Can Argument Change Minds?

As some of you know, debate has been a big part of my life. I was a nationally competitive debater in high school and college. In the early days of my poker career, I founded and ran a debate league serving the Boston Public Schools. All told, I’ve been involved in competitive debate for over twenty years.

I learned a lot from debate, but one thing that’s been frustrating for me, especially in the last two years, is how useless certain skills seem to be. It turns out that people’s opinions are remarkable resistant to logical refutation. In other words, it’s entirely possible – common, really – to demonstrate irrefutable logical flaws in a person’s reasoning, and have that person shrug and go on believing just as they were before.

However, I remain hopeful, because I know that debate can change minds. That was one of the effects that it had on me, which I describe in this short piece:

I’d learned a bit about folks like Marcus Garvey and the Black Panthers in history class, but to me they represented failed ideas long consigned to the dustbin of history. I knew nothing about Afrocentrism as a contemporary ideology and was completely unprepared to refute the claims that busing stigmatized black schools, put an unfair burden on black students, and disrupted black communities and their culture.

5 thoughts on “Can Argument Change Minds?

  1. Excellent article! It provided great insight into why thoughtful, reflective debate is so important to a healthy society. It makes me realize that I, too, probably need to be more active in ensuring I hear and actually consider different perspectives on issues.

  2. I found a lot of my own opinions changed or became more nuanced over the time I debated. Isn’t the inability to persuade others a weakness of American-style policy debate which aims at academic rigour compared to other styles like parliamentary which is more popular in Britain and aimed at persuading a hypothetical educated listener?

    I don’t know enough about top US debaters but in the case of the UK, we can consider that national Mace champions in debate have gone on to lead the Labour party (Smith) & the Liberal Democrats (Kennedy) and from the pre-mace era Edward Heath represented Britain at debate and was later leader of the other major party and PM. In the present day, former Presidents of the Oxford and Cambridge Union debating societies currently occupy the positions of Lib-Dem leader, Foreign Minister, Environment Minister and “first husband”.

    So my view is that debating can train people to be persuasive speakers, but only if that’s the aim of the particular format.

    About Ayn Rand – “Atlas Shrugged”, written against communism and the church, is most popular but “the Fountainhead” which is against soul-crushing life working for the man in corporate America and against media manipulation is of way more current relevance and probably more up your personal street politically.

  3. LOL. It was controversial enough bringing kids from “bad” schools into “good” ones. Trying to go the other direction might have legit started a civil war.

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