I. Introduction

Acknowledgement: We’d like to begin by thanking everyone who attended Premier 2015 Week 3 for their feedback and discussion of many of the ideas below.

The goal of this paper is to discuss the resurgence of a theoretical view called “truth-testing” in two essays, one by David Branse and one by Jake Nebel. Our thesis is that debate is an open game, which changes through argument cycles. No paradigm, resolutional burden-structure, or debate worldview can fully encapsulate the meaning of debate. Judges and debaters have no overriding obligations to discuss the resolution or its truth. Instead, we uphold a pragmatic view of argument. There may be reasons to prefer one debate style to another, but no reason is so great that it rises to the level of judge jurisdiction. These reasons are argued within individual debates, not the judge’s mind, tournament invitation, or NSDA rulebook.

Both Nebel (2015) and Branse (2015) defend some version of what’s known as the “truth-testing paradigm.” [1] Branse defines it as the following:

the role of the judge and ballot is to vote for the debater who best defends the truth or falsity of the resolution. The aff burden is to prove the resolution true; the neg’s burden is to prove it false (1, para. 3)

While Nebel gives no definition of the view, it is assumed throughout his writing. His arguments in “Should T be a Voting Issue?” and his entailment model of topicality assume the affirmative’s goal is to prove the resolution true (Nebel 2014, “T in Policy,” para. 10). In “The Priority of Resolutional Semantics,” Nebel defends truth-testing through his insistence on debating only exactly what the resolution means. On his view, arguments like plans and kritiks that do not prove the resolution true or false are irrelevant. When we refer to “truth-testing,” we intend to respond to both Nebel’s underlying worldview and the explicit paradigm Branse proposes.

Our response is divided into six sections. The first section introduces the major concerns of the article. The second section defends the priority of pragmatics and the need to allow departures from the resolution as the locus of debate. The third section defends the debate round as the best context for these departures. The fourth section objects to constitutivist arguments for truth-testing. The fifth section addresses appeals to pragmatic concerns to justify truth-testing. The sixth section summarizes the main conclusions of the article.

 II. Truth-Testing, Pragmatics, and Kritiks

In establishing affirmative and negative truth burdens, truth-testing forecloses important discussions even of the resolution itself. Consider the fact that in 1925-1926, there were two college policy topics, one for men and one for women. Men got to debate child labor laws, and women had to debate divorce law. On the truth-testing view, the women debating the women’s topic would be barred from discussing the inherent sexism of the topic choice and the division of topics to begin with. Or consider the retracted 2010 November Public Forum topic, “Resolved: An Islamic cultural center should be built near Ground Zero.” Many debaters would feel uncomfortable arguing that resolution, just like they did on the 2012 January/February LD topic about domestic violence. We both know individuals who felt the domestic violence topic was so triggering that they did not want to compete at all.

We can draw two conclusions from examples like these. First, there are good reasons to not debate a particular topic. These reasons have been spelled out over decades of debate scholarship ranging from Broda-Bahm and Murphy (1994) to Varda and Cook (2007) to Vincent (2013). Second, truth-testing prevents either team from making the argument that the topic is offensive or harmful. A hypothetical case, such as a resolution including an offensive racial epithet, makes the problem more obvious. Maybe the idea behind the resolution is good, but there’s something left out by analysis that stops there and ignores the use of a derogatory slur. Truth-testing makes irrelevant the words in the topic and the words used by the debaters. Thus, it fails to capture the reasons that any good person would “negate” or even refuse to debate an offensive topic. Clearly, there are elements of a topical advocacy beyond its truth that are worthy of questioning.

Nebel (2015) acknowledges that some past resolutions were potentially harmful to debate (1.2, para. 5). Rather than exclude affected students as ‘not following the rules’ of semantics or truth-testing, we conclude that they should not be required to debate the topic. Nebel grapples with harmful topics in the following passage:

I don’t think there is a magic-bullet response to critiques of the topic…I think they must be answered on a case-by-case basis, in their own terms…The question boils down to whether or not the topic is harmful for students to debate, and whether those harms justify breaking, or making an exception to, the topicality rule (1.2, para. 5)

This statement is hard to square with Nebel’s thesis that semantic interpretations of the resolution come “lexically prior” (in other words, they always come first). He wants to allow exceptions, but doing so proves that harmfulness concerns can and do trump the topicality rule. As Nebel’s struggle with the critique of topicality illustrates, every article that claims to espouse a comprehensive view of debate must allow some exceptions to comply with our intuitions. The exceptions do not prove the rule. They prove there is a high level of concern in debate for affording dignity and respect to different kinds of arguments and modes of argumentation. There is no one principle of proper debate. Once the door is open for external factors like harmfulness, the inference to the priority of pragmatics is an easy one to make. If we care about the effects of debating the resolution on the students debating it, then other values like exclusion, education, and fairness start to creep in.

If we can justify avoiding discussion of a bad topic on pragmatic grounds, we can also justify promoting discussion of a good topic. Any advantage to allowing discursive kritiks, performances, and roles of the ballot further justifies this pragmatic view against truth-testing. NDT champion Elijah Smith (2013) warns that without these argument forms, we “distance the conversation from the material reality that black debaters are forced to deal with every day”. Christopher Vincent (2013) built on that idea, arguing that universal moral theory “drowns out the perspectives of students of color that are historically excluded from the conversation” (para. 3). While we don’t agree wholesale with these authors, their work unequivocally demonstrates the value of departures from pure truth-testing. While we may not convince our opposition that they should presume value in kritik-based strategies, they should remain open to them. In a recent article for the Rostrum, Pittsburgh debate coach Paul Johnson (2015) extolled the ‘hands-off’ approach. Let the debaters test whether the arguments have merit, rather than deciding beforehand:

In a debate round, one may argue the impertinence of theses about structural racism with regards to a particular case…But when we explicitly or implicitly suggest such theses have little to no value by deciding in advance that they are inaccurate, we are forswearing the hard, argumentative work of subjecting our own beliefs to rigorous testing and interrogation (p. 90)

Suggesting that non-topical, race-based approaches are “vigilantist” and “self-serving” “adventure[s]” is to demean the worth of these arguments before the debate round even starts (Nebel 2015, 1.1, para. 2). The claim that they ‘break the rules’ or exist ‘outside the law’ otherizes the debaters, coaches, and squads that pursue non-traditional styles. Especially given that many of these students are students of color, we should reject the image of them as lawless, self-interested vigilantes. Students work hard on their positions, often incorporating personal elements such as narrative or performance. To defend a view of debate that excludes their arguments from consideration devalues their scholarship and the way they make debate “home.” That’s unacceptable. Branse notes “the motivation for joining the activity substantially varies from person to person” yet excludes some debaters’ motivations while promoting others (5, para. 4). We agree with Smith on the very tangible effects of such exclusion: “If black students do not feel comfortable participating in LD they will lose out on the ability to judge, coach, or to force debate to deal with the truth of their perspectives” (para. 5). Of course, we do not believe that Nebel or Branse intend their views to have these effects, but they are a concern we need to take seriously.

III. Changing the Rules In Round

One thought is that rejecting truth-testing is the wrong solution. Instead, we should create a better topic-selection process or an NSDA-approved topic change when the resolution is particularly bad. These solutions, however, are not exclusive of a rejection of truth-testing. An offensive topic might be reason to reform the selection process and to stop debating it immediately. Good role of the ballot arguments are the best solution because they pinpoint exactly why a debater finds the resolution inadequate. They highlight the problems of the proposed topic of discussion, and outline reasons why a different approach is preferable.

While Branse believes these examples of in-round rule-making are problematic, we think debate rounds are an excellent location for discussing what debate should be. The first reason is the failure of consensus. Because there are a wide variety of supported methods to go about debating, we should be cautious about paradigmatic exclusion. While we don’t defend the relativist conclusion that all styles of debate are equally valuable, there is significant disagreement that our theories must account for. Truth-testing denies a number of ways to debate that many find valuable. The second reason is the internalization of valuable principles. Even people who do not think kritiks are the right way to debate have taken important steps like removing gendered language from their positions. NDT champion Elijah Smith (2013) identified hateful arguments and comments “you expect to hear at a Klan rally” as commonplace in LD rounds and the community (para. 2). We’d like to think those instances are at least reduced by the argumentation he’s encouraged. For instance, the much-maligned “you must prove why oppression is bad” argument now sees little play in high-level circuit rounds. Truth-testing forecloses this kind of learning from the opposition.

Roles of the ballot and theory interpretations are examples of how in-round argumentation creates new rules of engagement. We welcome these strategies, and debaters should be prepared to justify their proposed rules against procedural challenges. The arguments we have made thus far are objections to truth-testing as a top-down worldview used to exclude from the get-go, not in-round means of redress against certain practices. There is a major difference between a topicality argument in a high school debate round and a prominent debate coach and camp director’s glib dismissal of non-topical argument as follows:

[Y]ou can talk about whatever you want, but if it doesn’t support or deny the resolution, then the judge shouldn’t vote on it (Nebel 2015, 1.2, para. 4)

Branse is equally ideological:

Within the debate, the judge is bound by the established rules. If the rules are failing their function, that can be a reason to change the rules outside of the round. However, in round acts are out of the judge’s jurisdiction (2, para. 12)

We take issue with debate theorists’ attempts to define away arguments that they don’t like. At one point, Jason Baldwin (2009) actually defended truth-testing for its openness, praising the values of the free market of ideas:

That’s how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work. But it is supposed to be a free marketplace where buyers (judges) examine whatever sellers (debaters) offer them with an open mind, not an exclusive marketplace where only the sellers of some officially approved theories are welcome (p. 26)

Unfortunately for the truth-tester, debate has changed, and it will change again. What was once a model that allowed all the arguments debaters wanted to make – a prioris, frameworks, and meta-ethics – is now outdated in the context of discursive kritiks, performance, and alternative roles of the ballot.

IV. Constitutivism, Authority, and the Nature of Debate

Branse’s goal is to derive substantive rules for debate from the ‘constitutive features’ of debate itself and the roles of competitors and judges. We’ll quote him at length here to get a full view of the argument:

[P]ragmatic benefits are constrained by the rules of the activity….education should not be promoted at the expense of the rules since the rules are what define the activity. LD is only LD because of the rules governing it – if we changed the activity to promoting practical values, then it would cease to be what it is (2, para. 7)

Internal rules of an activity are absolute. From the perspective of the players, the authority of the rules are non-optional. (2, para. 12)

The resolution, in fact, offers one of the only constitutive guidelines for debate. Most tournament invitations put a sentence in the rules along the lines of, “we will be using [X Resolution].” Thus, discussion confined to the resolution is non-optional (3, para. 5)

[T]he delineation of an “affirmative” and a “negative” establishes a compelling case for a truth testing model…two debaters constrained by the rules of their assignment – to uphold or deny the truth of the resolution…[J]udging the quality of the debaters requires a reference to their roles. The better aff is the debater who is better at proving the resolution true. The better neg is the debater who is better at denying the truth of the resolution. The ballot requests an answer to “who did a comparatively better job fulfilling their role”, and since debaters’ roles dictate a truth-testing model, the judge ought to adjudicate the round under a truth testing model of debate. The judge does not have the jurisdiction to vote on education rather than truth testing (3, para. 7-8)

Once a judge commits to a round in accordance with a set of rules…the rules are absolute and non-optional (4, para. 4)

Similarly, Nebel uses contractual logic – appealing to the tournament invitation as binding agreement – to justify truth-testing:

“The “social contract” argument holds that accepting a tournament invitation constitutes implicit consent to debate the specified topic….given that some proposition must be debated in each round and that the tournament has specified a resolution, no one can reasonably reject a principle that requires everyone to debate the announced resolution as worded. This appeals to Scanlon’s contractualism (1.1, para. 2)

This approach is attractive because it seeks to start from principles we all seem to agree on and some very simple definitions. The primary problem is that the starting point is very thin, but the end point includes very robust conclusions. The terms “affirmative” and “negative” are insufficient to produce universal rules for debate, and certainly do not imply truth-testing (Section I, paragraph 3.) Branse does some legwork in footnoting several definitions of “affirm” and “negate,” but does little in the way of linguistic analysis. We won’t defend a particular definition but point out that there are many definitions that vary and do not all lend themselves to truth-testing. On a ballot the words “speaker points” are as prominently displayed as the words “affirmative” or “negative,” but neither Branse nor Nebel attempt to make any constitutive inference from their existence. Further, to find the constitutive role of a thing, one needs to look at what the thing actually is, rather than a few specific words on a ballot. Looking at debates now, we see that they rarely conform to the truth-testing model. It is simply absurd to observe an activity full of plans, counterplans, kritiks, non-topical performances, theory arguments, etc. and claim that its ‘constitutive nature’ is to exclude these arguments. Not only that, but the truth-testing family has been heavily criticized in both the policy and LD communities (Hynes Jr., 1979; Lichtman & Rohrer, 1982; Mangus, 2008; Nelson, 2008; O’Donnell, 2003; O’Krent, 2014; Palmer, 2008; Rowland, 1981; Simon, 1984; Snider, 1994; Ulrich, 1983).

The empirical evidence also points toward argumentative inclusion in three important ways. The first is argument trends. The popularity of kritiks, a prioris, meta-ethics, etc. confirm that at different times the community at large has very different views of what constitutes not only a good argument but also a good mode of affirming or negating. The second is argument cycles. An alternate view would suggest that debate evolves and leaves bad arguments by the wayside. Nevertheless, we see lots of arguments pop in and out of the meta-game, suggesting that we have not made a definitive verdict on the best way to debate. The third is judge deference. While people’s views on proper modes of debate shift, we retain a strong deference to a judge’s decision. Judges have different views of debate; if there were some overarching principle that all judges should follow, we would expect tournament directors to enforce such a rule. In sum, there is no way to view debate as a whole and see truth-testing as the general principle underlying our practices.

The existence of a judge and a ballot are also insufficient to produce universal rules for debate. Branse thinks “[t]he ballot requests an answer to ‘who did a comparatively better job fulfilling their role.’” While that may be a valid concern, it is dependent on what the judge views the roles of debaters to be. The absence of any sort of instruction other than determining the ‘better debating’ or the ‘winner’ most naturally lends itself to a presumption of openness. In fact, many practices very explicitly deviate from the constitutive roles Branse lays out. Some counterplans (PICs, PCCs, topical CPs and the like) may do more to prove the resolution than disprove it, yet are generally accepted negative arguments.

Another type of objection to Branse’s view is an application of David Enoch’s “agency shmagency” argument. Enoch (2011) summarizes in his paper “Shmagency revisited”:

[E]ven if you find yourself engaging in a kind of an activity…inescapably…and even if that activity is constitutively governed by some norm or…aim, this does not suffice for you to have a reason to obey that norm or aim at that aim. Rather, what is also needed is that you have a reason to engage in that activity…Even if you somehow find yourself playing chess, and even if checkmating your opponent is a constitutive aim of playing chess, still you may not have a reason to (try to) checkmate your opponent. You may lack such a reason if you lack a reason to play chess. The analogy is clear enough: Even if you find yourself playing the agency game, and even if agency has a constitutive aim, still you may not have a reason to be an agent (for instance, rather than a shmagent) (p. 5-6)

The application to chess helps us see the application to debate. Truth-testing may be the constitutive aim of doing debate, but it does not follow that our best reasons tell us to test the truth of the resolution. In fact, you may have no reasons to be a truth-testing debater in the first place. If “affirmative” means “the one who proves the resolution true,” we’ve demonstrated times when it’s better to be “shmaffirmative” than “affirmative.”

Finally, we think one of the most important (perhaps constitutive) features of debate is its unique capacity to change the rules while playing within the rules. Education-based arguments and non-topical arguments are just arguments – they’re pieces on the chess board to be manipulated by the players. Branse concedes that in APDA debate, the resolution is “contestable through a formal, in-round mechanism (3, para. 9). LD and policy debate also have this mechanism through theory arguments, kritiks, and alternative roles of the ballot. Branse is right that in soccer and chess, there is no way to kick a ball or move a chess piece that would legitimately change the rules of the game. Debate is different. While soccer and chess have incontrovertible empirical conditions for victory (checkmates, more goals at fulltime), debate does not. In fact, discussing the win conditions is debating! Whenever a debater reads a case, they assume or justify certain win conditions and not others. This deals with Branse’s “self-defeatingness” objection because debate about the rules does not create a “free-for-all” — it creates a debate (6, para. 1). The truth-testing judge does not get to pick and choose what makes a good debate; to do so is necessarily interventionist. This demonstrates truth-testing is more arbitrary and subjective [2] than the education position Branse criticizes (4, para. 4; 5, para. 2, 5). To be truly non-interventionist, we should accept them as permissible arguments until proven otherwise in round.

Of course, not all rules are up for debate. There is a distinction between rules like speech times (call these procedural rules) and rules like truth-testing (call these substantive rules). The former are not up for the debate in the sense that the tournament director could intervene if a debater refused to stop talking. The latter are debate-able and have been for some time. No tournament director enforces their pet paradigm. Because the tournament director, not the judge, has ultimate authority, we liken her to the referee in soccer. On this view, the judge is not the referee tasked with enforcing “the rules”; she should decide only on the basis of arguments presented in the debate. Tournaments are not subject to any form of higher authority and are not obligated to follow NSDA rules, TOC guidelines, or anything else to determine a winner. Something is only a procedural rule if it is enforced by the tournament, and truth-testing has not and shouldn’t be enforced in this manner. To our knowledge, no bid tournament director has ever imposed a truth-testing burden on all competitors. If anything is a binding contract, it is the judge paradigm. Judge philosophies or paradigms are explicitly agreed to in writing because each judge establishes their own, and there is no coercion at play. Most tournaments mandate or strongly encourage written paradigms, have time to review them, and accept judge services instead of payment for hiring a judge. These norms establish a clearer contractual agreement in favor of judge deferral than universal truth-testing.

We have tested the constitutive and contractual arguments by considering how truth-testing is not a procedural rule like speech times. As such, it cannot accrue the benefits of bindingness, authority, and non-arbitrariness. We can also test the argument in the opposite direction. There are some rules that seem even more “constitutive” of debate than the resolution but are not examples of procedural rules. For instance, every judge and debate theorist would likely reject completely new arguments in the 2AR, but there is nothing within Branse’s constitutive rules (speech times, the resolution, the aff and neg) to justify the norm. The no-new-arguments rule does not need to be written in a rulebook to have a lot of force.

V. Pragmatic Justifications for Truth-testing

With the priority of pragmatics established and constitutive arguments well addressed, we turn to some hybrid arguments that attempt to justify truth-testing by appealing to pragmatics. Nebel argues that the advantages stemming from truth-testing must be weighed against all exceptions to it and that the advantages of debating the ‘true meaning’ of the topic nearly always outweigh:

It would be better if everyone debated the resolution as worded, whatever it is, than if everyone debated whatever subtle variation on the resolution they favored. Affirmatives would unfairly abuse (and have already abused) the entitlement to choose their own unpredictable adventure, and negatives would respond (and have already responded) with strategies that are designed to avoid clash…people are more likely to act on mistaken utility calculations and engage in self-serving violations of useful rules (1.1, para. 2)

However, the advantages of topicality for the semantic/truth-testing view hold on the pragmatic view as well. We agree that the reasons to debate the meaning of the topic are strong. The only difference is that the pragmatic theory can explain the possibility of exceptions to the rule without interpretive contortion. It makes much more sense to understand that strict topicality is just a very good practice than to tout it as an absolute, lexically prior, constitutively- and contractually-binding rule. Ultimately, all benefits to topicality and debating something other than the resolution are weighed on the same scale, so we should adopt the theory that explicitly allows that scale. We are unconvinced that direct appeals to pragmatic considerations would be worse on pragmatic grounds than an external and absolute rule like ‘always be topical.’ If topicality is as important and beneficial as Nebel says it is, then it should be easy to defend within a particular debate, avoiding the worst slippery slope scenarios.

Nebel also argues that the pragmatic view “justifies debating propositions that are completely irrelevant to the resolution but are much better to debate” (1.1, para. 5). Branse makes the same claim about education: “Education as a voting issue legitimizes reading positions and debating topics that have no association with the resolution” (5, para. 3). This alarmism we’ve answered with our discussion of harmful resolutions. There is no empirical indication of a slippery slope to a world where no one discusses the topic. The disadvantages to one debate round departing from topical debate are quite small, and we have no problem biting the bullet here. Sometimes (and it may be very rare), it’s better not to debate the resolution. There may also be reasons to debate something else even when the resolution is very good. Black students should not have to wait for a reparations topic to talk about race in America. As conversations about racial oppression and police brutality grow louder and louder, it becomes increasingly unreasonable to defend a view of debate that ignores their relevance to the everyday lives of our students. It should be clear that the pragmatic view takes no absolute stance on topicality or burdens. A debate practice may be pragmatic in one context but not another. For that reason, we reject the narrowness of truth-testing.

VI. Conclusion

In this article, we have argued that Nebel and Branse are mistaken in their defenses of truth-testing. The views can be grouped and objected to on the following grounds:

1) Truth-testing justifies debating topics that do harm to debaters such as the domestic violence topic from January/February 2012.

2) The views espoused by Nebel and Branse exclude ways that students of color relate to debate. Kritiks, performances, and roles of the ballot have value, and we should not ignore the racialized effects of excluding them. Debate theorists should not ‘define away’ entire modes of debating. In contrast, we seek to promote the values of openness and inclusivity.

3) Unlike in games like chess and soccer, debate has mechanisms for changing the rules in round. There is no consensus outside the round, and kritiks can help improve debaters’ gendered and racialized language.

4) Argument trends, argument cycles, and judge deference prove that there are no hard-and-fast rules about argument content. The pragmatic view can allow significant disagreement about paradigms, burdens and the resolution rather than avoid it.

5) Any attempt to allow exceptions to truth-testing concedes the priority of pragmatics because pragmatic reasons can defeat reasons to follow the rule. The pragmatic theory can better explain why we want to permit these exceptions.

Both Nebel and Branse make logical leaps and fail to account for how debate is actually practiced by competitors and judges. Simply put, there are no absolutist roles or contracts that can establish the robust conclusions forwarded by these theorists.

In closing Part 1, Branse writes that “[v]ery few people are comfortable viewing debate as an activity with oscillating rules where judges cannot be held to any predictable standard” (4, para. 7). We think this is exactly what debate should be. A few logistically-mandated rules like speech times and room-assignments make tournaments possible. Beyond that, questions like what constitutes a valid affirmative or negative should be fully contestable. That the rules can be defined by the participants and change from round to round is one of debate’s many virtues, not a vice.


[1] For many of the reasons developed in Mangus (2008), Nelson (2008) and Palmer (2008), we take it that both Nebel and Branse do not mean to defend the traditional truth-testing view that posits categorical truth burdens. We interpret their position as a more comparative view like Palmer’s “best justification.” We’ll follow suit and call it “truth-testing,” but the distinction is important. On the more nuanced view of truth-testing where each side has a comparative burden, objections such as “truth-testing enables a priori arguments proving the resolution tautological or self-contradictory by definition” do not as easily apply.

[2] Both Nebel and Branse have touted the predictability and objectivity advantages of the truth-testing view. While those advantages may seem attractive from the outside, conflicts arise even when rules are much more explicit than they are in debate such as in the law. There is a huge sector of the legal community devoted to sorting out contract disputes, and that requires examining the mutual intent of the parties in order for the contract to be enforceable (see for example, California Civil Code 1636). There are strong reasons to believe that a truth-testing approach centered on the resolution would be just as subjective as any alternative model.


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John Scoggin | Co-Director



John is a co-director of Premier, coach for Loyola in Los Angeles and former debater for the Blake School in Minneapolis. His students have earned 77 bids to the Tournament of Champions in the last 7 years. He’s coached 2 TOC finalists, a TOC quarterfinalist, and champions of many major national tournaments across the country.



Bob Overing | Co-Director



Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Loyola in Los Angeles, and debater for the USC Trojan Debate Squad. As a senior in high school, he was ranked #1, earned 11 bids and took 2nd at TOC. In college, he cleared at CEDA and qualified to the NDT. His students have earned 60 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.