The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 6: Policy Testing, Planicality, and Hypothesis Planning

This is the sixth and final article in a series about the history of plans in policy debate. The first article explained the early history of plans, covering the 1910s to the 1960s. The second article discussed the era beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the mid-1980s. The third article covered one of the significant developments in the late-1970s and 1980s: extra-topicality. The fourth article documented the other major development of the 1980s and early 1990s: the topical, plan-inclusive counterplan, which shaped debate through the 2000s. The fifth article discussed the rise of “normal means” PICs and process counterplans during the 2000s and 2010s and documented the plan writing adjustments made in response to them. This article covers the current era of debate, including a discussion of planicality and the emergent “hypothesis planning” approach to plan writing and counterplan competition.

In his 1979 summary of the hypothesis testing paradigm, David Zarefsky wrote the following about plans:

1. The wording of the proposition receives increased importance; the specifics of the plan to implement the resolution are of less importance. For the terms of this paradigm, nothing is being adopted, so the mechanics of the plan are of relatively trivial significance. The function of a plan is to illustrate the principles embodied in the proposition, thereby focusing the argument upon those principles. But all debate about the plan itself is conditional, or hypothetical, in nature. Consequently, it may not always be necessary to present a plan—the principles of the proposition may be self-evident. If a plan is presented, it need not have the specificity of a piece of legislation, since it is not being submitted for adoption. Should some difficulty be discovered in one of the plan’s peripheral features, the plan could be amended, so long as the amended version still embodied the principles implicit in the proposition.

By contrast, the wording of the proposition is of central importance, since the proposition is the hypothesis being put to the test. Any different statement of a proposition assumes the character of an alternate hypothesis. In order for proposition x to withstand the challenge that alternate hypothesis y could account equally well for the phenomena being discussed, a specific defense must be made for proposition x—not just for “a change” or even for a direction in which change should proceed. Hence the genre of “justification” arguments is of special significance. For example, the proposition that the federal government should establish, finance, and administer programs to control air and water pollution fails if reason cannot be given for each of the three indicated actions, for action by the federal government, and for controls over both air and water pollution. To do less might call for an alternate proposition, but not the specific one at hand (Zarefsky 1972). Or, as Trapp summarizes, the key question for the judge is, “Does the affirmative case provide sufficient reason to affirm or justify all of the terms of the resolution?” (Trapp 1976).

In 2021, no high school or college national circuit policy debate judge would self-identify as a “hypo-tester:” no contemporary judge knowingly adopts the hypothesis testing paradigm when evaluating debates, and very few are probably even aware of its existence. But while hypothesis testing as a paradigm has completely fallen out of favor, hypothesis testing’s influence on 2010s and early 2020s debate is remarkable — and almost universally unnoticed.

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The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 5: “Normal Means” PICs and Process Counterplans

This is the fifth article in a series about the history of plans in policy debate. The first article explained the early history of plans, covering the 1910s to the 1960s. The second article discussed the era beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the mid-1980s. The third article covered one of the significant developments in the late-1970s and 1980s: extra-topicality. The fourth article documented the other major development of the 1980s and early 1990s: the topical, plan-inclusive counterplan, which shaped debate through the 2000s. This article discusses the rise of “normal means” PICs and process counterplans during the 2000s and 2010s and documents the plan writing adjustments made in response to them.

By the mid- to late-2000s, “PICs” had evolved into something quite different from those pioneered in the 1990s. Because affirmative teams downsized their plans to only include a direct (and often vague) mandate, the negative had fewer opportunities to design counterplans that competed with the text of the plan. As details about the plan’s mandate(s), implementation, and enforcement shifted from the plan text to “normal means,” negatives responded by designing counterplans that “PICed out of normal means.” These counterplans defined the plan writing era of the late aughts and early-2010s.

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Headspace: Suggestions for Debaters

I’ve mentioned before that mindfulness training can be an effective way for debaters to improve their mental toughness and perform better in high-pressure contest rounds. One of the most popular tools for practicing meditation is Headspace, an app that provides guided meditations and other mindfulness training programs. For debaters seeking to improve their mindfulness in preparation for competition, I strongly recommend giving Headspace a try. To help students get started, I’ll share some debate-specific suggestions below the fold.

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The (Unnoticed?) Standardization of High School Policy Debate Resolutions

One thing I like to do when researching a new debate topic is to review the list of old resolutions to see if and when similar issues were debated before. This can often provide useful ideas for arguments to explore, but it also offers an interesting historical perspective on the evolution of debate topics over time.

When investigating previous analogues to this year’s water resources topic — the 2003-2004 ocean policy topic, the 1985-1986 water quality topic, and the 1970-1971 pollution topic are the closest — it struck me how standardized topics have recently become. Until relatively recently, topics tended to vary in word choice and format from year to year. Even after the U.S. federal government became the standard agent of action in the 1960s, there was still significant year-to-year variation in mechanisms/verbs. These, too, started to standardize in the 1990s and 2000s, but since 2010 there has been yet another noticeable increase in topic standardization.

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Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Solt on Types of Counterplans and Constraints on Negative Fiat

Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives is a series highlighting “old” debate theory articles that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating and that active debate students would benefit from reading.

In 1989, Roger Solt identified twelve types of counterplans that were relatively popular during that era of policy debate. Solt’s categories are:

  1. Foreign/international counterplans
  2. International organization (of which the U.S. is a member) counterplans
  3. Private (self-interested) institution counterplans
  4. Private (public-interested) institution counterplans
  5. Fundamental change to basic form of government counterplans
  6. Radical topic-related reforms counterplans
  7. Sub-federal level of U.S. government counterplans
  8. Process counterplans
  9. Exceptions counterplans
  10. Offset counterplans
  11. Advantage counterplans
  12. Uniqueness counterplans
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Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Schunk on Fiat, Pseudo-Inherency, Circumvention, and Process DAs

I’ve long believed that students can learn a lot by exploring “old” debate scholarship. But with a few notable exceptions (like Solt’s “The Disposition of Counterplans and Permutations”), most students have little exposure to the ideas that circulated in earlier eras of debate. To help students “connect the dots” between older debate scholarship and contemporary controversies and arguments, I will occasionally dig into my archive of articles to highlight ones that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating.

The first article I’ve selected — John Schunk’s “Affirmative Fiat, Plan Circumvention, and the ‘Process’ Disadvantage: The Further Ramifications of Pseudo-Inherency,” published in 1981 — explains a theory of fiat that is still relevant to today’s controversies about plan texts, circumvention arguments, and process DAs and counterplans. Distinguishing between “legitimate” inherency and what he calls “pseudo-inherency,” Schunk argues that most circumvention arguments (as they continue to be argued today) misunderstand the meaning of “should” in a policy proposition.

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“‘Planning’ Your Way To Victory”: Plan Writing Advice From 1982

In parts three and four of my series about the evolution of plans in policy debate, I explained the dramatic changes in prevailing plan text norms that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982 — right in the middle of this era of profound plan text changes — Jeff Arrington contributed an article to the Debater’s Research Guide which sought to provide debaters with practical advice about plan writing.

Written from the perspective of a competitively successful, just-graduated college debater, the article provides a valuable glimpse into how plans were conceptualized during this era. Comparing Arrington’s advice from 1982 to the advice that students might receive about plan writing today helps crystallize the significant changes in norms about plans over time.

The full text of Arrington’s article is included below.

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The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 4: Topical and Plan-Inclusive Counterplans

This is the fourth article in a series about the history of plans in policy debate. The first article explained the early history of plans, covering the 1910s to the 1960s. The second article discussed the era beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the mid-1980s. The third article covered one of the significant developments in the late-1970s and 1980s: extra-topicality. This article discusses the other major development of the 1980s and early 1990s: the topical, plan-inclusive counterplan, which shaped debate through the 2000s.

Recall Kass Kovalcheck’s claim in 1979 that “the decade of the 70’s in forensics actually begun during the 1966-67 academic year” because that season’s resolution — Resolved: That the United States should substantially reduce its foreign policy commitments. — “permitted the affirmative, for the first time, to both define the terms and select the topic.” As Kovalcheck explained, “Judges quickly perceived that it was unreasonable to expect an affirmative team to deal with the totality of the topic, and few doubted that such changes as recognizing Communist China, ending the Vietnamese War, pulling troops out of Europe, or even altering the world’s monetary system were not significant. Negative teams, then, had to be prepared to debate four or five topics, each requiring separate analysis, separate evidence, and separate plan attacks, and this multiple topic approach was the harbinger of the 70’s.”

The trend of broader topics continued throughout the 1970s and beyond, and its impact on the argumentation norms of debate cannot be overstated. In the previous article in this series, I discussed one of two major developments in negative strategy during this era: extra-topicality. But it was the other negative innovation — the topical counterplan — that had a broader and more long-lasting effect on plan writing and the content of policy debates.

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The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 3: Extra-Topicality

This is the third in a series of articles about the history of plans in policy debate. The first article explained the early history of plans, covering the 1910s to the 1960s. The second article discussed the era beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the mid-1980s. This article covers one of the significant developments in the late-1970s and 1980s: extra-topicality.


As plans continuously expanded during the 1970s to include ever-greater details about implementation and enforcement, negative teams were forced to search for new strategies that would push back against this trend. In assessing these developments in an article in 1981, Edward Panetta summarized the state of debate during this era as follows:

Throughout the years debate has been a constantly changing process. Essentially, time limits have been the only static element in an activity that has in many ways changed radically. Today, for example, the comparative advantages case and turnarounds to disadvantages are accepted practices in the activity. These changes in the process have had the effect of increasing the probability of affirmative victory. The debate community has also continuously selected broad topics which tend to concede yet more ground to the affirmative. It is often very difficult for negatives to find a counterplan which is generic or nontopical under a wide topic.

Often the innovations in the debate process result from a perceived imbalance in the activity. The comparative advantages-case, turnarounds, add-ons and broad topic have evolved because there was a need to increase the likelihood of affirmative victory. These changes in the activity have attained their objective.

At the championship level of high school debate it is not uncommon to find the affirmative winning a decisive percentage of rounds. This imbalance is heightened in rounds judged by college debaters. Often the negative debater finds him/herself dumbfounded by a judge’s decision. Many judges vote affirmative in instances either when the affirmative has minimal significance or because of a negative failure to win a disadvantage.

The time has come to rectify this imbalance, and increase the likelihood of negative decisions. The negative must attempt to regain the ground lost to the affirmative because of changes in debate.

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An Analysis of Plan Texts from the Elimination Rounds of the 2021 NDCA and TOC

As part of my research on the evolution of plan texts in policy debate, I compiled the plan texts read by affirmative teams in the elimination rounds of the 2021 NDCA National Championship and Tournament of Champions.

In total, there were 49 elimination rounds at the NDCA and TOC. Thirty-six plan texts are included in this sample. Missing plan texts are due to two factors: I excluded critical affirmatives without traditional plan texts, and I was unable to locate the 1ACs from a few debates.

For reference, the 2020-2021 resolution was:

Resolved: The United States federal government should enact substantial criminal justice reform in the United States in one or more of the following: forensic science, policing, sentencing.

What observations can be made about this collection of NDCA and TOC elimination round plan texts?

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