“Didn’t you ever break on the floor?”

This post is a follow-up to a reflection on how going to rationality camp made me really grateful for my college debate experience.  

“Break on the floor” is, I’m pretty sure, part of the Yale Political Union vernacular, so a definition is probably in order.  Our debates operated by Robert’s Rules of order, but our parliamentary debate style bears little resemblance to the gatling-gun style of debate you may be used to from high school and college.  In some forms of competitive debate, you can grind out a win by just bringing up as many arguments as possible (whether or not you find them convincing).  Your opponent will get docked for every point they leave unrebutted.   (This tactic crops up a lot in religion/science debates and is pretty similar to the Gish Gallop).

That’s not how my debate group worked.  In the YPU and its constituent parties, you were expected to only make arguments you actually believed.  At the end of a debate, no one won, and no points were awarded.  When we kept score, we counted in converts.  The freshman you’d pulled off the floor after her speech to schedule a coffee, which turned into a series of arguments, which turned into another ex-objectivist and a lifelong friend.  The upperclassman you battered week after week in questions until he admitted that he’d prefer it if no-fault divorce had never become legal (though he still disagreed with you about how to mitigate the damage now).

Speaking at a summer debate, my future husband in the Secretary-Treasurer’s chair.

Most of the time, this was a gradual process, but, sometimes, a line of questioning would make a speaker switch sides while he was still at the rostrum.  This is what we called “breaking on the floor.”  It was fairly rare, so there was a sense of awe and excitement, “Were you there the night so-and-so broke on the floor at “R: All the World’s a Stage?”  During election season, candidates were sometimes asked whether they’d ever broken someone.

All of which is fun, and delights my little pugilistic heart, but it isn’t the best part.  Candidates for office were usually also asked, “So, have you ever broken on the floor? ”  The correct answer was yes.

It wasn’t very that likely that you’d walked into the YPU with the most accurate possible politics, ethics, and metaethics.  If you hadn’t had to jettison some of your ideas several years in, we has our doubts about how honestly and deeply you were engaging in debate.  (Plus, who wants to put someone in charge of the largest undergrad group on campus if she has no practice noticing she was wrong).

— — —

Two of the big focuses of rationality camp were how to notice when you’ve gone wrong, and how not to flinch away from that realization.  Even outside of class, when I was trying to learn how to dodge a punch in a relaxed way from one of the instructors who told me I might like aikido, everyone was careful not to punish people for spotting errors.

“Crap, I messed up,” I exclaimed, after taking an awkward, unbalanced leap.

“You noticed!  That’s great!” said my sparring partner.

Even before you get up to the social stigma of admitting error, most of us punish ourselves for spotting weak points in our ideas or wondering if we made a mistake.  LessWrong calls some of these cognitive patterns Ugh Fields, where we have a feeling of wrongness and avoid thinking about whatever discomfited us.  Avoiding a negative stimulus is one of the most basic kinds of conditioning.

So you end up having to reward yourself just for thinking about the thing that makes you unhappy to think about.  I forgot to grab the form I needed to go to the DMV today.  Go me!  I’m thinking about this task.  Next time I’ll think about in time to take action.  That’s a good place to start, but a lot of your good work can be undone if everyone around you keeps giving you negative reinforcement.

In most communities, that’s exactly what happens.  We prefer consistency to correcting errors, and treat someone who changes his or her mind as unreliable.  We’d prefer a steady enemy to an unpredictable ally.  It’s hard to air doubts or work through a problem honestly, if you think your friends will see a concession as evidence of weakness.

Setting up norms that counter that pattern is what I think my debating group did best.  I’ve never been part of any other community that succeeded so well in making it safe to be wrong, but not to stay wrong.