Top 10 Argument Techniques (That Ruin Arguments For Everyone)

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If you’ve spent any time whatsoever online, you’ll know that it is a breeding ground for arguments about, well, anything. Here are ten argument techniques you should look out for people using, both online and in real life, and why they make for a poor substitute for actual facts and reasoned arguments.

10. Straw Man Arguments

strawman-obama

In arguments, a straw man is an entirely fictitious person, that holds a caricatured version of the beliefs that the creator’s opponent holds. It goes like this:

Person X: I think we should ban assault weapons, because letting people have access to them is a stupid idea.

Person Y: But without guns, we’ll be unable to defend ourselves from the government.

Can you spot the straw man? Person Y extrapolated Person X’s view to imply that they wanted to ban all guns, ignoring and refusing to address their original point in lieu of making the issue emotionally charged, which makes it almost impossible to argue properly. Just check out how hard it was for Piers Morgan to argue that very thing, then scroll to the comments and feel your mind slowly melt away.

9. Argument From Silence

walking-away

An argument from silence is the incorrect assumption that someone’s silence indicates their guilt, or an admission that they’re wrong. Such as:

Person X: Batman would easily kill Darth Vader, and here is a comprehensive list of reasons why …

Person Y: You’re wrong and I’m not going to address any of your points.

Person X: Screw this; I’m going to play Halo.

Person Y: Can’t take losing? Ha ha, I win!

Someone refusing to address an issue isn’t them admitting that they’re wrong, any more than someone refusing to eat means that they’re full. If you offered someone a sweaty plate of rotted meat and they said “no thanks,” would you assume that person was simply not hungry?

It’s the same with arguments online. Some people seem to think that someone refusing to address their points any more means that they’ve won the argument. In reality, it’s far more likely that they’ve simply grown tired of seeing the words, “in the extended universe” written down.

8. Appealing To Ridicule

zombie-jesus

This is the act of presenting an opponent’s view in an overly simplified way, as to make it appear ridiculous to an outside observer. It allows you to mock their position without actually addressing them. Like:

Person X: I really think people should consider educating children about sex.

Person Y: Oh, you want someone to walk into a room full of children and start waving a penis around and for those children to take it seriously? Yeah, good luck with that.

As you can see in the example, by making the opponent’s position out to be a joke, you don’t actually need to address any of the deeper issues. This is a common tactic with some people, since it’s easier to call someone a blimpfart than it is to research the issue.

Then again, blimpfart is an awesome word, and we should all use it more.

7. Weasel Words

weasel-words

We used one of these in the very entry you just read above; did you spot it? It was the word “some“. Confused? Here’s an example:

Person X: Video games and violence is a touchy topic, but there’s no real evidence to support the link.

Person Y: Some scientists would disagree.

Again, the word “some” is the weasel word; it’s a way of applying credibility or weight to a vague statement, without any actual proof. For example, in the above entry, we mentioned that “it’s a common tactic with some people” (yes, we just quoted ourselves) without actually mentioning who or giving an example (Although we actually have one: Alex Jones’s hilarious attempt at mocking Piers Morgan’s English accent).

In arguments, this can be used to add undeserved weight to an otherwise baseless argument. “Some skeptics would argue that” and “many people would say,” are statements you should look out for. When someone says many people agree with them, ask them to point one out. If there are many of them, it shouldn’t be that hard. If they can’t, slap them in the face for wasting your time.

6. Argument From Ignorance

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An argument from ignorance is one you will see, a lot. Basically, it’s shifting the burden of proof onto another person, and claiming that something is true, simply because it hasn’t been proven wrong:

Person X: Big Foot is out there somewhere.

Person Y: There’s virtually no proof to support that.

Person X: There’s no evidence to say he doesn’t exist though.

You will see this argument every time religion is mentioned online. Basically, they take Russel’s Teapot, the hypothetical teapot that orbits the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars that we can’t prove or disprove is actually there, seriously. Because blindly quoting someone else is the best way to show that you’re not as gullible as all those people blindly quoting God.

However, what people always seem to lose sight of is that this works both ways. Hundreds of years ago, Ignaz Semmelweis had to argue that tiny creatures no one could see were killing people, and they had to wash their hands to stop people dying. No one believed him, because he couldn’t prove it. Today, hand-washing and germ prevention is a batrillion-dollar industry, and something we condition our kids about at a very early age.

So remember guys, sometimes people who make unbelievable claims are proven 100% right, so don’t be a douche.

5. The Gambler’s Fallacy

gamblers-fallacy

The gambler’s fallacy, also known as the “law of averages,” is the mistaken belief that if something keeps happening, the opposite is bound to happen soon enough:

Person X: Star Wars VII is going to be awesome.

Person Y: Why?

Person X: The last three sucked, so therefore Luke and Leia are overdue for a hit!

The fact that the three previous Star Wars movies sucked more eggs than Birdo from Super Mario 2 has no bearing on the next one. Likewise, losing on a thousand scratch lottery tickets in a row has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of ticket #1001. To offer one more example, imagine arguing with a hundred online trolls in a row. Sure, the last troll didn’t change their mind, and neither did the previous 99 trolls, but that means the next one has to, right? WRONG.

4. Argument From Authority

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An argument from authority is weighting the words of a perceived expert more heavily than those of an unknown, thereby subconsciously dismissing the unknown individual’s argument as inferior, regardless of its merits. The authority in question can take many forms, for example …

Person X: My mother says that sex before marriage will get me pregnant.

Person Y: Well, no, that’s not the case. Many studies indicate that, as long as safe sex is practiced, you’re not likely to ever be blessed with a spare set of kidneys in baby form.

Person X: They’re obviously lying.

The above may seem silly, but many really do consider parents to be the highest authority. Hell, just look at the Westboro Baptist Church (if you can do so without vomiting violently.) Almost everything they say is the result of the power that their father, Fred Phelps has over their opinions.

Online, you’ll see this mostly in the form of links on Facebook. If you logged on there right now, you’re all but guaranteed a bunch of “news” stories where that are pure hokum and satire, like The Onion or The Duffel Blog, or even just a redressed version of an ages-old urban myth. But because the source looks official and authoritative, the story is taken at face value and used to spread a poor unfortunate soul’s misguided argument.

3. In-Group Favoritism

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In-group favoritism is when you place a greater amount of weight on the opinions and views of your peers, than those of others, simply because you don’t like them or their peers:

Person X: I think we need to discuss the issue of healthcare.

Person Y: Wait, aren’t you Republican?

Person X: Well, yes, but I just want a frank discussion.

Person Y: Screw you then, you don’t know anything!

The worst part is, the above example is probably more mature than half the Internet. Don’t believe us? Just check out any YouTube video concerning Call Of Duty or, if you’re really brave, My Little Pony.

The thing is though, your in-group can vary wildly, as can the hostility that group displays to outsiders. If you want to see the ultimate example of this, check out Stormfront, a white supremacist forum that we’re not linking to because they don’t deserve the traffic. Basically, you’ve got a bunch of people, who all think they’re of a superior race, all feeding off of each others’ energy, without any outside criticism whatsoever. The second that view is challenged, it’s met with more hostility and poor spelling than someone beating a dyslexic person with a dictionary.

2. Loaded Questions

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Loaded questions are the trump card of arguments. It’s like kicking your opponent right in the soul and, if played correctly, there is absolutely no counter to them.

Person X: Do you enjoy watching heterosexual pornography?

Person Y:

As the above example demonstrates, there is almost no way for you to answer that question in a classy way, since the inclusion of the word “heterosexual” forces you to awkwardly defend your sexuality. A “yes” would imply that you like looking at same-sex naughty bits and are therefore secretly gay, and a “no” implies that you don’t, and are therefore homophobic and terrible. Unless you actually are gay or homophobic, there is no decent way to answer this question, unless you count punching your opponent’s lights out as an answer.

Loaded questions have been used to great effect in the past, normally by people who haven’t yet done anything about their small genitals. You’ve taken care of your small genitals by now, right?

1. The Nirvana Fallacy

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The nirvana fallacy is rebuffing an argument, simply because it doesn’t offer a perfect solution:

Person X: We need to keep the public informed about the dangers of fast food.

Person Y: Why? People are always going to stuff their faces full of fried pizza.

Dismissing an argument on the ground that it doesn’t perfectly solve everything and put a neat little bow on it isn’t just cynical. It’s completely ignorant of the fact that we don’t live in a perfect world. Clearly we don’t, because bacon doesn’t fall from the sky on demand, and Joss Whedon doesn’t have the immortality required to continue making awesome movies, forever.

However, it doesn’t stop people from dismissing the Hell out of anything they don’t agree with, simply because it doesn’t fix everything.

“Why should we have free healthcare, a select few people would just abuse it!”

“Why should we ban guns? Criminals would still find a way to get them!”

“Why should I take a shower, I’m just going to get stinky again tomorrow!”

In each case, all you’re doing is proving to the world that you’re unable to see the bigger picture. We’re not going to fix the world in a day and, by refusing to join in the debate until someone does, all you’re doing is proving to people that you can’t be trusted not put rocks in your mouth when you’re left alone.

Karl literally wrote a book all about arguing with people online. Check it out here. 


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28 Comments

  1. The Nirvana Fallacy: a logical fallacy invented in 1969 by an economist.

    Funny thing is that even if it is an informal logical fallacy, arguments made from the POV of the nirvana fallacy also usually illustrate the weaknesses in other arguments with longer-recognized illogical fallacy. For instance:

    Semi-red herring argument: There’s too much violent crime! We should ban guns. (the actual issue is violent crime, but the argument is only tangentially related)

    Nirvana response: banning guns won’t work because criminals have and will always find ways around your law.

    Again, the nirvana fallacy is, technically a logical fallacy, but it’s not really a fallacy. It’s a good illustration as to why the first person’s proposed gun ban will not work. You can feel free to replace “guns” with “pizza” and get the same result. I’d also add that the use of history as an argument, while technically a logical fallacy as well (an appeal to tradition), actually does a good job of bolstering the 2nd person’s argument.

  2. Looking at some of the totally ridiculous ” techniques” listed here made me realize the calibre of person i surround myself with. Not once has anyone in my circle of friends, family or work colleagues ever tried to employ one of these childlish retorts. I guess the difference comes from-like everything else- motivation. If you’re looking to win an argument for the sake of “winning” you’ll stay ignorant to the fact that doing some of the crap ob this list won’t get you anywhere.

    • Milo, I think you are guilty of number 4 in your appeal to yourself as an authority on all of the activity or your friends. I agree the examples of each above are rather simple on purpose, but the real application of each techniques can take many forms.

      • Eric, isn’t the purpose of any debate to try and illustrate that whatever point you’re’ arguing is logically more sound than that of the other person? Simply undermining the other’s argument or diverting the burden of proof doesn’t prove you’re right, it simply proves you’re good at BS. Futhermore , you end up robbing yourself of the opportunity to see things from another point of view because of the your ( hypothetical) ignorance. Whatever you call it, whatever fancy terms you use, its still amounts to childlike antics equal to ” You’re ugly and you’re mother dresses you ugly”. Not arguing the merits is stupid and pointless and usually used my people playing to the crowd.
        I’ll agree with one thing though, using these techniques does ruin arguments but if you really wanna put someone in their place there are ways around it, but that would require stooping even lower than the idiot you’d be arguing with.

        • Milo,

          The point of the top ten list is that the 10 types of arguments ruin arguments. I was pointing out that you used one of the techniques (#4) to justify why your friend are of a high calibre. Then you went on to use the fact that your friend are such a high calibre and don’t use these techniques to reason that the techniques are ridiculous. The fact that you cannot identify these techniques in yourself tells me don’t understand them very well.

          For example in your last reply your first sentence is a loaded question, which is number 2 in the list: “Eric, isn’t the purpose of any debate to try and illustrate that whatever point you’re’ arguing is logically more sound than that of the other person?” Your question is loaded because to answer the question I have to accept that I am in a debate and I am not clear that we are debating or what we are debating.

          In your mind are we debating your use of “appeal to authority” or are we debating that I agreed with you that the examples are simple or something else I have missed?

          Now, take a breath, calm down and let’s see if you can reply without using one of the techniques this time.

  3. Tu quoque is a good one as well – essentially it is trying to rebuke an argument because the person fails to live inline with their perceived beliefs, so by undermining a persons argument by suggesting they are a hypocrite – another logically fallacy.

  4. Andrew Hallock on

    The Star Wars gambling fallacy example is wrong. While it’s true that coins do not have a “memory” of previous events, and that it each coin flip is independent, humans DO have memories, and previous events do affect future ones. If the previous three films sucked, it’s reasonable to say that it is more likely the next will not suck because of their motivation to not alienate their fan base.

  5. Guns don’t kill, bullets do. Sometimes the nirvana argument is correct. The author seems to believe that even if the “solution” doesn’t solve the problem at all, it’s better than doing nothing, because the perfect solution doesn’t exist, hence the absence of nirvana. The fallacy is correct, however it is incorrectly applied to the gun control argument which is a fallacy in its own right.

    Why should I make my bed mommy, it’s just going to get messed up again?

    Why fix those potholes in the street, they’re only going to come back again?

    Outlawing marijuana and drugs won’t stop drug use or even curtail it a little bit. Sometimes the nirvana argument is in fact the correct argument because it happens to be true.

    • Guns, don’t kill…bullets don’t kill…. bullets do not propel themselves in mystical fashion to find a way to end life. It all falls back to the thing that caused action to happen, it this instance, it would be the entity that pulled the trigger. Cause and effect.

      Were there no guns, then people would use clubs, or bows and arrows, or rocks, or whatever tool came to hand.

      One thing is damned certain, the government itself is who the people need to be protected from, and they certainly won’t come fighting fairly… there is a reason that the government doesn’t want the civilians to posess arms to resist. It’s certainly not to protect all the good people from a few bad criminals….

      all the arguements that one can make, at least we are still RELATIVELY able to voice our opinions freely, although through control and strictures that are becoming ever more restrictive, those days of free opinion seem to be limited.

  6. Richard Simpson on

    Left out is one of the most common argumentation errors, and the author actually used it, notably, in #1… the non-sequitur. If the ‘ends’ do not follow logically from the ‘means’, that is a non-sequitur.

    Armed robbery is already illegal. Adding an extra charge to make it slightly more illegal by outlawing guns is unlikely to deter a criminal already willing to use violence to commit the first crime. Suggesting that it would actually do so, is the end which doesn’t follow the proposed means. While the argument against gun control in this case may be a ‘nirvana argument’, it is presented in light of the fact that the stated argument in favor of gun control is a non-sequitur.

    #2 is also illogical. A heterosexual person CAN say they enjoy watching heterosexual pornography, without anyone assuming they are either gay or homophobic. You might want to conceive of a better argument, in support of your deconstruction of the ‘loaded question’.

  7. Richard Simpson on

    The motivation to not alienate their fan base is a separate, and more valid argument. But if ppl just think Jedi suck, a new Jedi movie, no matter how well written or produced, is unlikely to win them over.

  8. Very good article. Of course, it is a little biased, in the sense that it conveniently uses arguments the author seems to agree with, when showing the correct way to argue issues.

    Just wanted to point out that in the case of the gun debate and healthcare debate, you’re right, the main arguments used against them are incorrect. But I would like it if people would take an interest in these issues and see the full argumentation behind it.

    It usually comes down to the Broken Window Fallacy (you can look this up on Wikipedia). For Universal Healthcare, its a nice idea, but when it comes to any product or service, when you separate the person who is buying the product or service, from the person who is paying for it, you have some very dire consequences. Well, first of all, lets not forget we all need to pay the bill for Universal Healthcare. But since we don’t have an immediate feedback of the cost, we are prone to get the best healthcare possible. Of course, that might seem like a good thing, but no economy can afford to give everyone the best healthcare possible. Imagine if food was handled that way, and everyone went in and decided to get US$ 400 bottles of wine, and the best prociutto, and caviar. This system would quickly go down, the same occurs with healthcare. If everyone decides to go to the hospital just for having a fever, or a cold, and get the most expensive treatment, you can see how this quickly becomes a question of scarcity. I mean, that’s why healthcare even has a cost, because there is scarcity. If there was enough healthcare for everyone, just like the air we breathe, it would probably be naturally free. Of course, the promoters of this will argue “look, it works in Britain and in Sweden. And Canada!” Well, if you look closely, all these countries have very serious problems. In Canada and Britain, the waiting lines are huge. In Britain, they are already starting to refuse healthcare in very difficult to cure cases, especially when it comes to babies and old people. In Sweden, there are many cases where the ambulance doesn’t get sent because there is a shortage of ambulances, and they pick the cases that they feel are really urgent. These arguments aren’t just about what you can see (oh, we are giving healthcare to the poor guy who didn’t have it). Its about what you can’t see, the increased cost of hiring someone, which will mean they’re out of work. The fact that if you don’t have a choice of whether to get healthcare or not, simply means the Insurance Companies (which are an oligopoly) can charge you whatever they want, because you can’t say no.

    The same goes for the gun debate. OK, I’ve already written a lot, so I’ll try to keep this short. A gun is a tool. Basically, one can say that the great benefit of a gun is that it puts a weak and a strong person on the same level, it matches their ability to cause agression. Of course, it also increases any person’s ability to cause agression. But doesn’t it also serve as a deterrent? What do you think will have a greater chance of stopping a criminal? The possibility of a well-trained gun owner, or the threat of the law, which already exists saying what he is doing will send him to jail (stealing, killing, etc.), except we want to add that his having a gun is also ilegal? Right now, the police can’t stop guns going into jails. The US has immense borders (if you consider only the borders of land), if you consider the water then, its impossible to stop contraband. So, who would a gun ban affect? Probably the law abiding citizens, and maybe a few potential crooks. OK, but you’re talking about banning assault weapons. Well, first of all, the AR-15 isn’t an assault weapon. But secondly, what would that accomplish? Only 4% of gun murders in the US are using assault weapons. Its even speculated that there is some media manipulation in the statement that most mass murderers use assault weapons. Honestly, its preferable for someone to go into an area with a concealed weapon, if their plan is to do something like that, because the targets are all close by, and there’s less of a chance of getting caught. Also, the fact that most gun murders happen in areas where guns are banned (gun free zones), or in cities with very strict anti-gun regulation. That must count for something.

    • JohnnyBrillcream on

      I’m going to use the TL;DR read argument, an often overlooked one. Just kidding, good points.

  9. Eduardo Maal on

    The broken window fallacy in the case of healthcare is:

    What you see: people getting healthcare, who before didn’t have it.

    What you don’t see: healthcare costs go up. And companies need to pay for it. So the amount of money they must spend per employee goes up a bit to absorb part of it, and the amount of money the employee actually receives goes down, to absorb the other part. So companies will need to hire less employees (unemployment) – the company isn’t going to go broke because they passed a law. Also, healthcare costs go up, so people’s salaries don’t go as far as they’d like, and they spend less money, so the general economy suffers a slump. More unemployment. Inflation. Etc.

  10. Charles Bronson on

    In ‘Argument from ignorance’ , as author points out the burden of proof must not be transferred. But in the righteous sense , the burden of proof lies with the one who wants to prove something in the first place and not with the counter arguer who disapproves it.

    • Eduardo Maal on

      Well, if you want to say “God exists”, you need to prove it. But if you want to say “there is no greater force, no greater being”, you also have to prove that.

      Any statement has to be proven.

      • Charles Bronson on

        But whover tries to imply something ( true or false ) has the burden of proof and not with counter arguer who disapproves it.
        If every counter argument has to be proven there would be a stalemate in arguments. ( Initial implier of something would always ask the arguer to disprove it )

        • Eduardo Maal on

          You’re right. If someone says “God exists”, they need to prove it. Until then, there is no definition to whether he exists or not.

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