Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Liberty Debate Team, Take 3

You know, for all of Jerry Falwell’s complaining about the “liberal media”, he’s getting an astonishing amount of credulous and fawning coverage over the completely meaningless fact of the Liberty debate team being ranked #1 in the nation according to a point(less) system. The latest is a long article in the New York Times Magazine, of all places. Mark Twain famously said that there are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics. This is a perfect example.

As I’ve explained before, the #1overall ranking in college debate is nothing more than a total points system that counts novice, junior varsity and varsity all together and ignores the quality of the competition. Liberty University gets to be #1 ranked by sending lots and lots of novices and JV debaters to smaller regional tournaments, piling up points. But their varsity team is slightly above average at very best. No varsity team from Liberty has finished with a winning record at the National Debate Tournament (NDT) in the last 8 years.

Here’s a few more stats that might illuminate the true reality. Let’s look at the winning percentages of the top teams from around the nation (each team is 2 people and each school typically has multiple teams entered in tournaments). Michigan State leads the way with two teams above 82% (one at 87%, far and away best in the nation). Behind them are the usual suspects – Emory, Berkeley, Northwestern. Where’s Liberty? Their highest ranked team is 81st with a 54.2% winning percentage. None of their other teams are in the top 120.

When weighted for quality, matched against the top winning teams, Liberty’s top team is ranked 111th with a 3-6 record against the top 25. In matchups against teams that “clear” at tournaments – meaning teams that qualify for the elimination rounds at tournaments – Liberty doesn’t rank at all and is below 26% in wins against them. And when you actually do adjust for quality of competition, where does the Liberty team rank? How about 117th.

Despite this, they’re all over the media claiming to be the best debate team in the country, “higher ranked than Harvard”, and the media is lapping it up like a hungry kitten. This is utter nonsense. I don’t begrudge them the fact that they focus on giving opportunities to younger kids who never debated in high school. I think that’s valuable and laudable and great for those kids. But piling up points that way doesn’t make you the best debate team in the nation and going around claiming it does is highly misleading.

In no other competitive activity are the rankings compiled this way. If Tiger Woods spent his time competing in Nike tour events instead of the PGA and dominated at that lower level, he wouldn’t be the #1 ranked golfer in the world. When readers see an article declaring that Liberty University is the #1 ranked debate team in the nation, “higher ranked than Harvard”, they assume that this means Liberty beats the best teams head to head. Nothing could be further from the truth. They have lots of hard working novices and JV debaters who rack up points for them, but in terms of actual quality competition, Liberty’s debate team is positively mediocre. And all the talk of #1 rankings isn’t gonna change that fact.

Comments

  1. #1 Leni
    March 19, 2006

    Good god, that was a long article. It was a full 4 pages longer than it needed to be. I found this buried at the bottom of page 4:

    One on one, the best debaters from Harvard, Northwestern, Emory and Berkeley will usually � but not always � beat Liberty’s top varsity team. At the National Debate Tournament, a single-elimination shootout structured along the lines of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, Liberty will be happy to finish in the Sweet 16.

    The coach followed up by saying:

    But that’s not who we are. I spend more of my time with the novices than I do with the varsity. The evidence we work up gets shared among all the debaters. Our goal here is to grow an entire program. We want to educate a lot of kids and instill them with a sense of mission. That’s the secret of our success � that and a lot of hard work.”

    Which is about as disingenuous as it gets.

    Well maybe not. I don’t think their goal is to be a high ranked varsity team. I think it’s little more than a lowest common denominator PR campaign for the purpose of spreading the word and patting themselves on the back. Which is pretty much what he says. And that’s hard work… Hard work… It’s hard work. (To paraphrase Bush, from the presidential debates…)

    I did learn something interesting about debate though: any unanswered point counts against you. Even if it is non-sensical.

    So if you answer a non-sensical point with a non-sensical reply, does that keep you from losing points? That seems weird. Do you get more points based on relevance, so that you couldjust fire a barrage of low merit arguments to rack up points? I don’t quite get that…

  2. #2 RickD
    March 20, 2006

    Do you think it would be fair to say that “gaming the system” is an essential feature of Jerry Falwell’s theology?

  3. #3 Treban
    March 21, 2006

    It was amazing to me to listen to Ed Shultz talking to someone (a congressman I think) who takes the “threat” to the left by Falwell’s debate team seriously. I was tempted to call in and recommend they read your posts about it. The only reason I didn’t is that I would have had to stop working to do it and from other comments this guy had he’s a moron anyways and has good reason to feel threatened, even by liberty debaters entering the political arena.

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