Debating Resources for the World since 1994



David M. Berube, Ph.D.

Assoc. Prof., Speech Communication

University of South Carolina, USA

"The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of the United States Handicapper General….

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

"That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did," said Hazel.

"Huh?" said George.

"That dance—it was nice," said Hazel.

"Yup," said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really good—no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas" (Vonnegut 7-8).


American parliamentary debate conformed to the British model. A controversy in United States parliamentary debating exists over the use of "specialized knowledge" or "specialized knowledge" and the terms are used interchangeably.

Robert Trapp delineated between parliamentary and cross-examination (policy) debate in an article found at the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) website. One of his primary criteria deals with the use of information.

"Parliamentary debate does not rely exclusively on published sources of information either in the preparation prior to the debate nor in the actual debate itself…. Additionally, the rules of both the APDA and the NPDA disallow debaters’ use of published material during the debate. As a result, parliamentary debaters must rely on the information they have obtained through general research as well as their general knowledge of history, philosophy, and current events."

As an extension of this pedagogical consideration, both these organizations discourage the use of "specialized knowledge".

First, it is important to note that the term "specialized knowledge" is defined differently by different sources.

For example, the National Center for Policy Analysis contended that "specialized knowledge … varies by location and circumstance and may change over time. For example, whether incorporating recycled content into a package will save total resources (time, energy, raw materials) will depend on the material, the availability of alternative materials, production details and other specializeds…. General knowledge is constant over time and space, ‘knowable’ in the form of general rules. For example, the boiling point of water is a kind of general knowledge…. Specialized knowledge also embraces such matters as the subjective valuations of individuals. The answer to the question ‘what do people want?’ is known only by the dispersed individuals in society" (Scarlett).

Knapp and Galizio defined common knowledge opposed to specialized knowledge as "what a college undergraduate student should be familiar with" (150) or "information that is widely available and known by the average college student" (200).

In parliamentary debate, the use of "specialized knowledge" is discouraged. Trapp continues.

"The conditions under which specialized knowledge is appropriate in parliamentary debate are 1) when the debater is able and willing to share the source of this information with the audience and opposing debaters, and 2) when the debater is willing to take the necessary time to explain the specialized knowledge in detail."

How is this accomplished? Trapp makes these suggestions.

"First debaters must be willing to share the source of specialized information with the audience for reasons that are similar to those requiring a writer to cites sources of information…. Parliamentary debaters are not required to cite sources for all information they use—only for that information that audiences might consider ‘specialized information’. Furthermore, since they are forbidden to actually take the published information to the debate for use in constructing their arguments, they cannot reasonable be expected to cite all the detailed they might be expected to produce in writing a thesis or research paper or, for that matter, in debating the cross-examination format…. A debater’s willingness to take additional time to explain the context of the specialized information is a second way to ensure that specialized knowledge is not used as a device to win by withholding information. If a person cites a study that says, for instance, capital punishment deters substantial numbers of murders each year, that person would be obliged to explain the methodology of the investigation, thus given the Opposition team an opportunity to challenge the details of the information. Requiring the debater to fully explain specialized information gives the opponents and audience a context to evaluate the premise and its connection to the debater’s claim."

This issue is further addressed in the "2000 National Tournament Rules" of the NPDA. Rule 4B describes the procedures associated with in-round protests associated with "specialized knowledge".

"If the debaters believe some cited information to be too specialized, debaters may request that their opponent explain specialized information with which they are unfamiliar. In the event further explanation of specialized information in requested, the debater should provide details sufficient to allow the debater to understand the connection between the information and the claim. Judges will disallow specialized information only in the event that no reasonable person could have access to the information: e.g., information that is from the debater’s personal family history" (2000 National Tournament: Rules).

While the specialized charge and how it a resolved will be examined below, it should be noted that very similar procedures can be found in the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s (APDA) "Guide to Parliamentary Debate."

"Detailed facts about a case that are not considered common knowledge are called, oddly enough, specialized knowledge (also known as specialized knowledge). In proposing the case, specialized knowledge outside the range of a typical, well-read college student, should not be required, as there is no opportunity for the Opposition to prepare for and research the topic proposed. It is assumed that debaters will have a working knowledge of major issues in international and national affairs, basic Western philosophy and fundamental documents likes the U.S. Constitution and the Charter of the United Nations. Reference to such sources or events are not considered specialized knowledge. If, however, a case hinges on facts or statistics which the Opposition could not be expected to know, or if the entire care involves obscure circumstances, then the Opposition can contest such specialized knowledge…. As long as all the relevant facts presented are during the Prime Minister Constructive, and these facts are simple enough that a previously uninformed observer can understand the case, the Government should be able to withstand charges of specialized knowledge" (Guide).

The "Guide" adds two additional considerations. First, "specialized knowledge applies only to the Government team. There is no such creature as specialized Opposition knowledge. If the Government teams happens to run a case about voter registration and it just so happens the Leader of the Opposition has just finished writing his senior thesis about that topic, the Government team has no recourse but to grin and bear whatever drubbing is doled out to them." Second, "a good test for the Government to use to see whether the Prime Minister can clearly explain all of the relevant facts in a leisurely two minutes."

This raises a peculiar double-standard that is difficult to resolve. However, the controversy is much grander than that. Does the exclusion of "specialized knowledge" lessen the pedagogical utility of parliamentary contest debating? On put another way, would the inclusion of "specialized knowledge" improve its pedagogical utility? Before dealing with the grander question asked here, consider some of the practical considerations.


While the arguments for the dissuasion the "specialized knowledge" seem easy to deduce from the definitions of parliamentary debate, especially how it is distinguished from cross-examination (policy) debate, two others are unstated. First, the access to information remains a function of privilege in the worldwide marketplace of ideas. Second, debating education is not a necessary function of "specialized information", especially when it entails discrete secondary source materials. Secondary sources have invaded the Internet. What was once a tool for academic and weapons experts to communicate has become an indispensable tool for libraries to coordinate and extend their research resources.

First, access to information is a function of privilege. Many scholars have argued that the "Information Superhighway" may run through your neighborhood but without an access or exit ramp. Four secondary issues have surfaced.

First, "[t]he Internet is the new [global continent], a cyber-Pangaea. But unlike the original, this global realm is not really stateless. In many respects, it is U.S. territory" (Lohr).

[T]he technology, economics, and culture of the Internet feel awfully American…. By on estimate, United States corporation’s collect 85 percent of the revenues from the Internet business and represent 95 percent of the stock value of Internet companies…. English is the dominant language of the Internet, found on most web-sites…. Economically, the Internet is a transmitter of the kind of relentless, consumer by consumer competition that can be volatile and destabilizing. It has the astringent flavor of free-market economics embraced by America more than elsewhere…. France and Germany, among other nations, are concerned that the Internet economy may prove impossible for nations to regulate, and create such vast inequality and rootlessness among its citizens, that they will lose their sense of social cohesion…. (Lohr).

Critics view the Internet of cyber-imperialism. Don Heath, president of the Internet Society, blunted attested. "If the United States government has tried to come up with a scheme to spread its brand of capitalism and its emphasis on political liberalism around the world, it couldn’t have invented a better model than the Internet" (Lohr). Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, argues that the Internet lies in the arena of ‘soft power’. "It’s like rock n’ roll or American movies, which earns lots of money, to be sure, but mainly influences other nations by offering an irresistible alternative culture." (Lohr). Jiang Mianheng of the Chinese Academy of Science agreed that even China risks becoming "a vassal of the capitalistic, neo-imperialistic Western Alliance" (Lam) as Mainland China begin to wire itself to the Internet. In response, "a new bamboo curtain is being erected to prevent the mainland from being ‘colonised’ by the superior know-how of Western powers" (Lam). Military experts have said that future warfare will be fought on the NET, with the advantage going to nations with the mightier IT powers. "The Liberation Army Daily called upon the Chinese to wage a ‘Net-based people’s warfare’ against would-be cyber-invaders. It said military and civilian units should join hands in producing Chinese protocols and technologies that could safeguard national security" (Lam).

While "specialized knowledge" may not provoke an international incident, it is important to afire a relationship between access to secondary research and Internet search engines and Web-based full text retrieval services. As such, we must recognize that information as knowledge has become incredibly Americanized by the Internet. Hence, international concerns are understandable should specialized knowledge that finds its way into debate curricula across the planet is predominantly Western, especially America. Not only would world events be defined from an American point of view but also the values implicit in the comprehension of them. Realities are defined politically and the dominant states of affairs in information technologies would seem to warp events toward constructs of privilege and power perpetuating the marginalization of other views, especially those in newly emerging societies in Europe, Asia, and Central America.

A third concern deal with the quality of Internet based specialized knowledge. Too much evidence even from online text retrieval services is unqualified or under-qualified. Since anyone can post a web page and since transcripts and releases are seldom checked as factual, pseudo-experts abound and are at the core of the most egregious claims in extended arguments using mini-max reasoning.

In nearly every episode of fear mongering . . . people with fancy titles appeared. . . . [F]or some species of scares . . . secondary scholars are standard fixtures. . . . Statements of alarm by newscasters and glorification of wannabe experts are two telltales tricks of the fear mongers' trade. . . : the use of poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trends, depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangerous. . . . (Glassner 206, 208)

Fourth, there are some concerned associated with how the information is collected. Not only the information but also the way it is collated is suspect. All these engines use Boolean connectors (and, or, and not) and Boolean connectors are dubious by nature.

Boolean logic uses terms only to show relationships – of inclusion or exclusion – among the terms. It shows whether or not one drawer fits into another and ignores the question whether there is anything in the drawers. . . . The Boolean search shows the characteristic way that we put questions to the world of information. When we pose a question to the Boolean world, we use keywords, buzzwords, and thought bits to scan the vast store of knowledge. Keeping an abstract, cybernetic distance from the source of knowledge, we set up tiny funnels. . . . But even if we build our tunnels carefully, we still remain essentially tunnel dwellers. . . . Thinking itself happens only when we suspend the inner musings of the mind long enough to favor a momentary precision, and even then thinking belongs to musing as a subset of our creative mind. . . . The Boolean reader, on the contrary, knows in advance where the exits are, the on-ramps, and the well-marked rest stops. . . . The pathways of thought, not to mention the logic of thoughts, disappear under a Boolean arrangement of freeways." (Heim 18, 22-25)

Heim worries that the Boolean search may encourage readers to link together nearly empty drawers of information, stifling imaginative, creative thinking and substituting empty ideas for good reasons. The problems worsen when researchers select word strings without reading its full context, a nearly universal practice among contest debaters.

The second subsidiary concern deals with access. Simply put, specialized knowledge is not a universal phenomenon. Let’s return to the Internet for a moment.

Today, really half of the global online population resides in the United States. Forty-four percent of Americans have Internet access at home or at work, more than double the percentages in Germany and Britain, according to Jupiter Communications. Only a few Scandinavian countires, notably Sweden, approach the American level of Internet access… (Lohr 4).

Factor into this equation, relative access to newspapers, radio, and television, and library resources, and we begin to understand that relative access to the Internet reflects the contest over knowledge resources by the privileged and the powerful over modern history.

Second, "specialized" information is unnecessary to teach debate related concepts and skills. Debating skills do not demand specialized knowledge. Whether using traditional syllogistic models of argument or Toulmin’s ‘data-warrant-claim’ model, skills reflect an understanding of the interrelatedness of premises and assumptions as foundational to building a viable conclusion.

While research skills can be taught through contest debating, those skills are mostly technical. As nearly all former contest policy debaters who commit to completing advanced academic degrees realize, the research methodology course work taken in graduate school is distinctly different from contest debating research skills. Indeed, many highly successful contest policy debaters have been stymied when they discover their thesis or dissertation committees were unimpressed by their bibliographical references built on on-line text-retrieval service and Internet resources. Put simply, research skills gained in contest policy debating are not directly transferable to serious academic scholarship.

As such, claims and conclusions built on specialized knowledge can be suspect especially where such arguments are fundamentally inductive exercises without the rigorous testing associated with the method of hard scientific induction. This is especially true of expert opinion as experts tend to speak in areas beyond their expertise. Even statistics can be highly misleading without having sample sizes and experimental designs. Finally, illustration can be vulnerable to the same problems as any induction.

Consequently, while it is commendable students broaden their understanding of contemporary issues by reading and surfing the Internet, the information they unearth might not meet the tests of ‘knowledge.’ More importantly, there is little reason to believe debate related skills, especially how to argue, demand ‘specialized knowledge’.


The arguments associated with opposition to the "ban" on specialized knowledge seem to fall into two categories. First, keeping "specialized knowledge" out of parliamentary debates is problematical for the debaters and for the judges. Second, debating education that bans, or even restricts, "specialized knowledge" is pedagogically indefensible.

First, how can the ban on "specialized knowledge" be effectively and unselectively accomplished?

The good news from what I can glean from actual parliamentary debating in the United States is that charge of "specialized knowledge" is relatively rare. Where it does occur is at regional and smaller tournaments before inexperienced critics with the charge made by unsophisticated debaters.

Opponents claim it cannot be. There is the problem of identifying "specialized" but not "personal" knowledge. There is the difficulty associated with determining what "working" or "common" or "general" knowledge may be. There is the inequity associated with restricting the charge of "specialized knowledge" as an Opposition tactic when the Opposition could devise a strategy of "specialized knowledge" for every topic being debated. There is the inherent difficulty of determining when enough contexts are enough contexts and whether some arbitrary rule of thumb like the two-minute rule is feasible. There is the nearly totally absent discussion of motive here: is the restriction imposed on "specialized knowledge" pedagogically justified or is it there to make debate less challenging to direct, less academic, and less curricular, or it may simply be a way to differentiate itself away from cross-examination (policy) debating.

It seems that the last consideration is the most true. In an effort to make parliamentary debate unlike its policy alternative, the ban of research in the debating round wasn’t enough. The inclusion of information from researched secondary sources needed to be discouraged. The simplest way was to ban ‘specialized knowledge’.

Strangely enough team debating in the United States went through similar problems twice over the last two decades. First, a debate ensued in team policy debate when the Opposition (the negative) selected to introduce a case that did not clash with what the Government (the affirmative) argued in their case, rather it made a specialized case against the resolution. They were called counter-warrants, and the policy debating community banned them by claiming that the affirmative did not need to defend the entire breadth of the debate resolution. This concept was confounded by a discussion of inductive reasoning and a comparison of non-policy versus policy resolution distinguishing reasons the strategy was legitimated in the first but not in the second (see Berube 1992a). Secondly, near a half decade ago, it was decided that debaters could prove a resolution true by examining a case drawn from the resolution as a substitute proof. The shift from a whole resolutional proof to what was termed a parametric interpretation (see Berube 1992b and 1995) collapsed the two competing national intercollegiate team policy-debating organizations into one. If history is any lesson, it does not bode well for those debaters and coaches advocating the ban on "specialized knowledge".

While it may make sense to ban ‘personal’ knowledge such as "My fathers works for the Internal Revenue Service and over dinner last night, he told me you were wrong" because it can’t be tested for accuracy within the round, it makes less sense to ban ‘specialized’ information a debater gleaned from an intensive reading and researching regimen.

Just as good extemporaneous speakers maintain extensive files on current events, parliamentary debaters can do the same. Most ‘coaches’ of parliamentary programs with whom I have spoken, tell me they train their students by assigning research, evaluate the research, share the research among student colleagues, and thrash out the material at a roundtable discussion, a mini-debate, or practice debates.

While, it would seem given enough time and effort, solutions to these problems might be possible, others are less optimistic. John Meany of the Claremont Colleges made this poignant indictment.

It is an absurdist claim that the participants of a debate round must ‘share’ the same information to construct a debate. People do not share the same experience. Differences in identities, histories, knowledges, experiences, etc., guarantees that individuals will know (in the conventional sense) and contextualize information differently. It is, in face, these ‘differences’ that serve as points of conflict and tension that ‘produce’ debate.

Notwithstanding, Meany argues that ‘specialized knowledge’ is a non-issue because it is self-enforcing. It checks itself in the debate; hence there is no reason for its prohibition.

Specialized information checks itself. If the information is generated exclusively by and for a single party in a debate, it has such little credibility and limited applicability that there is little argument value to its inclusion. On the other hand, many of the charges of ‘specialized knowledge’ are raised against information that is an important part of public discourse that ought to be shared in parliamentary debates (science and technology, decision theory, literature, new historicism, anthropology, art criticism, semiotics, postmodern geography, etc.). There is no reason to exclude complex and challenging ideas from contests involving sophisticated college students.

Second, is banning "specialized knowledge" pedagogically defensible. Some see it as an ‘appeal to ignorance.’ The ‘appeal to ignorance’ is a standard fallacy taught in every argumentation classroom. Professor Meany contends it is indistinguishable from the charge of ‘specialized knowledge’.

The popular claim of ‘specialized knowledge’ is an appeal to ignorance. A debater or a judge holds a particular party responsible for the demise of meaningful debate because that party has knowledge of which the others in the debate are unaware. In other circumstances, we call this ‘education’, and opportunity to learn and grow from new and disparate perspectives and knowledge. For many in the parliamentary debate community, new information is to be feared and rejected.

"The popular conception of ‘specialized knowledge’, namely that a debater possesses some information that undermines the prospects for meaningful debate, needs elimination, if not dramatic reformulation" (Meany). He warned.

The idea of specialized knowledge produces a sort of anti-intellectualism, a race to the bottom, in contemporary debates. In other words, based on the principles of specialized knowledge, the student with the least information, the intellectual neophyte with a limited grasp on the world, if the more successful competitor. For that student, all claims of the opposing side are ‘specialized knowledge’, subject to challenge and potential exclusion by the judge. With its companion, the truism, ‘specialized knowledge’ encourages a win for the side the loses the most arguments the fastest…. Specialized knowledge turns the debate world on its head, providing a theoretical defense for ignorance which, simultaneously suggests to all practitioners that they prepare of each debate by ‘dumbing down’ sophisticated ideas or creative perspectives. This bankrupt theory only puts a spin on a concession speech, attempting to turn it into a winning ploy.


There is a gap between raw data and that which can further understanding and increase knowledge. It is the reason as educators we find ourselves telling our students to stop researching and start evaluating the research they’ve collected. I always enjoined a remark attributed to Kingsley Widmer. He called it the Don Juan corollary. "Just as the more one seduces the less one loves, so the more one is ‘informed’ the less one knows." While this statement is not necessarily true, it is much closer to being true than being false. Bits of information are endless in contemporary Western society. Gathering all the relevant information on even a discrete topic can take a lifetime. However, there is a redundancy factor to information. And some information is simply better than other information. And some information is not information at all. Hazel Henderson put is nicely.

Information itself does not enlighten. We cannot clarify what is mis-information, dis-information, or propaganda in this media-dominated environment. Focusing on mere information has led to overload of ever-less-meaningful billions of bits of fragmented raw data, rather than the search for meaningful new patterns of knowledge (Henderson).

The proliferation of information is dizzying. With the naissance of the World Wide Web, the roaring surge of data has become deafening. While some, if not much, information is needed to develop an informed opinion and even more specific information might be needed to know, eventually it becomes counterproductive to continue the quest for more and more specificity. For the conclusions drawn from specific information are not different from those drawn from general information. While the ensuing conversations might be more colorful, like the wavelengths of light, the blend together, and in the end, we get the impurist of colors, white which is not much different than knowledge. But how white do we need it to be?


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American Parliamentary Debate Association. "Guide to Parliamentary Debate.", n.dat, n.pag.

Berube D. "Hasty Generalization Revisited." in D. Thomas and J. Hart, eds. Advanced Debate: Readings in theory, practice and teaching. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company, 4th ed., 1992a, pp. 535-548.

_____. "What Killed Schrodinger’s Cat: A Response to Panetta and Dolley." in D. Thomas and J. Hart, eds. Advanced Debate: Readings in theory, practice and teaching. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company. 4th ed. 1992b. pp. 430-452.

_____. "Parametric Interpretation: Issues and Answers." Contemporary Argumentation and Debate. 16. 1995. 30-51.

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Vonnegut, Kurt, "Harrison Bergeron," Welcome to the Monkey House, NY: Laurel Books, (1950) 1968, pp. 7-13.

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