Debate Rules

I’m thinking about inviting people to participate in an online debate. This is of course different from a live debate, in which arguments are spoken and the whole thing must be wrapped up in a single session. I actually prefer written rather than spoken, and the possibility to include graphics. This post is a request to readers to submit ideas for debate rules.

What I have in mind is this: The debate will consist of three rounds. Round 1 is the argument “for” or “against” the stated proposition. Rounds 2 and 3 may consist of further arguments, or of responses to the adversary’s previous arguments.

Round 1 will be limited to 1000 words; anything beyond the 1000-word limit will be cut off, so if you (as one of the participants) go beyond that, your submission will be incomplete. Round 1 also allows for as many as 5 images, which will appear at the end of the post giving the text, and may be referred to in the text as “figure 1,” “figure 2,” etc., up to “figure 5.” If more than 5 images are submitted, the additional ones will be omitted so your contribution might have a reference to “figure 6” but no 6th image will be present.

Rounds 2 and 3 are limited to 500 words and up to 3 images. Each will be one day later than the preceding, so the whole debate will take three days.

The moderator (me, unless I’m one of the participants) may not comment except to point out specific falsehoods. The moderator is encouraged to point out specific falsehoods.

For each round, both sides’ arguments will be presented in a single blog post. Which comes first will be determined by the flip of a virtual coin (i.e., a random number generator).

These rules seem rational to me, but I’m posting this to solicit suggestions — what’s good, what’s bad, what’s better, etc. I’m also soliciting opinions on debate questions to be argued. They should be climate-related.

So, let me know what you think.

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47 responses to “Debate Rules

  1. To make sure we understand the intended format:

    1. Each debate will be between two readers of the site, with tamino as moderator…
    2. …unless tamino decides to participate in one of the debates himself, in which case, who would be the moderator?

    I’m supposing tamino will also select round 1 of each debate himself, based on a reader’s submission being of sufficient merit to kick off an interesting debate?

  2. The important, masterful task is to carefully craft the resolution to be debated.
    Resolved: the US should tax carbon
    or The US should tax any form of carbon emerging from the ground
    or The Nations of the World should tax carbon… etc
    or Resolved, since all carbon combustion is an attack on the future of humans, a 100% carbon tax will be levied to fund future problems starting… etc.
    or my favorite: … Carbon combustion may be used for the sole purpose of deploying clean energy, all other use of carbon fuel will be insanely taxed….
    or the simple: Resolved: All nations should recognize the Global Common Wealth of Carbon fuels and restrict and tax appropriately.
    o Resolved, Ocean acidification shall not get any worse….

    heck, we could debate just composing the question to debate.

    Or the obtuse: Resolved: Apocalyptic Cornucopianism shall be declared the religion of Earth.

    So you might as well take it over, many of us will defer to your decision

  3. Arthur Smith

    Sounds like what they tried with “climate dialogue” a few years ago. It may have done some good but basically people end up talking past one another and you cannot get a contrarian to admit to anything no matter how you try. But it would probably be worth looking up how that ran first if you aren’t already familiar with it.

  4. I’m intrigued. Knowing as I do that in a face to face debate with experienced debaters I would be annihilated irrespective of the validity of the arguments, having written arguments with the time and opportunity for consideration and fact checking – and short-circuiting some of the less noble debating trickery – certainly appeals to me. I am assuming a one on one debate – by invitation?

    I don’t have a problem with the rules as you’ve presented. Fact checking is very significant and the presenting of false or misleading information – which often is not called out in an adequate and timely manner – has been one of the banes of climate related debates. Having some informed experts on tap, should the debates or arguments get technical could be good. Subjects? I’m not averse to doing over some recurrent politics and policy ones but the choices go well beyond those… Should climate scientists become activists? How should policy makers who have no relevant expertise choose which expert advice to accept and which to ignore?

  5. Greg Simpson

    The rules sound fine to me.

    Possible topics:
    —Is burning biomass and capturing the carbon a safe and affordable process?
    —Is capturing carbon dioxide in gravel safe and affordable?
    —Can carbon dioxide be safely stored underground?
    —Is nuclear a viable option?
    —Would iron fertilization work?

  6. John McCormick

    Be it resolved: The collective action of US citizens to mitigate climate change can only be accomplished with a nation-wide CO2 cap and invest and not at the hand of Congress. AB 32 and RGGI places that action in the hands of States and there is no other option.

  7. I have a similar view on this to Ken Fabian.

    Arthur Smith may be correct in saying “you cannot get a contrarian to admit to anything no matter how you try”. However, the contrarians will be a vanishing species. The argument now is between climate hopefuls and climate pessimists. (I’m a pessimist with a tiny bit of hope left.)


    Electric cars or no cars?
    Green growth or de-growth?
    Building insulation or warming indoor furniture?
    Is a universal basic income necessary to save the planet? (because we need lower consumption & so lower productivity for full employment)


    Clips of about a minute can be very effective, especially if each one is followed by transcripts with references and discussion.

    A TV series in the making?

  8. Id love to see Tamino and some others
    make the best case they can for ideas
    they normally dispute.
    Eg. Make a case for zero sea level rise.
    Or volcanoes are causing SLR exclusivly!
    Im so used to deniers writing incoherent
    blatently wrong rubbish peppered with
    It would be a pleasure ( and a learning exercise ) to see denial done
    well, and theres some talent here.
    Betcha Tamino could make a ripper hiatus graph! Haha.

    The format outlined seems very reasonable.
    Something is really neat about the post.
    Tamino asks ” whats better ? ”
    Theres a lack of ego in that. An understanding that being challenged or
    bettered, is not a personal slight, its a
    step higher for everyone.
    Look forward to any debates if they happen.

  9. Depending on the topics/participants chosen, controlling attempts at Gish galloping may be important. It’s not as bad in a written debate as a verbal one I guess – but still, it’s important to make sure the participants hew to the precise topic of the debate.

  10. Great idea, but most of those who may take a position opposite Tamino and the team have been driven from site. You guys generally don’t welcome opposing viewpoints.

    • Greg Simpson

      While there are many people who would be willing to argue that an ice age is coming and we should emit all the carbon dioxide we can to prevent it, I’m not interested in reading the thoughts of idiots. Luckily, you’re right, they have mostly left here. There are, however, many topics where the right answer is not clear to me, and it is there where a debate would be useful.

      [Response: I’m keen to know which topics those are. Please let us know what you think.]

      • I’ve already listed some topics above, though to be honest I’ve already formed a firm opinion about some of them. The main theme is that we know warming is happening and that it will get worse. Now, what are our best responses? There is a lack of agreement even among the most knowledgeable.

    • Yes, you should always have an open mind, but you should not have it so open than your brain falls out.

      Someone who thinks the warming is caused by Martian Heat Rays may be discounted from this site, but that doesn’t make it a valid viewpoint. As Dilbert said: when did ignorance become a point of view?

    • BB, you miss the point. Dr T always welcomes INFORMED opposing viewpoints. What he doesn’t welcome is flaming crackpots who insist their anti-science nuttiness be taken seriously.

    • Andrew Hobbs

      Those who left are mostly the ones who deny the basic fact of climate change. I don’t see how you can debate that fact..
      Where debate would be useful is what to do about it, if anything. Carbon taxes or caps, carbon capture, umbrellas in space, usefulness of electric cars, should we eliminate the airline industry, can renewable energy power our current lifestyle, moving house to higher altitude how to get people motivated, etc.

  11. Suggestion: start by inviting each would-be participant to state and support a fact on which all reasonable thinking people agree.

    Once that’s settled, try a second fact.

    Once sufficient facts are agreed upon, invite suggestions of a proposition based on those facts.

    • I’d second this point, though you may not need to go fact by fact. The moderator could facilitate a list of agreed and disputed facts before the debate, and publish before the debate. Any debating points that contravened the agreed facts could be pointed out by the moderator.

      This would certainty help focus discussion. While contrarians tend to have a bad habit of moving the goalposts on what they agree and don’t agree, its a sin anyone can indulge in.

  12. A cross-examination round could also be interesting/helpful. You could limit it to 3 or 4 questions (from each side) before closing remarks.

  13. I think you need to re-think the role of the moderator. To me, a moderator is the strictly neutral individual who ensures that the debate follows the agreed-upon forms and rules — process, not substance. Having the moderator also become the arbiter of truth and falsity could easily result in the moderator being seen as a participant instead of an observer. If the debate is conducted on a topic for which your point of view is generally known, then those who disagree with you are unlikely to see the process as fair.

  14. If you are allowing graphics, then you will have to set a word limit within the graphics – perhaps simply explaining x, y, units and source. This to prevent a picture being 1000 words.

    “The moderator is encouraged to point out specific falsehoods.” That’s an optimistic goal, but leaves nuance and misdirection as fair game. Choice of debate topic will be important – narrowing the question might be the best bet.

  15. I’m not sure I get the point of debates in this context. Debate always comes with a healthy (or, often enough, UNhealthy) dose of advocacy and gamesmanship. It can be fun–I used to be a competitive debater, way, way back–but for educational purposes I think I prefer a more conversational model.

  16. Don’t do it. I’ve seen a number of attempts at formal online debate fail spectacularly for various reasons, not the least of which is the non-real-time nature of the conversation.

    Constraining the size of a post to X words opens you up to Gish gallops; I can throw out N bad arguments, and you can’t even begin to address more than a couple of them within the required limits. You’d need additional constraints on the number of arguments made in a single post, but that depends on how you define “argument”.

  17. We might look at as a guide for the wrong way to do this… this site exists only to promote denialism. It builds the faux debate as a way of validating antiscience. It has been doing this for years.

  18. Include the caveats of your promoted data yourself or submit an automatic cede of the claim.

    E.g. a claim of -1C/century cooling has no caveat (error bars, for example), hence showing data for a period that warms places the caveat and nullifies the claim.

    After all, you’re meant to be skeptical of your own claims first.

  19. Have you revisited this post? If not can I persuade you to? Thanks.

    • Quick thanks for pointing out this post.
      The post and subsequent comments are a rip roaring insightful read.
      It actually raised a thought on what could be a debate topic.
      If the area of interest is climate, is it
      reasonable to use observations of weather as they are seperate entities.
      Kinda. Sorta.
      Im almost certain my ignorance is showing by this question.

    • The whole calculation and bet evaluation scheme would have to be redone as the GISS temperature data base was changed in 2012 and 2016. Would be interesting to see effects of “pause” and record 2015 warmth on the bet criteria.

  20. Wow.. eight and a half years ago. And it applies so well, why does it get put back into the WayBackMachine? Is that a fault of WordPress? Should you consider an archive outside of WordPress?

  21. Sheldon J. Walker

    I have a suggestion for a topic to debate.

    The Gistemp temperature anomaly for June 2015 was 0.79 degrees Celsius.
    The Gistemp temperature anomaly for February 2016 was 1.32 degrees Celsius.
    In 8 months the temperature anomaly increased by 0.53 degrees Celsius.

    The question is, how much of the 0.53 degrees Celsius increase was caused by man-made global warming?

    [Response: That’s not a topic for “debate,” it’s an illustration of ignorance. It might be a good topic for some very fundamental education, especially for those who are suckered when you try to make “debate” out of nonsense.]

    • Sheldon J. Walker

      I have suggested this as a serious question. I don’t understand why you call it “an illustration of ignorance”. Please explain what you mean. Are you trying to avoid debating this question?

      • Well, for one, you claim the anomaly as if it were fact, not a measurement that contains errors placing “reality” (if it were possible to record it 100% accurately) within those bounds.

        Secondly, a month’s temperature would be including a massive number of factors, some of which can’t be extracted at any feasible future date, and some of those factors would apply or not differently depending on which month, making the term of the question flaccid.

        Third, what would the answer be useful for? If the answer was “Probably more than 0.53C”, so what? What are people meant to get from the end of the discussion?

        Fourth, what would an answer do for predicting the future? All it would have solved is what AGW caused in the past, with nothing about what it contributes to a future. After all, at some point in the future, there would be a different solar output, or a different ocean index, all of which makes for a different result.

        Your question relies on a complete misunderstanding of the basic information you’re arguing on, and that is why it’s called ill informed.

      • A serious question which would reveal what? Be specific.

        That is what he means by “an illustration of ignorance”.

      • To put it more simply, a ‘point-to-point’ comparison of two arbitrarily chosen monthly anomalies discards almost all the available information on temperature. Why do that?

      • Doc and Wow: Let Sheldon work it out for himself. He is, after all, self-proclaimed to produce work on par with professional scientists. Therefore he should have no trouble understanding what Tamino is getting at.

    • Greg Simpson

      If I’ve figured right, around 4%. The yearly variation in temperatures can be much larger than the warming in that time, but this is not surprising for any of us.

  22. My problem/question for debate is why if warming is occurring at a faster rate now but the rate is still slow in terms of human experience should people look for Climate changes to ascribe to global warming when they know, as Tamino has said, that the small average changes that have occurred are not and will not be large enough to cause demonstrable climate change occurrences for at least 60 to 100 years.
    Could we stop blaming tornadoes and Hurricanes and coral bleaching to El Nino and concentrate on assessing the trend and when it will actually become serious?

    [Response: Here in the U.S. we’ve had 8 once-in-500-years weather events in the last 12 months. Without the climate change that has *already* accumulated, that wouldn’t have happened. The situation has already “become serious” and the people of Louisiana (to name just *one* example) are paying the price, some with their lives.

    When people say things like nothing terrible will happen “for at least 60 to 100 years,” then whether idiots or liars or both, they have blood on their hands.]

    • Quite a few extreme weather events have by now been formally attributed in probabilistic terms to climate change. There’s a whole developing scientific literature on that; the field is usually referred to as ‘attribution’ for short.

      Totting up the effects of just a few of the leading events that have been so attributed (such as the 2003 European heat wave that resulted in up to 70,000 premature deaths), plus events which are linked to climate change (such as Hurricane Katrina, which rapidly intensified to Category 5 while passing over unusually warm Gulf waters that likely would not have been quite so warm without climate change), you will find that climate change thus far has likely cost humanity over a hundred thousand premature deaths and well over a hundred billion dollars.

      • In the private sector actuaries are calculating these issues in economic terms. There is a reason flood insurance in low lying coastal areas is unobtainable at any affordable cost without government subsidies.

  23. “Here in the U.S. we’ve had 8 once-in-500-years weather events in the last 12 months.”
    Attribution to Climate change of any once in in a 500 year event, let alone 8 of them, is a difficult and fraught mathematical concept at best, which I am sure that you are very well aware of.
    For at least 2 mathematical reasons you are aware of , though there are probably a lot more.
    If you feel you can/should use rare events as proof I would be happy to discuss it further.
    As said the case for attribution to Climate change of weather events and worsening weather events or heaven forbid improving weather events is one of those difficult questions.

    [Response: Attribution to cigarette smoking of even one specific case of lung cancer is a difficult and fraught mathematical concept at best, which I am sure that you are very well aware of.

    It’s just as clear that the increase in the *rates* of lung cancer, despite their rarity, makes tobacco deadly. That’s why tobacco companies contested attribution for so long. It’s why they continue to do so for second-hand smoke. That’s why they pushed the “science is not settled” and “it’s so complicated there are things we’ll never know” angle.

    Congratulations! You are doing an outstanding job of following the tobacco misinformation playbook.]

    • I’m not too fond of using rare events, either, but there are plenty of non-rare events that show the same things.

  24. Angech,
    Let us imagine that you and I are playing five-card draw. Are you telling me that if I had 2 full houses, a staight and a 5 flushes in 8 hands that you wouldn’t bat an eye and just keep playing?


    So, want to play poker some time?

  25. “snarkrates |Angech,
    Let us imagine that you and I are playing five-card draw. Are you telling me that if I had 2 full houses, a straight and a 5 flushes in 8 hands that you wouldn’t bat an eye and just keep playing?”
    Confusing playing Poker and statistics is what keeps cardsharps happy.
    At the straight statistical level I would be amazed at your seeming good fortune.
    If a losing player I would be sorry to be in the game.
    But, and listen to this, you did not specify what cards I had in opposition. Amazing as your luck was I might have had even better luck.
    Secondly if I was playing poker against you in this scenario your next hanD would be 4 aces, all your money and I would accidentally put down my winning King high straight flush.

    [Response: You’re quite naive.]

  26. Attribution is a double edged sword and can be an extremely difficult and fraught mathematical concept at times.
    That is why remarks about
    “Here in the U.S. we’ve had 8 once-in-500-years weather events in the last 12 months. Without the climate change that has *already* accumulated, that wouldn’t have happened.”
    are misleading.
    The US is a very big place.
    “weather events” unspecified are extremely common.
    Once in 500 year weather events of a specific nature and a specific location are a rare event in any one year [0.2%].
    But given enough events and enough locations they become extremely common.
    There are hundreds or thousands or more of one in 500 year weather events in the U.S. in a single year which makes the fact that you have only chosen to identify 8 of them nothing to do with accumulated climate change at all.

    [Response: None so blind as those who will not see.]

  27. Angech,
    Seriously, Dude. We need to play poker.

  28. We completely lost the language battle when we ceded that global warming equals climate change.

    When everything is different about the two phrases…. I use it to spot trolls because saying “not caused by climate change” is a tactical maneuver.designed to confuse – it requires complex statistics and definitions of climate as a history of weather data.

    But to say “caused by global warming” is easy and always true since it is about heat and atmosphere. Warm air holds more water, Warm air moves slower, hot air is dryer. Every weather event is influenced by global warming.

    And to fully reclaim the difference – global warming is about the heating of the globe. Climate change is about viewing past regional data.