The round might have skewed initial starting conditions, but why exactly does that matter? One team has an easier challenge and the other has a harder challenge, but both have a challenge. Together, they balance out, so it's fine.

 
If anything, they do more than balance out, they allow people to get a rest during some rounds and to have a difficult intellectual challenge in others. I expect that having 3 really hard debates and 3 easy debates each weekend for three months would be more educational than having 6 medium debates over the same time period. The kids who currently lose all their rounds would be competitive in three of them. The kids who currently win all their rounds would have to step up their game further. It's a system designed to push the lowest tier to the middle and the middle tier to the top. Does this explanation seem right? It feels flawed to me.

 

You're probably right about the "in control-ness." Still, I think it matters. The point of a debate round is that the person who debated better in that round should win, for any definition of "better debating" (I'm open to a re-framing of the round and the ballot, but I think this one is general enough as to be fairly uncontroversial). That's why theory debates tend to consider reciprocity as the biggest impact to fairness in the status quo. This accepted, I think it becomes clear why side bias is bad: it gives one debater an advantage they don't deserve, and (in a non-ableist way) handicaps the other. You might say education outweighs, but empirically the "challenge" of being aff leads to tricks, not deeper exploration of substance, so I don't believe there's much of an educational impact either way.

 

On your second point, I agree it seems flawed intuitively, and I think I may know why: First, debaters are suddenly competitive in rounds they weren't before not because they've gotten better or do more work – it seems like charity to me, and I'm not sure how educational that would be. Second, I think there's a semantic problem that's obscuring things a bit: there's a difference between substance-hard, where you're arguing in depth about complex philosophical or topical problems in round with someone at the same level as, or better than, you, and burden-hard, where the structure of the activity makes achieving the victory condition more difficult.

 

Substance-hard rounds, I think, provide the most education, and are the most interesting to watch, judge and participate in (assuming it's not a face crush). Side bias makes rounds burden-harder, not substance-harder, which means that debaters are basically focused on moving around the victory condition to compensate (AFC, neg theory must be drop the argument, reasonability, parametrics good) to compensate, so debaters aren't learning about the topic. I think side bias exacerbates that problem by making it unstrategic for affs to even contemplate substance-hard rounds, since the neg can always spread them out on any key issue, whereas a level playing field makes those debates more winnable for affs. 

 

Regardless, though,we have side bias now, and I've not seen any examples of the kinds of debaters who go 1-5 or 0-6 being more competitive because of it.

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I agreed with most of what you said. If I don't quote it, I agree with it.
 

You're probably right about the "in control-ness." Still, I think it matters. The point of a debate round is that the person who debated better in that round should win, for any definition of "better debating" (I'm open to a re-framing of the round and the ballot, but I think this one is general enough as to be fairly uncontroversial). That's why theory debates tend to consider reciprocity as the biggest impact to fairness in the status quo.

This is one of the things I'm questioning. I know it sounds silly, but I don't have a good answer to the question "why should the best debater win?" I think you're right that difficult debates lead to bad forms of adaptation, but if we assume that they don't and that education is increased by difficult debates then I feel like education would outweigh. I think it's just a love of competition that leads us to prize reciprocity over anything else, as opposed to more traditional voter impacts that we usually appeal to. But even then, I don't understand why a perfectly fair competition would be valued over a skewed one. Human nature?

 

On your second point, I agree it seems flawed intuitively, and I think I may know why: First, debaters are suddenly competitive in rounds they weren't before not because they've gotten better or do more work – it seems like charity to me, and I'm not sure how educational that would be. Second, I think there's a semantic problem that's obscuring things a bit: there's a difference between substance-hard, where you're arguing in depth about complex philosophical or topical problems in round with someone at the same level as, or better than, you, and burden-hard, where the structure of the activity makes achieving the victory condition more difficult.

 

Substance-hard rounds, I think, provide the most education, and are the most interesting to watch, judge and participate in (assuming it's not a face crush). Side bias makes rounds burden-harder, not substance-harder, which means that debaters are basically focused on moving around the victory condition to compensate (AFC, neg theory must be drop the argument, reasonability, parametrics good) to compensate, so debaters aren't learning about the topic. I think side bias exacerbates that problem by making it unstrategic for affs to even contemplate substance-hard rounds, since the neg can always spread them out on any key issue, whereas a level playing field makes those debates more winnable for affs.

Regardless, though, we have side bias now, and I've not seen any examples of the kinds of debaters who go 1-5 or 0-6 being more competitive because of it.

I think that the charity analogy is a bit misleading. I was conceptualizing it more as along the lines of affirmative action. Giving some debaters a chance to be competitive while on one side of the resolution will increase their skills and their confidence, allowing them to get better at debate as a whole. However, your characterization of burden-level difficulty naturally leading to a focus on theoretical issues is very persuasive, and matches the way that LD looks right now very well. Your reality check is appreciated.

I understand this a lot better now. I should be able to write some decent blocks after this.

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I began I large study at the begining of the year, compiling data about side biases on teams and AFF/NEG from tournaments. I did not have the time to complete it - it just takes too long and had other things to do. 

it can be found here - 

 

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0ArnmVpHzGZKJdEVDRDdTSHVtNHNyc0RWUDEyQWFpb3c#gid=0

 

 

I wish I had done this for a larger sample size, but it does include 10 major tournaments including Grapevine, Greenhill, GTown, Wake, St. Marks and Iowa.

The result based on that data was that there was no cumulative side bias to be had. The percentages that might favor one team over another are well within the swing margins for the difference to be of no statistical bias. While there might have been some statistical increments that were larger from tournament to tournament, those seemed to be balanced by the season as a whole.

 

In fairness, I have not read all of this thread, but if the question (which it seems to be) is a theory debate about whether the argument of having a side bias is accurate - the reality is that there is not a bias either direction, from tournament to tournament and on the season as a whole.

 

cjc

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Here's a similar study for LD debates: http://www.scribd.com/doc/50068324/SSRN-id1772250

It concludes that neg bias is strong. It also discusses bias in terms of race, sex, and region. Its biggest limitation is that it only uses data from the TOC. I've heard it speculated that because more progressive theory arguments aren't tolerated on traditional circuits and spreading tends to be rarer, they do better with avoiding bias. Deciding how to evaluate the NFLs given both of those points is difficult because it's an elite tournament yet also a traditional one. I imagine that the bias exists but is only about half as strong or so.

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