“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).

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.

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  • Nick

    “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.”
    I’m curious: do you think that these doubts were always justified? For example, if your “smart religious friends” like your ex-boyfriend did not budge on religious matters (I’m assuming they didn’t and that they were in the debating group), does this make them unengaged or just in the right?

  • My idea of “breaking on the floor” consisted of the occasions on which a couple of (male) candidates for “debating society” office were reduced to tears on the election caucus floor, effectively destroying their candidacies.

  • So were you liberal about what counts as breaking on the floor? For example, does your eventual conversion moment count for happening during an argument? If yes, why is such an accident so important; wouldn’t it be just as impressive if it had happened some other time? If it doesn’t count, I’ll just ask the question you are begging for: “Did you ever break on the floor?”

    Also I disagree with the expectation and would prefer a “no” answer. I think it’s reasonable to expect someone to have broken on something eventually, but doing it instantly looks like too much trust in one’s instantaneous rationality. A “thinko” is among the most likely explanations for any surprising new insight. Obviously I’ve never had my philosophical discussions formalized enough for there to be a floor, but even figuratively I “broke on the floor” once in my life and that was when I was about twelve years old and had never really thought about the question before. Getting hooked for more discussions and updating eventually seems much more reasonable.

    Unrelated and more pragmatically: How does the “only arguments you believe” thing work for team debates? Didn’t you ever want to debate something nobody really wanted? And didn’t you have joke debates? (German example: “T.h.w. flood the Netherlands.”)

    I find this interesting, because my tradition is the exact opposite. At my uni debating club we would choose the topic and then draw lots who had to argue which side. The first thing everybody would learn is that debates present conflicts, if you’re trying to solve them that’s a discussion. That convention can help one’s philosophy too (it’s basically like a permanent ideological Turing test, so you’d better be able to imagine rational people disagreeing) but it’s totally unlike what you are describing.

  • R: The correct answer is yes.

    Some may say that the best answer is yes, for a variety of implicit reasons.
    1. It shows intellectual honesty.
    2. It shows a grasp of the arguments at hand.

    On the contrary, the correct answer is actually No.

    1. Because it is better to be exceedingly well-prepared and give a detailed argument with a great many careful steps and careful definitions, it is therefore better to have which is very meticulously laid out. It is also better to double-check your work when away from the rostrum, for equivocation and leaps of logic — from your self or the neg side — are a lot easier to spot when temperatures are cooler. Intellectual honesty being nothing but patience and humility, and breaking on the floor undermining these two traits, the desirable answer is no.
    2. Grasp of an argument under the pressure of the podium does not necessarily mean a knack for discerning truth. It may, as in the case of demogouges, mean only a knack for rhetoric, or playing to the biases and sympathies of a known audience. This is not a quality you would want on even something as minor as student council. This leads us to the third point.

    Therefore, the best answer, when tempted to break on the floor — and the only honest answer in any other setting, for that matter — is to resist the temptation.

    That you should take the criticisms seriously and under advisement, not to capitulate on stage, is for a better disputatio.

    • Needless to say, this point necessarily shifts the meaning of “correct” to “desirable.” The correct answer is always the truth. This argument intends to get more at the root of the issue, which is: “Which is more desirable in a person? That he has broken on the floor or that he hasn’t?”

      • Also needless to say is that there are a variety of typos in the comment due to last-minute revisions. Oy vey.

    • I think the correct answer is actually the one that happens to be true. “Have you broken on the floor?” is a question of past history, not present temperament. I’m not sure why Leah framed the question as one of being correct/incorrect for everyone independent of experience. There could be a best answer for everyone (I would answer no because I have been deprived of a good floor, which is definitely not-best), but that’s entirely different from correct/incorrect.

      • Being that this use of “correct” was idiomatic, this comment does not quite follow.

  • So, did you encounter much irrationality at rationality camp? Seriously.

  • Zinc’s description of “breaking on the floor” sounds like how I would have interpreted it in the late 70s. I’m glad to see that the Party is more like the LessWrong community now than it was when I was active. (Not that changing one’s mind was often discouraged back then, but it was often rewarded at less than optimal rates). (The Party certainly helped me learn some attitudes that were valuable for the rationality minicamp that I attended).

    To Crude:

    I saw signs of irrationality at the June rationality minicamp. E.g. persistent disagreements over how likely it is that AI will destroy humanity. (The people involved agree that persistent disagreements indicate that someone is being irrational).

    Important parts of the camp asked us to accept our irrationality instead of imagining that we could avoid it. E.g. we respond to different rewards in ways that differ somewhat irrationally; we should use our understanding of that to design good rewards rather than try to fix our reactions to rewards.

    I reacted irrationally to the rejection therapy exercise (it took a good deal of skill for the instructor to explain the exercise in a way that I would recognize the irrationality of my reaction; I’m still wondering what to do about that).

    • The people involved agree that persistent disagreements indicate that someone is being irrational

      What, there’s no room for people to be starting with different axioms? Or is it considered that only a particular set of axioms are, in fact, rational?

  • ds

    I used to break on the floor. The floor was a bunch of taped together cardboard in my garage.