#93: Debate is a Battle of Beliefs — But Does It Have The Power To Change Them? (feat. Bo Seo)
Disagreements are a foundation of liberal democracy, but only when they're productive. I explore what good arguments look like with a world champion debater.
My episode last week featured a conversation with author David McCraney about what it takes to change someone’s mind on a big, important topic like religion, or abortion, or guns. And the overriding conclusion of McRaney’s research on the topic was that facts alone don’t change minds. From emotions and feelings to social dynamics, beliefs are embedded in a complex web of factors that rationality alone can do little to unwind. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
My guest this week is a two time world champion of debate. He’s coached debate for Harvard, as well as the Australian national team, and he’s currently a law student at Harvard. His name is Bo Seo, and his new book is called Good Arguments.
In the book, Bo tells the story of his own trajectory through the debate world and what he’s learned about the structure of successful debate along the way. And I wanted to talk to Bo about this because debate is a kind of idealized battle of beliefs. One side gives their perspective. The other side makes the opposing case. Whichever side’s argument is more convincing is declared the winner. And it’s this kind of idealized form of debate that many of us, Bo included, envision as this core principle of a working democracy. You let two opposing sides each present the best version of their case. Then the rest of us get to decide which one to believe. But it feels less and less like these kind of good arguments are happening in our society. Sometimes they don’t even feel possible anymore.
So in this conversation, I wanted to explore the mechanisms of formal debate. Why does competitive debate work the way it does? What happens if you change the formula? What might we be overlooking by trying to over-generalize the competitive debate format to the rest of society? And is debate the right model to use if our ultimate goal is changing minds? These questions are all especially worth asking to contrast with the decidedly non-debate models of mind-changing David McCraney and I had discussed last week.
Bo’s book, Good Arguments, is out. Now you can find him on Twitter @HelloBoSeo or on his website helloboseo.com. If you enjoy this episode and want to stay up to date with the rest of my work, please consider subscribing to my Substack newsletter at againsthabit.com.