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Parametrics: A response to Isaiah McPeak (part 2)

Part 2 (or part 5, if you're counting that way) in my parametrics discussion with the incomparable Isaiah McPeak of Ethos. Because we all love quasi-useful theory debates. 😛

Before reading, make sure you've read the original parametrics post, Isaiah's first response, my response to Isaiah, and Isaiah's second response. (That's over 7,000 words - w00t!)

Occam's razor, redux: No unnecessary leprechauns!

(Note: My examples for the remainder of this post will relate to topical counterplans. I realize that topical counterplans are not the point of parametrics, but in practice, they're the only part that matters in-round, and they're an easy place to see the logic in action. Bear with me here.)

In my response, I referenced Occam's razor as my justification for rejecting parametrics. Isaiah objected to this, saying:

. . . the statement  that “we should reject parametrics automatically as an unnecessary layer of complexity” still smacks of “rejecting” parametrics, rather than saying “don’t USE parametrics because there is no need”. I find it humorous to see Occam’s razor as a reason to “reject” anything. Occam’s razor isn’t a reason to reject, it is a reason to ignore/not use.

The problem is that parametrics isn't something you apply on a case-by-case basis: it's either true or it isn't. Because of this, "not using" it is more or less equivalent to "rejecting" it.

Running a theory argument is essentially the same as pointing out a logical fallacy: you're saying "X is not a logically valid reason to vote." For example, fiat says "'that won't happen' isn't a logically sound reason to vote against a plan", topicality says "nontopical plans aren't a logically sound reason to vote for the resolution", etc. Parametrics is the same way: it's a reason why topical counterplans are a logically valid reason to vote against the resolution.

Since it's a logical argument, if parametrics isn't true, topical counterplans are never a reason to vote against the resolution. You can't apply it on a case-by-case basis.

Wikipedia states:

It is coherent to add the involvement of Leprechauns to any explanation, but Occam's razor would prevent such additions, unless they were necessary.

Premise 1: Endorsing the resolution means the judge should vote Affirmative.
Premise 2: Running a "topical counterplan" endorses the resolution. (By definition.)
Conclusion: If a topical counterplan is run, the judge should vote Affirmative.

We can destroy this logic by inserting an extra premise, leprechauns:

Premise 1: Endorsing the resolution means the judge should vote Affirmative.
ARBITRARY EXTRA PREMISE: Mischievous leprechauns change the resolution after the 1AC, just because they feel like it.
Premise 2: Running a "topical counterplan" endorses the resolution. (INVALID)
Conclusion: If a topical counterplan is run, the judge should vote Affirmative. (INVALID)

Premise 1: Endorsing the resolution means the judge should vote Affirmative.
Premise 2: Running a "topical counterplan" endorses the resolution. (By definition.)
Conclusion: If a topical counterplan is run, the judge should vote Affirmative.

We can destroy this logic by inserting an extra premise, parametrics:

Premise 1: Endorsing the resolution means the judge should vote Affirmative.
ARBITRARY EXTRA PREMISE: We redefine the resolution to be just the Affirmative plan, just because we feel like it.
Premise 2: Running a "topical counterplan" endorses the resolution. (INVALID)
Conclusion: If a topical counterplan is run, the judge should vote Affirmative. (INVALID)

Yes, we could use leprechauns to defend topical counterplans. But unless there's a particularly pressing reason to, we shouldn't. Likewise, we could use parametrics to defend topical counterplans. But unless there's a particularly pressing reason to, we shouldn't.

Does parametrics correct injustices?

But what if there is a "particularly pressing need?" Both Isaiah and I agree that the popular argument - offtopic disadvantages - is not a justification for parametrics. In his last post, however, he raised a new point:

Suppose the Government team abolishes our nuclear stockpile, and the Opposition reduces it instead. Both the Government and the Opposition could theoretically be construed as "significantly reforming policy towards Russia." . . . So the affirmative does some wordplay and spends its time on dictionary definitions of the word “reform” instead of comparing the benefits of abolishing over reducing (which is a fair, reasonable, and should be expected debate) . . . Given that [the] negative ran a CP, parametrics is a great argument here to focus the debate back on the substantive issues.

There are two problems with this.

First, just because something is important doesn't mean we should talk about it in-round. (The situation in Libya is important, but we shouldn't be discussing it in a round about, say, tax reform.) That's the whole point of the resolution - to narrow the ground of discussion. Reduction vs. abolition feels like a worthwhile, "substantive" issue, but it's not what the resolution is about. The resolution asks us: "should we reform our policy towards Russia?" Not: "how should we reform our policy towards Russia?"

I could run an unrelated Affirmative plan about Africa, and it might be important, but it's not relevant. Likewise, I could run a topical counterplan, and it might be important, but it's not relevant. It doesn't fall under the resolution-appointed topic of discussion.

The argument above essentially says, "well, let's change the resolution then." (That's basically what parametrics does.) But this is a slippery slope. If "being important" is enough to justify changing the resolution, we should do away with the resolution entirely, so we can talk about any important issue we want. That's ridiculous.

If you want to keep the debate substantial... just don't run a topical counterplan.

Second, there are many cases where introducing parametrics does not have a good outcome. For example, the Negative could get up and propose a counterplan that is identical to the Affirmative's plan, except with one mandate slightly changed. (This is common in other leagues.) As a result, the entire round winds up being a completely superfluous discussion of implementation details, instead of actual argumentation about whether the plan is a good idea.

People have been arguing about whether topical counterplans improve debate for years. The only answer everyone can agree on is "we don't really know." Until there's no particularly pressing reason to insert the arbitrary premise of parametrics into debate... we shouldn't.

No unnecessary leprechauns! 🙂

Coming Thursday: How to instantly improve your organization and clarity with one easy trick.

Filed under: Parametrics, Theory 2 Comments

Parametrics: A response to Isaiah McPeak (part 1)

Some months back I wrote a lengthy post laying out my objections to parametric theory. This past Saturday, the fascinating Isaiah McPeak of Ethos Publications (makers of the Ethos sourcebook) posted a response defending parametric theory and offering some additional advice on topical counterplans. This is my response to his response.

This is an ongoing discussion, so you'll want to read my original parametrics post and Isaiah's response before diving into this post.

Missing the point: The failure of the standard argument

In his response, Isaiah goes to great lengths to explain exactly why affirming the resolution does not require affirming every possible example of the resolution. He concludes by stating:

As you argue later, “All three frameworks discussed so far have been based off of the assumption that voting for the entire resolution endorses every possible plan.” Since I have challenged this assumption, the rest of your arguments kind of fall.

I must admit that I'm somewhat puzzled by this, because he's making the exact same argument I am. In very next paragraph after the one he quoted, I argue that voting for the entire resolution does not endorse every possible plan. In fact, this argument is the reason I reject parametrics: if one example is enough to affirm the resolution, why do we need to narrow it down to the Affirmative plan? Parametrics is simply unnecessary.

I suspect the confusion arises from the structure of my original post. I spend the first half of it explaining the standard (flawed) arguments for parametrics, before turning around and explaining why it's wrong in "What everyone misses: The requirement of the resolution." This structure makes sense from a teaching standpoint, but it can be confusing if you don't read the entire thing.

Occam's razor and the parametric beard

Occam's razor is often stated as "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" (although these exact words do not appear in any of his works.) Basically, explanations shouldn't be more complicated than they need to be. Wikipedia gives a good example:

It is coherent to add the involvement of Leprechauns to any explanation, but Occam's razor would prevent such additions, unless they were necessary.

A similar principle applies to debate theory: Don't go for a complicated paradigm when a simple one works just as well. My personal rule - The Resolutional Bludgeon - states:

If you can resolve a problem with the resolution alone, do it.

In this case, since the resolution alone is enough to explain the proper behavior of teams in the round, we should reject parametrics automatically as an unnecessary layer of complexity.

Why prefer the resolution, though? Occam's razor again. If we go for another paradigm, we have to add in the resolution to explain topicality, et cetera. The resolution alone is much simpler than an alternate paradigm plus the resolution. Preferring it tends towards maximum simplicity.

Parametrics in parliamentary

At this point, it would seem that we are almost in agreement - there's nothing inherently wrong with the standard rezcentrism framework. Isaiah seems to believe that parametrics is necessary anyway. His primary argument for this stems from parliamentary debate:

As an experienced parli debater, I’ve used parametrics quite a few times and seen the application from resolutions like “mute the red phone” where you really need parametrics because every negative counterplan could potentially be construed to “mute the red phone”.

This would be a persuasive argument for the application of parametrics - if "mute the red phone" was, in fact, a policy resolution. It's not.

Earlier, Isaiah makes this point for me:

The phrasing of policy vs. value ... has different logic requirements. A value resolution is usually phrased “x value is greater than y value”. Here the “sum total” must be taken into consideration, so that an aff or neg wins by proving the rez is more true than false or more false than true. The phrasing of a policy resolution “X policy body should be changed” does not require proof that MORE policies should be changed than not, but merely that one should be changed ...

I would contend that "mute the red phone" has different logic requirements as well. While it implies a policy action, the resolution is intentionally vague and subjective. (It's a metaphor, not a specific range of policy options.)

To put this visually, policy resolutions are commonly depicted as a circle containing a range of options. Metaphor resolutions are more like a blob:Some actions (like physically muting an actual red phone) are clearly topical. Other actions (like unilaterally abolishing our nuclear stockpile) are also clearly topical, but in a more vague, metaphorical way (you're not literally "muting" a red phone, just getting rid of it and what it controls.) Still other actions (like abolishing duck hunting) might also be topical, but only under extremely broad interpretations of the resolution.

All this means that, even if parametrics is necessary for vague parliamentary resolutions, that doesn't automatically make it necessary for not-so-vague policy resolutions.

I don't actually believe that parametrics is necessary for metaphor resolutions - you can achieve the same results with straight-up topicality. With any resolution - especially vague ones - there's a fuzzy continuum between "clearly topical" and "clearly nontopical". Where exactly the "topical/nontopical" dividing line falls in that continuum can be hotly contested in the round. The exact same standards and brightlines used to argue that a Government plan is nontopical can be used to argue that a counterplan is nontopical.

To illustrate how this works, suppose the Government team abolishes our nuclear stockpile, and the Opposition reduces it instead. Both the Government and the Opposition could theoretically be construed as "muting the red phone". What now? Argue topicality! For example, the Opposition could present the standard that, to "mute" something, you have to completely eliminate its effectiveness; reductions don't eliminate effectiveness, so the Opp isn't "muting the red telephone." (Cue reasons-to-prefer.) Problem solved, with pure topicality.

All this is to say that metaphor resolutions in parli don't justify parametrics in TP.

Why does this matter?

As I've said before, parametrics isn't about topical counterplans - that's just a side effect. It's the most noticeable side effect, however, and arguably the most important in the real world.

You might notice that I haven't delved into the pragmatic issues surrounding whether topical counterplans are "good" for debate. The short answer is "I don't know" - I can see persuasive arguments on both sides (see Isaiah's post for a good listing.)

Under the resolutional framework, however, running a topical counterplan logically leads to an Aff win, and whether or not topical counterplans are "good" doesn't change that. If topical counterplans were clearly the best thing since sliced bread, it might be worth creating an exception in our framework, but the issue isn't that clear.

Note: I'm using the term "topical counterplan" here, even though I realize that "topical" counterplans aren't technical "topical" under the parametrics framework... don't kill me, HSD.

A side issue...

In my original post, I used "morally-difficult plans like banning abortion" as an example of arguments that were banned simply because they were abusive, not because of a specific logical framework. Isaiah took issue with this:

I hotly disagree with this assumption. ALL positive good on a policy level has at its root a moral premise. The skill of debate is CHARACTERIZED by learning to break seemingly tough problems into respective pieces (i.e. don’t argue “stealing babies is good”, argue “their plan doesn’t fix the problem”). From this perspective, all cases have morality at the root and a debater would be gaining little from Stoa/NCFCA debate if not learning to navigate the complexities of why we do what we do.

I'm not going to argue this, because it's completely beside the point. My original argument was simply that some things are inherently disallowed, even without a complex theoretical framework. (Punching your opponent in the face, as a less controversial example.) Whether or not abortion plans fall into this category is irrelevant to the logic of the point.

Regardless, there is a theoretical framework that works in this case - the resolution. We don't need to declare offtopic DAs "inherently disallowed", or parametricized away, to have a rational debate.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.


Über parametrics throwdown

The success of parametrics can be (at least partially) attributed to the fact that it has a really cool name. Why argue about boring stuff like "advantages" when you can argue about "resolutional parameters"? Parametrics is serious business, however; it could easily make or break a round against a counterplan, so it's important to understand how it works. In this post, I take a comprehensive look at what parametrics is, why it exists, and why it's flawed.

The problem of classic rezcentrism

Classic rezcentrism argues that, when the judge checks the Affirmative box, they're voting for the resolution – plain and simple. Likewise, when they check the Negative box, they're rejecting the resolution.

The problem comes from offtopic disadvantages. Suppose the Affirmative is running Abolish the 123 Agreement, and the Negative doesn't have any evidence. They get up and say, “Judge, voting for the resolution endorses reforming the status quo, but not all reforms to the status quo are good.” They then proceed to eloquently argue that nuking Russia (which is not the Affirmative's plan) would be a bad idea, concluding, “While the Affirmative's reform may be a good idea, there are lots of other possible reforms that are terrible ideas, so you shouldn't vote for the resolution.”

That just sounds... wrong. The Negative is supposed to argue against the Affirmative's plan. But this is an entirely legitimate argument if you endorse the classic rezcentrist framework. If you really are voting for the resolution as a whole, then the Affirmative must prove that every possible topical reform is good.

This isn't really a new idea. In LD, the Negative will often raise “counterwarrants” – general examples that demonstrate that the resolution is false, but aren't necessarily specific to the Affirmative's case. This works in LD, where the resolution is a single general idea – but it shouldn't work in TP, where the resolution encompasses a lot of specific ideas. Classic rezcentrism treats TP resolutions just like LD resolutions, leading to all kinds of abuse.

The problem of plancentrism

LD is about the resolution. TP is about plans. So why not say that voting Affirmative is simply voting for the Affirmative's plan? That's what plancentrism argues.

The problem is topicality. If voting Affirmative is simply voting for the Affirmative's plan, then there is no requirement for them to be topical - period. (If you think there is, you're not thinking of plancentrism. In plancentrism, you are not voting for the resolution, you're voting for the plan. The resolution never enters the discussion.)

The parametric solution

Obviously, neither framework is satisfactory. Parametrics (from the word “parameters”) tries to provide a workable middle ground. Parametrics says that when the Affirmative reads their plan, they narrow the resolution down to just that specific reform. All the other reforms that used to be topical are no longer part of the resolution. In other words, the judge is voting for the resolution, but since the resolution becomes the plan, they're really just voting for the plan. Functionally, parametrics is just plancentrism with a topicality requirement: the Negative can't run irrelevant disadvantages, the Affirmative has to be topical, and everyone is happy.

Okay, so we've found a framework that makes sense. Can't we all just agree that offtopic disadvantages are bad, and move on with our lives? Why do we need to understand why?

Two words: Topical Counterplans.

Conventionally, the Negative can't run counterplans that affirm the resolution. However, if the Affirmative is narrowing down the resolution to just their plan, things that used to affirm the resolution no longer do. In other words, topical counterplans are A-OK – if it isn't the Affirmative's plan, it's legit. (Assuming it's competitive – but that's a different discussion.)

Obviously, Negative teams love this idea. (“Anything I want as a counterplan? Cool!”) Chances are, if you ever see a topical counterplan, parametrics will be used to justify it. That's why it's important to realize a simple fact:

Parametrics is wrong.

Some bad responses

Before I get into the good responses, I want to briefly discuss two bad responses I often see:

First, “parametrics makes topicality useless – if the Affirmative redefines the resolution to be their plan, then they can run whatever and it's topical.” If you've read the previous few sections, it should be obvious why this is a bad argument. Parametrics is not the same thing as plancentrism. The Affirmative doesn't redefine the resolution, they narrow the resolution. Thus, if the plan never fit in the resolution in the first place, it's still not topical regardless of parametrics.

Second, “this is equivocation – you can't just change the resolution partway into the round like that.” Why not? Changing definitions can be bad in other areas, but I've never seen any logical justification to define narrowing the resolution as “equivocation”.

The logical-deficiency response

Even if we accept that there are problems with the classic rezcentrist framework, that doesn't necessarily mean that parametrics (and topical counterplans) are justified, for two reasons:

1. Parametrics is unnecessary to prevent abuses

The entire debate over frameworks is based on the need to eliminate abuses. All of this ignores an important fact: Abuse is an inherent limit. The mere fact that something is abusive is enough reason not to do it; you don't need a special framework.

In the NCFCA/Stoa, you're not supposed to run morally-difficult plans like banning abortion – not because the resolution says so, but because you simply shouldn't do that. Likewise, the judge can vote against you for punching the other team in the face – not because the resolution says so, but because you simply shouldn't do that. Why do topicality and offtopic disadvantages have to be any different?

Viewed in this light, neither plancentrism nor classic rezcentrism have a problem. The Affirmative should stick to the resolution to preserve the educational value of debate, and the Negative shouldn't run offtopic disadvantages because, frankly, they're just stupid. The parametrics framework is unnecessary.

2. Logical leaps

As mentioned above, parametrics is most often used to justify topical counterplans. According to the theory, by narrowing the resolution, the Affirmative is ceding the rest of the resolution to the Negative. If it isn't Affirmative ground, so the argument goes, it must be Negative ground. There's a logical leap here that's rarely discussed:

Why does the ground have to go anywhere?

You can't just say “well, it has to be someone's,” because there are lots of things that are neither Affirmative nor Negative ground – for example, nontopical areas of discussion, morally difficult or abusive arguments, or breaking into unrelated rap songs. Why can't the ground the Affirmative loses when they narrow the resolution simply become no-man's-land? Parametrics doesn't answer that question. Put simply, the parametrics framework does not logically justify topical counterplans.

What everyone misses: The requirement of the resolution

None of this matters.

All three frameworks discussed so far have been based off of the assumption that voting for the entire resolution endorses every possible plan. The problem is: that's not what the resolution says. Let me explain.

The resolution says, generically, “resolved: that we should reform the status quo.” “Should” indicates a need; thus, by affirming the resolution, you are acknowledging that we need to reform the status quo. Affirming the resolution does not endorse every possible fulfillment of that need, because saying “we should reform the status quo” is not the same thing as saying “we should reform the status quo in every possible way.”

Let me say that again:

The resolution is not a collection of plans; it is the affirmation of a need.

This puts the entire issue in a very different light. The fact that there are bad ways to solve a need doesn't eliminate the need. To quote Jordan Bakke, saying that we shouldn't vote for the resolution because some of the possible reforms are bad is “as absurd as saying 'I shouldn't go out and rob a bank tonight; therefore, I shouldn't go out tonight.'”

Therefore, offtopic disadvantages have no influence on the round.

Therefore, we don't need to solve them.

Therefore, parametrics is completely unnecessary.

Dr. Doyle Srader, director of forensics at Northwest Christian University, illustrated this a lot better than I ever could:

"We should go to McDonald's."
"They don't have anything good there."
"The cheeseburgers are good. Last week you had a McDonald's cheeseburger, and you said it was really good."
"True, but the soft serve ice cream is really nasty. It's just lard with sugar."
"So don't get the soft serve ice cream."
"But how can you say we should go to McDonald's if the ice cream is bad? If there are bad items on the menu, then we shouldn't go."
"That makes no sense! If there's something good you could order and enjoy, then it's irrelevant whether other things on the menu are gross."
"Look, you're the one who said we should go to McDonald's. Soft serve ice cream at McDonald's is nasty, so I can't accept that I should eat at McDonald's. Someone might slip me some of that nasty ice cream, and if I said eating at McDonald's is a good idea, I would have no choice but to choke it down."
"Okay, okay, this is crazy, but here's a suggestion: pick your one good thing off the menu, and we'll put it in a McDonald's bag, and then we'll go outside and sit with our backs to the restaurant, and you can pretend that the word 'McDonald's' only means the contents of your bag. Then would you agree with me that we should eat at McDonald's?"
"At last, you're talking sense!"

The resolution asks: “Is there something good at McDonald's?” Parametrics acts as if the resolution asks: “Is everything good at McDonald's?” That was never the question, so we don't need an answer.

This revised view also makes topical counterplans explicitly illegitimate, because they affirm a need for a reform, and thus uphold the resolution.

Alternate paradigm responses

Let's wrap this all up and put a bow on it. Parametrics isn't necessary, but what do we use instead? Here are three possible alternatives:

1. The Abuse-Limitation paradigm

“The judge should vote Affirmative if their plan is a good idea. If anything is abusive – the plan is nontopical, a disadvantage is abusive, etc. – just don't vote for it.”

This framework basically just throws everything into a big pile and lets the judge decide what is and isn't legitimate. This works, kind of, but it isn't very satisfactory. It's messy, and it doesn't have a nice, clear logical basis to work from. More importantly, it doesn't answer the question of whether topical counterplans are legitimate. You have to hash out the pros and cons in-round.

2. The No-Expansion paradigm

“The Affirmative narrows the resolution down to their plan, but the Negative doesn't get the rest - it's just no-man's-land.”

This is exactly as legitimate as parametrics is: there isn't really any reason for the rest of the resolution to go to the Negative, but there isn't really any reason for it not to, either. As such, this is basically an arbitrary variant of parametrics that only exists to get rid of topical counterplans. It works, but why should we prefer it to parametrics?

3. The One-Good-Reason paradigm

“The judge should vote Affirmative if one good, topical reason for reform is presented.”

I like this framework best, because it acknowledges what I said in the previous section: That the resolution merely affirms a need for reform. This paradigm logically derives from the resolution, and provides a nice, clean solution to the problems that got this whole mess started. The logical implications of this framework are threefold:

  1. The Affirmative must present a topical reason for reform (i.e. a topical plan.)
  2. The Negative can't run offtopic disadvantages (since they don't disprove the need.)
  3. The Negative can't run topical counterplans (since they affirm a need for reform, thereby affirming the resolution.)

A few naysayers may object, “but doesn't that make it impossible for the Negative? After all, there will always be some reason out there for reform if you look hard enough. Wouldn't that fact force you to always vote Affirmative?” No, not really. The reason for reform must be presented in the round – it's not enough for it to merely exist. (This restraint is a corollary to the rule that judges are only supposed to consider what is brought up in-round.)

Extend-o-tron 5000: An anti-parametrics theory block

I've covered a lot of ground in this post. To help you apply this to an actual debate round without your head exploding, I've prepared a short anti-parametrics theory block. This is designed to be read against topical counterplans, if the Negative brings up parametrics. (The text in italic brackets will change based on the year's resolution.)

This will take about a minute and a half to get through.

“We're saying that, when you check that Affirmative box on the ballot, you're voting for the resolution, so you're agreeing that, yes, we should [reform our policy towards Russia]. The problem is, the Negative counterplan is also a [reform of our policy towards Russia], so they're just giving you another reason to vote for the resolution and check that Affirmative box.

“The Negative responded to this problem by essentially asking you to vote for or against our plan, not for or against the resolution. They say that if you vote for the entire resolution, you're making a blanket statement that [reforming our policy towards Russia] is a good idea, so you're agreeing that every possible plan is good. Since that's ridiculous, checking the Affirmative box must not vote for the entire resolution, it just votes for our plan.

“The problem with this is that voting for the resolution doesn't agree with every possible plan. The resolution says that we should [reform our policy towards Russia], not that we should [reform our policy towards Russia] in every possible way. The fact that there are bad ways to [reform our policy towards Russia] doesn't mean we shouldn't [reform it] at all.

“The framework we want you to judge this round on is this: (you can write this down)

Vote Affirmative if one good reason for reform has been presented.
(repeat this so the judge can write it down - “let me say that again…”)

The problem is, the Negative counterplan gives us a reason for reform! They agree that [reforming our policy towards Russia] is a great idea. So you should vote Affirmative.”

One final note. I'm sure this will spark a lot of discussion, so let me quickly establish the framework. Basically, in order to prove that parametrics is relevant, you have to prove that "we should reform the status quo" and "we should reform the status quo in every possible way" are fundamentally the same. If they aren't, parametrics simply isn't relevant.

Have fun!

Filed under: Parametrics, Theory 9 Comments