Slaying ‘Slaying the Dragon’

A year ago, Chris Kymn claimed to have slain the ‘dragon’ that is disclosure theory. My reply has been buffering for over a year. Thanks to Marshall Thompson for his writing about spikes and to Sam Azbel and Salim Damerdji for a lively Facebook discussion of disclosure theory. Both inspired this post in their own way.

Section 1 is a recap and clarification of my mini-debate with Marshall from earlier this year. I whole-heartedly adopt Marshall’s divide between contingent and intrinsic skills. To me, the distinction is an extension of the definition of structural fairness that John Scoggin and I have championed on this site for some time. This framework provides the tools to say what constitutes a coherent theory argument by more precisely defining ‘unfair advantage.’

Section 2 (tomorrow’s post) establishes that out-of-round behaviors can create ‘unfair advantages’ as defined by the framework in Section 1. Chris Kymn says that theory is an inappropriate response. I defend theory as a far superior response than formal procedures for dealing with unfair advantages created out-of-round. Supposed counter-examples are cases of bad out-of-round theory arguments but do not support the thesis that out-of-round theory is incoherent. Lastly, I attempt to flip some intuitions to my side with a comparison of out-of-round unfairness to athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Section 3 (tomorrow’s post) applies the framework developed in Sections 1-2 to disclosure theory. Non-disclosure theory does not test opponents’ intrinsic skills. It mostly wastes everyone’s time by forcing debaters to ask every previous opponent and judge what the opponent ran. As such, non-disclosure is an unfair advantage to which theory is an excellent response.

§ 1 Defining Fairness, Recap & Redux

Chris’s view of judge jurisdiction is that “The ballot is a question of who did the better debating within a given round.” The purpose of a debate round is not to determine that one team is better simpliciter, but instead that one team is better “within some defined range of time.” Chris inquires, “Why should we care about events happening prior to the beginning of the round?”

This simple premise – that we only care about what happens within the debate – is highly intuitive [1], but it’s too quick. To answer Chris’s question, we need a workable definition of judge jurisdiction in the context of theory debates. What is relevant to the judge’s evaluation of the round and what can be excluded as “unfair” or “abusive?”

In a post nearly two years ago, John Scoggin and I provided a definition of fairness that purports to help in cases like these. We said that substantive fairness is when both sides have an equal chance of winning the round. Substantive fairness is compromised, for example, when one side reads better evidence because it increases her chances of winning. Employing substantive fairness as the sole basis for a theory argument is incoherent (see the initial post for more).

Instead, we should be concerned with structural fairness, which is when the judge can impartially evaluate skill displayed in a given debate. Structural fairness is compromised, for example, when one side reads a necessary/insufficient burden because it grants an advantage that does not track skill. Structural fairness is the only legitimate basis for a theory argument.

To my knowledge, no one has published a response to the distinction [2], and many debaters have adopted it as part of their theory lexicon.

But that five-hundred-word blog post did not go far enough. The crux of the distinction is that actionable unfairness involves one side taking a non-skill based advantage. Our post utterly failed to explain how we know when one side’s advantage is derived from debate skill or from unfair behavior.

I presented this problem as a challenge to Marshall Thompson’s criticism of spikes, and his response was insightful as always. Marshall theorized a difference between contingent debate skills and intrinsic debate skills. Contingent skills are those that “help win rounds given the way debate is played” whereas intrinsic skills are those that should help win rounds, perhaps in an ideal world of LD debate [3]. Asking whether something is an intrinsic skill is to ask a broader normative question about what constitutes “good debating.”

While Marshall and I both recognize the difficulty in positing a sharp divide, we each proposed tests for assessing whether some skill is intrinsic to the activity.

Marshall’s test for asks us to consider whether someone who has mastered every debate skill but the one in question could be said to have perfected debate. E.g., someone who mastered all debate skills but could not answer a counterplan could not be said to have perfected debate, so we know answering a counterplan is an intrinsic debate skill. On the other hand, someone who mastered all debate skills but couldn’t read cards passed in size 6 font could still be said to have perfected debate, so we know reading size 6 font is not an intrinsic debate skill.

My test asks us to consider whether a skill is associated with good debating in other debate contexts outside of high school Lincoln-Douglas debate. This is not to suggest that LD should mirror other activities or that the skills tested should line up perfectly with other formats, but if we consider something an intrinsic skill, we should be able to find some other context that tests it, lest we think LD debate is extraordinarily special. E.g., asking and answering tough questions is a skill tested in loads of other debate formats (not just academic contest debates but debates between political candidates, legislators, and academics too), so we know that CX tests an intrinsic debate skill. On the other hand, defending one’s case against a zillion blippy, linguistic “a priori” arguments that dodge the central topic is not a skill tested in any other debate format, so it is not an intrinsic debate skill.

I’m happy to entertain other tests or more specific formulations of these two, but I like both of them as ways to get at the concept of “good debating.” I do not maintain that either is the necessary or sufficient criterion for determining what is an intrinsic skill.

Connecting the dots, we are now in a position to see that an unfair advantage is gained from a tactic that does not reflect an intrinsic debate skill, and we have two tests to figure out what those skills are. A theory argument claims that an opponent’s violation of a proposed rule granted an unfair advantage, i.e. one that does not reflect superior intrinsic debate skill. Importantly, proving an unfair advantage does not automatically win a theory debate or prove a voting issue. The respondent could argue that some unfair advantages are reasonable and do not rise to the level of a voting issue.

I’m aware of several possible objections [4] at this point, none of which I will address at this time. Check back tomorrow for Sections 2 and 3.

End Notes

[0] Chris’s post had a fun M.C. Escher theme to it. Here’s another M.C. Escher quote that could be relevant: “The result of the struggle between the thought and the ability to express it…is seldom more than a compromise or an approximation. Thus, there is little chance that we will succeed in getting through to a large audience, and on the whole we are quite satisfied if we are understood and appreciated by a small number of sensitive, receptive people.” If a few sensitive, receptive people find my arguments persuasive, then I’ve done my job.

[1] John Scoggin and I supported a similar condition on judge jurisdiction in our post “Substantive/Structural Fairness” (linked below): “A debate is fair when the judge impartially determines who the better debater is in a given round” (emphasis added). I have known Chris as a debater and coach/theorist for six years, so commonalities in how we view debate are to be expected. This also makes our disagreement about disclosure theory all the more frustrating!

[2] Travis Chen and Chris Kymn were to participate in a “head-to-head”-style blog battle with John Scoggin and me about the distinction, but they decided our definition was either too narrow or too amorphous to foster productive discussion. I hope this post helps. Their primary objection involved examples of substantive unfairness which intuitively seem to be viable theory arguments. Our response was to explain each example as structural unfairness in disguise or to bite the bullet and suggest that the example was not a valid theory argument (personal communication, August 2014).

[3] I will continue using debate to mean “high school Lincoln-Douglas debate.” The specification is significant because different debate activities require different skills. Mastering normative philosophy is relevant in LD whereas cutting cards in Parliamentary Debate is not.

[4] One objection is that this definition is unhelpful since every theory argument attempts to make a normative claim that the violation does not reflect an intrinsic skill. Another is that the distinction might collapse many fairness claims into debates about education, since the educational import of various tests of skill seems relevant to whether they are intrinsic. Third, we lack the tools to properly define each test of skill at the appropriate level of generality. In the example above, is “responding to a zillion blippy, linguistic ‘a priori’ arguments that dodge the central topic” the relevant skill? Responding to multiple a prioris? Or just “responding to arguments?” Which skill do we put through the tests? Finally, the tests themselves are rough around the edges: Whose intuitions decide what constitutes debate mastery? And what other contexts or formats are most relevant? Each of these concerns merits further discussion, but I’m plowing forward for now.



Bob Overing | Co-Director

Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current Yale Law School student. 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 80 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.

Bob Overing
Bob is a Co-Director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current student at Yale Law School and Yale School of Management. 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 80 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.