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The following is the text of a talk I gave at a symposium entitled The Politics of Expertise in Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University on the 30th November 2016. The references I used in constructing this text are available on request – reach me on Twitter @timsquirrell.
Expertise as Attribution
PhD Candidate in Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies
University of Edinburgh
“I think people in this country have had enough of experts” – Michael Gove MP
“Experts, soothsayers, astrologers, are all in much the same category” – Jacob Rees Mogg MP
“Well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?” – Stewart Lee
A truly tremendous quantity of ink has been spilled over the past year over the problem of expertise. “Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. The consensus seems to be that publics in Western liberal democracies have lost their trust in experts and expertise. The questions of when, why, and how this happened, and how the expert class can possibly hope to redeem itself are perpetually mooted in hand-wringing think-pieces in The Guardian and The Spectator alike.
In this talk, I’m going to do three things. First, I’ll problematise the existing, hidden consensus that experts just exist, and that it is our choice whether to listen to them or not. Second, I’ll propose an alternative view that conceptualises expertise as something which doesn’t exist a priori, but is attributed by particular audiences to particular individuals, groups and institutions in order to solve particular problems. Third, I’ll show why, far from being a simple redefinition which makes no practical difference, there are some specific advantages of taking this viewpoint, centring around (i) the way we ask those who would claim expert status to present themselves, and (ii) our ability to dismiss specific actors, rather than the concept of expertise as a whole.
The question that nobody seems to be asking is “What do we mean by ‘experts’?”. It’s taken as a given that when we say the word ‘expert’, we know of whom we speak: late middle-aged white men in suits and glasses, staring out at us from a television screen, speaking on behalf of a university, or an organisation with some acronym nobody can remember. IFS, IEA, ECB, CPS: they might as well all work for the same company, for all the scrutiny we give their credentials. We can identify who counts as an expert a priori: they speak for established institutions, they have qualifications and credentials and letters after their names, and they have experience to back up their authoritative-sounding words.
There are a couple of major issues with this. First, it allows individuals (and whole communities) to dismiss the entirety of what has come to be known as the “expert class”, without having to engage with their statements or arguments. When these experts make predictions about the economy, or elections, or the climate, they inherently stake (to some degree) their reputation on the veracity of their predictions. The problem is, if we link all experts together, when someone (or a group of people – say, psephologists) gets something wrong, then they harm not just their own reputation but the reputation of everyone linked to them through the label ‘expert’. When we bind people together with a particular label, we allow other people to use that label to have blanket beliefs about that whole group (experts) rather than making decisions about smaller, more appropriate, sub-divisions (psephologists, or Nate Silver, or the Huffington Post pollsters).
Second, it facilitates the complacency of the aforementioned expert class. If they speak, and nobody listens, they can throw up their hands and say, “Well, we gave them the facts and they refused to accept them. We can’t help it if the public are stupid and mistrustful.” There’s nothing they could have done to foresee this, and now that the epistemic gates are open and the horse of trust has bolted, there’s very little they can do to steer that horse back into the stable and regain the confidence of the public. Clearly, the solution is simply to end democracy and delegate all authority to the expert class, because the people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions when presented with the objective facts.
These problems alone should probably give us serious pause: is this view productive? Is it something we want to keep with us in this brave new post-fact world? When combined with some of the more conceptual issues I’m going to outline as we go on, I’m convinced we should wholeheartedly reject the view of expertise which says “these are the experts, believe them or not”.
“But what, pray, is the alternative?” I hear you cry, “We can’t allow just anyone to call themselves an expert. That way charlatanism lies!” Well, little strawman that I just made up, you’re halfway there. The alternative is as follows.
We could, if we so chose, decide to carve up the word conceptually and acquire knowledge purely through the mediation of our own senses. But our senses are unreliable, and there’s not enough time or money to allow us to imbibe the knowledge of every discipline under the sun. So for most of us, most of the time, we delegate our epistemic authority to others: we allow them to tell us what’s true, and we decide how to act upon it. As children we listen to parents and teachers; as adults we read news publications and books, listen to particular individuals we find compelling or inspiring, heed the advice of our doctors regarding our health, and broadly take for granted that we aren’t being lied to or misled.
There are certain ways in which we try to tell the difference between those experts we ought to trust and those who are incompetent, misleading or just plain wrong. We can examine how they argue: how well do they present their arguments, are they quick to produce defeaters or counter-defeaters for the arguments of others? We can look at their track record of making good predictions, we can try to examine any potential biases or vested interests they might have, we can scrutinise their credentials, or we can look at how many other putative experts agree with them.
There are numerous problems with each of these metrics which render it very difficult to tell between ‘good’ experts and ‘bad’ experts. Often those who know the most aren’t necessarily the best at arguing their side of a debate (a problem I will attempt to solve with my view later on). Moreover, it is almost impossible for us to assess the claims of experts on a technical basis, because the very reason we are listening to them is that the knowledge they are articulating is esoteric and epistemically inaccessible. Similarly, what makes a “good prediction” is up for debate, so track records are difficult to assess. Most individuals in a given industry or field likely have some biasing factors behind the things they are saying, because nobody is objective and anyone who says otherwise is lying or deluded. Finally, if we’re relying on the agreement of other potential experts, then we just defer the problem of identifying “good experts” one step down the line.
Most of our actions, then, rely upon trust in others. When we decide to believe what someone says, we don’t usually do so based on pure logical reasoning. Instead, we listen to them based on a function of whether we trust them (qua friend, or parent, or expert, or politician) and whether what they are saying sounds intuitively plausible. Crucially, intuitive plausibility itself is contingent on our prior beliefs. If what someone is telling us conflicts with a deeply-held belief – they’re telling me the Earth is flat when I’ve been informed my entire life that it is round, for instance – then it’s unlikely I’m going to abandon my prior belief in favour of what they’re now telling me. That’s important, because it provides further fuel to the pyre of the realist view of expertise: if I have a prior disposition not to believe people we call ‘experts’, because I perceive them to have been mistaken before, then it’s unlikely that their telling me something is going to have a large positive impact upon my propensity to believe it.
Delegating our epistemic authority – our ability to carve up the world conceptually – is incredibly common. When we give that authority to a particular person, group, or institution, and we do so for the purpose of solving a particular problem or class of problems, I call those actors ‘experts’. We delegate our authority on matters astrophysical to astrophysicists; we listen to oncologists about cancer; we heed the words of the weather forecaster on meteorological matters. They are our experts on those things. Crucially, this means that they do not already have expert status, putting the burden upon individuals and communities to decide whether or not to validate that status. Rather, we grant them that status when they are able to provide information that is useful for the resolution of particular kinds of problems. Expertise doesn’t exist independent of an audience to grant the status of expert.
What are the implications of this? The little straw-man from earlier might say that now anyone can be an expert, and that this will only speed our civilisation’s inevitable decline into chaos. On the contrary, tiny straw-man. The realist view means that those we designate as experts are never required to learn how to communicate effectively: they’re told that all they have to do is say the facts, and the public will listen – and if they don’t, more fool them. When we switch to an attributionalist view, we are able to place the onus upon those who wish to be considered experts to step up their dialectical game. It’s no longer enough just to sit back on a throne made of credentials and qualifications. Charlatans, hustlers and liars will always be able to peddle nonsense smoothly. We have to trust that those who know what they are talking about will be able to engage with them and show why they are incorrect. We have to trust that, when presented with equal rhetorical skill, truth will be vivified by its collision with error.
Further, and I think potentially even more importantly, when we refuse to engage in a system which identifies and protects a particular “expert class”, we afford ourselves the ability to avoid future situations like the one in which we find ourselves today. By recognising that expertise is a status rather than a trait, we head off at the pass any attempts to tar all ‘experts’ with the same brush. Instead of fetishizing credentials as the sole means by which people can enter the expert class, we should allow anyone to call themselves an expert, and then to have that claim tested through argument. Instead of dismissing an entirely disparate group of people who happen to have been lumped together we enable ourselves to dismiss individuals who make bad judgements, or institutions which have a reputation for making bad calls.
This is incredibly freeing. An economist makes a bad forecast? Be hesitant about trusting them in future. All economists fail to predict and prevent some financial catastrophe? Be incredibly wary of them, unless particular individuals or institutions show themselves to be worthy of a second chance. The failures of pollsters shouldn’t be used to render untrustworthy the predictions of political pundits; likewise, the success of one technocratic elite shouldn’t be seen as validation for other, unrelated people who happen to have a few degrees under their belts.
Expertise as a concept has to endure, and for this it has to be flexible enough to allow audiences to attribute it where they see fit. If they choose some charlatan with the “best words” and clever one-liners, we have to be prepared to fight them (discursively, of course) with equal levels of rhetorical polish. But crucially, those who actually do have knowledge, or skill, or predictive or explanatory powers, should be able to win out against those who do not, provided that they too are good at arguing and presenting their ideas clearly and simply to those who are not familiar with their fields.
If we do all of this, then maybe those who know what they are talking about have a chance of coming back from this anti-intellectual, anti-expert moment we find ourselves in. But if we don’t, then we’re doomed to repeat the technocratic mistakes of the past. We shouldn’t ever again have to hear that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I hope that we don’t.
How to Write Essays Super Good (or at least a bit more better)
By Tim Squirrell
This brief guide is intended to provide you with basic tips which will allow you to succeed in undergraduate essay writing. If you follow the advice presented here, your essays will probably be quite good. If you don’t, they might still be alright, but they probably won’t be as good as they could have been. Follow it if you want. It’s your choice. I’m not forcing you or anything. I’m not your dad.
For the terminally lazy:
- Find 10-20 relevant books and articles from the reading list and/or Google Scholar searches. Well referenced Wikipedia or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles are your friends for both understanding and writing about a topic (read and cite the references, not the articles themselves. Obviously.).
- Skim the relevant sections for relevant quotes.
- Write down those relevant quotes.
- Have a think, put the argument and essay together.
- Your essay is done.
Obviously this doesn’t cover everything. That’s what the next 2000 words are for. Stop being so lazy.
Summary: read the reading list, don’t read books cover to cover, find additional articles in bibliographies of reading list articles, skim abstracts for relevance, write down notes with page numbers and quotes. Read critically.
Unless you’re Foucault (and you’re not Foucault), then the foundation of any good essay is a solid set of references. This isn’t just so that you can look good and your tutor thinks you’ve done the reading. It’s because, no matter how clever you are and what percentile of the country you came in your school leaving exams, your ideas still aren’t original. Trust me. You might think that you’re the first person to discover moral relativism, or situationist perspective on human behaviour, or discursive constructions. Spoilers: you’re not. Someone has done it before, and they’ve almost certainly done it better. That’s not to say that you can’t have cool ideas, or express those ideas in interesting ways. You just need to make sure that you cite the people who came up with those ideas originally, and ideally show how you differ from or improve upon them. The only way you can do this (and consequently, the only way to get a decent mark) is to do some reading.
- Look at the reading list. If it’s incredibly long, you probably won’t want to (or be able) to read it all. However, that is not an excuse to not read any of it. Look through the list, identify if there are any readings marked as essential. Read them. If there aren’t any essential readings, pick a few which look interesting and relevant, then read them.
- Read some more. If the reading list is really short, you’ll need to go beyond it. If it’s long, this is still relevant. Look through the reference lists of the papers and books you’ve just read. See where their ideas came from. Mark out a few of the most promising-looking readings. Read them.
- There is a difference between reading to understand the topic, and reading that you plan to reference. It is totally fine to use Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, lecture notes etc to familiarise yourself with the key arguments and concepts. It is considerably less fine to cite them.
- Books. Do not read whole books. It’s a waste of your time. You won’t remember any of it, it will drain all of your energy, and you only get one reference and viewpoint out of it. Read the intro and conclusion so that you get the gist of their argument. Pick a chapter from the contents page which looks like it’s relevant to your essay. Read that. As above, find relevant references and follow them up.
- Articles. Read the abstract first. Does it look like it’s relevant? If not, don’t waste your time. If it does, read it. Check the bibliography as above.
- Read critically. For the sake of all that is holy, read critically. This is absolutely essential. Don’t just stare at the pages and absorb them, bovine-like, for the purposes of regurgitation into your essay. Think about:
- The central claim the author is making. Usually there is only one, perhaps two. Summarise it in one sentence if you can.
- What is the frame of their argument? When in history is it set? Who are the key actors? Are they responding to another author? If so, what is the argument they’re responding to? Try to position their argument in context. This allows you to:
- Critically assess the claims made. This obviously doesn’t just mean ‘say they’re wrong’. They might well be wrong, but you’ll need to find reasons for it. Generate a list of three reasons for each line of attack you want to take. Scrap the weakest two. If you think they’re right, why are they right? Are there other authors who corroborate their claims? Are there logical reasons to prefer their argument?
Make sure you take notes on everything you read. Put page numbers in those notes. In fact, write down a few potentially useful (and ideally flexible) quotes verbatim. Using them makes it look like you’ve actually read the text, rather than just picking a page at random and hoping that it happens to contain the right argument or that your examiner doesn’t know the literature at all well. I still handwrite quotes in my notes, and I’m working on my PhD. There aren’t many ways in which I’d recommend being like me. This is one of them.
You don’t want to get penalised because you didn’t reference your readings properly after you’ve put in all that effort to make sure that your arguments are founded in the literature.
Answering the Question
Summary: identify key terms in the question, define those terms, question the question (what are the assumptions behind it?).
Some questions are straightforward. They might ask you to ‘critically assess’ some claim or concept, or ask you a simple question which you’ll have to answer in a complex way. Other questions aren’t so simple. They’ll make a statement and tell you to discuss it. They might ask you to compare and contrast two different ideas, or say which of two theories is the more accurate. We’ll talk about both types of questions here.
- Identify the key terms in the question. If the question is “what is the best solution to the demarcation problem?”, you’re going to want to identify what you think the examiner means by the terms ‘solution’ and ‘demarcation problem’. How are you going to define and operationalise those terms in your essay? This is essential, because your argument has to have a clear definition of the terms you’re using in order for it to be coherent and responsive. This doesn’t mean you should use lazy constructions like “I am going to define ‘demarcation problem’ as ‘the question of how we can define ‘science””. That’s a perfectly reasonable definition (if you can defend it, and you should give a reason you’ve chosen a certain definition), but you need to be a little less clunky. Something like “When we talk about the problem of demarcation, we refer to the question of how exactly we can define ‘science’ as a sphere of human activity which is somehow special”, will do just fine.
- Question the question. You’ll hear this quite a lot, and you’ll probably wonder what on earth it means. It’s important to understand it, because it can be the key to getting a high mark. Every term in a question is ambiguous. Every question has hidden assumptions behind it. You can question these assumptions. For example, in the question about ‘the demarcation problem’ above, there are assumptions that there is a single problem of demarcation, as well as a single best solution to that problem. Sometimes it’s enough to point out that these assumptions exist, and then to proceed with the essay by clarifying the definitions you’re using and the assumptions you’re working with. Sometimes you might think that the assumptions are fundamentally mistaken, or disguise a more important question. In that case, you’ll need to point this out, and then proceed to explain why, and to make your arguments within the essay using your revised understanding of the question.
- If the question is “X statement. Discuss.” then you have, broadly, four options on how to answer it – see below. Try not to hedge your bets: this isn’t AS Level Critical Thinking, you don’t need to give both sides equal weighting and say “ooh, it’s a really tricky question and there are great arguments on both sides”. Have opinions.
- This is true, and that’s great
- This is true, and that’s awful
- This isn’t true, and it should be true
- This isn’t true, and that’s fine.
- How are you going to relate your argument to the existing literature? Who are the key authors you plan to draw on? Make sure you know their arguments reasonably well and have armed yourself with flexible quotes from their work. If you can, familiarise yourself with the people who think they’re wrong and awful. Figure out if there are arguments which are unresolved and see if you can make a contribution towards resolving them.
Once you’ve clarified all the terms, you can start to put together your arguments and write the essay.
Summary: tell me everything you’re going to say in your introduction, structure your points like you’re in primary school, don’t bring new material into the conclusion.
Ninety nine percent of the structure of your essay is exactly the same as you learned in secondary school. You might think you’re too good for Point, Evidence, Explain. You’re not. Especially if you think you are.
- Introductions: start your intro with the central claim of your essay. If I’m reading it, I want to know within literally five seconds what you’re trying to convince me of.
- Next, think about what you need to prove in order to make that claim. What might be the immediate negative reaction of someone reading your central claim? How can you defend yourself against that response? Ideally you want to be able to split your burdens of proof (the things you need to prove in order for your argument to be true) into a few different points. These will be your paragraphs.
- From here, write down what you’re going to argue, and in what order. It is genuinely fine (indeed, good) to say “First, I will prove x. Next, I will go on to show that y. Finally, drawing on Bloggs (1999) I will argue that z.”
- The final part of your introduction should tell me what conclusions you’re going to draw, or at the very least say “I conclude by examining the implications of my argument for theory/author/other-argument”.
- This is to say, if you’ve been taught that your essay should unravel as you go, and I shouldn’t understand your whole argument until the very end, then you’ve been taught wrong. Don’t do that. I should know exactly what you’re going to argue by the time I’ve finished your introduction. This isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, it’s an argument. Save the twists and turns.
- When thinking about your argument in the introduction, consider the tips above regarding questioning the question and defining terms. You can either do this within the confines of the introduction, or you can say something to the effect of “First, I will define what it would mean to be able to solve the problem of demarcation, querying the definitions of these terms and showing how their intrinsic ambiguities may create difficulties in argument.”
- Body: PEE on your essay. It sounds infantile. It is infantile. Do it anyway.
- Point: what are you claiming? This is also known as the topic sentence. At the end of the first sentence of each paragraph, I should know what to expect from that paragraph. Don’t tantalise the examiner. It’s an essay, not a terrible surprise birthday party.
- Evidence: who has said this thing before you said it? How are you corroborating the point you’re trying to make? Please don’t say ‘I just thought of it’. Find someone who’s said it before. Are there statistics which back up your argument? If so, where are they from? If there’s more than one piece of evidence, all the better.
- Explain: why does the evidence you’ve presented prove the point you’re trying to make? I’ll go into this part of arguing more in the next section.
- One final thing: in most essays, there should be a development of thought from one paragraph to the next. In some instances your arguments may genuinely be discrete units, but in most instances they should flow in some way. Try and play around with your structure such that your body paragraphs are in the order that best allows the essay to feel fluent and smooth.
- Conclusion: do not put new things in your conclusion. It’s not big and it’s not clever. We’re not just saying this for our health. If you’re adding new arguments in your conclusion, it’s not a conclusion.
- Recapitulate your argument. Readers are stupid and have terrible memories. What did you prove in your essay? How did you prove it? This is like doing your introduction all over again, but with slightly nicer words.
- Synthesise your claims. What are the implications of what you’ve proved? Do the strands of your argument come together to prove that Immanuel Kant was full of nonsense when he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason? Do they leave the field open for a new line of enquiry into the semiotics of phallic imagery in male-female initiation messages on contemporary dating applications? Why should we care about the things you’ve written? Repeat your central claim, tell me why you’ve proven it. Synthesis often involves thinking about the state of your field or of a society at that moment, and trying to show how your argument might apply or be useful elsewhere. It means bringing together all of the things you’ve proved to make more far-reaching points (but don’t overreach – this isn’t going to change the face of your subject forever. You look silly if you say that.)
Summary: why is it true? Why is it important? Structure: claim, counter-claim, rebut counter-claim. Don’t be mean to your opponents.
This is the stuff that actually makes up your argument. If you perform poorly at this, you might as well pack up and go home. Luckily, it’s really not that hard.
- Why is it true? If you’re making a claim, you need to tell me why that claim is correct. Think of a potential response to your argument, perhaps from an author you’re arguing against. Write out that response, then tell me why it doesn’t defeat your argument, or at least why it only mitigates it.
- Why is it important? In the context of the question you’re answering, and the frame you’ve provided for your argument, why should I care about the point you’re making at this point in the essay? Once you’ve proven (using PEE) that your argument stands, I want to know the significance of it.
- Structuring arguments: to create a really decent paragraph, you ideally want to follow one of two structures. Remember that at each step within each structure you need to use PEE.
- Claim -> Counter-claim -> Rebuild Claim.
- Foil (the claim you’re arguing against) -> Refutation (your reasoning as to why they’re mistaken) -> Rebuttal (their plausible response to your argument) -> Re-refutation (finally putting their argument to bed).
- Finally, make sure you formulate every claim in the strongest possible terms. Don’t make your opponent look like they have no arguments, or take the weakest version of their argument. Think about the strongest possible response to the claim you’ve put forward, then beat that. It will make your argument stronger. If you can’t beat it, find another argument.
Summary: get Zotero. Reference properly. Cite the originator of an idea. Go beyond the reading list.
Okay, so you’ve written an incredible essay. You’re ready to hand it in. You’re going to get an 80.
Not so fast, hot shot. Your reference list is a mess, you haven’t cited half your sources and half of your bibliography is Wikipedia pages.
- How to reference: this is totally dependent on your department and university. They will likely have provided a style guide. Read it. Follow it. Don’t lose marks.
- Make sure that when you’re citing, you cite the original person who came up with the idea, not some random who’s also citing them. This is a classic error. Don’t make it.
- Get Zotero, or Mendeley, or Endnote. You will save yourself literally days over the course of your university career. They allow you to reference as you write, and you can create and reformat your bibliography and citations at the touch of a button. If you don’t do this then you have only yourself to blame when you’re spending the last days of your undergraduate degree desperately trying to find books on Google so that you can write down their details by hand.
- Go beyond the reading list. This is the single easiest way to get more marks. If I see an argument citing an author whom nobody else has mentioned, and it’s a decent argument, it will make my day. Genuinely. I have a sad life.
- Critically engage. Be aware whilst you’re reading that all arguments and authors are fallible. Think about the text you’re reading and think how you might respond to it.
- Litmus test for whether your argument is pernicious nonsense: see if you can summarise it to a friend who’s in a different subject area. If you can’t, it’s probably not because they’re stupid. It’s probably because it’s a bad argument.
- Read over your introduction when you’re done. Does it still make sense? Often your argument will change over the course of the essay, and you’ll need to alter your intro accordingly.ave you supported every single one of them? If not, sort it out.
- Once you’ve written the whole essay, read over it again. Look at every premise you’ve used and claim you’ve made. H
- Life tips (these are ideal habits, do as I say not as I do):
- Don’t do all nighters. They’ll mess up your sleep pattern, you’ll ruin your entire next day, and you’ll likely produce work that a 5-year old would be quick to disown. Do your essays on time, or early.
- Once you’ve done your essay early, leave it a day or two. Come back to it. Proof-read it. Don’t just look for typographical errors. Are you still sure your argument makes sense? If not, rewrite relevant parts.
- Lots of people say that you should write in chunks of 500 words as you’re reading. This is one way of doing things, and it works for some people. I prefer a different method. If you have a week to write an essay, spend the first 3 days or so reading and making notes, then spend a bit of time thinking over your argument, write it all in a day or so (you’ll likely find this easiest because you can get into the rhythm of it), then take a day off, come back and proof-read it before you hand it in.
One final thing: it bears repeating that your ideas are not new. Unless you’re working on a Masters thesis or, at the very least your final undergraduate dissertation, it is vanishingly unlikely that you are the first person to think a particular thought and publish it. What you can do is synthesise old ideas into interesting arguments. Do that. Get good marks. Be (briefly) happy.
[1114 words: reading time ~5 minutes]
[Contains discussion of eating disorders.]
I hate running. It’s painful. It’s boring. It leaves me too much time inside my own mind.
I have vivid memories of running a half marathon around Cambridge in a pink rowing one-piece, wearing trainers with no grip that dumped me onto the muddy floor at least once, in the rain, with no training, after a week of physically and emotionally exhausting rowing races. It was hubris. When I finished, I could genuinely – for the only time in my life – no longer walk properly. I had pushed myself as hard as I could go. I had given everything. For the next three days, I walked with a limp. The only things that had kept me going were a meticulously selected set of running songs (angry teenage white boy music gives you wings), the promise of an extra fifty pounds of sponsorship if I made it in under two hours, and the knowledge that if I didn’t make it I would resent myself forever.
I hate running, but I love exercise. I realised after a year of rowing that the grinding monotony of endurance sports wasn’t for me, but I’ve been hitting balls against walls since I was eleven, and for the last few years I’ve periodically lifted things up and put them down again several times a week.
A lot of people say that exercise is good for you. It’s good for your body, it’s good for your mind, it’s good for the lacuna where your soul probably used to be before it was cored out by neoliberal capitalism. I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Having spoken to a fair few people about it, I wanted to put down in pixels some of my experiences of exercise, particularly (but not exclusively) its relationship with my body image.
I’ve always hated my body. When I was 11 some awful little gobshite at school made fun of me for my overly large nipples (I think he ended up in prison actually – to be fair to him though, they are pretty large) and I’m still conscious of them today (though I haven’t – thank god – taken the radical action of shaving all the hair off of them since I was 18). I was convinced I had fat thighs. I thought I had a double chin (I may well have done, though I can’t find visual evidence). As I grew (and grew and grew, reaching my current ridiculous height of 6’4″ by the time I was 15 or so), my attitude towards my body became ever more critical. I weighed about 85kg. I wanted to look like the skinny emo/metal guys I saw in music videos. That, I thought, was what girls liked. They didn’t like chubby boys like me. So I stopped eating as much. I lost weight. A few times, I considered sticking my fingers down my throat after I’d eaten, but I never did. That was a step too far; a direct action like that would mean I had A Problem. As long as your self-flagellation is invisible, it doesn’t count. I aimed to have a BMI of 18.5. Underweight was my goal weight.
At my thinnest, I was 70kg. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I looked something like this. You could see my ribs. I still felt fat.
When I discovered weightlifting, I saw the new aesthetic I wanted. I wanted to be stacked. Muscular. Beautiful. I thought if I could just lift enough heavy things, I would be satisfied with my body. Today I woke up, got out of bed, and went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. “Fat,” I thought. I weigh just under 90kg. I’m 192cm tall. I can pick up 240kg from the ground to my hips. I can squat 160kg. I can bench over 100. You can see my abs. People call me skinny. I look like this.
But I’m fat. And I’m also skinny. I’ll never not be both of those things. I’m simultaneously too big and too small. I compare myself now to the photos of me when I was 17, 18, 20, and I know that my biceps are bigger, my shoulders broader, my legs larger. I know that, by the standards of a society which fetishises men who are muscular and lean, I’m not doing too badly. But I simultaneously know that I’m both skinny and fat and too small and disproportioned and soft and my nipples are too big and my calves are too skinny and my hips don’t do that thing that they do on all the fit guys. I’m told that humans try to avoid cognitive dissonance – holding two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time – but I can’t help but feel that this is just that.
I’m both proud of the body that I’ve built and disgusted by myself. Moreover, I’m now constantly noticing other men’s bodies. People always talk about (straight/bi) men staring at women, objectifying them. I don’t think I do that. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid it because I don’t want to make people uncomfortable. But I find myself involuntarily staring at men, comparing myself to them, wondering what their routine is, wondering how hard they had to work to get to where they are, wishing I had that arm definition or those trapezius muscles.
It’s impossible to go back. Once you’ve carved those paths into your brain – the paths that make you constantly examine your body for every imperfection, the ones that force your eyes to hover over every man you encounter – you can’t fill them in with neural cement. Even when I fall out of the habit of going to the gym, whether it’s because I’m travelling or stressed or feel like I’ve got too much work on to possibly take an hour out of the day to take care of my body, I still find myself dogged by these thoughts. The problem is, then they have foundation. I really am getting weaker. I am getting fatter. I am losing muscle and gaining fat and getting more unattractive by the day.
Even if I could go back, though, I’m not sure I would. I don’t know if I would trade this hyper-consciousness of bodies for the blissful self-loathing of my teenage years. I can’t even be certain that that is the trade-off: who knows how I would think today if I’d never started spending time shifting large amounts of iron? Maybe I would be perfectly content. Maybe I would still weigh 70kg and resemble a rake. We can’t know. This is all there is. I think I’ll take it.
I hate my body. But I could hate it more. You can always hate yourself more.
Nearly 100 days in, it’s probably time to reflect on some of the ways that being back on SSRIs has affected my life. Continuing the theme of practising what I preach with respect to tackling mental health stigma, I’ll try to walk the tight-rope of Emotional Honesty without falling into the shark-infested waters of Too Much Information; as always, though, I may well fail. Please don’t hold it against me. All the standard caveats apply: this is only my own experience, people with mental illness all experience them in unique ways, please don’t take this as representative of everyone else’s experiences.
Over the last three months, I’ve had my dosage upped twice. I started on 50mg of sertraline per day, which is the same dose they give to little old ladies. I’m a 6’4″, 23-year old man weighing just under 90kg, so I’m not too concerned about having to go up a bit. I was moved up to 100mg pretty quickly, and then 150mg just under two weeks ago. As the dose has gone up, so has the therapeutic effect, but the side effects have followed along with it.
I think this is the thing that bothers me the most. It’s quite hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it, but I’ll give it a try. Start with the common conception of depression as feeling ‘sad all the time’. That’s an inaccurate depiction, as pretty much any depressive will tell you. (On a side note, isn’t ‘depression’ a rubbish way of describing it? A depression is just this temporary dip in the land, something shallow and gentle. Depression isn’t that. It’s rough and raw and grating. It’s a deep sense of unease within yourself, a gnawing sadness and emptiness which holds you in its grip and refuses to let you get out of bed. It’s a pair of hands holding your eyelids open and fixing your gaze upon the space on the wall, stopping you from looking anywhere but there, stopping you from thinking about anything but the utter emptiness and meaninglessness of your own existence. Melancholia is a much better word. Depression is a misnomer.) There’s sadness, but most of it is emptiness. You just can’t find the impetus to engage with the world. You’d rather stay asleep than have to cope with the drudgery of life – if you’re able to sleep, that is. It’s a painful nothingness that demands to be felt.
Anti-depressants, for me at least, allow me to live in spite of that emptiness. It would be a lie to say that they get rid of it. I’ve written before about the way that they allow you to bounce back more easily from your lows: they let your brain divert from the broken railway track that leads into the canyon below and onto the siding of relative comfort. But that doesn’t mean they make you happy. They facilitate you living in a way that allows you to achieve happiness by other means. You can drag yourself from your cave of self-pity to the gym and harvest those delicious endorphins. You can make yourself go to work and produce things which provide some degree of contentment. You can put on your Normal Functioning Human Adult face and grin and trick your brain into thinking it’s entirely unforced.
There’s a trade off, though. You lose the intensity of emotion you get with depression: whilst you had to live with gnawing guilt at how appalling a human being you were, at least you had that feeling. It might sound ludicrous to say that being able to feel negative emotions is a positive: who wants guilt, anxiety, sadness, anger? Surely we’d be so much better off without them. The problem is that SSRIs seem to erase your capacity to feel those emotions, at least to the extent that you’re used to. But when they’re gone, they’re not just replaced with happiness and sunshine and rainbows and visions of ambrosia. Instead, in situations where you know you should feel those things, you’re left confused.
A thing happened the other day that should have made me intensely sad. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t cry. I knew that I should be sad, but nothing was coming. I was emotional foie gras. People talk about being emotionally constipated, but I don’t think I’ve ever really understood exactly what it could mean. It’s like a phantom limb which still wants to be felt: you know there should be something there, but it’s just a ghost of what it was. The object is gone and now all that’s left is the shadow and a series of increasingly tenuous metaphors and similes. It’s frustrating because sometimes you need to feel an emotion in order to exorcise it, and it leaves you unable to console your conscience in the way you’re used to.
I used to be wracked with guilt. All of my teenage years were characterised by a constant nagging feeling that I was wrong, that the things I was feeling and doing and experiencing were incorrect and out of sync with what I should be feeling and doing and experiencing. It got a bit better as I approached my twenties – I think there comes a time when you begin to realise that you’re not the only one who feels that way, and there’s a certain comfort in that – but now I can’t really feel it at all. I used to constantly worry about the effects of my actions on others; the empathy I felt was painful in its intensity. It’s not that I don’t care, now. I still think about it a lot. It’s just that now I have to force myself to remember what it was like to be that empathetic, to care so much about how others perceived me and to make sure that I’m as kind to others as I can be. Perhaps I overcompensate, but I’d still rather that than hurt people through callousness. I’m an ancient fridge with a jaunty sign scrawled on the front. The light is broken, but I still work.
In short, I still can’t sleep for shit. I’m no longer waking up like clockwork every 90 minutes, but it’s gotten to the point where I genuinely cannot remember the last time I slept through the night. This morning I was woken up at 5 by someone pretending to be a fucking bird, of all things. I went back to sleep, but then I woke up every half an hour or so until I finally gave up at 8. If you haven’t experienced insomnia, I envy you. I don’t think there’s anything quite so frustrating as going to bed knackered, only for your brain to decide that now is exactly the time to mull over the day’s events and all the things you need to do tomorrow and who you might have upset and whether anyone really loves you. That’s then compounded by the constant waking, such that you don’t even know whether you’ve had a good night’s sleep or not. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of shite: you worry that you’ll wake up, so you wake up, and the trench of insomnia is dug deeper and deeper until there’s no path but that one. I have a few temazepam left, and they help a little when you get to breaking point, but it still doesn’t stop the middle-of-the-night waking, and you feel slow as hell the next day.
I wish this would go away. I don’t know if it will. The doctor has suggested using a low dose of a sedative SSRI at night to try and knock me out. We’ll see if that works.
Obviously, this bit will involve some discussion of my sex life. If you came for this (heh), enjoy, you filthy animal. If you don’t want to ever imagine me in any sort of vaguely carnal scenario, probably skip this bit (Mum and Dad, pls. Also, religious family members, maybe you guys too (soz)). I include it because I hope it might help other people who are struggling with similar problems, or those who might want to understand it better.
So I mentioned the last time I wrote about antidepressants that they make sex take longer. Sexual dysfunction is the most common side effect of SSRIs, and is probably one of the major reasons a lot of people come off of them in the long term. I can imagine that if they make getting an erection difficult or reduce your libido to an unacceptable point, that can be really hard (or not, as it were). It can introduce a significant degree of tension into relationships, make one night stands impossible, force you to out yourself to people you might not necessarily want to talk to about your mental health, or be a source of further depression because sex is – let’s be honest – an extremely important part of a lot of people’s lives.
I’ve noticed that as my dosage has increased, it’s gotten more and more difficult to finish. One tricky thing is trying to separate out the physiological and psychological factors from this. There’s certainly a degree to which it’s in my mind: I worry that I can’t, or won’t, and that acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can induce guilt as well: you don’t want to feel like a burden, or make your partner feel like they’re doing something wrong, or that you’re not enjoying it. The solution, I’ve found, is just to be as communicative as possible. I’ve asked people before about when they tell people they’re dating about their mental illness; I personally find it imperative for me to tell someone before the first time I sleep with them, because it helps to ease my anxieties about this. Obviously there’s an extent to which people don’t tend to mind sex going on for longer, but the difference in your own experience can make you pretty self conscious, and you find yourself apologising a lot and generally just making the whole business a lot more awkward for everyone concerned. Top tip: don’t sleep with people who are shit at communicating or empathy – in life in general, but specifically if you’re having trouble with this kind of thing.
Fortunately I haven’t had the effects on my libido that other people often get, but it’s made drinking on dates quite difficult – I’m not sure how SSRIs combine with alcohol in terms of sexual dysfunction, but it’s not something I’m massively keen to find out, particularly now I’m on 3x the initial dosage.
If anyone wants to talk about this further, I’m pretty open and happy to chat. I don’t think it’s something we ought to keep in the dark (as it were).
After a pretty rocky start when I could get the room to spin with nothing more than a couple of pints, this is back to nearly normal, for better or worse. I’m no longer the world’s cheapest date, but at least I can drink without worrying that I’m going to be paralytic after three glasses of wine. What’s also nice is that the changes in tolerance were quite unpredictable: sometimes I could drink like a fish and be fine, other times I’d quickly have to stop. Now there’s a greater degree of consistency to my capacity. Sorry, ladies.
Overall, I’m still very happy to be on the drugs. I haven’t hurt myself since I started taking them, and suicide is now out of the question. I tell myself the latter is for philosophical reasons – I think there’s nothing after death, and as long as life is a net positive then I’d rather have the nothing happen later rather than sooner – but I think my capacity to think in that way is probably facilitated to some extent by these meds. For all the annoying side effects, I’m still not tempted to take myself off them just yet. As always, if anyone wants to chat to me about this, please feel totally free to shoot me a message on facebook or by email.
When you start out debating, speaking in extension can be terrifying. It feels like in every single round, your opening team takes all the good arguments and you’re left to stand up and give your best impression of somebody who has no idea what the shit they’re talking about. No matter how hard you try, you always end up with the judge telling you that your material was ‘derivative’, or ‘parasitic’. If you draw Closing Government, you might as well give up, right?
Wrong. (Yeah, bet you didn’t guess that was coming.)
Over the course of this article, I’ll try to elucidate the occasionally mystifying process of coming up with and delivering a winning extension. This includes looking at what to do in prep time, the different kinds of extensions you can run, how to make it look like you’re different from your opening even if you’re running very similar arguments, and how to shift the debate in such a way that you’ll leave the opening half extremely pissed (but nonetheless impressed) when the judge calls it a back half debate.
What is an extension?
At their core, extension arguments are no different to any other kind of argument. There’s no different kind of logic which applies to them, no magic bullet or special formula which denotes a winning extension argument. You need to make sure that your arguments are well-analysed, relevant and impacted in exactly the same way you do in opening half. The difference comes in what types of argument you need to run: because some of the ground in the debate will have been covered over the preceding half an hour, you need to come up with something that’s distinct (or at least looks distinct). What this ought to be is context-sensitive: the most important thing to remember in extension is to be flexible. It’s possible that you’ll have to change the line you were intending to take halfway through the debate because there’s no way you’re going to win with the arguments you’ve got. That’s okay. You can still wreck shit. You’ve got this.
Prep time should be reasonably relaxed when you’re in extension. You’re not looking to write your whole speech, but there are a few things you can do to really help yourself out during the debate. Broadly speaking, there are a couple of strategies.
First, a lot of people go extremely broad in extension prep time. This means brainstorming every single actor who might be affected by a motion, figuring out what the short-term and long-term impacts of the motion might be, trying to find as many possible lines as possible. From there, you go into the debate with a list of plausible lines of extension, maybe having written the bare bones of each speech, and you figure out which one is most likely to win you the debate as you go along.
I personally don’t tend to do this. I’ve found that trying to develop a large number of arguments in prep time means that I don’t actually think about anything in enough depth to be able to develop it under pressure during the round itself whilst juggling listening to speeches and writing rebuttal and the speech itself.
Instead, my recent strategy (with which I’ve had a reasonable amount of success) is to spend prep time trying to figure out what the actual core of the debate is, and then finding ways in which I can talk about which it’s unlikely my opening team will (because they haven’t had the luxury of spending that extra time thinking about it, so they’re much more likely to take the low-hanging fruit). Ultimately, this does mean that I have to think about all of the actors who are affected by the debate, and consider whether there might be a short/medium/long-term split in the impacts which are likely to accrue, but crucially it also means I go into the debate with a pretty clear idea of where I want to take my speech. Another advantage of this approach is that it maximises the amount of dialogue between you and your partner: communicating within the debate is pretty difficult, and when you’re trying to do five things at once it can be inefficient to the point of counterproductivity to have to discuss arguments with each other and decide which of a number of underdeveloped lines you’re going to take. Moreover, if you’ve already decided on a broad tack for your argument, your partner isn’t then going to be surprised when you stand up and spend seven minutes chatting about something you never mentioned in prep time, so they have to spend your speech listening and trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing rather than, you know, writing their own speech.
I recognise this is likely to be somewhat controversial, but it’s the strategy which has worked best for me for a while now. It doesn’t mean I’m inflexible: often we will end up running something which differs quite a lot from the specifics we chatted over in prep time, but it works particularly well in rooms where your opening is likely to have covered all of the arguments (at least in a shallow sense).
Why is this? Because once you’ve agreed on a particular thing you’re going to focus on, you’re free to develop that argument in great depth. That means a few things: first, you can easily identify specific bits which the opening have missed because they haven’t had time to think about it; second, you’ll never get to halfway through the DLO speech and have to tell your partner “I have nothing”; third, it opens the door to some wonderful framing work.
Framing in extension
Often the hardest part of extending is trying to show why your contribution to the debate is distinct from, and more important than, the contribution from your opening. This kind of distinction comes in the form of framing: showing that what’s happened so far in the debate is, whilst very interesting and lovely, definitely not the most important thing we should be chatting about. Instead, you have this specific thing which happens to this specific group, or this particular principle without which the debate is pretty much pointless. Obviously, you need to substantiate why this is the case, and learning to do that is mainly a matter of practice (and is highly contextually sensitive), but framing out what’s happened so far and framing in what you’re about to say is very often the key to beating opening half.
Let’s look at a grounded example. In the debate “THBT the UN should unilaterally recognise Catalonia as an independent state”, you’re in Closing Opposition. Opening half has been interesting: lots of chat about the right to self-determination, state sovereignty and the UN as an important actor. But you’ve spent a while in prep time thinking about what would actually happen under this motion, and you’ve realised you can win if you just reframe the debate. It probably doesn’t matter too much whether the people of Catalonia have the right to self-determination. Why? Because in this motion, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish government is going to listen to the UN (given that it hasn’t listened to the Catalan people, and the UN has very little power to enforce its recognition unless it wants to send peace-keeping forces into Spain, which is a bastard of a can of worms). What happens instead? Well, you’ve just empowered separatist movements not just within Catalonia, but elsewhere in the world: because UN recognition has a great deal of symbolic importance if nothing else, it’s likely that a lot of nationalist groups elsewhere are going to be pretty antsy that they haven’t been similarly recognised. Some of the people in these groups aren’t particularly nice, and might well commit some kind of violence. Suddenly you have plausible impacts all over the world, as well as in Catalonia (it would only take one rogue separatist with an AK-47 to put people off coming on their hols to the region for ages, crashing the tourist industry). The way you’ve done this is to reframe the debate as one about practical impacts, rather than one in which principles matter much at all.
Framing is the most important tool of an extension speaker. It’s the difference between winning and losing in a huge proportion of debates. Even if your arguments are somewhat implausible, or seem a little bit irrelevant, or less impactful than those given by your opening team, you can make them seem much more important. This is great, because arguments in debates are only as important as teams make them. No matter what kind of extension you’re going for, you need to reframe the debate around it. If you’re going for a stakeholder analysis, you need to say why the impacts on that stakeholder are super important and everybody else can suck it. If you’re trying to extend on principles, you need to make it seem that the principles you’re using are (a) logically prior and/or (b) in contention within the debate. If you want to do an analysis extension about an actor who’s already been mentioned, you need to talk about exactly why your impacts on them are more important than those mentioned so far. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to sound true.
With that said, let’s look at the different kinds of extension you can choose to run.
The tried-and-tested formula for extensions, when you’re totally unsure of what else to do, is to think about exactly who is affected by a motion, pick one group, and run with it. We joke a lot about ‘the feminism extension’ because it’s such a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: if you can prove that a motion has a significant impact on a marginalised group, you can often win debates on that basis. One of the reasons this kind of extension is attractive to newer debaters is because it seems like you don’t have to do framing, and framing is scary. There’s often an implicit assumption on the part of judges that if someone proves an impact to a vulnerable group, then that’s really important. Truth be told, it probably is important, particularly in the world at large, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to prove that importance by comparing the impacts on that group with the impacts on other groups. Arguments are only as important (in debates) as you can prove them to be. (It’s probably a good idea to remember that when judging, too.)
What does a stakeholder extension look like? Let’s say you’re in a round on the motion “THBT vegans should actively condemn and campaign against all forms of non-veganism”. The top half is likely to talk a lot about the personal effects this will have on people who are being shamed into becoming vegan, whether it’s likely to actually attract people to the vegan movement, etc. These are all reasonable arguments. You could even run a principled case from Proposition about animal rights and why vegans have an a priori duty to proselytise by whatever means necessary. So let’s say you’re Closing Opposition, and you’re trying to figure out where to go. Read the motion. Read it again. What might not have been said? Well, it says that they should condemn all forms of non-veganism. How does this affect, say, vegetarians? How does it affect people who campaign for animal welfare but aren’t vegans? People already find vegans pretty annoying: see literally any article about vegans, and the enormous number of jokes at their expense. When they start ramping up their campaigning to condemn not just meat-eaters, but anyone who cares about animal rights but doesn’t conform to an extremely strict, expensive and tricky diet, how is that going to play? For one, it’s likely going to be harder for animal welfare campaigners to separate themselves off from vegans and get the kind of step-by-step change that’s currently happening, like institutionalised Meat-Free Mondays, cheaper vegan-friendly food in supermarkets, and banning certain kinds of animal testing. It’s also likely to really piss off anyone who was considering going vegetarian before and is now being told that that’s not enough – they might as well just not bother.
In this case, you can see that picking a particular group and talking about them can yield arguments that you might not immediately think about when you first read the motion. Crucially, though, you need to prove why that group is important. Why should we care about gradual change, if the result of this motion is that loads of people convert to veganism? Why should we give a shit about the feelings of people who might stop eating animals but are still enslaving them? If you substantiate these links, you’re well on the way to showing that your arguments are the most important ones in the debate.
It’s quite common for an opening team to have left some of their claims unimpacted, or at least to have failed to impact them to the fullest extent. It’s somewhat sneaky, but totally legitimate, to take their arguments and impact them much harder than they did. Judges vary in how they look upon this: some won’t think that you can come above your opening team if your impacts are reliant on their analytical framework (they’re wrong), but others are a lot more open-minded. The key here is to show what’s been left out so far, and why it’s so important to talk about the effects you’re going to analyse. As with all impacting, it’s absolutely crucial to make sure that you maintain plausibility: gradate your impacts, moving from the most likely (and probably least harmful) through to the harder-to-reach outcomes, showing how each leads to the next. You ideally want to be able to frame your case in such a way that it looks as though what you’re saying doesn’t simply follow implicitly from your opening’s case, but requires in-depth analysis to reach.
How does this play out in the context of a debate? Let’s say you’re debating the motion “THW only imprison criminals who pose a serious and existing threat to society”. The opening half has talked a lot about the principles upon which we base the justice system, and Opening Opposition in particular have mentioned that this is likely to disproportionately affect communities which commit more blue-collar crimes, arguing that this lets richer criminals off easy and is unfair. This is probably true, but in Closing Opposition you can impact that claim. Buy-in to the justice system is incredibly important: it allows you to gather evidence, find witnesses, get tips and informants, etc. It’s incredibly difficult to run a justice system without some degree of cooperation from a local community. So when the state starts letting off the people who commit fraud, who embezzle money, who evade taxes, and continues to imprison people from your neighbourhood for drug offences and minor violent crimes, you’re probably going to be upset. This makes it even less likely that you’re going to cooperate with the justice system in any way, and a community wide omerta on talking to police is going to make it incredibly difficult to actually enforce the law.
What this extension does is take a broad claim which has been made in top half, and show the full consequences of it. It doesn’t just say ‘top half said this thing, and here’s an extra thing that might happen’; rather, it takes the analytical framework and makes it your own. There’s no way those impacts could be read into the opening case, and as such the contribution you’ve made is new and deep.
Rebuttal can be your extension! Contrary to semi-popular belief, ‘having an extension’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean bringing in something constructive. It’s entirely legitimate to run a case which is purely destructive, and it’s possible to win with it. This is recommended only in instances when it’s really clear that the opposite bench is winning, or when you have absolutely nothing new in terms of constructive material and want to take a respectable second to your opening team.
The way to run this kind of extension is ideally to frame your rebuttal as substantive material, using the same kind of point headers you would normally use in a speech (mostly because some judges get arsey about speeches which are wholly rebuttal). You’ll need to make sure that what you’re trying to rebut hasn’t already been rebutted, or at least make it look as though it’s still in contention. This might involve pointing out one particular link which hasn’t been knocked down and allows an argument to go through. Then, you need to use your rebuttal to build up an alternative view of the world, counter to that given by the other team. Most speeches come down to world-building: who creates a more plausible account of what the world will look like when a motion is implemented? You’re going to want to show that not only do the benefits they claim not obtain, but that a more likely scenario is that something harmful happens instead. Alternatively, show that the benefits they claim are not benefits at all, but are in fact harms. This stops you from being purely mitigatory, which is one of the classic reasons for a rebutting team to still come under the team they’re against. Why? Because if you leave anything standing at all, then they still win, even if you prove that some of their nice stuff doesn’t happen, because you haven’t given an alternative of nice stuff happening in your world.
Rebuttal extensions are often a last resort: really, you want to be able to bring something constructive to the table as well as your destructive material. This is in part because judges are weird about it, but also because you’re going to have a really hard time beating your opening. If you’re really in a position where you have nothing new to say because your opening were so good, it’s likely that they’ve also done a pretty decent job of beating the other opening team as well, which means that you’re looking at a third place if you can beat the closing team, but it’s going to be hard to get higher.
This could well be classified under framing, but it’s quite a specific (and common) strategy which deserves special mention. Opening teams will very often examine the first things that come to mind when a motion is announced. This can mean that they focus on countries they’re familiar with, or the immediate consequences of a motion. One way to extend effectively is to consider changing the scope of the debate. This might, say, moving the debate to developing nations if you’re talking about patents on pharmaceuticals. It might mean talking about what happens when children become adults if the debate is about instilling particular norms in kids. It’s critical that you make sure you justify your choice here. If you’re reaching for the long-term consequences, you’ll have to bear in mind that things further in the future are harder to predict accurately, for obvious reasons. You need to either prove that the things you say are definitely going to occur, or that there are a number of plausible options, all of which fall on your side. If you want to talk about different places, give one or two lines of analysis as to why those places are more important than the setting of the debate thus far. It’s a reasonably simple strategy.
Again, this is essentially a reframing strategy, and it can be something of a gamble. It’s taken for granted in any debates that the moral framework in which they take place is consequentialist, and often specifically utilitarian, or “the greatest good for the greatest number”. If you prove that more people die or are sad on the other side of the house, then you win. This, however, is not the only kind of framework available, and nor is it necessarily the best. We concede that there are principles which can override utility when we say that we care more about the plight of vulnerable minorities than we do about the majority of people in a state; we do the same when we say that we wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice one person in order to use their organs to save the lives of four other people. Questioning the underlying principled assumptions of the debate so far can be a fruitful strategy.
What do you need to do? First, make sure that the principle you’re talking about is definitely in contention. If you’re in the debate about veganism mentioned earlier, and nobody on prop has talked about animal rights, it’s probably not going to be particularly useful on opp to say that veganism is premised on animal rights being a thing, and contending that they don’t exist. If nobody is going to argue with you, then there’s no point. This obviously applies equally to all arguments in a debate, but people have a tendency to run principles in this way more often than they do other kinds of arguments.
Second, you need to show that the principle you’re talking about definitely does underpin the debate as a whole. Let’s say you’re in a debate about making broadcasters show women’s and men’s football in proportion to the number of matches played. If opening half talks almost entirely about whether this would be good or bad for women’s football, their analysis is all predicated on the idea that it’s legitimate for the state to co-opt broadcasters into showing particular things, possibly at the expense of their advertising revenue. In Closing Opposition, you can contend that this is not something that the state should do, giving some kind of metric by which we judge when it is and is not okay to force broadcasters to show things. Your principle has to be logically prior to the rest of the material in the debate, or you’re going to have a bad time.
Likewise, if you want to switch from a consequentialist framework to one based on, say, rights, then you need to justify why that needs to be done. There are some well-rehearsed arguments against utilitarianism (it leads to perverse outcomes, it doesn’t reflect our moral intuitions, etc), and it’s quite easy to justify a shift in many instances. If you’re debating intervening in a particular country, and top half have talked a lot about how many people die, and it seems to be broadly a wash, then it’s possible to extend on, say, the principle of pacifism and not instrumentalising human beings. It can be hard to run these arguments in a way that makes them sound more impactful than consequentialist arguments, and often judges will (mistakenly) automatically rate them less highly, so take due caution.
How to Knife and get away with it
Okay, so you’ve got an extension. Great. Unfortunately it seems to be, on face, mutually exclusive with the material brought by your opening team. Gutted for you. What do you do?
You could just hard knife them. Say they’re wrong, this is what’s going to actually happen, and the judges should believe you. The problem is that unless it’s immediately obvious that your opening team are incorrect on some point of fact and you are correct, then you’ve pretty much just put yourself behind them (and possibly in fourth, depending on other factors). Even if they are definitely wrong, you’re going to be creating a hell of a messy debate, and the judges won’t thank you for it.
A much better strategy is to run an ‘even if’ argument. Say that you think that the opening half’s material stands, but even if it doesn’t, here’s an alternative view of what’s going to happen in the world and why it’s better on your side. This is a simple linguistic dodge which can save you a great deal of pain. The issue is that you’re still probably going to come under your opening team, unless the judges really didn’t buy their arguments.
You can strengthen your chances of coming above your opening team, though. Use the ‘even if’ argument, then add a couple of lines of analysis as to why the state of affairs you’re describing is more likely to occur than the one described in top half. What you can do to further help yourself is to frame your potentially knife-y argument in such a way that it doesn’t seem like a knife. Let’s say you’re Closing Government on the motion “THBT the US should issue immigration visas based on merit, rather than family connections” or similar. The opening half talks an awful lot about how this is likely to bring a large influx of skilled workers into the US, and why that will strengthen their economy. You’ve come up with what you think is a really clever extension: the wording of the motion doesn’t specify that we should care about US interests, and you think that you can talk about strengthening the economies of Latin American countries. You justify this as more important in the context of their relative lack of prosperity. You say that you think that skilled workers from these countries are likely to stay home if they can no longer guarantee that they can bring their families with them. The problem is, this directly contradicts the opening half. Not a problem: just say that you think that the skilled workers they were talking about were overwhelmingly from Western Europe and North America, and are unlikely to be affected by their inability to take their families with them because they usually come over alone. Suddenly you’ve framed your knifetastic extension so that it no longer contradicts opening. Happy days.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of the types of extension you can run. Nor, indeed, is everyone likely to agree with everything I say. Take it with an entire shaker of salt, if you wish: once you get to the point where you heavily disagree with me, you’re probably no longer at the stage where you’re going to find this helpful. In which case, write your own bloody guide and get off my back. Anyone else: I hope it helps. If you have anything you want to add, or any questions, hit me up.
Framing is probably my favourite part of debating. It’s notoriously hard to define, because when people talk about framing, they’re actually talking about a large number of different things. Ultimately though, framing is about the choices we make in language. As much as we likely to pretend that debating is a game about pure logic, it is at core a language game. The way in which we talk about things is every bit as important as the logical links which we make.
Whenever debaters receive feedback from an exasperated judge after a particularly messy round, it’s likely that feedback will contain the idea that all analysis should include an idea, followed by arguments as to why that idea is true, and why it is important in the context of the debate. When you show why your ideas are important, you’re framing. This sounds extremely abstract, so in the next few sections I’ll try to exemplify what it means to ‘do’ framing in the context of a debate.
At the beginning of a speech, speakers will often outline exactly what they’re trying to prove in their speech: what they think their burdens are, and what they think they don’t need to prove. This is framing.
Playing with your burdens is one of the most interesting but also technically difficult parts of framing. It starts simple: you’re talking about what you need to prove in order to win the debate. For example, on the motion “This House believes it is never legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid”, the Opposition can attempt to claim that all they need to prove is one small set of circumstances under which it would be legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid (for example, making aid contingent on the cessation of human rights abuses).*
This does two things. First, it allows them to narrow the debate to a class of cases that is easiest for them to win with: it’s much easier to prove that a small subset of foreign aid should have conditions than to prove that all aid should have conditions. Second, it forces the Proposition to either accept or contest this framing. They may decide to fight the debate on the ground given by the opp team, in which case they’re fighting on uneven turf because they need to try and prove that even say, human rights abuses are not a legitimate reason for conditions to be attached to aids. Alternatively, they could decide to contest the framing: they say that Opposition has unfairly narrowed the debate, and that they need to talk about a wider class of cases than just the low-hanging fruit. Ideally they’d do this by showing that the vast majority of aid doesn’t have the kinds of conditions attached that the opp team talked about, and therefore whilst it might be within the debate, it’s certainly not the most important thing in the debate.
Critically though, this still makes the Proposition’s job more difficult. They have to spend vital seconds contesting the framing given by the opp team, arguing “Opp says the world is like this, but we think it’s not actually like this, it’s more like this other thing”. Not only does that take time, but every time they have to say it they draw attention back to the contribution that the Opposition made to the debate. If this continues to happen down the table, it makes it much easier to win, because your contribution to the debate has been made continually relevant throughout the debate.
This is a simple case of burden play which shows the benefits of claiming that the debate needs to be fought on particular ground (even if it doesn’t actually end up being entirely fought on that ground). In many instances burdens will be less cut-and-dry than this: very few motions specifically use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ in their titles, and that means it’s much harder to narrow the debate significantly whilst appearing legitimate in doing so.
Let’s say you’re in a debate on the motion “This House believes that parents should actively instil the value of questioning authority in their children”. This is a complex motion which has a large number of moving parts and possible outcomes. The impacts in the debate can range from “children will climb trees more and they might hurt themselves”, through “these children will grow up into adults who are less likely to get their children vaccinated and they might die of measles”, all the way up to “this will result in an anarcho-individualist society in which no institutions exist because nobody believes in or trusts them”. Depending on how the debate is framed, though, all or none of these could be debate-winning arguments.
If you’re in first Proposition, you might claim that you have two burdens in the debate. First, to prove principally that most authority is illegitimate, and so questioning or disobeying it is the morally correct thing to do. Second, to show that teaching children to disobey authority will result in those children being less likely to join in on things which hurt other children, like bullying. Here, you set yourself relatively low burdens: it’s quite easy to show that certain kinds of authority are not earned, but are merely given by default. You’re going to talk about why children are more likely to disobey the most illegitimate kinds of authority which they will recognise as having no basis in reality, and are likely to continue to listen to, say, doctors, who can prove their credentials and are legitimate authorities. You also only need to talk about children as children, rather than spending too much time talking about the long term: this narrows the debate to something which is much more winnable in 14 minutes than it might otherwise be. The way you make this seem plausible is through more framing: you say that there is a vast gap between the kinds of values which we teach children and the kinds of values which they actually end up acting upon as adults. When we teach children the value of respect, that doesn’t mean that they grow up to respect everyone all the time (though we may wish they did). Rather, it becomes one of a set of traits which balances out with all their other traits. So with authority, we say that they’re likely to grow up with a healthy disrespect of authority, but that the most important impacts happen when they’re still children, because children have quite black-and-white moral frameworks which means that if you actively instil one particular value in them, they’re likely to take to it quite strongly.
Here, the more subtle use of burdens allows you to frame the debate in such a way that you don’t have to talk about things that are going to be either disadvantageous to you or extremely complex such that they bog your speech down and you get lost.
What subtle burden play allows you to do is to convince not only the judges, but the other teams, that you only need to prove a certain number of things in order to win. Remember that there are no set criteria for what teams need to prove in order to win. That means that any claim of the burdens that a team has to take on is contestable, and it’s within your interests to claim that other teams need to prove a lot more than they might realistically be able to in order to beat you. This might come in the form of telling them they have a number of different, perhaps conflicting, burdens to prove. Alternatively, it might be that you say they need to talk about one particular group in a way that strongly advantages your side of the house. For example, in a debate about sterilising drug addicts in exchange for money, it’s in the Opposition’s interests to tell the prop teams that they need to talk about the addicts themselves, and their parenting rights, as much as possible. In contrast, the prop team will likely want to tell the opp teams they need to prove that the children of addicts are likely to live better lives on their side of the house. It’s incredibly difficult in this debate for prop to prove that this choice for drug addicts will not be coercive and that they can actually consent into it. Likewise, it’s difficult for the opp to prove that the children of addicts tend to live happy lives.
*It would be unwise to then go on to only prove their case in these conditions. It’s highly likely that on any panel of adjudicators there will be at least one judge who thinks this is an illegitimate narrowing of the debate and decides to penalise the team for it. The best strategy is to prove the cases you say the debate is about, then to say “even if you think this debate is about more than just these cases, here’s why we win in those other cases too”. And then prove that you win in those cases too, obviously.
When you talk about different groups and how they’re affected, that’s framing. Nearly every debate will have groups who are winners, and groups who are losers. Part of the debate will revolve around arguing over which groups are winners and losers (and whether they do necessarily win or lose). However, how you talk about those groups is just as important as identifying their existence. If you care about a particular group, you want to make that group seem as large as possible, so as to maximise their impact in the debate. You also probably want to show them as a group which we ought to care about on a qualitative level, rather than just in terms of numbers. We tend to care more about groups which can’t protect themselves, or who have been subject to injustices (whether present or historical), or who are otherwise dependent upon the state or others. We also ascribe tend to ascribe traits perceived as positive to these groups: just think of the way that David Cameron constantly talked about ‘hard-working families’ during the last election.
Likewise, if you’re talking about a group you don’t care about, you want to minimise the size of this group (so that negative impacts on them are seen as less important), but you also want to talk about their qualities. Groups who are broadly well-off or able to look after themselves are often seen as less important within debates than groups with more marginalised individuals. You likely also want to ascribe negative characteristics to them.
The way you talk about the impacts a particular policy will have upon this group is crucial. Having built up a picture of a large group of people teetering on the precipice of chaos and/or obliteration, you want to show that this motion won’t just make them marginally worse off, or slightly ameliorate their situation: it is the difference between life and death. The key here is nuancing your rhetoric: if you lead straight in with ‘poor people will die, and death is bad‘, then you don’t sound convincing. If instead you paint a portrait of people who have long suffered at the hands of a state which is either neglectful or actively inimical to their needs, and who will be pushed over the precipice into despair and severe material deprivation by this particular policy, then you’re going to sound much more convincing.
One of the easiest ways of illustrating the way that framing works is in terms of debates about welfare. When we talk about benefits recipients, our choices of descriptors, and the individuals within these groups we use as representatives of the whole, are pretty important. Let’s take as an example the motion “This House would provide welfare in the form of basic goods and services, rather than cash payments”.
If you’re on proposition, it’s in your interests to portray people on welfare in a fairly negative light. You’re going to want to talk about them as fiscally irresponsible, either through ignorance or malice. You’re also going to want to try to show that as many benefits recipients as possible fall into this kind of category. It’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of people who receive benefits (at least in the UK) are actually in work, and receive tax credits. There are also parents, who receive child benefit regardless of means; elderly people receive winter fuel allowances; the chronically ill receive incapacity allowances; asylum seekers receive a small amount of money each week to live on. It’s extremely difficult (not to mention offensive and untrue) to portray all of these people as lazy benefits scroungers. However, you need to minimise the number of people who are both fiscally responsible and welfare recipients, or show that providing payments through basic goods and services is unlikely to be a large hindrance to those who fall into this category. You want to focus the debate as much as possible on the group you think this will most impact, by showing that other groups are either really small or are marginally affected at worst.
If you’re on opposition, your interests are obviously antithetical to those of the proposition. You want to talk about the hard-working people who’ve fallen foul of a perverse system of neoliberal capitalism through no fault of their own. They’re often working for employers who pay them far less than the living wage, and now they have the additional indignity of not even being trusted with choice over what to spend their minimal welfare cheques on. You’ll stress how important it is for people to have control over their own livelihood, and how demoralising it is to live under a state which not only neglects to make your employer pay you fairly (or even to ensure you’re employed at all), but which then kicks you when you’re down.
You’ll notice that much of the work we’re doing here is about standard analytical lines: freedom of choice, fiscal responsibility, the duties and obligations of states to their citizens, etc. What framing adds to this kind of analysis is threefold: (a) it helps you minimise/maximise the size of the groups you’re talking about; (b) it lets you show why these groups are particularly (un)important; (c) it puts emotional and rhetorical weight behind your words, letting you express big ideas in fewer words. The latter is particularly important for economy of argument: at the higher levels of debating, you want to be able to fit as much material as possible into your speech, and the only way to do this without sounding like you’re about to have some kind of minor cardiovascular event by the end of your speech is to use fewer, more carefully chosen words to create the same kinds of arguments.
One of the things a lot of people consistently have trouble with in debates is dealing with competing moral frameworks. Perhaps because consequentialism (and particularly its utilitarian strains) is easy to cash out in terms of some kind of ‘balance of harms’, or ‘cost-benefit analysis’, a lot of debaters tend to make arguments which rarely stray far from consequentialist territory. This is unfortunate, because a lot of the most appealling arguments from an intuitive and rhetorical standpoint can be made without reference to the consequences of actions. This isn’t a presentation about how to make principled arguments, so I won’t go any deeper into the nuts and bolts of how those work, but it’s important to recognise that this is a real problem a lot of debaters face in debates. This section will deal with framing issues regarding moral frameworks. A lot of this section is likely to bleed into analysis itself, but that’s mostly a byproduct of the fact that analysis and framing really aren’t as separate as we’d like to think they are.
Sometimes, it may be very difficult – if not borderline impossible – to win a debate from a purely consequentalist perspective. Say, for example, you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to argue against torturing someone you know has information which would lead to the aversion of the deaths of a thousand people in a terrorist attack. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, you’re screwed. A thousand lives versus one life? No chance. You might stand some chance if you talk about how this might cultivate sympathy for the tortured person and cause more terrorist attacks further down the line, but it’s a gamble. You could probably also talk about the unreliability of information gained through torture (and indeed, you probably should talk about that), and the precedent this sets for torturing people in the future.
But one way you could change the terrain of the debate to your advantage is to talk about the people involved as human beings, rather than as numbers on a utilitarian spreadsheet. Using all of the above arguments as mitigation, you could then begin your speech by reframing the debate as one about rights and dignity, rather than one purely about consequences. What does this look like? First, you can show that utilitarianism often clashes with our moral intuitions on a deep level, meaning that we probably shouldn’t trust that this is the only way by which we can judge whether something is morally correct: for example, it would be the utile thing to do to remove the organs of a person in the hospital waiting room in order to save the lives of five other people, but we don’t do that, for various reasons. Second, you can start to talk about the actors involved in this debate: specifically, the person you’re torturing, and the person doing the torturing. You could start by analysing why it might be bad to instrumentalise a human being, treating them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. We think that everyone deserves a basic level of human dignity, even those who commit the worst crimes, and we only allow state-sanctioned violence against people when those people are themselves a threat, rather than in order to obtain some other kind of end (like information). You could then go on to talk about how the kind of state that makes someone into a torturer is not one that we want to live under, and how this itself is a form of instrumentalisation, and why we have a moral imperative not to be that kind of state.
Ultimately, the legwork is done in the first few sentences. When you talk about why one moral framework (say, consequentialism) is insufficient to judge the debate and then substitute another (with reasons for it!) then you reframe the debate. This is particularly effective in the back half of a debate, when the top half has talked primarily about consequences. On the rare occasion that someone leads with a moral argument and you want to move back to consequences, the way to do this is usually with words to the effect of “when talking about morality, it’s crucial that we take into account the consequences of the actions we take, rather than living in a bizarre debate-land where the only thing that matters is whether something is morally justified, whatever that means”.
This is by no means an exhaustive guide to framing. My aim here is just to give a taste of how framing works, and the kind of circumstances in which it can be useful (always). At base, every word of your speech is framing, because framing is about world-building: talking about what’s in the debate, and what’s out of it; what’s important, and what’s marginal. Burdens, groups, and moral frameworks are just three broad ways in which you can easily work on your ability to frame. Hopefully this has been of some use – if you have any questions, hit me up.
I mentioned in a recent blog post that the work I do takes place in the theoretical framework of the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, also known as the Edinburgh School.
“Great,” you might have been left thinking, “but what the shit does that mean?”
Excellent question. Like 99.99% of the planet, I had little to no idea about the Strong Programme before I came to Edinburgh this year. My sum total knowledge of it came from one 4-lecture series about the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, delivered by Simon Schaffer (who is by all accounts a fantastic lecturer), who told us that many people in the department (History and Philosophy of Science, at Cambridge) didn’t think he should be teaching us this. It was an excellent series, but the material was so new and so different to any of the core material we’d studied in Philosophy of Science that taking it on as an object of serious study at a time when exams were looming would have been grade suicide. I think the sole reference to it after that came in a supervision I had about expertise, where my supervisor told me about Martin Kusch’s Knowledge by Agreement, which promotes ‘communitarian epistemology’, the idea that knowledge exists only in groups. At the time I thought it sounded like nonsense. It’s certainly a deeply unintuitive concept for anyone to accept, let alone someone who’d spent the last two years immersed in the standard philosophical literature on knowledge – ‘justified true belief’, ‘the Gettier paper’, etc.
But since coming to Edinburgh and throwing myself at some of the literature (not to mention being taught by people who’ve studied and like this stuff), I’ve fallen in love. It’s a rare thing to plough through highly conceptual literature and not end up feeling mystified. It’s rarer still to have it make total sense in your mind, to have it change the way you view the world, the people in it, and relations between us. For me, the Strong Programme has done that. It’s pretty uncommon to find people working within this framework: it’s often dismissed because it’s a relativist theory, or because it’s social constructivism. What’s strange, though, is that there’s rarely any actual weight behind these criticisms. They’re used as heuristics to dismiss it out of hand without ever engaging with the actual substance of what the theory claims. Alternatively, people overlook the SP in favour of Actor-Network Theory, either because ANT seems more readily applicable to other fields, because it already has more work already done using it, or because Bruno Latour is a fabulous self-publicist (he thinks he’s Foucault. He’s not Foucault.).
I want more people to love the Strong Programme as much as I love it. I think it’s an absolute travesty that more people aren’t aware of its existence. Not only could people working in STS benefit from it, but I think it has much broader applicability in other disciplines. The social theory which underpins SP, the Performative Theory of Social Institutions, is extremely flexible and makes a great deal of sense. The underlying ontology, finitism, is not just a useful tool for understanding how knowledge is created in disseminated – it is also, to my mind, correct. I recognise that saying so may undermine my credibility not only with people who despise relativism but also with those who support it wholeheartedly, but frankly it’s a hit I’m prepared to take. I really like the Strong Programme.
So let’s get stuck in.
The Strong Programme grew through the ’80s and ’90s as a reaction to ‘weak’ sociologies of knowledge. Previous attempts at understanding knowledge through a social lens restricted themselves to understanding failed knowledge claims: they were a sociology of error, rather than of knowledge. This meant that phrenology, homeopathy and spontaneous generation theory would all be suitable candidates for sociological analysis; but relativity, evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang theory would not be. Belief in the latter could only be understood as a ‘rational’ response to the evidence of our senses.
There are a number of reasons this claim is total bullshit. Here are two. First, there’s no reason to believe that our current theories are correct. Every single theory we’ve subscribed to, ever, has over time been shown to be incomplete or flawed in some way, and there is precisely no reason to believe that our current theories are going to be the ones to buck this trend. As such, current successful theories are just failed theories waiting to happen, and should be susceptible to sociological analysis on these grounds. Second, it’s just untrue that we believe in, say, evolution because it’s the rational thing to do. I believe in evolution because a large number of people more intelligent than I have spent their entire lives studying evolutionary biology (so that I don’t have to), and have managed to entrench this belief in all of the institutions of our society, so that I was just taught that evolution is the best theory we have to understand how life came to exist in the form we see it today. It would be preposterously arrogant of me to say that the only reason I believe in evolution is because of the evidence of my own senses: I have literally never witnessed evolution take place, and if I had witnessed something which seems to validate the theory of evolution by natural selection, there are a thousand and one other theories which could explain that phenomenon equally well. There is nothing rational which makes me, or you, or anyone, believe in a particular way of understanding the world.
What’s really bizarre is that the same people who are rabidly pro-science (or at least, pro the idea of science as a transhistorical arbiter of objective truth) are also really, really bad at understanding epistemology. Faced with claims from the Bible or another holy text that god exists, they will posit the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster, and say that there is just as much evidence for its existence, and so it is just as rational to believe in it. I don’t care to weigh in on that particular shitshow of a debate. What I do want to say is that if you formualte that kind of argument, you should also naturally be a big fan of the Strong Programme, and epistemic relativism more generally. Why? Because you recognise that any set of evidence can be used to push you towards a potentially limitless number of conclusions. If you look at the world around us and decide that there is a god, the form that god will take is underdetermined by the evidence at hand. There could be any number of potential gods or deity-like entities which could explain the way the world is, and belief in any particular one is likely to be best explained by social factors – where you were born, what religion your parents were, what kind of school you went to – rather than by reference to the natural world itself.
You should probably admit that you believe in most scientific theories because someone told you to, rather than because you observed the evidence for them first-hand. That means that there’s a place for sociological analysis in understanding how we, as people, come to believe in some theories and not others based on the say-so of particular individuals.
But it goes deeper than that. Your response to all the above might be, “so what? I know that the scientists who work in gravitational wave physics have good reasons to believe in gravitational waves, based on the evidence before them, and that’s why I believe them over some over schmuck”. Fair enough. But there are a couple of things you might want to consider. First, how do you know they have good reasons to believe in gravitational waves? Sure, you’ve read a really interesting Guardian article about them which explains them super well, but people get tricked into believing convincing-sounding explanations all the time, like when I was 7 and Daniel from down the street told me that he would look after my Pokémon cards for me and then he never gave them back and told me that I’d never given them to him. Fucking Daniel. He can get in the sea.
The gravitational wave scientists tell us they observed the same phenomenon which is supposed to suggest the existence of the waves at two different stations, though. Surely that’s enough for them to believe in the waves based on pure rationality, right? Well, not really. First, we have to explain why each team would believe the other team. Then we have to explain why particular runs of an experiment get to count as ‘good’ runs – what about all the times when they didn’t detect gravitational waves? Then we need to account for why this time is the big one, when various members of the gravitational wave community have been claiming to have detected the waves for the last forty years. What made all the scientists in the community agree with each other that they had, indeed, detected a gravitational wave?
The point I’m making is that it’s not as simple as ‘scientists observe material world, get evidence, evidence leads rationally to theory’, and then ‘scientists tell us correct theory, we believe them’. It’s far, far more complicated than that, and we do ourselves a disservice by refusing to acknowledge that.
There’s an awful lot more to say about the Strong Programme, but this post has just edged past the point where people are likely to stop paying attention, so I’ll leave it here for now and resume in another screed.
This week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio is about the topic of expertise.1 As someone working towards a PhD studying expertise, I listened with interest: it’s reasonably rare to hear an in-depth discussion about this field, and trying to comprehend other people’s takes upon the subject and reconcile them with the work I’ve been doing. The academic niche that I work in (Science and Technology Studies, specifically the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, which is heavily social constructivist in its approach) draws on a slightly different set of approaches to the topic of expertise to those cited in Freakonomics, which come more from the Psychology side of the spectrum of social sciences. As a result, I have a few thoughts about the framework of expertise articulated in the programme. Hopefully some of them might be considered constructive.
The academics consulted in this episode, chief amongst them Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, advocate for the idea that expertise can be achieved through ‘deliberate practice’.2 This effectively cashes out as activity which constantly pushes its practitioner out of their comfort zone, often focussing upon ameliorating specific problems or stumbling blocks which they may currently be facing. They note that peak human performance in many areas has improved dramatically over recent centuries: the record time for the fastest marathon has decreased by nearly an hour since the first modern Olympics in 1896;3 Mozart’s ability to perform music at various stages of childhood would likely be considered ‘average’ amongst children at a musical academy today; and so on. The idea is that we stand on the pedagogic shoulders of giants: over time, we have learned the ability to learn better.
The ‘10,000 hour rule’ popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers also makes an appearance,4 with some discussion over whether this amount of practice is indeed the ‘magic number’ for becoming an expert in something, whether it is how one spends those hours that matters more than the sheer volume, and if the proper formulation might in fact be ‘10,000 hours + basic talent’.
I think the formulation of expertise in this programme might benefit from a couple of interlinked observations.
First, I would posit that what they are describing is not the process of acquisition of expertise; rather, they are describing what it means to become adept at a skill. Much of the discussion is focussed around musical or sporting ability, with a cursory mention of writing at one point during the episode.
It is unclear to me that these are forms of expertise. When we talk of experts in society, we tend to talk about them as people who are unusually knowledgeable or skilled in something, but that isn’t a sufficient condition: there’s something extra. Usually that extra thing is the way we relate to them as experts. We ask them, as representatives of their field (whatever the nature of that field), to solve particular problems for us.5 We ask physicists to tell us about gravitational waves. We ask psychologists to help us understand how we learn. We ask cardiologists to tell us how we can minimise our chances of suffering a heart attack in the future. The crucial aspect of expertise which is missing is its sociality: without it, there is no expertise, there is only skill.
You might ask, so what? This is just linguistic nit-picking. It doesn’t matter if we call it skill or expertise, we just want to know how people get really good at things. I should just get back in my ivory tower and complain to the approximately half a dozen people in the world who care. Fair enough. But I think there’s a deeper insight to be gained from the distinction here. A skill can often be learned in some kind of isolation: I can get really good at playing scales on my piano just sitting in my bedroom with some sheet music.
But there’s something missing. We know that people tend to learn much better when they are taught by others. The best tennis players have other extremely skilled players coach them; the same goes for pianists or even academics. This isn’t just because those people know more stuff. It’s because they know how to apply that stuff. What’s missing from the deliberate practice model is the recognition of the power of tacit knowledge: the things we can’t articulate, but which can only be learned from being immersed in the community which surrounds our interest.6 You can practice your scales as long as you like, but you’re never going to understand what it means to give an emotional performance which makes a crowd love you if you don’t mix with (and learn from) people who know how to do just that.
In fact, it’s impossible to even know what constitutes an emotional or moving performance without socialisation. Why? Because our standards for what is good or bad, overdramatic or underplayed, technically accomplished or pretentious nonsense, all vary between times and communities. The extent of this variation is different in different fields, but it always exists. There was a time when Isaac Newton would have been recruited as a virtuoso physicist; if his reanimated corpse were to be dug up today, he would no longer be considered an expert, because he has spent the last three hundred years not immersed within the culture of physics and mathematics. Zombie Isaac Newton could probably, with time and adequate socialisation, be a great contributor to modern physics. But critically, he would be totally incapable of doing so without becoming part of the physics community: he would not only need to read modern textbooks and academic papers to know what physics consists in nowadays, he would also need to know which journals and authors to take seriously and which to ignore, as well as how to converse in the language of modern day physics. He wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming a virtuoso without extensive social contact with other physicists.
The missing ingredient in this otherwise highly interesting treatment of the problem of expertise acquisition is the social. Malcolm Gladwell recognises in the podcast that ‘you can’t do [10,000 hours] by yourself’, but what he means is that 10,000 hours is a hell of a long time and you’re likely to need people to help you with perform your basic needs whilst you’re playing fifty games of chess every day. Even if that weren’t true, it would still be the case that nobody can become an expert, or adept, or a virtuoso, on their own. Social immersion and tacit knowledge is at the very core of what it means to be truly great at something, and to be recognised as such.
If you’re interested in STS or the Strong Programme and its approaches to expertise and knowledge, there are a few books and papers I’d highly recommend:
Barnes, Barry, The Nature of Power (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988)
Barnes, Barry, David Bloor, and John Henry, Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis (The Athlone Press, 1996)
Bloor, David, ‘Idealism and the Sociology of Knowledge’, Social Studies of Science, 26 (1996), 839–56
Collins, H. M., and Robert Evans, Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
2K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer, ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.’, Psychological Review, 100.3 (1993), 363.
3Wikipedia, ‘Marathon World Record Progression’, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, 2016 <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marathon_world_record_progression&oldid=716163592> [accessed 28 April 2016].
4Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London; New York: Penguin, 2009).
6H. M. Collins and Robert Evans, Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007).
Postgraduate degrees can be lonely. Like, really fucking lonely.
It sounds trite, but I wish someone had warned me before I decided to do a PhD just how isolating it could be. In my final year of undergrad, I knew that I wanted to stay in academia, and so I spent my Christmas hols writing up research proposal after research proposal. I was lucky enough to receive four years of funding from the ESRC to study at Edinburgh, reading about expertise and authority and the internet, in the Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies.
The city itself is excellent and my experiences of the department have been broadly positive. It’s just hard. Hard to drop all of the friends and relationships you’ve built up over the last four years and move somewhere completely new, many hours by train away from everyone you know and love. Hard to make new friends when most people around you are younger, or older, or busy with work, or has their own friends already, or has a long-term partner they live with.
Much of the isolation of a PhD is an extension of the kind of isolation undergraduate humanities students can already experience. Most of my work consists of sitting in an office, library, cafe or park, reading and annotating and trying to think of a vaguely original argument about something which people much more intelligent and harder working than I have dedicated their entire careers to. As someone who doesn’t deal well with being on my own much of the time, there’s an internal tension between wanting to surround myself with people and knowing that if I do so I’m unlikely to get much done. I end up sitting in the ‘collaborative working’ area of our little postgrad office, hoping to absorb some camaraderie and sociality by osmosis, not caring that people’s conversations prevent me from concentrating on my reading because at least this way I can pretend that reading paper after paper isn’t such a lonely fucking chore.
The isolated nature of the work brings with it the additional problem of making it harder to motivate myself to work in the first place. I used to be a science student with constant lectures and labs, and it was difficult not to see people. Getting out of bed was rarely a struggle because there was always somewhere I had to be at 9, or 10, or 11. Now the lack of deadlines or immediate pressure is just one more reason to stay in bed for another three hours and stare at the space on the wall. On a good day I’m in the office before midday. On a bad day I never make it in.
But it’s not just the work itself that’s lonely. It’s all of the baggage that comes with being a postgraduate student at a new university. Even as the youngest person in my cohort (I’ve just turned 23, the average age is probably around 26), most of my friends are undergraduates who are significantly younger than me. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that – I’m not so silly as to think that there’s something weird about hanging out with 18 year olds – but it does make some things difficult. It might be fine to be friends with undergrads because your hobbies coincide, but getting invited to parties gets a bit harder, and when you are invited you’re the guy who’s a bit out of place because he’s older and he’s been through this and there’s this disconnect of experience which makes you feel as though people are looking at each other as if to say ‘why is he here?’.
Worse, your schedules just don’t match up with most of your friends’. When you’ve just handed in a solid 15,000 words of work and you’re ready to unwind, they’re just getting into the meat of exam season. Then, just when it’s getting to the point where you’re starting to stress over your dissertation and could do with some company, everyone fucks off for the summer and you’re left in a half-empty city full of people you’ve never really had the chance to get to know.
As a postgrad, it’s just much harder to form lasting bonds with the people in your cohort. A lot of people are only there for a year, which means that no matter how fast you make friends, you’re going to find it hard to really get to know them, particularly when the workload of a Masters or PhD can be pretty intense. It’s exacerbated by the fact that a lot of people are holding down jobs or long-term relationships, so they’re not around much of the time. Add to that the fact that lectures and seminars can be somewhat scarce at this level, and the result is that you’re unlikely to even know everyone in your cohort. More likely is that you get to know a few people reasonably well, but you don’t necessarily hang out with them all that much because they’ve got other commitments and so have you and your schedules just might not collide.
When you’re an undergrad you’re thrown in together with whole hordes of others in your subject groups and your halls of residence. It’s (usually) pretty easy to have two or three quite large groups of friends from where you live, and nights out, and myriad societies and sports teams. That makes it easier to find people to hang out with at random times of the day when you’re feeling isolated, or to have an impromptu dinner or even to find people to live with the next year. I’ve been looking for one or more people to live with since around November, and I still can’t find anyone. It’s not for want of trying: most of my postgrad friends don’t know if they’re here next year, or if they are then they have partners they live with; and all of my undergrad friends have groups they’re flat-hunting with, and I get the feeling nobody particularly wants someone four years their senior barging into their pre-existing friendship groups. That’s totally fair, on all fronts. It’s just sad.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re considering a postgraduate degree, think really hard about whether this is something you can handle. If you’re really worried about moving somewhere new, maybe consider staying at your current university, or just go to bloody London because everyone seems to move there anyway. I don’t think I regret it (yet), I just wish someone had told me this before I started on a four year degree in a new city.