There are four distinct types of debate topics: Empirical, Comparative, Model, and Abstract. Any given subject matter can be used for any type of debate – the difference is in how debaters are expected to approach the topic.
1. Empirical Topics
Empirical topics are often called ‘Simple’ topics because they are the simplest form of debate. They present a statement that can either be true or false, with each side presenting evidence. Debates are always controversial; the central argument is one of opinion, not known fact. While the simplest to debate, empirical topics are often the hardest to set, because neither side should have a clear advantage. It is easy to find topics on which people disagree about the facts, but it is quite difficult to find topics for neither side has the preponderance of evidence.
Today, the statement that smoking causes cancer is a fact, not an opinion. The science is in. In the 1920s, however, when the science was emerging and the issue was one of social controversy and relevance, this would have made a great empirical topic. In real life, empirical topics are most useful for determining what is true, and have close analogies to establishing guilt or innocence in a court of law.
The other staple of empirical debates are questions of ethics and morality, which cannot be determined by fact. Is universal health care a human right? Is euthanasia murder? Does God exist? These topics tend to be controversial and emotionally charged; a ‘simple’ topic does not necessarily indicate simple subject matter! While these types of topics are common at high school levels, they are often inappropriate for junior-school debaters.
2. Comparative Topics
Comparative topics present two conceptually linked things and ask debaters to rank them: one thing is better or worse, more or less important, than the other. Sometimes the comparison may be hidden, with wording like ‘the best’ or ‘the most important’, where the thing it is being compared to is inferred rather than specified. The key to these debates is that both concepts must be discussed. You cannot prove a thing is the best only by discussing that thing, because no matter how wonderful it is there remains the possibility that something else is better. In order to prove a thing is the best you must compare it to the other possibilities and demonstrate how they fall short.
Using our smoking example, a good comparative topic would be that vaping is less dangerous than smoking. In order to argue this topic, the dangers of vaping must be compared with the dangers of smoking. The affirmative would try to demonstrate that vaping is less dangerous than smoking; the negative would try to demonstrate that vaping is equally or more dangerous than smoking.
3. Model Topics
Model debates propose some kind of change, usually indicated by the word ‘should’. It is a more advanced debating technique which brings debating out of the purely theoretical and into parliament, the business place, and/or the home. The affirmative must not only demonstrate that the change is desirable, but also present a plan for how that change might be enacted. The negative may argue that the change is not desirable, or they might instead agree that the change is desirable in theory but would be impractical and/or harmful in real life.
Continuing with our smoking example, a good model topic might be that smoking should be illegal. Both teams might agree that in a perfect world, nobody would smoke. The affirmative team needs to demonstrate not that smoking is bad (which is accepted to be fact), but that society would be better off if it were illegal, and present a plan for how we get from here to there. Do we make an addictive substance illegal overnight? Do we raise the age requirement to purchase cigarettes by one year each year, attempting to age smokers out of the population? What penalties or punishments enforce this law, and why would they be effective?
The negative might argue we should not make smoking illegal for some fundamental, intrinsic flaw with the concept – the ‘free will’ argument is a staple in model debates! The right of the government to legislate against personal autonomy and what people choose to do with their own bodies is fertile ground for a debater. The brunt of their argument, however, should be focused on demonstrating that the affirmative’s plan is impractical, unachievable, nonviable, or will create consequences more negative than the status quo.
In order to enact change in real life, those championing an idea must be able to navigate this style of argument, taking constructive criticism from the objections raised and refining the plan, but avoiding the all-too-common gap of good intentions never practical enough to be implemented. Similarly, insufficient input from the real-life equivalent of the negative team often results in change that is too expensive for the benefits it brings, is unsustainable, or does not achieve the actual goals. While more difficult for the debaters, and consequently more appropriate for those with some debating experience, the real-life application of skills for model debates more than justifies the added complexity.
4. Abstract Topics
Abstract debates are the hardest for the debater, usually taking the form of a saying or aphorism, in which a direct definition of the topic’s wording has little to do with what it means. Abstract debates are rarely the topics of serious debates or debating competitions, but frequently the topics for comedy or performance debates.
That an apple a day keeps the doctor away is a good example of an abstract debate. A literal translation would impart upon apples some temporary doctor-repelling qualities, or imply that apples are a miracle food. Either definition would be ridiculous. Treated this way, the negative team would win every time, and there would be nothing to actually debate. Instead, this topic could legitimately be taken to mean that healthy eating keeps a person in good health; or that specifically eating fresh fruit keeps a person in good health; or that regular daily health maintenance prevents more serious health complications. The danger of an abstract debate is that, as all these interpretations are equally legitimate, it diminishes the likelihood that the teams will define it the same way – and therefore be debating the same topic.
Let’s revisit all four types of debate with a different subject matter – and since COVID-19 has dominated all of our lives over the last year, let’s use it as inspiration for our topics.
Empirical: That flattening the curve justifies the freedoms we have to give up.
Comparative: That obesity is the highest risk factor for COVID-19.
Model: That a COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory when it is released.
Abstract: That an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.
All four topics prompt a debate about COVID-19, but they require very different things from the debaters. Take a moment to think about what each topic is asking you to do. Which topic would you prefer to argue? Do you think the negative or the affirmative has a harder job to do, and why? Could you make a convincing case with what you already know, or would you need to do some research? Where might you look for that information? Thinking about these sorts of questions will help you support your young debater in their journey.