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Unfair Ways to Argue or Debate

1. Use emotionally-charged words.

Example: Barack Obama is an ultra-liberal who is leading the country toward socialism.

Remedy: Translate the other person’s speech into emotionally neutral words before considering the soundness of the argument itself.

2. Label an opponent in an attempt to discredit him or her. This is also known as “poisoning the well.”

Example: Barack Hussein Obama is nothing but a closet Muslim.

Remedy: Point out that discrediting an opponent is not a valid form of argument because it merely distracts attention from the real issue or issues under discussion.

3. Make statements in which “all” is stated or implied but “some” is true.

Example: Democrats are for bigger and bigger government.

Remedy: Put the word “all” into your opponent’s statement and show it is false. All Democrats are not in favor of bigger government.

4. Prove one’s point by selected instances.

Example: Barack Obama is an extremist because he attended a church whose preacher made outrageous statements.

Remedy: Point out the fact that one instance taken out of context does not offer conclusive proof.

5. Extend an opponent’s proposition by contradiction or by misrepresentation of it.

Example: You Democrats think you can cure every social ill by throwing money at it.

Remedy: Restate the more moderate position that you are defending.

6. Defend one’s position by the use of a formulaic phrase that sounds true but is not.

Example: "Well, where there’s smoke, there’s fire." "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs."

Remedy: Analyze the formulaic phrase and demonstrate its unsoundness or irrelevance.

7. Divert the conversation to another question, a side issue, or make some irrelevant (yet often controversial) objection. This fallacy is often called a “red herring.”

Example: That’s the kind of argument Communists used to make, and look where it got them.

Remedy: Refuse to be diverted from the real issue. Restate the real question under discussion.

8. Prove something with a logically invalid argument, such as the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Example: Barack Obama gets elected and the stock market tanks. That shows he is bad news for American business.

Remedy: Ask the opponent to explain more clearly the connection between the statement and the proof. Might there be another reason the stock market went down?

9. Recommend a position because it is the mean between two extremes.

Example: John McCain is the best candidate because he is neither as liberal as Barack Obama nor as conservative as George W. Bush.

Remedy: Deny the usefulness of compromise as a method for discovering the truth. All candidates can be shown to be the mean between two extremes of one kind or another.

10. Use a syllogism with an undistributed middle term, often in the form of guilt by association.

Example: All liberals are citizens. All Democrats are citizens. Therefore, all Democrats are liberals.

Remedy: Make a diagram to show that the argument is unsound because the middle term (common to both the major and minor premise) is not universal, that is, not all citizens are either liberals or Democrats.

11. “Beg the question” by proposing a conclusion based on a premise that has not been proved. “Begging the question” is assuming the truth of something yet to be proven.

Example: Republicans must be smarter than Democrats because they have more money.

Remedy: Show that this begs the question by assuming that intelligence is directly related to the size of one’s bank account. Try to focus in on what the fundamental question is.

12. Argue in a circle (aka using "circular reasoning").

Example: If you want to help small business, vote Republican. Republicans are the party that supports business. Therefore, you must vote Republican candidates in order to support small business.

Remedy: Arguing in a circle is a longer form of begging the question, involving more than one step. Show that the point in question, in this case, that Republicans are the only pro-business party, has been assumed but not proven. Consequently, the conclusion is not necessarily valid.

13. Suggest something is true merely by repeatedly affirming it.

Example: Democrats are tax and spend liberals who have no respect for fiscal responsibility.

Remedy: Point out that just saying something repeatedly, loudly, or even eloquently doesn’t necessarily make it so.

14. Appeal to some admired or famous person as if he or she were an authority on the question when that really is not the case.

Example: Chuck Norris endorsed Mike Huckabee for president.

Remedy: Show that it is an appeal to an unsuitable authority, someone who is implied to be an authority on the question but who, in reality, is not.

15. Attempt to sound authoritative by using technical jargon (or sometimes pseudo-technical).

Example: Your account is safe on this website. It is protected by end-to-end 128 bit encryption.

Remedy: Modestly ask the speaker to explain in plain English what the jargon means. Explore the argument for flaws. For example, risks to Internet security are not limited to the lines of communication.

16. Use leading questions to draw out damaging admissions.

Example: When did you stop beating your wife?

Remedy: Refuse to be trapped by leading questions whose very wording assumes a mistake or fault.

17. Appeal to a “recognized” authority.

Example: Warren Buffett endorsed Barack Obama.

Remedy: Consider whether the person reputed to have authority had a sound reason for making the assertion attributed to him.

18. State a doubtful proposition in such a way that it fits with the thought habits or the prejudices of the hearer.

Example: A person with a name like “Barack Hussein Obama” ought to be the president of Kenya rather than the president of the United States.

Remedy: Show that the proposition is irrelevant to the real subject under discussion.

19. Suggest false alternatives.

Example: In his heart of hearts, is Barack Obama really a socialist or a capitalist?

Remedy: Show that the choice is not either/or.

20. Attempt to discredit an opponent by ridicule.

Example: If Barack Obama can’t even bowl decently, how can he lead the free world?

Remedy: Show there is no connection between the two statements that supposedly relate to each other.

21. Argue that something is true because it has not been proven false or false because it has yet to be proven true. This is making an appeal to ignorance.

Example: The State of Hawaii will not send me a copy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Therefore, Obama does not have an American birth certificate and is not qualified to be president.

Remedy: Show that just because someone has not personally seen an object does not mean it doesn’t exist. Explore what would be adequate proof of a proposition’s truth or falsehood.

22. Play upon the ambiguity of a word (or someone’s ignorance of its true meaning) to make an argument appear sound when it actually is not.

Example: Barack Obama is in favor of legitimizing the marriage of homosexuals because he is himself a homo sapiens.

Remedy: Document the true meaning of the word (such as “homo sapiens”) and show that it has nothing to do with the matter in question.

23. Create a “straw man” by offering a weak or ridiculous analogy to your opponent’s argument and then refuting it, thereby “refuting” your opponent’s argument as well.

Example: Socialized medicine often leads to rationing heath care, and rationing heath care will ultimately result in death panels that decide who should live and who should die. We don’t want a system that encourages the formation of death panels.

Remedy: Show that the “straw man” (here the “death-panel” system of health care) is a ridiculous misrepresentation of the matter under consideration. No one is proposing a plan that would allow the formation of death panels. The “death-panel” model is a straw man that is easy to dismiss, but it is not relevant to the argument because it is not the model being proposed.

This list was inspired by Robert H. Thouless, How to Think Straight: The Technique of Applying Logic Instead of Emotion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944): 171-179. Obviously, the examples are modern and may not be the best. If you know of unfair arguments I have overlooked or if you can come up with sharper examples, please comment.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 29, 2010 2:25 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Grace and Legalism.

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