Good Versus Bad Arguments


Use of analogy (comparing X to Y) is acceptable, but you must be careful in its use. Sometimes there are more dissimilarities than similarities, which are glossed over. When that happens, a false analogy, which is always bad, is created.

Statistics and survey

Appealing to numbers to sound impressive is always attractive, and hard to counter in a debate, because you do not always know the source of the numbers. Numbers can be used in a number of ways, but are not always accurately used.


I look with at least some skepticism on conversations that start with “I know someone who…” or “I heard about someone…” or “I was talking with someone who…” Personal stories do not provide convincing arguments based on general observations or principles. Personal stories are just that – personal.

Emotional appeal

I look with at least some skepticism on conversations that start with “I like…” or “I hate…” because an appeal to emotions bypasses any rational, critical analysis of the issue. We do not solve problems with emotion. But rather with the use of rational discourse. To make appeals to emotions (“Look at that puppy. He is so cute! Oh, Daddy, Daddy, may we take him home, PUHLEASE?”) does not really address the issue (“No, we do not have room, we do not have time, and I will end up taking care of him. Just forget it.”)


Avoid using inflammatory vocabulary, which by nature does not clarify, elucidate, or cultivate problem solving (“You always/never buy me anything.” “Obviously, you are an idiot!” “Any clear-thinking person would see that I am the best.”). Personally, I tend to soft-pedal or understate the case – it seems to make it stronger.


Define, define, define (did I say “define” ?) terms. Do not be afraid to ask, “What are we talking about?” Or, “What do you mean by ‘( insert term here)’ ?” “Pizza is the best” – best what? Deal? Tasting? Nutritionally?

Straw man

Avoid offering criticism of an artificial argument or situation that is not really under discussion. For example, to attack the commandment, “You shall not kill” is to attack a straw man – that is not one of the Ten Commandments.

Ad hominum

Attacking the person, rather than the argument – do not do it! Critique the argument or issue. When you are debating smoking, your opponent might be a smoker. Do not say, “Of course you would say that. You smoke.” The person is not the issue; the issue is the issue.

Appeal to authority

This is not a bad form; however, it often is done incorrectly or inappropriately. Make sure your authority is an authority (i.e., expert) on the issue. Speaking to a general manager of a professional football team about his or her assessment of the Green Bay Packers is one thing. Speaking to the same individual about professional hockey is another. Being an expert in one area does not necessarily make him or her an expert in another.

The sub-category of appealing to religious authority or the Bible is the same. Your pastor may not be the person to contact for an answer about why your car engine is not working. Likewise, if I open up the Bible and throw some verses at you does not mean I did it correctly.

Note: beware that to win or lose a debate (or argument) means you have convinced your audience, possibly with bad arguments, and not that you have arrived at the truth about a matter

Topic revision: r1 - 2011-11-29 - JimSkon
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