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Friday, March 11, 2016 - 05:00 PM

(Photo Credit: Matthew Montgomery/Flickr)

Unclasp your briefcase. It’s time for a showdown. 

In competitive debate future presidents, supreme court justices, and titans of industry pummel each other with logic and rhetoric. 
But a couple years ago Ryan Wash, a queer, Black, first-generation college student from Kansas City, Missouri joined the debate team at Emporia State University. When he started going up against fast-talking, well-funded, “name-brand” teams, it was clear he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. So Ryan became the vanguard of a movement that made everything about debate debatable. In the end, he made himself a home in a strange and hostile land. Whether he was able to change what counts as rigorous academic argument … well, that’s still up for debate.

Produced by Matt Kielty. Reported by Abigail Keel

Special thanks to Will Baker, Myra Milam, John Dellamore, Sam Mauer, Tiffany Dillard Knox, Mary Mudd, Darren "Chief" Elliot, Jodee Hobbs, Rashad Evans and Luke Hill. 

Special thanks also to Torgeir Kinne Solsvik for use of the song h-lydisk / B Lydian from the album Geirr Tveitt Piano Works and Songs


Scott L. Harris, Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, Jane Rinehart, Arjun Vellayappan and Ryan Wash

Hosted by:

Abigail Keel


More in:

Comments [320]


I don't see this story, as some have said, as using the race card, but rather what they did is a ridiculous manipulation of the absence of a rule that would seem to be implicit in a debate. That being, that two teams would debate the agreed upon motion. Their view is that since the rules don't say that they have to speak on the topic defined, they can argue anything they want, and if the other team doesn't address the issues they bring up, they somehow win.

They put it in a brown wrapper and tie it up with a social justice ribbon, but all they are doing is manipulating the rules, or rather the absence of them, and throwing their opponents off their game. Beyond an unlikely win against opponents better prepared to argue a motion, the only thing that they're likely to do is get the rules changed so others can't manipulate it in the same way. Look up the Hack-a-Shaq strategy that the NBA used for a time. Players would purposely foul a player with poor free throw skills so that they could gain possession with a low probability of being scored on. It worked for a while, until the rules got changed.

It's sad that you took an interesting story and turned it into "rich white kid" bash piece.

Oct. 04 2017 04:11 PM
Raghda from Egypt

This was very unsatisfactory to listen to.
Institutional racism is real and speed debating is absolutely ridiculous, but are you really trying to say that Ryan, whose debate program was funded by a billionaire and who spent 8 years debating, is a disadvantaged outsider to the world of debate?
He talked about doing a lot of research on topics before shifting his strategy to focus on race. I only wonder what could have happened had he continued to focus on the topics.
My main issue with what he did and what he was applauded for is that there doesn't seem to be a solution to his problem. Contrast this with your episode on American football where rules were constantly changed to disfavor native Americans, or with the episode on the ice skater Surya Bonaly where judges would comment on her "muscular" appearance. Surya eventually changed the rules. She showed everyone that there was more to ice skating than their narrow view of what counted as proper on the ice rink. Ryan, on the other hand, thinks that the system is biased against him because rich kids have enough resources to hire researchers to better prepare for their arguments. Well guess what? Every rich kid has tutors and private teachers helping them to perfect their every technique. What does he want to happen? If he thinks learning how to debate is essential to succeed, he could have learned that in 8 years. If he thinks it's ridiculous and won't teach you anything, he could have walked away. I just don't think there was anything useful or productive in what he did or the way he did it.
Take a poor kid to every music recital and tell the judges that he didn't have enough money to hire a private teacher, then give them a trophy. See if that changes the status quo.

Sep. 28 2017 02:26 PM
Pat from DC

What does everyone think Neil deGrasse Tyson would say about Ryan's debating tactics? Especially considering your recent "Truth Warriors" episode and the heated divisions in this country, please do a follow-up segment where these two men sit down and talk about--debate, if you will--debate. Fascinating episode, Radiolab. Notice how I didn't pick a side here...

Aug. 17 2017 03:05 PM
Henrietta from New Jersey

This Ryan guy is simply a jerk and NOT a great debater. It is appalling the fawning respect Ryan is shown.

May. 29 2017 08:59 AM
Earl West

This episode mad me a bit nauseous. The super fast paced form of debate is impossible to listen to or enjoy, certainly by any normal person. That should change if you want real people, not just insiders, to get any sort of enjoyment out of it.

Also debate should not be arguing the topic Vs. arguing your alleged victimhood. This too is a worthless form of racist attack wrapped in the false narrative of being called a clever 'new' angle or application of debate.

Let's pretend agreed on the argument

'Adding raw eggs to milk in making Egg Nog is potentially more harmful than helpful'

Let us pretend you chose the argument that raw eggs added to milk is ultimately more dangerous than beneficial when it comes to health, and let us say my argument is My family has been mistreated for generations and we never had money for eggs so you have kept us from being able to learn about the health risks of eggs - I would hope you would laugh in my face and I would not even be listened to.

And yet, these people did just that they cried about their victimhood in order to avoid arguing the topics. Somehow the SJW logic seemed to win the day. This story was horrible and these are not people to be celebrated. I thought Radiolab was much better than this kind of SJW victimish garbage.

Feb. 15 2017 06:09 PM
Jaqueline Pricewell from Seattle

As this episode was playing I was trying to imagine what would happen if AmEx CEO Kenneth Chenault (who happens to be black), was called in front of a Senate subcommittee to defend business practices at the firm.

How well do you think it would go over if instead of laying out a detailed defense of his firm's behavior, he instead opted to ignore the allegations and recite a poem about how difficult his life had been as an African American in corporate America?

The fact that SJW slam poetry was tolerated (however briefly) as an acceptable alternative to actual debate at the highest levels of academia shows just how damaging PC culture has been to universities in the US.

The Radiolab presenters (correctly) didn't make value judgments, but they also didn't seek out any dissenting opinion, making me think that they were OK with normalizing this ridiculous travesty.

Dec. 28 2016 05:09 PM
Janelle from Michigan

I find it really disheartening that so much of the audience of this podcast couldn't see past race as the sole issue here and just see a group of people challenging the "elite" status quo. That was the bottom line.

If this were, oh I don't know, a group of working class voters who felt their own institutions had abandoned their needs for decades by appealing to an elite majority, they'd just be called disaffected and sympathetic. Instead we're diminishing & invalidating these kids' experiences just because they're not our own. And in doing so, particularly calling out the inappropriateness of their language or delivery just further proves their point.

Bravo to Radiolab for not taking this on.

Nov. 15 2016 02:13 PM
jdb26354 from NYC

Neither style, traditional--comically fast--or hip hop--stuck on the launch pad of identity--, was effective as persuasion.

Oct. 31 2016 09:04 AM
John Henry from Atlanta

So you have a group of students who won by appealing to obviously liberal-leaning judges who chose to ignore debate rules in favor of a politically-correct argument that says minorities don't have the resources to compete because of discrimination, racism, etc., etc. The mention that billionaire George Soros is funding the promotion of groups like this, and other, whose primary goal is to upset the traditional American culture and values only goes to show how biased and corrupted debate tournaments are becoming.

Imagine if these black students could have won by obeying the rules and participating like all of the other debate teams. (I would agree that this speed reading of arguments needs to stop. 'Just another institution that is damaged by affirmative action and political correctness. This is too bad.

Sep. 19 2016 09:42 AM
Sergey from Russia

Do I get it right, that they won only because they were black and only because they were pointing to that fact?

I was born and raised not in American culture, and my country has no history of racially based slavery, so I am just an outside observer. And what about all those N and F words, IMHO for that kind of language the team should have been excluded for the tournament. If I was african american, I would have been disappointed about how this kids got there victory.

Sep. 14 2016 07:43 AM

Is the term queer offensive?

Sep. 01 2016 04:18 PM
Lori from Bay Area, ca

I perceived robert's last critique about Ryan's journey to "loneliness" as racist. I thought it illustrated the issues that plagued Ryan's debate world - people need to acknowledge their biases.

Aug. 21 2016 03:27 PM
Elise from California

I am an avid RadioLab listener but this is my very first comment: I simply want to say that I LOVED this episode. It really made me think, has stayed with me. I cried during Ryan's last speech. There are still elements I'm trying to work out for myself because I don't know that much about debate and because I'm a white, upper-middle class person so there's a lot I still need to absorb. But this has made me really want to absorb it and figure out what it means for not just debate but for the larger community and the way we all communicate. Thank you for this episode, sincerely.

Jul. 25 2016 11:45 AM
Julie Thielen from Alabama

I am newly addicted to Radio lab, loved Ryan's story. I want to know how & what he is doing now, I hope he is doing amazing. It struck me (& saddened me) that it seemed Ryan didn't see the value in his accomplishment. It takes way too long for society to change but I think he helped build the momentum that has brought the discussion of racism to the forefront in America today. It opened my eyes & heart. I think his last debate was brilliant.

Jul. 19 2016 12:01 PM
Jim L. from Chicago

I am surprised that the speed debate style is acceptable way to debate. Isn't this a Gish Gallop or piling on? The debater goal is to spew so many arguments or claims out that the rebuttal can't cover them all so it has the appearance of points scored.

"Gish Gallops are often made with other logical fallacies baked in. These myriad arguments may be full of half-truths, lies, and straw men — which, if not rebutted, are egregious problems for the refuter. They may be escape hatches or "gotcha" arguments — which are specifically designed to be brief, but take a long time to unravel. Many may be a repeat or rewording of a previous point — which only makes the list more impressive, not more correct. However, the only condition for a Gish Gallop is that there be too many arguments for reasonable refutation, not that they be flawed."

Jul. 04 2016 05:45 PM
Jesse from Montréal

One question, what would have happened if when they switch topics to the institution being racist the other team simply agrees with them? Do R + E automatically win? Do both teams agree on that point and then return to debating nuclear energy or whatever?

Great show people. Much respect to Ryan and Elijah for their historic victory.

Jul. 02 2016 02:47 PM
Corey from Denver

I am Black/African American/Negro - I see the point of the students but it is limiting for their futures. I own my own business and in the end facts are facts. Blackening it up or Femming it up does not fatten up the bank account.

W/ the internet being accessible, is their claim really valid?

I get discriminated against all of the time and have yet to pull the race card. I am saving it only for a very life threatening situations only.

Black people change "Everything" for the better and for always. When I realized this, I became far more effective.

Jun. 30 2016 08:38 AM
J from usa

Yes Pam, this episode was produced just to rankle you. Now that you've conveniently placed yourself as the victim, tell us how it feels to be on the short end of the stick in a story that has nothing to do with you.

Jun. 29 2016 06:52 PM
Rick from Omaha

I am a regular and avid listener, but I have to admit I turned this off only part of the way through. I don't know if you're short of ideas for topics, but this appears to have been a poor choice. The argument that the rules of the competition should be randomly changed by participants who don't like them seems like something that should not necessarily be applauded. It seems selfish and shallow. There must be more interesting and worthwhile things out there to talk about. This was irritating, and not interesting at all.

Jun. 29 2016 01:43 PM
John from office

Funny that Radio Lab cannot see how racist this segment was. African Americans are not able to compete, so lets change the rules to help out the poor unfortunate souls, and lets change the rules and speak in nonsense prose. These students are in for a rude awakening in the real world.

African Americans and any one else can compete in the real word, with rules and speaking "white".

Worst segment ever

Jun. 29 2016 07:26 AM
anonymous & afraid from cambridge MA

I find it ironic that in your directions to the commenter you state: "Please stay on topic, be civil, be brief" The entire show was about going off topic to make a point. Of the previous 299 comments, the third one seemed telling. I copy paste an exerpt from it: As a former high school and collegiate debater let me point out that debates often quickly devolve from the annual resolution. If the affirmative can link their case to preventing nuclear war or the negative can show the affirmative leading to nuclear war then you are well on your way to a win. Another way you can win is to provide a philosophical critique, which this episode highlighted one version of, and critique the whole structure. In late 90s in college we had a whole critique on the use of the pseudo-generic us of the pronoun "he" which we'd use as soon as an opponent used it or quoted someone that did b/c we could show how harmful this was for non-cis-gendered males. So what Ryan and Elijah did is was what literally thousands of white debaters had done for years.

Jun. 27 2016 04:59 PM

Eight years of debate experience and the best they could do was play the race card. And of course they won. How pathetic.

Jun. 27 2016 04:09 PM
Amy C from Bay Area, CA

I haven't read all 297 (so far) comments that you have received from this particular broadcast. But I can say that based on the few I've scanned, it is a reflection of where the dialogue re: race/systemic inequity is in this country.

So, as commenter number 298, I'd like to say BRAVO for putting something like this out there, exploring the complexity of how things are created based on a set of assumptions shaped by those who hold power within systems, and how individuals who don't hold power try to untangle and shine a light on how the system itself is intended to support the elite and have access to resources.

The fact that there are people commenting that there is a true, positivistic notion of what "true debate" is shows where they are... as you could guess. And in response to people who feel that you have "sunk to a new low," I hope you know that you (Radiolab) did good in my book. This is not an easy subject to unpack, so the lens of "debate" is a perfect one, in my opinion.

And the people who are hung up on the "f-bombs" that are expressed in this piece... this goes back to who holds normative standards of communications, and who gets to shape those norms... but I'm sure you guys were already onto that.

The specific arena in which I play is through the lens of someone who has been marginalized and disenfranchised from the larger system in many many ways. As I move forward in my PhD studies I am that much more alert to the fact that how knowledge has been taken for granted in a way that really requires a deep and rigorous examination of its sources- that is, how we know what we know (epistemology). I believe we are in a moment in history in asking what is worth keeping and what is worth re-structuring in terms of systems (thank you Bernie), especially if the systems that have been created thus far have been biased to support the privileged few.

Jun. 26 2016 09:26 PM
D.W. Payton from Norwalk, CA

The report about debate was nonsense. It was not about proper debate but how some people use guilt to win a debate and not facts or logic. It was a celebration will shift the focus of a topic off the topic and on to them.

Jun. 26 2016 08:03 PM
take off your shoes from Texas


Jun. 26 2016 08:01 PM
Dave from Los Angeles, CA

Why exactly would George Soros, one of the richest men in the world who has made his money speculating on the currencies of unstable states, want to make sure that blacks and whites are fighting each other about race instead of other issues?

Jun. 26 2016 07:33 PM

the team leader didn't appear to have prepared her team for what to expect in terms of stares & attitudes from whites when a black group enters a "white space." uncomfortable? maybe. intimidating? no way! i would have given those black kids a good talking to ahead of time and had them striding into that space with their heads held high, knowing full well there's no reason they can't come out of there champions.

Jun. 26 2016 07:12 PM
Pam from San Mateo CA

Speaking as a woman, it's hard to know where to start with this episode, given the intensely male point of view. We never got to hear from Payton, the one woman who was in the debate final, except during the very emotional "good-bye and thank you" prequel to the debate. Why was that? Because the deck was totally stacked against her in the debate, as it is in life? Because nobody on the show gave enough of a damn to ask her what she thought of the outcome?
As I see it, Ryan and Elijah, self-described "queer Afro-Americans", represent less than 1% of the American population. How in the hell can Ryan go on a rant about how difficult it is for him when 1.) He and his partner even made it to the finals; and B.) They actually won. The real discrimination here is against women, who comprise 50% of the population. Why were there not two women in the finals? If Ryan gets to do the "Oh woe is me because I am black" rant, Payton should have answered in kind. In fact, she should have have let him have it with both barrels blazing: Rape culture. Employment discrimination. Compensation gap. Glass ceilings in business, science, academia, politics, etc. Rising death rates among white middle-class women. She could have pointed to sports and entertainment, two areas where African-Americans enjoy success that is totally disproportionate to their population numbers, and where women are systematically compensated less than men are. And the fact that she can look forward to spending twice as many of her off-work hours doing household chores as her husband. And by the way, women are also was obviously female as African-Americans are black.
I have been a huge fan of Radiolab, but I am thoroughly disappointed and disgusted with this blatantly sexist episode. When will you cover even one of the topics I mentioned here? By the way, as a retired chemist, I suggest you do a show about what it was, and what it is, like to be a female trying to have a career in the physical sciences. Redeem yourselves!

Jun. 26 2016 04:23 PM
Sarah Searcy from Austin, Texas

I enjoyed this episode. But I wish that Marshana (that's my phonetic spelling of the name; she was Ryan's debate partner at one point) had gotten more attention. Isn't she the one who introduced the challenge that is the focus of the story? It was odd to me that her contribution received so little attention.

Jun. 26 2016 02:21 PM
CharlyA from Washington, DC


I thank you for airing Debatable.
I wish to hear more articles like this that feature a different view of LIFE.

Keep up the excellent work.

Jun. 26 2016 01:29 PM
zeno from the painted porch

well...this was a low in public radio....

Jun. 26 2016 12:57 PM

I'm a former high school debater (1980's vintage). I found Ryan's attitude to be extremely disrespectful, both to his opponents, who had the right to expect him to stay on the pre-announced topic; and to other African-Americans, who are denigrated by his attitude that African-Americans can't compete successfully on an even intellectual playing field (nothing could be further from the truth). Too bad he didn't apply himself half as passionately to preparing for the official debate topics as he did to preparing his alternative arguments.

Jun. 26 2016 01:50 AM
Tim from Los Angeles

I have mixed feelings, at best. There's something emotionally satisfying about this David and Goliath story, and I do support the idea that debate formats and styles need to be somewhat more creative and challenging. But I was frankly appalled by what I heard of the recorded debate presentations, particularly those of Ryan. This is debate? ! It sounds like a guy shouting continuously and without inflection, more passion than substance even if the point is about important social issues. I don't find that listenable, unless it's at a rally where that is the whole point is to raise your voice and create an emotional explosion by the listeners. I wouldn't reward someone for cursing and yelling about their outrage or their life experience, however gripping and real the story, when it's called a debate. This debases the idea of engaged dialogue and reasoned argument, which can still be strongly based in human feeling as well as compelling ideas. I'm not pushing for a return to stuffy and arrogant intellectuals showing their verbal skills. I'm advocating for effective and nuanced presentation of ideas, forceful and intellectually rigorous at the same time.

Finally, can someone get Abigail Keel to cut down on the use of the word "like" so that it doesn't pop up repeatedly in her sentences? It's truly obnoxious Valley Girl expression.

Jun. 25 2016 10:58 PM
ghstwrtrx7 from Portland

I have a problem with this. One one hand and speaking from my own personal debating experience, when we debated, we debated upon a specific topic and we didn't try to change the topic or the rules or conventions of debating simply because they can't compete. There is no such thing as affirmative action for intelligence.

On the other hand, I don't support speed debating either. If one cannot make an intelligent, articulate, calm and informed argument--ON TOPIC, then it is is probably that person who should leave the room.

Jun. 25 2016 09:31 PM
Peter from Manhattan

Am I really the first one to observe that both the episode and the comments resemble Monty Python's Argument Sketch?

Jun. 25 2016 06:01 PM

These people go to a debate about topic A and force topic B on the other team and audience. That's incredibly selfish and self-centered. By the way, black people can be just as racist as white people.

Jun. 25 2016 04:08 PM
acw from Boston,Ma

Please do another show that includes voices for the anti debate-about-debate-group. The pro topicality camp. As a black man that debated in high school > 30 years ago I need much more of the discussion that the show gave.

Also, I reject the purely color/class/sexual preference coded presntaion of the show.

It is a conversation that should be had. It is a conversation that should be generalized. For me, it is a conversation similar to golf carts in the pros.

Include the white Appalachian kids in the conversation.

Include a much better definition of exactly what competitive debate.

Emotional !== logic

Related conversation: what is blackness

Jun. 25 2016 04:00 PM
Ferdinand Celine

This is the worst garbage I've ever heard, students from elite universities, shouting gibberish at each other and calling it 'debate.' The breathless drama of the narration was extremely sad. The truly burning question the story raised was, "How could so many academics be intimidated by this display of infantilism?" but the narrators never recognized it; they were too enthralled. There is no future in this circus side show. Good luck to these poor young people, when they take their "skills" into the job market.

Jun. 25 2016 03:55 PM
Dick Lipski

WOW. Complete, insufferable, poisoned, anti-intellectual nonsense. There is nothing challenging about the black racist stance to not debate the presented topic. The white people just don't want to be called racist. There is no institutional racism, so tiny minds have to promote this kind of non-sense so they can maintain their state of perpetual grievance.

Jun. 25 2016 01:58 PM
Betty from NYC

What's Ryan up to now? This story is originally from 2013, isn't it?

I hope he's doing well and taking over the world.

Jun. 25 2016 01:04 PM
morris from malaysia

If you are a reasonable person there is no way to applaud or condemn the methods of Ryan.

People who condemn only aren't getting a few things:
The sport of Debate isn't "debate" as such, or in the real intellectual domain. It is a deplorably elitist practice ground of intellectually rigorous immorality for future lackeys and rulers of unfair, and and yes undemocratic societies.

To disrupt it isn't wrong. The policy questions are so loaded and biased as well.

Those who simply support this method of disruption by going INSIDE the beast that Ryan and Elijah carried out, are on dangerous and duplicitous ground. The reason race is the method, and the topic rather than class and race together is because it symbolizes poverty and physical exclusion, even when it isn't. And they won. If they were right, they would have lost. There is a massive history of real intellectual debate, not this phony sport of debate, in the Black and African canons and cultures, in the literary and philosophical traditions of those and of the movements and cultures of the dispossessed, as well as in the broader international human community, regardless of positionality. The racism that Ryan felt is real, but he has become a pawn of an anti-intellectual clique that has taken over the left, and isn't controlled from working class streets of Kansas, but from tenured positions and professional middle class activists. That is why they talk about race, rather than poverty. Those who condemn can see this part but can't see what would drive smart kids like him into their arms, could it be they are the only ones addressing the reality of people like him? I think so.

Someone wrote that if this episode makes you uncomfortable, you are racist.
Actually, it can make you uncomfortable because you would like to see protests of and disruptions of these institutions from the outside, and/or alternative debate organizations,that aren't just elitists clubs of meaningless speed talking on narrow talking points, but are of real intellectual and scientific rigor in the best of the western tradition.

Jun. 25 2016 02:33 AM
DAN from Miami, FL

Just before they mentioned the connection to hip hop, i thought of Soul Kahn, a debate team captain and rapper from NY. I started watching battles and he's one of my favorites. I was underestimating the underlying intelligence, the manifestation of race-delineated urban daily life and connection to racial struggle of non-popular, commercial hip hop. The typical battle topic format always seems childish, based on one competitor bringing his rival down while bombastically celebrating himself, and there is heavy use of profanity. When getting past this, their lyrical skill, wordplay, mental speed and wit is something to behold.

Jun. 24 2016 04:40 PM
John from US

It's not "like, logic", it's just logic.

Jun. 23 2016 10:28 AM
Nicole J Butler from Los Angeles

I have been blown away by this episode. I see that lot of people are more upset about the addressing of the institutional racial biases pervasive in debate than they are about the exclusionary biases themselves.

The assumption that only white culture = American culture is racist. By challenging the norms rather than the rules, these debaters are working within the system to change the system and make it more inclusionary to people from different races/ ethnicities/ socio-economic backgrounds/ cultures.


Jun. 23 2016 12:50 AM
Jamal from Los Angeles, CA

You will never get another download from me. I guess I should have known you would join the new racism of America since your show is on NPR. This dogma is so hypocritical and ignorant. It's sad that you spread it in the name of science.

Jun. 22 2016 09:18 PM
john from Bangor, Maine

Is this a particular form of debate: ie double-time debate? I have never heard the hold-your-breath fast-paced forced speech style: On youtube, Arjun can be heard debating at the "normal" speed, ie in normal conversational cadences. But Arjun and Payton both spoke as fast as they could on the broadcast? thanks

Jun. 22 2016 12:12 PM

Hijacking the conversation is still hijacking. While racism is important, its not the only issue, nor is it the biggest issue. Its tiresome to try to discuss economic reality or super string theory when the conversation is transformed to identity politics where exercising black/gay frustration is the trick in the trick pony; Perhaps, identity politic is always more interesting than some topics and therefor belongs, but not for me on a wide variety of subjects. This reminds me of when Bernie Sander's attempted to speak about economic reality in Seattle and BLM ran him off the stage. The people who waited hours to hear him where hijacked. The debater who wraps everything back to self loses ethos, and you need all three to convince.

Jun. 13 2016 04:54 PM
Shirley from Los Angeles

This episode totally redeem you guys when talking about racism during the "On the Edge" episode.

Jun. 09 2016 10:49 PM
Brianna from Alabama

This was a fantastic episode! If you had a problem with it, deal with your own racism. Yes, If this episode made you uncomfortable, you are racist. Deal with it.

Jun. 04 2016 03:57 PM
Alan G. Jones

My dad talked about his experiences debating in high school and college. It seemed dishonest, even crazy. Now that I've learned something about authoritarian thinking styles and the neurobiology of belief, I better understand why some people compete to be acknowledged the better either/or thinker.

Jun. 01 2016 05:38 PM
erin from Madison

The most striking thing about these comments is the reoccurring idea that "rules are rules" and that, by "breaking the rules," the debaters have somehow committed an affront. Many people commenting here refer specifically to the rules of sports by which everyone must abide.

But rules change. Even in sports. The rules of football when it was first invented are likely a far cry from what they are today, even from what they were 10 years ago; modern-day equipment and learned concerns regarding concussions are examples of rule changers.

The striking thing in many of these comments is the absence of the concept of rules as fluid based on time, place, and culture; rules are a point of agreement by the people involved who determine those rules through exploration and discussion. What is lacking in these comments, is the concept that, on the other side of the "rule-breaking," there will be a continuation of standards and expectations of behavior, albeit, perhaps different ones.

Even if the debaters who confront the rules in this story eventually get those rules changed, the rules will change again in 10, 20 or 50 years by different people living in different times.

May. 23 2016 01:21 PM
Ashley Glover

I found this podcast rather frustratiing to listen to although it does bring up interesting topics of discussion and very real debates over race and inclusion in society.

The points being made by many of the black speakers ring true about unequal access to education based on wealth and access to resources which disproportionalty fall on the shoulders of minorities in the United States. However, what is frustrating about this podcast (and also what is increasingly becoming frustrating about society in genera) is that conversations are simply being hijaked and one group of people are forcing their views on people under the banner of discrimination. A conversation is when two people agree to discuss a topic and share their views on the subject, this is no longer happening. Whether it be in regards to Feminism and discussions of gender or discussions of race or trans-gender rights, one group of people is taking over a conversation and silencing the other side by simply saying they are "racist" or "priviliged". This does facilitiate any discussion it simply shuts down communication and only serves to give the accuser a sense of superiority. Even worse is that these discussions rarely ever present a possible solution or means of reconciliation between parties, they only further increase the divide between the "us" and "them" mentality that has caused so much of these problems in the first place. There are many discussions that need to be had about civil rights, equality and fairness in our society but lets have them together and not as a means of attacking each other.

May. 19 2016 03:59 PM
david from dallas, tx

Why did this episode affect me so much? I will admit I get what I paid for. I have noticed that ads are being introduced into public radio, so I believe that gives me some permission to leave a note.

After some thought I toned down my post. I had the idea that it might have been fun to debate, but was very disappointed in the whole process. Here are my friendly thoughts.

Way to expect that a person who is brave enough to speak their mind to a public audience is going to become successful only because of your debate organizations. I am sure that it is the illegible and nonsensical way that they present is what gives them that extra edge in life.

Hey debate establishment
Way to think that you are superior because you can speak the cheated words prepared for you by the exploited people who couldn’t afford the education that your mommy and daddy could pay for yours. Your skills learned and sheep skin placement in society will serve you well when controlling the middle and lower class.

Way to win with a completely unrelatable topic. White judges must be so proud of your aspiring to conform to society norms and their fear of being called racists. Your skills learned will earn you the respect that you wanted from your community and allow your community to remain content with who they are. I am sure that my outside observations must be wrong.

Here is an idea for good debating rules. The debater must speak clearly, on topic, and on time. Make a list of web sites where studding can come from IE Wikipedia. Teams found using outside help will be expelled from future debates. Judges should be made up of 5 establishment debater judges and 10 laymen.

I read some posts and thought that I should end with this. Let’s bring back all entitlements. It’s unfair that people who originated from other countries like China, India, Japan, Korea, and IE other nonwhites don’t complain. Are they too busy? Why are the horrible white racists allowing them to take their jobs? Rhetorical

On a final note. Hey two white radio guys I have a question for you. When “those people” (and I mean the people who are also offended to be called those people) say the word racist, do you think that you are excluded from those peoples definition of racist?

You spent an hour telling how ridiculous the debate process is and how racist a game is when people don’t like the rules. Don’t like the game don’t play. Hey white people lets rise up and show these people who we really are. Let’s enter rap and double Dutch contests and change the contests to singing nice things to women and hockey.

Instead of this episode being called Debate it should have been called “How to change white”

May. 15 2016 06:21 PM
Gaurav from New York

Amazing Episode. I remember trying out the debate team in high school and couldn't handle the fast paced nature of the debate--it didn't really feel like debate. I was told in feedback that I was "slow as molasses". It turned me off to the whole enterprise.

May. 14 2016 08:55 PM

Like many have already posted, questioning the state of debate is great, but knowing the proper time/place is essential.

By refusing to actually debate, or "play the sport," this one team basically ruined all the other participants' experience. All those kids put in hours-upon-hours of preparation, research, and travel time, honing their debate skills for the competition. Then when the time came to use those skills and put all that time/preparation to good use, they were denied an opportunity to even compete because the judges didn't have the guts to tell the other team to play by the rules.

There was no brilliance in their arguments. There was no nuance. There was no breakthrough technique. The only thing brilliant about their approach (which I doubt they even realized at the time) was the fact that they picked a side/topic that is absolutely untouchable in 2016 America.

Most Americans are deathly afraid of being called racist, because if you are White, there is no defense. If a white person is accused of racism, no amount of evidence to the contrary is sufficient to disprove the accusation. This was made evident by the kid in the interview, who admitted that the other kids at the debate competition never said anything overtly racist, but they may have been acting under subconscious racists tendencies. How is someone supposed to argue with that?

His teacher/coach proves my point, because when Robert asks her why race/sex/religion/etc can't just be left at the door, she says that would be "anti-black." Robert is wondering aloud why race even has to come into the argument, which she basically says is racist. So basically, you have to listen to & agree with me on my terms, without making any counterpoints, without offering a different opinion, and if you don't you're a racist.

So the brilliance of this debate strategy is not on it's intellectual merit. The brilliance is in (probably the coach) making the accusation of racism knowing full well that no one is allowed to offer a counterpoint.

It's sad.

May. 13 2016 03:12 PM
spencer from LA

That was Rather exhausting. So Debate is a craft an art form a kind of sham. One that can influence a decision that my not be in the best interest or best outcome of any given situation.

Like the people finding Ojay Simpson Innocent. Well done Johnny.


May. 12 2016 03:31 PM
Citizen of Dis from Atlanta, GA

This was a very poor episode, especially due to its one-sidedness - there was nobody invited to argue the other side. Quite ironic for an episode on debate!
Ryan's debate tactic is akin to go to a chess tournament, declare that the rules of chess are racist and commence playing checkers instead. And then win the tournament. Ridiculous but the only reason he and others can get away with it is the political correctness and undue deference too many people (especially in academia) give to anything black, especially when confronted with bigus claims of racism. See for example Mizzou president being pushed to resign over bogus racism claims.
Now Ryan is partly correct that rules of debate should be up to debate. But there is a proper time and place for that and a debate on a different topic is not that. Just like it is not appropriate to discuss football rules in the middle of the Super Bowl (or World Cup final depending on which football you like to watch).
One can criticize things like spreading but at least they were still arguing the topic at hand. Not ignore it completely and spew racist nonsense.
Ryan is also correct that "debate is f-ed up" but it is he who f-ed it up in the first place. He (and others) dumbed it down to this racist beat spoken work event that bears no resemblance to academic debate any more. The only appropriate response by the judges to his performance should have been this:

May. 12 2016 03:26 PM

One of my all time favorite episodes. It is too bad white fragility has blinded people to its powerful message

May. 12 2016 01:40 PM
Jim from LA

Good episode, but everything related to Black there is always a criticism of racism but nobody can point out the alternative? So you can simply argue that black is the most racist because they have nothing to offer except of their color of skin?

May. 11 2016 04:22 PM
Mike Wallens from Dallas

Calling this a debate is akin to someone dropping a BM on the street and calling it art.

May. 07 2016 02:42 PM
nada decat from australia

People's panties in a knot over discussion of racism and how we approach it in different ways.

Exactly why this episode is very important !!!

May. 03 2016 04:04 AM
Jocelyn from White People Boondocks

Did I agree with every point of view in this particular episode?


Did I enjoy it still?

Yes. Immensely.

Do I think there are a lot of people in the comments that probably are taking things from this episode a little too much like they are a personal attack?

Most definitely. Cool you jets, guys.

Apr. 29 2016 03:19 PM
Bob in Tallahassee, Florida

This will be the first comment I've ever made but I really need as much feedback on this as possible.

Setting aside all other arguments for and against this style of debate can anyone show me a way in which the final argument, with the central metaphor of "The Wizard of Oz" and its antecedent, "The Wiz", is not overwhelmingly fragile?

The story is about someone who wants to get away from their home, goes to a place where people are different but welcoming, and realizes that "there is no place like home". HOME is where you are surrounded by people who care for you.

The internal logic of the story does not match up with the speakers main point.

Apr. 20 2016 02:57 PM
Severian from Colorado

I found this to be one of the weakest RL episodes I can recall. As someone who was involved in competitive speech activities in high school I found this all very sad. If the state of debate is now about one's demagoguery skills and "meta debates", then I'm glad that I don't have to hear or adjudicate such contests.

I consider what I learned in extemp speaking and student congress valuable life skills in thinking and communicating clearly and effectively. Screaming a string of f-bombs at high speed is not "debating" - any drunk at a bar can provide as much useful communication.

Perhaps all these debate students are going to be political speech writers and their sophistry will be welcome in that world. Most other places, they are in for a very rude surprise about how little those skills of showmanship - while failing to address the real communication need - will be valued.

I guess in world where college students need to be protected from speech they find upsetting, I shouldn't be surprised at what now passes for debate (from either side, btw).

I was thoroughly unimpressed with the episode, the characters in the story or anyone involved in this, really. I'm glad this wasn't my first Radio Lab or it might well have been my last.

Apr. 19 2016 09:36 PM
Nathan D from Yonkers NY

What the debater in this episode was doing felt like demagoguery to me. It's the same kind of crap I hate seeing in our politics, and to see it portrayed in such a celebratory manner makes me furious and disgusted.

Apr. 18 2016 02:26 AM
Laura Newman from New York

It's disturbing to me that the photograph used above is of a white debater when this important journalistic piece is at it's core, a story of the first black students to win the National Debate Tournament. Please put an appropriate picture up!

Love this episode. One of my favorites. Very moving.

Apr. 18 2016 12:32 AM

Man the people saying this was unfair don't really get what 'debate' in the context of university competitions actually means. I don't blame them entirely, because this episode did not go into too much depth about it, other than explaining a few of the more obtuse techniques like spreading.

But basically, if you think this tactic was underhanded or illegitimate, you're missing the point. Just like if a politician tried to debate his opponent by spitting out as many words as he could as fast as he could nobody would take him seriously, you could say the same thing if Obama's entire campaign was based around 'hey, I'm black so the system will never let me be president, what the hell guys? vote for me'. But that isn't the point.

Debate competitions aren't really about debate any more than fencing is about combat. The techniques used in debate will not help you win arguments in the real world any more than being an accomplished fencer will help you not die if an angry drunk comes at you with a knife in a bar fight. It's a game, a sport, it has a scoring system and therefore techniques are constantly being developed to exploit that system.

The losing team knew what Ryan was going to do, they prepared for it, but they still did not execute their counter-strategy well enough to win. To me it doesn't even seem like that much of a problem to tackle an argument calling the entire debate process racist - why is it racist? By their argument the system is rigged against minorities because they don't have access to the same resources as the rich white kids. Well, what if your debate opponent was the child of a wealthy black man? The same argument applies regardless of the color of their skin. What if they're the child of farmer Brown, without a penny to their name but with skin so pale it's practically translucent? Ryan's own argument is the inherently racist one and it should be easily enough to tear down and turn on its head.

TL;DR Ryan won by playing the game better; calling someone a racist is no more of a legitimate debate tactic than speaking as fast as you can, but they're both ways to score points in what is essentially just a word game. His strategy was not unbeatable just because his opponents were white and came from privilege, they just did not counter it well enough (from what little we heard of their rebuttal - I am fully in agreement that this episode was sorely devoid of the other side of the story here which is odd when the topic is debate.)

Apr. 17 2016 07:10 PM

It seems like Ryan basically ignored every topic and debated the exact same argument in every debate through all four years of college?

The speed debating sucks. I understand why things changed and maybe, with computers, we could put some sort of word limit in, so people have to practice speaking at 400wpm or less or whatever, which could possibly go a long way to solving the problem that Ryan was calling out. But to debate by presenting the exact same argument in every debate kind of seems like it invalidates debate.

Apr. 16 2016 12:14 AM
Bromham from Germany

I guess there is a reason why you only ever let us hear snippets of black debate actually sounds like.

Also nice job of never show us the other side of the story.

Makes me really wonder how one sided and manipulative your past stories have been.

I am not white, not even American and I hate that I have to point this out.

Apr. 15 2016 09:52 PM
Old White Guy from Manhattan

Terrible, terrible episode.

Really surprised and disappointed in Radiolab for giving a venue to this sort of anti-intellectual new wave activism.

Premise - all cultural institutions, including high school debate is biased against underrepresented minorities, genders, and sexual orientations!

(Except for the people who actually adapt and perform well within those constraints.)

Curious that Radiolab didn't bother to interview the "white guy republicans" on the other side. Something makes me highly skeptical that these people used the "N word".

How about just playing the game as it exists? Interesting how, for instance, Asian students have no problem competing and exceeding white students performance at within debate, science, engineering...

I wonder what the difference is?

Apr. 14 2016 06:51 PM
Fiona from San Francisco

Roberts suggests leaving "your gender, your sex, your background, your family, your religion behind and stay entirely in the brain" and the teacher responds by saying this is "anti black"..... wow... Mind boggling.

Apr. 13 2016 06:37 PM
mrememe from kcmo

Topical - (of a subject) of immediate relevance, interest, or importance owing to its relation to current events.

The force of the argument being made was that policy debate favored those with the means to attain the boxes of evidence used to launch a barrage of arguments for or against the topic. The speed at which teams spoke was an expression of this disparity, utilizing a style that has formed to fill every breath with an argument that must be answered by the negative.

The quantity/quality argument is a distinction that I made while debating certain teams who took the speed style to an unintelligible place - favoring parallel conversations where cross-x became 'you didn't answer this argument, did you?' - 'no i didn't have time.' This quantity/quality argument is very different though from the one being leveraged by the guest because it invites the other team to defend their position. The idea of leveraging a generic meta argument about policy debate itself - namely that it is racist in format due to the current access disparities in regards to information or supplemental materials - doesn't demand that the other team defend their arguments as much as defend their legitimacy as a team whose preparedness is suspect. The argument being made isn't aimed to level playing field so much as flip it over to show that the team they are debating is actually an arm of a systematically racist force working against black students in America.

My question is, how does flipping the debate on itself balance the playing field? Or, how can a white student EVER be as prepared to argue the meta argument about the nature of policy debate in america (specifically that it is racist)? At least with the supplemental materials that fill the boxes debaters cart around to combat a prospective affirmative case, the experience gained from the text can be replicated and distributed among a class room. Something like the experience of being black in a debate round is exactly the type of thing that white students will never be able to speak with authority on, no matter how much work they put in to it.

Racism is real.
Speed debate is dumb.

here are the recent year's topics for high school policy debate:
2015-2016 Topic
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially curtail its domestic surveillance.
2016-2017 Topic
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.

Ask yourself if the topics are racist. Then ask if the debate should be about racism. Then ask if that is fair. Then ask yourself what it means to be topical.

I found it kinda funny that he said staying topical was debatable...and I agree with that until someone is having the same argument in every round, regardless of whether they were on the affirmative or the negative side of any of the cases that are offered up that year for policy debate.

Apr. 12 2016 11:42 AM
guymcsmiley from Kauai

I enjoyed this episode. I can see though, how it would not be for everybody. It actually made me cry. I give it the Barbara Walters tear jerker award. I'm not sure if that's just because I'm going through premature male menopause, or possibly not getting out enough, but I found it to be a very powerful story. I'm not sure I can explain precisely why but basically it's because the institutions of the law and debate, combined with military power, have been used to oppress and then justify the oppression of various peoples for 500 years.

Apr. 12 2016 03:29 AM

This episode was a very rare terrible episode of Radiolab. Winning a debate, by complaining that the entire edifice of competitive debate is racist, and refusing to debate the question is utter nonsense. That Jad and Robert made no attempt to apply any objectivity to this story was disappointing.

Apr. 11 2016 11:13 PM
Fatma from Denmark

I find the race issue a little difficult to understand, maybe because I don't live in the US. It seems to me that it's more of a socio-economic issue. However, I completely agree with what Ryan said about how ridiculous the debate style was, and I applaud the black debaters for working to change that. Debate should not be a chess game. There should be space for grounding one's arguments in real life experiences. And the whole number of arguments thing is also stupid. You can give 5 arguments that are impactful and convincing compared to 10 that are weak. The old system values volume over content.And the speed talking... that is just crazy.

Apr. 10 2016 07:00 AM
Jim Mitchell from Austin

Sad for the regular debaters that they didn't research the black teams reiterated, impoverished performance farce and eviscerate them on that point alone.

Apr. 09 2016 06:56 AM
Jim Mitchell from Austin

This is sad and pathetic. It's debate, it's about ideas and you can't participate? Go f**k yourself cry baby.

Apr. 09 2016 06:51 AM
Marilyn McPhie

I was looking forward to one of my favorite shows, "Radio Lab," which I usually find fascinating and informative. This was a big disappointment. Really far, far from your usual excellent work. You provided a forum for a harangue. All heat, no light. Reconsider your topics and your approach.

Apr. 08 2016 11:37 PM
Nick from New Zealand

I really enjoyed this episode! Surprised by all the negative comments. A a scientist who is very fact oriented I get frustrated with debated, but the science of debating is interesting. I don't care to argue whether Ryan's technique was "fair" or not, but out of the box thinking drivrs creativity and innovation. Keep up the great work!

Apr. 08 2016 10:05 PM
Gael from NC

I'm a bit torn. On one hand I understand the perspective of the guest. On the other hand I find it hard to imagine this style of debating to be sustainable. Maybe that wasn't the point. I do wish there was a little more push back from Robert, and I found it rude of the guest to be so outright adversarial when the point of the program has typically been to try and understand an idea from multiple angles. Robert is a seasoned journalist though, and I think he could have pushed harder had he chosen to.

Apr. 07 2016 08:58 AM
Matt2789 from Washington, DC

My ex-wife would aways "win" all of our arguments by flipping around whatever topic we were talking about and bringing up some unrelated item from the past. I would attempt to express my frustration to her about something like why it bothered me that she was pawning off her responsibilities onto me and the next thing I knew she would be slamming doors, yelling, and carrying on about that one time I showed up late for dinner!

Seemed to be a lot of parallels with what was going on in these "debates".

I'm glad I "Eased On Down The Road" and got away from that mess.

Apr. 06 2016 10:21 PM

Their K arguments are great, there is clearly a reason to run the case. But they don't give solutions (not from what I heard). In my opinion, a K argument or a justification argument means nothing without giving me a way to fix the problem. Otherwise you're just pointing out that there is something wrong and not telling us why your case can fix it.

This is from the brain of a former college debater who, no matter how hard she tries, can't help but pick apart arguments. I love that they are challenging these norms and holding a mirror up to the competitive debate world-- we need it desperately.

Apr. 06 2016 04:19 PM
Mason Wang

-lol mesearch

Apr. 06 2016 11:42 AM
sophie from San Jose, CA

More arguments and counter arguments, mostly from other smart commenters on this forum:

Point: Suck it up and do the work required!

Counterpoint from me: They literally can’t. Private schools pay for journals containing research, and the coaches to help them formulate arguments from that research. Public inner-city schools literally don’t have the money to pay for these things that make the private teams stronger *in this particular style*

Counterpoint from JCinSTL: "All of the commenters who disliked this episode because they thought it wasn't "fair" to those who practiced the standard debating methods just got a lesson on their own privilege, and they reacted exactly as expected. Just as standardized tests are now known to be racist and exclusionary... it can be painful and difficult for those who benefit from the status quo, and that is when it becomes effective."

Point: I don’t appreciate white-shaming.

Counterpoint from Steve Raymond from Los Angeles, CA:
“…That isn't what Ryan and Elijah did. They used guile and skill and years of hard work to win in a game where the rules were stacked against them…

Forcing inner city kids to play by rich white kid rules may be fair, but it isn't just. Helping white kids to be able to tell the difference will teach them an invaluable lesson.

To the commenters who are saying that this kind of story is "creating" the backlash that fuels Trumpism, I say bring it on. Fighting ignorance with quiescence never works. Leaders like Gandhi and MLK were non-violent, but forced the ignorant to confront injustice every day.”

Me: Which side of history do you want to be on?

Point: The reporting was so one-sided!

Counterpoint from me: Are you white or off-white? You ARE the other side of this story. You know what it’s like to have the rules written for you, to feel safe in your own skin, to come from a community where, even if you don’t have money, you probably know someone who does.

That’s why Radiolab shared this story. To give you some perspective.

Apr. 05 2016 06:18 PM
sophie from San Jose, CA

Some of the arguments against this episode with counter arguments, mostly quoted comments by people smarter than me:

Point: Stick to the subject at hand, otherwise it’s not debatable, and therefore not fair!

Counterpoint from A Former Debater from DC:
"As a former high school and collegiate debater let me point out that debates often quickly devolve from the annual resolution....In late 90s in college we had a whole critique on the use of the pseudo-generic us of the pronoun "he" which we'd use as soon as an opponent used it or quoted someone that did b/c we could show how harmful this was for non-cis-gendered males. So what Ryan and Elijah did is was what literally thousands of white debaters had done for years."

Point: If you don’t follow the rules, you’re not playing the sport.

Counterpoint from Ted from BC:
"I think that the best way to frame this story is using [Radiolab's Football episode]. It's a story of outsiders succeeding in competition by playing against the structure of the contest rather than against the competitors... It touches on racism and tradition and change all within the confines of a pastime.

What I find surprising is that the comments here are nearly the inverse of the comments in that story. What makes the Carlisle team scrappy and clever, while Ryan is seen as unfair or distorting the debate?"

Point: They used a canned argument over and over. Where’s the debate in that?

Counterpoint from Kenan from San Francisco:
"Ryan's actions are extremely valuable if you take a long view of the situation. Everything about debate competition, from the choice of topics, to the format, rules, dress code, and norms that the judges expect, was defined by white men. Subverting these norms by presenting a different style of debate, by upending what classic debate means, is important. And this kind of subversion needs to happen from within established organizations, for maximum exposure and cultural relevancy." (It's how history is made.)

Point: This is not the right forum for such a discussion.

Counterpoint by Scott from Utah:
“Debate loses all value if it cannot include all perspectives on a topic. There are not two sides. For some the topic is straight-forward… to some the topic is personal, or conditioned by identity, or religion, or about core values. …A good topic sparks engagement from all perspectives, even if it seems like, from a particular vantage point, that another perspective is ignoring the issue….
The teams who don't like the strategy deployed by Ryan and Emporia need to come up with argumentative strategies to defeat it. That is the beauty of debate."

Apr. 05 2016 06:17 PM
sophie from San Jose, CA

Dear Radiolab,

To counteract the loss of subscriptions from massively racist and close-minded commenters on this thread, and to show my support for giving underrepresented minorities a voice, I have become a paying subscriber to RadioLab. Jad, Robert: some of your listeners really appreciate diverse perspectives.

Apr. 05 2016 06:15 PM
Farts McDoogle from no

As a white man I went to an inner-city basketball court and played against a black guy. He beat me according to the rules of basketball but I declared myself the winner because I have a job and can't spend all day playing basketball thus their game is inherently unfair because it excludes my white culture.

Apr. 05 2016 03:15 PM
Dan from Indonesia

Congrats to Ryan Wash for his debate victory. He seems like a terrific person, and it was entertaining to listen to. I was dismayed at the narrative being portrayed, though: in order for African Americans to participate in the national dialog with any sort of equality, they have to redirect the conversation to themselves. I reject that notion completely. It is the intellectual progeny of the paternalism that characterized racism during slavery and the Jim Crow era. African Americans have a valid, valuable perspective on all the issues up for debate, but nobody is served by ALWAYS ignoring the topics and instead discussing how ostracized they feel. That is a discussion that needs to happen, no question. But there are other discussions that need to happen too. They must not be pushed aside in the rush to the altar of feelings.

Apr. 05 2016 07:14 AM
Padraig from DC

Another episode, while not a bad one, that could have been produced by just about any podcast. I wish Radiolab would go back to what made it great in the first place.

1. Disgustingly one-sided podcast. Having some dissenting voices and opinions, or merely commentary from an educated but neutral outsider, would have done wonders to the story. At the very least they could have asked some tough, engaging questions.

2. Ryan cutting off Robert ("stop stop stop") or preemptively shooting down the hosts ("white media") at times seems to indicate he could learn a thing or two about gaining supporters and influencing people, whatever his personal thoughts on them or their questions. Makes me wonder if the reason there was little to no challenging questions directed towards Ryan was because he refused to engage, or the hosts were intimidated and didn't want to be called racists?

Apr. 04 2016 05:25 PM
Michael Bolton from Toronto

I'm appalled at the whole mess.

First: to win a debate, the debaters should speak to the proposition on the table. The idea of "the energy to get up in the morning" is a clever rhetorical feint, but it does not really speak to the point that was being debated. Ryan and his partner should have received very little credit for their performance. The unfairness and racism that has been built into the system is grotesque, but that has nothing to do with the topic of the debate in which they were participating. The systematic bias towards rich, white, largely male domination of the political system and the debate system should be subject to debate, and it should be rectified. But that is a matter for its own debate.

Second: I was disgusted long before Ryan's story began, from the moment I heard what passed for "debate" before Ryan began to participate. The point of a debate is to present a reasoned argument that can be heard by human beings, not something that sounds like it has been power-vomited out of Wikipedia and played on a 78-rpm record. Yes, I am that old. I won a silver medal for debating when the whole package was evaluated: facts, logic, rhetoric, wit, and elocution. When the scoring system is based on the number of arguments, rather than the weight or insight of the arguments; when the speaker can produce patter but cannot be understood, be it resolved: the judges are incompetent.

The whole system makes no sense. Debate should be about people talking to each other in a way that combines reason and emotion in a way that affords listening and understanding long enough that the arguments can be weighed.

Sometimes I look at the state of American politics, and I wonder how things got so bad. Perhaps we can find clues here: some of the country's "finest debaters" speak too quickly and inaudibly for their arguments to be heard, never mind weighed; while others don't present arguments that relate to the topic under discussion. If this is allowed to continue, things won't end well.

---Michael B.

Apr. 04 2016 08:02 AM
dsimon from NYC

One person wrote earlier: "If Judges can vote for Ryan, the whole competition is flawed."

And that was Ryan's argument: that the whole competition is in fact flawed: that there is a false premise that the outcome can be fair even though winning depends on resources and support services that do not exist in many communities. And so this fundamental question needs to be addressed before the declaration of a "winner" can be valid. And that critique directly addresses the bases on which a debate should be considered won. To me, it's a fascinating approach, and has some merit.

Two items: no one who is intent on convincing other people ever talks that quickly. Some of the best people at rhetoric are also the most deliberate. So all this speed-talking to see who can present or refute the most arguments seems like a ridiculous way to do things.

And Ms. Keel, just because younger people say "like" all the time doesn't mean you have to do so, or should do so. It's a bad habit. Please help others to stop it.

Apr. 03 2016 08:26 PM
James from St. Louis

Sorry, second comment (I'll chill after this), but I wanted to pick up on a trend I'm seeing in the comments, where at first Ryan was described as obnoxious, but now Robert is being characterized as uneducated, insensitive..

I think both are unfair. Ryan was debating competitively, in a charged environment, with the tools he felt best equipped to use.
With respect to Robert, it's his job, every single episode, to be the devil's advocate, to ask tough questions and sometimes even be slightly obnoxious. In conversations, he's often the less-educated on the topic at hand (he's often debating theoretical physicists after all), and he sometimes voices ignorant-seeming questions.

There's value to this:
1) His questions push the guests to defend their ideas passionately and to provide the most persuasive account of their positions.
2) He poses questions that are probably on the minds of some listeners not familiar with the topic, bringing non-experts into the conversation and giving guests an opportunity to refute likely counter-arguments.

Robert is not being rude or insensitive, he's doing his job as a principled journalist. In this political climate it's easy to forget what this job actually means, but I think President Obama summed it up pretty well in his address to the media at the Toner Prize ceremony:

"A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It is to probe and to question, and to dig deeper, and to demand more."

Apr. 03 2016 05:11 PM
Yuliya from NYC

Amazing episode! Thank you! Loved it all except Robert's clueless and at times insensitive questions.

Apr. 03 2016 01:51 PM
Jeff from Minneapolis, MN

Okay, this is my second comment but I just had to mention something that I noticed...I found the wide range of responses in the comment section very intriguing. I seriously couldn't stop reading them and I had to keep checking in every few days to see what people had to say about this "Debatable" show and Radiolab in general. It's just amazing to me how some people could hear that same episode and have such drastically different feelings about it. Perhaps that was the point of the show, to attempt to spark this very conversation we're having in the comment section...

On the other hand, it would have been nice to have some reflection on the outcome of the debate from the hosts...other than the one moment where Ryan essentially kept speaking over Robert and repeatedly silenced Robert, there really wasn't much reflection about the implications of the debate result. Honestly, if Ryan wasn't going to allow that discussion to happen with him there perhaps Jad and Robert owed it to us listeners to bring up those questions without Ryan there. They could have recorded the questions for Ryan to confront at a later date if he wasn't going to allow the questions to be asked in his presence.

Another thing I'm seeing even in this comment section is the accusation of racism over asking serious questions over the outcome of this debate. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't make them a racist, I mean the term is being thrown around so freely today it has nearly lost all meaning. Ironically, that was the tactic used by Ryan and his team to win the debate in this show...I don't really blame Ryan for using the tactic, I mean you do what works when competing. Instead, I blame the judges for allowing debaters to use the same tactic over and over again and awarding them the win.

Finally, I wanted to discuss the topic of Radiolab in general and the movement away from the science based shows that involved introspection about our society. Radiolab is moving down that road of being just another emotional, story telling show with little to no basis in science. This is disappointing, I really loved the "old" Radiolab which had so many good shows week after week. I decided to look back and see if I could find the most recent truly "great" Radiolab show...I had to go all the way back to June 18, 2015 with Eye in the Sky, even the episode just before that one was amazing too, Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR. Please, please, please make more episodes like those two; I'm such a big fan and I don't want to see Radiolab go downhill.

Apr. 02 2016 04:50 PM
Porkopolis from Porkopolis, Ohio

It would seem to me that trying to debate Ryan would be about as useful as trying to debate anyone entrenched in their particular worldview - creationists, racists, both sides of the AGW debate, certain feminists, certain atheists, etc., ad nauseam, etc., etc.

Now that I understand how "debate" competition works, and how facts don't matter, it explains our societal and political condition quite well.

Apr. 01 2016 05:01 PM
Rebooka from Oakland, CA

I think what was missing, for the negative commenters, was the actual content. It was very difficult to understand Ryan's (or any of the other debaters') actual word for word message, because of the speed talking and because of the sound quality. RADIOLAB: could you guys please post Ryan's closing on this episode page? No matter how long; if you're making the point that this was a historic event, we need to be able to hear/read the historic speech. I'm sure there has to be a transcript somewhere, right?

Apr. 01 2016 04:52 PM

I am so grateful that Abigail Keel found and reported this story. Radiolab can be very public radio slanted in its demographic and story arcs, and by that I mean, highly educated white folks with existential conundrums that ignore multiple perspectives and voices.

I personally found it exhausting listening to Robert Krulwich need to be explained to over and over again. I understand why Ryan would be leery of the interview, given the burden of minority perspectives to educate, over and over again, to the dominant straight white male with education. I feel like the Robert needs to get some racial theory books and start educating himself in a hurry. Get it together, Krulwich. Jad, come get your boy.

Apr. 01 2016 02:54 PM
Matt from Midwest

What happens if two underprivileged teams make the finals? Do they debate who has a more severe disadvantage?

Apr. 01 2016 01:10 PM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

That was one of my favorite episodes EVER. I've never been in the world of competitive debate, but I certainly dislike what passes for political debate in this country, and the kinds of "debates" that teachers get going in high school classes also follow a competitive model that forces kids to talk about things they don't really know about and to dig into positions that don't reflect who they are or how they live. In short, I'm just against soundbites and competition. I prefer dialogue and collaboration.

To that end, I wonder if the champion debater has any familiarity or interest in Toastmasters, a support group for people to develop as public speakers. We do have competitions, but mostly we're there to support each other. My own group happens to be a particularly multi-cultural oasis of peace in that divisive area of Rockland near East Ramapo. It seems to me George Soros' money might be better spent on youth Toastmasters groups than in debate societies. We applaud each other when we get up, and we applaud each other when we leave the "stage." In between, we listen and give feedback. Toastmasters is international, so check out a chapter near you!

Apr. 01 2016 12:25 PM
Jonathan Davis from Rockford IL

I am so excited to hear this. When I went to my first year of debate my school was far outclassed in the same way as the speaker talked about. This was before super speed reading or at least at the beginning.

My school was mostly white and I debated nearly all white other schools in the Chicago suburbs, but my school was much poorer than the suburb schools. The same thing was true in my situation. Most schools had much more well funded debate programs in place than ours, especially since our school had to rebuild it's debate program.

Once you had done one year debating you could judge instead if you wanted. So I became the judge that a lot of schools probably hated. I made sure that regardless of amount of arguments and other non content based things had no preference and even possibly less than argument coherence and strong points and counter points.

Whatever team made a more impressive total argument won even in instances where they may have dropped a ball or two that would instantly guaranteed a loss in most debates. Uncivil tactics and rhetoric equaled loss of points. I'm sure I tanked some great schools days but it did seem like they didn't have nearly as many student judges judging the really big schools teams, which I hadn't really noticed till I thought about it after the fact.

It's sad to hear what it had become so shortly after I was done (2002). I'm glad they fought to change the system.

Apr. 01 2016 09:25 AM
Wesley from South Africa

I now understand why America loses at world debate competitions. It's not about the number of points, it is about the central point that the entire argument relies.

Mar. 31 2016 10:06 AM
clayton from saskatoon, Canada

i love radiolab and think it's one of the best things i've listened to in a long time. One of two things happened here. Either this is something made that supports the ideas that many of us see as the regressive left where a narrative is shoved down our throats without the idea being challenged and explored intellectually in reasonable and intelligent matter. On the other hand maybe leaving this episode so blatantly leaning to one side was intentional to stir up controversy hence the name " debatable" as the title. I understand the idea of social activism and playing against the game that is stacked against you but this episode seemed to draw a clear line between activism at the expense of other other people and the idea that pounding on the table is okay if it gets you heard. i think most reasonable people understood this is not a proper way of handling this and is representive of the mentality of someone who has cut out ethics in order to compensate for his personal feelings of being a persecuted minority. The only problem with that is its at the expense of indviduals who work hard. i like many of us don't align with the ideas of white guilt or white privelge to the extent that my personal goals and accomplishments are sacrifed on a individual level to compensate for a systematic inequality. this is not the right way about it and is something that needs to be challenged with the liberal college communtity because i don't buy it. I can only hope Robert & Jaad recognized this and only let this fly knowing what it actually was for the sake of it being " debatable"

Mar. 30 2016 10:13 PM

This episode did not motivate me to donate. Between this episode and that creepy dead child video game episode, radiolab has gone an order of magnitude down in quality. These are truly dark times.

Mar. 30 2016 07:47 PM
ivan from Tucson Az


I can't believe that Judges could vote for Ryan when the subject matter was not even addressed. His use of vulgar language is reason enough for him to lose. If Judges can vote for Ryan, the whole competition is flawed. I am incredulous that criticism of the judges wasn't analyzed in this piece. It is a shame that an event which requires so much talent, skill, and hard work can be won with foul language and theatrics. I do not blame Ryan, he deserves credit for a very novel and apparently successful approach, I find the whole competition that can let him win contemptible. I myself have be a judge for collegiate debates. I could never vote for Ryan regardless of his gender, color, or economic background using his arguments. Knowledge of the Wiz will not solve our energy problems, or provide people the ability to make effective decisions.

Mar. 30 2016 04:44 PM
Adam from Alexandria, VA

What would constitute a victory for the opposing team?

Let's assume that it is up to the debaters on stage to choose a debate topic for themselves, and that said topic needn't relate directly to the one proposed in advance. Let's also accept for a moment--purely hypothetically--the premise that competitive debate favors white students unfairly. Let's even go so far as to assume that it's up to Ryan to choose the debate topic, and that the other team has no say in the matter.

What is Ryan's debate topic and, more importantly, what would an affirmative or negative position signify? The validity of Ryan's ideas are immaterial: a debate topic requires an affirmative and a negative position. If Mr. Wash is arguing the affirmative, what is the negative?

By choosing a topic that is entirely unfamiliar to his opponent, Ryan is creating an impossible task for his opponent. Not only must an opponent figure out what the topic is by listening to Ryan's argument, she must then discern what an opposing view might be. If the initial topic was indeed unfair to Ryan, his subsequent choice of topic is at least equally unfair to his opponent.

If Ryan believes that adequate information on the topic proposed for the debate is not available in his "section of the library," he might consider complaining to the library. The state of debate as a speed-talking fact-regurgitation recital does indeed sound absurd, but is not improved by Mr. Wash's approach.

I found Ryan's entire approach disrespectful to everyone involved, and unhelpful to his own cause. I have no problem with a debater using prose, poetry, song, dance, or any other means of expression to argue a topic, so long as it does indeed compel the listener to her way of thinking. I also have no problem with choosing "living room" topics that are more relevant to a student's daily life than climate change or gun control. But to bludgeon a hard-working student who's prepared for weeks for the biggest debate of his life is cruel. This may have been a big moment for Ryan, but it was just as big for the other students who he steamrolled along the way.

I was looking forward to hearing Jad and Robert's insightful take on this whole subject, pivoting it somehow into relevance. No such luck. I'm baffled.

Mar. 30 2016 04:11 PM
James from St. Louis

I really appreciate the recent comments of Tuckleberry_Finn supporting Ryan’s position, not so much because I agree with them, but because they actually articulate the takeaway messages that the episode merely implies.

It seems pretty clear that Ryan’s team won a legitimate victory (I’ve learned from the comments and the Harris ballot that a ‘kritik’ is not a dirty trick and that there were persuasive elements in Ryan’s argument beyond profanity).
My problem with this episode is that by producing and airing it, there’s a suggestion that Ryan’s story has implications for the debates all of us have in society and politics--but these implications are never critically examined in the episode. For example, the structure of collegiate debate competitions may be unfair, but the general claim that debating policy is in itself inherently racist is not an obvious idea; it needs to be tested against reason.
I had two black friends in high school who went to the Marines after graduation…is it racist to ask them to form an opinion on where the U.S. sends them to fight? Is it racist to ask the residents of Flint, MI to form an opinion on where their water comes from? Or on the state of government funding for public health programs?

Ryan’s critiques are valid—but do we address them by working to level the playing field so that we can all debate a range of issues? Or do we call out any debate that doesn’t address racial identity as illegitimate, and abandon it?

I don’t have firm conclusions but please, let’s keep this conversation going, especially when the state of public reasoning in this country is so horrid.

Mar. 30 2016 01:01 PM
Common Sense from New York, NY

Can you change the rules of water polo, golf, tennis, soccer, baseball, football, or even hockey, just because a certain racial group does not have as much access to it. Were any of these activities designed to exclude a certain group of people?

If I grow up in the south, should I demand the NFL hold hockey games on non-ice surfaces because I don't have the access to ice that Canadians and Russians have.

I get that the 8-minute format of "fact vomit" that the debate has become is pretty much appalling (and thank you Radio Lab - glad I never joined a debate team in high school). I couldn't stand to listen to any of them.

But the problem with debate seems to be a format and possibly a topic issue, not a race issue.

Mar. 30 2016 08:56 AM
Jack from Earth

Why is Radiolab promoting this type of racist propaganda?

And by the way, what I heard is not a debate, it's a god damn circus.

Mar. 30 2016 05:08 AM
Former customer from Europe

I used to love radiolab but this was some of the worst filth I have ever listened to.

Mar. 30 2016 05:03 AM

Frankly, I find the majority of these comments to be appalling, and somewhat ironic. The majority of the claims I've read are saying that it is "unfair" that Ryan would stray from the original topic of the debate, which in turn took the opposing team out of their element, and rendered them unable to counter. The irony being, that this entire episode was devoted to shedding a light on the fact that the systems, especially those related to academia, are inherently designed by and for white people. Albeit, Ryan's approach was at times a little aggressive, imagine being in the shoes of an inner-city black kid, in a predominantly white environment. That was the perspective that he was attempting to provide those that he debated with and in front of. He removed the overprivileged whites from their comfort zone, and required that they meet him on the same level of disadvantage due to a lack of resources, and cultural familiarity. And on this new, level playing field, he was the victor.

If you actually listen to the points he made in his final speech, he asks; "when have these topics ever reached into our section of the library?" We, as white people, are privileged to toil over the concerns associated with global warming, and energy deficiencies, because our lives are otherwise unencumbered. The lives of black, inner-city, high school students don't typically leave much room for pondering of the global state. I believe this was the point that Ryan was trying to make. That norms of debate, and, more importantly, in society as whole, are inherently racist. This is the fact that makes everyone so uncomfortable, and that lead to that first team to ask them to "leave." We do not want to confront the fact that racism and discrimination is still a very real thing in this country, not just systemically, but also innately embedded in our subconscious. Until we can acknowledge and identify our own prejudices on a personal level, there will be no advancement as a whole. A point sadly proven by the debate tournament the year after Ryan's victory.

In summary, the plight of white people is a severely outdated one. True intelligence, which debate is meant to display, is the ability to argue either side of a topic, any topic, and to gain perspective of the values representative of either position. Not to cram as much information into an 8-minute segment as possible. Bravo to Ryan for turning the attention toward a far more important topic than the ones voted into circulation by, assumedly, white academics.

P.S. In regards to the derived connections between this podcast, and the Black Lives Matter movement; all lives matter, but history has stated that white lives matter more.

Mar. 29 2016 09:54 PM
Andrew Chen from Washington DC

This story was so insipid it made me decide not to donate, and encourage others not to donate as well. Why why why why why, I used to love you guys! Whyyyyyy????? I loved your guts story, your stories about space, your stories about elements, what, what on Earth... Please please let me love you again.

Mar. 29 2016 08:58 PM
Paul from Boom

Wow, this episode raised really significant issues about race, policy, and fair play that deserve a lot of careful thought and discussion. But, interestingly, I find I'm more in my element talking about global warming, so let's do that instead. You see, while it's debatable (wink wink, see what I did there?) what policy approach we should take with respect to curbing global warming, the fact of its happening is not -- there's a strong scientific consensus that it's all too real. And as you know, global warming is also really important, since it will affect all life on Earth and the course of world history. So, please, let's all shift this discussion to the important issue of global warming that I raised, and not the Radiolab episode for which this comment section was designed.

(I'm doing this right, right?)

Mar. 29 2016 07:27 PM

Thankfully Obama didn't resort to this debate tactic in 2008 and 2012. This had to be one of the worst episodes I've ever heard. To say that two people cannot debate a topic because they are not the same race, sexual orientation, gender, etc, is idiotic.

Mar. 29 2016 06:05 PM

ATTENTION: to whoever is responsible for maintaining this site - the up and down vote buttons are not functional, even if you are logged in. Notice how none of the comments have any votes.
That said I wish to upvote the comment by Kayla from Avalon, MO. She voices an issue that is headed to become huge in the upcoming election. Listen to the "On the Media" podcast titled Party People if you want a primer on the next big national discussion. It's an astonishing listen.

Mar. 29 2016 04:35 PM
Eric from NV

Most annoying episode ever. "White Media," "Room full of white people," "Why now [when the story is old]?" All of these things designed to derail any conversation into the false narrative of the black lives matter hate group. Which leads me to think that his story of the other team calling him "the N word" didn't happen in the slightest. It's all fairy-tale told by the BLM hate group to push lies to make them seem like oppressed saints; they're definitely not. And this 59:23 of his lies are below Radiolab. A full hour wasted on what is normally a very informative show.

Mar. 29 2016 11:11 AM
blaise from Raleigh

I cannot stop thinking about how a debate team could even be considered legit when they changed the entire conversation. Sure they may have made better technical arguments for their pet topic, but they did not debate the topic of alternative energy, bottom line that should have disqualified them. Don't care how reasoned their arguments were, they did not deserve their win. It was said that their methods prepare them for future real life debates, but if you are lucky enough to be a part of a UN delegation debating about how to end the conflict in Syria but spend your time debating race issues, well you sure will not advance any action for peace. Worst RadioLab episode ever.

Mar. 29 2016 10:09 AM
Che from Brooklyn

Wow! Thank you for such a powerful story. Thank you, Ryan. I turned on Radiolab thinking I would fall peacefully to sleep and, instead, lay there in bed staring at the ceiling with my eyes wide open.

I really don't know what else to say except, thank you. I had no idea the debate world was like this. Curious to know DeBlasio's son's thoughts on this.

Mar. 29 2016 08:34 AM

Just listened to the "Wild Things" episode this week. What a great episode! The overall arc seemed to be as follows, particularly with the Rhino story:

A) Here are some ideas/assumptions about conservation that fit nicely into the narrative I've internalized, as somewhat of a progressive liberal.
B) Here is a really compelling story from a hunter that calls these assumptions into question.
C) How do these stories change how we think about the value of wildlife, and what's needed to protect it? What contradictions are involved? How do we reconcile them??!

By contrast, the arc from this episode seemed to be:

A) Here are some ideas/assumptions about race, protest, and identity that fit nicely into my progressive liberal narrative.
C) Alright, I guess we hang on to those same ideas, without critically examining them.

I don't mind when Radiolab takes up topics outside of science, but Jad and Robert usually bring at least a scientific attitude (of curiosity, skepticism, critique..). I would love it if we get a healthier dose of that spirit in the next episode.

Mar. 28 2016 06:19 PM
james from Nashville

This discussion was a lot like an affirmative action discussion.
"We can't handle the high bar that you've set therefore you are a racist"
"You must change the rules or we will continue to brand you as racist"
"You must talk slower or you must be racist"

Mar. 28 2016 10:41 AM

The negative comments are about what I expected. Many comfy white people do NOT enjoy being called out on the race issue, even indirectly, except within a comfortable forum of their design. And so when the opportunity to otherwise avoid the issue by calling "foul" on an imaginary technicality (off topic! Unfair!) arises...they will take it.

Mar. 27 2016 03:12 AM
Derek from Third Rock from the Sun

Listening to this podcast made me glad that I did NOT join the debate club in high school. Rhetorical tricks -- whether they are speedtalking as demonstrated early in the episode or the use of off-topic non-sequiturs like Ryan engaged in -- have no place in reasoned debate. Tricks like these do not exemplify either ETHOS or LOGOS.

What troubles me more is that debate teachers and judges have fallen for these kinds of tricks. It demonstrates the diminution of our education system, a decay that has bled into our legal system, where ideological statements take the place of facts or reasoned argument. Debate should be the one area where blaming one's lack of performance on racism, sexism, or other -sim is seen for the poor excuse it is. Well reasoned arguments based on facts know no race, gender, religion, national origin, etc. even as pure emotionalism uses all those factors.

The uncritical acceptance of (and indeed criticism and demonization of those who object to) this phenomenon is a sad sign of contemporary society.

Mar. 26 2016 02:19 PM

Been a listener for about 3 years, but this is my first time posting. This has become one of my favourite episodes from Radiolab. Ryan did the right thing in challenging the power structure and rules that are in place. The negative comments alone on this episode prove his point. White people do not like having their power structure challenged, so we have to continually challenge them until they change.

Mar. 24 2016 07:43 PM
Jeff from Seattle

Just one follow up:
From the Harris ballot, I gleaned that Emporia's argument was that there should be space in debate both to address policy AND for those from marginalized communities to express themselves (seems like a reasonable idea).

I think it follows, though, that by making this argument instead of debating the resolution, over and over again, their effective overall position is that the appropriate topic for a black debate team to address is in every case their personal struggle against exclusion, and not gov't energy policy, not military policy, not anything else (otherwise what are their grounds for throwing out the proposed resolution in every debate?)

By not really offering any challenges, Jad and Robert kind of let this hang as an implicit takeaway, although there are all sorts of problems with this position. Not only is it insulting to the talents and intellect of black debaters (as already pointed out by a black commenter), it creates an intellectual environment where identity is not just valued, but trumps all else, and derails conversations about significant issues.

Harris, who decided in favor of Emporia but was really, really critical of a lot of their claims, sounded concerned at the end of his ballot:
"I cannot imagine a world in which people don't form opinions about the things their government does. I don't know where this vision of debate comes from."

Mar. 24 2016 07:01 PM
Jeff from Seattle

Like many here, I'm a longtime listener and supporter, and (also like many here) was really disappointed with this episode.
As a non-debater, I appreciate commenters such as Thomas_Y (3/23 8:08pm) pointing out that such a 'meta-debate' approach is not new, but a well-used strategy. After I learned that, I didn’t begrudge Ryan his victory at all, as the Emporia team seems to have used the best tools at their disposal to win. But if this episode is only about a debate team using clever tactics within the artificial environment of an academic competition, then I don’t care.

What I’m interested in is the implications this story has for the direction of public reasoning, and this is what I thought radiolab was setting out to do—to use this story as a springboard to think critically about what it means to be persuasive, where authority comes from, the value of public debate etc…

From the episode we get a one-sided story of an underdog prevailing over a “nemesis,” but from the ballot of Scott Harris (posted above) we get a lot of careful reflection. After reading the ballot, it seems Harris voted for Emporia because their arguments were technically better presented, but he wished their opposition had asked more critical questions about Emporia’s approach (to making debate more inclusive, making it a ‘home’) such as:
“How does [Emporia’s demands] do violence to everyone else in the home? How does it impact on the pedagogical value of education that occurs in the home? What kind of home does it become if the right to talk about yourself trumps all other values the home stands for?”

I would have loved to hear questions like these taken up seriously in the podcast. There are times when we almost get there, but then we hear "Stop, stop, stop," and "No" from a champion debater, and the conversation somehow ends right there...

Mar. 24 2016 04:24 PM
Allan Hoving

Please consider using the patented PodPoster system, so listeners can comment with audiovisual media

Mar. 24 2016 02:08 PM
Josh Gardu from California

This will be the last episode of radio lab to which I will listen. I don't disagree with what the speakers attempted to argue, but honestly it was one-sided. I previously enjoyed radio lab's podcasts because of the multiple arguments that would be considered, but this was not the case for this episode or any of the latest ones to which I have listened. Specifically, I find it manipulative that radio lab didn't include the story of the "nemesis" of our "hero" - very unfair especially considering radio lab's attempt to supposedly promote fairness in a democratic setting.

Otherwise, it was interesting to hear about the debate culture. Ultimately, this story is a perfect example of how one can win the battle and lose the war.

Mar. 24 2016 02:05 PM
Eric Autenreith from Fayetteville, WV

Loved this episode and the many comments. It clearly raised issues and i was fascinated by the last point that Ryan did not feel so great about his national win. I never knew anything about debate clubs and debate competition until this story. Though, i have been so curious about what passes for useful conversation most especially as it relates to our governance systems. My view is perhaps similar to Ryan's and Marchana's- We are often asked to consider and are caught up in public conversations that get framed by professional debate issue framers, which exclude vital cogs in the national and international systems of functioning/disfunction community.

So, it's nice to see teachers. leaders, judges of these students fully consider in personal quiet, the full meaning of what went on. And I would like to say to Ryan that these big social systems take a long time to change- 10 to 20 years. It might feel like an aberration now but it did make a wave and I have seen little waves rock some boats and change the course of communities. Steady on.

Mar. 24 2016 01:34 PM

Fascinating story. I remember during my time in high school Policy Debate (over 30 years ago now), there was a fair amount of "meta-debate" conversation in virtually every round. Not only about topicality, but also about judging paradigms and all sort of other matters.

I've seen a number of comments here trying to compare the black debaters to people trying to refuse to play a sport according to the rules, but I think this overlooks the fact that the "rules" of any debate are always themselves up for debate (a point Mr. Wash himself makes during the interview). Certainly what they're doing upends a lot of convention, but so did the idea of debate judging as hypothesis testing during the 1970s.

Indeed, I think one possible rhetorical tactic that an opposing team might have taken against Mr. Wash and his partners would be to argue that it is the very framework of debate that makes their participation in their chosen style possible. This would avoid the literally self-defeating trap of suggesting that their style is not allowable and that they should leave and try another activity. The very fact that these gentlemen were in fact not ejected from any tournaments and indeed actually won the NDT could be taken to show that perhaps the debate community as it is is already more inclusive than they are attempting to argue.

Debate has meant a lot to me over the years, and it is uncomfortable to read so many comments from people who have no experience with it railing against Mr. Wash and his tactics, and taking Radiolab itself to task for its presentation of the story. I found the story excellent, and believe that Wash was deserving of all his tournament successes.

Mar. 23 2016 08:08 PM
Jean from Rochester, N.Y.

Yes, I agree with David from Miami (Mar 23 2:44pm). The hosts were pandering to their engaging but self-serving guest. All that giggling - ugh! I commend Robert for trying to make the episode less biased and don't fault him for that failure. The irony is that pandering is at best cowardly and at worst disrespectful, and it is always dishonest.

Mar. 23 2016 06:53 PM
David from Miami

I'm honestly disgusted by this episode as someone who was very active in debate in High School.

For an episode about "debate" it was ironic the way every time Robert tried to actually discuss the issues he just got shut down by their guest "stop, stop, stop" and "no" with no explanation. Really goes to show what a terrible debater their guest actually is.

If you get invited to debate on the topic of alternative energy and spend the entire time talking about how it takes a lot of "energy" to get up in the morning as a gay black man you are a bad debater, not to mention extremely unfair to the other side because that is not the topic they were prepared to debate.

Plus, no matter whether they were supposed to be affirmative or not, they always flipped it to their same argument. If they were truly good debaters they would have argued against their own position 50% of the time. That's what you do in policy debate.

They're perfectly free to make their arguments, and they have many valid points, but as someone else told them, there's a place for that. Debate tournaments have an extemporaneous speaking tournament as well which this kind of thing would have been perfectly in place for. They basically brought an extemp performance into a policy debate. It would have been just as inappropriate if I'd gone into the Student Congress room and started doing Policy debate, or started doing Interpretation in the Lincoln-Douglas tournament.

This story was so incredibly one-sided, the hosts didn't call their guest out on his BS (Robert tried to, but got shut down and basically called a racist), they let things slide that they should have researched, and they completely failed to represent the true scope of the different kinds of debate. If you didn't know anything about debate you'd think it was all this fast talking policy debate crap.

Mar. 23 2016 02:44 PM
Jordan from Utah

Wow, a lot of hate in the comments. I can't speak for anyone else, but I found this to be an interesting and engaging story.

Mar. 23 2016 11:49 AM
Rowan from Pennsylvania

Radiolab normally does well-rounded and researched stories. This was a disappointing change.

Mar. 23 2016 08:22 AM

I am from an immigrant family. I only was able to try debate in middle school. I went to a school that lacked facilities to have very much. All my life I felt I had to work twice as hard because my family is obviously different from 'real American families'. I remember having to do a debate on immigration. I was the 'more restriction' side. It taught me to separate my emotions from my debate. It taught me to research and to think in someone elses place. I didn't have to agree to understand.

I worry that encouraging this 'debate-jacking' will cause a trend where we are not learning to use a style of thinking to learn how to make choices by weighing out how different people may think will catch on. There is a lot of prejudice and exclusion for blacks. There are a lot of prejudice and exclusion for poorer students. There are a lot of prejudice and exclusion for immigrant families. These issues need to be addressed. These issues shouldn't be taking over the ability to learn and grow in our abilities to make good arguments. This disturbs me.

If I was prepared to do my work and explain my work to you and you forced me into a conversation about immigration I would be ticked. I work hard and do good work. These people who are on the other end of this debate are rightly annoyed. I get that sometimes things are unfair but it shouldn't be addressed this way. There are better ways to have this discussion. This sort of thing will only bring more problems onto the rest of us.

Mar. 22 2016 07:45 PM
Brian Long from Seattle, WA

I love all the comments here from people who didn't do CX/policy debate. You just don't get it. It's a rhetorical sport. Any rhetorical device is fair game. Meta-debate was happening 25 years ago at the high school level. It's very hard to defend against, but also very hard to pull off. It's a gamble. CX/policy is not a values-based competition, it's rhetorical. You could say something that flies against every established moral/ethical/social norm, and if you argued it better, or if it was conceded by the other team via lack of response, judges have little choice but to flow it in your favor. Arguing the same affirmatives/negatives/counterplans over and over again, frankly, was boring anyway. I enjoyed it when people ran out-of-the-box affirmatives or negatives. It was also terrifying because you had to think on your feet to an even greater degree than normal. It sounds like the NW team was just on autopilot by responding with topicality. It sounds very safe. Maybe they have should gambled as well. And it's not like they didn't see this affirmative coming from a mile away. They could have fully prepared for it.

Mar. 22 2016 07:44 PM
Peter from United Kingdom

My reaction to this podcast:

1. Wow, that fast talking debate style is stupid. I hope this guy comes up with a solution...

2. Wow, that spoken word / race card / non-debate style is even more stupid and disgusting.

Oh, this was the most painful and one sided radiolab episode ever. This is not real debate, it is a cancer eating away at intellectualism. They only ever won because of regressive liberal 'white guilt' ridden judges. Shame on these fools.

Mar. 22 2016 03:36 PM

Ironic that this is called 'idebatable'. As a non-American, never has the American language sounded less like English than here.

Mar. 22 2016 01:01 AM
Bryan from USA

Holding white people ideologically hostage with ad hominem attacks will take this young man far in our current, politically hysterical climate. Then again though, I would rather be homeless than have manipulativeness to thank for my success.

Mar. 22 2016 12:23 AM

I would have liked to have heard the story of Arjun Vellayappa, Ryan's "nemesis" and opponent in the final, and his perspective as person of colour on the issues raised in this podcast. This was a disappointingly one sided episode which is ironic given its title and subject.

Mar. 21 2016 08:10 PM

I would have liked to have heard the story of Arjun Vellayappa, Ryan's "nemesis" and opponent in the final, and his perspective as person of colour on the issues raised in this podcast. This was a disappointingly one sided episode which is ironic given its title and subject.

Mar. 21 2016 08:09 PM
Jonathan Sparks from Las Vegas, NV 89134


Just voted for Donald Trump ;-)

Mar. 21 2016 07:51 PM

If we all agree we are going to compete in baseball it's not fair for one team to show up with a football and set up some end zones suggesting that baseball isn't fair since some of the population does not have mitts, bats etc but hey we're still using a ball and there's two teams competing so it's in the meta-spirit of the game. Now aren't the people who practiced baseball the entire time at a disadvantage?

Essentially what the affirmative in this case is doing is selecting a sub-topic which they personally/subjectively identify with and which is tangentially related to the main topic at hand. Then, they produce an argument that is bulletproof. Who will genuinely argue against giving marginalized communities more access to resources so that their debate teams can compete? No one unless they are racist.

If we are going to debate what is and is not a good debate then personally I find arguments which are more objective and much less anecdotal to be more persuasive. However, if someone else were judging they may be persuaded by the opposite. The easy solution here is to set up clear judging criteria so that the rules are well established and known to all of the participants. These can be minimum rules in order to keep the grass-roots ethos of debate in action and student driven. The point of having basic rules is so that judges can start evaluating participants from an equal point. When a panel of judges declares a team to have won an event then that team if judged by a random panel of judges should be declared the winner a majority of the time. The competition can be close but ideally the winner should prevail a majority of the time or else they don’t deserve to win. Intuitively there should be some objective element to winning. In sport when this does not happen we call it a robbery, a disgrace to the sport, a bad decision etc. Naturally we do not like outside influences which are tangentially (or not) related to the sport to dictate the winners and losers.

By debating the rules instead of the main topic or the rules alongside the main topic we are asking the judges to do more than what they signed up for. We are asking them to leave a more or less equal starting position and instead start their evaluations based on what is fair and just in tandem with or irrespective of the topic at hand. Since everyone has their own sense of fairness which can vary wildly from person to person the winner may be heavily disputed. This taints the outcome of the debate and disincentives competition.

TLDR I think we should really be debating the rules separately.

Mar. 21 2016 07:46 PM

If you don't play by the rules of a competition it is CHEATING. If some schools want to form a meta-debate league to debate the rules of traditional debate, let them go at it, but do not hijack existing debate competitions.

I would love to see a comparison of debate scored by judges who watch the debate(and thus see the participants) compared to the same debates judged based on a transcript of what was said.

Mar. 21 2016 04:55 PM
freddy88a from Midwest

Although I have been in higher education for over 20 years, this was the first time have been exposed to this "speed-talk" style of debate in higher education. I agree with George Soros’ notion that what a thriving democratic needs are all its people to be skilled debaters or have an appreciation a good argument. However, anyone that presented an argument in any Fortune 500 company, any state/federal government, any academic conference, any courtroom, any social gathering, or any normal human-to-human interaction in this “speed-talk” fashion would have no credibility, influence, or respect regardless of race, gender, orientation, age, education-level, disability, ….
It seems to me that it follows a disturbing trend in higher education where the pursuit of knowledge, in all its forms, is transmorphed into peculiar, profoundly disconnected, and perverse forms of knowledge and then uses that transmorphed form of knowledge as a measuring stick to compare universities to each other to determine superiority. Another example is intercollegiate athletics where tossing an inflated rubber sphere into a ring (basketball), forcing someone to the ground or advancing an inflated leather prolate spheroid forward (football) are the most valuable forms of knowledge that have the highest budgets and highest paid employees. Another example is the multiple choice test that has almost no meaningful real-world equivalent. Yet SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, etc. scores are universally presented as an indicator of the quality of incoming students; even though the testing companies readily admit that scores have NO PREDICTIVE value past the first year.
What is most frightening is that EVERYONE KNOWS THIS WRONG!!! Yet like lemmings we all mindless continue to engage these practices and value their logical outcomes. The Radiolab story is a great presentation of disruptive engagement that is needed. I wish I could be as brave and powerful as Ryan Wash was in the situations I find myself. However, it is disrupting a form of knowledge practice that higher education has perverted and disconnected from its original goals in a way that MARGINALIZE ALMOST EVERYONE that wants to engage important, impactful, and meaningful debate that cannot or will not undergo auctioneering training. It is beating the master at his own game; rather than deconstructing and neutering the perverse practice all together. Hopefully the next generation of Ryan Wash’s will take up the challenge.

Mar. 21 2016 03:43 PM
Sara from Houston

Former high school CX (policy) debater here. (For the record, not white either.) No one is denying that the structure of debate favors more affluent schools and students, with more affluent students having more access to exclusive and intense debate camps and being able to pay for expensive evidence and argument banks. These are legitimate issues that should be addressed, by providing more access to lower-income schools to exclusive spaces.

I fail to see, however, what the benefit of criticizing debate itself is. Debate is what it is, and like any other game or activity, has rules of play. How is it fair to opponents when you completely disregard these rules, and essentially play your own game? Who does it benefit? I would have hardly appreciated encountering such opponents at tournaments, especially after preparing evidence and arguments all week for the actual mandated topic at hand. It's worth mentioning that people do on occasion use arguments that critique debate itself, and these args have merit...when they are not the sole element of your argument as a whole. Finally, throughout my years debating at tournaments in Houston high schools, I debated a huge and diverse array of opponents: African Americans, Hispanics, East Asians, South Asians like myself, and yes, white people. In that environment, at least, it never felt like it was dominated by anyone.

Mar. 21 2016 03:27 PM
BC from US

Isn't winning via this method dependent on the challenging team (Ryan's, in this episode's case) making the argument that the overall process is discriminatory towards the minority students? And are not the sides (for and against) for a debate argument chosen randomly?

So when does the 'elite' team ever get a chance to use this approach? It seems the challenging team has the only shot at using this method - a method not available to the other team, nor one that would be available to the challenging team if the 'elite' team went first and chose employ this tactic?

Mar. 21 2016 02:22 PM
Alex from Berkeley

This isn't that novel. When I was doing debate at the college level, it was common to attack the structure or some other aspect of the debate other than the object-level question. Most frequently, arguing that the other side had framed the question in such a way that left our side no way to make an argument and that this tactic undermined the educational purpose of debate. Frankly, I always thought it was half-way between clever and slimy. (I always liked the high-variance aspect of the technic. If you do a poor job, you failed to rebutt your opponent's arguments. If you do an only ok job, you just argued that you don't have a leg to stand on. You really need to yank the train off the tracks in order to win with this.)

Mar. 20 2016 09:11 PM

Wow. Way to assume and label everybody who disagree with your views are all white and/or racist. Today is the day I truly experienced what the term "Regressive Left" is all about. Indeed, both far left and the far right of the political spectrum are merely different sides of the same nutty coin.

Mar. 20 2016 05:32 PM
Brianna from Alabama

Look at all these angry racist white people in the comments. And these are the same people who supposedly call themselves "liberals", but are more comfortable talking about animal rights than civil rights. Y'all want to save the lions in Africa, but are uncomfortable when people say black lives matter.

If this episode made you uncomfortable, address your internalized racism.

Mar. 19 2016 10:44 PM

Thanks for the story. From what I heard, I liked Ryan. But his whole approach unsettled me. I am a government lawyer, and my job is to try to reach resolution with opposing parties on difficult issues. I've staked my career on the proposition that reason and giving the other a fair hearing on the issue in question is the way to resolve disputes.

The Louisville school, by refusing to engage the question, runs counter to that whole approach. It relies not on reasoned argument, but, ultimately, a raw assertion of power. I agree that blacks have legitimate grievances that need to be discussed honestly and openly. But what hope do we have as a country if we can't even agree to a set of rules on how questions are to be discussed?

Mar. 19 2016 10:20 PM
Othello Goldchain from Denver

I wanted to root for this story so bad.
As a former black kid in debate, I understand the power imbalance at tournaments. A lot of the structure is absurd.

By the end, however, I'm still trying to understand what exactly this style is and how they were able to carry it so far.

It seems their entire tactic hinges on the ability to discredit their opponent's counter-arguments because the opponents are white/privileged... Man, would I have loved to team up with my Asian friend and make their case non-unique. Or argue a syllogism stating that my case works to solve systemic racial injustice.

I'm not faulting them for their attempts - enough judges were convinced to win big. And I'm sure they could beat me in any traditional debate... I just flat-out don't get it.

Mar. 19 2016 06:25 PM
The other Matthew from Salt Lake City

TLDR: This traditional debate style is deeply flawed: Most of these competitive debaters are only learning how to rattle out rhetoric as fast as possible, they are not learning how to be powerful influential speakers and it sounds like they lack charisma and non-verbal communication skills. When it comes to debate, quantity is NOT quality.

I'm loving this episode. I can't relate to their issues of race, but I'd imagine that as a Jewish person if I really wanted to inject "Jewishness" into the debate the way they are injecting "blackness" into the debate, I'm all for throwing your background and experiences into a debate to enhance the experience.. Regardless of style employed, an argument is an argument and the content of the argument is what matters the most, debate with whatever style you want, but there is no reason to throw someone out or disqualify them because you don't like "how" they pitch their arguments.

That said, I feel on an academic level and from a background of disadvantage, I highly related to these protagonists.

I've been in Model Arab League (Similar to Model U.N.) which has an element of debate to it, but also public speaking skills as well. I can say I am quite glad I never served in a debate club. This is NOT how we were instructed on debate. The Auctioneer style of debate seems absurd and pedantic and devolved. There is no element of speech-craft, and it seems that nonverbal elements of the debate such as body language and speaking style are completely disregarded. A debater that rattles off facts mechanically as fast as humanly possible may as well be replaced by a robot or a computer.

Our debate coach for our club taught us the three elements of debate that Ryan Wash employed, Pathos, Ethos, and Logos. We were also taught to structure our debate points as persuasive arguments that were succinct and memorable, not a regurgitation of facts and trivia.

And like Ryan, our school felt like the underdogs as well, we went up against these prestigious schools from the East Coast, but we did well and placed 2nd or 3rd in national competitions (we thought there was a bias against us so placing in the top three felt like a 1st place victory to us) but I think we succeeded because we did our best to be ourselves and our passion for the topics (my school is known for its enthusiastic Mideast Studies and International Studies Students) shined through all the formal training and experience the other schools may have had. It might have helped that we weren't trying to win, we were just trying to be our best and keep our integrity and i think that's what the judges saw in us.

Mar. 19 2016 01:06 PM

So many of these comments hating on this episode are exactly why this episode exists. It isn't about debate or its norms (they say exactly that there aren't many codified rules, so obviously whatever language games you can get away with are valid.) It isn't "playing a race card to win." It's about exposing and making a claim that the whole game is rigged from the beginning. You don't have to believe that, but your victim-of-the-victim whinging is BS. White fragility and defensiveness is THE WORST!

a white boy beginning to get a little woke. Thanks Radiolab for this episode.

Mar. 19 2016 10:11 AM
Natalie from KCMO

My God this was awful.

The fast talking debating style is the most absurd thing I've ever seen. They aren't even trying to persuade people. However, this guy's debating style of screaming and cursing and talking about racism no matter the topic is even worse. The judges are ruining debate, because these guys aren't debating.

Neither side deserved to win, because both sides are horrible, terrible at debate.

Mar. 19 2016 07:00 AM
Oldman from Virginia

For those of you who are offended at the speed talk technique, go watch an example of Lincoln Douglas style debates. There you can take your sweet ole time....

Mar. 19 2016 05:42 AM
Oldman from Virginia

Similar to 'former debator' I think that this techniques is neither new nor novel. Back in the 90s you'd have the occasional forensics team or LD person come down and try to win the round with an off the cuff spoken word style critique of the debate itself. Since even then this was an old trick we'd break out the pre prepared topicality deck and bring them back down to earth. The fact these guys won using this technique is either a testament to their abilities or the lack of from their opposition. Or maybe the judges, being the fickle bunch they are just like having their white man guilt buffed a little.

That being said, I was rooting for them at the beginning of the story hoping they'd school those who have forgotten the lessons of the past. Where they lost me was when radiolab played the audio of the debate itself. I found the amount of cursing and race baiting to be rude and offensive. I think they did a disservice to debaters of color everywhere to have set this approach as the standard.

Mar. 19 2016 05:36 AM

I had no idea debate was like that. That format is disgusting. Anyone who thinks that is okay should be ashamed of themselves. Learning that this is the path to the elite in the US has destroyed any respect I may have had left for this country.

Mar. 19 2016 02:28 AM
Avi from Upstate NY

I think it's time for Jad and Robert to acknowledge their cis-gender, white, hetero-normative, sexist bias and bring on a female or queer host to update their retrograde views to our current century. Oh, wait, are we talking about something else in this comment thread? Well, as this episode taught me, it doesn't really matter what page everyone else is on, or what conversation they're having; if I want to change the terms of the discussion, I'm entitled to, especially if I can base it on some specious accusations of prejudice.

(In case it wasn't obvious, I don't think Jad and Robert are any of those things. I was making a point. But they did drop the ball on this disappointing episode.)

Mar. 18 2016 07:04 PM
RH from California

I think this episode would have benefited from less emphasis on the individual Ryan Wash, and more discussion of debate as a competitive event. I was on a high school debate team for 4 years. Debate's long love affair with speed-talking is obviously absurd. We referred to the practice as "motor-mouthing." But how can a debate on a topic take place, if a debate team is allowed to completely ignore the debate topic? The Atlantic published an article on the "alternative-style" debate controversy in April 2014. It can be found at The article indicates that another "alternative-style" debater refused to yield the floor when the clock ran out. After all, why should timing rules be enforced either? Every game must have rules for the participants to follow. In a football tournament, if a team refused to follow the rules, the team should not be permitted to win.

Mar. 18 2016 06:38 PM
Sarah Siddell from Berkeley, CA

This would be amusing if it weren't so enraging.

Why wasn't the WOMAN who changed the entire debate "conversation" at the competition featured in this Radiolab episode the one who was interviewed???

A show about exclusion and a male is chosen to talk about a "movement" started by a woman!

Sexism is SO unconscious that intelligent people don't even notice it is present. I find the sexism particularly egregious in science programming, both on radio and TV, not to mention the often-outrageous ways women are treated in the field itself, as documented in many studies. (See, for example, some articles in the NY Times.)

On PBS, any woman scientist who happens to be quoted (they are rare) has to be beautiful or at least attractive. Long flowing blond hair isn't quite a requisite but it IS prevalent at much higher rates than in the general population!

Come on, Boys, share the ball!

Mar. 18 2016 06:23 PM
JB from California

This was the first truly terrible and completely one-sided presentation I've heard from you guys.

The tactic of spreading is genuinely ridiculous, and does likely give an advantage to the more well-funded schools. But Ryan Wash's tactic of completely ignoring the topic is even more of a farce. I find it interesting that he's challenging the ridiculous nature of modern competitive debate, but he's done so by making the entire thing a farce.

The episode also gives the impression that everyone in the debate world, minus Wash, his partner and a few other schools, is 100% white and male. Ryan himself seems to claim that he walks among a sea of elitist white people. That's simply untrue. I looked up the roster for Northwestern and it appears they have 3-4 African American members, 2-3 Asian members, one Indian member and 10-13 white members. Hardly, the rich, white elitist school they are portrayed as being. Arjun Vellayappan, your guest who debated Wash in the finals, is himself very clearly not white.

I looked up a few other debate teams as well. Harvard's debate team has multiple African American members, as well as Asian and Indian members. For every school I looked at, about 40-70% of their members are white and the rest are minorities, including many black students. That is exactly what you'd expect for an American college just based on population. The narrative in the episode that Ryan Wash and his teammates consistently walked into all-white debate rooms and were met with shocked looks, whispers and racial slurs appears to be false. But you never questioned any of these claims.

A different perspective would have been useful. But you completely ignored the other side for the sake of being PC. That's disappointing.

Mar. 18 2016 05:28 PM
Darach Seaton from Vancouver, Canada

I was very moved by this episode, and am very excited at the underlying idea of a clash of cultures that is apparently operating in the U.S. Against an Enlightenment-originated, Euro-dominated American culture, a richly diverse, fully-formed African-American culture, through a multitude of performers, debaters, intellectuals, writers, and so on, is asserting its validity, meanings and histories. (As it has been doing for a long time, of course, except that there seems to be a new force in its voice). However, I was frustrated with the idea that African-Americans apparently can't win arguments on any other topic than that of the epistemological and structural Eurocentrism of intellectual conversation and formal debate. I recognize what was being said about the structure of debate, and the resources debaters access in support of that structure, as unfairly favouring the privileged and the wealthy - and it would have been incredible to hear these biases named aloud right in the moment of debate. But such topics as clean energy or American foreign policy are not exclusively white topics: they directly affect black Americans, too, and are presumably topics black Americans have opinions and concerns about, even while they face more immediate day-to-day struggles most of us white folks can't imagine. I mistrust the notion that Black intelligence, logic and creativity is ONLY useful on topics of race and racism and the privileging of Eurocentric norms of meaning and thought. Yet I felt as if Ryan himself was asserting this idea, and it didn't seem at all fair to his obvious intelligence and articulateness.

Mar. 18 2016 02:53 PM

Although a great episode, it was dreadfully one-sided. Sure, it does a great job to criticize racism (in debate and many other activities), but does not go far enough to present an unbiased story.

Radiolab poses the 'privileged white male' as the villain in the debate community, but fails to address that neither Arjun Vellayapan (not a white male) nor Peyton Lee (also not a white male) represent this villainous majority. I wish had a little more on Arjun's or Peyton's point of view in the story.

Mar. 18 2016 02:04 PM
Craig from Chicago, IL

Please don't let this indicate Radiolab's journey toward the regressive left. Why give such ridiculous behavior a platform? And why treat the guests with kid gloves when they are accusing you of being racist at every turn?

Mar. 18 2016 01:30 PM

I was thinking about this episode again on my commute, and I realized that Ryan and Donald Trump do the exact same thing. If the question is about energy policy, both will find a way to talk about how they are mistreated by someone else and insult their opponents.

Mar. 18 2016 01:25 PM
Thomas Cunningham from Los Angeles

I enjoyed the episode. So much so that I recommended it to my FB followers. However, I am troubled by the image that headlines the page. In a story SPECIFICALLY about Ryan Wash, a Black, queer, first-generation college student who pushes the boundaries of debate and discussions about the same, you have a picture of (what appears to be) a white male student.


Mar. 18 2016 12:28 PM
Jeremy from Australia

Are you aware that everywhere else in the world debating is not like the speed talking competition you presented? You spoke as if American style debating is the only way it happens. I thought you were better than that. Do some proper research.

Mar. 18 2016 12:08 AM
jader3rd from Seattle

The reason why Ryan doesn't feel satisfied about his National Title is because he knows that he didn't win. He doesn't have the evidence to convince himself that he actually out debated the opposing team, which was the point of the tournament. Yes, he pushed his issue forward, but if he ever decided to debate his nemesis on the topic given for them to debate, could he defeat her? I suspect that he suspects that he can't. That's why it's still a hollow victory for him.

Mar. 17 2016 11:48 PM
Nick from Ontario

The topic of this episode is something that definitely deserves exploring as it's very fascinating and engaging. But the way it was presented in this episode was irritating and difficult to connect to.

Regardless of your feelings with respect to debate styles this episode was completely one sided. Every topic Robert tried to raise was shot down because he was being racist. We didn't even really get to hear Arjun's side of the story.

This is a real deviation from the journalistic style and balanced storytelling I'm come to admire from RadioLab. Great topic, well produced, but poorly presented and edited. A shame that this could have been so much more engaging and inspirational with a little more work to present both sides equally.

Mar. 17 2016 11:42 PM
tehy from California

I definitely have a lot of respect for Ryan coming out of this episode.

He's totally managed to expose the flaws in this system. I applaud his desire to overturn the racial biases inherent in it, by exposing just how easily white guilt and the race card can be used to win national championships in a sport that is meant to be entirely objective and rational.

Of course, that wasn't his intent, and he's talking a whole lotta bullshit in the meanwhile, but well done and thank you for the service.

Mar. 17 2016 11:42 PM

oh and for all the people who don't "get it", their first priority was not necessarily coming into first place, their first priority was to change the exclusion debate (and ultimately the world) by having a conversation about it...aka debating. They used the competition as a platform to force people to have logical arguments about race relations. In the end, their argument was so effective! This was moving.

Mar. 17 2016 11:27 PM
JM from Shanghai

I thoroughly enjoyed this episode and found myself extremely moved during my commute on the subway this morning while listening to it. I debated in high school (LD, not policy), and found the experience incredibly educational and rewarding. I completely understand Ryan’s feelings of empowerment. Debate gives kids the opportunity to challenge themselves in a forum in which their opinions and arguments are heard and respected. As an adolescent, especially as a person of color, debate is an extremely didactic and visceral experience.

I also sympathize with Ryan’s experiences entering the national debate league. I had a similar experience as a minority debating in national tournaments. There were many instances in which I know I completely crushed my opponent on the flow (i.e., unquestionably prevailed in terms of arguments) but the judges (who were often middle-class, white suburban moms) somehow voted for the other (white) debater on specious and ambiguous grounds. It was frustrating, but at the time I brushed it off. Hearing Ryan’s narrative reopened those debate rounds for me and helped me confront a reality I didn’t want to see at the time. Race matters.

Debate truly does exist in a world of its own, and unless you’ve participated in it yourself, it’s hard to understand its nuances. There’s a lot of negativity in the comments with people characterizing debate as a mindless exercise of speed reading. Although spreading is a tactic, I guarantee that the arguments these debaters are making are highly sophisticated and corroborated by hours upon hours of research and review of scholarly articles. Also, responding to such a plethora of arguments extemporaneously is no small feat. I challenge anyone who dismisses the activity to take a look at the evidence, cards and multitude of cases debaters prepare for each tournament. In addition, not all debaters will engage in spreading. When I debated, there were countless different styles of debate – some fast and some slow. Many of the champions during my time were able to present cogent and convincing arguments in a methodical and “slow” pace, but there were certainly some who were notorious for their spreading abilities.

I would like to thank Radiolab for producing this podcast, which really elicited a lot of nostalgia for me, and helped elucidate a dimension in debate that I did not consider before.

Mar. 17 2016 11:22 PM

Thank you so much RadioLab. This podcast really moved me. I did debate in high school and it is one of the most intellectually stimulating experience I ever had, also the whitest place you'll ever see. Ryan Wash was great and his debate speech at the end was so powerful. Thank you so much this was fantastic.

Mar. 17 2016 11:22 PM

I guess the point is that by injecting racial topics into everything and you would automatically win, even when the discussion had nothing to do with race to begin with? So when I play chess with somebody, can I argue that we should be playing checkers instead and be granted an automatic victory?

You talked about Ethos, Logos and Pathos. Sorry, but I see no Logos here.

What a pandering disgrace this whole fiasco of an episode was...

I can just hear Robert repeatedly try to finally voice some common sense into this episode, but only stopped short to avoid being seen un-PC.

Mar. 17 2016 10:58 PM
S. Redford from Australia

I don't understand why all the people in the comments are crying about this. People seem to be complaining about 'kids screaming'.. its a topical discussion. First, if you want easy listening, go listen to some bloody lounge music. This episode was a topic on debate, the sounds of debate were necessary not only to give the listener an understanding of how debate is structured, but to give the listener a presence in this story, to put you in that room, put you in their shoes. Its actually a great journalistic technique to transfer an experience and atmosphere through a podcast to the person on the other end. Thats why this episode was great. If you are pissed about the topic, dont listen to the topic. These complainers can grab their cheetos and sit their lard asses down and watch Fox news if you aren't interested in intelligent discussions. Grow up

Mar. 17 2016 10:57 PM

I absolutely hated this episode - and the fact that Ryan won - because the debate style that he used completely defeats the point of having any sort of meaningful engagement. It's a soccer game between Messi and your 40 year old uncle. Your uncle picks up the ball and runs through the goal, shouting "THIS POINT IS LEGITIMATE BECAUSE I CAN'T COMPETE WITH YOUR TRAINING!!!" It's a chess match where your opponent flips the board because she doesn't like that e4 is a common opening. It's protesters marching on highways in order to raise attention to #blacklivesmatter. It's an argument where one side shoots you in the head and takes the last bottle of water for himself. In what other universe would disregarding the rules in order to protest the inequities of the rules themselves be a legitimate means for winning the contest itself?

We, as a society, have decided to do things a certain way because that is how we have a functioning society. Challenging these rules provokes changes, however eventually you start to break the very core of what makes society work together.

Apparently it's now acceptable to win by doing something entirely different. Excuse me while I go tell my boss that going to the beach is the same as work.

Mar. 17 2016 08:49 PM

I absolutely hated this episode - and the fact that Ryan won - because the debate style that he used completely defeats the point of having any sort of meaningful engagement. It's a soccer game between Messi and your 40 year old uncle. Your uncle picks up the ball and runs through the goal, shouting "THIS POINT IS LEGITIMATE BECAUSE I CAN'T COMPETE WITH YOUR TRAINING!!!" It's a chess match where your opponent flips the board because she doesn't like that e4 is a common opening. It's protesters marching on highways in order to raise attention to #blacklivesmatter. It's an argument where one side shoots you in the head and takes the last bottle of water for himself. In what other universe would disregarding the rules in order to protest the inequities of the rules themselves be a legitimate means for winning the contest itself?

We, as a society, have decided to do things a certain way because that is how we have a functioning society. Challenging these rules provokes changes, however eventually you start to break the very core of what makes society work together.

Apparently it's now acceptable to win by doing something entirely different. Excuse me while I go tell my boss that going to the beach is the same as work.

Mar. 17 2016 08:10 PM
Bill Kinnear from Burlington Vermont

Example: American Experience
I DO understand you are not PBS online programming. My Question is Who is to say You and Krulwich or "Radio" isn't going to do the same thing? You Already have it on ITunes . Why Not DO A episode around how much.Money Guys Make or Loose and how Much you Pay your employees at Be Totally Transparent !

What i am saying is Radiolab or PBS will eventually end up charging people for the Content.
DONATIONS? Unlike a lot of people in this Country you are making a living and this Radio Program will provide you
living for many years to come.

Mar. 17 2016 07:04 PM
bob Woolery

Debate tournaments are always hurting for judges, so I volunteered as a judge in a local HS tournament. I prefaced each round with a statement that intelligibility matters more than word count, and if I didn't hear it, you didn't say it. Most contestants slowed down, sought clarity, and had enjoyable rounds.

Mar. 17 2016 06:54 PM
Kayla from Avalon, MO

Loved the episode and can totally relate to Ryan's feelings. However, I didn't appreciate the label of "racist" being put on the affluent, private-school students. I'm a white woman from an incredibly small town in northern Missouri. My high school class had 11 people. We didn't have a football team, much less a debate team. In my opinion, the divide of rich/poor-urban/rural is much more relevant than color of skin in this story. It's frustrating for us in rural places to constantly hear how bad blacks are treated, but absolutely no coverage is given to poverty in rural areas, lack of quality food, education, employment, etc. I'm not saying our case is worse than inner city blacks, but please stop calling it racism and call it what it is: affluent narcissism.

Mar. 17 2016 06:25 PM

I loved this episode. I listened to it to the end, and then listened to it again more carefully.
Ryan comes off as abrasive in the beginning, and I think Radiolab was intentional in presenting him this way. He is likable, yet assertive and correcting. This is the voice of someone from an oppressed community who has found their voice and has learned to use it. He isn't afraid to offend well-meaning white people who are being unintentionally offensive themselves. He isn't afraid to force needed conversations, or to create discomfort in the name of equality. So much discrimination is invisible to the people responsible for it, and they need to be shown.

We need more voices like this.

Mar. 17 2016 05:12 PM
Aaron Barnhart from Kansas City, USA

When I was 16 I saved my paper route money and paid my way to the University of Kansas debate camp. There my partner and I saw, for the first time, the cacophony that is NFL-style policy debate. We were intimidated; we were discouraged. The only good thing that came of that was a session on competitive extemporaneous speaking. When I got back to Montana my partner and I broke up, I went into extemp and salvaged my year in forensics. I tried again in college, but that scene was even more intimidating. I still remember sitting inside the debate house and overhearing a girl say to a guy, "People say she's sleeping with you for your evidence."

I know commenters are complaining about all the shouting in this episode. But I found listening to that NDT final to be nothing less than joyous. It was almost better than church. I knew exactly what Ryan Wash was experiencing, even though his background and skin color are different from mine. What made me so ecstatic was not just what he was SAYING, but what he was DOING — eviscerating decades of godawful auctioneer-style policy debate with the mother of all counterplans. And WINNING. Incredible!

It was a moment in time, yes, but Ryan shouldn't feel bad about that. Lots of life's triumphs are one-offs, anomalies, things that "aren't supposed to happen," whether it's Donald Trump or the 2015 Royals. And when everyone gets their breath back, first thing they say without fail: "well, THAT won't happen again." But who cares if it does or doesn't? IT HAPPENED. And even if schools want to go off and form their own White Citizens Council of debate tournaments, it won't delegitimize what happened at the 2013 NDT one bit.

Fabulous episode.

Mar. 17 2016 04:18 PM
Taylor from NY

I get the point. But a podcast full of screaming teenagers is god damned awful to listen to.

Mar. 17 2016 02:55 PM
Thomas from Oregon

In the episode "Oops" we learned about passign and the love of a thing versus utility and our true scientific understanding of it. In the episode "Space" we learned about man's obsession with being the center of the universe and the ultimate beauty in realizing our insignificance, in "Color" we learned about Homer, the Manta Shrimp, and our individual and very different interpretations of the vastly complex world around us. And finally in this episode I learned how being black allows me to completely shift the focus of intellectual debate to better suit MY ego, MY argument. Thank you for your wonderful generalized approach to race and gender and your contribution to an already racially confused country. Forget science, art and music. Let's take this podcast in the right direction: a one sided exploration of guilty etiquette between a youtube commenter and plywood.

Mar. 17 2016 02:52 PM
Paul from Queens, New York

Another comment won't really add anything to the discussion, but I want the Radiolab team to see that this audience member appreciated this episode. It was a difficult, frustrating listen- but worthwhile. I fully encourage them to make more like it.

While listening, I was rooting against Ryan winning the tournament. He was an obnoxious interviewee from the start, and his debate strategy was infuriating. But the episode was successful, because afterwards I had to ask myself why I was annoyed so much. I think the best answer can be found in a comment further up this thread, which compares this episode to the almost identical one about the Indian football team. Why were we all rooting for the Indians but against Ryan? The Indians exploited loop holes in the rules of football to turn the tables on their white Ivy League opponents. These white Ivy League opponents enjoyed an unfair advantage in this specific competition, which mirrored their unfair advantage in this country. That's exactly the same as what Ryan did. Is there any explanation for why we rooted for the Indians but against Ryan other than that we can admit that America was racist 100 years ago, but it makes us uncomfortable when America's current, institutional racism is thrown in our face?

Sure I don't like Ryan or his debate strategy, but it doesn't mean he's wrong. He's right that the dominant strategy in debate, spreading, is unfair to resource-deprived competitors. It's also ridiculous to listen to. Yes his counter-strategy is even worse for debating, but he's still right. This is a debate, so if he's right he should win. I'm fine with him protesting something that's already ridiculous by turning it into a complete farce.

In my opinion, what they should do is put a word limit on the debaters' arguments. Yes a word limit, just like twitter. You could base it on the average pace of English speech. That way you'd eliminate the unfair, ridiculous spreading strategy, and then Ryan's even worse counter-strategy would have to die with it.

Mar. 17 2016 01:23 PM

I was just about to contribute to help you reach your fundraising goal, and then you give me a pro-social justice warrior narrative about how everything is race related in this country?

Guess what? I grew up as a poor white kid, worked harder than anyone around me, and still didn't get into college. White privilege right? These PRIVILEGED black kids in your podcast were in higher education, and they still bitch and complain about a system that they get to participate in?

Absolutely disgusting.

This is the reason there is a backlash against political correctness in this country, and why a moron like Trump is now a viable candidate for president.


Mar. 17 2016 12:25 PM

First time I post a comment.
I didn't like this episode. Incredibly condescending .
I don't get how you can make a full episode about the debating tournaments without addressing the issue that that's not how you debate in the real world! Speed taking ! It's like an auction ! And the entire premisse of entering a debate about any topic and talk about racism, why? Because he's black, so therefore he talks about racism. Hey, I'm Portuguese, so I will always talk about fishing rights in the Atlantic and how Canada screw us out of codfish fishing, and I will do that while singing Fado ! Incredible that the otherwise excellent team of Radiolab didn't challenge any of that! (Canada was right by the way, codfish was fished almost to extinction)

Mar. 17 2016 11:56 AM
Michael from Philadelphia

Not long after I finished listening to this podcast I came across this YouTube video posted to Facebook that seems strongly on-topic with this podcast:

Apparently two teams at Harvard--one team of black students and another of white students--were having a debate on renewable energy, when the team of black students changed topic and started debating that white people should kill themselves as an act of "affirmative suicide". I wonder if this method of diverting a debate topic into a conversation about race has any relation to the debate methods that Ryan Wash and his debate partners practiced?

Mar. 17 2016 11:52 AM
Gary from Roswell Ga

Two footballs meet: one black and one white. The black team protests the game because of the inherent unfairness given the abundant resources of the white team. The judges feel acute guilt and award the black team the victory.

This episode is emblematic of the louder voice dominating the argument. I debated in college against many of the teams mentioned. In those days, a form of debating relatively free of doing deep debate was called "Canadian Style" debating. Free form but on topic. If your trump card is your race and the other side can never truly understand then it is not a level playing field. Welcome to black lives matter masquerading as debate.

Mar. 17 2016 11:50 AM
Nico from Sevilla

I am glad I am not only one baffled by this pod. The speed-talking ridiculousness, the "ignore the topic, its all about race" tactic, the incredibly condescending female professor, the grating "hero" of the story... Crazy. But the highest point of silly is reached when the professor laments that Black students are being discouraged from using rap and spoken word in intellectual debates. Oh, you think? I am Spanish, I guess I could take my guitar and sing about the oppression of the Andalusian peasant to show how ethnic my ethnicity is. And oppressed, of course.

It's so defeatist and narrow-minded. You are Black, so you should only discuss race. Really, it's giving in to racist ideology, in the sense that it accepts that race is the essential quality defining your identity. I can't wait for the day when we stop using such a flawed, meaningless category to describe ourselves and others. Abolish race and you abolish racism.

For a palate cleanser, I recommend an episode of the LOVE+RADIO podcast called The Silver Dollar . Its about a Black musician who sought out and befriended members of the KKK, in order to understand what moved them to hate. Amazing stuff.

Mar. 17 2016 11:14 AM
Bill from Philadelphia

So Ryan's journey begins as a battle against spreading (most noble), but then he turns towards other inappropriate methods/arguments in debate such as kritiks and then appears to be spreading himself in college. At the least he is a sell out, but I would argue most likely a hypocrite.

Mar. 17 2016 08:06 AM
Tom from Oro Valley

I get the argument about unfair advantage.


When ethos holds the same validity as logos, the unintended consequence is Donald Trump.

Mar. 17 2016 12:14 AM
Keith Penney

A story that stirs people! Much to consider. This must be what learning feels like...

Mar. 16 2016 11:21 PM
Mike Sonders from USA

Seems to be literally the worst episode Mailchimp could sponsor in their support for Radiolab.

This is the worst episode I've heard.

Mar. 16 2016 10:46 PM
David from New Jersey, USA

To what end? I heard the whole story and yet find that Ryan achieved nothing other than to convert a debate regarding an issue of national/ global importance to a personal argument about fairness.

He may be right that the format was tilted in favor of richer schools but all he creates is dynamic where the path of victory is the quest to find the most victimized of society. I imagine the next year some school will recruit a team that were abused as children so they can argue in the affirmative that child abuse is wrong.

I had a friend who remembers the Killing Fields. Should that make him a better debater?

What was gained in the end? Did debate improve by hijacking the topic to a personal one or did we make debate into a relativistic one where victimization however real the key to victory.

Mar. 16 2016 09:07 PM

I've never posted a comment to Radiolab before, though I am an ardent lover, and I found this story very much in keeping with the types of stories that Radiolab generally tells: it explores a topic, examines the issues of both sides of the story, and then it steps back and allows for a sort of meta-discussion of the scenario itself.

Here the issue wasn't whether or not debaters should debate the topic at hand, but about the nature of debate itself. I didn't know before this story that debate is conducted in a kind of speed-talking-make-the-most-points nonsensical way. I had been thinking that there were logically argued points presented in a reasonable, emotionally cogent fashion by bright young kids. What I heard was.... mostly just fast. I wasn't impressed by the quality of the thought -- I guess anyone can be taught to speak quickly -- and if debate is not improving the minds of its participants, but simply about who can make the most arguments the quickest, then really it's no different than NASCAR.

I wasn't saddened that Ryan chose to play a different game in preference to the one currently offered in the debate world because I saw no intrinsic value in debate as it was presented here. Indeed, any alternative would be better than simply mounting argument after argument devoid of pathos or ethos or.... meaning. Now that I know that this is How debate is conducted, I too, think debate should do something different.

The problem is that when people of color challenge pre-existing systems because those systems are racist, or as I am doing here, because those systems are nonsensical, we can't be heard because we aren't using the correct "techniques." When the techniques are flawed though, as they are here, you CAN'T and shouldn't use them. The challenge becomes to present an alternative. That is what Ryan did.

Thank you, Ryan! And thank you, Radiolab!

Mar. 16 2016 08:30 PM
Chris from Seattle

That was very interesting. It makes me glad that the debate team that my younger son tried to participate in dissolved because the teacher decided to not continue the program, and no one else wanted to do it. It looks like debate is mostly legitimizing the Gish Gallop.

Mar. 16 2016 07:36 PM

This was a disturbing podcast, Jad and Robert: a tale of spoiled, rude, racially hyper-sensitive children and the adults who endulge them. I include you in that adult category for producing this podcast. On the other hand, in the tradition of debate, maybe we should thank you for the exposé of this useless and unintelligible style of debate and the race-on-the-brain attitudes of Ryan and his associates, which, by their shout-you-down emotional debate techniques, obfuscate the more important problems of race in this country, despite their intentions otherwise. What would the great Martin Luther King, Jr. make of this podcast?

Mar. 16 2016 06:56 PM
Bruce A Lindman

An embarrassing chronicle of the transformation of competitive debate from being a sad joke, to being a complete and total joke.

Mar. 16 2016 06:55 PM
Julia from Connecticut

I was saddened by Robert's last statement on this podcast. After listening to a story about a very successful, studious black student who passionately chose a course of action because he felt compelled to speak out about racism, Robert called the whole thing an accident. How is it an accident that a teacher spotted a smart student? That's her job. How is it "peculiar" that he was good at and worked hard at mastering debate? Why would you say it was accidental that he responded to a racist institution by speaking out against it. When you sum up this story that way, you are making a comment that is dismissive, belittling, agency denying, and racist. The fact that Ryan agrees is tragic, and to me, illustrates the purpose of the students' fight to change the ground rules. Ryan's sense of ambivalence or apathy about his win is an example of the futility that a person can feel when his entire life story, his every day, is met with disbelief, and even courageous wins cause reactionary backslides. Ryan referred to that setback in the "energy" debate to explain the insidious inequality that black students face in most aspects of their lives.

Mar. 16 2016 06:39 PM

Really disappointed in the substance of this podcast.

Mar. 16 2016 05:16 PM
LJ from Salt Lake City

I think the feeling I get after I listen to this episode is the same feeling that is driving people all across America to vote for Donald Trump (not a Trump supporter for the record) and why hashtags like #TheTriggering are trending on Twitter. It’s like everyone is doing the same eye-roll but we’re all too afraid of SJW shaming us into oblivion for being “racist” or “anti-black” that we’re afraid to disagree. It’s so frustrating…. For years civil rights activist fought against the idea that simply being African-American should not determine your worth or anything else about you. But now that is what is being waged against white people, simply because you are white your assumed “racist” opinion invalid.

So it’s unsurprising that the debates that are happening amongst the public are also reflected in Collegiate debate: your white argument is invalid.

Also, until this episode I have always been on Team RadioLab. But COME ON guys! With the podcast topic being “debate”, I would expect an argument raised against Ryan’s point of view.

Mar. 16 2016 04:07 PM
martin joseph brej from monterey, ca

OMG, RadioLab--talk about glorifying the current culture of victimization that seems to rule on college campuses these days. Does anyone really think catering to the culture of victimization really prepares young people for achieving in the real world?

Paging Doctor Jonathan Haidt...

Mar. 16 2016 03:53 PM

@Scott from Utah -

The criticism you are leveling is either disingenuous, or you simply skimmed too quickly over the comments of the people you are disagreeing with. When you blatantly misrepresent your opponents position, it's fairly easy to discount your criticism.

This wasn't a brilliant new debate strategy that was used to win this one important match. This was a one-size-fits-all gameplan that it seems was being used in every single match of every single conference for all four years this guy was involved in.

No matter what the topic for any given match, this exact same strategy of "ignore the topic, racism is bad, our opponents must either refute that or we should win" was used.

So while that might have originally taken ingenuity and guile to devise and use this strategy the first, I dunno, let's say 200 TIMES it was used, I think you are profoundly out-of-line calling out those who question the value of repeating this strategy ad infinitum as "racists."

And remember, Emporia wasn't the only team doing this. Many schools' teams were using this strategy in every match. So while each match has a different topic, this strategy doesn't actually change based on the topic, so you get essentially identical back-and-forth series of speeches that get performed. How inane and boring would that get eventually!? Just show up to the event, go to every match and give the same "racism is bad" speech, followed by the "topicality" counter, followed by the "There is racial inequality, so we can't talk about the topic" rebuttal, and so on...

It's like "that guy" at the local arcade, who uses the broken game mechanic on Street Fighter 2 with Ryu by spamming fireballs over the whole screen, making it impossible to play against, and then consistently doing this over and over and over and over and over against every person who wants to play. Would you find that guy maybe a little bit obnoxious? Ugh, such a racist!

Mar. 16 2016 02:58 PM
John from US

Boy, I'm glad I was never "accidentally" forced into debate.

Mar. 16 2016 02:26 PM
Aaron from San Diego

Great Podcast!!!! One of my favorites.

I think Ryan's team's topic was a valid one. There are lots of equality issues to debate. I liked how the Northwestern team shifted gears and continued the debate. The podcast was a very interesting look into a world I don't see much of.

1 question: Would Ryan's team have shifted the topic if the topics was already about equality? What if Northwestern shifted the topic to what they felt was more important (ie: Syrian civil war, Affordable Care Act, other big 2013 issues)?

Mar. 16 2016 01:27 PM
Camille from Rutgers, New Brunswick

I actually agree with what they're doing. I do feel bad for the other teams who wanted to debate the topic given to them.

HOWEVER, why don't they just set a limit to the number of arguments that you have to respond to? Talking really really fast =/= good debate, neither does sheer numbers of arguments.

Also, glad to have a Rutgers Alum doing great things out there. Woot!


Mar. 16 2016 12:53 PM
Steve R. from Los Angeles

This was a very frustrating podcast to listen to. It was good, though. To those crying about the subject matter: sorry not everything can be catered to your exact tastes. Sometimes a show like this throws a curveball, and an intellectually curious person should have no problem with that.

This being said, Ryan was a very unsympathetic figure. I went from implicitly rooting for him, but then I actually heard the content of his arguments and it was so incredibly off-putting. It's definitely not a black/white issue, just a know-it-all college kid issue. This idea that the debate world was conspiring against him and other black debaters wasn't really supported...and his arguments were so conclusory and accusatory that it seemed to just serve to harass the other side and force a vote in his direction. His demeanor with Jad and Robert was also very frustrating. He was practically calling THEM out for even wanting to discuss his story.

Bottom line is: what we heard (in my opinion) was a very, very sharp kid who needs to mature into his smarts before he should be put on a pedestal. But we're talking about this, and I think for that reason, it was a solid episode. A commenter above wants to call the majority of commenters here racist and unwilling to discuss race your mind to those who may have a differing view of what we heard here. I highly doubt anyone discussing this here is the "enemy" in the usual internet-troll ways.

Mar. 16 2016 12:44 PM
Steph from PA

I LOVE THIS!!! your podcasts are amazing and radiolab is the coolest!

Mar. 16 2016 12:38 PM
Steve from California

"if your not following the rules your not playing chess" Richard Mason. Yes sometimes the rules need to change, and growing pains are exactly that...painful. However if both sides of an argument do not abide by the same set of rules then when everything is all said and done, then clearly there has been no winner. Just because the playing field has not been "level' in the past does not justify "tilting" to get what you feel you deserve. It then becomes not an issue of race at all, but an issue of maturity. Maturity that is reached through growth and growth can often be uncomfortable, painful, and emotional. I like the mention of using an Aristotelian argument, however our Ethos quickly evaporates when we choose to apply rules in an inequitable fashion.

Mar. 16 2016 12:22 PM
Kevin from Indianapolis

It sounds like Ryan went around railroading debate competitions for 8 years. After 8 years of experience of only debating one topic; how much free-time did he have to sacrifice in order to research and prepare for a debate? Because there is no rule that you have to stay on topic?

There is no rule that you cant start playing basket ball during a football game. So then the referees would be like: "Well they are better at basketball than this football team they came to play...they win I guess."

Its absurd.

Mar. 16 2016 12:01 PM
Dan from Denver

The whole thing seems to be a way to bend the rules to win whether its fast talking or expanding the topic or whatever. NW missed the opportunity to win. If they knew this was the approach they would ultimately face they should first argue in the affirmative that the whole organization is racist and watch as Ryan's team struggles to oppose them. I suppose that strategy would require the right to speak first but would be a debate worth listening to.

Mar. 16 2016 11:54 AM
Scott from Utah

The beauty of debate does not come from agreement. Debate loses all value if it cannot include all perspectives on a topic. There are not two sides. For some the topic is straight-forward (a simple yes or no to a policy implementation), to some the topic is personal, or conditioned by identity, or religion, or about core values. In any political discussion there are very important subjective differences that create different discussions. This is real life politics. A good topic sparks engagement from all perspectives, even if it seems like, from a particular vantage point, that another perspective is ignoring the issue.

To put it bluntly, there seems to be a fair amount of racists hitting this comment thread.

The teams who don't like the strategy deployed by Ryan and Emporia need to come up with argumentative strategies to defeat it. That is the beauty of debate.

Some of the people crying foul on this thread, particularly in an angry manner, are simply too weak, insecure, and afraid to have uncomfortable conversations about race. This is America, race bears on every political topic. Get over yourselves. You heard a podcast episode in which you disagreed with a guest. Why are you so mad? We will not move forward in this society until white stop needing to be so comfortable all the time.

One note on fast talking: speed is a factor in any time constrained activity.

Mar. 16 2016 10:54 AM
Kathryn from USA

So, is the conclusion we come to at the end of all of this that none of us can discuss any topics without first having the same starting point?

I thought the whole point of debating any topic is we each bring a perspective, be that race, gender, sexuality, income, culture, etc.

Lack of resources is one issues that I could see being a genuine concern in terms of fairness, but all other starting points and perspectives should add to the positions rather than distract from them.

This episode at least made me think, and I learned things, but it also left me feeling like the whole "debate club" culture is more pseudo-intellectual than I had thought.

Mar. 16 2016 10:13 AM
Rob from Columbus, OH

I wonder if Ryan is earnest in his strategy of using his personal struggles to win debates or whether he is ironically shining a light on the hypocrisy of allowing a student to use his race against his opponent to win a debate. Maybe that is why he seems so melancholy about the whole thing. He proved that you can use race-baiting to win a national tournament without ever providing anything resembling convincing arguments on the topic provided.

Mar. 16 2016 10:06 AM

Did anyone else catch the part where the NW team's first response was their "Topicality" speech--one which they had also used the prior 2-3 times they'd faced off with Emporia that year?

So apparently, this identical series of opening salvo "racism is bad" speech followed by the same "topicality" counter speech had been used TWO OR THREE TIMES just that year between this specific team matchup ALONE?! The only difference between these matches being which specific topic the Emporia team was choosing to ignore. WOW. I found this to be absolutely hilarious.

If this story was about a championship debate match, where two brave minority kids decided to take a huge risk and flip the debate upside down by brilliantly relating the topic to the unfair biase inherent in the system, which they as minority students have to face--that would indeed be inspiring.

But instead, this apparently was a tactic SO oft-used that year, that establishes precanned-response speeches were developed and memorized to respond to it. I can't think of a more depressingly unproductive exchange to repeat over and over and over.

(...Actually, in 1995, world champion checkers player Don Lafferty played a 32 game set vs the computer program Chinook, resulting in a final record of 1 win, 0 losses, and 31 draws. I think maybe... If one WILLINGLY decided to watch replays of those 31 draws... then that might come close.)

Mar. 16 2016 06:42 AM
Kazumi from Japan

so... Ryan got a participation prize for "being the most black person at the debate"...? No wonder he's not too excited about his "win".

Mar. 16 2016 06:37 AM
Jordan from Georgia

Is what happened here a good thing?

Mar. 16 2016 02:33 AM
johann cat

This episode was informative, but it seemed in key with vaguely fawning celebrity news reports on tabloid cable. Anything can serve as an equally compelling spectacle. Reason is just a traditional and dispensable notion. I found it especially odd that Radiolab did not question Ryan Wash more on the subject of his tepid enthusiasm for what happened in 2013. Some people apologize for the idiom of "spreading," but as rational debate, it is inane. If a text-to-speech computer program could do a better job (and it could) than a well-trained person at just rapidly reading a list of talking points, and if the goal is to make sure more textual "points" are uttered than the opponent can, then maybe “spreading” has flourished due to lax, unimaginative judging. In this context, I understand why Ryan Wash would want to flip the script. But to debate off topic? What is to stop any debater doing this, from coming up with a specialized narrative of suffering backed with an allegory from a movie? Let's say Debater Y has been asked to debate about fracking in West Virginia. But he doesn't like that topic. He'd rather talk about how his female ancestors were domestically exploited and how this affects economic choices in a current community in Oregon. This is all much more vivid to him. He will use "Yellow Submarine" as a text for elaborating an acute sense of lost, trampled beauty that is prototypical of any exploitation. What? That doesn't make sense? Are you racist?! Are you for some kind of limiting, hegemonic, imperialist discourse like “reason”?! Others have pointed out that if a game with a rule called "staying on topic" can be construed as "racist," then the trigger point for "racism" may be too low and, perhaps more significantly, the rules of the game may need to be better articulated and more thoughtfully and sensitively defended. ( I also caught the irony that “debating a given topic” was judged as a game whose rules could be freely, even wildly changed, but Wash was discovered as a chess player—an old, imperialist western game that he likely played without changing the rules improvisationally. Why?) Finally, I found it odd that Radiolab chose to represent Wash's winning 2013 argument via an admittedly abysmal audio tape (they could have provided a transcript of a few really compelling turns of phrase) that left nothing but an impression of florid, reactive rhetoric (what was the proposed action?) based almost entirely in a politics of identity. Note this is the mirror image of (pick your notorious example) right-wing demagoguery!

Mar. 16 2016 01:31 AM

Please bring the pre-2016 RadioLab back.

Mar. 16 2016 01:29 AM

What a load of drivel. So they changed the question, played the race card and were rewarded. I saw that coming a mile off.

The next time my daughter has a tough physics test what should she do? Complain that the rich kids had extra lessons and discuss geography instead?

Mar. 15 2016 09:36 PM
def from Sapporo

I loved this episode and it's stuck with me for days after listening. Hearing that motor mouthed, quantity over quality debate style that is apparently the status quo, I couldn't believe it. It sounds more like a form of institutionalized bullying than actual debate. I believe it when you said these types become hyper successful.

Mar. 15 2016 08:41 PM
Dogboy from Cincinnati

To say that this was the worst Radiolab podcast I've heard would be wrong. More accurately, this was the worst Podcast of ANY sort that I've heard. Jad is practically absent , and while Robert tries to interject a couple of much-needed questions and issues, he's just shouted down. This was a race-baiting bit of tripe produced by someone still haunted by white guilt. Tell me, when did you do the podcasts on the first Asians to win the tournament? Indian? Jewish? I seem to have missed those episodes.

I am canceling my monthly automatic contribution to WNYC. This is not the garbage I wish to finance (and I guess that makes me a racist, homophobe right?)

Mar. 15 2016 07:29 PM

I really agree with the last paragraph in Griebs comment. The message sent by Dr Brinkley--at least in the way it was edited and aired during the episode (meaning I'll carve a caveat if there was meaningful context we missed bc of how it was edited)--basically amounts to "No debate shall proceed without me and my issue being front and center, whether the topic is crucially relevant or completely unrelated. Additionally, anyone suggesting otherwise is being anti-black."

When Robert brought up that there are OTHER underprivileged minorities who this argument might also apply to, it sounded like she was going to bite his head off before she reluctantly conceded that it's true.

And mind you, I am a bleeding heart liberal. So I am trying really really hard to understand her argument. I just can't come up with a conclusion that is consistent with hers. It's so obnoxious and uncompromising that it reminds me of one of the deliberately exaggerated strawman argument that conservatives on Twitter like to claim liberals want.

Mar. 15 2016 07:05 PM
Aaron from UK


Me: This episode was bad
Radiolab: No, it explored race and discrimination
Me:Factory famring is terrible!
RL: That isn't relevent!
Me: But they make the chickens so fat the legs break!
RL: No you are missing the point
Me: The other chickens will literally peck the others to death
RL: What has that got to do with anything?!
ME: Chickens should NOT be pecked to death! Factory farming is bad!
RL: The point!

Judges: Everybody loses.

This was not the one to put a donor plea on. God knows how it got through, but I have my suspicions Jad and Robert were forced into this. Damn shame. This was a great podcast

Mar. 15 2016 06:47 PM
jeff special from Ottawa

Two thumbs down, this and the cathedral really bringing radiolab down of late. On one hand pandering to religious nuts and this time to equally oblivious SJW ideologues.

Mar. 15 2016 06:29 PM
Cbarnett from Kansas City

I debated for four years in HS and a year in College. Our school always proudly hosted the first debate tournament of the year. In 2001, our tournament fell 3 days after 9/11. How do you stand up an debate some vague hypothetical when real, impactful events are happening around you? There was no sticking to the set topic that tournament. And the students that participated in that tournament were better for it. Some things are more important than following the resolution and the "rules." And really, that is what make debate great, it challenges participants to think critically and to use those skills to change the world.

Mar. 15 2016 05:58 PM
Steve from PA

I've never even looked at the comments before, just usually listen on Podcast. Seems I am not the only one that feels some kind of way about this episode. I learned a bit about debate, I didn't think this was how it was done. I guess I was just not impressed. Play by the rules if you want a win you can be proud of. This seems like taking an opportunity to promote an agenda, and no matter how righteous that agenda, the other students that showed up to play were basically ambushed. So lets have conversations about race, or class, or sex, but lets talk about it rather than shove it into a school program.

Mar. 15 2016 05:42 PM

What an utter embarrassment. Is this supposed to be an inspiring story?

Mar. 15 2016 04:57 PM


Using "debate"-- and this only in the nominal sense-- as the forum to affect social change is dubious. I know we're mired in metaculture but is the lily-white spectacle of debate really worth.. debating? If so, one might start with how robotic spreading (see above textual approximation, sorry) has made this activity quite kitsch and ridiculous. Ryan and his team don't explore this thread. Instead they offer vague gripes about inequality, turning the debate podium into a soapbox.
But what specific changes are actually argued? At what point will the subjective whims of these non-participants be deemed sufficiently observed, and the embargo on topical rebuttals be lifted?

Dr. Reid-Brinkley's response to Robert's quotation as being specifically "anti-black" is shameful and myopic. If you can't engage in a debate without yourself at the epicenter you are actively refusing to discuss issues affecting a global society based on cultures and races other than your own.

Mar. 15 2016 04:50 PM
katy from London

I used to be on the team in my high school in Singapore so I was really looking forward to this episode.

We had kids from all over in our team, obviously an international school in Singapore is going to have a very different make up. But we were taught to speak calmly, with authority and passion. We were also taught to keep our opinions objective, on point, well researched and backed up with facts. These kids standing on stage screaming and swearing and ranting without structure, making everything personal and going completely off topic... that's not debate.

Whatever your ethnic background, accent or skin colour speaking clearly and calmly about issues you are passionate about is essential to ensure those issues are heard.

I have no idea if these kids succeeded. The aggressive screaming stressed me out so I switched off. I am not obliged to listen to this, even if it should be heard. Teach these kids to speak in a way that makes it possible for people to listen.

Mar. 15 2016 04:33 PM

@Jay from Baltimore - I just wanted to address your point #2. I think that you're missing the forest through the trees a bit when you complain people get hung up on this "spreading" aspect. This "hang up" is originating from a misunderstanding about the fundamental nature of what these debates are. I know this because I had this misunderstanding before I listened to this episode. I thought these debates were literally just competitive formal debates. A structured version of when two people are trying to convince each other of their on points of view on a topic, with official judges.

Instead I now understand that these debates are actually just a unique peculiar type of competition. While its roots may have come from what the common definition of "debate" is, by today it seems to have evolved into something quite different. The fast-speaking quality of this "spreading" strategy is simply one of the most immediate and obvious differences that people will notice first.

Now there's nothing wrong with this. For example if someone is a world champion at the card game War, it would be childish to get hung up on the fact that "yeah but they are playing with cards, not guns."

However at the same time, it would be silly for the world champion War player to describe himself as a combat veteran. The card game "War" and actual real life "war" are simply two different things. Likewise, I think people are going in not understanding beforehand that the same thing is true about these competitive debates. That's where the hang-up is stemming from.

In summary, what I'm saying is that (in real life) you won't convince anyone of your position by shouting what is simply loud, unintelligible jabberwocky to everyone except those few persons who played varsity debate team back in high school. If that's not the intent of these debate competitions, that's fine though. Just need to make it more clear going in.

Mar. 15 2016 03:05 PM

I have a question about how these debates work. If the affirmative can choose to ignore the topic and instead talk about a different affirmative proposition, then why don't they just pick a topic that's immensely favorable to the affirmative?

Like, why not just address that "slavery is a bad" or "that's-what-she-said jokes are not funny" or hell, even "2 plus 2 equals not 3, nor 5, but rather it equals 4"

Basically why not just choose some topic that's trivially easy to be affirmative for and laughably impossible to be contrary to? Is that's what is being done in this episode?

Mar. 15 2016 02:13 PM
JB from Dublin, OH

Could you please link to the 11-page essay from the judge? I've got some really mixed feelings about this episode and the larger debate it raises. I would love to read the thoughts and insights of someone whose job it was to listen to both sides and decide who was more convincing.

Mar. 15 2016 01:30 PM

This is a detail but I think there's a terrible bit of sound editing at 30:11 when we hear Robert laughing (at?) a really good point made by Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley. To his naive question about why can't we just leave our race, gender, religion etc at the door and pretend we don't live in bodies for the sake of debate, Reid-Brinkley replies, "These students can pretend that they are not black, but that doesn't mean that everybody else is going to pretend they're not black." At which we hear him giggling. Why? I found it both patronizing and distracting.

Mar. 15 2016 01:20 PM
Jay from Baltimore

As one of those people that started debating when I was 12 and continued to be involved till my early 20s I have some very strong feelings. I am also completely biased since debate is the most important pedagogical activity that I have been involved with, including my excessive amount of higher education. For what it is worth here are my thoughts.

1) Debate is always open to debate. That is what makes it so great. Debate constantly changes and so questioning the structure is part and parcel of the activity. The arguments presented here have roots in similar arguments made in the 70s and then again in the 90s. The community controls the discourse and as such any debaters can challenge the structure of the activity. Debate is only a consensus. It always has been and it is always up for debate. The fact that these folks won the CEDA and NDT are an amazing accomplishment and speaks volumes about the quality of their arguments.

2) Nondebators always get hung up on spreading, for those not involved it sounds like mush. For those who speak the language the nuance and persuasiveness is more clear. You can tell who is good and who is not. There are also ways to deal with those strategies that do not require speaking faster. For those commenters who say "I don't know anything about debate but spreading is stupid" is a stupid argument and is not persuasive. Not understanding something should temper the strength of your opinions not make you feel indignant. You are welcome to learn though, lots of local high school debate leagues need judges and you too could come to appreciate the value in volume.

3) I really struggled with the biased perspective presented by this episode. Lots of marginalized groups (women, LGBTQ folks, Asian-Americans, poor folks, ect) can get an place to voice their opinions, thoughts, perspectives and arguments in debate. The idea that the situation was these few african-american folks against a sea of white rich kids is a partial story, partially true but also not complete. A little digging and presentation of the other side would have made this a better story in my option.

4) I completely disagree with the approach advocated by Emporia Team. I would have had a hard time voting for them in the debate. All discourse is exclusionary including there's. But this is an argument and the other team is capable of making those arguments. I am sure that the well resourced NW team was prepared for this debate. Fair is where there is cotton candy and there is no cotton candy in debate. Congrats to the Emporia Team, and again this was a very impressive accomplishment.

Mar. 15 2016 11:41 AM
Jennifer from Cambridge, MA

You know, I get it. As an Asian-American, I get the fact that when it comes to race in America, it is almost always about black and white. And I don't mind—I understand that slavery is this country's original sin and that the history of violence and discrimination against African-Americans is long and horrifying, and that bias (and worse) against them is deeply entrenched, and can rear its ugly head at any moment.

But did others catch on to the fact that one of the members of the Northwestern team was South Asian? And that he was being lumped in with the white establishment? Did that trouble anyone else?

Like I said, I get it. I get the fact that as a Chinese-American woman that I will never face the same kind of discrimination in America. But don't call me white. (And since when did someone named Jad Abumrad become white?)

Mar. 15 2016 10:15 AM

For Abigail Keel: Great reporting. Note: "performative" does not mean "performance."

Mar. 15 2016 09:51 AM
Andrew Whitacre from Massachusetts

Just have to say, this is the first time I've read Radiolab comments, and it's *fascinating* to see how many different issues you guys (commenters) bring to a podcast episode. Credit is due Jad, Robert, and the team -- and maybe podcasting itself? -- for being able to surface so much. It's even interesting to see people fighting about the purpose of Radiolab, whether it has strayed etc., because that means listeners feel some ownership.

(fwiw, I'm only halfway through the episode, so I'm looking forward to listening for more of the issues mentioned in the comments.)

Mar. 15 2016 08:39 AM
pizza p

This episode definitely struck a chord. While listening, I was initially very annoyed, but by the end, I was able to appreciate the discussion, as one sided as it was. I found Ryan Wash to be really obnoxious... While I could appreciate his overall point... I didn't fully agree with it, and felt the episode basically turned into soapbox for him-- any discussion or devil's advocate by Robert was snidely shot down, and not even given a real response.

The debate format was clearly flawed, but more importantly, these kinds of discussions about race and institutional "norms" need to be had-- I'm not sure Radiolab is the best venue-- but they are important, relevant, and often have real merit. Ryan's questioning of the system is fair. But I would have been more interested in answering what we were left with at the end of the episode: Where does the pursuit of "making debate your home" end, or ultimately lead us? At what point does it become "home"? We're not left with any real solution about what to do. Do we stop having debates about energy crises, or public policy, or federal law-- in place of making everyone feel like they're at "home"? Trying to define what "home" could be different for a variety of different people-- anyone could use that argument ad infinitum-- there is no end to defining that, it's like Zeno's paradox. I'd like to see Ryan, or anyone, really, answer/address that.

Mar. 15 2016 04:04 AM
John from Murica

I'm just going to leave this here

Mar. 14 2016 11:29 PM

If you were to create episode about style over substance, this would easily be the story you would choose.

I honestly expect more from such a brilliant pair.

Mar. 14 2016 11:16 PM
Aditya from India

Like many Radiolab episodes, this was a fascinating episode. Initially, I hated the episode, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized what I hated was the insanity of Emporia State's line of thinking. But what really made my head hurt was fact that the 'traditional' style is probably the most useless style of debating any argument in real life. How has fast talking a ton of sentences that sound more like gibberish come replaced the arguments that someone can actually understand? From this perspective, both sides of the debate look equally foolish. In real life, none of these arguments will win anyone over. Attributing racism to what is essentially a resource allocation problem is a racist line of thinking. Anyone running their life with that perspective should expect to be perpetually marginalized due to unending conflict that this perspective brings. On the other hand talking gibberish just to get a whole lot of arguments out in a given time is an equally stupid game, which basically highlights inability of the debaters to pick the most effective arguments.
Thanks radiolab for reminding that I got lucky for not being involved in this stupidity when growing up.

Mar. 14 2016 11:15 PM
Alyssa G from Edinburg, TX

I was in debate in college. I did a type of debate that focuses precisely on Logos, ethos and pathos. No fast speed talking. We often spun the topic and it was all about just speaking well. It was called the Public Debate out of the International Public Debate Association. I think they were just in the wrong style. Leave the CX style alone and grow the Public Debate.

Mar. 14 2016 10:50 PM
Naz from Bronx, NY

Really cool story; but I'm really digging that "Ease On Down The Road" remix

Mega Dope! please post that so I could listen to the whole thing.

Mar. 14 2016 09:21 PM
Naz from Bronx, NY

Really cool story; but I'm really digging that "Ease On Down The Road" remix

Mega Dope! please post that so I could listen to the whole thing.

Mar. 14 2016 09:20 PM

Please get back on topic radiolab. The new most scientifically irrelevant episode ever. Not a record I'd like you to keep breaking.

Mar. 14 2016 07:22 PM
Safrican from South Africa

Ridiculous episode. You are losing focus Radiolab.

Mar. 14 2016 05:39 PM

An important factor of this story that many are missing, I think, is that playing along with existing rules and being "a good sport" is not a way to instigate change. Ryan and his colleagues felt that the existing fashion of debate didn't feel authentic to them. They wanted to make debate less of a game, and more of a deeply-felt, political activity. To do that, the way the discussion was structured had to be changed -- to me, that is the point of the story.

It's very likely that without Ryan's actions, neither the other debate teams, their coaches, nor the judges would have stopped to think about the differences of resources between East Coast schools and Midwestern ones (and considering Kansas' educational woes, the difference is undoubtedly enormous), the problem of accepting only certain types of speech and syntax as "academic" and "appropriate," and the issue of seeing these students' use of pathos and ethos as too personal or examples of "playing the race card."

When one is in a position of privilege, it's very difficult to see it unless someone else points it out. It's even more difficult to admit it. And I believe that's what Ryan and his colleagues wanted to argue: that the debate world needed to admit to itself that the playing field was not level for all.

Mar. 14 2016 04:15 PM
Steve Raymond from Los Angeles, CA

Thank you for such an excellent episode, I found it very nuanced and refreshing in this era of overheated racial name calling.

Commenters who are equating the presentation of this story and what Ryan did as "white shaming" are completely missing the point. I agree that just throwing up your hand at me and saying "You are a white man you can't possibly understand my issues" is frustrating (and probably counterproductive). That isn't what Ryan and Elijah did. They used guile and skill and years of hard work to win in a game where the rules were stacked against them. You can't listen to the audio of Ryan's finale and feel otherwise.This is a great American and Human story, and I found great inspiration in it.

Forcing inner city kids to play by rich white kid rules may be fair, but it isn't just. Helping white kids to be able to tell the difference will teach them an invaluable lesson.

To the commenters who are saying that this kind of story is "creating" the backlash that fuels Trumpism, I say bring it on. Fighting ignorance with quiescence never works. Leaders like Gandhi and MLK were non-violent, but forced the ignorant to confront injustice every day.

If I had a (white) son or daughter engaging in high-level debate I would hope they would join with reformers and make their competitions more inclusive.

Mar. 14 2016 03:20 PM
Kyle from Massachusetts

My takeaway is this:

George Soros contributed money to young African American debate teams to promote the philosophy that you can insert race into arguments where its otherwise irrelevant in order to paint your opponent as a bigot.

Color me shocked.

Mar. 14 2016 02:48 PM
Former Forensicator from Chicago

First -

Thank you, Radiolab, for covering an entire subculture (debate) within a subculture (forensics) that strives to improve the education, integrity, and abilities of each participant. I listened to this episode while walking the sidewalks near Northwestern University, and I got chills and (I won't lie) teared up a little. Forensics exists as a means to examine and challenge the means by which we communicate and shape our world. It is an outlet that is designed to encourage sound argumentation, provoke thought, and compel positive change. You would do well, as a provider in audio-based media, to further explore the forensics community and highlight the rhetorical goals championed by different programs across the country.

I never debated - my spouse did - but I have great respect for anyone who wants to buck the system. Many of the negative comments on this post reveal a basic misunderstanding of the meta-communication component inherent in the forensics community. Speech and debate do not exist within a vacuum, and this "meta-debate" challenge seeks to question the role of debate as an activity. The tactic of "spreading" must be questioned: How can increasing a quantity of arguments improve the quality of any one argument? The reality of racial composition must be questioned: Can a fair debate take place when there is a systemic bias against minorities? These questions - the very important questions that make us uncomfortable - are the reason why debate exists. As forensicators, we ought to aim for more than researching alternative energy legislation. We ought to aim for changing our world - where we are - with what we have.

Kudos, Radiolab.

Mar. 14 2016 02:31 PM
Marina from Richmond, VA

Thank you Chris from West Virginia - your comment was very helpful in helping me understand what these students were trying to do.

To those who argue that we don't necessarily need more black students doing Debate - as explained in the RadioLab episode, Debate is a really important activity for those aspiring to leadership positions in the future. It provides rigorous training for students to gain confidence, research, study, memorization and public speaking skills, all of which are helpful with success in general, but especially in a career in jurisprudence, politics and business. And while we don't need more black people on Downton Abbey, we do need more black people in government, on the judge's bench in courtrooms, and in the boardroom.

Mar. 14 2016 02:28 PM
Ted from BC

I think that the best way to frame this story is using another Radiolab story:

It's a story of outsiders succeeding in competition by playing against the structure of the contest rather than against the competitors.

The beats in these two stories are so similar, too. It touches on racism and tradition and change all within the confines of a pastime.

What I find surprising is that the comments here are nearly the inverse of the comments in that story. What makes the Carlisle team scrappy and clever, while Ryan is seen as unfair or distorting the debate?

Mar. 14 2016 02:15 PM
Seth B from Georgia

Like most commenters here, Im disappointed in the topics Radiolab has been covering lately.

Mar. 14 2016 02:02 PM
Dustin from Utah

Maybe I'm running out of white-guilt, but, I don't agree with the narrative of this story. I think the economic status of a child's family is the biggest factor, not race. I do understand the argument that minorities have disproportionately higher chances of being poor. I disagree, though, that other debaters should bare the responsibility for injustices caused by society as a whole. Does every organization ever created have to be racially proportional? Should we call for more white people in the NBA? Should we demand that we have more Latinos in the Iditarod? Should we call for more Russians in the sushi business? What about more black people in Dowton Abbey? The real question, in my mind, is do we shoot for multiculturalism or not?

Mar. 14 2016 12:42 PM
Nick from Louisville

This episode was by far my least favorite RadioLab. It was all of the worst one-sided, white-guilt aspects of This American Life with absolutely none of the scientific, unbiased approach that RadioLab typically brings to the table. Typically I'd keep my opinion to myself, but as a sustaining member this is not what I'm paying for.

Mar. 14 2016 12:41 PM
Tijan from Dakar, Senegal

I think where the classic debaters left an opening is that they were overly dependent on a particular style - the whole fast talking thing.

This whole fast talking thing is technical and strategic, as much as it is a performance art. It could have just as easily have been a requirement to speak in reverse. Or in Latin for that matter. If they lost due to a vulnerability in their strategy its their own fault.

I can't be against Ryan's approach because it was the strategically appropriate decision to exploit that style vulnerability.

I would hope that the world of debate will adapt to become more resilient to style based attacks.

It really doesn't have anything to do with race, unless, by race you mean sub-culture and style, which is the whole point of diversity. So perhaps it is about race.

Mar. 14 2016 11:52 AM
Matweller from Reading, PA

I learned 2 things from this episode. One, I made the absolute right choice to not get involved in the debate team in school. Two, now that I know that this is the current state of what is considered debate and knowing that these people go on to be leaders of industry and politics, it's a little less of a mystery of why business and politics are in such a bad state and declining. Why do we even bother with elections anymore? Why not just see who can pee the longest and call it a day?

Mar. 14 2016 11:30 AM
Yvette from Washington, DC

My god, it's not everyday that I wake up and listen to my life on the internet. I am a black female debate veteran from Kansas City. I was in DKC for three years on the LCPA team and I can absolutely relate with Ryan's experiences. I had one experience where I told a white male student that I thought I recognized him, and he replied to a full room, "I swear the baby isn't mine". Of course I wiped the floor with him but that experience, his name, that smug grin on his face has remained with me for 10 years. My race and gender never take the backseat. Even at my Ivy League university, I was reminded everyday that I was black and my experiences did not fit into the well-established exclusionary white narrative. It was at my lowest moments during discussion sections on international development where a half-read classmate quipped that "Africa was just a resource and Africans' best strategy was to make cheap exports available to the rest of the global economy", that I dusted off my DKC voice and shut that down. To the dissenters and confused, there is a space for Ryan's type of expression. It's where a fellow classmate or co-worker makes an argument about how slavery was beneficial to the economy and therefore wasn't that bad. That's when you black it up and shut down that narrative. Thanks for sharing Ryan. I needed this. Love, Peace, and Prosperity to all.

Mar. 14 2016 11:15 AM
Gorge Smith

I have never wanted to call anyone the Nword till I heard this episode

Mar. 14 2016 11:02 AM
Jardar from Norway

It was a thought provoking episode if anything, but it did feel biased to an uncomfortable degree. Through the entire episode I was waiting for Ryan to challenge the notion of spreading in debate, or win on the topic issued by the debate, coming out on top. Unfortunately, it ended up with what I would consider a complete cop out, and a poorly reasoned one at that.

Who is to say that people stared in the cafeteria just becaue they were black? It's a competitive environent, whenever a new team enters a room people are going to be curious. It's intellectually dishonest, if not short sighted to say that a lack of resources is a race problem rather than one that affects poor schools in general. Would the one white kid in Ryan's 99% black school magically get more resources for research just because it was a white person? That's idiocy.

All that said. I live in a small town in Norway. I do lack perspective on the current American race climate. Still, something about the way things are presented in this podcast sets off a few red flags in me, making you sound untrustworthy and biased.

Lately a lot of Radiolab Podcasts have been like this. I miss the episodes on animal science and physics. You've been asking about money for a while, but if these socioeconomic topics are all you have left to cover then I have no interest in economically supporting it. I can watch This American life for that.

Mar. 14 2016 10:52 AM
Faith from Vienna, Austria

Individuals like Ryan and his colleagues are an inspiration because they are unapologetically themselves, something I have always been too afraid to be until I was well into adulthood. Yes, they high-jacked the debates, but they finally made it about themselves because it never is as a person of color in a world that praises and emulates white culture. We are constantly being told to blend in and not make trouble for ourselves by standing out, but like they mentioned, being black is not something you can leave outside the room or coverup. You are judged no matter how well you dress, how eloquently you speak or how beautiful you are. I am glad that the next generation is brave enough to tackle tough race issues, even if it makes people uncomfortable, because that is the only way hearts and minds are going to be changed!

Mar. 14 2016 10:19 AM

I'm a former debate coach. I found the hijacking of the debate topics to be incredibly racist, but maybe for a counterintuitive reason. Rational argument knows nothing about the person making it. It is the great equalizer. The best argument made by a terrible person is still a great argument, and the worst argument made by a wonderful person is still terrible.

The winner of that debate won by claiming that black people can't make good arguments, so the system has to change. This is terribly demeaning and racist. It falls into what Michael Gerson calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Why not prove yourself wrong and show the world that black people can make solid, well-researched arguments instead of perpetuating an incorrect stereotype?

Mar. 14 2016 10:19 AM
Tony from NYC

The episode was informative on many levels and one can draw parallels for the strategy used by Ryan's team to other aspects of our society.

Before this I did not know about the current state of debate, in that such an abundance of ideas are presented in a technique called "spreading," so that your opponent is physically challenged to address each point and then wins on a technicality. As there is a limit at which you can only speak coherently and each word be understood, this almost turns debate into an athletic display of tongue muscles, and not an intellectual endeavor.

That aside, the message I got at the end of the episode that the judges felt that debate was more about being persuasive and not actually about the technical merit of available data. Style over substance was the message. With this being the silly season of politics and all, it is easy to see this style over substance preference on display in the political debates. Candidates are hijacking the questions posed by moderators and instead talking about how media is biased against them and that political correctness is strangling our ability to genuinely communicate. It was a good enough strategy to win a college debate championship, and may succeed for commander-in-chief. Check-mate America.

Mar. 14 2016 09:04 AM
DEducated from Cali

To Todd Haut - I see what you're saying regarding playing this for the kids, and you're right, it would definitely make a good in class debate, although my kids are a bit young for some of the content. My one fear is that it might sour them on pursuing debate, especially the spreading.

This ep has produced some good debate in the comment section precisely because it's something we all listened to, then gathered our thoughts and experiences and made an argument. I keep coming back to read more comments because I want to be convinced that I should agree with what Ryan did, but all the comment section has proven to me is that what they did wasn't debate.

If someone came in here and started saying that commenting online was inherently biased, we would dismiss it as spam and the moderator would eliminate it from being off topic.

Mar. 14 2016 08:39 AM
Amanda from NC

Oh my lord.... This was extremely frustrating to listen to (not just because of the obnoxious debate speak) but also because it seemed very one sided. This is a very interesting topic, one that I had no idea about, but making it a pro gay/black issues takes away from the merit of debate as a whole. If I was a judge, I would have thrown out Ryan at the first vulgarity muttered from his mouth. Is this tolerated? What is going on on college campuses today? He cannot be proud of his "victory" because he did not earn it. Why can we not just except that different races and cultures have differences and that is normal and good for society. We do not all have to assimilate to one way of thinking, speaking and acting. Ryan - start your own debate team and stop playing the race/queer card. It has never and will never serve anyone well - this is coming from a women who spent two tours in Iraq/Afghanistan in the Military. I joined the worlds biggest boys club and never expected them to change the rules for me. I played by their rules, but I played better then most and did very well for myself. If you want to make it in the real world, grow up, otherwise I guess go back to your segre-bating.

Mar. 14 2016 08:32 AM
Brian from Missouri

I can't understand how you can run a show that's about debate, called debatable and yet have a complete lack of debate on the subject in it. No one questioned any of the points they made or made the incredibly obvious counter points.

One of the easiest points being that if anyone showed up to a football game with a soccer ball, claimed that it was unfair to expect them to play football because it requires expensive equipment and lots of practice and so they want to play soccer instead they would be thrown off the field. In the case of debate it seems like they were incredibly accommodating and called races in part because they let them talk.

Mar. 14 2016 04:56 AM
Todd Haut

It's good to see this episode produced a lot of comments in such a short time, and by nature - the topic of debate being debatable - it's also good to see some polarity in opinions. I loved this episode even if I did find myself disagreeing with a lot of what I heard. As a white male who teaches debate to Asian students in Korea, I would never encourage "squirreling" in a debate tournament, which is exactly what Ryan does. Part of me wants to dismiss the tactic of playing the "race card," but part of me also wants to shine a light on how exclusive and pedantic debate culture actually is. I hate judging tournaments when I can barely untangle how good arguments might actually be (or not be) when so much is construed behind ridiculous speed and yelling. A teacher below mentioned how he'd be afraid to share this episode with his debate students, while I'm on the opposite side of the fence. Debate the episode itself and whether or not the judges made the right decision. Debate should be more than playing by rules. It should be examining them and actually getting to the core of what debate could be, and what it should be.

Mar. 14 2016 01:44 AM
shuo from LA

thank you so much for this episode. as someone working in Hollywood who has to face systemic racism and sexism in every part of my career, this episode helped me feel less alone in my battle. thank you for recognizing that people who call out institutional racism aren't complaining or whining - but rather just fighting for a fairer better world for everyone. thank you sharing ryan's story.

Mar. 14 2016 01:31 AM
Nathan from Minneapolis

Mar. 14 2016 01:06 AM
Sean from Dallas

This guy 1) instantly gets defensive every time Robert opens his mouth, assuming that the white man is coming after him; 2) can't even bring himself to say whether he's proud of what he did (hint: he's not, because he realizes what a joke of a loophole he exploited); and 3) mistakes vulgarity for passion, and class for race. I'm sorry, but those are just the first 3 things that come to mind when trying to explain how frustrating this was to listen to.

Not everything is a race issue. If you want to make a statement about the merits of your race in a particular competition, don't start off by arguing that you don't have the abilities to play by the rules. Suck it up and do the research like everyone else does.

Mar. 14 2016 12:52 AM
Chris from West Virginia

Episode is a bit meta -- but it is fantastic. Debate clubs populated by privileged youth became one of the few places in America where people were forced to confront -- literally argue about -- America's history of excluding certain groups from things like private schools!

Some won't get it because Ryan's seems unfair and requires that we are OK with starting from the viewpoint that society is unfair and structural racism and structural classism exist. The point of the podcast is that changing the terms of the debate IS unfair, but it was unfair in a way that was allowed and that called attention to the way minorities (of all sorts) are forced to speak in terms of dominant discourses all the time, not of their own choosing. The judge says it best at the end: Ryan's style of debate WON because he was actually more convincing! When has it been true that research always wins debates? Deeper truths carry their own truth, no matter how they're presented.

Best quote: "when is YOUR research team going to expand to the point where it begins to meet MY experience of being excluded?"

I've never done debate, but listening to this I've never been so amazed by it. This podcast beautifully shows the inherent level playing field of debate clubs' rules.

As to the commenters who feel this is about classism not racism, you are half right. That's what makes structural racism so insidious. Class is a cover for race or (at other times) race becomes a cover for class, by individuals as we struggle to get ahead. Google "dog whistle politics".

Mar. 14 2016 12:23 AM

I would like to see some preppy debate teams guys crash a rap battle and refuse to rap. Instead talk about how they've been marginalized by the hip hop community for being too white.

Mar. 13 2016 11:20 PM

This was the weakest episode of RadioLab ever. However, it was interesting to learn how to sell micro-machines.

Mar. 13 2016 11:12 PM
Lala from Minnesota

I grew up in a rural, primarily white, poor, farming community. And I've never been in debate, or knew much about it until this episode. But to me the issue seems to be more about class than race ... More about access to funding, better education, etc. And having less access to these things myself growing up, I agree, we should even the playing field in some way in debate, among other activities. But by making the issue only about race takes away from helping kids in ALL poor, underserved communities. Lastly, I agree with a lot of the commentors who miss the science-based episodes Radiolab used to put out. I'm not sure what's changed, but the podcast feels different.

Mar. 13 2016 08:17 PM
Amanda from Kentucky

Love radio lab but ugh. Summary, the African American debate students (not all of them but the guests in the show) go to a debate, force the subject to be about race regardless of the fact that all of the other students have spent who knows how long prepping for the actual subject matter (and also knowing that the white students are not going to be able to debate them on the subject matter of race); then they charge the other students with racism when they are understandably frustrated and perplexed.

I'm sorry, that's just dirty and underhanded. Those "bad" white students are just some kids at a school activity. They make the other debate team sound like over the top 1980's movie "mean guys" wearing ascots and playing tennis. If I was the judge I'd be pretty annoyed. Actually I was annoyed, so annoyed that I didn't really pay attention to the rest of the show because I was still thinking about the first part. Too bad.

Mar. 13 2016 08:09 PM
Leland from Brooklyn

Ryan's arguments lack the detail necessary for one to act upon the kinds of changes he would want to see. The internet is lousy with this stuff, too - Pointing out how systems divide people and how people divide people, without providing the tools to rebuild. It creates hate in the place of cooperation.

The chosen audience here is people of color. I can see how Ryan's boldness can be inspirational, especially to young people with no privilege - that is a great thing. In terms of the change that people like Ryan can motivate, this the wrong audience, and the attention of those with privileged is jeopardized by the laziness of not developing a strong argument for a subject of this gravity.

I love this program, and I hope they see great benefit from the popularity that addressing this trending topic will bring them. However, I can't help but say that a more fruitful discussion would have contained: how can we diversify the attendance in these kinds of arenas, what results has diversity brought in other places, and what are the nuances in how debate and other arenas are conducted that, if manipulated, are capable of creating inclusion in the place of exclusion.

Because you know, there's a grain of science to be found in everything. Right?

Mar. 13 2016 06:28 PM

Wow, what a one-sided episode. The message Ryan and others are sending is that blacks can't succeed at debate without changing debate. If they feel that debate is "white" and "European" then are they "culturally appropriating" debate? I found this very nauseating. I wonder did Ryan and others hi-jack debates when the opposing team was also black? Basically his final speech was a racist rant. I just noticed the comment policy for Radio Lab "Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief". These debate judges are encouraging ignorance, probably so they can get a pat on the back.

Mar. 13 2016 05:56 PM
Marina from Richmond, VA

I never read comments for Radio Lab shows nor feel the need to comment, but this time I sought them out because, honestly, I didn't understand the point of this episode. I was hoping comments from listeners would help me. Thank you W from Oakland and Don Blohowiak from Palo Alto - you helped illuminate some of the issues that I THINK Ryan was referring to. However, the episode didn't devote enough time to explaining what their problems with the current format of Policy Debate was and, more importantly, what they wanted to change and what their ideal scenario would be. I felt like it was glossed over. I caught that 1. Black students felt socially uncomfortable at bigger tournaments 2. Poorer schools can't afford staff and resources to help students with research thus putting them at a disadvantage 3. Spreading shifted the focus of debate from the classical "logos-ethos-pathos" approach to just the number of arguments you could research 4. Straight white males seem to get preferential treatment among judges because their "voice" seems more authoritative than others (this is mentioned in one sentence and never supported or discussed again) 5. Topics in Policy Debate weren't relevant enough to people from their community, so black students lose interest in Debate as an activity (also mentioned very quickly). So they tried to bring up these problems during competitions, which, although maddening to opponents, is actually OK to do in situations where you have no other avenue to get your point across. It wasn't actually against the rules, which is why they didn't get disqualified, even when their opponents were really perturbed, surprised, and refused to engage with them. And they even won many times, thus getting a more prominent position from which to speak about these issues publicly. At this point I got confused because I wasn't sure how slam poetry, rap, profanity and emotional outbursts about racism and sexism in general really helped their cause. Was it just an attention getting device? A type of subversion? Did it help? They say at the end that nothing changed in the debate world, and now people are even less open to dealing with these issues. Was there any formal follow up with the institutions that set the rules or the topics? Maybe the show's reporters can explain further?

I can't disagree that poorer schools are at a disadvantage, - that is the case for every extracurricular activity, just as it is for the basic curriculum. Films like "McFarland USA" and "Spare Parts" are about that very problem. This is just a result of our segregated education system, which I hope can be integrated as soon as possible.

Personal: I'm a white immigrant, went to a rich public school followed by Northwestern University, never did debate but did competitive speech team in HS.

Mar. 13 2016 05:49 PM
Sina from Iran

I feel like a Deathwatch beetle, waiting so long for another scientific episode .

Mar. 13 2016 04:49 PM
Michael Williams from Chicago

"Exclusion" and "exclusionary" aren't self-evidently terms of opprobrium. It might depend on what you're excluding, why, and from what. And--while race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.--are probably ever present to one degree or another in our minds, they really not always front and center or decisive in consciousness and there are other issues that need to be addressed without foregrounding the above categories. Lastly, in order to appeal to a common pathos, a common pathos must first exist. It can be created, a process which will involve growing pains, but it probably can't be created by fiat or mere outrage.

It tells me below to "stay on topic, be civil, and be brief." I think there's something to that.

Mar. 13 2016 04:39 PM

Debate is lawyer prep, end of story. Completely arbitrary and non scientific, bias on parade.

Mar. 13 2016 03:37 PM
Kenan from San Francisco

This show was really thought provoking, and looking at the comments, I'm not the only one who thought that way.

I totally understand what "W from Oakland" is getting at, and I do think that Ryan's style is undermining the point of the competition when he forces the conversation to be about something unrelated to the topic. This is unfair to other competitors who are playing a very particular "sport", and now see the ground shifting below their feet. Although the point was made that the competitors knew Ryan's team's tactics beforehand and had appropriate rebuttals prepared, Ryan's strategy is somewhat disingenuous. as it is predicated on an accusation of bias towards their opponents and the system at large. If you argue that non-POC participants are inherently biased and/or racist because of their participation in the system, you can twist anything they say as an example to prove your point (and that's exactly what happened).

However, I think Ryan's actions are extremely valuable if you take a long view of the situation. Everything about debate competition, from the choice of topics, to the format, rules, dress code, and norms that the judges expect, was defined by white men. Subverting these norms by presenting a different style of debate, by upending what classic debate means, is important. And this kind of subversion needs to happen from within established organizations, for maximum exposure and cultural relevancy.

That doesn't mean that debate should abandon logical arguments and rely on spoken word, rap battles, and passion-based arguments. When POC entered sports in large numbers, plenty of people complained about tattoos, "black culture", "role models", and other nonsense. But the point of basketball is to score more points than the other team. The point of debate is to win the debate. I agree that Ryan and his team changed the rules of engagement, but they still won their arguments. I think there's room for many styles of debate, and the young participants, as frustrated as they might feel at their loss, are at least being exposed to something outside their norm, something that does deserve to be considered.

Oh, and spreading is terrible, but I do see why it is the norm: all of the speeches are recorded and transcribed, and the arguments are based on quantity (and quality) of evidence and the logical application of said evidence. Eloquence can't be judged objectively. Unless you can make one argument that strikes down multiple arguments from the other team, you have to match the number of the other team. A classic arms race. I think limiting the number of syllables said per second is an interesting thing to try.

Does anyone have a copy of the transcript of the final debate?

Mar. 13 2016 03:10 PM

Thank you, Radiolab, for presenting a much needed perspective on privilege-based competitions. All of the commenters who disliked this episode because they thought it wasn't "fair" to those who practiced the standard debating methods just got a lesson on their own privilege, and they reacted exactly as expected. Just as standardized tests are now known to be racist and exclusionary, competitions like this style of debate are on that same path. I can only hope that we continue on this path as a nation to constantly challenge the status quo. It can be painful and difficult for those who benefit from the status quo, and that is when it becomes effective. That discomfort and pain is just a tiny little taste of what it feels like every moment of life as a person of color, especially when interacting with white privilege. Accept it and move forward.

Mar. 13 2016 02:47 PM
Rob from Germany

I'm kind of disappointed by this episode. I loved listening to radiolabs, because no matter what the topic seemed to be and no matter how little I thought it would interest me, it always did. Mainly because of the scientific way the pieces were reported in. This one was so incredibly one sided, that I almost couldn't finish it. The trust, that I could just put on a radiolab episode and know, I'll have learned something fascinating and new an hour from now is somewhat gone.
I feel like this is the classic highscool sports movie - the underdog has everything stacked against them but still, against all odds, faces the champion (their Nemesis, as the episode called them) in the end. Normally the third act serves as a reminder, that hard work and, most importantly, beating the evil enemy at their own game is the only way to change a corrupted game. In this case, they skipped the third act and decided to change the rules and, well, kinda cheat.
This was so incredibly obvious, ryan couldn't even be proud of what he did - I thought this would be adressed, but no... The moral of this story seems to be: try to change the status quo, but if it get's too tough, just rig the game and corrupt your own integrity. Their opponents were the ones that had the unfair disadvantage, if you ask me. But I guess that doesn't fit the narrative.
Where I'm from, we don't have this way to argument topics on pure logic, here it's just populism and emotion. Most people aren't capable of a debate,so I always admired the debating culture in the US and UK. But I guess not even Logic is save when it comes to PC in this day and age.

Mar. 13 2016 10:35 AM
Dave from Chicago

This episode was maddening. It started off with a ridiculous, presumptive comment about "white controlled media" (whatever that means). It then quickly devolved from there into a sophomoric 25 year old expounding at length about his neuroses and incredibly narrow view of the world while obsequious, fawning journalists looked on in pride. Nervousness at showing up in a room full of kids you don't know (a very common situation for all kids, not just black kids) is presented as racist "whispering private school kids" being shocked by the appearance of black kids. This assumption isn't questioned because it fits neatly into the victimization narrative that Wash and Radiolab are so desperate to convey. Debating is portrayed as a bizarre waste of time that caters to soulless children of 1%ers, again without even the mildest hint that there may be another side to the story. Debating, according to this episode, should be about "passion" not competence. Personal opinions matter more than logic, despite the latter being the ENTIRE POINT of competition debating. If you want to win a debate, simply make an impossible to respond to claim that you're being "oppressed by the system" and be rewarded without having to do your homework. Inadvertently, this episode actually serves as a perfect microcosm of the general childishness of all political debate in this country. Forget policy, forget facts, lets just rage about how unfair the world is and how it's everyone else's fault. Infuriating.

Mar. 13 2016 09:16 AM

ps - my feeling is that if ppl feel frustrated at the technicality of subject debate and style being 'derailed', then they have missed the point of the whole, larger context a broader picture of who can participate in what contexts on what terms, and who gets to decide that ........... the students in this story are ninjas, to my mind, and i wish there were more, and i hope i can live up to their extremely intelligent, masterful example one day

Mar. 13 2016 07:40 AM

i found this an absolutely fascinating program, which literally gave me goosebumps during Ryan's final argument .... thank you so much for this particular episode

i'm rather disappointed to read the large number of comments which clearly do still not 'get it', even after listening to the point when Ryan finally 'got it' .... as a white woman (experiencing marginalisation from disability combined with resultant poverty), i'm SO over pandering to the limited, convenient, 'reasonable'-sounding 'arguments' of the privileged, which i have come to see as the hidden, banal face of an extremely violent and demeaning culture

insights from intelligent, engaged, empathic intersectional discussions are teaching me so much about the struggles i live with, and humble me to consider the struggles others must face in the context of our entrenched, colonialist behemoth mind-sets ....... the fact that the main protagonists are African American, queer/gay and female says a lot to me, and also helps me see aspects of culture i'm blinded to as a white person

listening to this story of how this kids were able to kung-fu (i refer to the martial arts aim of using the energy of an opponent's move against them - reflecting/ channeling it back) the cultural setting they were in to their (depressingly brief) benefit was an inspiring thing to hear .......... i have taken note

i am sorry that Ryan is not as seemingly proud of his efforts (as well as his co-debaters) as i feel he ought to feel, but i also relate, to well perhaps, to the feeling that important victories end up being subsumed by the juggernaut of a stead-fast, toxic, cultural machine

i'm only new to Radiolab (i'm an ozzie, btw), but i sincerely hope there are more stories of this calibre to come in the future - i REALLY think we need to have these conversations.... if anything, so we can get to a point where we don't need to have them anymore

Mar. 13 2016 07:35 AM
Neil from United Kingdom

That was the most depressing Radiolab episode yet. I started off thinking it would be an inspiring story of poor underdogs taking on the rich kids and beating them at their own game and it sounded like they were doing well for a while. And then they turned it in a race war where the other side couldn't win without being accused of being racist. Not that we ever heard the other side's arguments so hard to judge. I also found it ironically racist of the black team to assume that black debate must be in a stereotyped street/rap style and over-emotional n-word laden rant. Plenty of black people do not even like rap - these debaters seem to have a very narrow view of the black community and what it means to be black. The only credit I can give them for this win is challenging the "spreading" which is patently ridiculous and needs changing. But their actual debating was second rate. Also, and this maybe just to my ears, but the interviewers seemed to be scared of the interviewees and were painfully obsequious rather than challenging them. It sounded like they were warned off early on (not surprising given their skills in framing debates) and couldn't challenge them AND get the interview. Overall, I don't think it covered anyone in glory

Mar. 13 2016 05:10 AM
Jeff from Minneapolis, MN

So I found this episode of Radiolab to be both interesting and frustrating. First, the whole spreading (fast talking) thing ruins the debate...simply set up some kind of a syllable limit (average person speaking syllables per minute or per hour). Using "spreading" leaves no room for the ART of debate; delivery, emotion, even pauses can say volumes more than cramming words together as fast as you can. Second, the idea that the number arguments addressed determines if you win or lose is silly...the arguments presented could be completely off-base, rhetorical or so minor there is no need to specifically address each and everyone.

Okay, now on to the tactics used by the guest to completely change the topic an issue he feels strongly about seems completely unfair. Using your race, religion or sexual orientation to get a leg up and devolve every debate to those issues is flat out wrong...we have a society attempting to be VERY sensitive to those issues which can lead to victories because the judges may fear being accused of being racist. Also, this methodology will lead to another very unfair advantage, you get to practice debate after debate making the SAME exact points. As the guest described, he got better at it over time, well yeah, it's the SAME argument over and over again...obviously you'll get better at it! Plus, it helps that the people debating for it are extremely passionate about it. Think about that in any other context and it would be ridiculous, I enjoy Game of Thrones, I know it inside and out...I would do extremely well if I simply changed every debate topic back to Game of Thrones somehow, that doesn't make me a great means I'm refusing to branch out and tackle the issue at hand.

Now, if the goal was to get more debate topics to be about racial, socioeconomic and class based issues...that's an admirable goal, but perhaps there should be another method to do that. Perhaps some kind of vote among the debaters to pick issues or make sure the topics involve those sorts of issues 15% (or whatever number makes sense) of the time. But what would really show off the Emporia State University debate skills would be if they took the opposing side of the issue; that racial issues weren't a problem.

Finally, as many other comments pointed out, it would have been interesting to hear from some other competitors about how they felt about the debate topic being hi-jacked to racial issues over and over again throughout a debate competition. Did they feel that was fair, do they feel muzzled because if they speak out against it would they would be accused of being racist or worse? Do they think the judges felt pressure to go with the individuals bringing up racial issues due to being afraid of labelled a racist? Just think about it for yourself, would you rather lose a debate or be labelled a racist...that second guessing your debate retorts might be just enough to get other teams to hold back and allow for the win.

Mar. 13 2016 03:30 AM
Jeff from Tempe, AZ

I agree with Seth from Phoenix. As a gay man, I found the repeated used of the word "queer" to be incredibly disturbing. Just as Radiolab hosts say "the N word" because the actual word is too toxic, the same is true for "queer." Surely this should not come as news to you.
We already have LGBT. What does adding "Q" to the end of the initialism add? What category is missing from LGBT that makes "queer" necessary to fill in the gaps?
I know some gays and lesbians refer to themselves as "queer" (although they're already covered by the "G" and "L" in LGBT), just as some black people refer to themselves and their family and friends as "the N word," which I dare not actually type or my post would never see the light of day.
Appropriating a highly insulting, caustic word to "claim as one's own" is a strategy that is doomed to fail.
Maya Angelou said, "I believe that a word is a thing. It is non-visible. It is audible only for the time it's there. It hangs in the air. But I believe it is a thing. I believe it goes into the upholstery. And then into the rugs, and into my hair, and into my clothes, and then finally into my body. I look at the word -- the N-word ... I'm obliged to call it that -- because it was created to divest people of their humanity.
"When I see a bottle, come from the pharmacy, it says P-O-I-S-O-N. And there's skull and bones. Then I know that the contents of that thing -- the bottle is nothing -- the content is poison. If I pour that content into Bavarian crystal, it is still poison."
"Queer" is poison.

Mar. 13 2016 03:17 AM
Michelle from Santa Monica

On a podcast about racial inclusion in debating competitions, why would you choose to use a stock image of a white man behind the debate podium?

Mar. 12 2016 11:33 PM
DEducated from california

I started this episode excited to share this with my middle school debate team. A Radiolab ep on debate??? Gold.

Then I got into it and found myself shaking my head and turning back on my initial assessment. I don't want my middle school kids listening to this. They need to know that debate and argumentation is on an agreed upon topic and that truly the best reasoning and delivery will win. How is this fair? How is this something that young kids can listen to and want to aspire to? Maybe that's not what college debate is meant to be, but at some point, as my students grow up, they're going to have to lose the principles I've helped instill. The principles that the more you know, the more you listen, the more you can prove... the better argument you are making. And that's about ears and brains and voice.

If the topic was "Are debates fair?" or "Is debating racially biased?" or even better, since not all people who do not have access to information are minorities, "Is debate classist?" then Ryan's approach would be apt. I would LOVE to hear that debate and LOVE to play that for my kids. But it wasn't. The topic was energy. It was on fair ground for a senior university student who had been debating for years with support from foundations and university faculty.

Why is winning the "debate is unfair" argument in an energy debate better than just winning the energy debate? Wouldn't that be a bigger statement? We met them on their ground and defeated them using their rules? Shouldn't the judge have voted for which team moved him on the energy issue?

If at the beginning of the debate, you are randomly assigned a side, but regardless of that, you intend to make the same speech....then that's not really a debate. That's the bully pulpit and that's not what I want my kids to learn.

Mar. 12 2016 10:49 PM
Garrett from New Hampshire

I was extremely disappointed in this episode as well. He won the debates from being 100% of topic and using foul language to provide "passion." The debate couldn't possibly be won by the other side if they are white which actually provides the other side with a disadvantage because they have no credible rebuttal if Ryans point was accurate. In addition there was no rebuttals from the other sides presented in the show which made the story awfully uneven. I think the discourse of race relations must be debated but in the way this was done, I totally disagree. I did not care for this episode at all.

Mar. 12 2016 09:51 PM

Totally agree with Christie below. It would be nice if debate were judged by the content of their (on topic) argument, not by speed, or calling the other team racist first.

What about the kids who played by the rules? Isnt it a bummer they practiced, and trained but lost because they were called racist? As Americans, we grow up aware of race and the past but how morally indebted are we for being a member of our race or "privileged"?

Mar. 12 2016 09:49 PM

A lot of Radiolab episodes lately have been really politicized, or at least topics that are typically politicized, and Radiolab typically takes a more left-leaning approach.

Race, abortion, LGBT,...

I liked it when Radiolab used to not sound so politicized, when they used to do topics like how the brain works, weird stories from history, "The Good Show", "The Bad Show", etc. Those shows were really interesting and enjoyable. I guess the old format of choosing a topic and dividing it up into several very different yet strangely related stories felt a lot better than these one-story episodes.

I don't know, it just really feels like Radiolab has changed. Whereas these episodes used to feel very unique and, well, cool, now a lot of the stories they put out are basically things you could read on the Huffington Post or the Guardian or CNN's non-news stuff.

Mar. 12 2016 09:47 PM
Anon from LA

This episode made me really uncomfortable. You hosts need to learn how to talk about black people and black issues without sounding totally clueless, hostile and defensive. I'm looking at you Robert. Cringing for your guest the whole time.

Mar. 12 2016 08:14 PM
Ashley from Bentonville, AR

To me, this episode is less about debate and debating but more about the concept of revolution through selfhood and how impossible it is to be yourself based on framework created by people that live a world away and have no idea or even try to take into account other folk's way of life and what others have access to. I think that a lot of the comments are missing this point of the story.

My only regret is that I didn't start debating sooner. These are all wonderful points that are discussed about culture of policy debate and how it kind of serves as a microcosm of the larger world around us. These conversations that these debaters are having within the realm of debate can easily be translated into conversations about our society. Ryan Walsh and his partners throughout his career are very talented and I'm excited to see where debate goes from here.

Also, can we talk about the fact that they won the NDT without spreading? That's amazing! This is a wonderful story that I feel that all debaters of color should lend an ear to.

Mar. 12 2016 08:00 PM
Robert from Somewhere

I was a little bit disappointed because I didn't hear any of the rebuttals to the arguments being made by Ryan. If the entire segment was about debate, where is the other side of the story? I'd be especially interested in a response to the idea of the "General American" dialect being part of the problem because even though it may have been built around a white norm of speech, it isn't race centric and was built to serve a purpose of allowing a form of the english language which could be understood coast to coast and has been the common method of formal public communication all the way back to before WWII.

Also, if the goal was to challenge the way debate is conducted and one of the criticism was spreading, then it doesn't seem very effective or topical to continue to use that method of speaking as part of your argument.

Mar. 12 2016 07:53 PM
W from Oakland

This whole episode was so insulting to me. I am a black woman, I graduated high school in 2002, and I did debate my entire time, Lincoln-Douglas, policy, parliamentary and interpretation. I went to a public school in a poor school district and was absolutely no stranger to rolling up to a tournament with the only team that was mostly people of color or from not having enough money to go to tournaments. It was uncomfortable and it often sucked so I 100% sympathize with trying to find ways to make it more inclusive.

However, we won quite a few tournaments, and we didn't have to resort to changing everything. We won on the merits of our arguments and on the force of our presence. We organized and raised money for our own, free summer debate camp for other public schools with teams in the area.

I do agree that spreading (the talking fast to pack in more arguments) is ridiculous, but the reason that debate has produced so many leaders (as described at the top of the program) is because it forces kids to research complicated issues and develop and understand the arguments for both sides, as well as thinking on their feet. I learned about things that would have never been covered in my classes and I went into college much more prepared to discuss high level things and excel, as a black woman. It helped me get into a highly ranked college, helped me with graduate school and now I work developing policy for a government agency.

Saying that black people can't do the research, they can't make the arguments, that they have to use spoken word and/or change important, legitimate topics like energy policy into diatribes about belonging insults our intelligence and ability. The people who don't know anything about debate might be interested to know that the National Debate League has many different events, aside from policy debate. Policy debate is only one of those events, which chooses a topic for the entire year and is MEANT to reward research. Other events, including Lincoln-Douglas debate (which focuses almost entirely on VALUES), original oratory and extemporaneous speaking are much more appropriate and even exemplary areas to bring up the issues Ryan was talking about.

I agree with the other former debaters who have brought up that policy can often devolve into nonsense arguments (i.e. nuclear war deterrence), but starting from this position makes a mockery of what debate is meant to accomplish.

Mar. 12 2016 07:19 PM
M.D. Kosemund from OKC

One argument at a time. I've never been on a debate team, but it seems to simplify is solutuon. It is dumb to call this debate, and that would be my only argument. This way of debate shows no logic. Might as well have a rap battle. I'm sitting here looking at my last $5.78 and I couldn't be more depressed that this is the future of the educated. This. Don't make it so difficult. The idea should be to shut up and listen more than talk fast enough to make more points. We are too loud and fast as it is. As I survive, I hope at some point, people just shut up long enough to understand what they need to say, using what they know, to help the rest of us be enlightened by their thought. Debate is an ignorant way to reach equal understanding.

Mar. 12 2016 07:00 PM
Joseph from Canada

I agree that the rules and norms of debate need to be changed, but what needs to be changed is the "auctioneer" style and not the norm that debaters need to stay on topic. Maybe a better way to fight "hegemony" would be to try to have a debate while speaking slowly and clearly so as to prove that you don't need to talk like the fine print of a pharmaceutical advertisement to win a debate. That would solve the problem of socioeconomic inequality in debate because then the winner wouldn't be determined by who can do the most research, but by who is the best at making arguments: the best debater. It seems like everyone involved in this story has lost touch with reality.

As "A Former Debater from DC" mentioned, this strategy of winning debate has been used by many people, but I wouldn't say that really justifies it. Attacking the other team on some weird techincality whenever they use the word "he" sounds like an even more vacuous argument than shifting the topic to race. This whole meta-edgy 'attacking the structure of debate' within a debate about something completely unrelated thing seems like a cheap loophole. People should have to present a moving and logical argument to win the debate. It seems like the whole thing has degenerated into verbal diarrhea and identity politics--the antithesis of debate.

What I took from this is that they should introduce a rule that the debate should be at least loosely related to the topic, and that somebody needs to reevaluate the rule that the number of arguments made has any bearing on the outcome.

Mar. 12 2016 05:33 PM
Sean from Rucker

What a joke. They white shamed their way through the debates. What's odd is this style of argument has gotten traction throughout our culture. The argument doesn't have to be relevant, it doesn't have to be based in quantitative fact, everyone else just needs to avoid being labeled a racist. Calling the structure of debate racist is the degradation of language. Leftists attempts to change the meaning of the word racist is equivalent to what was done in these debates. Lets change the meaning of the word or the structure of debate to exclude ourselves from being on the unfavorable side of things. Lets corner the opposition into cultural shame or agreement. This is what has given rise to Trump's support base, it's a form of push back against this type of nonsense.

Mar. 12 2016 05:15 PM
Don Blohowiak from Palo Alto, CA

Thanks for the focus on debate. It took me right back to my parallel albeit different experience in the mid-'70s. Then it was class not race. I entered the national collegiate circuit representing a rural state university in the mid-west following a run as a very successful high school debater (just as the speed talking regrettably was getting traction).

In 1977, I boarded an airplane in Wisconsin for the first time at 19 years old as my teammates and I proudly bounded into Boston to compete at a tournament with some of the best minds in the nation. Oratorically we held our own, but evidentially we were completely trounced by teams from California to New York.

You see, the library in our little state school did not subscribe to a single medical or legal journal. Our wits and citations to the New York Times, Time magazine, and US News and World Report were insufficient to subsume our competitors' authority derived from JAMA, untold legal and multiple other scholarly journals we simply did not have access to.

In fact, after one particularly epic round, the heroic victors (from Harvard University) made a point to seek out me and my partner Dan afterwards to console us. "You guys were really in that. It's too bad you didn't have any evidence." And that was because of economics pure and simple.

Dan and I didn't duck the debate resolution; we didn't blame the inequities of the economic structure that placed teams from little under-resourced state schools against well-endowed private institutions. We enjoyed the competition as a learning experience. And lost all but a few of our rounds.

Within a year, I grew tired of the intellectually demanding debate game which increasingly felt like empty sophistry.

Yet, the intellectual and practical training I received from participating in debate remains the single most rigorous and useful preparation I have ever experienced. It served me well through all my eduction (straight through a PhD) as well as most of life.

Debate can provide profound benefits: Investigating a topic develops research skills. Examining evidence develops a capacity for critical evaluation. Preparing a case develops organizational skills. Working with a partner develops interpersonal and collaborative skills. Presenting a case develops competent speaking skills. Arguing both sides of a question, hour after hour, develops a facile mind.

I am glad Ryan and his colleagues challenged what scholastic debate had become. And I am glad that this stimulated conversations both about racial bias and epistemology in scholastic debate. That seems healthy for the activity. My deepest hope is that such conversations open the sport to more diverse young minds. Our nation and the world would be better for it.

Mar. 12 2016 04:14 PM

This episode left a bad taste in my mouth. I'm not a member of the debate community, but I agree with taking a step back from the ridiculous pace that the arms race of rapid speech resulted in. I also agree that this accepted method of debate can give some people a disadvantage, although I wasn't quite sure what Ryan was getting at regarding race. I think it would disadvantage some who have a speech impediment, or dyslexia, but I don't quite understand how race deters you from reading that quickly if you practice it often. Ryan was clearly capable of it.

What left the bad taste was that Ryan took advantage of the flexible rules and decided to speak differently and in a manner more true to himself (yay!) and then turned every debate into an accusation of racism (um....). When I could follow along with the rapid speech, I didn't find his arguments particularly convincing either. He was arguing that he can't do things his way when in fact his method of speaking and arguing a different topic led to several wins for him! He did very well in the debate world! And yet here he is, arguing that he isn't accepted, respected, or welcome. After he won the biggest tournament there is.

I think the true issue here is the culture shock they mentioned - how black kids practice with people in their school and get comfortable and then they go to a larger competition and have difficulty adjusting. So what's the solution? Accuse everyone at that tournament of racism? Present your opponents with an argument they can't argue against? Or instead we can emphasize organizing practice debates between schools of different racial makeup, to assist kids from disadvantaged areas and improve camaraderie between all participants at debates. Complain and point fingers, or work towards positive change? Clearly, the debate world is open to some change.

Mar. 12 2016 03:00 PM

The show overlooks the need to get a sense of JUST HOW REALLY BAD OUR SCIENCE OF THESE ISSUES IS.

As much as we know about evolution, it still amounts to "statistics", describing nature as operating by the statistical averages we calculate. That kind of information is remarkably deceptive, given how dramatically individualistic natural species, environments, cultures and events are, especially of our own species.

So treating everything taking place on earth using formulas for averages totally misses what's happening. Science is still tempted to use such equations though, just like economists do, as it's generally the only kind of verifiable equations available.

How misleading it can be is shown very graphically in how both the biological and ecological sciences and the economists too, have all failed to object to our standard world economic plan. It's a plan to continue the average behavior of the last couple centuries, doubling in scale regularly, forever.

To continue driving the economy to double in real scale every the historic rate of every 20 years or so... involves people doubling their productivity and the speed at which we increase the complexity of our ways of living and rates of changing our ways of living as they have in the past as well. All scientists seem able to say with certainty is they have no theory for that being possible, or impossible either, only that we always seem to have done that. It also made ever doubling amounts of money, and for quite a while the wealth grew at doubling rates a little faster than the rates of irreversible destructive impacts it caused too. In other words, we have not understood where our own growth is taking us at all. Of course people hope we'll be compassionate with each other if things go wrong, but even as things keep going ever more wrong with this "standard plan" of ever faster change, we don't ask why.

Why of course is that science is still representing nature as the average behavior implied by our data, and our economy's "average" behavior of creating innovations for taking ever doubling control of nature seems to make what we call "profits".

Mar. 12 2016 01:03 PM
Shane from San Francisco

I really like this strategy. It was shown in the documentary "Resolved" but I also think it is easily overcome. Grant that debate is racist. In fact by their argument every culture that has norm that excludes the practice of another culture is racist. That makes every institution racist, every pastime racist. If everything is racist then that term loses any meaning. The racist hospital excludes shamans and witch doctors. The racist philharmonic orchestra excludes beat boxers. Beat boxing with an orchestra would sounds fantastic I think. But sure in that way debate is racist. Given you are participating in this racist activity can we get back to the proposition. Given that you are participating aren't you giving tacit assent to the racist practice that you patronize? But it was a great podcast.

Would the argument work in a rap battle. could one point out that a rap battle exclude those that did not grow up with a culture which afforded them the opportunity to perform successfully in such a venue?

Mar. 12 2016 12:33 PM

This is by far the best radiolab yet. With all the respect to Jad and Robert - they are some of the *whitest" radio hosts and to do a show on this topic with time and space given to this heroic young man and the work he is doing is exceptional. Keep up the good work Radiolab! Thank you.

Mar. 12 2016 11:59 AM
Seth from Phoenix, AZ

This episode stirred up some conflicts in me that I never saw coming. It's not even about the race thing. Or maybe it is. It's related. It floors me how everyone gasped at the mention of the "n" word, while the word "queer" was thrown around with irreverent abandon. I don't believe that, even when a gay person uses the word as a form of empowerment, it's acceptable. There's a difference between being edgy/irreverent with your dialogue and being reckless with flipping the hate speech. By keeping words like that alive, you're in effect giving haters permission to use it as well. I'm just not okay with that. Why get all Sisyphean with an already difficult struggle?

Mar. 12 2016 11:24 AM
Mani from Ridgewood, NY

I really enjoyed the show, as I do all of them. I don't know what Ryan looks like but I don't imagine he looks like the White man in the image used to represent this story. I'm confused why a powerful story about changing the nature of debate is represented with business as usual.

Mar. 12 2016 10:52 AM
Vegas from Las Vegas

You know in Deadpool, when he meets that girl, and they keep trying to one-up each other about how horrible their lives are? I feel like that's what this story wants me to believe debate should become.

I really *wanted* to see this as the inspirational story it was presented as, but I just can't. At its core, this story reminded me of the American Football episode in which an early team sewed fake footballs to their uniforms so the other team couldn't figure out who actually had the ball. I love that kind of thing; it's not technically against the rules, but it's a loophole that violates the spirit of the game and gets closed up immediately.

And that's the way it should be! You shouldn't be able to go on basketball courts and win by complaining that the game is inherently bias against shorter races. It's true, but that's not the game people want to play or watch other people playing.

Mar. 12 2016 10:46 AM
seriously from California

People pay for college - they do this? This prepares them to get ahead? This prepares them to effectively make a persuasive arguement in business, politics, legal, negotiations, or when a team of people needs to decide something together? Everybody knows this form of "debate" doesnt work outside of this gameshow environment. It wouldnt even work in the local bar.

Mar. 12 2016 09:44 AM
Nils from Stockholm

First, I completly agree that speedtalking to give and answer the most amount of arguments in the shortest time is rediculus. If debate would change into giving the strongest and more compelling arguments then this would be a much more intresting experience for everyone to attend and to listen to. In a way this is what Ryan is arguing, when highlighting that his community is not included and welcome in debate as is today.
To answer the previous comment about abaiding to rules; His team seems to be well within the bounderies in the rule of the game - since there is room to discuss the form of debate in the rules. The fact that his team gives better arguments, specifically grounded in fairness and democratic principles and the opponents can answer them is not a problem, and they should continue to win until opponents can fairly rebuke these arguments in the first place. To do so better democratic and fair principles must exist in debate (and arguably society) before this becomes a void argument. Beautiful.

Mar. 12 2016 09:43 AM

This is another interesting Radiolab episode. I've been interested in "debate" for a long time...discussion of issues but not aware of the state of formal debate.

I wonder if the prestige of past debaters has influenced the evolution to where it is today...that the successful people named at the beginning of the episode has turned debate into an Ivy League-like conduit of sucess---which leads to elitism, race/class issues, increased pressure, maybe a high percentage of failure. How do you judge debate? What is debate for?

This definitely feels like the BLM culture and arguments have made their way to formal debate. On one hand, the speakasfastasyoucan methods of modern debate seem really goofy. And a revolution and re-evaluation seem necessary.

But on the other hand, calling out apparent racism feels like a "trump card". It seems like the underdog is saying "the rules of this game are wrong/rigged because I can't win. I don't belong". Should profanity be allowed in formal debate? If so, do the most emotional debaters win? What is the purpose of debate?

I don't know. These are rhetorical questions. Tensions around race is a problem. But racial witchunts are too. And some of this feels a little like the 50's during the Red Scare.

Mar. 12 2016 08:40 AM
Matthew from SLC, UT

Next debate topic: the number of arguments should have no bearing on the outcome of the debate, it should be based on the quality and persuasiveness of the argument.

I know nothing about debate, but I disagree with the commenters that say they weren't playing fair. Their opponents knew full well that this was their modus operandi. They had competed against each other before and it was stated in the episode that they had a prepared counter argument which they had used in previous competitions and won. From the statements of Ryan and the commenter who was a former debater it's pretty easy to conclude that a) there is a great deal of flexibility in the rules and b) it is to your advantage to be unpredictable. I imagine the story is nearly identical to the story of the team that began the tradition of rapid firing their arguments with the same complaints regarding fairness.

Mar. 12 2016 07:24 AM
Nik from Osprey, FL

Clearly some of you missed a growth opportunity here. Ryan flipped debate on its head in order to allow it to change and grow. The whole point is he didn't conform to what you would expect or want him to do.Arguing about what he did seems silly when this episode offers you a chance to see something from a point of view that isn't yours (unless you are also a queer black national debate champion.) He is a part of debate history and it was beautifully moving to listen to. Shaq was so good they changed the defense rules of basketball. Tiger was so good they changed the rules in golf. I feel Ryan is a warrior of that caliber for debate. Thank you Radiolab for letting me hear his story. I am grateful and inspired.

Mar. 11 2016 11:51 PM

Maybe I'm completely missing the point. If debate were a college sport, then people would have to follow the rules of that sport to win. To me it seems like Ryan and his team just set up a soccer net on a basket ball court and used hockey sticks to slap tennis balls into it. But not really. It was kind of like they took to the court in referee uniforms and talked about their lives instead of even calling personal fouls.

How can someone debate someone else's life experiences, and how another person feels about something? How can someone negate another person's feelings in a way that wins in the end? That's what Ryan's team was forcing their opponents to do, and it kind of felt gross and self absorbed all the way through. Ryan likes chess. Well okay, if he played a game with someone who plays chess the way he debates, his opponent would bring a choose your own adventure book.

Mar. 11 2016 10:46 PM
A Former Debater from DC

As a former high school and collegiate debater let me point out that debates often quickly devolve from the annual resolution. If the affirmative can link their case to preventing nuclear war or the negative can show the affirmative leading to nuclear war then you are well on your way to a win. Another way you can win is to provide a philosophical critique, which this episode highlighted one version of, and critique the whole structure. In late 90s in college we had a whole critique on the use of the pseudo-generic us of the pronoun "he" which we'd use as soon as an opponent used it or quoted someone that did b/c we could show how harmful this was for non-cis-gendered males. So what Ryan and Elijah did is was what literally thousands of white debaters had done for years.

What soured me on debate was the emphasis on the speed and spread technique where eloquence and argument gave way to spitting words out as quickly as possible. While this verbal dexterity was impressive it always left me feeling like we're mostly just talking past each other. But then again I was never the fastest speaker so maybe I'm just making excuses.

Mar. 11 2016 10:17 PM
Mohamed from California

I don't get it. What is the point of entering a debate if you are not willing to debate the topic. This reminds me of the two Black Lives Matter activists who disturbed the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle. Yeah I agree with your point, but we are doing something else at the moment. Hearing the story made me feel bad for the "bad" guys just because the other team decided that they were going to "debate" a completely different topic.

Mar. 11 2016 09:11 PM
Lando from Colorado

(Disclaimer I knew nothing about debate until I heard this episode, and I am a straight white man so my opinion on this may be void) Nothing against the reporting but this story was just frustrating to me. What is the point of competing if one side can't win or they don't have to abide by the same rules. If they are debating energy policy and one team argues that being black is tougher than being white, how does one respond to that. It was as if someone entered the luge event at the olympics and kicked a soccer ball down the track and claims since they didn't grow up near a track this is how they race. I know it can never be "fair" because of racial inequalities and different life experiences but they should at least play a similar game otherwise, again what is the point.
Side note- Word count limit and F-word counts as double and boom we have a way less annoying event on our hands. Otherwise it just sounds like they are reading off side effects at the end of a drug commercial.

Mar. 11 2016 08:50 PM

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