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How to win an argument… at any cost

15 February 2009

How often have you encountered a debate in the social arena–particularly around election time — where you see one of the debaters using tactics that seem simply to score points against his or her opponent, but when you examine the point in greater detail you could drive a bus through the argument — but by then the crowd has cheered and sneered, the show is over and it’s too late? Politicians use it every time they take the pulpit, as do captains of industry and even health and medical professionals. It’s manipulative and unethical at best, but it happens every day.

But don’t take my word for it. Read on and find out for yourself…

As a thinking person, you may be well aware of the numerous logical fallacies and cognitive biases that can be used to evaluate an argument, however it might be conveyed. Rather than list them here, I’ll point you to that sometimes dubious ([1] [2] [3]) oracle of knowledge, Wikipedia:

  • List of cognitive biases. Low-level or even unconscious behaviour or error in evaluation. A common example of this is to do, say or believe something just because others do (Bandwagon Effect, aka herding or group mind); the number of people who do or believe is unrelated to whether it is real, true or correct.
  • List of logical fallacies. Higher level errors in reasoning, logic or understanding. A common example of this is the “if you are not for me then you are against me” threat (False Dichotomy, aka False Dilemma or Argument of Excluded Middle); a position somewhere in the middle ground (such as neutrality) is completely ignored or implied to infer aggression.

Even a basic understanding of a handful of these makes for a completely different view of the political world around us.

Given enough time and data, anyone with a passing understanding can judge whether a position is likely to be true or false — often when you don’t have a specialist understanding of the topic itself. A good thing, too, as the sheer number of decisions we’re asked to make on a variety of topics in our lives: purchasing decisions, local and national politics, child raising, etc.

The sad truth is that the vast majority of people don’t bother to check their facts or even the truth of the arguments that are presented to them. This makes this kind of arguing very successful against the general public, and the reporters from whom many of us rely on for bite-sized summaries (you could think of it as outsourcing your thinking in favour of cutting to the chase), as most aren’t properly schooled in debating, critical thinking or evaluation. I wasn’t. Even after a few years of university I’d never heard the term cognitive bias or been told about logical fallacies, critical thinking and how to apply them. And it’s something that shocked and angered me, so I’ve set to resolve the gaping hole in my knowledge and understanding of how the world works–you’re seeing that process here in posts like this.

So when I read Dr Steven Novella’s How Not To Argue article on Skepticblog — which is based on Arthur Schopenhaur’s original list — I recognised a useful approach to the problem. If people aren’t learning about logical fallacies and cognitive biases, why not have a check-list of what to watch for? That is, a list of dirty tricks you’re likely to see used in a debate, news report or on a political pulpit which will then encourage you to look deeper into the topic. Great idea!

So here is a list of ways that you will see an argument manipulated to the unethical (or ignorant) arguer’s advantage:

38 Ways To Win An Argument

  1. Carry your opponent’s proposition beyond its natural limits; exaggerate it.
  2. Use different meanings of your opponent’s words to refute his argument.
  3. Ignore your opponent’s proposition, which was intended to refer to some particular thing.
  4. Hide your conclusion from your opponent until the end.
  5. Use your opponent’s beliefs against him.
  6. Confuse the issue by changing your opponent’s words or what he or she seeks to prove.
  7. State your proposition and show the truth of it by asking the opponent many questions.
  8. Make your opponent angry.
  9. Use your opponent’s answers to your question to reach different or even opposite conclusions.
  10. If your opponent answers all your questions negatively and refuses to grant you any points, ask him or her to concede the opposite of your premises.
  11. If the opponent grants you the truth of some of your premises, refrain from asking him or her to agree to your conclusion.
  12. If the argument turns upon general ideas with no particular names, you must use language or a metaphor that is favourable to your proposition.
  13. To make your opponent accept a proposition, you must give him an opposite, counter-proposition as well.
  14. Try to bluff your opponent.
  15. If you wish to advance a proposition that is difficult to prove, put it aside for the moment.
  16. When your opponent puts forth a proposition, find it inconsistent with his or her other statements, beliefs, actions or lack of action.
  17. If your opponent presses you with a counter-proof, you will often be able to save yourself by advancing some subtle distinction.
  18. If your opponent has taken up a line of argument that will end in your defeat, you must not allow him to carry it to its conclusion.
  19. Should your opponent expressly challenge you to produce any objection to some definite point in his argument, and you have nothing to say, try to make the argument less specific.
  20. If your opponent has admitted to all or most of your premises, do not ask him or her directly to accept your conclusion.
  21. When your opponent uses an argument that is superficial and you see the falsehood, you can refute it by setting forth its superficial character.
  22. If your opponent asks you to admit something from which the point in dispute will immediately follow, you must refuse to do so, declaring that it begs the question.
  23. Contradiction and contention irritate a person into exaggerating their statements.
  24. State a false syllogism.
  25. If your opponent is making a generalization, find an instance to the contrary.
  26. A brilliant move is to turn the tables and use your opponent’s arguments against himself.
  27. Should your opponent surprise you by becoming particularly angry at an argument, you must urge it with all the more zeal.
  28. When the audience consists of individuals (or a person) who is not an expert on a subject, you make an invalid objection to your opponent who seems to be defeated in the eyes of the audience.
  29. If you find that you are being beaten, you can create a diversion–that is, you can suddenly begin to talk of something else, as though it had a bearing on the matter in dispute.
  30. Make an appeal to authority rather than reason.
  31. If you know that you have no reply to the arguments that your opponent advances, you by a fine stroke of irony declare yourself to be an incompetent judge.
  32. A quick way of getting rid of an opponent’s assertion, or of throwing suspicion on it, is by putting it into some odious category.
  33. You admit your opponent’s premises but deny the conclusion.
  34. When you state a question or an argument, and your opponent gives you no direct answer, or evades it with a counter question, or tries to change the subject, it is sure sign you have touched a weak spot, sometimes without intending to do so.
  35. Instead of working on an opponent’s intellect or the rigor of his arguments, work on his motive.
  36. You may also puzzle and bewilder your opponent by mere bombast.
  37. Should your opponent be in the right but, luckily for you, choose a faulty proof, you can easily refute it and then claim that you have refuted the whole position.
  38. Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.

The full article with detailed explanation of each point can be found here or from Steven’s original source — please give it a read.

Next time you see someone trying to convince someone else (probably you) of something, check if one or both parties have tried to sneak in one of the above tricks into the argument. Then you know what to do… call shenanigans!

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