How to research for debates
How to research for debates

The best debaters are very well informed about the world. They come to preparation time armed with an impressive array of facts, and a deep understanding of the issues. That's because they've read a lot, listened to a lot, watched a lot in the time before the debate; they've done a lot of research.

But how can you make sure your research is accurate? How can you be sure that what you have read, listened to and watched is true? The two key things to remember when researching are:

1. Check your sources.
2. Multiply your sources.

1. Check your sources

Not everything written down, either in print or online, is true. Nor is everything that is said true. How can you check whether something is true or not? One way is to consider what kind of source it is. Ask these four questions:

  • Who wrote it / said it?
  • Why did they write it / say it?
  • When was it produced?
  • How was it produced?

Who wrote it / said it?

The answer to this question will help you identify if the writer / speaker has expertise. People with expertise on a topic are more likely to have accurate information about it. If someone writing or speaking about the impact of climate change is a scientist who has spent years studying the subject, they are likely to have first-hand knowledge and therefore expertise; if they have never studied the science of climate change, their knowledge will be at best second hand.

Why did they write it / say it?

The answer to this question will help you identify the motivation of the writer / speaker. People have many motivations for writing and speaking. They may want to discover and present the truth, or they may want to advance their own or someone else's interests. An article demonstrating the harm to health of eating fried chicken from fast-food shops every day published by a medical journal is likely to be motivated by a search for the truth about the health impacts of junk food. An article published by a fast-food fried chicken company saying there are no health harms from eating fried chicken from fast-food shops every day is likely to be motivated by a wish to keep people buying fried chicken.

When was it produced?

When something was written or said changes how you read it or hear it. A book or article written about immigration before the enlargement of the European Union allowed more people from Eastern Europe to come to the UK to work will not consider the impact of this kind of immigration. One written more recently may give the impact of Eastern European immigration more weight, only because it is more recent.

How was it produced?

How something is written or said will help you evaluate its accuracy. In general, the longer it took to produce, the more accurate it is likely to be. A tweet can be fired off in seconds with no checking, and (if the handle is anonymous) may be beyond the reach of laws against libel (libel means the publication of inaccurate and malicious statements). A longer post on a blog or a clip on YouTube may be a little more considered, but has the same issues about the lack of checking / accountability. An article in a daily newspaper will have been checked by an editor, who will also want to protect the newspaper against legal action for libel, but will have been written to a short deadline. An article in a weekly magazine will have gone through a similar editing process, but will have allowed the author longer to research and compose it. An article in a monthly magazine will have given the author even longer. A published book is likely to have gone through an extensive process of commissioning, editing and proofreading, making it even more likely to be accurate. Of course, it is possible to give completely accurate information in a tweet, and for a published book to be full of lies and inaccuracies. Even so, length of production is a relevant consideration.

Multiply your sources

Investors in the stock market often opt for a 'balanced portfolio'. That is, they buy stocks in many different companies so that the ones that do badly are balanced out by the ones that do well. It's a good idea to do the same with the sources for your facts.

If you want to know more about a particular topic, seek out as many different sources of information on it as possible in as many different genres as possible. A Google search for websites might start you off, but then look out for articles in newspapers, magazines and journals, and track down as many relevant books as you can lay your hands on. Use your school, university or local library. Make friends with the librarian - librarians are usually delighted to have the opportunity to show off how wonderful their collection is, and will be pleased to help you with your quest. Be hungry and restless for knowledge. Even if you find yourself reading the same thing twice (or three times), that's no bad thing, as it will help you remember it.

And don't just multiply your sources of information. Multiply your perspectives on a topic as well. Topics which are likely to be debated are, by their very nature, going to be controversial, and will be open to many different interpretations - expose yourself to as many of those as you can. Above all, challenge your own preconceptions. If you and everyone you know is convinced that the police are institutionally racist, seek out articles in The Daily Telegraph denouncing political correctness and calling for coppers to be left alone to do their job. If, on the other hand, you and everyone you know is convinced that billionaire heads of tech companies deserve every penny they earn because they add so much value to the world, make yourself read some books by left-wing economists arguing that excessive economic inequality is corrosive for society. Try not to get angry as you read. Try instead to understand why these writers say what they say; try to empathise intellectually with where they are coming from. Imagine as you read that you are debating against them: how would you rebut them? You know you don't agree with them: why? How would you answer them? Reading different points of view may change your mind, or it may not. But you must give people on the other side - on all sides - a fair hearing. It will make you a better debater: you might get assigned the other side of the argument in a debate. What's more, it will make you a better citizen, and a better person.