The Dark Arts


It is my understanding that you won all of your public forum debates this year. That’s very impressive. I thought it would be interesting to discuss some of the techniques you used.


Of course! So, just for a brief overview for those who don’t know, public forum is a 2v2 debate format, usually on a policy topic. One of the more interesting ones has been the last one I went to, where the topic was “Resolved: The US Federal Government Should Substantially Increase its Military Presence in the Arctic”.

Now, the techniques I’ll go over here are related to this topic specifically, but they would also apply to other forms of debate, and argumentation in general really. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it “ultra-BS”.

So, most of us are familiar with ‘regular’ BS. The idea is the other person says something, and you just reply “you’re wrong”, or the equivalent of “nu-uh”. Usually in lower level debates this is exactly what happens. You have no real response, and it’s quite apparent, even for the judges who have no economic or political literacy to speak of.

“Ultra-BS” is the next level of the same thing, basically. You craft a clearly bullshit argument that incorporates some amount of logic. Let me use one of my contentions for the resolution above as an example. I argued that nuclear Armageddon would end the US if we allowed Russia to take control of the Arctic.

Now, I understand I sound obviously crazy already, but hear me out. Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, which have a range of roughly 1,000 miles, cannot hit the US from the Russian mainland. But they can hit us from the Arctic. I add that hypersonic missles are very, very fast. [This essentially acts as a preemptive rebuttal to my opponent’s counterargument (but what about MAD?).] If we’re destroyed by a first strike, there is no MAD, and giving Russia the Arctic would immediately be an existential threat.

Of course, this is ridiculous, but put yourself in my opponent’s shoes for a moment. How are you meant to respond to this? You don’t know what Russia’s nuclear doctrine is. You’ve never studied or followed geopolitics. You don’t have access to anything resembling a coherent model for how hypersonic missiles work or how nations respond to them. Crucially, you’ve also done no prep, because I just pulled this out of my ass.

You’re now screwed. Not because I’m right, but because I managed to construct a coherent narrative of events you don’t have the expertise to rebut. This isn’t some high level, super manipulative technique. However, I think this describes most of the dark arts. It’s actually quite boring if you really think about it, requiring no real effort. (In fact, it’s actual intellectual conversations with genuine engagement that I find more effortful.)

Allow me another example. This resolution was “Resolved: The US federal government should forgive all student loan debt”. Here, I was arguing the (logically and factually) impossible position of affirmative. Take any group of economists, and you’d likely reach the same conclusion. This is a damn terrible idea. But… my opponents aren’t economists.

So I won. There were no facts in my case. My contentions were that 1. a college education helps educate voters (possibly?) preventing leaders like trump from getting elected. 2. Racial and economic divides polarize the nation and are just undesirable as a whole. Both of which are conveniently non-quantifiable and impossible to weigh. I can’t say that “X number of lives” or ” amount of money” is lost if we fail to forgive debt. I stay in the abstract. Thus, my case is invincible. An actual debater would see that there’s ‘no substance’ to my argument. But the judge isn’t a debater, so the point is moot. Now, all I have to do is rebut everything my opponent says.

And here Ultra-BS strikes again! The key isn’t to dispute the facts. It’s to explain (however inexplicably), that whatever facts your opponent brings up actually supports your case. For instance, one of the key points to the debate was the Bennett Hypothesis (tuitions rise whenever the government provides subsidies), effectively an uncontestable point. I turn things on its head by agreeing with my opponents. I then follow: ’of course subsidies are bad, we should have never exposed students to predatory loans.

But… the caveat… ’now, however, we have an entire generation of students cheated of their livelihoods, unable to support their families. There are people suffering RIGHT NOW, judge. We agree this should have never happened, but our opponents provide NO SOLUTION…

So on and so forth. My opponents looked pretty relaxed when we gave our first speech. They knew our contentions were bad. But by the time I gave my rebuttal they immediately sat up, and their lounging became frantic typing. They knew that, however bullshit this response was, it was about to destroy their entire case.

But the manipulation of logic doesn’t end there. I continue to argue that ‘subsidies’ (ie: providing more funds to students) isn’t the same as loan forgiveness. This point is economically obvious, but I don’t use economic arguments, I use analogies. I tell the judge to envision a supermarket. First, imagine what would happen if the government matched $1 for every $1 you spent. Then imagine if they simply forgave the price you paid for groceries after the fact.

By doing this, I was able to oversimplify economic concepts. My opponents, who I doubt had much in the way of economic understanding, were left completely stunned. For all they knew, I wasn’t just spouting bullshit, I was actually right. Rather than disputing evidence, I simply analyzed it in a difference way. As such, the facts no longer matter. Welcome to the shadow realm.

The upside was that I never yelled, raised my voice, or even lied outright. I was, in the eyes of the judge, the voice of reason, calming down and politely rebutting my opponent’s as they blustered and tried to call me out on my bullshit (unsuccessfully).

Thus, I managed to win without providing a single argument of substance, just by controlling the narrative.


Let me try to summarize how your strategy works. You craft an argument that relies on domain-specific knowledge like the economics of government subsidies, or the place of hypersonics in nuclear doctrine.

If your opponents have this domain-specific knowledge then you lose. But you bet that your opponents don’t (and so far, they haven’t). Since they don’t, they lack the expertise necessary to refute you, whereas you’ve carefully prepared for this intellectual territory. Do I understand you correctly?


Yes, but not entirely. I’d say ‘Ultra-BS’ is a technique that requires a few things to work.

1. Lack of provability. You can raise all the analytics you want, and reinterpret reality as you see fit. But ultimately, you’re wrong. I can use Ultra-BS and say the Russian army will be Kyiv tomorrow. It doesn’t work. If I’m ever forced to verify a prediction (as we do in the real world) I’ll be discredited rather quickly.

2. Lack of authoritative evidence. Part of what makes debate work is that judges don’t have a credibility rating for each source they hear cited, so often there’s no way to distinguish between an actual subject matter expert versus some random statistician messing around on their blog. We have had teams pull out cards saying there is a 95% chance of nuclear war. Suppose judges actually knew which experts they could trust, the strategy fails, they have a coherent narrative of events.

3. Lack of strong previous opinions. Self explanatory, I’m not changing anybody’s political beliefs on a topic they care about with bullshit)

Basically, you need to operate in an environment where rhetoric matters more than actually being correct. You can see such environments in politics, similarly to debate. If the truth actually matters, then you’re in a bit of trouble. However, it doesn’t matter in debate, mostly because teams don’t have the requisite time needed to present a factually correct case.

Appealing to emotion is easy. “Judge, if we don’t do this the poor will get poorer while Bill Gates gets even further ahead!” Appealing to facts is hard. You need time, and you need evidence. It takes me ten seconds to explain why hypersonics are a credible first strike capability and my opponent their entire speech to give a proper rebuttal. In short, offence is easier than defense, so a good ability on defense doesn’t really matter (at least factually).

I recall a time where my opponents pulled out evidence saying that student loan forgiveness was a net positive for the economy. I could’ve used common sense against them, but that would’ve taken too long. I opted to call their source author names instead. So in that sense, I guess I could say domain specific knowledge is relevant, but mostly not. Even if an expert knew I was lying they need to speak well enough to convince the judge my reasonable sounding arguments are wrong in reasonable time. Not a light ask.


What names did you call the author?


Oh, the usual. I called him an internet blogger, a random journalist, a ‘non-credible source’, etc etc. The idea wasn’t to discredit him as much as plant doubt.


“Internet blogger.” What a horrible slur to call someone.

You write about competitive debate, but the principles you’re describing apply to real politics as well. Ostensibly, provability matters in politics. In practice, not so much. (Just look at the history of Communism, or the politics of student loans today.)

I think the bigger difference is actually how time is budgeted. In a competitive debate, each team gets an equal share of time. In politics, time is allocated according to how much people like the media you create.


(Exactly! Nothing ruins someone’s credibility like the notion that all they is sit around in their basement all day making random posts!)

I think I agree, but only to a limited extent. In my mind at least, credibility is the far more important factor (see point 2 above).

Most people are not subject matter experts, nor is it reasonable to expect them to be. For most discourse, we rely on individuals whose expertise enables them to speak authoritatively on matters. If climate scientists say climate change is coming, we kind of need to just believe the climate scientists. If the climate scientists aren’t credible, we have the modern landscape. (People can’t muster the will to actually combat climate change, deniers are everywhere, and overall the response is paralyzed.)

Much the same with military matters, geopolitics, governance, and most things important. You wouldn’t want the average person to be their own doctor or lawyer. The problem in my view is when the experts/​media don’t have credibility anymore. Now we have the problem of everyone living in their own world, unable to figure out what they’re meant to believe. I think it’s a serious problem, and part of what allows ultra-BS to work.


If you want to know if Christianity is true, then you should ask a priest. After all, they are the experts on Christianity.


Right, I think I should qualify my point a bit. Credibility is important, but ultimately, we need a healthy balance between trust and skepticism. I don’t mean this on an individual level either. I mean society’s trust in institutions as a whole.

I’ll raise the example of the Pentagon Papers. The leaks essentially undermined American trust in many of their institutions, particularly the military and the president. The public perception changed from “the president wouldn’t lie” to, “of course they lie, they all do”. It’s a fundamental shift from acknowledging human flaws to a deep suspicion of the very motives which underlie the institution.

When I made my comment my main worry was that people (not necessarily through any fault of their own) have become victims of a credibility gap. Not in the benign sense, where the government/​experts are well intentioned but misinformed, but rather, that they don’t deserve to be trusted and are determined to damage society (often for their own benefit). I am speaking more about the tribalistic response, which I view as a response to the lack of central credibility. Rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves, people listen to the people who speak for the facts. The result is social or political groups that fail to entertain certain ideas just because they’re part of a rival outgroup. I could get into greater detail with Democrats and Republicans here in the US, but I don’t think I need to. I imagine all readers are already painfully familiar.

I’m mainly speaking about the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon, where everything is left in doubt. I find this is quite dangerous and can undermine societal cohesion when facing large threats like climate change (or increasingly, authoritarianism).


We don’t need a balance of trust and skepticism at all. We need 100% trust in whatever we are advocating for. The best way to establish central credibility is to silence or discredit all dissenting voices.


Ah yes. I think I didn’t elaborate enough on this point. Credibility is important for solving large scale issues, but it’s also important to be actually right. It doesn’t matter how credible the claim of ‘climate change is fake’ is if it gets everyone killed.

In this sense I would say that credibility is a powerful antidote to dark artsy techniques, because those without expert level knowledge are able to believe in expert level claims. But then, this only results in a better society on net if the experts are well intentioned, and we get a good map of reality. (If climate change threat is overblown because climate scientists are playing status games then we’re in trouble.)

At the risk of veering off topic, I kind of want to do a cursory bow of respect to societal problems. I guess my main gripe is that people are abandoning central authority for sources of credibility that are ultimately much more dubious. I think of people who get their news from twitter, who favor the opinions of their favored celebrities over subject matter experts and who default to tribalistic tendencies make coordinating against dire problems difficult.


When practicing the dark arts, your ultimate goal is to establish the credibility of your side so strongly that others’ trust in you is not affected by whether what you say is actually true. Establishing credibility is the ultimate Dark Art.

When the Pentagon Papers showed up, they came as a shock. This happened again with the Snowden Leaks, and then COVID. It happens over and over and over again. It has been happening ever since Martin Luther hammered his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. The Dark Side had already won. It won, by default, before the invention of writing.

Today’s skepticism is a candle in the dark. And the mission of the Dark Arts is to snuff it out. By establishing credibility.

For Coordination.

For Truth.

For the Greater Good.


Oh? I think that’s a very novel idea, and I disagree, but then it would take quite a while for me to explain it all. I think I might bring it up in a follow up dialogue.

For my own personal conclusion, though, I’d say the dark arts are a bad thing, and ought not to be used lightly except in controlled circumstances. Like bioweapons, they can do as much damage to yourself as your targets. We can see this in cults, in populist movements, in manipulative relationships, and more besides. I feel that awareness of the techniques is very useful, but their practice in many situations is dubious. (I do not think very highly of dark arts politicians, even if they are everywhere.)

That said, thank you for this discussion. I really enjoyed it, and I look forwards to any comments people may have.