Loose Nukes Because every debate can be improved with a little highly-enriched uranium.

2Mar/119

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!

Comments (9) Trackbacks (2)
  1. OK I agree for the most part. I think that actually there is a reason that the rest of the res to be no mans land. See when the judge votes aff they are voting for a change in the SQ, the aff may limit the res to their plan but the rest of the res is still under the res. If the neg tries to run a random DA or a T-CP they are also voting for a reform. A different reform but still a reform. I think you can reform the SQ using a narrow a reform but that doesn’t mean the rest of the ground is neg ground.

    Those my thoughts. I hope they make sense 🙂

    • Right. What you said is basically a restatement of the One-Good-Reason paradigm – you’re saying that the ground should remain no-man’s-land because it still fulfills a need for reform. My point was that if you ignore that fact, there’s no reason to prefer it.

  2. Also, for theory wonks: It’s also interesting to note that the one-good-reason paradigm provides a cogent logical basis for negation theory and a couple of other commonly-accepted concepts.

  3. You say that it’s not necessary to construct a new paradigm to provide a reason to vote against abuse, and I agree with that point. However, this also means that there’s no problem with the abuse-limitation paradigm. If abuse is inherently a reason to vote against the abusive team, then it’s OK to throw everything into a big pile and let the judge decide what is legitimate and illegitimate. The judge still has to make that decision based on arguments articulated in the round.

    I believe this is clearest as a default paradigm: “Vote affirmative if you are persuaded that the affirmative plan should happen.” It’s a default paradigm because the debaters can still persuade the judge to vote on something unrelated, for example, a K.

    Incedentally, it answers the question of whether topical CPs are legitimate. I understand “legitimate” to mean “a reason to vote negative”. Competition makes a CP a reason to vote negative. A competitive CP means that aff’s plan should not happen (because an alternative should happen instead). Therefore, a competitive CP (hopefully) results in a neg win under the default paradigm.

    BTW, awesome quotation about bank robbery. 😉 I do believe that counterwarrants are a highly fallacious justification for parametrics; however, I still believe that there are reasons why plancentrism is superior to rezcentrism. The most important is that it makes most sense to treat aff’s plan as their thesis statement–since they spend 8 minutes focusing on it–and to spend the rest of the debate comparing options (plan vs. SQ, vs. CP) like an actual policy discussion.

    • Abuse limitation should definitely be the default paradigm; the question I was asking is whether it should be the only paradigm. IMHO, it’s just too messy to use as an exclusive standard. (Based on your other comments, I think you would agree.)

      I don’t see how competition by itself establishes legitimacy for topical CPs, however. The question is “should the Negative be allowed to affirm the original resolution when it would disprove the Aff plan?” Without a theoretical framework to work from, this issue is purely one of educational merit, and has to be hashed out in-round.

      Related: I forgot (after reminding myself several times…) to include a sidenote that this post is limited to theoretical legitimacy, and does not consider educational or practical arguments. I’m a bit ambivalent about the educational side of the issue; I see beneficial reasons for topical CP discussion, but also some drawbacks. The “real policy discussion” argument has never been particularly persuasive to me, since debate inherently contains so many elements that are abstracted from real policy discussion. Alternate-actor CPs also muddy the waters, but that’s an entirely separate theory issue. 🙂

  4. “One Good Reason” is a very old paradigm and is in fact how we debated in my time frame (1979-82). Another way to phrase it is “prove the resolutional statement true.” It only takes one good example of a successful/needed change to prove the resolutional statement is true. If the Neg finds another one, great, now there are two ways to prove the res true and affirm it on the ballot. I won a debate round in 1979 using that argument against a topical counterplan – everyone saw it quite clearly back then. I still agree with it.

    • I think everyone agrees that the Affirmative has to prove the resolution true; what that entails, however, depends on your view of the resolution. I like the “one good reason” wording because it demonstrates clearly what proves the resolution true.

      I’m still not sure exactly how the current prevailing view became mainstream.

  5. Doesn’t the “One Good Reason” interpretation of the resolution justify vague plans. If it’s the affirmatives job to affirm the resolution in one manner, why couldn’t they present every plan in the debate round and just go for one of them in the 2ar.

    For example, on the high school policy debate topic, couldn’t the affirmative just read the plan as “The United States Federal Government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space” and read advantages to a bunch of different plans?

    The negative then has to debate a moving plan because the affirmative could always shift its advocacy to spike out of DAs and the 2nr never knows which plan the aff will advocate in the 2ar.

    This is why I think abuse-limitation because the standard, in order to prevent aff conditionality, and why it should stay that way.

    • Affs can certainly run multiple plans in the 1AC; it’s called an AJAC (Alternative Justification Analysis Case). Whether it is abusive has never been conclusively decided. Parametrics doesn’t solve it, because the Aff would just be narrowing down the resolution to multiple plans instead of one.

      Accepting abuse-limitation doesn’t require abandoning the one-good-reason paradigm, though. It’s quite possible – and, indeed, recommended – to use the one-good-reason paradigm as a baseline, and run independent abuse arguments.


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