A laptop on a rostrum next to a microphone in a large meeting room.
A laptop on a rostrum next to a microphone in a large meeting room.

Designed to allow both sides of an issue to be presented equally in terms of time and the ability to respond to counterpoints, debates are an integral part of both the political process and higher academia. The advantages of debating include providing in depth information about an issue from from both sides and the fact that they stimulate critical thinking, often fostering deeper reflection and investigation about the given issue. But debates may also become problematic, as in some cases the personalities involved may distract from the issue and in other cases the debate itself may give credence to an otherwise fringe opinion that is better left uncontested..

Overcoming Bias and Violence

Debates allow for a more well-rounded exploration of a subject. Because both sides of the issue are presented, any potential bias that a single presenter may have is effectively countered by the opposing arguments. The clearest pro to presenting an issue through debate is that those that are observing the argument are presented with both sides of an issue from dedicated proponents of each side.That these sides are presented in a peaceful manner is also a major advantage to settling disagreements through debating, as debates replace aggression and confrontation with reason and logic.

Intellectual Exercise

The process of debate forces each individual debater to fully understand and organize his topic in a way that is not only clear to himself but can be expressed just as clearly. According to an study conducted on sixth- through eighth-grade children in Harlem public schools by Deanna Kuhn and Amanda Crowell of Columbia University’s Teachers College, students who used debate as a study method in their philosophy class were able to present their arguments much better in essay form at the end of the semester then their peers who took a similar philosophy class without using debate in class. Researchers of the study concluded that debate allowed the students to understand opposing viewpoints, identify faulty logic and weigh evidence better than their peers.

Personality and Debate

One of the great criticisms of debates is that they may allow for personality to play a part in the presentation of the issue. The first televised presidential debate in the United States for example, which featured Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy, is often used as an excellent example of this. Polls showed that those that heard the debate on radio considered Nixon the winner, although those that watched in on television considered Kennedy triumphant. Many argue that the reason for this was due to pure personality and performance, as Kennedy looked straight into the camera, smiled, laughed and in general was younger and better looking than Nixon. However, the different poll figures may also be due in part to the generation gap, as Kennedy was more popular with younger voters, who were also more likely to watch the debate on television than the radio.

When Debating Becomes Meaningless

In certain circumstances debate may not just be useless but downright counterproductive, even if your side of the issue is the correct one. This is especially true in issues such as racism or or other hate-related topics where debating someone just gives a platform to offensive or harmful views. Prominent evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins uses this argument to explain why he no longer debates creationists. According to Dawkins, most creationists don't care if they win or lose, they just want the publicity. In situations like these, just the fact that a debate is happening at all may give credence to issues that otherwise would not be in the spotlight.