Cover Art: “Liberation” by M.C. Escher

This is a continuation of my reply to Chris Kymn on disclosure theory. Click here for Section 1.

§ 2 Unfair Advantages from Out-of-Round Behaviors

In light of the above discussion, Chris’s question, ‘Why should we care about events happening prior to the round?’ can be rephrased. The relevant question is whether out-of-round behaviors can grant in-round advantages that do not reflect superior intrinsic debate skills. And the answer is yes.

We should care about events happening prior to the round insofar as they affect the judge’s evaluation of the debaters’ relative intrinsic debate skill.

Here are some examples of out-of-round behaviors that grant non-skill-based in-round advantages:

  • stealing opponents’ dropbox passwords and prepping out all their arguments
  • giving opponents bad directions so they arrive to the room frazzled and out-of-breath
  • annoying and harassing opponents while they try to prepare for the debate
  • flipping for sides before a debate and then withholding one’s choice
  • failing to comply with communal disclosure norms

Whether or not these are sufficient to create a voting issue, they are actionable with a theory argument because they meet the definition articulated in Section 1: They grant an unfair advantage, plain and simple.

It doesn’t matter that these behaviors may result in a performance that looks like superior intrinsic skill within the hour-long debate round. A debater with an opponent’s dropbox password looks like she possesses better research skills, but this characterization would not be fair and accurate. Dropbox security is not an intrinsic skill – it does not pass either of our tests. Thus, there is an available theory argument to address the unfair advantage.

I can concede Chris’s fundamental premise that “The ballot [asks] who did the better debating within a given round.” My theoretical framework, however, establishes that unfair advantages garnered outside of the round can affect the judge’s evaluation of who did the better debating within the round.

Chris dedicates only one paragraph to addressing this idea:

“Yes, there may be in-round effects from a failure to disclose. But “in-round effects” is not a good enough bright-line for abuse on theory. An opponent having more teammates to cut prep might boost his/her in-round performance, but clearly theory is not the appropriate response to the situation. Many things may affect the round, some adversely, but that does not entail that theory is always the correct remedy. The salient question is whether those in-round effects are attributable to in-round events, which theory can address” (“Answering potential objections,” para. 10)

Why can theory only address in-round events, not in-round effects? I have carefully developed a model of theory that explains why these unfair advantages can be addressed by theory arguments. Chris merely cites one potential counter-example and moves on. Let’s list his counter-example among others like it to feel the full force of the argument:

  • “Violation 1 – you had coaches/teammates to prep out my case before the round. Unfair!”
  • “Violation 2 – you went to debate camp and learned better refutation skills. Unfair!”
  • “Violation 3 – you had a complete and nutritious breakfast this morning. Unfair!”

All of these are examples of bad potential theory arguments based on out-of-round behaviors. They are absurd. But as Chris himself (and Travis Chen) once pointed out to me, the existence of poor quality examples within a class of arguments does not invalidate the class. They may be bad, losing theory arguments but not incoherent. Further, even if they are incoherent, it may not be because they’re out-of-round.

Violation 1 is wrong not because it indicts an out-of-round behavior but because it does not indict an unfair advantage. Testing the opponent through high-quality objections with loads of evidence, often gathered by a team of researchers, seems to test an intrinsic debate skill. Most debaters have debate teams, so it is at least conceivable that managing one’s team and amassing research is part of mastering debate (Marshall’s test). Most other high school debate formats and certainly political debates involve teams as well (my test). This result fits with my intuitions about the example too. Is accusing the opponent of having lots of coaches and teammates a bad theory argument because the violation is out-of-round or because it is simply not unfair? It strikes me as not unfair in the relevant way.

To see this, imagine the norms of fairness and “good debating” change, so we do view the use of coaches as cheating. My understanding of some Parli formats is that contact with coaches is not allowed after the resolution is released to the debaters. In this format, a theory argument claiming illegal contact with coaches during the prep period would be viable. Responding to massive amounts of teammate- and coach-prepared objections is not part of mastering Parli debate, so it is not an intrinsic skill, and coach contact is unfair. If Chris is right, the theory argument should still be invalid in a Parli-like format because of its out-of-roundness. I see no reason to bar theory as a means of enforcing such strong norms (or even formal rules) within the debate round.

Violation 2 is also bad because it’s not unfair not because it’s out-of-round. Overcoming opponents’ dedication (time and money) to improving their skills is part of what constitutes debate mastery, and we see the same behavior across many debate formats.

And the same can be said of Violation 3. Overcoming opponents performing at their best (proper diet and exercise included) is part of debate mastery, and this skill is required in many formats.

Thus, all of these bad out-of-round violations can be explained as failing to state an unfair advantage. And even if they do hint at some underlying unfairness, they would lose 100% of the time on the standards level – these violations are predictable and educational behaviors, so we should encourage them even if they are coherent theory arguments off the bat.

Chris does tackle some of the more plausible examples of out-of-round theory, such as theory indicting the opponent for winning an elim coin toss and then withholding the choice of sides. His suggestion is that for these, we have alternative means of recourse in appealing to tournament directors and tabrooms. How often has that worked out? First, even if that were adequate recourse, in-round theory allows an additional option. For instance, if my opponent spoke over the time limits, I would make a theory argument in addition to filing whatever complaint I could with tournament officials. The two are not mutually-exclusive.

Second, in-round theory is a far superior option. (A) Theory debate is governed by clear rules (e.g. speech times), where tournament grievance procedures are often non-existent or under-specified. (B) Theory debate requires persuading unbiased and unmotivated judges, rather than appealing to directors who may decide based on politics or for other personal reasons. (C) Theory debate is more public than a closed-door battle between directors and coaches. (D) Theory debate is empirically effective at rectifying unfair advantages. For instance, the pro-disclosure side is winning out across LD rounds where very few tournaments impose disclosure as a rule. (E) Theory debate can be adaptive to circumstances where tournament rules cannot. Cheaters are perpetually crafty, and theory has the flexibility to punish them when rules fail.

All of these are independent reasons for adopting a model that allows theory as a way to deal with out-of-round behavior causing in-round unfairness. Chris can take a highly methodological approach and suggest that there is some ‘truth’ to what constitutes a valid/coherent theory argument. But when deciding between two plausible accounts, the fact that one is vastly inferior on pragmatic grounds should count as a strong reason against it.

Since non-debate analogies seem to be persuasive among some debate theorists, I suggest that out-of-round behavior causing in-round unfairness is like the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sporting events. The use of banned substances occurs outside the sporting event, but it creates an unfair advantage in the game. To a spectator, opponent, or referee, it might look like the athlete possesses superior athleticism; however, out-performing someone who’s using PEDs is not an intrinsic skill. No one would suggest that the best baseball player had failed to master the game because he could not beat someone using PEDs. And across major sports, this is the norm.

The primary difference is that most sporting events have explicit rules against the use of PEDs, whereas debate tournaments generally lack formal rules about out-of-round practices. But fortunately, we can generate these rules in-round! This is one of the most beautiful and fun things about Lincoln-Douglas debate. We aren’t hamstrung by whatever sparse direction is provided by the tournament rules or NSDA (thank goodness). We don’t have to wait for tournaments to start enforcing even the dominant norms. If a baseball team could initiate an in-game drug test on a suspiciously beefy hitter, you can bet they’d do it! We have that power, and it’s called theory. (If my five reasons above aren’t convincing, maybe some pretty prose will be.)

I have demonstrated that out-of-round theory is coherent and permissible, and it’s a superior option to more formal appeals. Potential counter-examples are either cases of bad theory arguments or they fail to state an unfair advantage. Now all that is left is to show that disclosure theory isolates an unfair advantage.

§ 3 Non-Disclosure as Unfair Advantage

What does non-disclosure require opponents to do? Unlike good evidence, it doesn’t require opponents to think of more clever objections. Unlike spreading faster, it doesn’t require opponents to improve their efficiency. Unlike a blistering cross examination, it doesn’t require opponents to keep their cool in a heated debate.

Non-disclosure requires debaters to run around the tournament collecting flows and “intel” from their opponent’s previous opponents and judges. It requires wasting precious time before important rounds by trying to find Team X in a chaotic cafeteria. It requires guessing what the opponent will run based on hearsay and speculation. None of this is an intrinsic debate skill, and all of it gives the non-discloser a huge advantage.

To be thorough, I’ll apply the tests from Section 1 for determining whether non-disclosure tests intrinsic skills. Applying Marshall’s test, we would not say that a debater failed to perfect her debate skills because she’s too timid to ask Judge A what Debater B read in Round 3. Or because she failed to run around the high school looking for those previous opponents. Or because she lacks the connections to easily get flows and cites. Applying my test, we see that no similar debate format encourages effective ‘networking’ as a crucial component of the activity.

As such, the obstacles created by non-disclosure do not test intrinsic debate skills, so non-disclosure constitutes an unfair advantage.


If everything I’ve written here is wrong, there are still a number of ways to get disclosure theory off the ground. First, one could defend some weird norms view of theory that replaces Chris’s and mine. Second, one could defend a deflationary view of judge jurisdiction like the one John and I wrote about last year and that I applied in my original disclosure post. I’m not sure Chris ever responded to that first argument, which would militate against any narrowing of judge jurisdiction. Third, if all else fails, disclosure theory can always be read as a kritik!



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.