A Defense of Disclosure (Including Third-Party Disclosure) by Jacob Nails

With the revival of LDLeaks, the debate about disclosure – in particular forced disclosure – has also experienced a partial revival. I’ve seen a number of discussions crop up in the past few weeks on Facebook and in private. The number of teams that disclose has slowly but steadily increased over the past few years. However, there has not been a sustained public discussion of disclosure in quite some time. I’ve been asked to write on the issue, and I agree that it is a good discussion to have, so this article will lay out the arguments I find persuasive for public case disclosure, including involuntary case disclosure by third parties.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, disclosure refers to the norm of posting the taglines and citations of one’s cases on the NDCA wiki, which as of this season has moved to http://hsld.debatecoaches.org. Disclosure started as a norm in policy debate and gradually made its way over to Lincoln Douglas, starting in the ’08-’09 season. Before Glenbrooks ’11, LDLeaks (http://ldleaks.wikispaces.com/) was created as a place where debaters could publicly post flows. The site fell into relative disuse last year but was revived at the beginning of the ’13-’14 season, reigniting some of the old discussions over disclosure. Disclosure’s proponents tout increased transparency, while detractors claim that it stifles creativity.

I fall squarely on the side of disclosure. I find that the largest advantage of widespread disclosure is the educational value it provides. First, disclosure streamlines research. Rather than every team and every lone wolf researching completely in the dark, the wiki provides a public body of knowledge that everyone can contribute to and build off of. Students can look through the different studies on the topic and choose the best ones on an informed basis without the prohibitively large burden of personally surveying all of the literature. The best arguments are identified and replicated, which is a natural result of an open marketplace of ideas. Quality of evidence increases across the board.

In theory, the increased quality of information could trade off with quantity. If debaters could just look to the wiki for evidence, it might remove the competitive incentive to do one’s own research. Empirically, however, the opposite has been true. In fact, a second advantage of disclosure is that it motivates research. Debaters cannot expect to make it a whole topic with the same stock AC – that is, unless they are continually updating and frontlining it. Likewise, debaters with access to their opponents’ cases can do more targeted and specific research. Students can go to a new level of depth, researching not just the pros and cons of the topic but the specific authors, arguments, and adovcacies employed by other debaters. The incentive to cut author-specific indicts is low if there’s little guarantee that the author will ever be cited in a round but high if one knows that specific schools are using that author in rounds. In this way, disclosure increases incentive to research by altering a student’s cost-benefit analysis so that the time spent researching is more valuable, i.e. more likely to produce useful evidence because it is more directed. In any case, if publicly accessible evidence jeopardized research, backfiles and briefs would have done LD in a long time ago.

Lastly, and to my mind most significantly, disclosure weeds out anti-educational arguments. I have in mind the sort of theory spikes and underdeveloped analytics whose strategic value comes only from the fact that the time to think of and enunciate responses to them takes longer than the time spent making the arguments themselves. If these arguments were made on a level playing field where each side had equal time to craft answers, they would seldom win rounds, which is a testimony to the real world applicability (or lack thereof) of such strategies. A model in which arguments have to withstand close scrutiny to win rounds creates incentive to find the best arguments on the topic rather than the shadiest. Having transitioned from LD to policy where disclosure is more universal, I can say that debates are more substantive, developed, and responsive when both sides know what they’re getting into prior to the round.

The educational benefits of disclosure alone aren’t likely to convince the fairness-outweighs-education crowd, but I’ve learned over the course of many theory debates that most of that crowd has a very warped and confusing conception of fairness. Debaters who produce better research are more deserving of a win. Debaters who can make smart arguments and defend them from criticism should win out over debaters who hide behind obfuscation. That so many rounds these days are resolved on frivolous theory and dropped, single-sentence blips suggests that wins are not going to the “better debaters” in any meaningful sense of the term. The structure of LD in the status quo doesn’t incentivize better debating.

Then there’s the issue of small schools. 75% of debaters in quarterfinals of the TOC and the same percent in semifinals practiced disclosure. 25% didn’t, but I would figure that upwards of 90% of debaters at the TOC knew what cases those two debaters were reading anyway. It’s not the big schools that they succeeded in hiding their cases from; it was the small schools with few connections. To quote Mike Bietz

“[B]ig teams already get many, many more flows than the smaller teams just because they have more debaters, more judges and more coaches. Open disclosure gives everyone access to the same information. Additionally, it helps the ‘little guy’ even more because for many of these debaters, the option of going to a lot of tournaments isn’t available. Open case disclosure gives them the ability to see what other teams are running prior to showing up to the tournament. Thus, there is an added benefit of equalizing not only information at a tournament, but also equalizing (to some degree) the playing-field for people who do not have the resources to travel as much.”1

Some have claimed that disclosure stifles creativity. I think it is important to draw the line between creativity and inanity. Creative arguments no less than others should be able to stand up to close scrutiny, and if the “creative” argument in question would be unwinnable if one’s opponent knew about it beforehand, then I think “creative” here is little more than a pseudonym for “cheap-shot.” There is still room for true creativity alongside disclosure. Debaters are constantly breaking new positions and searching for arguments that haven’t been extensively researched by opponents.  I have trouble thinking of a case that I would say was valuably creative and innovational and yet so weak that disclosure would weed it out.

So, disclosure is all right and good, but that doesn’t settle whether it should be voluntary. Should your opponent be able to disclose your case to other debaters without your consent? The universal consensus among LDers is YES. In my 6 years in the Lincoln Douglas debate community, I have yet to meet a single debater who refused to share their flow of an opponent’s case with teammates, friends, and usually even acquaintances. Even on local circuits where voluntary case disclosure is unheard-of, flow-sharing occurs regularly and uncontroversially.

Advancements in technology have allowed the practice of involuntary third-party disclosure to become more widespread than ever. Here on the East coast, it is relatively easy to find out what cases are being run at California tournaments within minutes of their being broken, via Facebook, GChat, or text message. Judicious networking is all it takes to get flows of most debaters on the natural circuit. Even with these developments, there has not been any backlash. No one has called for a norm against behind-closed-doors sharing of flows electronically.

Making that same process public seems like a relatively innocuous next step. Everyone who travels regularly, along with anyone with connections, already has or could easily acquire flows from most schools. LDLeaks takes the flow-sharing process one step further by democratizing information so that everyone can access it, not just those with the right backchannels. Instead of sharing flows with teammates, debaters now share flows with the whole community.

LDLeaks has received some criticism, including claims that it violates intellectual property law2 (a myth which I believe has been totally debunked by now), but “disclosure bad” does not seem like a valid response. The alternative to LDLeaks is not non-disclosure of flows. It is disclosure only in elite circles and among people who can afford to travel. Completely eliminating third-party flow-sharing seems neither possible nor desirable. Even if that is the ideal, complete disclosure seems like the next-best feasible option. The middle ground of dominance by the in-group is the worst of both worlds.

1. Bietz, Mike. “The Case for Public Case Disclosure.” NFL Rostrum, Vol. 84, Issue 9. May 2010. <https://nationalforensicleague.org/DownloadHandler.ashx?File=/userdocs/publications/05-2010%20Complete%20Rostrum.pdf>

2. The Case Against LD Leaks: The Relevance of Intellectual Property Law. Wednesday, February 8th, 2012.