2022/Jun/28 Debate and Neurology with Dr. Daniyal Asad

Daniyal Asad, MD is a Vascular Neurology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School combined program. He went to medical school in Pakistan. Prior to starting his medical residency, he was actively involved in competitive debating both as a speaker and a coach for Pakistan National Debate Team. He has a particular interest in global political history. 

We sat down with him to ask how these interests have influenced his experience of neurology and its practice.

Dr Daniyal Asad

 

Stanley:
Can you tell us about how you first became involved in Debate?

Asad:
My first public speech was when I was 5 years old—about the importance of personal hygiene. So you could say, I started young.

Few people know that Pakistan has a very active English Parliamentary style debating circuit, and I actively got involved in this during high school.  What drew me to it was the curious nerd in me who wanted to explore topics outside of science, which was what I was studying in school.  I was fortunate to go to a school that encouraged interested students to participate in extracurricular activities beyond athletic sports.  I enjoyed debate very much, and that enthusiasm translated into success, and when I was selected to join the Pakistan National Debate Team for the World Schools Debating Championship in Canada, I was introduced to the global debating circuit.

 

Stanley:
What appealed to you about it? What did you learn about yourself from debate?

Asad:
Debates gave me an opportunity to learn about topics ranging from economic policies to jurisprudential basis of societal norms.  As a high school student, this opened up a world that was completely new to me – a world where competing philosophies and ways of life fostered diverse societies.  I saw that there were multiple ways of approaching the same issue and that my opinion was not fact but simply a perspective.

This served as a catalyst in my young, inquisitive mind to not take everything at face value and to question why things were the way they were.  It was a humbling experience to learn how little I knew about the world I lived in.  I remember having an epiphanous moment early on where I realized that there are no limits to questions—neither in what can be asked, how broad, narrow, and for how long!  But in a debate competition it becomes important to question constructively what it was I was going to ask my opponent. Even more generalizable, in life, it is sometimes more important to ask the right questions than to know the right answers.  

 

Stanley:
When you became a debate coach, what did you learn from coaching?

Asad:
As a coach, I quickly realized that the most important ingredient for effective teaching is to simply provide the tools and framework for inquiry.  I particularly focused on British parliamentary style debating which somewhat simulates an actual parliament where there is a government and an opposition bench debating proposed social, political, or economic policies. There are three members on either bench (proposition/opposition) and they are given anywhere from fifteen minutes to one hour to prepare eight-minute long speeches by each member of the bench.  Topics range from ethical issues to legal dilemmas or a socio-economic policy.  My favorite part about this format is when speakers have to answer one to two questions per speech from the opposing bench.  One has to quickly think of an answer on the spot. Preparing for such a format requires extensive preparation in terms of learning about global issues, logical fallacies, and argument formulation.  Therefore, I felt that my students should be well-versed in understanding two sides of every issue at hand.  As a coach, I tried to ensure that my students come to their own conclusions about different ideals and viewpoints and then challenge them to come up with arguments against their conclusions.  There is such joy in seeing a student formulate their own opinion about a topic rather than regurgitate what is taught to them.  Pedagogy demands that one be comfortable with students not becoming mirror images of their teachers but independent thinkers.

 

Stanley:
Can you recall a particularly exciting, embarrassing or formative competition either as a participant or as a coach? Why was it so for you?

Asad:
What immediately comes to mind is the time I coached the Pakistan National Team comprised of a group of high school students who won the World Karl Popper Debating Championship in Mexico in 2012.  It was a particularly exhilarating experience because it was through sheer determination and hard work that these students, who spoke English as a second language, beat teams from sixty countries to clinch the championship.  It was a highlight of my coaching career, and I still look back at it fondly and with pride.  A specific memory that comes to mind is when my students successfully identified logical fallacies such as “ad ignoratum,” “petition principii,” or “false analogy” during the final round in the opposing bench’s arguments. Using this they challenged the whole premise of the opposing team’s stance successfully.  One of the adjudicator’s called this one the most successful “takedowns” he had ever witnessed.

 

Stanley:
Now as a neurologist, a stroke fellow, and a soon to be new attending, do you see any of your debate skills or lessons from the debate team that have influenced your doctoring?

Asad:
The art of cooperative inquiry, camaraderie, and deductive reasoning are some of the most important takeaways from debate that I apply to my practice of medicine.  During my training as a neurologist, these principles have helped to satiate my curiosity and be a part of a collegial work environment.  Debating is a team sport in which people with different styles of argumentation need to work together as a cohesive unit to come up with a succinct and convincing stance in a high-pressure environment.  Most people think that debating makes one an effective and articulate speaker.  While that is perhaps true, I think good debaters are at their core good listeners and know how to ask the right questions.  The ability to listen attentively to patients has not only allowed me to formulate diagnoses but it has also been extremely useful in developing a meaningful relationship with them.  I learned the importance of having a nuanced approach to any problem through debates because as I would prepare for an argument, I recognized that any issue could be approached from multiple angles.  For instance, arguing in favor of a policy affecting social change requires understanding the viewpoint of all stakeholders involved.  Nowhere is this nuanced approach more relevant than in treating patients because one “standard protocol” cannot be applied to every patient and their specific circumstances.  Over the years I have realized that it was competitive debate that instilled in me the value of tolerance for an opposing point of view.  This has proven to be instrumental in my understanding of my patients’ health belief models and their preferred treatment choices that can sometimes be diametrically opposed to what I might choose.

 

Stanley:
What are you working on now in your writing or scholarly life?

Asad:
My research interest lies in cardioembolic stroke, specifically trying to understand factors leading ischemic stroke despite therapeutic anticoagulation in patients with atrial fibrillation.

I am excited to also focus on some other literary interests after the completion of my fellowship. Some of these are related to the history of medicine, such as the treatments of neurological ailments in Ancient Egypt and by Indus Valley civilization of the Bronze Age period. Many years ago, I happened to come across an exhibit at the British Museum in London on surgical tools used during these time periods (e.g. tools to perform a craniotomy) and have been fascinated about the evolution of neurological therapies ever since!  I will also be joining a twelve-week fiction writers’ course this Fall.

 

For more, please follow Dr. Asad on Twitter:  @daniyal_asad