Let's say you come to some sort of debate and you forgot to do your fact checking. What sorts methods could you use to argue a major point, e.g. gun control, without specific facts? I'm thinking something along the lines of rhetoric, but I don't know.

  • 1
    Well, if you are a politician of the fact-free sort, you simply begin every sentence "As everyone knows...." And you counter your opponents facts with "There is no conclusive research to indicate..." since research is never fully concluded. Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 19:44
  • Deductively, from abstract principles. Take up a genuine ethics unrelated to mere accidents and follow it. Quakers, for instance, banned short guns that can be hidden because they have no other use but to threaten people. For any animal that matters, a genuine hunting weapon is better. So it is hostile to our general prohibition against threatening people for them even to exist. You can use an AK-47 to hunt bison, and if you are an amateur you probably need one, but there is no use for a Deringer that is not anti-human.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 19:58
  • "It is easy to be certain. One only has to be sufficiently vague", Peirce. But seriously, you should withdraw from the debate and not waste audience's time with demagoguery.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 2:59

2 Answers 2


The Socratic Method can run off little more than skepticism and creativity. By following a line of questioning you can nit-pick apart most beliefs. This will give you a good foundation to challenge the beliefs of those who haven't given their positions much thought; it works well on conspiracy theories.

An example of this:

  • A:"Look at all those chemicals that airplane is spewing into the air!"
  • B:"Yeah, kind of a bummer, but how are you going to shuttle people around expediently?"
  • A:"Kind of a bummer!? The government is obviously using it as a cover to pump antidepressants into the atmosphere to control the population."
  • B:"Wait, what? What makes you think that?"
  • A:"Look at that exhaust. Gas doesn't burn like that. It has to be something else."
  • B:"But, why is it obvious that it is some mind-control mist?
  • A:"The government is corrupt enough to do that."
  • B:"I can't deny that there is corruption in our government, but this would be a few orders of magnitude greater than campaign finance issues. If it were obvious wouldn't people be outraged?"
  • A:"People aren't outraged because of the anti-depressants."
  • B:"But, people are outraged, right? Maybe not at chemtrails, but there are plenty of other issues that people feel strongly about. Shouldn't the anti-depressants be working on them? Shouldn't they be working on you? It would appear to me that there isn't anything going on in regards to plane exhaust more sinister than potentially lax environmental regulations."

However, the Socratic Method can only get you so far. You are likely to come off as obstinate and unconstructive if you only play the skeptic; especially if you are unable to put forth any positions of your own.

I would like to advocate a method of problem-solving communication that was presented by Dr. Dalton Kehoe in this Great Courses course. A high-level summary of the method is to assume that disagreements arise out of misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge in both parties. From this assumption use active listening to pin down each other's position and perceived problems. And then from this understanding you and your conversation partner can start to brainstorm and evaluate potential solutions to any problem that might exist.

Where the Socratic Method works by pointing out contradictions in your conversation partner's beliefs; this problem-solving method is instead working off the combined knowledge and creativity of you and your interlocutor to find interesting points in the middle, entirely new solutions that meet everybody's desires, or that one side was right all along.

For example:

  • A:"Why do you think we ought to control guns?"
  • B:"Well, I don't feel safe around guns. There seem to be quite a lot of reports about mass shootings."
  • A:"I wouldn't feel safe where I live without a gun."
  • B:"I can understand that, but guns are dangerous by design. Wouldn't you feel safer if you didn't have to worry about them?"
  • A:"Sure, but by making them illegal then you're only taking guns away from those that obey the law. I'm not going to have to defend myself against law-abiding citizens and I don't want to face criminals that are better armed than me."
  • B:"Well, I just want to feel safe out in public. How many shots do you reckon some crazy guy with a handgun could get off in public before someone can stop him?"
  • A:"Well, if he is just unloading into a crowd he could probably empty the magazine."
  • B:"That doesn't exactly instill confidence. Do you see why I would prefer handguns were banned or at least better regulated."
  • A:"The media makes mass shootings seem more frequent than they actually are. Handguns enable people to protect themselves and prevent more crime than they cause, we should focus addressing that problem from other angles."
  • B:"Well, it still seems like overkill to me. Could we limit the amount of bullets one is allowed to have in a magazine? Is it likely you would need more than 5 or 6 shots to defend yourself in a particular incident?
  • A:"It would probably be sufficient in most cases, but it doesn't solve your problem. It would be pretty trivial to jury rig a larger magazine."
  • B:"What if we only allow people to own revolver handguns? Would a six shooter be enough to defend you from the sort of criminal you are likely to encounter?"

The first line of defense I would use in such situations is to look for win-win scenarios. While propositional logic and much of Western philosophy may love the Law of the Excluded Middle, I have found a surprisingly large number of debates admit some middle option, if you look for it. It is very rare that two individuals actually come into a debate with perfectly polar opposite viewpoints (unless this is an artificial debate, designed to promote the idea of a winner and a loser). If you win, who cares if they don't lose! Let them be happy too!

Finding such a state isn't easy, of course. I have found a few approaches that I find work well for identifying such a state when I am short on information:

  • Let my opponent define the battlefield. If I'm coming into a debate without enough preparation, it's my fault. I am now obliged to use the only source of knowledge available to me: my opponent. This can only be done if I allow my opponent to say more than they intended to say. Go ahead, let them define abortion. While they're at it, see if you can goad them into saying something about the value of life in general. It wasn't directly on the topic, but now that's information I have that I didn't have before, and they wont challenge it, because it's their idea in the first place!
  • Work with them in the flow of the debate, accentuating their directions.
    • If they're using sharp formal language, sharpen it further. Make them define the exact meanings of words they are using. Eventually they must come to either an informally defined word, or a situation where you can apply something like Godel's incompleteness theorem or Tarski's non-definability theorem to prove they have to have a flaw in their logic. How do I know this has to happen? Cheating really... very few topics which can be described fully in formal logic become debate worthy! (And if they do succeed in defining it, then at least you came out looking okay... for the guy who had to argue the provably losing side!)
    • If they're using loose informal wording, make it more informal. Try to rip axiom after axiom out of their argument until it can barely stand on its own two feet.
    • In either case, their argument starts to be wobbly. Once its there, the dance begins. You need to pick up your partner, and lead them along until you arrive at an informal debate that you are comfortable with, and have enough preparation to survive. (not prepared for any debate? Shame on you. Waltz on. As long as everyone is enjoying the dance, they wont mind that you hijacked their debate and turned it into something else)
  • Once you have taken control of the debate, build it up in a way that doesn't oppose your own viewpoints (and ideally actually supports your viewpoints). However, make sure that the final solution feels like a win-win to you and your opponent. If they walk away feeling like they accomplished something, nobody will mind that you totally B.S.ed you way through the entire debate. If you grind someone into the ground, they will feel offended, and will try to prevent you from using the same approaches next time.

Closing as I started, seek the win-win to the debate, and your opponent will have less of a reason to actually try to make you lose (which is good, because your opponent holds all the cards, since they prepared and you did not)

  • There is one last piece to this approach, "patience." However, I don't feel sufficiently prepared to talk to it... someone with more patience than I should really be the one to try to give that magic word the honor it deserves.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 5:13

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