How to Refute an Argument (and how not to)

What is the difference between an uncritical attack, on the one hand, and a critical refutation, on the other? Understanding what is wrong and right is quite different from feeling comfortable with a given set of ideas and positions (comfort does not necessitate rightness or truth). To this end, to know this difference between actually arguing and refuting, I will briefly explain what a refutation actually is (and isn’t). In the world of information, this is extremely important.

If you want to pinpoint the source of an error in a given argument, you basically have two fronts to consider: (1) the truth of the premises, and (2) the reasoning between the premises that lead to the conclusion (validity). Knowing this, we can also infer how NOT to refute something. That is to say, a true refutation does at least one of the two things we just discussed (or both). A false refutation is something that looks good on a superficial and emotional level, like something substantial is being said but doesn’t survive careful analysis (it isn’t actually substantial; flash without substance).

Boiled Down: uNDERMINE AN ARGUMENT BY SHOWING the FALSITY OF ONE OR MORE PREMISES, AND/OR SHOWING THAT THERE IS AN INVALID INFERENCE.

fOR A COMPLETE REFUTATION, HOWEVER, YOU NEED A COUNTER ARGUMENT THAT CONTRADICTS THE CONCLUSION OF THE ARGUMENT THAT YOU ARE ATTACKING.

Some popular fallacies are basically attacks (not on the actual argument, its premises, etc). Ad hominem (latin for ‘against the man’) is popular, which is simply to attack the character of the arguer or the platform that they have. For instance, rather than wrestling with the cited data, the interpretation of the data, or the reasoning, one could attack the style, or appeal to anything else that prevents another person from ‘taking it seriously.’ The ‘it’ here is the argument. The argument is important, the means that the communication is made, verbally, visually, etc, but these things are not important (only important in an auxiliary way).

This can’t be stressed enough. A bad person can make a good argument. A good person can make a bad argument. A smart person can assert something foolish and stupid. A fool can say something brilliant and true. This is why critical thinking and logic are so important. If we can cultivate the ability to reason together, examine arguments, and know what the ‘point’ of the argument is, then we can all jointly get closer to the truth.

With this in mind, if you read something that you think is wrong, the burden is two-fold: showing the falsehood of premises, and/or showing the illicit inference. That’s it.


Contrariwise, a false refutation is precisely when you make an attack that essentially tells yourself and others: ‘don’t wrestle with the premises and reasoning’. That is, a false refutation is an attack on the general credibility of the arguer instead of the argument itself.

There are some some notable things to be said though, regarding credibility of sources. A person known for lying might be lying. True. A news site known for fabricated stories might be fabricating stories. These are things that we should be aware of. However, if we are to be part of the critical discussion of ideas and truth, we have to demonstrate where the arguments go wrong, if we are to understand how to get things right.

In short, critical reasoning is hard, and we should be on our guard to not pretend we are doing it, when in fact, we are just attacking something without examining it carefully. An honest solution is easy. You can say, ‘I don’t know.’ Or, ‘I haven’t examined the studies yet.’ The worst thing that you can do though, is to pretend to think carefully when there was nothing going on but sheer prejudice (‘I don’t like this view, so it must be stupid and wrong’).

So, let’s talk about premises and reasoning because that is what critical thinking requires. It is hard. It is time-consuming. But it is better for everyone.

See also these articles on reasoning and logic:

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Author: TheCommoner

I am a philosopher that is interested in what makes life worth living, what is worth pursuing, and how we can learn from the past. I believe that good philosophy benefits everyone and that there should be philosophers that present philosophy to those outside of the academy.