How to Cheat in an Argument

(or, even better, how to catch yourself doing it)


Absence. Stop listening.

Abstraction. Keep the discussion at the level of high-flown generality.

Accent. Use tone of voice to smuggle fraud past the listener without suspicion.

Access. Reduce a complex subject (which requires thought) to gossip (which everyone can take part in).

Ad hominem. Have a go at the other person, rather than their argument.

Air-castle. Declare a fine objective. Argue from the assumption that you have already achieved it.

Anecdote I. Accept a mere anecdote as crucial evidence.

Anecdote II. Dismiss crucial evidence as mere anecdote.

Anger. Present it as proof of how right you are.

Assent. Go with the flow of authority or opinion.

Assertion. Simply assert your case, without any argument at all.

Begging the question. Use your conclusion as an argument to prove your conclusion. A circular argument.

Big stick. Threaten.

Blame. Assume that the problem is solved when you have found someone to blame.

Bullshit. Talk at length about nothing.

Calibration. Keep to yourself an opinion which might cause trouble. Go with the flow.

Cant. Offer assurances of goodness and good intentions, showing that no nice person could possibly disagree with you.

Causes. Assume that an event which follows another event was therefore caused by it.

Certainty. Be unaware of the possibility that you may be wrong.

Choice. Assume that we do what we choose, and we choose what we want.

Cold argument. Present a case so cold and impersonal that the other side freezes.

Common nature. Assume everyone else is as good-natured—or not—as you.

Composition. Argue that since one person can do it (e.g., come first in the race) everyone can do it.

Correlation gambit. Assert that “they” are all the same.

Counterexample. Cite one instance which disproves the other side’s entire belief system: “But I have a friend who . . .”

Damper. Refuse to recognise anything except moderation.

Decisiveness. Sweep aside all argument by the supercharged simplicity of your reaction.

Definition. Define a word to mean what you want it to mean today, and defend that definition at all costs.

Devil’s voice. Make your point only half seriously; if it goes down badly, you can claim to be only joking.

Dialectic. Explain everything in terms the struggle between two powerful forces: workers and capitalists, heaven and hell, us and them.

Disconnection. Fire off slogans. Don’t worry about whether they join up.

Discretion. Do not tell them the truth, because they, unlike you, are not intelligent or strong enough to cope with it.

Distraction. Divert attention from the point, by any means available.

Empty sandwich. Say something that sounds plausible and avoids being wrong by virtue of actually meaning nothing at all.

Evil motive. Explain away the other side’s argument by the brilliance of your insight about their real intentions.

Exception. Insist that a statement is entirely untrue because there is (or might be) one case where it does not hold.

Exit. Walk out.

Expectations. Assume that if the other side does not say what you expect, they need help.

Expertise. Appeal to your own, or someone else’s, expert knowledge. Now it’s beneath your pay-grade to listen.

F-word. Proof that you are getting to the heart of the matter, while everyone else is dithering.

False analogy. Derail the argument with an irrelevant example.

False consistency. Avoid having to choose between two incompatible alternatives, by going for both.

False inference. Draw false conclusions from observations.

False opposite. Define a word in terms of it not being its opposite. Example: regulation is good, because its opposite is chaos.

False premise. Start with nonsense. Build on it with meticulous accuracy and brilliance.

False sameness. Assume that every new event or argument is the same as a previous event or argument which you have already made up your mind about.

Familiarity bias. Believe things that sound familiar; disbelieve things that don’t.

Fine-distinction-intolerance. Refuse any critical judgment at the margin (e.g., where pass/fail hangs on one mark).

Fluency. Be so fluent in your delivery that no one notices what you are saying.

Fragmentation. Disrupt with such persistence that the other person’s argument is reduced to disjointed remarks, which can be picked off at leisure.

Give up. Assume that, if you cannot think of a solution, there isn’t one.

Grim reality. Assume that good qualities are either fantasy or nostalgia. Lends plausibility to claims of harsh necessity.

Half-truth. Speak the truth, but leave out the part that matters.

Hearing-trouble I. Don’t listen.

Hearing-trouble II. Hear every challenging argument as belonging to an “-ism”, or a “wing”, and reject it in boredom and disgust.

Hearing-trouble III. Hear no challenging argument unless it belongs to an “-ism” or a “wing” which you can recognise.

High ground. Capture the moral advantage by insisting that the fates of real people are at stake here, which the other side appears to overlook.

Humility. Expose your humility as proof of your good judgment.

Hyperbole. Use wild exaggeration—especially useful for making the other person’s case look ridiculous.

Hypocrisy scourge. Don’t worry about whether the person is right. Just assert that he doesn’t live up to the standards he argues for and accuse him of being a hypocrite.

Icon. Reduce the argument to one ready-made idea: a silver bullet solution.

Ideology. Live and die for a single seductive theory that explains everything.

Ignorance. Exploit your ignorance of a subject as freedom to say anything you like about it.

Implicature. Use a true statement to imply a false statement. Example: “Cassio has got Desdemona’s handkerchief in his pocket.”

Inattention. Don’t trouble to read what has been written before disagreeing with it.

Indignation. Dismiss the other side’s case as too repugnant to contemplate.

Innocence. Present yourself as the sweet innocent, who cuts through all the clever stuff and with refreshing childlike simplicity gets straight to the point.

Intelligence. Rest secure—someone of your intelligence can’t be wrong.

Internal evidence. Select only evidence which confirms your case.

Interrupt. Destroy all possibility of a sensible conversation, by not allowing the other side to speak. If necessary, shout.

Irrelevance. Assume that if you cannot immediately see the relevance of something, it is off the topic and merits no further thought.

Irrelevant past. Dismiss former times as of no significance: they weren’t as clever then as we are now. (Time fallacies)

Lunch bias. Agree with anyone who buys you lunch. (see also Digestive Ethics)

Many questions. Mix the agreed with the debatable. Example: “Has your objectionable boyfriend got a corkscrew I could borrow?”

Memory as irrelevant. Assume that you don’t need to remember anything because your opinion is enough, and anyway you can find it on the internet.

Mindset. Sustain your opinion inflexibly without regard to any argument at all.

Money. Assume that money is the only measure that matters, and the only motivation that works.

Nit-pick. Use an error of detail to rubbish the other side’s whole case.

No alternative. Conclude that, since options A, B and C are impossible, therefore there is no alternative to option D. But D may be impossible, too. And what about option Q?

No evidence. Assume that anything you haven’t taken the trouble to find out, doesn’t exist.

Nothing new. Respond to all information—including the most astonishing—in the same way: “I know”.

Numbers. Give your case plausibility by quoting your own precise statistics; fall for the statistics quoted by the other side.

Old hat. Dismiss an argument on the grounds that you have disregarded it before.

Permanent present. Assert that the future, or at least the direction of progress, will be much the same as now. (Time fallacies)

Perpetual notion. Assume that today’s scientific opinion will hold good in the future.

Personal experience. Use your personal experience (e.g., surviving a train crash) to claim expertise (e.g., how to run the railway).

Pharisee. Assume that a person as good as you can only have good opinions, exempting you from the need to think.

Plausibility. Bluff your way through. Get the grades.

Possession. Quarrel with any thought that is not your own.

Reasons. Dismiss an argument as wrong if the other side cannot give reasons for it. Cite their irrational intuition as proof of how rational you are being, as needed.

Recency. Allow recent events to crowd out all other considerations.

Reductionism. Dismiss the entire argument other than the simplified bit of it you want to talk about.

Repetition. Make the same argument over and over again, until the other side is screaming.

Rhetorical capture. Be carried away by the other side’s rhetoric, or your own.

Scepticism. Dismiss anything that is surprising.

Scientism. Explain that you’re a scientist, so that, if you don’t understand it, it can’t be true.

Sedation. Send the other side to sleep.

Self-evident. Assume that because something is self-evident you don’t need to find out whether it is true or not.

Shifting ground. As each of your arguments is defeated, try another one. Reduce the other side to exhaustion.

Shock tactics. If someone disagrees with you, freak out.

Simplification. Simplify, to the point of lunacy. It makes you audible in politics.

Sincerity. Use your sincerity as a licence never to have to apply your mind again.

Slippery slope. Rubbish a proposal on the grounds that it would cause mayhem if taken to a ludicrous extreme.

Smiler (The). Dismiss the other side’s case with amiable contempt.

Spiking guns. Admit that your argument has trivial flaws, so that you can dismiss the other side’s objections as trivial.

Spillover. Use your expertise in one field as a licence to pronounce on all other topics with authority.

Straw man. Invent an argument which your opponent did not use, and then launch a horrified attack on it.

Strife. Think of every argument as a battle you have to win as proof of your identity.

Sunk cost. Value a project on the basis of what you have spent on it in the past, not the net benefits it will bring in the future.

Survivor bias. Defend a bad practice by pointing to the (few) examples or people which have survived it.

Tautology. Repeat your assertion in different words, hoping that the other side will think you have made a case for it.

Truism. Try to destroy the argument with a loaded statement of the meaningless: “Democracy is democracy.”

Ultimatum. Threaten to walk out: “I don’t want to live in a society like that.”

Uncertainty. Dismiss the possibility that you may be right.

Undeniable words I. Insert “hooray” words (equality, democratic, competitive, vibrant) which no one could disagree with.

Undeniable words II. Insert “boo” words (old boy network, toff, elitist, like-the-Nazis, outdated, bigot, hypocrite) which everyone can agree to hate.

Unfalsifiability. Use a form of argument that can never be shown to be false; e.g., “If only we could all be peaceful, there would be no wars.”

Unknowable future. Insist that, since we don’t know what will happen tomorrow (e.g., to the weather), we cannot possibly know what will happen in 20 years.

Unmentionable. Live in hope that since you do not speak about something, it does not exist.

War on truth I. Say nothing that can be believed.

War on truth II. Believe nothing that is said.

Wishful thinking. Say what you have made yourself believe, because you wish so much it were true.

Witch-hunt. Find a victim.

Wolf. Insist that, because expectations of trouble were false in the past, they will prove false in the future.