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Writers of argument recognize the importance of offering refutation for the opposing position. Teachers of the argumentative essay also know the difficulty of getting students to respond to opposing arguments. The refutative speech, which is based on policy debate, offers a lively introduction to refutation in argument.
A common problem with student counter-arguments is the absence of direct clash (disagreement). Clash results from identifying the central point of disagreement and identifying a weakness in the opposing viewpoint.
The most common way to refute an argument resides in testing the inductive and/or deductive reasoning. For deduction, test the syllogisms and enthymemes. For induction, test the examples, analogy, causation, authority, or statistics used to argue a point. Also evaluate the argument for fallacies.
1. Argue the evidence: Accuracy, sufficiency, relevance, timliness, bias, completeness are all potential points of clash. The source's credentials and statistics also offer potential for clash.
2. Argue the reasoning: Faulty generalizations, analogies and comparisons, cause/effect relations, and deductions may present flaws in an argument.
3. Deny the argument with credible evidence that shows the falseness of an argument.
4. Identify inconsistencies in an argument.
5. Minimize the argument by showing its insignificance.
6. Use "reductio ad absurdum" to show the logical conclusion of an argument is unacceptable. Analogies work well for this.
7. Deny inherency. When arguing policy issues, what we should do, an opposing position might be that fixing what's wrong needs only a minor adjustment, the system is moving toward resolution of the problem, etc.
8. Address dilemmas. Boiling an argument down to competing alternatives, neither of which is acceptable, is an effective form of refutation.
9. Argue differentiation. First show specific differences in your position. Next, through direct comparison, show the strengths in your position.
10. Turn the Tables: Argue that the opposition actually supports your position rather than the one s/he claims to support. This method of refutation is a form of concession.
4-Step Refutative Process:
Both systematic and clear, this four-step process guarantees clash with the opposing argument.
1. State the position you are refuting.
2. State your position in a concise sentence.
3. Support your position, using reasoning and evidence to support your claim.
4. Explain how your position is superior to or trumps the opposing argument.
When arguing against a position, having more than one response is important. Three is the magic number. Thus, when a speaker (or writer) advocates a policy for requiring students to take online classes, ideally the refutation consists of three refutative arguments.
For example, an argument for decriminalizing drugs might be refuted in three ways:
[refutation S1] I have three responses to the argument that decriminalizing drugs will reduce crime.
[refutation S2] Drug use leads to crime, so decriminalizing drugs won't reduce crime. (Cause/effect argument)
[refutation S3] It's true that studies connect crime to drugs, but this isn't caused by laws against drug use. Rather, its the byproduct of addiction and an addicts driving need for the next fix. The number of crimes committed to acquire drugs is minuscule compared to the crime committed from the influence of drug use.
*At this point, its appropriate to present supporting evidence. Again, three is the magic number. Some sources include Drug Watch International, JAMA, The Drug Policy Report, et al.
[refutation S4] Impact (consequences): Since decriminalizing drugs won't decrease crime. The behavior associated with drug use will result in other threats to society as demand for now legal drugs escalates.
The next refutative argument:
[refutation S2] Decriminalizing drugs will not eliminate the black market. (argue reasoning and causation)
[refutation S3] Advocates of decriminalization still support restrictions to drug use by minors, pilots, pregnant women, and felons. Thus, demand for a black market would persist, as would crime.
*Offer evidence to support. The Shipmann Library of Drug Policy is a potential source.
[refutation S4] A black market creates an environment for crime and other criminal tendencies. Thus, the argument that legalizing drugs reduces crime loses its impact.
The third refutative argument:
[refutation S2] Decriminalizing drugs may increase crime [Turning the Tables]
[refutation S3] Legalizing drugs removes the criminal deterant, leading to increased use and addiction. This will result in increased crime.
*Offer evidence to support the argument.
[refutation S4] Since decriminalizing drugs will increase use, addiction, and, consequently, crime, the argument for legalizing drugs has the opposite effect of its intent.
In-class Refutative Speeches
Students work in pairs to present refutative speeches, which proceed as follows:
Speaker 1. Argument in support of a position (2-3 minutes)
Speaker 2. Refutation against the position (5-6 minutes). This includes a constructive argument separate from the original proposition.
Speaker 1: Refutation against the second speaker's constructive argument. (2-3 minutes). It's important that the speaker only argue against the second speaker's constructive and that s/he present two or three refutative points (see above format). This results in direct clash with the opposing position
By practicing direct clash in speaking situations, students learn both to support and refute a position. Thus, rather than writing essays that offer a cursory nod to an opposing position, they learn to clarify their thinking and build strong, clear analysis.
Communication 101 Principles of Speech Course Supplement, 4th ed. Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies, Idaho State University. Fall 2011. pp. 104-108
*Special thanks to Nancy Legge, PhD for her excellent work on the refutative speech, the Comm1101 supplement, and commitment to maintaining academic standards in education. The information in this post is adapted from the Comm 1101 supplement, including the sample refutative argument, although this method of refutation is one I used and taught during my competitive debate years. :-)