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Krikorian-Caplan Debate Results: A Little Analysis

Summary:
Last week’s debate had before-and-after voting.  Here are the results for the resolution, “The current pandemic makes it all the more necessary for the federal government to tighten restrictions on immigration.” Though I won, my general view is that the standard debate voting mechanism is deeply flawed. Notice: If you defend a position no one initially agrees with, you cannot lose.  So as Robin Hanson explains, one of the strongest predictors of victory is simply defending an initially unpopular position.  Alex Tabarrok also points out that the “undecided” debate vote share is usually implausible huge: [T]he number of “undecided” swing massively in these debates and in every case the number of undecided goes down a lot, itself peculiar if people are rational

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Last week’s debate had before-and-after voting.  Here are the results for the resolution, “The current pandemic makes it all the more necessary for the federal government to tighten restrictions on immigration.”

Though I won, my general view is that the standard debate voting mechanism is deeply flawed.

Notice: If you defend a position no one initially agrees with, you cannot lose.  So as Robin Hanson explains, one of the strongest predictors of victory is simply defending an initially unpopular position.  Alex Tabarrok also points out that the “undecided” debate vote share is usually implausible huge:

[T]he number of “undecided” swing massively in these debates and in every case the number of undecided goes down a lot, itself peculiar if people are rational Bayesians.  A big swing in undecided votes is quite odd for two additional reasons.  First, when Justice Roberts said he’d never really thought about the constitutionality of abortion people were incredulous.  Similarly, could 30% of the audience (in a debate in which Tyler recently participated (pdf)) be truly undecided about whether “it is wrong to pay for sex”?

The other major predictor of debate success, I suspect, is which side can appeal to more gripping forms of slightly-less-than-obvious Social Desirability Bias.  “Slightly-less-than-obvious” is the sweet spot.  If the Social Desirability Bias is totally obvious, the initial vote captures it.  If the Social Desirability Bias requires extended argument to establish, the audience won’t follow it – and neither will the final vote.  The best way to boost your vote total, then, is to say something that instantly sounds great once you here it.

When you’re debating immigration before typical young Democrats today, for example, highly effective arguments include, “Immigration could hurt poor Americans,” and “All countries have the right of self-determination.”  What makes these sophomoric debating points so  effective?

1. The typical young Democrat rarely hears either argument, so it’s not reflected in their initial vote.

2. The typical young Democrat grasps the point with little intellectual effort.

3. The arguments superficially sound good.

If you want to win debate votes, you’ll figure out analogous arguments for whatever audience you’re facing.  But once you realize how sleazy these tactics are, hopefully you’ll forget about winning – and focus on deserving to win.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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