Intrinsic Skills and Non-Disclosure: A Reply to Bob by Rahul Gosain

Underlying Bob Overing’s recent three-part disclosure epic is a single, fairness-based argument for the practice. I argue that it fails.

I’ll briefly summarize the argument for those without the fortitude to make it all the way through the series. Bob begins in Part 1 with the uncontroversial premise that if something gives a debater an unfair advantage, it’s a bad practice. Of course, there are many different kinds of advantages, some fair and some not, which makes the term unfair advantage a loaded one: what distinguishes an unfair advantage from a fair one?

To answer this question, Bob draws on Marshall in claiming that fair advantages test intrinsic debate skills, the skills that one should be expected to master in order to be considered to have succeeded in mastering debate. If beating a practice requires mastering skills that we don’t consider intrinsic, then it’s unfair. Then, in Part 2, he argues that non-disclosure is such a practice:

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.

I’ll focus on the claims Bob makes in this final section.

My objection is simple: Bob’s argument begs the question: it smuggles in the premise that debaters have an entitlement to know what their opponents will read. If you don’t already believe this, nothing Bob has said will change your mind on disclosure.

The problem is in the framing of Bob’s question: he implies that not knowing what your opponent is reading is a disruption of the natural order of things, and that this disruption requires that debaters take some action to return to the established playing field. This stacks the deck in Bob’s favor before he discusses intrinsic skills: he’s managed to contextualize the question as “what skills are required to overcome this deficiency?” rather than “what skills are required to win under these conditions?”

However, this hidden premise — that non-disclosure is a deficiency — is exactly what he needs to prove.

An example should make the problem clear. I can ask “what does not giving your opponents access to your Dropbox require?” The way Bob approaches the question, we would search for a way to compensate and see if that tested an intrinsic skill. Some solutions that come to mind are stealing their passwords or bribing their teammates. These are not intrinsic skills. (Bob helpfully condemns password-stealing in Part 2.) Thus, we would conclude that debaters should freely give out their Dropbox passwords to prevent their opponents from having to go through this inconvenience. The obvious response, however, is left out: that debaters simply are not entitled to know what is in their opponents’ Dropbox.

Perhaps debaters simply are not entitled to know what their opponents read in past rounds. Consider a response to Bob’s question that takes it in the broader sense: “non-disclosure forces debaters think on their feet and come up with responses in round once they’ve heard their opponent’s position.” They don’t need to do anything to find out what their opponents are reading because they don’t need to know until the round begins. After that, we see how skilled they are.

Like it or hate it, this view is definitely more consistent with what opponents of disclosure claim — they’ve argued for years that disclosure de-emphasizes the ability to think on your feet and creatively deploy the prep you have, both important skills[1]. I’d bet that a meaningful portion of the community (including many who are cajoled into disclosure by the threat of theory or by public bullying) hold this view as well. Martin’s article is probably the best expression of it to date. We should be skeptical of a skills-based argument for disclosure that’s managed to avoid engaging with these issues.

Bob might respond that debaters will try to prep anyway and we should bracket the desirability of disclosure to ensure reciprocity and equal access. Here, Bob’s intrinsic skill approach might get in the way. If debaters are, as critics allege, incentivized to make use of research done by others and scripted responses to avoid the hard work of thinking themselves[1], we should not make it easier to engage in those practices. In fact, disclosure might be part of a problem: it allows debaters to win rounds without mastering the most important intrinsic skills. Bob notes that on the intrinsic skill view, whether a practice is fair becomes tied to a normative assessment of what “good debate” is. Generally speaking, we should be considering ways to stop problems and make bad strategies less effective, not more accessible. That would be much the same as seeing that frivolous T shells avoided substantive clash and concluding we needed more ways to avoid substance to balance the scales.

While this post might have revealed some of my leanings, I’m ultimately not certain about the merits of disclosure. However, I’m reasonably sure that Bob’s recent approach to the issue is the wrong one. There are serious questions about whether disclosure promotes or inhibits the best version of debate, and he’ll have to weigh the importance of different intrinsic skills in order to make a case for disclosure. Perhaps we can look forward to another three parts.


[1]: It shouldn’t be controversial that this meets Bob’s intrinsic skill test:

A) Martin cites multiple examples of it being tested in the real world, along with evidence that it’s increasing in value.

B) We would not consider a person who couldn’t respond to analytic arguments they hadn’t seen before (whether nuanced or ridiculous) to have succeeded in mastering debate: the ability to handle the unexpected gracefully and strategically is essential. Those who can’t do so are often derisively labelled “robots,” which is more evidence that it’s an expectation.

C) Other debate formats test it. Multiple parliamentary debate formats don’t even disclose the topic until 15 minutes before the round, let alone the cases, with the adaptive benefits in mind. In fact, in American Parliamentary (APDA), one team picks the topic and the other team finds out when the round begins. Given their international reach, there are certainly many more debaters doing styles like these than LD or Policy: in a referendum on debate practices, disclosure would lose.

[2]: Here I think most defenses of disclosure have missed the mark. The debates that result almost certainly involve arguments with more nuance and greater precision. The question is if that higher argument quality translates into more value to students. I believe it all too often does not, especially for students outside the top tier. I’ll sketch out this claim, which I think is an important one for advocates of disclosure to consider, since it urges skepticism of the entire goal of having debates that go “in depth” or “mirror the rigor of the literature.”

No matter what, time constraints, strategic requirements (competition, for example) and the inexperience of the students will prevent positions from matching the nuance of academia. This is such a hopeless goal that it’s not worth aiming at. Instead, the value of debate is in exposing debaters to many new fields and allowing them to play constructively with these ideas and their interactions. Of course these discussions will be superficial, and of course debaters won’t be able to explain the arguments as well as coaches, judges or specific cards. But, we all start somewhere. There’s a reason good teachers insist on letting students puzzle over a hard problem and try out different approaches themselves before being provided the answer. It enables a better grasp of the material (as advocates of disclosure hope for) and inculcates a general attitude of experimentation and extension that’s useful for students throughout their lives and for any pursuit they consider.

In practice, I’m sure most judges have seen less experienced debaters going through the motions, using debate jargon or phrases from the literature like magic incantations, following the instructions of a coach or more experienced debater. This is not critical thinking and it’s not policy education. Whatever it is that disclosure advocates hope for, the reality falls very short of it. Even the best debaters are 18-year-old students who have yet to take a single undergraduate class in whatever it is they’re talking about. There’s still much to learn. To facilitate that learning, coaches should equip a student with an understanding of a new argument and send them off into the great unknown to test their understanding and refine their arguments against the responses of other debaters. Struggling through some unexpected argument interaction isn’t much fun for a judge to watch, but it’s critically important for a student.