How to "Win" Arguments and Infuriate Opponents (with examples!)

Posted by Louis Brandy on 02 February 2009

Note: This has absolutely nothing to do with programming or development but I just really wanted to write it.

I consider myself a well accomplished devil's advocate. I enjoy arguing. I routinely take positions that I don't even agree with just because the person who I've decided to argue with is right, but for the wrong reasons. My willingness to engage in argument (especially when I'm choosing the battles) has given me an awesome repertoire of go-to moves that I've learned from others. I present to you the 10 concepts you must grasp to be an absolutely infuriating argument opponent, with examples from the absolute masters.

1. Sophistry

I am using a very narrow (and perhaps the original) definition of sophistry. Sophistry is act of using an argument not to prove your position's truth, but to persuade the crowd that it is true, regardless of its soundness. So the first key step is that you must always imagine (even if it's not true) that there is a crowd of people who will listen to this argument and vote after the fact to determine the winner. It's even better if you can actually gather that crowd (that internet thing is great for this). Sympathetic crowds are very powerful. If you take nothing else from this, take this: appearing to be right is more important than actually being right. From that little maxim, all else follows.

Use everything below for this singular purpose.

2. Shifting the Burden of Proof

Normally, the burden of proving a claim rests with the asserter. Ignore that rule. Start asserting things. When the other person challenges, ask him to prove you wrong. A word of caution: sophisticated debaters won't fall for this one. If he can't or won't disprove you, claim victory.  Bonus tip: if you get called out for not proving assertions, flip it on him, and tell him he's not proven -his- assertions. Even if he has. Demand more proof (and keep raising the bar)!

3. Proof by Overwhelming Gibberish

Now we flip it on our opponent and instead of proving our points we overwhelm him with evidence. Our goal now is exhaustion. This requires a bit of preparation and research, though, but it's substantially more effective. An excellent way to execute this fallacy is after compiling a large list of apparent problems in your opponent's theories. Present them all at once to anyone who wants to argue with you. Demand the other person explain to you, right now, all 413 things you've listed that are wrong with his theory. Here's the important part: even if someone is able to give a satisfactory answer to one item on your list, don't remove it. The list only grows one way. You may need that item for the next guy.

4. Affirming the Consequent & Circular Reasoning

These are two different fallacies that end up looking very similar in practice. Circular reasoning involves presupposing in some fashion that which you want to prove. Affirming the consequent is a formal fallacy:

Virtually all conspiracy theories hinge upon circular reasoning and they are notoriously impossible to dislodge from people's mind. Affirming the consequent is sort of like convicting someone because of circumstantial evidence. If A was guilty, then it's highly likely he'd have no alibi, and so since he has no alibi, he must be guilty. This is devilishly subtle when you pull it off correctly. If you can master its use, you'll be quite convincing.

5. Appeal to Intuition / Argument from Personal Incredulity

Their position is obviously wrong when you phrase it the right way and appeal to people's gut instincts.

6. Appeal to Authority

Appealing to expert analysis is sound logic but can be cumbersome. That would mean you'd need to understand it. It's much less work, though, to just assert that Dr. X believes something is true, and therefore it must be. This can be especially effective if he's not even an expert! By far the best example of an appeal to authority is: petitions or mass signatures. You don't need to go through all the trouble of presenting an argument. Just collect names and credentials and then BAM! Who can argue with that?

7. False Premise

Creating a logically sound argument based on a false presumption. In other words: make up evidence! Getting the facts correct is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for finding truth. There are other subtler ways of introducing false premises than just making up evidence. Presenting someone as an expert when they aren't is one way. One of the most commonly used and most subtly false premise fallacies is to paraphrase a quote incorrectly.

The reason this is so incredibly effective is because it puts the onus on your opponent to disprove something that it's incredibly unlikely for him to have ever heard before. That's just golden. Bonus Tip: When he asks you to back up your claim with some documentation, tell him that you can't believe he's never heard of this before and that it's clear he needs to do much more research to intelligently discuss this with you any further. Yes, sure, eventually, he'll realize you were lying, but not before you've won the day.

8. Equivocation

The equivocation fallacy is really about preying on the poor precision in language. Essentially, an equivocation fallacy means that you have shifted the definition of a word in the middle of an argument. This is incredibly powerful in politics and other games where labeling things is effective. The way it works is you use and re-use a particular label with strong connotations and defend the label by using a 'weaker' definition of the word. Think how this might work with the word "liar", for example. This is also an excellent fallacy for "hijacking" discussions that aren't going so well. If you are losing, resorting to this fallacy can be used to change the subject of discussion to word definitions and other uninteresting nonsense. Consider that as a route of last resort.

A more subtle way to use the fallacy is to convert mathematical or numerical ideas into qualitative and/or subjective ones. Turn numbers into labels. And then massage the "English" version. 

9. Strawman

A strawman is a phantom argument. It is, in essence, arguing with a position your opponent does not hold. This is most effective if the strawman position is subtly different from his actual position, but substantially easier to argue against. The strawman is the queen-mother of politics because the two people are so rarely in the same place to correct their position. Caricatures of political positions can last for years (pro-life is anti-woman. anti-war is anti-soldier)! It's much easier to win an argument if you've invented the opponent.

A more subtle form of the argument is to attribute to your opponent things that his allies have said. This often comes up in politics and other similar discussions with obvious "camps". If someone represents a "camp" in an argument, find the most glaringly awful things said by members of that camp, and attack those points.

Bonus tip: If you ever feel like you are using, accuse your opponent of using a strawman. Tell him he's being intellectually dishonest. It's pretty much a get out of jail free card.

10. Correlation implies Causation

The essential idea here is that because two events happen together, or two variables track together, that one must be the cause of the other. This powerful cheating mechanism essentially allows you to take credit (or assign blame) in incredibly powerful ways.

← The 37signals Effect How did we geeks become experts on (macro)economics? →

© louis brandy — theme: midnight by mattgraham — with help from jekyll bootstrap and github pages