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WRTG 3020, 3030, 3040, 1150, 1250 (Wilkerson

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ANALYZING AND REFUTING ARGUMENTS:
PART ONE: Sympathy and Skepticism
One of the first challenges you’ll confront in the next assignment is not an intellectual one, but an
emotional one. You need to break the largely emotional habit of agreeing with arguments just because
you share the author’s political agenda, or you know that his argument is intellectually chic, or you find
him particularly witty, or you are moved by his emotional appeals. Citing any of these as grounds for
agreement is, finally, a form of intellectual laziness.
You need, instead, to cultivate the habits of the sympathetic skeptic. The skeptic only agrees with
those arguments that are logically convincing. That said, the skeptic is sympathetic to any serious
attempt at argument -- but only in the sense that he is willing to make a thorough effort to understand the
basic facts and claims of a given argument before he judges the validity of that argument. Sympathy, in
this context, is not a vague sense of emotional agreement. It is a necessary starting point, an attitude of
openness that allows the skeptic to evaluate an argument on its merits.
If the skeptic doesn’t find the argument logically compelling and wishes to express his skepticism,
he must engage in the formal activity of refutation. Refutation is not a matter of sniping at the other
author, ridiculing him, or dismissing him by labeling him as a “p.c. liberal,” an “earth raping capitalist,” or
whatever else might be the trendy insult of the day. Nor is it a matter of quibbling over minor factual
errors or inflating secondary logical problems into cause for dismissing the author’s primary case.
Refutation is the process of striking and defending a stance of opposition with the aim of edifying and
convincing the skeptical reader and the opposing author. Serious people don’t refute arguments in order
to denigrate their opponents or demonstrate their own rhetorical brilliance; they do it to it in order to make
a purposeful, good faith contribution to what the historian Christopher Lasch calls “the conversation of our
culture.”
You will find, more often than not, that the person whose case you are refuting actually shares
your general political ideology. In that instance, refutation can’t be a self-promoting exercise in defending
the faith against the heathen liberals or conservatives; it is instead, an exercise in refining and developing
your shared argument.
In order to do this, you must first closely analyze the other author’s case -- not with a mind toward
finding flaws, but with the aim of understanding the overall structure of the case. You must be sure that
you understand all of the basic facts, claims and unstated assumptions in his argument, and you must be
sure that your understanding is as thorough and impartial as is it can possibly be.
The most simple and direct generic refutational thesis is he is wrong. There is no more clear or
more comprehensive way to strike a stance of opposition than to state this thesis. But you can also
refute an argument from a stance of agreement by using this generic thesis: I agree, but he fails to prove
his case. When you use this thesis, you are stating that you agree with the author’s general point but are
unconvinced by his specific case. You are then obligated to explain why his specific case is unconvincing
before you present a better case.
The important thing to remember is that the skeptic opposes the quality or validity of the
argument, and not the author, or the author’s ideology as it is manifested in the argument. You cannot do
this unless you understand the basic facts, claims and forms of the other author’s argument; and you
can’t achieve this understanding unless you first sympathize with the other writer’s case. Just remember
that when we speak of sympathy in this class, we are referring to an attitude of openness -- a willingness
to learn and to be convinced.
PART TWO: Analyzing Arguments
All arguments are made up of three basic ingredients:
1.) facts
2.) claims (logically defensible opinions about the facts)
3.) assumptions (the usually unstated ideas and logical premises upon which the validity of a
claim, in part, rests).
As skeptical readers, we should only be convinced by arguments in which the basic facts are
accurate and relevant, and the claims and unstated assumptions about the facts are logically defensible

in other words. . Cf. but he doesn’t cite any evidence in defense of it. b) He falsely assumes that all reasonable readers do or should share his moral/religious/ philosophical/political values. “the only valid democracy is direct.) He omits the relevant facts through ignorance or lack of expertise. he has failed.) His claims are defensible and his evidence is interesting.) The entire essay is merely an attempt to rationalize a questionable ideological assumption or dogma. or.) One of his reasons contains an unproven or false analytical assumption. Be aware that these are just a way to get started. Instead. the reasons you outline in the projected organization part of your introductory paragraph) for a generic thesis along these lines: His case is unconvincing for several reasons.wikipedia. a.) He relies upon emotionally compelling rhetoric when he should be citing and discussing hard. use the following formulas as a first step in stating ideas that will engage the other writer’s claims directly. the fallacies of the straw man..e.) Look especially for subjective impressions presented in the form of cost-benefit analyses or other ostensibly objective forms.) His representation of the facts is distorted by his personal opinions or emotions. You don’t literally have to phrase your reasons in the manner I indicate below. the false dilemma. the author falsely assumes that there is a simple and universal definition for an ambiguous or complex term. 3.) He misrepresents the relevant facts. hasty generalization. we should only be convinced by arguments in which the author clearly discusses the logical connections between the facts that he cites and the claims that he makes. to put it another way. but the evidence he cites in support of them actually contradicts them or can be reinterpreted to contradict them. his is a blind assertion or an assertion without proof. but they are ultimately specious because they fail to engage the most obvious and convincing counter thesis.) All or part of his case is based upon a personal or restrictive definition of a general term (e. Below is a list of general strategies that you can use in analyzing and refuting an argument. or. Any one of them can be used to construct a preliminary case (i.) He presents only those facts that support his argument and omits those that seem to refute it.nizkor. the fallacies of the non sequitur and the red herring.org/features/fallacies/ 2.) His entire case or a specific supporting claim is based upon a false assumption or a false inference.. in other words.) His claims seem plausible.and logically related.org/wiki/Logical_fallacy and http://www. 1. 6. c. but there is no logical connection between them. When you make this kind of criticism.) His claim seems plausible and defensible.) His claims appear to have some merit. there is an assumption that you will either present the evidence that will make or refute his point. a. c. 5. in his discussion of the evidence. (Cf. b. NOTE: You need to do more than point out that his is a blind assertion. d. You can find a description of this fallacy and several others at the following web sites:http://en. the forced hypothesis. (Be careful that this does not become an ad hominem attack. In other words. to make the connection between claim and evidence clear and explicit.g. That’s only the first step. 4. 7. “the American Dream is purely a matter of self-reliance”). relevant evidence. Further.. he assumes that an arguable point is a fact and bases his argument in part or in whole on that false assumption. non-representational democracy”.

In other words.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_Hitlerum .) 9.) His argument is valid and convincing. Use the above examples as a preliminary step in phrasing your theses and reasons. and the religious or intellectual content of the litter didn’t matter. in this case a false association. it was about protection of public lands. certain local members of the ACLU argued that the city violated the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment when it allowed people to put religious symbols on trees on public land.) 10.. every fallacy on the list. 3. the hard-working tax payers. don’t just point out minor flaws in the argument. Respond to the other author’s specific claims. In other words. but it is also unconvincing because he hasn’t addressed the relevant issue. What does it mean. Consider this tactic a specific version of guilt by association. but it has undergone a renaissance (pardon my French) with the fall of the Soviet empire and the decline of communism in general. when someone likens the local school board president to a genocidal totalitarian ruler? You might review the related concept of reductio ad hitlerum at: http://en. the state governments and corporations are the lords. He has taken time to make a specific case. Make your claims specific to the other author’s case. This is almost a matter of courtesy. Americans love to accuse each other of being too much like the French. Consider the one-size-fits-all Hitler/Stalin analogy.” This argument ignores our ability to change the “King” by means of the popular vote. the ACLU was wrong because the issue wasn’t about free speech.8.) The author attempts to place a current issue in a broader social context. exactly. incomplete. (Consider Boulder’s “angels in the open space” dispute. 2. He does this in order to create the impression that everyone who is an expert on the subject at hand shares his opinion.) All or part of his case is based upon a false analogy (e.) Don’t feel obligated to use the generic analytical language in this reading in your thesis and projected organization. . Red baiting has been replaced by “rouge baiting. You owe it to him to respond to that specific case before you advance your own. don’t use another writer’s argument for therapeutic cloning to advance a general case against therapeutic cloning. In short. logical case and instead relies upon emotional pleas and personal attacks (cf.) He doesn’t make a formal.wikipedia. and we.g. but makes historical references that are either irrelevant or presented in a biased.) His argument is well-constructed and well-argued.) Don’t use the above as a means of quibbling. 14. straw man. are the serfs.) He quotes only those authorities who support his opinion and ignores those credible authorities who contradict it. Others countered that the 1st Amendment argument was irrelevant because this was simply a matter of littering. but especially ad hominem attacks. but he draws a false conclusion from it or makes a call for action that does not proceed logically from it. (Did any of you have freedom toast for breakfast? Would you like freedom fries with your hamburger?) This tactic has a long tradition in American culture. but only slightly. “The American tax system is simply and updated version of Medieval feudalism: the Federal government is the King. then advance your counter argument.. Make one of the above a particular point of emphasis only if it demonstrates how the other author’s mistake has invalidated his thesis or a reason for his thesis. or unconvincing manner. I am joking. Several years ago. 13.) 11. Consider the promiscuous quotation of Thomas Jefferson or Alexis deTocqueville that is so popular in our political discourse these days.” Caveats: 1. ad populum).) The author compares an English speaking opponent to the French. 12. (This is closely related to 1b above.) Don’t speak to the issue in general.