New York prison inmates beat Harvard debate team

Months after winning a national title, Harvard’s debate team has fallen to a group of New York prison inmates.

The showdown took place at the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York, a maximum-security prison where convicts can take courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard college, and where inmates have formed a popular debate club. Last month they invited the Ivy League undergraduates and this year’s national debate champions over for a friendly competition.

The Harvard debate team was crowned world champions in 2014. But the inmates are building a reputation of their own. In the two years since they started a debate club, the prisoners have beaten teams from the US military academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. The competition with West Point, which is now an annual affair, has grown into a rivalry.

At Bard, those who helped teach the inmates were not particularly surprised by their success.

And what did they debate?

Against Harvard the inmates had to defend a position they opposed: they had to argue that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the US illegally. The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team had not considered. Three students from Harvard’s team responded, and a panel of neutral judges declared the inmates victorious.

Note that the inmates learn without the help of the internet.  The article is here, pointer from Phil Hill.  Here is confirmation of the story.

Addendum: Here is commentary on how it might have happened.


Makes some sense. Prisons should have a few intelligent inmates, but the biggest edge would be the time advantage. There is nothing to do in prison so those few inmates have a lot of time to think and prepare for the debates.

Excellent story. Not that it really takes away from the feel-good nature of the event, but it can be noted that at least two of the three judges were Bard faculty members. Bard trained the inmate debaters and runs the prison debate program (and the higher educational program at the prison generally). The other judge, Mary Nugent, is described as a "great friend of Bard Debate".

Sounds like an urban legend.

The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team had not considered.

Not terribly surprising, in this day and age. If my father's generation of Ivy League denizens was addled by conventionalism and unseriousness, this one might be by Monovox.

Policy debate is not real debate. One team won the Tournament of Champions on the argument "Nuclear Warfare is Good." Why? Because no team EVER composed an argument for "Nuclear Warfare is Bad."

Impact turn for the WIN! Awesome dude. I never heard of someone getting away with that, though some of my friends have tried.

If you follow the link from the Boston Globe piece it links to a Harvard group which is emphatically not the Harvard Policy Debate team but rather appears to be the Harvard Parlimentary Debate Team. It is no surprise to me that they lost given the less stringent standards in parli vs. policy debate (homerism). That being said, I'm sure the student team would have lost regardless given the set-up.

Yep, my mistake. I am not familiar with the parli-folk. Not sure if "Spark Good" flies there.

"The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team had not considered."

That's hilarious.

Jonathan Haidt should use that anecdote in discussing the lack of intellectual diversity in academia.

There are many, many contexts in life where a 120 IQ and great limberness of thinking outweighs 150 IQ and low limberness. Most social interactions, for example, are this way.

What percentage of those prisoners had 120 IQs? The vast majority of such prisoners are white-collar.

Well probably all of them then, ya?

From the article:

"Inmates with a high school degree or equivalent apply for the program with written essays and a personal interview. Admission is competitive, with nearly 10 inmates applying for every spot available."

One of the guys on the debate team, according to the article, is in prison for manslaughter. I could imagine some drug dealers or people who got involved in hit-and-run or DUI accident could be reasonably intelligent.

There is a huge amount of research into the IQs of prisoners. "Crime and Human Nature" by James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein summarized it way back in 1985.

The 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Studies of Youth make strong efforts to track down participants who are in custody for their annual interviews. "The Bell Curve" has on pp 241-251 data from NLSY79 for white males. You can read most of it by Googling

bell curve prisoners

Pretty much all the sources you mention confirm what I said here, Steve. Good sources, BTW.

And the answer is probably roughly 5%. It's possible those debating prisoners had an average IQ of 112.

What is the probability that the debate sounded something like this?

You think the Harvard debate team is demographically dominated by guys in dreadlocks and fat black girls with 1971-style afros?

The article has pictures of the debate. But no footage. And it only takes one side to make a thing go right. Serious question, what are the chances?

This debating style wasn't invented by Blacks, Art.

No one suggested it was, whatever 'style' you fancy that is. So your point is what?

There's no need for "guys in dreadlocks and fat black girls with 1971-style afros" for debate teams to sound like that.

The photo shows Harvard with two diverse-looking women and one white man. Prisoners are three diverse guys.

+1. Also "panel of neutral judges." Right, no subjectivity there.

yeah, the judging sounds pretty fishy and subjective.

the only judge mentioned (of 3) is Mary Nugent, Cambridge Union, UK: Director of Debating at Cambridge Union.
someone heavily involved in promoting and directing the very narrow discipline."debating" is not a neutral party IMO. this prison debate got much free publicity in US/UK over past several months. Who paid for her trip to New York?

apparently there are some kind of obscure rules for judging debates, but who makes, interprets and enfores such rules?

the 3 judges do not make independent (neutral ?) judgements/votes, but must justify their views to the other judges. Very strange, maybe the Olympics could use that judging approach.

Exactly what I was thinking. I would not be in the least bit surprised if it did.

Seems very likely it was some sort of "performance" debate style. I don't know how this is allowed, because the debaters can leverage their ethnicity to win.

However, policy debate is a worthless exercise no matter what style is employed by the team. The straight-up policy approach just involves linking everything to nuclear war or mass destruction, speaking insanely quickly, and throwing as many shitty arguments at the wall in hopes that the opponents don't respond to one because of lack of time.

Here is a more conventional approach. You can't tell me this is any more useful or "real-world":

How do you leverage ethnicity to win?

Did you watch the video that S posted? Now, can you picture a white person using that language or making those arguments?

It's happened before. As saith Hateful Heretic of, in Social Justice War, it's not who you are [Hirsi Ali, Tim Wise], it's what you believe.

Yeah, thats equally horrible

I'm going to backtrack a little bit on my previous comment. I don't think policy debate is completely worthless. I was on the varsity debate team in high school, and I learned a ton about research, argumentation, and quick thinking, but very little about persuading normal people. I suppose if you think of policy debate as a high speed, verbal chess of sorts, and not as a debate in any conventional sense, then its merits stand on their own. It's just a game, like chess or football.

Low, as the Harvard student challengers appear to have been parlimentary rather than policy debaters (the style linked in your video).

My eight-year-old nephew also beat me at basketball this morning. That kid sure can shoot!

If they'd reversed the premise between the two groups, I wonder if it would've gone the same way. Or if there were certain arguments the Harvardarians did not wish to discuss or raise.

Ha, yes, I picture a moment when Chester Wellington III is just catching his stride, when out of the corner of his eye he notices his El Salvadorian opponent making a subtle but unmistakable throat-slash gesture.

"reversed the premise between the two groups..." Chester Wellington III goes to jail and his El Salvadorian opponent enrolls in Harvard. It has all the hallmarks of the classic linked below. In fact, it could be the plot for a sequel.

That movie was not a classic. It was a tedious vehicle for Dan Ayckroyd and Eddie Murphy.

Only in the feeble mind of Art Deco and his imaginary votaries.

Wrong again, Art

Harvard vs "Up north" in a fast-talking charisma contest? those kids stood no chance

If those inmates have such great arguments about turning away the kids of illegals such that they were able to defeat the best Harvard could throw at them, then what else can one conclude that there must be an unbelievably strong argument in favor of that policy. Just because they disagree with it - perhaps for personal or irrationally sentimental reasons - doesn't mean they really have any counterarguments against their own apparently air-tight case.

The question is, "Does learning that the inmates beat Harvard in debate when taking the 'turn away' position adjust your priors in the direction of the wisdom of that policy?" The followup question is, "If it doesn't, then why not?"

If this were a formal debate you'd be laughed off the stage.


The entire point of competitive debate is to gauge who argues more skillfully, notwithstanding the relative merits of each position. If you are given a terrible position to advocate but nonetheless make a compelling case, you score well. Thus, if the prisoners were assigned the position of "Hitler was a great guy" and proved more adept at rhetoric than the Harvard students, they would win the competition. Meanwhile, somebody daft would walk out of the room and conclude, "Hitler really was a great guy!"

This is to say nothing of the points raised by others as to the objectivity of the judges and the constraints of the forum.

Piggybacking on this, using math: if the opposing merits of a position could be scored on their subjective and objective value, on a scale of 1 - 10, and the positions were scored at 2 and 7, and then one team was able to debate persuasively enough that the new scores were 5 and 7, then that team would win, even though their position is the weaker of the two, because their argument was more compelling. Note the difference between compelling and persuasive, or more so, the difference between compelling and "right".

Inmates out-debate a group of the "best and brightest" and Obama elected and fre-elected prez. Coincidence. I don't think so.

Comments like this make me certain you never got admitted to Harvard.

I could have been somebody. (sob)

"Comments like this make me certain you never got admitted to Harvard"

Comments like this make me certain you could have been admitted to Harvard.

That's interesting. My experience with noncompetitive policy debate taught me that in competitive policy debate, every single possible argument had already been thought of, analyzed, tested, and debunked by the end of a debate season.

I guess it' still the beginning of the season.

The resolution in this debate was not the resolution colleges are currently debating. "(2015-16) Resolved: The United States should significantly reduce its military presence in one or more of the following: the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the Greater Horn of Africa, Northeast Asia."

Also, again, these were parli debaters, not policy debaters.

Love this. Can't wait for the movie. Morgan Freeman coaching B-Real & Eminem vs Taylor Swift, Reese Witherspoon & the guy played Zuckerberg in the facebook movie.

The inmates also reportedly beat Harvard in football.

As long as they don't beat them in the shower block. Unless, of course, you know, they are consenting adults and all that.

@SMFS - sounds like you've been boning up on the "Fifty Shades of Gay" series...

"Note that the inmates learn without the help of the internet."

Is that a bug or a feature? Internet 'learning' is a joke.

Pulling evidence off of online journals is much, much easier than making copies, page by page, from books in the prison library. I think it's an impressive feat. much evidence the team actually used is another question. The Kritik debater ( does not require much evidence about the topic at all. And I bet my bottom dollar that the prison team ran kritiks that somehow involved their status as AAs or prisoners.

Political campaigns as a work release program perhaps?

My upper half UC undergrad equaled the quality and rigor of courses at Columbia.

Ivy is probably the most overrated thing in the world, except for the "omg Harvard they teach wizardry there" signaling effect. The truth is it's all on Khan Academy for free, just sitting out there for you to go and do the work to get it.

I wouldn't be surprised if hardly anything gets taught at Harvard, given the average A- grade. As Steven Pinker says, half his students at Harvard didn't even attend his classes. It's all about the social connections+credentialism.

Also,why is everyone suggesting this is bs?

Intelligence is not linear or absolute, and debate performance relies on some function of intelligence, research and communication skills. Edge to Harvard on intelligence, but criminals probably have more time to research than Harvardarians, and also generally an advantage in communication.

Moreover the fact that criminals presumably care less about rules than Harvard kids predisposes them to intellectual flexibility, and there are many, many contexts where flexibility of thought is just as important as rigor.

Criminals strongly tend to be low-IQ. Harvard students (including Affirmative Action guys) strongly tend to be high-IQ. I met a Black High School student who got accepted to Harvard. He was probably the smartest guy I ever met (34 ACT; great conversationalist, disciplined, tons of extracurriculars).

I suggest that criminals don't tend to be very interested in BS tests that don't mean anything, and so don't try very hard.

Try offering them $500 or 2oz of top grade weed for a >130 score, and I suggest that results would change significantly.

I don't even think that would lead them to master the art of Korean-style cheating (legendary in its proportions). As Steve Sailer pointed out, there was a lot of cheating in Azerbaijan, but its PISA scores were still near-rock-bottom.

And yes, these tests do mean something. If you can't answer some basic math, vocabulary, and grammar questions, what does that say about your knowledge of math, vocabulary, and grammar, and your motivation to learn them?

(legendary in its proportions).

There just might be a reason it is 'legendary'.

@Art Deco

-Evidence against? Education realist has brought up numerous examples.

I'm not talking about cheating. I'm talking about trying at the moment the test is administered.

Imagine I walk into your office right now and demand that you write a test that has nothing to do with anything in your life. I pester and pester you until you agree to start writing it. The questions aren't very interesting, and don't have anything to do with anything you have any interest in doing.

How hard would you try on this test? First, I imagine you'd tell me to fuck off because you have more interesting and important things to do than write stupid useless tests that don't have anything to do anything. But let's say you DO write the test just get me off your back ... I don't think you would try very hard.

Criminals strongly tend to be low-IQ.

I seem to recall that Herrnstein and Wilson (which SS references above) report the literature indicates convicts have a median IQ of 93. That's not that bad. The New York State Statistical Yearbook has some data on educational attainments of convicts which is surprising, all things considered and differs more radically from the norm than their scores on psychometric tests as reported by H & W.

It's even more correct to say that low-IQ people tend to be criminal to a far stronger degree than the general population. And a 92-93 IQ is half the distance between average Black and average White IQ scores.

I wouldn't be too surprised by this ... but how do you measure the IQ of a criminal?

I highly doubt that the personality type inclined to criminality is going to be the sort of trained dog that eagerly devours an IQ test with maximum effort.

Here is the argument that wasn't considered by the Harvard team:

The team proposed that if “dropout factories” with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding could deny these children admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would step in and teach them better.

George Mason had a decent debate team, back in the day. The inmates position BTW is unconstitutional, and they being legal scholars (of the In forma pauperis variety) they probably knew that.

Most debates can only be ultimately decided by a 'physical challenge'. I wont be betting on Harvard.

The situation of needing to debate your way out of getting raped in the shower would be a strong motivator to develop strong debating skills.

But on the other hand, the prisoners have a lot of spare time to develop strong debating skills.

Enough with the rape jokes.

I still don't get why anyone's pretending something extraordinary has happened. Has anyone actually seen any video of the debate? If not, why bother giving any credit to the prisoners or heaping any scorn on the Harvard students?

A lot of people really, really don't like hyper-elite places like Harvard, or at least like it a whole lot when they perceive Harvard getting taken down a peg. Conan O'Brien described it in a graduation address, when he said something like "By the way, never ever do anything dumb, because the next thing you're going to hear is 'And you went to Harvard.'"

No surprise this story, whatever it means, is getting lots of play.

Dave Barry said the most important thing they teach you at Harvard is how to bring up the fact you went to Harvard in every single conversation.

My favorite is when you ask 'where did you go to school?' the reply is 'a private school back East'. So of course you then ask 'which one?' and they get to tell you and still claim 'hey, I tried to keep it vague...'

I wonder how much of the win can be attributed to home field advantage.

Seems like Harvard kids would be very out of touch with average USAers.

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