Tech and Truth: How Judges are Ruining Debate

Connor Engel | Jul 27, 2021
10 min read


When it comes to the evaluation of debate arguments, judges have always been party to two schools of thought, tech and truth. Hypothetically, a judge that is completely “tech” evaluates the round based purely on the arguments made by both debaters harboring no personal filter for unreasonable argumentation. In other words, any argument with any implication that is conceded is true even if it is an obviously incorrect claim. This includes, but is not limited to, aprioris, under-warranted/factually incorrect claims about the world, spikes/tricks, etc. A completely “truth” judge evaluates the debate not on the arguments present on the flow, but via their perception of the objective correctness of the arguments made. Thus even if an argument is conceded, a truth judge may ignore it if they feel it is false or not a voting issue. Truth judges also tend to evaluate more embedded clash between arguments even if those cross applications are not made by the debaters themselves. I find both extremes to be problematic. Pure tech encourages poor/dishonest argumentation and restricts a reasonable judge filter, and yet pure truth encourages less actual clash/argumentation and enables too much judge intervention.

Frankly I doubt what I’m proposing is particularly novel or controversial. The sentiment that judges should evaluate rounds with minimal bias while knowing exactly which arguments to exclude seems pretty obvious. Of course, if it were that easy we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. So instead of simply telling you which arguments I think should be intervened for or against, I’m going to attempt to provide a brightline we can apply to our decisions that should let us know when we might be drifting too far to one side. Let’s begin with tech judges.

“Tech > Truth” Judging

The operative problem with tech arguments is their lack of warrant. I think we can all agree that an argument without a warrant is inherently invalid, as it’s not an argument at all, but just a claim. Yet there are some who are still willing to vote on an argument without a warrant if it’s conceded. Taken to its extreme this encourages a world in which both debaters just list unjustified reasons to win ergo “Vote aff because the sky is blue” until either one concedes an argument. Make no mistake, voting on unwarranted arguments encourages debaters to make them. They’re an easy strategy that takes zero research and can win rounds. But if we just refused to vote on them, they simply wouldn’t be read, as is empirically proven by the fact that no one reads Racism Good because no judge would vote for it. And unwarranted arguments literally destroy debate. Debate is by definition an activity centered around comparative argumentation. If it lacks a warrant then there is literally no way for a debater to substantively disprove a claim, as well as no way to decide who wins in a round in which both debaters concede an unwarranted reason to vote for their opponent. Even if you believe debate is purely competitive and strategic, that shouldn’t give you a reason to deny the fundamental premise of the activity. It would be the same thing as saying debaters should be able to lie about having made arguments because they should be able to do anything to win. So having established a sense of why warrantless arguments shouldn’t be voted on, let's examine how to evaluate whether or not an argument has a warrant.

In debate there is no greater culprit of unwarranted argumentation than the humble theory spike. Now I hear you saying, but Connor, “theory spikes may not have the most compelling warrants, but they are justified nonetheless.” For example, “The aff should get to choose the framework for the round. The neg has 7 minutes to brute force the framework debate which is exacerbated by the 4-6 time skew going into the NR. And the NC moots aff framework offense, forcing a restart in the 1AR”. This spike is making a couple claims:

1) The neg has more time than the aff to make framework arguments, both in the NC and the NR, thus being able to win the argument more easily

2) Reading the NC takes away 6 minutes of AC offense leaving only a 4 minute 1AR to respond to a 7 minute NC while pre-empting a 6 minute NR

The problem is that debate has conditioned us to think that these are actually warrants for the initial claim “The affirmative should get to choose the framework for the round”. Regardless of whether or not you think these aforementioned claims are true, there is an integral part of the argument missing. Namely, why do these reasons specifically justify affirmative framework choice? They are structural statements about the aff and neg that could apply to literally any argument. The neg will always have more time than the previous aff speech. Any argument the neg reads hypothetically “moots” aff offense in the sense that it denies it and thus requires the aff to respond. This process is called debate, and it doesn’t justify why the affirmative should specifically receive AFC as compensation, nor does it try to. The vast majority of spikes are simply statements about an imbalance in the way debate rounds are structured followed by a warrantless assertion that these problems can and should be remedied by whatever arbitrary constraint the debater feels is appropriate.

So my brightline is this: Before voting on an argument you must ask yourself, does it contain a warrant for any of its claims, and if so, for which ones? If a debater is not telling you why their claims imply an outcome, then you shouldn’t vote for the argument, even if the individual claims themselves are warranted.
It can be reasonably argued that this principle sets a troubling precedent of essentially allowing judges to resolve debates on their own by pointing out missing internal links. I would argue two things.

First, while it may seem to fly in the face of the anti-interventionism this article preaches, truly ask yourself, what does debate lose from judges refusing to vote on arguments with no internal link? I’m not suggesting that a judge decide if an internal link is poor, but simply not vote on an argument for which a debater has not provided an internal link whatsoever. If anything, this increases the bar for argumentative rigor in the activity and keeps in round clash to questions of actual debatable substance. For the record I extend this burden equally to all forms of argumentation. You should not vote on a econ disad which cannot draw any internal link between the Russian economy collapsing and Putin launching nukes at China.

Second, while I’m all for debaters pointing out these internal links themselves, this does nothing to reduce the presence of these arguments in debate, which we’ve established is a bad thing. Judge intervention is a far more effective and lasting form of deterrence than debaters answering an argument. And sure a competent debater will probably never lose to an argument with no internal link, but what reason do we have for letting inexperienced debaters lose to objectively terrible arguments that ruin the activity?

Now what about arguments for which there is a warrant, but it’s clearly false? For example, “The aff plan text says the USFG should eliminate its nuclear arsenal, but the USFG is the United States Facetors Guild which obviously cannot do the plan, so vote neg on presumption”. False arguments are just unwarranted arguments that sound nicer. There is no difference in saying, “Vote aff because of neg side bias” and “Vote aff because if neg side bias reaches above 60% Lincoln himself will come back from the grave and dissolve the NSDA”.
A common objection to calling out false arguments is that the line between false and true arguments is often too blurry to justify judge intervention. Again, a couple responses. First, this line has already been crossed. We can all drop the act and just admit that debate is at its core a subjective activity. Judges aren’t robots inputting subpoints, they’re humans listening to arguments and deciding if they’re compelling. We vote against arguments we think are false every time we make a decision, with often little to no intervention on the part of debaters. Second, I’d give judges enough credit to be able to determine if an argument is blatantly false or not. And if it’s genuinely difficult to tell whether or not an argument is false on face then it probably shouldn’t be winning rounds anyway. Besides, I don’t mind sacrificing a few questionably true arguments to eliminate all the clearly false ones. Now let’s talk about truth judges.

“Truth > Tech” Judging

Ironically, truth judges and tech judges have a lot in common in the sense that they both vote for unwarranted arguments. But while tech judges vote for arguments which inherently have no warrant, truth judges vote for arguments for which debaters have simply not provided a warrant. The phrase “disregard the flow” is always a source of frustration, not because it’s a bad argument, but because it’s a frequently misunderstood one. The phrase is meant to mean, “Don’t let the technical concession of an unreasonable argument trump the winning of a meaningful and substantive argument”. For example, if a debater wins a general claim that debate should be a place to engage in meaningful discussions of oppression, then you shouldn’t vote on a random spike that they conceded, because the practice of voting for spikes clearly hampers that important discussion. However, what the phrase too often means is, “Vote for me even though I didn’t physically answer any arguments, because you already agree with the position I’m reading”. Voting for arguments a debater didn’t make is no better than voting for false ones. Taken to its extreme it encourages a world in which debaters simply state the thesis of their positions and the judge decides for themselves which one they think is more true.

To all truth judges I ask you to consider this: Is my decision based on a specific articulation of a clearly marked argument made by a debater, or am I drawing information and inferences from my own knowledge? Take for example the phrase mentioned above, “disregard the flow”. If you would be willing to vote on that argument without the debater having given the specific articulation I gave of it the sentence after, then you are intervening too much. The reason being that the phrase “disregard the flow” on its own means literally nothing. It is just a placeholder for a more nuanced concept. And if we fill in these gaps for debaters then we are robbing them of the ability to present arguments in a more eloquent and sophisticated way. Again, the line is blurry as to how well you think a debater presented an argument, but they will never become better debaters unless you actually flow their speech and tell them what it was lacking. If you are well versed in a certain field of literature, use that knowledge to inform a debater about what concepts they may have missed or undercovered. As frustrating as it is to have to vote a debater down when they are making arguments you really agree with, particularly against a debater who is making comparatively worse ones, you should not use your ballot as a referendum on which arguments are right or wrong external to what was literally said in the round. And keep in mind that the way you judge influences other judges as well as debaters. If you wouldn’t want judges auto-voting for Trump Good under the guise that it’s clearly right, then don’t do the same for your favorite high theory or identity politics argument.


You may be a debater reading this and wondering, “What can I do?” You are the social fabric of this community. If you firmly believe and openly espouse these ideals online, in camps, and at tournaments, it will put pressure on judges to be better. And more importantly one day you will be a judge too, so it is up to you to make sure the activity maintains its value and integrity.

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

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