Comparative Impact Calculus

Impact calculus is important, but is often done so poorly as to be functionally worthless. The following is not an impact calculus: The disadvantage outweighs the case: A) timeframe – it happens faster B) probability – it’s more likely C) magnitude – it ends in extinction! Congratulations, you have defined timeframe, probability, and magnitude and you have told me nothing.

- Andres Gannon

Impact calculus wins rounds. No, really. It is the most important type of clashing that should occur during a debate because it resolves that underlying question of who is the judge voting for and why. Unless the other team is really bad or messes-up horribly, a debate round cannot be evaluated without some sort of methodology through which to determine the relative strength of impacts. This article will explore how to set up a consistently effective impact calculus.

First, we all know that “impact calculus” traditionally consists of timeframe, magnitude, and probability. But as Andres has pointed out, simply demonstrating how these things apply to a case (or to a disad/K/whatever) is pathetically insufficient.

What is wrong with the following statement?

Our impact outweighs on magnitude--resource wars will kill millions within a matter of decades as nations race for energy. This competition risks nuclear conflicts that threaten to annihilate all life on the planet. We also outweigh on timeframe and probability--resources are finite and will run out within a matter of decades, there are zero stopgap solutions at hand.

The first thing we notice is that resource wars appear to be very, very bad and something that is best avoided. The problem is that there is never any mention of what exactly it outweighs, and, more importantly, why it outweighs that specific impact.

It is not enough just to describe how big and bad the impacts are. Anyone with a half-decent imagination can type out pre-written blocks that sound like the above. Expert debaters rely on comparative impact calculus, explaining why their impacts matter more in the context of their opponents’ arguments and impacts. They compare impacts and then explain why their side of the story makes the other side pale in comparison.

The first thing we need to do is eliminate our conventional definition of impact calculus. Believe it or not, debaters are not just limited to time-frame/magnitude/probability. In fact, if that is all that is being used, a speaker is probably in trouble.

Things to think about:

- Have I turned anything? If opponents are relying on an impact that YOU have link turned, point that out. If YOU have impact or link-turned something, explain why that turn plus your other offense outweighs.

- What about uniqueness and inevitability claims? Keep in mind that “try or die” is one of the most overused phrases in debate. But try to convey how a near-certain impact affects how we should act. How are the opponents' impacts altered in a world where one’s own impacts occur? How do they interact? How does the direction of uniqueness shape risk?

- Are we weighing the plan versus the status quo or the plan versus a counter-plan? These call for two distinct types of impact calculus. For the former, debaters are trying to outweigh disads. For the latter, debaters need to explain how the offense/solvency deficit on the counter-plan outweigh the net benefits to the counter-plan or vice versa. Remember, if they have got a counter-plan that solves most of the case, one is sharing the same case impacts, so there is no use in saying the case outweighs the net benefit. Instead, if one has argued a solvency deficit, explain how a risk that the counter-plan does not solve 100% of the case outweighs the net benefit. (Obviously, this is not the only argument to be making.)

- How tangible are the impacts? Is there a specific scenario of events or is it just guesswork? For example, most go-to “economic collapse causes war” cards are weak because they do not outline specific countries who would go to war, why they would go to war, who else would get involved, where nuclear escalation would occur, etc. Point these types of things out as a reason to prefer concrete scenarios.

- How much of the impact is solved? Are there other potential causes? If they do not really address all the root causes of a specific impact, then that is a pretty large amount of mitigation that is available. If they prevent economic collapse by propping up a specific industry, but they do nothing to address the hundreds of other economic problems, then at best it is probably just a stopgap solution.

- Point out gaps in their logic. One of the things that I absolutely HATE about debaters nowadays is how lazy they are. They do not read enough evidence to fill in the blanks in their story. One of the most blatant examples is the following story: “X increases terrorism generally,” “terrorism causes extinction.” Of course, the extinction impact has to do with nuclear terrorism, which is not even mentioned in the previous card. So how did we go from an increase in suicide bombers to nuclear weapons being detonated in Manhattan? As a judge, I have no clue. Smart debaters will point these inconsistencies out and utilize them in impact calculus.

So, with all that in mind, let us go back and revise that example of impact calculus from above:

Resource wars outweigh poverty--we’ll grant that their systemic impacts are occurring now. But they’ve conceded that poverty and structural violence would increase in a world where resource shortages and wars are inevitable due to production declines and population pressures, that’s our Smith 2010 evidence. This also link turns their argument--they can’t leverage offense against us at the point where ignoring the crisis will increase poverty exponentially compared to any small increase linked to the plan. We also outweigh on magnitude - not only do we solve poverty better in the long run, we prevent resource wars which kill millions and terminate in nuclear holocaust, causing extinction. Their Gilligan ’96 evidence won’t help them here--they concede they can’t quantify the number of people who would enter poverty as a result of the plan. They also concede other systemic causes for structural violence still exist which means at best they solve only a tiny fraction of the impact. Nuke war kills billions instantly, if we win any risk of the impact you’re going to hand us the ballot.

This is obviously much more nuanced and much more persuasive. Could it be better? Yes, of course, but obviously I just made this up off the top of my head without actual in-round arguments which to refer.

Remember, always explain the story when doing impact calculus. Do not just describe scenarios; explain how they outweigh what opponents have brought to the round. Do that and a debater should be in a better position.