I have often been asked by people whether they should start competitive debating. Here are some of the reasons why it makes sense to invest time into this activity:
- You can become more comfortable speaking in front of others, even with very little time to prepare.
- You can learn to sharpen your analytical mind when considering and presenting arguments.
- You can cultivate open-mindedness and epistemic humility in the face of counterintuitive arguments and opinions.
- You can practice skepticism in the face of commonly held positions.
All of these are valuable skills and attitudes and many debaters believe that competitive debating will help you with (some of) them. I’m not aware of any evidence on this question, but overall this seems like a sensible view to me, particularly with regard to (1) and (2). Of course, if you become successful, it might also look good on your resume.
There are also risks to debating. You might learn unhealthy habits of mind that influence how you think and behave outside of competitive debates:
- While debating might make you more comfortable speaking in front of an audience, it might also teach you a very idiosyncratic style of public speaking. It depends on the format of debate, but the practiced style often has little in common with effective presentations or talks outside of the debating context. It’s too fast, not engaging, and full of debating jargon. Since the judges are usually peers with similar subject-matter expertise (which is little), you don’t have to adapt to different audiences and rarely face the curse of knowledge – which dooms many talks and presentations. If your main goal is not overcoming stage fright but becoming a good public speaker, read this advice from Spencer Greenberg and practice with actual presentations or talks.
- While debating might sharpen your analytical mind when considering and presenting arguments, it might also inculcate you with a false view of how people change their minds. Precious few probably do so after hearing or reading a carefully argued, dense monologue. Even arguments themselves might often have very little to do with it. Still, that is the implicit assumption behind most debating formats. If you want to learn how to convince others, advocate for a cause, sell things, go into politics, start a project or cult (or combine the two by launching a startup).
- While debating might cultivate your open-mindedness and epistemic humility in the face of counterintuitive arguments and opinions, it might also refine your rationalization skills. As a human, you already tend toward confirmation bias. With that inclination in place, honing your ability to come up with “winning” arguments for any position in just fifteen minutes is dangerous. You will be tempted to adopt the mindset of a soldier, set on defending your side and defeating the enemy. Instead, you should cultivate the mindset of a scout, dedicated to gathering information and coming to sound judgments. If you want to learn how to judiciously weigh different arguments and considerations, start forecasting.
- While you might learn to practice skepticism in the face of commonly held positions, you might also learn to abandon constructive and emotional engagement. When facing somebody with an opposing viewpoint, the win-condition in real life is often either compromise (e.g. in professional negotiations) or peaceful coexistence (e.g. in personal relationships). In debating, neither is possible. Instead, it encourages adversarial discourse that strains relationships. If you want to learn how to negotiate, go into politics. If you want to learn how to engage with others on an emotional level, try authentic relating.
I am not sure how to weigh these benefits and risks. Depending on what you’re looking for, competitive debating might well be worth it for you, especially if you enjoy it as much as I did.
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