A friend of mine (Nav) requested that I write about this topic so I decided that I might as well. Anyone who’s tried before knows that I’m a very difficult person to argue with. As far as credentials go, no girl friend has ever won an argument with me (gasp!). I am a little hesitant about giving away some of my “secrets” but heck, I can always tell if someone tries to use these on me so I guess I don’t have that much to lose.
This is actually quite a deep and complex field. You’ve been warned: this will be a long read. But then again, could you take me seriously if I said the secret to an unbeatable argument was only 300 words?
I’m going to go through the gritty truth – not an idealised version of arguments where whoever’s being logical wins. Of course, logical fallacies will come into play, but not quite in the way you might expect. I tried to limit it to 9 tips but in reality it’s not so clear cut. Everything relates to everything else and it depends on the scenario of the argument too. So before we get to the 9 official tips, let’s take a look at some scenarios you’ll have arguments in. In general, I think there are three:
- Academic discourse: Including but not limited to debates organised by academic institutions. This can just be an online discussion about an intellectual topic.
- Argument with peers: This can also include online discussions, but also with colleagues (both from work or school). The difference here is that there is some sort of recognition here – you know them, though not necessarily well.
- Arguments with close friends: This scenario is the tender one because you have some sort of emotional attachment to the person. An extreme scenario of this category would be arguing with a partner. Otherwise it could just be arguments with friends (sometimes in good spirit and sometimes not).
What you need to understand is that you have to treat these three scenarios a bit differently. I won’t go into it too much but it should be common sense. For scenario 3, you should call it quits earlier than you would for scenario 1. At times it’s more important to avoid hurting someone you care about or creating long-lasting dissent than being correct. This might sound funny coming from me because I love being always right.
By contrast, in an academic discourse you can continue arguing a matter until you run out of proper evidence (or if there’s a time limit that expires).
With peers it really depends – you don’t want to offend your boss, for example, but most of the time you can probably push things a little farther (because you won’t know each other well enough to get personal). This is how I have so many religious friends even though I often argue about it – I just try not to take it too far.
My point here? Just be careful. With great knowledge comes great responsibility – don’t go ruining your relationships by being unarguable against.
Now to the main body: 9 Ways to Create an Unbeatable Argument. In reality, each technique is used in combination with others to create a statement/argument. Because of this it’s hard to list them one by one and give examples. After you’re done reading all 9 you can go back and check if you can identify each tip and emboldened word. Also, my apologies if you feel a religious context seeping in – the two things I argue about most are science and religion. This is simply because there are more debates about those two things than anything else that I’m interested in; I mean no offence. Also, for the sake of a control group, I assume all arguments have an objective third party (a two person argument is pointless, it can always just get stuck with both parties disagreeing). The only time a third party isn’t needed to judge the “winner” is when your goal is to convince your opponent (in which case success is determined by your opponent).
1. Call your opponent out on everything. And I mean everything. It takes a lot less effort to attack a position than it does to defend one. Why? Because a scientific/logical method is that you must provide proof of your position before you can formally consider it to be a position at all. A scientist can’t just come out and say “here’s my new theory”. He/she must provide a peer-reviewed academic publication with mathematical and empirical proof. This is where the difference between a hypothesis and a theory comes in: the hypothesis is the idea. After it is proven it becomes a theory. Incidentally, this is also why many science-orientated minds disapprove of the validity of religion. A scientist presents a theory by saying “here’s my proof” whereas a theist presents a theory and says “well, you can’t prove it’s wrong”. Although technically you can prove it’s wrong to a pretty good degree. Oops, I brought up religion already. Sorry guys, it was just for example’s sake.
Anyway, if you don’t get it by now, the gist of it is that if your opponent says something to support his/her argument, by calling it out they are forced to defend their position by providing proof. Proving something is a lot harder than asking someone to prove something. In a way, this can even be used as a red herring. Example time:
Opponent: “We know gravity exists and we know quantum mechanics works, so there must be a way to discover quantum gravity”.
You: “But how do you know gravity exists? It hasn’t ever been observed as either a wave or particle”.
The above is an intentionally ambiguous example. The existence of gravity has been questioned before. Don’t get me wrong, something with gravity-like effects definitely exists, it’s just our understanding of it that’s being questioned. However, this is a problem that has never been solved so by calling them out on it they’re forced to give evidence of gravity. If you put them on the defensive, they can’t continue their argument until they’re done defending. It takes me only two short sentences to call them out on something that most people would consider to be a solid fact, but I guarantee it will take my opponent more than two sentences to provide evidence of gravity.
But wait, there’s more. This is the number 1 tip because it incorporates the most into it. Calling them out on stuff goes beyond red herrings. If they legitimately say something wrong, you call them out on it too. Even if it appears obvious to an onlooker, call them out on it. Do it sarcastically, mockingly or offensively, just do it appropriately (don’t go insulting your boss) and do it with impact.
Opponent: “There is no scientific consensus that climate change is real”.
You: “No consensus? Maybe my opponent here should actually read some scientific publications before we continue this debate.”
Short and sweet. Call them out on it, it makes them look bad. If they use a logical fallacy, call them out on it. Name the fallacy (see: tip number 6), say they used it and mock them (appropriately) for it. Never leave anything unspoken. In one minute you can call someone out on at least 6 things (10 seconds each). That’s at least minus 6 points in the eyes of the onlooker.
2. Know your shit. Sounds bleedingly obvious but I have to stress it. I will not try and argue about something I don’t have enough relevant material for. I’ll argue with a layman about science but I won’t argue with Hawking about black holes. I’ll argue with Christians using their own religion but against any other religion, I’ll argue using only logic and science. The more you know, the harder it is for you to appear wrong. Note, I say appear wrong. I’ve been in plenty of arguments where I realised half way that I was wrong but I always manage to salvage the arguments using tips 3, 4 and 7. A good opponent will call you out on anything wrong you say, so keep tip 4 in mind.
It’s also good to have an understanding of the more common arguments that are used (for example, absolute morality is almost always mentioned in atheist-religious debates) and familiarise yourself with ways to deal with these arguments: such as my Debunking the Absolute Morality Argument (which, by the way, you might realise features a lot of the techniques I mention in this post).
3. Use an evolving argument. What do I mean by this? A lot of things really, but essentially I just mean don’t be pig headed. Being stubborn is bad because it’s often very easy to be called out on. An onlooker can easily see when someone is being stubborn about something. This relates a bit to the next tip (tip 4) but if you feel like you’ve hit a wall with one approach, change approaches. Never dig yourself into a hole. If you get stuck, throw a red herring (tip 1 and tip 8) and change tacks.
This also applies for being on the offensive. First consider your goal: is it to convince somebody or something simply win the argument or just to assume an unassailable position (a logical position that cannot be dismantled, at least not easily). Let’s assume your goal is to convince somebody. Some people do not listen to reason or logic or science. If your goal is to convince someone, you have to play by their rules (this situation doesn’t really require a third party – winning the argument depends on whether or not they’re convinced).
Opponent: “The Earth is 6,000 years old. How do you know your science is right? I’ve heard there are problems with how they date things”.
You: “Ok, let’s forget all the scientific evidence for the age of the Earth and the universe for a second. Why do you think the Earth is only 6,000 years old? Because the bible says so, right? But how do you know the bible is right? Well that’s because a lot of scholars have analysed it and confirmed when it was written and that the dates in the bible match up with other texts and real events that happened. But wait, how do they know when the bible was written and whether or not the dates are correct? Using scientific methods to date them (tip 5). So you can’t say science is wrong when it comes to dating or you’ll be saying that you don’t believe the bible is true (tip 1).
That example is good for tip 5 but for now just take it at face value. You cannot convince them no matter how much science and evidence you present. Don’t get stubborn, change tacks. What’s something that will work? Something that their own beliefs are rooted in. A religious fundamentalist’s entire existence revolves around the bible. Therefore, instead of using science, use the bible against them.
4. Learn when to concede points. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong. It’s unavoidable. Sometimes an argument evolves to the point where you realise you were wrong about something. At times you can use semantics to avoid being called out for being wrong, but remember tip 3! Don’t get stubborn. If you’re obviously wrong and you keep denying it, it becomes even more apparent to everyone that you’re wrong. Cut your losses and make the first move: admit it yourself. But that doesn’t mean throw in the towel. Admit smaller mistakes to push bigger points.
You: “Actually, you were right about the homogeneity of the universe. It’s not actually perfectly even. But that’s not relevant to the purpose of this debate. The fact remains that there are no detectable anti-matter galaxies, and you still haven’t provided any evidence otherwise (tip 1).
In a way, this is also a red herring. You assume the position of “the bigger man” by admitting you’re wrong, but you also redirect the flow of the debate to something else which you have the upper hand in. By focusing on what you’re winning, you can easily be wrong about many things and still win the argument.
5. Predict where the argument is going. Although this is number 5, it’s probably the most advanced and powerful of the techniques. There are two parts to this: cutting your losses and guiding your opponent.
Cutting your losses is pretty straight forward. If you can foresee in the near future that one of the points you were arguing is going to be turned around or proven wrong, steer the discussion away. If it’s unavoidable, correct yourself before your opponent has a chance to call you out on it (tip 4). Cutting your losses also relates to tip 7, which I will go into more later.
Guiding your opponent is the tough one and it’s something you need to do subtly. Remember the example in tip 3? This passage in particular is guiding your opponent:
Why do you think the Earth is only 6,000 years old? Because the bible says so, right? But how do you know the bible is right? Well that’s because a lot of scholars have analysed it and confirmed when it was written and that the dates in the bible match up with other texts and real events that happened. But wait, how do they know when the bible was written and whether or not the dates are correct? Using scientific methods to date them.
You pose a question then answer it for your opponent. By doing so, you can create an apparently flawless chain of causality. However, keep in mind subtlety. If your opponent knows what you’re doing, they’ll reject it. In the example above, I answer each question with a reasonable answer. For example “a lot of scholars have analysed it and confirmed when it was written …” is not aggressive or disparaging in any way. It almost sounds like I’m complimenting or aiding my opponent’s position.
You can go even subtler still by picking points to discuss that will lead into some of your stronger points. Assuming an academic discourse, if they push 5 points, but one of them leads into a field that you have limited knowledge of, respond to only 4 of their points and guide the argument away. If you use tip 1, most of the time they won’t even realise you haven’t responded to something because they’ll be put on the defensive.
If done correctly, you can create a “logical trap” in which you confine your opponent to a few possible responses and have strong rebuttals to each one.
6. Know your buzz words. Here’s where the logical fallacies come in. To clarify this also includes tip 2; know some good, prepared arguments that you can whip out and adapt to any situation. Logic and science are universal, so any argument based on these can be used in a large variety of situations (though keep in mind science branches off into a lot of things so make sure you know enough of it to argue a point).
For a list of common logical fallacies, you can refer to a post I made earlier with their names and examples: Logical Fallacies. I wanted to shorten that list to ones commonly used in debates but I just ended up re-listing them all, plus some (which I will now add to that post). Just learn a few – some are so obvious you’ll remember them easily. What do you do with your buzz words? Tip 1. Whenever you see one used, call them out on it. Tip 1 combined with buzz words creates the biggest impact because you can use an officially documented fallacy to show your opponent is wrong.
Other buzz words include (just to name a few): logical/illogical, causal relationship, unscientific, academic/intellectual, proof/evidence, and any other relevant terminology to whatever field you are discussing.
Remember, you can out-verbalise your opponent and even win by doing so. People often ask me why proper English is so important. Here’s one of the reasons. I can argue with terrible English until the cows come home but I’ll still look like an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
UniVerz can Haz no crEAtEr cuz sciEnce sAy beginNIngs lyke biG BanG is sinGularety and SmaLL lyke PartiLcLE so QuAtum mekanikz alloW smaLL thing aPpeaRZ soMethIng fRom NothInG.
Despite being correct, if you ever saw that quote I wrote up there you would instantly think the guy is an idiot and brush aside anything he has to say as the ramblings of an undereducated simpleton. This is just an extreme end of the spectrum. The point is that with good English and buzz words you can out-verbalise your opponent and create more impact, as well as appear more correct (even if you’re not).
7. Cover all your bases. This relates a bit to tip 5. If you predict that some of your arguments have flaws that will be exploited, prepare your course of action. Hesitation and stumbling will reveal guilt. This is something I’m particularly good at because I always know exactly what’s wrong with what I’m saying.
Think of it this way – it’s much easier to poke holes in an argument than prepare one yourself right? So just think about what you’re saying and poke holes in it yourself. If you find a hole, get ready to patch it up. Just don’t get stuck on the defensive – defend it quickly and concisely with no hesitation and go back on the offensive.
You: “Global warming will cause global increases in temperature that will cause sea levels to rise and food sources to suffer”.
Opponent: “But how do you explain the lower temperatures we’ve been seeing? That’s proof that global warming is a hoax”.
You: “I use the term global warming in it’s original context. Were you unaware they changed the official term to climate change? Because it doesn’t just make hot weather hotter, it makes cold weather colder. You pretty much just proved what I’ve been saying all along, the climate is changing – hence climate change.”
The above example also features a bit of tip 5. You can intentionally leave a “hole” in your argument to lure your opponent into bringing it up. But let’s assume I was actually genuinely mistaken for using the term “global warming” instead of “climate change”. I don’t need to admit it (tip 4) because I can just use semantics to cover it up. My response quickly corrects my mistake, attacks the opponent subtly (almost an ad hominem) and redirects the flow of the argument to the main point.
8. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. “It’s not cheating unless you get caught”. Logical fallacies are wrong to use as a basis for your argument, but you can use them to deliver your argument. Reductio ad absurdum, strawman fallacies, red herrings, ad homniem and appeal to emotion are the ones I commonly use, but I do them subtly in a matter-of-factly way so that they can’t be easily called out. For example, if I ever get called out on a red herring I’ll just say brush it off by implying that I thought the result was obvious but if my opponent needs me to specifically spell it out for them, then I’d be happy to do so. Or the little ad hominem in tip 7 where I say “Were you unaware they changed the official term to climate change?” I can simply pretend to be a genuine question rather than an insult to undermine my opponent’s credibility. It appears to be more like a genuine question because I go on to show a causal relationship, thus explaining it to my opponent as if I genuinely believe he doesn’t know (the climate is changing – hence climate change).
But if any of your core points are based on logical fallacies, you’re going to have a bad time. Only use them to create impact, the foundation of your knowledge should always be solid.
9. Quit while you’re ahead. It’s always better to end with a bang than drawing it out and dying off slowly. If you feel like you’re coming close to running out of points, or that the flow of the argument is going to shift away from you, quit while you’re ahead. But don’t quit quietly. Quit with impact.
You: “Well I’ve provided countless pieces of evidence as well as demonstrated the logical causality (tip 6) for each. My opponent seems hung up on this [one] particular point even though I’ve shown it to be false with [these] arguments (tip 1). I don’t feel any need to indulge his stubbornness (tip 3) any further as I’ve already made it pretty clear that [this] is true. If he still wishes to argue then I’m sure no amount of reason will ever reach him.
End it on your terms. You already have the upper ground so there’s no need for you to continue. Plus, by ending it with the suggestion that any continuance of the argument is indicative of some character or reasoning flaw in your opponent, if they choose to respond with a continuation of the argument, they’ve pretty much just proved your point.