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How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 5



Welcome to part 5 of a 10 part series:

How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies

In this article I want to talk about arguing, and I also want to look at some of the most common logical fallacies that come up in arguments and debates.


Let’s begin…

Arguing is pointless

Argument, Arguing

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?

Before you even consider arguing with anyone know this…

Most people:

  • 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?

“Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.” – George Carlin

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.” – Anonymous 

“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: Belief perseverance and the backfire effect

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 

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 of the main logical fallacies you need to watch out for…

30. Don’t attack Straw men

One of the laziest and most intellectually dishonest arguing/debating tactics is the straw man argument.

When you straw man someone’s argument, you distort, exaggerate, or misrepresent it, in order to make it sound much weaker than it really is, and you attack that instead of attacking their real argument.

Straw man arguments occur for one of two reasons:

  • You don’t know your opponents real argument – so you unintentionally distort and misrepresent it (which is intellectually lazy if you haven’t taken the time to study up and understand what they really believe)
  • You do know your opponents real argument – but you intentionally distort and misrepresent it in order to make it sound illogical and stupid in order to make it easier to ridicule and defeat (which is intellectually dishonest)

The straw man argument is probably the most popular arguing/debating tactic in the world. It is used by politicians (both conservative and liberal), religious people (of all faiths), the media, late night talk show hosts, and 99% of people in an effort to make the opposition argument sound illogical, stupid, and unreasonable.

Conservatives straw man liberal arguments.

Liberals straw man conservative arguments.

Religious believers straw man not only atheist arguments, but they also straw man the arguments of other religions.

Even philosophers and scientists like Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris etc. the so called “new-atheists” straw man religious arguments.

For this reason, if you want to know what someone really believes (a person/political party/religion), do your own research and ask lots of people from that side – don’t ask someone from the opposition.

The opposition simply cannot be trusted to accurately and honestly state their opponents argument and premise.

Why are straw man arguments so popular?

  1. Because most people are intellectually lazy (it takes time to understand and explain the opposition argument as well as the evidence and reasons for it)
  2. Because most people are intellectually dishonest (the temptation to distort and misrepresent the opposition argument in order to dissuade people from it seems to be too great for most people to resist)
  3. Because it’s much easier to defeat a straw man version of your opponents argument, than it is to defeat their real argument

For example: If your opponent believes that a nationwide Muslim ban shouldn’t be put in place because of a recent terror attack (which is reasonable), but you can convince the audience that what your opponent is really saying is that nothing should be done to protect people from the dangers of terrorism (which is unreasonable), then that makes their argument sound ridiculous – even though it isn’t.

Attacking a straw man version of your opponents argument is not only incredibly lazy, it’s extremely dishonest. You’re essentially accusing someone of something they don’t believe, and then you’re condescendingly mocking them about it with a smug sense of superiority.

Sure you might sound intellectually or morally superior, but your opponent never said, nor do they actually believe, any of the things you’re accusing them of.

Here’s a highlight reel of Barack Obama using one straw man after another:

Actor Kirk Cameron using a straw man argument against evolution:

29. Beware of circular logic and reasoning

You also need to be aware of circular logic and reasoning which is so stupid that it pains me to mention it.

I will however, because people actually do use it in arguments to try to prove their point, so you need to be aware of it.

Circular logic and reasoning is when an argument assumes what it is trying to prove (I.e. the conclusion is contained within the premise)

For example:

“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 logic and 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”

28. Watch out for Red Herrings

Red herring


“A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences towards a false conclusion. The red herring is a seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant, diversionary tactic.” – Wikipedia

In other words: A red herring is simply an argument, fact, idea, or topic, that maybe be accurate or true, but it is not relevant to the issue being discussed.

Red herrings are often used by politicians in order to sneakily distract an audience by introducing a separate argument the speaker believes is easier to speak to.

Here are a couple of good examples of red herrings in political debates…

The first is from 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.”

The second is from 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?” and then he 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?”

27. Examine the statement – not the speaker (the genetic fallacy)

“Examine what is said, not the speaker.” – Middle Eastern proverb

Probably the logical fallacy I find most annoying is the genetic fallacy.

The genetic fallacy is when you judge the speaker – not the statement. Or in other words: You judge the truth or validity of a claim or a statement not based on it’s own merits, but based solely on the credentials of the one who said it.

Almost everyone is guilty of the genetic fallacy, and the media seems to strongly encourage it.

For example:

If Adolf Hitler is quoted – the statement is immediately perceived as being evil and untrue.

But if Albert Einstein is quoted – the statement is immediately perceived as being profound and wise.

But this is stupid logic and couldn’t be further from the truth.

It doesn’t matter if something was said by:

  • Aristotle
  • Albert Einstein
  • Isaac Newton
  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Nikola Tesla

Or any other great philosopher or scientist – it’s NOT automatically true.

It doesn’t matter if something was said by:

  • Jesus
  • Buddha
  • Krishna
  • Muhammad
  • Gandhi

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
  • Kim Jong-un
  • Osama Bin Laden
  • Saddam Hussein

Or any other evil dictator – it’s NOT automatically untrue.

Yet the way people speak, and the way the media presents ‘news’, it’s as if everything that came out of the mouth of a scientist was automatically true, and everything that came out of a dictator, serial killer, terrorist etc. was automatically wrong. But that’s just not the case.

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.

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.

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

It doesn’t matter if someone is the world’s leading scientist or the world’s smartest person, or if they’re the world’s biggest asshole, hypocrite, idiot, liar, rapist, terrorist, or serial killer.

The only thing that matters is: Is the statement true or false? Is it correct or incorrect?

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 come in the way of criticism, screaming, or shouting. It might be said aggressively or condescendingly. It might be said from your worst enemy or from the most arrogant and unlikable person on the planet. But listen anyway because they might be 100% right and the only person who will tell you the truth.

“You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” – Maimonides

26. The fallacy fallacy

The fallacy-fallacy is when you presume the conclusion of someone’s argument is wrong – just because it contains a fallacy.

However just because an argument contains errors, mistakes, faulty premises, illogical reasoning etc. that doesn’t mean that the conclusion is necessarily wrong.

Some people just aren’t very good at arguing or stating their beliefs coherently, 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.

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.

But how do you actually ‘win’ an argument?

I’ll tell you, but before you begin:

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:

Definist fallacy (also known as persuasive definition or stipulative 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.

Definitional retreats: 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…

Doublespeak: 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.

Once you’ve got your definitions down and you know what you’re arguing this is how you ‘win’ an argument:

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.

However if you still insist on arguing and want to ‘win’ – this is how you do it:

  • Know your goals: What do you want the other person to accept, believe, do etc.?
  • Know their goals: What do they want you to accept, believe, do etc.?
  • Become a subject matter expert on the topic and study both sides of an argument/issue:
    • Know the strengths and weaknesses of your argument
    • Know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents argument
    • How would you attack your argument if you had to?
    • How is your opponent likely to attack your argument?
    • How are you going to counter-argue their points?

***You should know what points your opponent is going to make before they even open their mouth, and you should come prepared with dates, evidence, facts, statistics etc. to counter-argue each of their points***

  • 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
  • Seek to understand before being understood. Let your opponent speak first and make sure you fully understand their argument before you try to counter it or persuade them otherwise. Also by listening carefully to your opponents argument it will allow you to pick up on any errors in logic they might make, and it will also lower their defenses and make them feel understood. The great debater 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
  • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. “In my experience”, “from my perspective”, “it’s my understanding”, “this is how it seems to me” etc.
  • Provide evidence from multiple sources that confirms your beliefs and contradicts theirs
  • Offer counterintuitive points that your opponent probably hasn’t thought of
  • Prebuttal: 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? No…”
  • 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  
  • Instead of challenging the existing 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…”
  • Concede irrelevant and unimportant parts of your argument to your opponent when necessary: 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
  • Disarm the speaker: “You know a lot of things I don’t, and I certainly respect your knowledge and experience”
  • Ask lots of open-ended questions about every little thing in your opponents argument: “What makes you think that?” “Why do you believe that?” “Did he really say that?” “What evidence do you have for that claim?”
  • 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?”
  • Show the other person respect:
    • Attack the argument – not the person – stick to the facts
    • Don’t interrupt them, disrespect them, or talk down to them
    • Don’t distort, exaggerate, misrepresent, or in any way straw man your opponents argument
  • If you’re in a debate ask questions to put them on the defensive: “Why are you so angry?” “Why are you so defensive?” “Why are you so upset?”
  • Don’t bring emotion into it unless you’re trying to convince an audience in a debate. Personally I like the way Sam Harris debates: Calm, poised, unemotional.
  • Gish gallop: If you’re in a debate raise so many points (no matter how weak or flimsy) that your opponent can’t possibly counter them all in such a short period of time, and then say to the audience they still haven’t addressed half the points in your argument. (This makes it seem like they can’t answer your questions when in reality they probably just don’t have enough time to address everything. It’s much easier to make multiple accusations of someone, or to ask lots of deep questions, than it is to unpack and answer them all.)
  • 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 it’s not the end of the world so don’t act like it is and get shitty. Instead learn from your loss and find out why you lost. Use that information to improve for next time.

PS: 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

Invalid reasons to agree with an argument

Here are some invalid reasons to agree with an argument if you’re watching a debate:

  • Because you like the speaker
  • Because you like the message of the speaker or because you want to be true “I don’t want to live in a world without meaning and a God”
  • Because it agrees with what you already believe
  • Because ‘authorities’, ‘experts’, ‘scientists’ etc. apparently agree with it
  • Because the speaker is an authority or an expert and you assume that they must know what they’re talking about

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 – or 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” etc.
  • The fallacy fallacy: Just because an argument contains an error, mistake, fallacy etc. you presume it’s conclusion is false (Don’t confuse a bad argument with a faulty conclusion)

In an argument/discussion you should be focused on the:

  • Argument/message
  • Evidence
  • Facts
  • Logic

Rather than the:

  • Accomplishments/track record
  • Education
  • Experience
  • History
  • Likability
  • Popularity
  • Tonality
  • Volume etc.

Of the speaker.

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
  • 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 (appeal to common sense): 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

  • Assertions: “Because it is.” “I just know.” “That’s just how it is”
  • Changing definitions of words and phrases
  • 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/shifting the goal posts for evidence
  • Doublespeak/Equivocation: When someone uses words ambiguously, and 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: Arguments, facts, ideas etc. that might be 100% true – but are completely irrelevant to the point
  • 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 
  • Straw man arguments that distort, exaggerate, or otherwise misrepresent the opponents position
  • Unsubstantiated claims and anonymous authorities to prove a point: “Everyone knows” “People are saying” “Experts say” “Scientists say” “Studies show” “Statistics show”

(See: How to get Smarter – Part 1 on intellectual dishonesty for many more examples)

Finally in an argument or a debate you need to be aware of the burden of proof:

The burden of proof

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 a claim (that you are guilty), they must prove it – it’s not up to you to prove you are innocent.


This is part 5 of a 10 part series:

How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies

Let’s do a quick recap of this weeks points:

30. Don’t attack straw men (don’t misrepresent your opponents argument)

29. Beware of circular logic and reasoning

28. Watch out for red herrings

27. The genetic fallacy (examine the statement – not the speaker)

26. The fallacy fallacy (don’t confuse a bad argument with a false conclusion)

Again, although you can ‘win’ an argument, ultimately it’s a waste of time so I don’t recommend it. It is helpful however to know the kinds of logical fallacies that come up in arguments and debates so you can recognize them, and avoid using them yourself.

If you would like to improve your argumentation and debating skills, I highly recommend the following YouTube channels:

Atheist vs Theist Debates

Amazing Arguments and Clever Comebacks

Counter Arguments

By watching great debaters debate, you’ll learn what to do, and what not to do.

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