Disproving an opposing argument is also called

For classroom use only

Disproving an opposing argument is also called


Refutation has two parts:

  • first, very briefly bring up your opponent's potential or actual arguments;

  • then, put them down one by one, disprove them, or demonstrate why they should not be believed.

When refuting, never assume that your audience thinks the same way you do! In fact, in rhetoric you must generally assume that your readers (your audience) are both ignorant and potentially hostile. They are ignorant because if they understood everything you understand, they would probably not disagree with you in the first place. They might be hostile, since if they already agreed with your standpoint you would not even have to bother arguing for your point of view!

Beware the "Straw Man!"

It is a serious error to use the "straw man" tactic--falsely categorizing your opponents' facts or arguments as so foolish, stupid, lightweight or crazy that you can safely ignore them or sweep them away with a rhetorical wave of the hand. It is also an error to rely totally on ethos to make your argument by using an "ad hominem" attack--painting anyone who opposes your argument as doing so in bad faith, or as so wicked and depraved that nothing they say can be believed. Even wicked and depraved people sometimes tell the truth (and even good and noble people can be wrong), so your duty as a rhetor is to present these opposing arguments as honestly and truthfully as you can before shooting them down.

Start by restating your opponent's case in your own terms

If you do not identify and focus your arguments on the precise point(s) where you and your readers start to differ (the division or stasis) you are wasting your time. You have to assume that your readers are hostile to all your arguments beyond that point of division, where you and they start to disagree. So, you start out by very briefly restating the main opposing facts and possible opposing arguments (all the factors that oppose your standpoint) clearly and in a form that even an unfriendly opponent might agree with.

There are, in fact, a number of important reasons for you to state opposing facts and arguments up front:

1.        Inconvenient facts and opposing arguments will not go away just because you ignore them: if the reader does not know them already, opposing rhetors will probably eventually introduce them sooner or later.

2.        A rhetor who ignores adverse facts or arguments is seen by readers as ignorant, confused, arrogant, unreliable and unpersuasive, while a rhetor who is humble enough to speak openly about potential problems with his or her standpoint is more easily trusted and respected by the reader.

3.        A rhetor who fails to address adverse arguments throws away the opportunity (often the only opportunity) to give the reader good reasons for not following these opposing arguments.

This applies to any and all adverse facts or arguments that can be predicted to influence the audience, even facts or arguments with which you disagree or which you personally regard as ridiculous nonsense. This is your one and only opportunity to carefully disarm your opponent's arguments, using the precision tools of rhetoric, before they explode in your face.

In the first part of your refutation you do not explain, refute, argue with or ridicule opposing arguments. You simply state them in a very brief form that an opponent would be unable to deny. However, this does not mean that you make the opponent's case for him or her! Both here and in the “Division” section it is wise to use several "stealth" tactics that, while not falsifying the opposing argument, tend to strengthen the reader's respect for your argument while shoving your opponent's arguments to one side. These tactics may include:

· Dehumanizing your opponent and his or her case by referring to opponents by title, office, or standpoint instead of by name (unless, of course, their ethos resides mainly in their title or office--in which case you use only names, or even first names if possible). Example: If you are refuting an instructor's argument, you may refer to the opponent as "this instructor" instead of by name.  Or, if you are refuting presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's argument, you may wish to refer to her as "Hillary" instead of "Mrs. Clinton." (Never do this in academic writing, however!) You may also choose to refer to the opponent as "they" or "them" even if you know the opponent's gender.

· Beginning by briefly stating your opponents' strongest arguments against your standpoint, and then carefully detailing their weakest and least credible arguments.

· Highlighting any shaky unstated assumptions or hidden agendas in your opponent's argument that your reader might overlook at first glance, but which readers may disagree with or find offensive, disgusting or absurd if clearly pointed out. (Example: "When he says he will not allow a vote on this, he really indicates how much he fears democracy."

·Carefully pointing out, without comment, any contradictions in the opponents' logic, by, if possible, putting contradictory statements beside each other in the same sentence or paragraph in your paper. (Example: "He says he will lower your taxes, but also says he will spend billions more on the war.")

·If an opposing argument relies mainly on pathos, point this out. Audiences are easily swayed by emotion until you point out to them that they are being swayed--and then they often feel offended because someone is "playing on their emotions."

· If the opponents' argument depends on several steps of logic, concentrate on the weakest link.

· If their argument stands or falls on several different facts being true, concede what is true and then concentrate on the most doubtful fact. (Example: "Our opponents proclaim that we have to be in constant mortal fear because terrorists seek America's downfall, and they are everywhere. Agreed, the terrorists do despise America and all it stands for, but even our own government admits that Al Qaeda has never had more than a couple thousand operatives worldwide, almost all of them in central and south Asia. They are definitely not 'everywhere.'") 

Restating bad-faith arguments?

One problem is how to restate and refute inflammatory hostile arguments made with the primary intent to shock or enrage the reader (e.g., "Our opponents hate all that is good and decent, and prefer to wallow in filth and sexual depravity while they plot how to kill us all!"). This also includes hypocrisy or other arguments made in bad faith (i.e., arguments that even the one arguing does not believe in). In these situations it is often enough to quote brief excerpts of the opposing argument for it to self-destruct in the reader's eye. Or, you may factually point out the opponents' clear hypocrisy without comment (e.g., "Fulano, a twice-elected government official who repeatedly boosted public expenditures and government debt to record-breaking levels, continued all the while to declare in his speeches that 'big government is our worst enemy' and that cutbacks in the public budget are needed.").

Now, finally, you go on the offensive!

Next you "put down" or counter, one by one, the opponents' arguments you have given. Here you may wish to attack an argument as being:

·  obscure (unclear, confused, impossible for an intelligent person to understand, full of holes, using fuzzy logic, based on "smoke and mirrors," sneaky, fraudulent, a "snow job," being "railroaded through," a "back room deal");

·  incredible (unbelievable, incoherent, beyond credibility, a flat-out lie or deception, a "con job");

·  impossible (not anchored in the real world, impractical under any foreseeable circumstances, not possible to accomplish, requires a miracle to succeed, violates the laws of physics, economics, or human behavior);

·illogical (not standing up to the test of logic, insane, not an intelligent argument, contradicts itself, "putting the cart before the horse," "turning the world on its head;" a fallacy);

· unfitting (simply not right or moral in a civilized society, barbaric, gross, sinful or immoral, obscene or disgusting, evil-minded, selfish, unworthy of decent people, vicious or hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic, discriminatory, illegal, unconstitutional or culturally unacceptable), or

· unprofitable (makes no sense financially or money-wise, will cost a fortune to do, will bankrupt us, will cost more than it saves, the risks outweigh the benefits, "throwing good money after bad").

(Reference: http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/Pedagogy/Progymnasmata/Refutation.htm)

Of course, you cannot refute an argument by simply calling it full of holes or declaring that it will cost more than it would save and leaving it at that. You must provide strong counter-arguments of your own to support your refutation, to identify the holes in the opponent's argument, or to conclusively prove in dollars and cents how it would cost more than it would save.

"That's crazy!"

It is particularly dangerous to dismiss an opposing argument as "insane," "crazy," or "impossible to understand." What seems to be insane to you may make perfect sense to the reader whose experiences, assumptions, interests or culture may be very different from your own. And, if you say an argument is "impossible to understand" your readers may think you are just too ignorant or too dense to understand your opponent's argument (or, even worse, that you are calling your readers ignorant or dense). As a beginning writer, you should not use these two particular refutations without knowing a great deal about both the opponent and your readers.

Also, in refuting arguments as unfitting, cruel or inhuman, beware of relying on your own pathos or ethos. If you argue that students will be hurt by a certain proposal, realize that many otherwise decent people simply do not care what happens to students. If you argue that a certain course of action will hurt you, your own family, or your own future, you must understand that this may not be at all persuasive to the reader who may care nothing about you, your feelings, your career, your well-being or your future. This does not mean that the reader is evil-minded or hateful, only that the reader may have other things (self, money, personal responsibilities) about which he or she is much more concerned, and whether you succeed or fail, live or die, may be a matter of supreme indifference to him or her.

The point of rhetoric is not for you to pour out your personal feelings and beg for mercy or understanding from the reader, but rather for you to accomplish your goals by persuading others in terms that they will understand and care about. Rhetoric recognizes that it is not all about "me."

Refuting cold, hard facts

If the argument you are refuting includes facts and figures (logos), you must show that these facts do not directly apply to your standpoint or to the argument at hand, or that they do apply but they do not harm your argument. Although it may seem tempting to argue that a fact or figure you do not like is unreliable or has simply been misinterpreted, readers rarely accept such attacks without conclusive evidence that the data has been falsified. If a fact or figure can be interpreted in more than one way, readers can be expected to choose the opposition's meaning. You should frontally attack a fact or figure only if you can prove it is crooked, or that experts or some respected authorities doubt its validity (argument from ethos).

Beware of opponents who "lie with statistics," or who try to persuade by burying the audience in a blizzard of confusing graphs, numbers and statistics which ordinary readers cannot be expected to understand or interpret (the "snow job"), but which only serve to boost the opponents' own ethos as an "expert" when all they are doing is pulling off a sophisticated con. The best way to counter this tactic is to point out that your opponents are trying to "snow" readers with irrelevancies.

Refuting stories and examples

If the opponent whose argument you are refuting uses stories, examples or analogies, you should focus on differences between the opposing example and your own standpoint. Be careful. Cute, tear-jerking or horrifying stories and vivid analogies, true or false, are extremely persuasive, and your job is to impress a skeptical reader. Technically picky refutations will not persuade, and competing stories or examples may serve only to confuse the audience and strengthen your opponent's argument.

A better approach might be, if possible, to take the story, example or analogy and reconcile it with your case, showing that although the opponent's example seems superficially adverse to you its real underlying meaning actually favors your standpoint. Still another approach is to attack the example or analogy head-on, challenging its validity on the grounds that it is an extreme example, is phony, prejudiced or hateful or, if true, that it is out of date and changing circumstances have made it no longer relevant.

Refuting junk arguments

Be especially cautious with opponents who bring up slogans or buzz-words that are bizarre, extreme, absurd, humorous or ridiculous ("tree-huggers," "baby killers," "welfare-queens," etc.) to catch the reader's attention, and then try to portray these extreme examples as typical or normal in order to reduce your argument to absurdity or ridicule. But, even when refuting such "junk" arguments, remember that readers almost always prefer you to explain or refute examples rather than simply ignoring or discarding them.

Refute an opposing argument if:

  • it has already been made by your adversary, or

  • if you can anticipate the opponent will make the argument, or

  • if there is a reasonable possibility that the reader might think of it and be persuaded by it.

Otherwise, the reader will naturally assume that you have no defense to such arguments. But make your own arguments first in the statement of your standpoint. You will persuade more easily if the reader's dominant impression is that you deserve to win, rather than simply that opposing arguments deserve to lose. If you sound too defensive, that can undermine an otherwise worthwhile argument. And, your standpoint will more easily persuade if you have established it clearly and persuasively before you start to attack opposing arguments.

If you are refuting arguments that your opponent has already put forth you know most of the arguments that threaten you. However, even then the reader might think up other arguments not mentioned by your opponent. Even if an argument has not been mentioned by your opponent, refute it if it has a reasonable chance of popping into the reader's mind. If you will not see your adversary's arguments before composing your own, use this criterion for all opposing arguments that you can think of.

How long should your refutation section be? Make it as long as necessary to convince the reader not to decide against you. You should refute opposing arguments one by one, but only a brief treatment is necessary if the opposing arguments are silly or minor, if the opposing argument or authority (ethos) is easily refuted, or if there is a risk that your audience will become confused or bored. You will, of course, need to say more if the opposing arguments are stronger or if your counter-analysis is more complex, or if the ethos of your opponent is stronger than yours.


If you know you are right, it is tempting to simply state your case and let your readers judge. Unfortunately, you cannot reduce the strength of adverse arguments and authorities simply by giving them minimal treatment in your own writing--they have lives and voices of their own. Every argument has two sides to it--and your job is to show not only why you are right, but also why your opponents are not.  

Some parts of this text are paraphrased and adapted for undergraduate use from Neumann, Richard K Jr., Legal Reasoning and Legal Writing. 4th ed. Gaithersburg: Aspen, 2001. 304-6. For classroom use only! Used under fair use.

O.W. 1/05  rev 1/08.