Formula for Refutation and Rebuttal

Learning Objective

  • Describe strategies for effective refutation and rebuttal

Counterargument

An integral part of composing a strong argument is including a counterargument. This can be difficult, especially if a writer is arguing for a position they already agree with. In such cases, writers can sometimes make good points to support their stances; however, their arguments are vulnerable unless they anticipate and address counterarguments. When a writer does this, it is often referred to as rebuttal or refutation. Some scholars of rhetoric differentiate the two words in terms of if you can actually disprove a claim or just argue against it; however, in this section, we will use the terms as basically interchangeable to help get you more used to their function in argument.

When writers are able to skillfully rebut or refute a view that runs counter to their claims, it strengthens their work. Rebuttal and refutation are common in all types of argument, including academic argument. As you complete more advanced work in college, you will be expected to address counterargument often. And while you might not always need to or be able to prove that other points of view are wrong, you may at least need to try to argue against them.

Though writers may handle rebuttal and refutation in different ways, there is a formula for success in academic argument. Here are the key parts of that formula:

1. Accurately represent opposing viewpoints

If you don’t accurately and thoroughly represent opposing viewpoints in your own writing, some of your potential audience will automatically be turned off. Good rebuttal and refutation begin with a solid understanding of all possible points of view on your topic. That may mean you even need to acknowledge and accommodate opposing points of view. Acknowledging other views shows you are aware of ideas that run counter to your claims. You will almost always be expected to at least acknowledge such views in your work. You may also, though, need to accommodate opposing views, especially if many people see them as reasonable. If, for example, you were writing a piece arguing that students should take a gap year between high school and college, it would benefit your work to acknowledge that a gap year isn’t realistic for or even desired by all students. You may further accommodate this other view by explaining how some students may thrive in the structure that school provides and would gain by going directly from high school to college. Remember that even if you cannot prove positions that counter your own are wrong, you can still use rebuttal and refutation to show why they might be problematic, flawed, or just not as good as another possible position for some people.

A map of the world with the word "coexist" overlayed.

Figure 1. Being aware and respectful of other people’s viewpoints as you argue your own is important for your credibility as a writer. The “Coexist” word graphic tries to do just that- spread awareness and understanding for the beliefs and opinions of everyone.

2. Use a respectful, non-incendiary tone

It doesn’t help the writer’s cause to offend, upset, or alienate potential readers, even those who hold differing views. Treating all potential readers with respect and avoiding words or phrases that belittle people and/or their views will help you get your points across more effectively. For example, if you are writing a paper on why America would benefit from a third viable major political party, it will not help your cause to write that “Republicans are dumb, and Democrats are whiny.” First, those claims are too general. But even if they weren’t, they won’t help your cause. If you choose to break down the perceived problems with members of political parties, you must do so in a way that is as respectful as possible. Calling someone a name or insulting them (directly or indirectly) is very rarely a successful strategy in argument.

3. Use reliable information in your rebuttal/refutation

Always be sure to carefully check the ideas or claims you make in rebutting a counterargument. The brain is not an infallible computer, and there are instances when we think we know information is accurate but it isn’t. Sometimes we know a lot about a particular subject but we get information confused or time has changed things a bit. Additionally, we may be tempted to use a source that backs up our ideas perfectly, but it might not be the most reputable, credible, or up-to-date place for information. Don’t assume you just have all of the information to shoot down counterarguments. Use your knowledge, but also do thorough research, double- and triple-check information, and look for sources that are likely to carry weight with readers. For example, it is widely assumed that bulls are attracted to the color red; however, in reality, bulls are colorblind, so what many people assume as fact is incorrect. Be thorough so you have confidence in your claims when you are rebutting/refuting and likewise when you are attempting to prevent yourself from being open to rebuttal/refutation.

4. Use qualifying words when applicable to help you be more accurate and to avoid locking you into an absolute claim

Qualifying words are terms such as “many,” “most,” “some,” “might,” “rarely,” “doubtful,” “often,” etc. You get the point. These are words that don’t lock you into a claim that could be easily refuted and that can help you more easily rebut counterarguments. For example, if someone says “Nobody dies of tuberculosis anymore” we might get the point that it isn’t as common as it used to be. Still, it isn’t an accurate statement, and a more precise way to phrase such a claim would be to qualify it: “Not many people die each year in America from tuberculosis.” You might not always need to use qualifying terms. If you are making a point that is absolute, feel free to make it strongly; however, if there is a need to give your claim more flexibility, use qualifying words to help you.

Glossary

refutation: proving a claim is false; arguing against something

rebuttal: contradicting or opposing a claim

 

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