Slaying the Dragon: An Argument Against Out-of-Round Theory

Slaying the Dragon: An Argument Against Out-of-Round Theory

by Chris Kymn

Opening Remarks

I’ll try to show that out-of-round theory arguments (including, but not limited to disclosure theory[i]) are specious and explain where they go astray. In doing so, I hope to (1) aid debaters in answering such theory arguments and (2) politely ask proponents of disclosure theory to consider revising their views.

Bob Overing points to ambiguity in what counts as out-of-round theory.[ii] This ambiguity requires extra care in definition. As such, I’ll use the term “out-of-round theory” to refer to theory arguments whose violation is contingent on the (lack of) occurrence of an out-of-round event. Of course, an “out-of-round event” is one that did not occur in a speech, CX, or prep time of the current round.

Under this definition, disclosure theory is an example of out-of-round theory. A theory interpretation stating “X debater must disclose Y argument” implies that “X debater may read Y argument only if X had disclosed Y,” where the “only if” condition, referring to an out-of-round event, is necessary to win the violation.

While this article mainly addresses out-of-round theory arguments, the concerns raised may certainly apply to other arguments contingent upon out-of-round events. My intention in writing the article, which might be evident by the previous example, is to address disclosure theory, as it is the most common out-of-round theory argument. That being said, my objection to disclosure theory relies on my objection to the category of arguments it falls under, so the implications of my argument might also apply elsewhere.

Executive Summary

  1. The ballot is a question of who did the better debating within a given round. (Call this the “In-Round View.”)
  2. Theory arguments are really just qualifying what counts as evidence of being the better debater. (Call this the “Qualifier View.”)
  3. Out-of-round theory arguments only qualify occurrences outside of round, and thus don’t answer the ballot question.

The sections following the next three clarify the argument and answer potential objections, but they are not necessary to prove the above claims.

“However much this dragon tries to be spatial, he remains completely flat… But this dragon is an obstinate beast, and in spite of his two dimensions he persists in assuming that he has three…” – M.C. Escher

Essentially, out-of-round theory is like Escher’s dragon. It asserts that an out-of-round event has an extra, in-round, dimension. Yet despite their clever forms and obstinate personalities, both the dragon and out-of-round theory are wrong.

The In-Round View

I don’t believe this view is controversial. In any competitive activity, no match is ever meant to determine that one team is always better than another (if such a concept is possible). The in-round constraint also explains the concepts of “upsets” that inevitably occur in sports or debate rounds, and why the winner of a preliminary round, when side-locked against a familiar adversary in elimination rounds, may lose the rematch. Tournaments would be boring if the “best debater” always won!

The intuition seems to follow from the fact that debate rounds, not unlike other competitive activities, are evaluations of performance within some defined range of time. In soccer, a team’s score is in no way determined by its score in a previous game. This fact is virtually taken for granted, and it forms the tip of an intuition against out-of-round theory. Why should we care about events happening prior to the beginning of the round?

Of course, as some recent articles have taken joy in pointing out, debate is not exactly like soccer[iii]. We tend to believe there is a difference because debaters can make arguments about the bounds of acceptable argumentation, i.e. theory. That being said, the valid meaning of theory arguments is often lost amidst jargon-filled theory debates. The next section will attempt to recover it.

The Qualifier View

The Qualifier View of theory asserts that theory is merely a framing factor for how much other arguments count as evidence of better debating. This phrase is admittedly a mouthful, so I’ll give a few examples of how to interpret shells in this way.

First, consider a theory shell claiming moral skepticism, along with turns to the affirmative case, is unfair because the affirmative has to demonstrate that moral facts affirm and that moral facts support the resolution. This fairness argument can be rephrased as saying, “the negative strategy of making a skeptical argument and turning the affirmative contention does not prove that s/he did the better debating, since the negative had an arbitrary advantage.”

Second, suppose the negative reads a theory shell that says the affirmative must read a plan because plans promote real-world policymaking, a valuable type of education. This argument essentially says that real world policymaking is an essential element in doing the “better” debating, and thus the affirmative’s advocacy is insufficient to warrant the ballot.

Lastly, “drop the argument” and “drop the debater” (as well as other creative remedies) fit neatly underneath this schema. A “drop the argument” claim is tantamount to saying the theory shell is only a qualifier on certain arguments made by a side. A drop the debater claim either casts doubt on the entire strategy, functionally warranting a loss, or argues that the qualification is so severe that no other evidence of doing the better debating is relevant could counteract it.

An important feature of the Qualifier View is that the violation of theory establishes what the theory argument qualifies. For example, a Topicality argument qualifies the advocacy of the affirmative. The idea that the violation is equivalent to a “link” on the contention level debate should not be a new one, but the Qualifier View makes it clear. This feature will be relevant later on.

The Qualifier View is not just a plausible interpretation of theory; it is also necessary to defend the relevance of theory debate altogether. Consider the following line:

The only true rules of [LD] debate are sides [of a resolution] and speech times.

I don’t know whether most debaters and judges on the national circuit (where theory almost exclusively resides) believe this is true, but I doubt many think this claim seriously excludes any arguments made in contemporary circuit debate.[iv] (If it were, I doubt theory would be run as frequently as it is now.) Some may object on the grounds that terms such as “affirm”, “negate”, and “better debating” are open to interpretation. Others may point to examples like offensive rhetoric to warrant why exceptions to rules are necessary.

These objections point towards the important intuition that there is little fixed about debate, by its very nature. While this flexibility makes debate more valuable, it poses a difficulty for advancing the authority of a theory argument. To demonstrate, here’s a more nuanced cousin of the line presented above:

Theory arguments, by virtue of having of an “interpretation,” propose a rule about debate. However, the presentation of this argument is within a debate round itself. Yet to change debate from inside itself is incoherent, since if the rule proposed by the interpretation were necessary to debate, we could not be debating right now. Of course, we are debating right now, proving the rule is not necessary.[v]

This argument poses a difficulty with a strong view that holds theory as an axiomatic rule, since clearly theory is not absolutely necessary to determine the winner of a round. The Qualifier View of theory, which is much more modest, has no problem accommodating the preceding objection, however, since it rejects the thinking that theory is an absolute rule. Underneath the Qualifier View, theory is functionally fancy weighing for which arguments count as better debating. For example, a Kritik of offensive rhetoric supported by a role of the ballot claims the discourse of the other debater is stronger evidence against the other debater’s better debating than any other part of his/her performance. Since theory is weighing, not a rule, it can be evaluated in the same way as other arguments.

One final comment: theory may have other auxiliary purposes, just as a cup of coffee can serve as a convenient paperweight. An example is the idea that theory shells serve as ways to set up communal norms (often called “norm-setting”). While norm-setting may be a nice side-effect of theory, it is not something theory should aim to promote, since its promotion would be apathetic to concerns over who did the better debating. Plus, it would be silly to buy a cup of coffee only to use it as a paperweight.

Why Out-Of-Round Theory is Incompatible

The first step established that signing the ballot is a determination of better debating within a given round. The second step established how theory arguments relate to a notion of better debating. This final step will show that the notion of an out-of-round theory shell is incoherent, since it might be a qualifier on who is the better debater, but cannot be a qualifier on who did the better debating within a given round.

The intuition behind why we should not take the “better” debater (put in quotation marks because it is unclear if such a concept exists) as having done the better debating in any given round is fairly straightforward. As a rather silly example, consider a debater who makes the argument “err towards my side on all weighing because I’m ranked higher than my opponent on [insert online ranking here], meaning more judges vote for me and my arguments are thus more credible.” This argument is clearly nonsensical. The better debating in a given round is not implied by a prior track record.

Now consider an example of an out-of-round theory argument. Suppose a debater reads an interpretation requiring opponents to enter all coaches physically present at a tournament into that tournament’s judging pool. This violation is easy established, and the sole standard goes like this: because the opponent’s coach did not have to judge while my own coach did, that coach had extra time to scout my position and write a prep-out to it, which is not a reciprocal advantage.

Upon first glance, this theory shell seems reasonable. The violation is clearly established, and the standards level debate even seems to describe in-round abuse.

However, the Qualifier View of theory proves the construction of the shell is specious. This theory shell casts doubt not on any particular component of the opponent’s in-round strategy, but rather the construction of the preparation that the opponent put together. In other words, it was the circumstance that the opponent was in that gave them an unfair advantage, thus the theory shell is a qualifier on the judgment that the opponent came into the round a good debater. But if we accept the innocuous premise that the ballot is about debating in a given round, such a qualifier is irrelevant to the determination of the ballot.

This problem is generalizable to all out-of-round theory shells, per the definition given above. Because the violation of an out-of-round theory shell could have been met by (not) doing something before the round started, the theory shell indicts an event before and outside of the round. Other theory shells such as “NIBs bad” avoid this problem, since they isolate the problem down to arguments made in round.

Finally, suppose we decided outside evidence of better debating is relevant to the ballot. This decision would permit many absurd theory arguments, ranging from “Debaters may not have more than X number of coaches” to “The other debater must offer to give me breakfast if they ate breakfast, because doing so would help my concentration in this round and my hotel was too far away to have time to grab my own.” Rejecting out-of-round theory conveniently prevents these bad (and false) arguments from getting off the ground.[vi]

The Act-Mention Distinction

In ordinary language, there is a distinction between the use of a word and the mention of the word. When I say that ‘Austin’ has two syllables, I am not making a statement about the capital of Texas. Rather, I am making an observation about the word ‘Austin,’ deliberately put in single quotes to denote its distinct usage.[vii]

Similarly, the act of doing something is different than the mentioning of that same action. Walking five hundred miles requires much more time and physical exertion than bragging about walking five hundred miles, regardless of how true the boast is. [viii]

This act-mention distinction shows the flaw in attempting to bring out-of-round events into in-round criteria. While the mention of an out-of-round event can be brought into a round, by definition the act cannot be.

At this point, it’s worth giving another example. Suppose the affirmative first claims the role of the ballot is to vote for the debater who provides the best methodology for solving poverty, then endorses the resolution as an effective metric of reducing poverty. The negative then concedes the role of the ballot and argues that because he volunteers at a soup kitchen, endorsing him with the ballot does more in the real world to solve poverty. After all, the ballot does not enact the plan after the round.

While the negative should be applauded for his service, his argument fallaciously ignores the act-mention distinction. Volunteer work would certainly impact towards the goals of the role of the ballot, yet only the mention of volunteer work can be brought into round. And since the statement of a personal fact is not a methodology that reduces poverty, the argument fails to carry weight.

Of course, most people would expect that the volunteering debater to have an advantage. That expectation is not misplaced. Perhaps this debater has extra anecdotal evidence on why the affirmative’s policy is ineffective. He might also have insights on why the affirmative framing of poverty is ultimately counterproductive. The negative should use this knowledge to his advantage by making in-round arguments of the sort. It is effectively easier for the negative in this instance to prove he is the better debater, but the advantage is not granted by mere participation in external service.

This example, I believe, reflects the relation between the concept of the “better debater” (however we establish such a metric) and the concept of better debating in round. Naturally, we would expect the better debater to win more often than not, but such a fact cannot be guaranteed by evidence external to the round.

Answering potential objections

  1. Some theory shells criticize the conjunction of an in-round practice and an out-of-round practice. For example, a shell that requires debaters to disclose pre-emptive theory interpretations (i.e. spikes) criticizes a failure to disclose and the act of reading spikes. Since there is criticism of an in-round component, how could your view exclude the shell?

Good question! This shell is still out-of-round, because the violation is contingent upon the out-of-round event, which is disclosure. This shell points out no intrinsic problem with the strategy of reading spikes; it only criticizes having done so without putting them up on the wiki. Because it does so, it centers criticism on an event that did not occur in round and thus irrelevant to who did the better debating in round.

Of course, you might again point out that the violation still requires an in-round component. However, this in-round component becomes insufficient when coupled with an out-of-round requirement. Since the shell could have been met by (not) performing some out-of-round action, it says the alleged “in-round” abuse could have been solved for by an action outside of the round. Yet the latter cannot count as evidence towards the ballot, and so the comparison is illogical.

  1. Some out-of-round events clearly are related to the evaluation of a particular round. Here’s an example: Before an elimination round, Debater A wins the flip but refuses to tell Debater B which side they chose until right before the round. Even though this event technically happened out-of-round, the other debater should have some recourse.

This situation relies on the false premise that a person can win the flip and not declare their side immediately. Flipping prior to round should accompany an expectation to immediately declare sides, and I think most reasonable teams would abide. Suppose, however, that a team did not do so. In such an instance, that would be an instance where the tournament should have made a clearer expectation, and the debater wronged should appeal to the tournament for a remedy on the situation.

This response actually touches upon a common trend with out-of-round shells. Many of these shells point to a larger problem with community norms, while asserting that the appropriate redress to the issue is to drop only the debaters who had the good fortune of debating the person reading the shell.

  1. Disclosure still has an in-round violation, because the other debater chose to read an undisclosed argument. Furthermore, there are still in-round effects from a failure to disclose.[ix]

Yes, the term “out-of-round” is ambiguous, which is why I took care to define it earlier. The important feature of out-of-round theory is not that it has no concern with the events that occurred in round. Rather, out-of-round theory is problematic because the shell would have been met by some event outside of the round.

Topicality is principally different, since no decision outside of round would have averted the violation of the T shell. Because of this, the shell is criticizing a decision that can be isolated to the round.

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.

  1. Even standards on shells such as Topicality rely on out-of-round claims to support arguments. Arguments claiming that an argument is not in the literature or that “I lack prep against this case” are not easily verifiable claims.[x]

Sure, Topicality standards are not always made verifiably. However, this issue merely shows that debaters sometimes construct their standards poorly. Whether or not “I” could find a disadvantage to a plan is irrelevant to the abuse story, since if my opponent readily presents a disadvantage I could have read and easily found, the warrant for my standard goes away. The allusion to the out-of-round event is nothing more than anecdotal evidence for a ground claim.

What is relevant is the reasoning behind why any person could not find good preparation. For example, if the solvency advocate’s paper was not cited in any scholarly literature, that would be a solid warrant against the merits of debating the plan. Thus, the lack of verifiability in this instance is the result of an underdeveloped argument.

My definition of out-of-round theory does not allow theory to be on a continuum, and so the premise that out-of-round theory comes in degrees is insufficient to take out this formulation. Again, the violation establishes what the shell is questioning, and in the case of out-of-round theory, the shell is asking the wrong questions.

Special thanks to those who took the time to read prior versions of the article and offer feedback.

[i] Disclosure theory arguments require debaters to post, or “disclose,” some details of positions prepared, typically on the National Debate Coaches Association wiki (

[ii] See Bob Overing, “Is Disclosure Theory Different?”

[iii] See Ben Koh and Rebar Niemi’s, “How Do I Reach These Kids: an Affirmation of Polyvocal Debate” (, as well as Bob Overing and John Scoggin’s “In Defense of Inclusion” ( Both dismissed an analogy that likened debate to soccer.

[iv] To see a different opinion, David Branse, in “The Role of the Judge,” ( roughly argues that the above statement is a valid reason to reject at least education voters. In any case, the points made in this article assume neither his conclusion nor the opposite to be correct. I merely show that if any theory claims are correct, then they will have a form similar to the Qualifier View.

[v] This thought was inspired from a discussion in lab at TDC. As the construction of the argument may suggest, it was originally formulated as an argument against fairness voters.

[vi] The critical reader may object that this paragraph commits the slippery slope fallacy. I do not think it does, since my point is independent of whether or not these bad theory arguments are run. The premises simply provide a principled way of quickly dismissing such claims, which cannot hurt.

[vii] The example and convention are adopted from Nagel and Newman, Gödel’s Proof (1958).

[viii] And sadly, it doesn’t alone prove that you would walk five hundred more. For more on this, see

[ix] Overing raised this objection in his article (see 2).

[x] Overing brought this point up in a reply to a comment on his article (see 2).