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I keep running into a situation in debates and arguments. My opponent makes an argument (or counterargument), and I carefully disprove all of my opponent's points. However, instead of addressing my counterarguments or following up on the points I refuted, my opponent makes new points to support their argument. Sometimes, they will even recycle points I already refuted. Thus, I end up having to play an endless game of whack-a-mole where I'm constantly knocking down my opponent's argument while they're ignoring mine.

What is the proper response to this? The debate is a public discussion for others to read.

As an example, in a public discussion I started about vaccine hesitancy, an individual claiming to take a neutral position on the subject said that vaccines have 10 times the legal mercury content.

  1. I explained to him on multiple points why this isn't the case and provided a link to an FDA report on the matter proving my counterargument. Having taken a year of chemistry in college, I also explained why the mercury scare in vaccines was misguided in the first place.
  2. He ignored all of these points entirely and later acted like saying something so factually untrue was no big deal.
  3. He proceeded to make a new argument that vaccines should not be so universally supported because vaccines cause humanity to become dependent on them to survive, and unvaccinated children who die from illnesses ultimately improve the gene pool. (I'm trying my best to represent his arguments here in the best of light).
  4. Avoiding the trap of arguing the moral high ground, I proceeded to expose all of the flaws in this argument and prove that taking the "natural selection" approach is not the better alternative to improving global health.
  5. He ignored each rebuttal and proceeded to make another point to prove his argument. This started a cycle where I knocked down each point only for him to make another while failing to address the flaws exposed in his argument.
  6. Realizing the debate was going no where, I decided to simply tear down his credentials to make such an argument in the first place, saying he has no scientific expertise or education to on natural selection and immunology make an argument calling for killing children to improve the gene pool. This gradually brought the discussion to a standstill.

While my objective was initially to educate this individual and clear up a common misunderstanding, the debate degenerated to a point where the best I could do was tear down his arguments for others to see. However, I feel I did not respond properly and left the argument feeling like I could have done better.

What could I have done better here? What is the proper approach to responding an opponent that keeps ignoring your counterarguments? What could I have done better to end this argument?

  • If new points are being made, then you'll have to address them. If they continue to make a point you've successfully dismissed, then you have a different problem. – Richard Mar 9 at 16:36
  • We will need more details, perhaps an example. What is the end goal of the arguments? Rather than countering your opponent's points you can make your own to that end, and put him(er) on the defensive. Is it a private or public debate? In the former case if the opponent is truly non-responsive just walk away. In the latter case instead of whacking a mole point out to the audience that your responses have not been addressed, and insist on the opponent conceding the refuted point before moving on to the next one. – Conifold Mar 9 at 17:21
  • Publicly viewable discussion forums do not constitute a formal debate. Your counterargument is invalid category error. One does not formally debate with biddies hanging laundry and trading opinions. – Mr. Kennedy Mar 10 at 5:04
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    That's a pretty normal state of affairs. That's why all debates like this are just worthless theater. Genuine exchanges of ideas happen in publications, over long periods of time. Personally, I think all college debate teams should be abolished in favor of teaching the kids how to judge arguments instead of how to make them. – Lee Daniel Crocker Mar 11 at 21:43
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Simplify your statements by providing only one argument per statement. Rules of thumb are:

  • Resist the temptation to fight all of the opponent's wrong points (address only one of his arguments/claims/points) and
  • resist the temptation to bring out your full arsenal of arguments from several perspectives (provide only one counterargument).

Pick one point and give one counterargument per statement/comment/message of yours.

And then demand to stay on topic. If he strays or ignores your point and starts a new argument, then insist on finishing the other argument first. Dismiss everything irrelevant he brings and refuse to address it. Don't fall for his (maybe unconscious) attempts to misdirect you and to not finish your winning line of arguments. Respond with something like:

That is a good argument; but a different argument. Before moving there, can we agree that [your first argument] is flawed/wrong/false?

A non-simplified statement from your side enables your opponent to cherry-pick, direct the focus to his choosing (to the weakest of your points), ignore un-addressed parts and "hide" in the cluster of points that were made. Furthermore, longer responses are harder to keep track of by the viewing audience. A short response will keep your opponent on his toes, unable to settle with his wrong argument, because there is nowhere else to move the focus.

  • I like this answer but I never know what to do when the opponent simply refuses to say their argument is flawed/false or explain why they disagree at all. They simply restate what they said. – Onyz Mar 12 at 17:28
  • @Onyz From my experience, after a few trials of keeping them on topic, they simple stop responding. That is a better result than a clogged, confusing debate that noone can figure out. When one stops responding in a clear, chronological line of one-line argumentation, it is an easy read (or listen) for an audience, and the debate "winner" is obvious. – Steeven Mar 12 at 18:53
  • @Onyz When someone refuses to acknowledge a lost argument, there is nothing more to do I'm afraid. They from then on act in bad faith - or at least in willfully or instinctively ignorant manner. That is the end of any debate. (Note, that this applies equally to oneself. Being "blind" and instinctively ignorant of a defeated argument is a natural instinct, since the consequence otherwise would be a rethinking of a fundamental value or Worldview or at the very least an embarrassing acceptance of failure. Oneself must keep this in mind as well - the opponent may actually have better arguments). – Steeven Mar 12 at 19:01
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My version is:

"Dear opponent, stop, if you constantly leave the answer you do not belong here, our conversation is useless and let's not spend more time on empty negotiations ..." Edit

"Dear opponent, if scientists doctors and microbiologists could not come up with vaccines against plague, cholera or smallpox, the epidemics of which were spread in Europe and Asia more than 100 years ago, perhaps neither you nor I could talk to each other. I would ask you to remember this."

  • I see what you're trying to say in general, but I think you need to tidy up the English in your response, it's a little difficult to understand – Some_Guy Mar 9 at 19:41
  • I'm afraid that Google translator will deal poorly with this ... – Cyril Mar 9 at 19:43
  • definitely, unfortunately google translator handles nuances of meaning poorly: it's more useful as a crude tool to translate thing into your first language than out of it. It also may translate a word with multiple definitions into a word which covers the wrong one of those definitions. Also, it's much better with some languages than others. – Some_Guy Mar 9 at 19:58
  • If you're having trouble expressing a certain concept in English, I suggest posting a question at ell.stackexchange.com, they're helpful people. english.stackexchange.com are usually less so (and the quality of the answers can be quite low too). There's also wordreference forums, and for translation, sometimes linguee.com is better at giving you an idea of the multiple meanings of a word, by showing translations in different contexts (although I can't vouch for how good it is in your language). You might also want to try using a traditional translation dictionary – Some_Guy Mar 9 at 19:59
  • I completely agree with you ... and thank you for the useful links ... – Cyril Mar 9 at 20:01
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The silva rhetorica site has this to say about the audience as an encompassing term in rhetorical discourse:

All rhetorically oriented discourse is composed in light of those who will hear or read that discourse. Or, in other words, rhetorical analysis always takes into account how an audience shapes the composition of a text or responds to it.

If one considers a debate as a form of rhetorical discourse where one is trying to persuade an audience rather than the opponent, what you should do is whatever will keep the audience agreeing with your position.

It doesn't matter whether the opponent agrees or not. Anything the opponent does should offer you an opportunity to bring your message to the audience in a novel way. That may seem like "an endless game of whack-a-mole" because you have been through the argument many times, but it may be the first and last time some members of that particular audience will hear the argument.


Audience "Silva Rhetoricae" rhetoric.byu.edu

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As a long-time political activist and student, I've encountered this situation countless times.

I up voted Cyril's answer, because it hits the nail on the head. If an opponent isn't playing by the rules, you need to cry foul, and if it's a public discussion, make sure the audience understands what's going on.

One more note, though - why are you having this discussion in the first place? Perhaps you're new to the game, or maybe you thought this would be an honest forum. But after you've gained some experience in the political arena, you'll come to understand that propaganda and manipulation are all around us. If you're a candidate for public office, you may decide that it's better to snub public forums and the corporate media's endorsement interviews, which will NEVER give citizens the truth. But the problem goes far beyond elections.

Another tip: If you still decide to participate in a public discussion, keep in mind that it can be very hard to educate the audience. That's especially true if the forum moderator or rules don't allow you to address the audience, or if your opponent tells the audience a different story. Or maybe there simply isn't sufficient time to explain that your opponent just used a straw man fallacy, which is defined as [insert your definition].

One solution is to simply invite the audience - either verbally, via leaflets or face-to-face after the forum - to visit your website. You can then take your time dissecting your opponent's argument and publish a report on your findings. Depending on the situation, you might even want to do some research on your opponent. Is he or she a corporate attorney, lobbyist, etc.?

On second thought, I up voted Frank Hubeny's answer, too, because he correctly points out that the audience is your ultimate target.

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    My goal is the following: the readership look at my opponent, if he does not want to hear me, then he will not hear you either, think whether you need such a leader ... – Cyril Mar 10 at 9:01
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In my opinion, but I may be wrong of course. First you tried to play an argumentum ad verecundiam, showing some authority about the subject but you ran short of it. Put more emphasis into this, as here you introduce yourself to the audience and set your credentials for them not only exposing facts supporting your counter argument but your knowledge about the subject what is quite important, it adds weight to your following words. (As said above by others talk to the audience)

He kept taking some advantage ignoring your counter arguments and giving some justification to his arguments (eg. evolutionism) here you could just exaggerate his argument, making it sound ridiculous rather than trying to reason with him, (quick reference to Darwin awards for instance) as at that stage you probably saw that he wouldn’t appeal to reason, it would just be loosing your time. By then he would probably get angry, what exposes a clear weakness, by making him angry you take advantage, let him go wild because he will be probably throwing some more ‘pearls’ of nonsense that then you can easily refute, and keep going with your heavy facts.

Finally you used an argumentum ad personam, attacking him personally and so discrediting his knowledge, good move but keep it as a last resort. You don’t want him to become an enemy or yes, who knows?

Well it’s easy to give advice but it requires a quick wit for the moment of the debate, I know.

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His position wasnt a stack of argument all resting on each others so that destroying one would invalidate the others, but merely a bunch of uncoupled claims.

So in this case, there is nothing wrong with having to rebut a series of arguments.

I think you did well attacking his credentials but your attack, in order to avoid the argument from authority fallacy should have clearly reminded him that he didnt defend his series of claims because he couldnt, and he coulnt because he had no scientific background. Therefore, lacking too much critical thinking in the area, he should venture cautioustly in the topic and be aware of disinformation.

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The Socratic Method is one possible way to present your arguments to difficult people.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method)

This method has the advantage of being rooted in canon philosophy.

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my objective was initially to educate this individual and clear up a common misunderstanding

My experience is that some individuals do not care a iota about being right. They believe, or pretend to believe, a certain set of propositions, and exposing why such set of propositions is factually mistaken, morally deplorable, or internally inconsistent, won't make them budge. Either they are existentially committed to their beliefs, and cannot abandon them except at huge psychological costs, or they are simply trolling and testing to what point they can keep an argument they know is factually wrong for the sake of it.

If that is the case, and there is no audience, I suggest you leave it at that, unless you are yourself interested in improving your rhetorics or in better understanding how this kind of mind works.

If there is an audience, and their preferred rhetoric tactics is to bring up new unrelated arguments, without acknowledging that the previous one is unsustainable, then make that explicit, for the sake of the audience: "since you recognise that vaccines do not have an unsafe level of mercury, let's address your next concern". This helps the audience keeping a score, and if he were to come back to this claim at any point, it makes it easier to point out that he had already conceded the point, lest he counters that concession immediately.

If the discussion is long enough, eventually your oponent will either go back to an already made argument, or use an argument that is mutually exclusive to one he has already used. So it may be useful to keep track of his arguments, so that repetitions and contradictions can be pointed out and used to demonstrate the inconsistency or even the bad faith of the argumentation.

At some point, it may be possible to conclude that the oponent uses apparently rational arguments as a disguise for a fundamentally faith-based position. In other words, the oponent is not against vaccines because of the arguments he brings into discussion, but uses those arguments, irrespective of merit, to support an apriori position. Pointing this out may be useful if there is an audience.

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