The ability to attack and defend an argument is important for your ability to advocate for the truth and to protect against bad plans. We are going to cover methods that professional arguers use to attack and defend arguments. If you want to know more about how this works, check out this book about arguing techniques for attorneys. It is one of the best argument strategy books we’ve found.
Keep in mind that when you are making, attacking, or defending an argument it helps to use the point counterpoint structure. This means always summarizing the opponent’s point before showing why it is wrong. Studies have shown that this is more persuasive than just arguing your side.
Finally, know that all ways of attacking arguments listed here can also be used as defense mechanisms. Simply attack their criticism of your argument.
How Attorneys Win Arguments
Here are a few ways to approach another person’s argument, used commonly by attorneys. These can be offensive or defensive.
- Attack Credibility. Witnesses can be biased or mistaken or lying. Attorneys can simply disprove that the person can be taken seriously. See this article for more.
- Eternity Frame. Argue that in the grand scheme of things the problem at issue is not worth addressing. Combine this with the idea that there is something else the group should be spending its time focusing on.
- Outcome Frame. Argue that while your opponent may be right, the outcomes of their plan are not desirable.
- To not decide is to decide. When an authoritative group refuses to weigh in on an issue, their lack of decision making sets a sort of precedent for the future that the issue isn’t serious enough to deal with. Thus when they do not decide, they are actually deciding to permit the action.
- Overwhelm into heuristic mode. This trick is pure sophistry. Sometimes your opponent is right, but their argument is complicated. Simply overwhelm your audience with irrelevant information. When the brain gets overwhelmed, it reverts back to what you could call ‘gut’ decision making. These ‘gut’ decision making patterns are called heuristics.
- Argue no jurisdiction. Sometimes you can win an argument by simply arguing that the decision is none of this tribunal’s business. Argue that someone or some other group should be making the call.
- Too early. Argue that you don’t have enough information to make a good high quality decision.
- Too late. Argue that it is too late to decide, and that the statute of limitations has passed. In regular life this usually means arguing that if the person really had a problem, they would have brought it up long ago.
- Flawed process. You can also argue that you were following a regular or established process when the problem occurred. Thus the negative outcome isn’t your fault.
- Argue original intent. If there is a rule or verbal agreement you can argue that your actions complied with the original intent of the rule. You can also argue that original intent is out dated, leads to bad out comes, or no longer applies.
- No Standing. This technique is similar to arguing no jurisdiction. The difference is that you are saying that the person actually complaining has no business getting involved.
- Counter claim. Simply argue that they have problems or are at fault as well.
- Existential pruning. This is when you argue for a very narrow interpretation of a law. Clinton did this when he tried to defend his statement that he didn’t have sex with Lewinsky. He defined sex as penetrative intercourse.
- Precedent. You can argue that the way you acted is in line with how people have acted in the past. You can also go the other way by arguing that there have been so many exceptions to a statute that it should be disregarded.
- Exclude evidence. Sometimes your best bet is attacking a person’s evidence before they ever start making an argument. This can mean showing how evidence could lead to multiple conclusions, or showing how it has been corrupted with unauthorized people or events. Were the people who oberved the event under any kind of influence? Could they have possibly not seen everything? Do they have bias?
- Burden of proof. This concept is extremely important. When you use the burden of proof method you are arguing that the other person has to prove their argument in order to win. You don’t have to prove or do anything. See this article on the burden of proof. This could be seen as slightly similar to prize framing.
- Cherry pick. Arguments have many parts. Simply attack part of their argument that is weak, whether it is necessary for the argument to work or not.
- Embed statements. Questions can include assumptions. For example, “when did you stop beating your wife,” assumes the person beat their wife. Try embedding important parts of your argument in questions or statements they are likely to respond or agree to.
- Attack statistics. Statistics are a modern method for making truth claims. Argue that the data your opposition is using is limited or has a bad source. Argue causation fallacies (cum hoc, ergo propter hoc, post hoc). This simply amounts to the idea that something can occur together, after, or before and still not be causal. See this book for more on how people lie with statistics, or look up rules of inference in logic and statistics. Beware omitted variable bias. See this article.
- Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is the idea that we tend to move toward the narrative that explains the situation with the least complexity. This means you can argue that more complex explanations hold the burden of proof.
- Circumstantial evidence. This is evidence that relies on an inference. For example you might infer that a person was involved in a murder if they were seen running out of the building where the murder occurred. Argue against this by saying that once you rule out other options, even the most circumstantial evidence can be considered enough to prove causation.
- Subvert the frame. If someone tries to say the issue is x, find a way to say the issue is actually y. For example when someone says “the question is whether we should tax these people more,” say “the issue isn’t taxation at all but whether we should focus on immigration rules.”
- Attack contradictory statements. If someone shares an anecdotal story, share one that disagrees with them. Ask the question “should people be suspicious of witnesses/studies/people who give diametrically opposed answers?”
Pointing out a fallacy is a great way to destroy someone’s argument. This works especially well when you are defending an argument. You are basically saying that their conclusion isn’t good because something about their argument has a flaw. Be careful, some audiences don’t understand fallacies so you might have to explain why the fallacy they used leads to flawed decision making. We will cover the more common fallacies here, but see our in depth article if you want to learn more.
The Straw Man fallacy is an argumentative mistake that over simplifies a person’s position so it can be easily attacked. If the person leaves out key elements of your argument they are probably committing this fallacy. Simply point out that any argument looks bad if you simplify it enough.
Ad Hominem fallacy is another flawed way of making an argument because it focuses on attacking the person’s character instead of their argument. While it might seem that a person’s history of telling the truth has bearing on whether their argument is right or wrong, it doesn’t. People who lie can tell the truth and people who tell the truth can lie. That being said, people are emotional creatures. Sometimes attacking the person can seem more persuasive than attacking the actual argument. Ad hominem attacks can include te quoque, which is to use past actions to discredit, guilt by association, which is when someone must be wrong or bad because of the crowd they hang around, and finally circumstantial ad hominems, which point out bias.
A Red Herring is a type of fallacy where someone introduces another argument that has nothing to do with the debate at hand. This is actually what is happening when people bring up past mistakes and harms they have been done when you are having a discussion with them about something bad that they did. When someone uses a red herring, simply ask them how their statement has to do with the argument.
Slippery Slope is another fallacy. It is commonly used in politics to scare people into acting or not acting. A slippery slope focuses on one small element and convinces people that that small element will lead to some greater harm down the road. The difference between a slippery slope and an argument that really does successfully warn of a future problem is whether that problem is inevitable. Combat this fallacy by pointing out how the result doesn’t necessarily have to happen.
False Dilemma is commonly used with children to simplify the decision making process. Two elements are presented as a bivalent decision. For example “A v B.” False dilemmas occur when there really are more than two choices.
Argument To Moderation – some people say that truth is usually a compromise between two opposite sides. This isn’t true for many reasons, but one simple one is that all one side has to do is take a more extreme side to move the supposed correct answer.
Appeal To Tradition – this fallacy argues that because it was done in the past it is the right way to do something. Plenty of things were done in the past that were terribly wrong and horrid.
Appeal To Authority – good arguments sometimes appeal to relevant authorities. But often people use credibility in one field to apply to another field. For example a heart doctor talking about how to heal a rotator cuff injury.
The final fallacy we will cover is Circular Reasoning. People reason in a circle when they assume what they are trying to prove. Watch for synonyms for words contained in both the premises and conclusion. This is what “begging the question” actually refers to. Combat circular reasoning by simply asking why their premise is supposed to be true.
Logic Based Attacks
Logic based attacks come in two forms. Either they attack the premises of an argument or how the premises lead to the conclusion. Valid arguments commit no mistakes in the structural part of an argument. For more look up Modus Ponens and Tollens, and affirming the consequent or denying the antecedent. The last two are examples of invalid arguments. Point out how that structure can lead you to clearly incorrect conclusions with an analogy.
If the argument is valid, attack it by attacking the factual validity of the premises. The best way to do this is often to find hidden or unstated premises and attack those. Unstated premises are things that are logically assumed. In the example below the assumption is that dogs exist.
Often the best way to apply an attack is to restate the person’s argument and then point out how it fails. Restating clarifies what you are attacking so others can clearly see how it is wrong.
Take this example of a basic argument.
Premise: Dogs have tails.
Premise: All things with tails bark.
Premise: Giraffes exist in the wild.
Conclusion: Giraffes are dogs.
You can attack the premises by saying that not all dogs have tails. You can attack the way the premises make it to the conclusion by saying that even if we say the three premises are true, it still doesn’t mean giraffes are dogs. Giraffes can be a different species.
The 10 D’s
The 10 D’s are a strategic method that can be used to think of weaknesses or ways to attack an argument. Either deny some element of the argument happened, distract from the argument, delay when people should actually discuss the argument, discount whether the argument is important or relevant, deceive those who are supposed to decide what is the right conclusion, divide support for the opponent’s argument, dulcify or sooth the opposition until they don’t care about the argument, discredit the source of the argument, destroy the person’s abilities, or deal by negotiating before an argument comes to it’s conclusion.