In this article: How to win an argument
We’ll also look at the most common fallacies that come up in arguments including:
- Backfire effect
- Circular reasoning
- Non sequitur
- Red herring
- Genetic fallacy
- Fallacy fallacy
- Definist fallacies
- Weasel words
- The burden of proof
- How to win an argument
A word of warning…
As a child and as a teenager I loved to argue. I had a strong personality and I felt the need to correct anyone who I felt was being illogical in their thinking or their behavior.
I continued to argue with people who I felt were being illogical throughout my twenties, but I noticed something: Even though it seemed like I ‘won’ a lot of arguments, they couldn’t deny my evidence, nor could they refute my logic, yet I didn’t see a lot of people changing their minds – or their behavior. (Some did, most didn’t)
Instead they just continued to believe whatever they wanted to believe, regardless of how badly their argument was contradicted by logic and reason, or how much evidence there was to the contrary. It was as if the argument had never taken place.
It wasn’t until my mid thirties (I’m 37 now), that I came to see that arguing, like resistance, is futile. It’s ineffective and pointless. It doesn’t change minds and it doesn’t work. It’s a complete waste of time and energy.
Instead of proving your point or changing someone’s mind, most of the time you’ll just get angry and frustrated as they refuse to listen to reason, and nothing at all will change.
Isn’t this true in your own experience?
Why you shouldn’t argue with most people
Before you even consider arguing with anyone know this…
- Are closed-minded
- Are illogical and irrational
- Will not follow the evidence where it leads
- Will not change their minds no matter what you say
- Will not admit they’re wrong even when they know they are
- Aren’t listening to understand – only to argue and refute
So what’s the point of arguing with them?
“Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right. You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph. And a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” – Dale Carnegie
If you doubt what I’m saying tell me this:
How many times have you ever changed someone’s mind through an argument?
Even if the answer is “once” or “sometimes”, what about the hundreds of hours you’ve wasted arguing with closed minded idiots that were never going to change their mind no matter what you said, no matter how much evidence or proof you had?
Isn’t it obvious that even the best arguers and debaters (Ben Shapiro, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris etc.) only have about a 1% success rate of changing people’s minds?
I even posted on Reddit CMV (Change my view) about this: Arguing is Pointless
As I said in the Reddit thread: “I’m all for a discussion of ideas, but arguing to me is about emotional and energetic resistance to the ideas of another person, which is often displayed in the form of raised voices, yelling, interrupting/talking over, and an egotistical need to be ‘right’ and for the other person to be ‘wrong’. It stems from an attachment to beliefs, and a desire to somewhat, force opinions.”
“I agree with listening to, and seeking out, opinions from people who disagree with you, but if someone is trying to interrupt you and defend their ideas rather than being willing to follow the evidence where it leads, you’re just wasting your time arguing with them…”
I also think that most people argue based upon a faulty assumption: that facts change minds, and if you could only provide enough evidence to support your claims than the other person would be forced to change their mind and agree with you.
Unfortunately real life doesn’t work this way. People don’t care what you believe. Nor do they care what the facts are, or how much evidence you might have, or if they’re being illogical or unreasonable. People believe whatever they want to believe.
In short: Facts and evidence aren’t the determining factors in how most people form beliefs: Convenience and preference are.
“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still” – Dale Carnegie
“You cannot reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.” (this is not always true, however if someone is too lazy to think for themselves, believes whatever they want to believe, won’t follow the evidence where it leads etc. it’s true more often than not)
“Never debate the ignorant in front of the uninformed. The crowd can’t tell who won the argument” – Syrian Proverb
“No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.” – Karl Popper
“If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?” – Sam Harris
Why facts don’t change minds
Let’s talk about belief perseverance and the backfire effect.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to change someone’s mind in an argument is due to belief perseverance
“Belief perseverance is maintaining a belief despite new information that firmly contradicts it. Such beliefs may even be strengthened when others attempt to present evidence debunking them, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.” – Wikipedia
Belief perseverance is the tendency for us to continue to hold onto our beliefs even when the evidence and information we initially used to support them is later proven to be demonstrably false.
“Beliefs are remarkably resilient in the face of empirical challenges that seem logically devastating. They can even survive the destruction of their original evidential bases.” – Lee Ross and Craig A. Anderson
The backfire effect
Beliefs can be so incredibly stubborn, that even when someone destroys our argument, or presents us with irrefutable evidence that clearly proves that our beliefs are demonstrably false, not only will we not change our minds, but we’ll dig our heels in and continue to believe whatever we want to believe with even more confidence and conviction.
This annoying phenomenon is known as the backfire effect.
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. Finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor for convincing and converting other people to his view.” – Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails, 1956
“What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.” – James Clear
I hope I’m starting to convince you that arguing is pointless and doesn’t work.
If for some reason you do get into an argument however, here are the some key logical fallacies you need to watch out for…
Circular reasoning (aka “Begging the question”)
Circular reasoning is when an argument assumes what it is trying to prove I.e. the conclusion is assumed within the premises
“I’m right, because I say I’m right.”
“I know he’s not lying, because he tells me that he’s not lying.”
“The Bible/Quran is the word of God because it says it is”
“Islam is a religion of peace, because it says it is”
“The universe was created, therefore someone created it”
Here is a good example of circular reasoning with an Obama protester speaking to a reporter from CNN:
Protester: “He’s a fascist”
CNN reporter: “Why do you say he’s a fascist?”
Protester: “He is a fascist”
CNN reporter: “Why?”
Protester: “Because he is”
CNN reporter: “In what way can you say that?”
Protester: “Because he is, he’s a fascist”
Non sequitur (“it does not follow”)
A non sequitur is a statement or conclusion that doesn’t logically follow from the previous statement. It’s an invalid inference.
Non sequitur example #1
“Alex Jones is crazy. All conspiracy theorists are crazy.”
Non sequitur example #2
“Tom Cruise has never won an Oscar. Hollywood is rigged.”
Non sequitur example #3
“Another fake news story. Everything the media says is bullshit.”
Non-sequiturs are often used to sneak in contentious points by hiding them next to a point of agreement.
A red herring is an argument or statement that has been introduced by a speaker into a discussion as a strategic diversion to try to change the topic, and to distract the audience/listener/reader from the original issue being discussed.
A red herring is an argument or statement that has been introduced by a speaker into a discussion to try to change the topic, it’s a strategic diversion used to distract the audience/listener/reader from the original issue being discussed.
Red herrings are often deliberate attempts by intellectually dishonest speakers to try to subtly change the subject to one they would prefer to speak to, and to distract the audience/listener/reader from the original issue instead of addressing it.
The newly introduced subject may be somewhat similar or related to the original topic, or it may be completely off topic yet be controversial, entertaining or interesting enough to capture the attention of the audience/listener/reader and distract them from the original issue to be discussed.
Red herrings don’t necessarily arrive at any specific conclusion, or go anywhere in particular, they’re simply arguments or statements used by a speaker as a strategic diversion to distract from the original topic of discussion.
Red Herring fallacy structure
- Argument A is presented by Speaker 1
- Speaker 2 introduces argument B
- So, the discussion is no longer about argument A
Red herring example #1
Professor Conway complains of inadequate parking on our campus. But did you know that last year Conway carried on a torrid love affair with a member of the English department? The two used to meet every day for clandestine sex in the copier room. Apparently they didn’t realize how much you can see through that fogged glass window. Even the students got an eyeful. Enough said about Conway.
The original statement was about inadequate parking on campus. But the statements that followed were red herrings because they wandered off point and changed the topic without any attempt to address the parking issue. This was an attempt to distract the audience/listener/reader and divert their attention away from the original parking issue.
Red herring example #2
There is a good deal of talk these days about the need to eliminate pesticides from our fruits and vegetables. But many of these foods are essential to our health. Carrots are an excellent source of vitamin A, broccoli is rich in iron, and oranges and grapefruits have lots of vitamin C.
The original statement was about the need to eliminate pesticides from our fruits and vegetables. But the statements that followed were red herrings because they changed the subject to the health benefits of fruits and vegetables without any attempt to address the original issue of the need to eliminate pesticides from our fruits and vegetables.
Red herring example #3
Former Republican Party nominee Sarah Palin, in response to a question from former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, during the 2008 Vice Presidential debate:
Whether or not “the American workforce is the greatest in this world”, has nothing to do with Joe Biden’s assertions that John McCain was “out of touch” for saying at 9am that “the fundamentals of the economy were strong”, and then 2 hours later at 11am saying that there was an “economic crisis.”
Red herring example #4
Former Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney, in response to a question about gun control, during the 2nd 2012 Presidential debate:
Instead of addressing the question:
“What has your administration done, or plan to do, to limit the availability of assault weapons?”
Mitt reframed the question to:
“How are we going to change the culture of violence we have?”
He then proceeded to talk about the importance of good schools, and how people should get married before they have babies, and why we need two parent families etc.
Mitt maybe correct that two parent families lead to less poverty and more opportunity, but his answer has nothing to do with the question: “What has your administration done, or plan to do, to limit the availability of assault weapons?”
How to counter the red herring
If someone is wandering off point and/or seemingly trying to change the topic you can ask them,
“Where are you going with this?”
The speaker maybe leading towards a conclusion that is irrelevant to the original topic of discussion, or they may be wandering off topic to nowhere in particular.
If the speaker tries to change the topic of discussion you can remind them,
“That’s not what we’re talking about”.
You can remind them that they’ve said nothing to answer your question or to address the original topic of discussion, then you can redirect the conversation back to the topic that was originally being discussed.
Red herrings can creep very subtly into many arguments. You need to make sure that you and your conversational partner stay focused on the original topic at all times without too much digression.
How the red herring got its name
The red herring fallacy gets its name from a procedure used to train hunting dogs to follow the scent of a fox. A bag of red herrings was dragged across the fox trail to see if the dogs could ignore the potent scent and stick to the original scent of the fox.
Similarly in an argument you need to make sure that you and your conversational partner avoid digressing, and don’t allow your conversational partner to subtly change the subject or distract you from the main point until they’ve addressed the original issue to be discussed.
Examine the statement – not the speaker (the genetic fallacy)
“Examine what is said, not the speaker.” – Middle Eastern proverb
If Adolf Hitler said 2 + 2 = 4 does that make it wrong?
If Albert Einstein said 2 + 2 = 5 does that make it right?
Of course not.
Yet the way people speak, and the way the media presents “news”, it’s as if everything that came out of the mouth of an expert or a scientist was automatically right, and everything that came out of a dictator, serial killer, terrorist etc. was automatically wrong. But that’s just not the case.
A statement is either true or false, right or wrong, correct or incorrect – regardless of who said it.
Adolf Hitler can be right.
Albert Einstein can be wrong.
Saddam Hussein can be right.
Stephen Hawking can be wrong.
Osama Bin Laden can be right.
Neil deGrasse Tyson can be wrong.
Stop judging the truth and validity of statements based solely on who said them.
Examine the statement, not the speaker.
Separate the statement, from the speaker.
The genetic fallacy is when you judge the truth or validity of a statement not based on its own merits, but based solely on the credentials of the one who said it.
This is stupid logic.
It doesn’t matter if something was said by:
- Albert Einstein
- Isaac Newton
- Leonardo Da Vinci
- Nikola Tesla
- Stephen Hawking
Or any other great philosopher or scientist – it’s not automatically true.
It doesn’t matter if something was said by:
Or any other great religious or spiritual leader – it’s not automatically true.
It doesn’t matter if something was said by:
- Adolf Hitler
- Joseph Stalin
- Osama Bin Laden
- Saddam Hussein
- Al-Qaeda, ISIS or the Taliban
Or any other evil dictator, serial killer or terrorist – it’s not automatically untrue.
It doesn’t matter who said it or how they said it, or how many people believe it or how long it’s been believed for, a statement is either true or false, right or wrong, correct or incorrect. Experts can be wrong (and often are) and liars can tell the truth.
The next time you hear something from an expert, genius, scientist etc. don’t automatically believe it and assume it’s a statement of fact. Remember no one is infallible. Everyone can be wrong. Everyone makes mistakes.
It doesn’t matter if someone is the world’s smartest person, or if they’re the world’s biggest expert, genius or scientist, or if they’re the world’s biggest asshole, hypocrite, idiot, liar, rapist, terrorist, or serial killer – a statement is either true or false, right or wrong, correct or incorrect – regardless of who said it.
If a smoker tells me not to smoke cigarettes because they’re bad for my health, are they wrong just because they don’t “walk their talk” and “practice what they preach”’? Should I ignore what they say and start smoking cigarettes just because their advice was hypocritical?
Of course not.
The truth might be told aggressively or condescendingly, it might come in the way of criticism, screaming or shouting, it might be said from your worst enemy or from the most unlikable person on the planet, but try to separate the statement from the speaker because the statement may contain an invaluable lesson and they maybe the only person who will tell you the truth.
“You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” – Maimonides
You must examine the statement – not the speaker because:
“The wisest of the wise may err.” – Aeschylus
“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” – Albert Einstein
“The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.” – Winston Churchill
Note: This doesn’t mean that you should ignore someone’s body language, facial expressions, emotions, tonality etc. if someone seems like they’re lying – they probably are. If someone seems like they’re lying or giving a statement under duress – they probably are. The message is simply: Facts are facts no matter who says them, and nonsense is nonsense no matter who says it. Experts aren’t always right, and fools aren’t always wrong.
The fallacy fallacy
The fallacy-fallacy is when you presume that the conclusion of an argument is wrong – just because it contains a fallacy.
However just because an argument contains errors, faulty premises, illogical or invalid reasoning etc. that doesn’t mean that the conclusion is necessarily wrong.
Some people just aren’t very good at arguing, articulating their thoughts, or stating their beliefs in a logical or coherent manner, but that doesn’t mean that you should discount their entire argument and conclude that their final conclusion is wrong – even if the logic used to get there was flawed.
Just because they can’t explain it or prove it, that doesn’t mean they’re not right.
Just because you can criticize or poke holes in an argument or a theory, that doesn’t mean that the conclusion is necessarily wrong, or that you should throw the whole thing out.
It always makes me cringe and shake my head whenever I hear someone say:
“I stopped reading/listening/watching when… (insert argument the reader disagrees with)”
Just because an article/book/podcast/speech/video contains an error, or many errors, that doesn’t mean that it’s 100% incorrect, or that it doesn’t hold any value, or that you can’t learn from it. Remember: Take what is useful and discard the rest.
Let the conclusion stand separately of the speaker and of the argument, logic, rationale etc. used to get there, no matter how difficult that might be to do.
The bottom line: Don’t confuse a bad argument with a false conclusion.
This goes the other way too: Just because an argument seems airtight logical from top to bottom, looks right on paper, sounds good in theory etc. that doesn’t mean it’s right in reality.
On the spot fallacy
You also need to watch out for the on the spot fallacy:
“The on the spot fallacy (OTS) is a logical fallacy that occurs when a debater is considered wrong (or even incapable of having an opinion) if they cannot recite specific data or technical minutiae on some topic. The fallacy asserts that one must be an expert on a topic in order to discuss anything related to it (and, at that, an expert with flawless memory)” – RationalWiki
RationalWiki describes the on the spot fallacy by saying:
“OTS is a mixture of credentialism and appeal to authority (you’re wrong because you don’t know absolutely everything about an issue), shifting the burden of proof (you have to prove that something is absolutely true, while the opposite side has no burden to disprove what evidence you present) and moving the goalposts (by demanding increasingly overspecific replies to a question that’s already been answered, until the replier fails to be more specific, at which point the original question is considered unanswered or incorrectly answered).
The issue isn’t just that it’s practically (though perhaps ultimately not technically) impossible to meet the excruciatingly high burden of proof they request, but rather that it’s unreasonable for you to have everything available immediately. Even experts don’t carry around stacks of all the collected proof for their position.” – RationalWiki
Before you start: Get clear on your definitions
“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” – Socrates
I cannot stress this highly enough – before you get into an argument:
Get clear on your definitions to make sure you’re both arguing the same thing.
This may sound obvious, but I’ve come to realize that lots of arguments are simply the result of poorly defined definitions.
- Sometimes two people believe essentially the same thing, but they have different ways of expressing it
- Sometimes it’s not that people are necessarily in disagreement with one another, it’s that they’re both arguing two different things e.g. One person is arguing economics, the other is arguing technology, and the two arguments have nothing to do with each other (this is known as “talking at cross-purposes”)
Seriously this is important. Don’t assume that you’re both arguing the same thing.
You also need to get clear on your definitions in order to avoid:
Appeal to dictionary (aka appeal to definition)
When someone insists on only one particular definition of a word, and insists that this should apply in all possible contexts, whilst ignoring all other definitions for that word.
Definist fallacy (aka persuasive definition)
When someone insists on defining a word, phrase, term etc. in a way that is favorable to one’s own side of an argument. e.g. Abortion should be defined as murder, taxation should be defined as theft by the state etc.
Lots of people like to redefine words like logical, rational, reasonable etc. to mean whatever they want them to mean, and they’ll even deny and dismiss the dictionary definition of a word if it doesn’t suit them.
When someone attempts to change the meaning of a word or phrase halfway through an argument in order to save face, and to prevent them from admitting they were wrong in the first place. When I said “poor” “rich” “sexual relations” etc. what I really meant was…
Ambiguous language used by intellectually dishonest people to deliberately obscure, disguise, distort, or reverse the meaning of words in order to deceive the listener, and to avoid committing oneself either way.
The dictionary doesn’t tell you what a word means
The dictionary doesn’t tell you what a word means, nor what it should mean. It simply gives you most common usage of a word at the time of writing, according to the authors.
Watch out for weasel words
Weasel words aka “anonymous authorities” are words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous and vague, that are often used to deceive and mislead. They’re frequently used by advertisers, salespeople, politicians and the media to make a point seem authoritative, whilst simultaneously avoiding making any specific claim in case the speaker needs to later backtrack.
Weasel words examples
“People are saying”
“Twitter” (e.g. “Twitter isn’t happy”)
If someone uses weasel words against you, ask them to specify their source:
Watch out for weasel words.
The burden of proof
“Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies”
The burden of proof is the obligation to prove one’s own assertion, and it is always on the one making the claim – not the other way around.
For example: If I claim to be able to levitate, predict the future, read minds etc. it’s not up to you to prove that I can’t – it’s up to me to prove that I can.
I’m the one making the claim – therefore it’s up to me to prove it.
Therefore in an atheist vs religious debate “Does God exist” it’s not up to the unbelieving atheist to prove that God doesn’t exist, it’s up to the believer in God to prove that God does exist, since they’re the one making the claim.
It’s just like in a court of law. “Innocent until proven guilty”. If someone is making the claim that you are guilty of a crime, they must prove it – it’s not up to you to prove you are innocent.
How to win an argument
Note: I’m going to use the term opponent to mean the other person, even though I personally don’t like the combative connotation of the word.
Again, for me personally, instead of arguing, I prefer to discuss ideas and share information in order to gain new perspectives, and the only way I can do that is by listening more than I talk, and by seeking to understand before being understood – not by interrupting my “opponent” in an attempt to “destroy” them.
Don’t argue with idiots
First of all, don’t argue with idiots. It’s a waste of time and energy. Save your breath.
“Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience” – Mark Twain
“It’s hard to win an argument with a smart person, but it’s damn near impossible to win an argument with a stupid person” – Bill Murray
However, if you want to have an intelligent debate with a smart person:
Become a subject matter expert on the topic
“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” – Charlie Munger
You need to become a subject matter expert on the topic, and know it better than your opponent.
- Know the strengths and weaknesses of your argument
- Know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents argument
- What are the best arguments and evidence for your position?
- What are the best arguments and evidence against your position?
- How would you attack your argument if you had to?
- How is your opponent likely to attack your argument?
- How is your argument likely to be strawmanned? (Misrepresented)
- How are you going to counterargue their points?
“If you can’t intelligently argue for both sides of an issue, you don’t understand the issue well enough to argue for either.” – Reddit user
Know the history of your argument
- Know what arguments the experts in favor of your argument have previously made to success
- Know what arguments the experts against your argument have previously made to success
- Many arguments and claims continue to be made year after year regardless of how many times they’re debunked. These are known as PRATT’s (Point Refuted a Thousand Times)
Know your goals
What do you want the other person to accept, believe or do?
Do you want to:
- Destroy the argument/expose the fallacies
- Change their mind/persuade them to your point
Depending on your goals, your approach will vary.
Know their goals
What do they want you to accept, believe or do?
Study your opponent if you can
“Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” – Sun Tzu
If your opponent has done formal debates before and they’re on YouTube, do your homework on them to anticipate in advance their argumentation style, the arguments they’re likely to use, the questions they’re likely to ask etc. which will then allow you to come prepared with counterarguments, evidence, facts, statistics etc. in case these same points are made.
Seek to understand before being understood
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey
“If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.” — Anthony Weston
Don’t argue against a position until you fully understand it.
You should know your opponent’s position, the strengths and weaknesses of their argument better than they do.
There’s nothing worse than listening to an overconfident idiot arguing against a strawman position, who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
Let your opponent speak first, and make sure you fully understand their argument before you try to counter it or persuade them otherwise. By listening carefully to your opponents argument it will also allow you to pick up on any mistakes they might make, and it will also lower their defenses and make them feel understood.
Christopher Hitchens would often ask his opponents:
“What do you know that I don’t?”
PS: If the first word out of your mouth when they finish talking is “but” – it’s almost certainly because you were only listening to refute instead of listening to understand.
Ask them what it would take to convince them
Ask them what it would take to change their mind, to convince them otherwise.
If they say nothing will change their mind, you’re probably wasting your time.
PS: You should also know what it would take to change your own mind.
Show the other person respect
- Attack the argument – not the person – stick to the facts
- Don’t interrupt, disrespect, or talk down to them
- Listen carefully and don’t misrepresent or strawman your opponents argument
Steelman your opponent’s argument
Steelman your opponents argument, and state only the strongest version of their argument accurately (maybe better than they can) in such a way that you demonstrate that you not only understand their position, but why they believe it.
“If you know of a better counter to your own argument than the one they’re giving, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up. If their argument rests on an untrue piece of evidence, talk about the hypothetical case in which they were right. Take their arguments seriously, and make them as good as possible. Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with. Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.” – Chana Messinger
You should be able to state your opponents argument so accurately that they would say, “That’s exactly what I believe. You said it perfectly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Daniel Dennett in his book Intuition Pumps summarizes a list of rules by game theorist Anatol Rapoport on how to compose a successful critical commentary:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement)
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism
Start from a point of agreement
Let your opponent know what parts of their argument you agree with, and where and why you think they’re right. This will build rapport and trust.
Provide evidence from multiple sources
Provide evidence from multiple sources that supports your position and contradicts theirs.
Offer counterintuitive points that your opponent probably hasn’t thought of.
Raise counter-arguments and objections to your own argument before your opponent can and then immediately counter them:
“You may ask…”
“You maybe wondering…”
“But isn’t this a contradiction?”
Take the argument to your strengths
Take the argument to your strengths and towards your opponents weaknesses.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss did this effectively to Christian apologist William Lane Craig in his debate in Australia: “Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?” when he directed the conversation towards mathematics and quantum physics.
Question every assertion
Question every assertion that comes out of your opponents mouth:
“How do you know that?”
“What evidence do you have for that claim?”
“How can you prove that?”
Prompt your opponent to agree with you
Prompt your opponent to agree with you every time you make a good point:
“Isn’t this the case?”
“Isn’t that true in your experience?”
“Isn’t that reasonable?”
Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements
“In my experience”
“From my perspective”
“It’s my understanding”
“This is how it seems to me”
Don’t challenge beliefs directly
Instead of challenging the beliefs of your opponent directly (this makes people defensive)
- Identify shared beliefs and values in order to build rapport and trust
- Repeat back their argument to them in order to show them that you’re listening and that you understand it and why they believe it
- Reframe the way they see your argument by linking it to their beliefs and values, “I agree with you 100% that we need to provide a better education for our children, and the best way to do that is…”
Disarm the speaker
“I certainly respect your knowledge and experience”
Acknowledge good points
This will show your opponent that you’re an honest and reasonable person who can admit when you’re wrong, and also that you’ve considered the other side of the argument and understand it.
Concede irrelevant information
Concede irrelevant and unimportant parts of your argument to your opponent when necessary.
Identify hidden premises
Often people have a lot of hidden premises in their argument. Things that are implied, but not directly said.
You need to call out these hidden premises and address them.
You also need to identify the real reasons people believe something. Note: The reasons people give for why they hold a belief, may not be the real reasons they believe it. They may not even be conscious of the real reasons. You may need to spend some time with them to help identify the real reasons.
You can ask them, “If I could disprove X, Y & Z, would you still continue to believe it?”
If they say yes, you haven’t identified their real reasons.
Give them an easy out
“The most important tactic in an argument next to being right is to leave an escape hatch for your opponent so that he can gracefully swing over to your side without an embarrassing loss of face.” ―
If you can give them an easy out and allow them to save face, so that they don’t have to admit that they’re wrong, because you’re both equally ‘guilty’ of the thing you’re accusing them of, they’re much more likely to agree with you
If you lose the argument
If you lose the argument it’s not the end of the world so don’t act like it is and get shitty.
Instead learn from your loss and do a detailed post mortem to find out why you lost. Use that information to improve for next time. There is always something you could’ve said better or clearer or more succinctly. Write it down. Make a note. Use that information for next time.
Just because they don’t admit they’re wrong
Just because someone doesn’t concede defeat or admit they’re wrong, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t secretly changed their mind in private after pondering the issue further.
Lead by example
If you want others to be open-minded, be open-minded yourself. If you want others to follow the evidence where it leads, you follow the evidence where it leads. If you want them to listen, you listen. If you don’t want others to be stubborn, don’t you be stubborn. Don’t expect others to be willing to change their mind if you’re unwilling to change your own mind.
Invalid reasons to agree with an argument
Here are some invalid reasons to agree with an argument:
- Because you like the speaker
- Because you like the message of the speaker
- Because it agrees with what you already believe
- Because it’s convenient, “I live in the best country in the world!”
- Because you want it to be true, “I’m going to be rich and successful!”
- Because authorities, experts, scientists etc. apparently agree with it
- Because “everyone” else believes it
Invalid reasons to dismiss an argument
People dismiss good arguments all the time for some very stupid reasons.
Here are some:
- You don’t like the speaker
- You don’t like the group the speaker is associated with
- You don’t like the tonality or the volume of the speaker
- The argument contradicts your current beliefs, or contains information that is inconvenient and unwelcome
- You don’t like where the argument is leading, and you’re afraid of going down a slippery slope: If we do this, then this will happen, and then this…
- You don’t understand it
- It’s hypocritical
- Due to a lack of academic or experiential credentials of the speaker:
“What do you know? You’re only 17!”
“You don’t even have a degree/PhD”
“You’re not a millionaire!”
“You’ve never even been to Asia”
- The fallacy fallacy: Just because an argument contains a fallacy you presume it’s conclusion is false (Don’t confuse a bad argument with a false conclusion)
In an argument/discussion you should be focused on the:
Rather than the speakers:
- Accomplishments/track record
Things to watch out for in an argument
Here are some other logical fallacies to watch out for in an argument or a debate:
- Ad hominem: When someone makes personal attacks instead of addressing the argument
“When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” – Socrates
- Appeal to authority: Instead of trying to convince someone through evidence, facts, logic etc. someone tries to convince you through the use of celebrity, ‘expert’, political, scientific etc. endorsements
- Appeals to false authorities: Someone quotes an authority not qualified as an expert on the topic e.g. if someone cites Lawrence Krauss as an expert on Biology
- Assertions without evidence: “Because it is”, “I just know”, “That’s just how it is”
- Appeal to emotion: When someone tries to emotionally manipulate your thinking through the use of via fear, flattery, guilt, pity, pride, shame, worry etc. or through pictures and videos of cute puppies or starving children instead of through logic, evidence, facts, and reason
- Argument from ignorance: When someone asserts that because you can’t prove something as false, therefore it must be true e.g. You can’t prove there isn’t a God – therefore there must be
- Argument from incredulity: I just can’t imagine how this could possibly be true, therefore it must be false
“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
- Definitional retreats: When someone attempts to change the meaning of a word or a phrase half way through an argument to deal with an objection raised in order to save face, and to prevent them from admitting they were wrong in the first place. “When I said “poor” “rich” “sexual relations” etc. what I really meant was…”
- Double standards for evidence
- One extremely low standard for the things you want to believe
- One extremely high standard for the things you don’t want to believe
- Shifting the goal posts for evidence
- Doublespeak: When someone uses words ambiguously
- Equivocation: When someone slips between different meanings for the same word
- Generalizations: “Men”, “Women”, “Asians”, “Black people”, “White people”
- Motte-and-bailey fallacy: The arguer conflates two similar positions, one modest and easy to defend (the “motte”) and one much more controversial (the “bailey”). The arguer advances the controversial position, but when challenged, they insist that they are only advancing the more modest position.
- Non sequiturs: Statements that don’t follow logically from the previous statement
- Red herrings: Argument, fact, idea or topic, that maybe accurate, but is irrelevant to the issue being discussed, and has been introduced by the speaker in an attempt to divert attention from the original issue
- Nutpicking: a type of straw man when someone purposely picks out the craziest and most extreme members of a group as if they were the average representative of the group. e.g. cherry picking an angry “feminazi” as an example of the average feminist, or picking out an angry white supremacist as an example of the average conservative
- PRATT’s: (Point Refuted A Thousand Times) sometimes people present the same tired arguments that have been refuted time and time again
- Strawman arguments: When someone misrepresents the opponents position
- Anonymous authorities aka “Weasel words”:
“People are saying”
See: How to get Smarter – Part 1 on intellectual dishonesty for many more examples.