Communication Skills

How To Make (And Refute) Arguments


Like most people, this writer prefers bringing down someone's arguments rather than make one's own.


This has a benefit and a drawback.


The drawback is that your originality is restricted to the scope of the topic on which others have said, as you have to be 'on point'.

The benefit is that when you learn to refute an argument, you also learn the structure of any argument and the places (logic and facts mainly) where you can easily slip.


Arguments have a three-part structure:

- Claim: Evidence supporting the claim (academic arguments also have to give some background information related to your claim)

- Putting the claim in wider context (how it affects everybody etc)

- and, Summarizing in end to reinforce the claim.


So, let's start to learn how to refute an argument then.


Method # 1: The classic 'one after another' technique


1. ‎Refute definitions: Look at each word. Whenever you find a vague meaning or ambiguity in the parts of an argument, you have an opening. You can show the whole argument to be shaky. As they say, 'you can shake it until it collapses'.


2. ‎Refute the logic: Consider the rationale being used. Test each statement for logical soundness. Also test between statements across the argument. Look for bias and generalizations. Watch out when they try to distract and change the subject.


3. Refute grounds: Dig into the data and evidence being used to support the main claim - is it enough? Or, do we need more data before reaching at a conclusion? Is it all correct? What data they have hidden?


4. Refute support: Look at the supporting statements to the argument. Seek cracks and chinks in the armor. Look for a place to drive in a wedge. Look for the weakest link in the fence. Many arguments have a valid claim but weak support.


And then,

5. Use a counter-argument: Something that uses more correct logic, that is more powerful and all-encompassing than the given argument, and uses solid data.




6. Use a fallacy of your own: If they can take liberties with logic and facts, what's stopping you? Check for how it will affect your audience first.


Method # 2: Susan Sontag 's three steps to refuting any argument


Find the inconsistency: E.g. Violence in literature is bad for people

Find the counter-example: E.g. What about the Bible, or the Iliad?

Find a wider context: E.g. Why ban violence in literature when there is plenty of violence all around. Our ancestors didn't have literature but they were violent anyway. They needed to kill for food.


Method # 3: Refute arguments with a smile and kindness


Basically, it is 'praising before slapping'.


Find what points of the opponent's argument you agree with (if any) and also what you have learned from your opponent.


And then take them on, roughly stating you were surprised that someone with so many strong points and admirable qualities could be so 'dumb'. and list how.


Method # 4: Carl Sagan's baloney detection kit


How to think skeptically


- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the 'facts.'


- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.


- Arguments from authority carry little weight. (This is a favorite one). 'Authorities' have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.


- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among 'multiple working hypotheses,' has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.


(Source: Carl Sagan, ' The Demon Haunted World')


Method # 5: Four Step Refutation (used in academic debates)


1. Signal: Identify the claim you are answering. ('They say...')

E.g. My opponent argued that the war on drugs deters drugs use.


2. State: Make your (counter) claim. ('But...,' 'But I disagree...,' (or 'However,' 'Actually,' 'In fact,'...)

E.g. In fact, the war on drugs has not helped decrease in drug use and drug-related crime.


3. Support: Reference evidence or explain the justification. ('Because...')

E.g. According to a nationwide study conducted by X in year Y, the rate of incarceration has increased more than five times over this period, and more and more poor people are in jail than ever before for very small offenses.


4. Summarize: Explain the importance of your argument in the end. ('Therefore...')


E.g. If this study is true, and things go on like this, something will break, and people's patience with forces of big business and anger over the system will escalate to a point of no-return. The only winners in this war drugs seems to be private prison, weapons manufacturers and politicians getting big donations from vested lobbyists.


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