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View Full Version : Folks who've studied debate, logic, etc.: Is there a term for this?



Chris P
12-29-2013, 11:35 AM
I'm wondering if there is a term for the type of debate where the questioner simply asks questions until he or she finds one the respondent cannot answer. I'd call it a pseudoargument, since the questioner only asks questions and never holds a position or provides evidence, but I didn't know if there is a specific term for it.

You see it a lot in religious debates and in conspiracy theories, for example:

Questioner: Who shot JFK?
Respondent: It was Oswald acting alone.
Q: Could it have been the KGB?
R: No, after the fall of the Soviets no documents or informants have been found.
Q: How do you know all the documents weren't destroyed or the informants hushed or killed?
R: I don't.
Q: Then I have won the argument.

In this example, the respondent is asked to prove a negative, and although that's often the case it's not always. There has to be a name for this, but I can't think of where to even look, except to you wonderful people :)

slhuang
12-29-2013, 11:42 AM
I believe you're talking about the Socratic method. I usually hear the term used pedagogically,* but I think it can also be applied to oppositional debate.

edit: Linky link (http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Socratic_method.html), looks like that is correct.

* the pedagogical meaning being teachers who engage students in critical thinking by asking questions

Chris P
12-29-2013, 12:07 PM
Thanks for that!

I've looked it up on Wikipedia (which loves us too much to ever lie), and what I'm interested in is when a "Socratic Circle" is mistaken for a debate, as in my example above. [From Wiki: 'A Socratic Circle is not a debate. The goal of this activity is to have participants work together to construct meaning and arrive at an answer, not for one student or one group to “win the argument” ' and 'W. K. C. Guthrie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._K._C._Guthrie) in The Greek Philosophers sees it as an error to regard the Socratic method as a means by which one seeks the answer to a problem, or knowledge. Guthrie claims that the Socratic method actually aims to demonstrate one's ignorance.']

I'm especially interested in when the questioner provides no evidence, only questions then twists the interlocutor's ignorance as proof of his argument. Is there a term for that?

cornflake
12-29-2013, 01:22 PM
It vaguely, sort of, sounds like you're dancing around reductio ad absurdum, but I'm not sure, based on only the one example.

benbenberi
12-29-2013, 06:00 PM
In formal rhetoric, there's a term for everything.

Take a look at the terminology list at The Free Dictionary. (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Rhetoric+and+Rhetorical+Devices)

Or the similar glossary at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_rhetorical_terms).

Chris P
12-29-2013, 06:09 PM
It vaguely, sort of, sounds like you're dancing around reductio ad absurdum, but I'm not sure, based on only the one example.

Interesting! I can see the relation, but it's not quite what I'm looking for (unless I've missed something).

Reductio ad impossibilem (proof by contradiction, which is a more specific case of reductio ad absurdum) might be closer, by saying that "your point is impossible, therefore my point must be correct."

What I want to show is that solely asking more questions about a proposition without providing evidence to the contrary is a weak argument, or--from the Wiki article on Socratic Circles--not even an argument at all. I want to refute the stance of "you cannot prove your point, therefore my point must be true, even without evidence or in cases where many alternate hypotheses exist." Is it a bastardization of mutual exclusivity? My training is so thin in this area I don't even have the right words to use.

Medievalist
12-29-2013, 07:40 PM
Thanks for that!

I've looked it up on Wikipedia (which loves us too much to ever lie), and what I'm interested in is when a "Socratic Circle" is mistaken for a debate, as in my example above. [From Wiki: 'A Socratic Circle is not a debate. The goal of this activity is to have participants work together to construct meaning and arrive at an answer, not for one student or one group to “win the argument” ' and 'W. K. C. Guthrie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._K._C._Guthrie) in The Greek Philosophers sees it as an error to regard the Socratic method as a means by which one seeks the answer to a problem, or knowledge. Guthrie claims that the Socratic method actually aims to demonstrate one's ignorance.']

I'm especially interested in when the questioner provides no evidence, only questions then twists the interlocutor's ignorance as proof of his argument. Is there a term for that?

Google Logical Fallacies, or find a copy of The Handlist of Rhetorical Terms by Richard Lanham.

There are specific rhetorical terms and names for logical fallacies like this and related forms of argument.

ElaineA
12-29-2013, 07:46 PM
Chris, I have ZERO experience in formal logic or rhetoric, but your example argument struck a chord with me from a psychology perspective, the way a narcissist argues...you can't prove anything therefore you are wrong. In poking around a bit, your example strikes me as almost an ad hominem argument, the implication of Q's last question being that you are too ignorant to know whether the KGB destroyed the documents. I realize reading down the thread you mean that line as a more open question, not an attack, so ad hominem is off base, but I thought I'd throw psychology into the mix to see if you can't shake loose the name of the argument from another direction. :Shrug:

mirandashell
12-29-2013, 10:56 PM
That first example isn't the Socratic Method. Socrates (or to be strictly accurate Plato) did use it to demonstrate ignorance but as a teaching method, not as a way of showing off.

slhuang
12-29-2013, 11:00 PM
That first example isn't the Socratic Method. Socrates (or to be strictly accurate Plato) did use it to demonstrate ignorance but as a teaching method, not as a way of showing off.

That's what I thought too, but in my (admittedly quick) googling it looked like it had taken on another meaning in the years since Socrates, particularly in law schools, to refer to what Chris was talking about in an oppositional debate. I'm not an expert, though. :Shrug: I shall leave the question up to those who are . . . :D

NeuroGlide
12-30-2013, 02:29 AM
TV Tropes has a listing of Logical Fallacies with examples at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LogicalFallacies?from=Main.YouFailLogicForever

Anaximander
12-30-2013, 04:59 PM
Looks very much like the Burden of Proof (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/burden-of-proof) to me. In short, the inability to disprove something does not constitute proof. The classic example is Russel's Teapot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_teapot) - in the words of Bertrand Russell, "nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice."

King Neptune
12-30-2013, 05:32 PM
If you look through the list of logical fallacies, then you should come across that matter that it it impossible to prove that something is not, as opposed to proving that something is.

I have encountered people like your questioner, and they usualy don't understand anything about logic, so they delude themselves into thinking that the lack of a proof of a negative implies proof of the opposite. If that character is on the edge of the story, then it might be interesting. If that character is central, then you may end up with something Kafkaesque.

mirandashell
12-30-2013, 06:32 PM
That's what I thought too, but in my (admittedly quick) googling it looked like it had taken on another meaning in the years since Socrates, particularly in law schools, to refer to what Chris was talking about in an oppositional debate. I'm not an expert, though. :Shrug: I shall leave the question up to those who are . . . :D

In philosophical circles, the person asking the questions in the OP example is known as:


An arsehole.



:tongue

Russell Secord
12-30-2013, 09:19 PM
Looks very much like the Burden of Proof (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/burden-of-proof) to me. In short, the inability to disprove something does not constitute proof.

This is exactly what I was thinking. The opponent, too lazy to support his own argument, is basically asking you to do it for him.

And I had lost my link to that site (Your Logical Fallacy Is...). Thanks for reminding me of it!

shakeysix
12-30-2013, 09:46 PM
The Bedford Guide for College Writers has a section on writing a persuasive paper that thumbnails the fallacies and their labels. It is a textbook so the latest editions are pricey but you can find an earlier edition online for a couple of dollars. A very good investment because it also has an extensive grammar guide, guides to writing several types of essays, a section on research and citing research.


I was on the debate team in high school. The very first day our coach told us that it is useless to argue an argument from ignorance. He told us to stay away from UFOs, ghosts, ESP etc because there was simply not enough evidence to prove or disprove those things. He also taught us that it is nearly impossible to argue a negative without supplying a practical plan to improve the situation that the debater deems unacceptable. A lot of that type of argument is going on in politics in the US right now--everyone bitching but no one proposing workable plans to improve things.

The argument in the OP is set up incorrectly. The original question is much too broad. It should be phrased something like "Oswald and Oswald alone shot JFK." or "The KGB was behind Kennedy's assassination." or "Oswald was recruited by the Mafia to assassinate Kennedy."

It is much easier to prove or disprove a specific statement than a broad statement. Next you must define terms--define the KGB. did the KGB include Cuban agents? define Mafia-- something like that. All participants should accept the terms. If the terms are not acceptable to all parties then the statement cannot be argued--although the terms can be argued for all eternity.

With that eternity thing in mind you might want to limit the argument as to time and number of statements. How many statements and rebuttals are allowed and how much time are we going to spend on this. That is where a judge or moderator comes in. When left on their own without any rules, once logical arguments often veer into personalities and ideologies--like arguing with a troll.

You can always tell a troll because a troll always claims victory. Master Debaters don't win arguments. They persuade individuals of the validity of their claims. Comportment and character are as much debate tools as stinging rebuttals and flashy facts. --s6 PS--like that Masterdebater gag? We used to call ourselves that back in the day--and people think debaters are nerds!

Nualláin
12-30-2013, 10:02 PM
I'm especially interested in when the questioner provides no evidence, only questions then twists the interlocutor's ignorance as proof of his argument. Is there a term for that?

This is a textbook description of the argumentum ad ignorantiam, or the Appeal to the Absence of Evidence. In this fallacy, it is argued that the opposition's inability to disprove a claim makes that claim true.

The classic, textbook example is that you cannot prove that ghosts do not exist, therefore they do exist.

Chris P
12-30-2013, 10:54 PM
Thanks everyone! I knew you'd give me lots to chew on and I'd learn a lot.

I'm still forming this character in my mind. I want to make him as tedious as possible, but I'm not too sure to what end or how I want to make him progress in the story. Elaine's comment about narcissism is enlightening, and gives me more ways to open him up and make him hateful (yet loved dearly by the other MC and in the end by the reader--if I can pull it off).

On a P&CE note, I also like the narcissism and laziness assessment because a popular commentator does this all the time yet he's adored by millions. The guy drives me batty and I lose sleep every time I give him an ear. I'm not going to stand in his way to say what he wants to say, but when I tell people why I don't subscribe to his views it's nice to have the right words to use. I'm not basing the character on him, just lampooning his "argument" style.

Russell Secord
12-31-2013, 02:57 AM
The guy drives me batty and I lose sleep every time I give him an ear. I'm not going to stand in his way to say what he wants to say, but when I tell people why I don't subscribe to his views it's nice to have the right words to use.

If I'm thinking of the same guy you're thinking of, he tends to cut people off when he sees he's losing ground. There's probably a formal name for that tactic too, but it's not really debate, is it? Could you call it Upsetting the Chessboard?

As for free speech, I think there should be a BS threshold. If you can't achieve a certain level of accuracy, you shouldn't be allowed to call yourself "news." I'm looking at both of you, Fox and CNN.

shakeysix
12-31-2013, 04:22 AM
I think that tactic is called Post Hoc Ergo Flounce. Not sure, my latin is a little rusty--s6

ElaineA
12-31-2013, 05:36 AM
I think that tactic is called Post Hoc Ergo Flounce. Not sure, my latin is a little rusty--s6

Rusty or not, I LIKE it! *practices post hoc flouncing in mirror*

Chris P
12-31-2013, 10:14 AM
If I'm thinking of the same guy you're thinking of, he tends to cut people off when he sees he's losing ground. There's probably a formal name for that tactic too, but it's not really debate, is it? Could you call it Upsetting the Chessboard?

As for free speech, I think there should be a BS threshold. If you can't achieve a certain level of accuracy, you shouldn't be allowed to call yourself "news." I'm looking at both of you, Fox and CNN.

I think it's "diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain" (talk and talk and don't say shit). In TV land, this is known as Nielsenism, where dead air means lost ratings so it's better to say anything in hopes some of it might be right.

Not to derail my own thread, but I think someone has to have a certain level of narcissism to build a following in the media or politics and keep feeding off it to stay relevant. They end up cracking by insulating themselves into their own world where A equals B which eventually equals 2crazy by following logic only they can see.

Rufus Coppertop
12-31-2013, 02:00 PM
argumentum ad ignorantiam. argument from ignorance.

ignorantiam in this usage can refer to a lack of evidence to the contrary.

argumentum ex absentia evidentiae ad contrarium and shit-speakery are other possibilities.

Once!
12-31-2013, 02:30 PM
Yup - argument from ignorance sounds about right. Here's a Wikipedia link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance

It reminds me of the philosophical "brain in a vat" argument. Our brains receive electrical signals from our nerves which we interpret as sensation. So it is possible that our brains are really being held in a vat of gloop and fed sensory information by a supercomputer - in essence, the plot of the Matrix.

Naturally, we cannot prove or disprove this theory because any evidence we produce could have been fabricated by the supercomputer. And this also means that we can't definitively prove anything.

It's how most conspiracy theories work. The arguer makes a wild assertion and challenges you to disprove it. If you do manage to find convincing proof they simply move on to another theory. Repeat. Eventually they hit on something which cannot be definitively proved, even if it is extremely unlikely.

One useful counter to this way of arguing is to introduce a measure of calculated probability. So whilst a conspiracy theory might be theoretically possible it is also highly improbable.

The entire basis of UK law is the burden of proof. Jurors are asked to reach a decision on which they are "sure beyond reasonable doubt". This does not mean that they are 100% sure. They do not need to have conclusive proof.

Chris P
12-31-2013, 07:32 PM
It reminds me of the philosophical "brain in a vat" argument. Our brains receive electrical signals from our nerves which we interpret as sensation. So it is possible that our brains are really being held in a vat of gloop and fed sensory information by a supercomputer - in essence, the plot of the Matrix.

Naturally, we cannot prove or disprove this theory because any evidence we produce could have been fabricated by the supercomputer. And this also means that we can't definitively prove anything.

I'll bet that's what they told you to say.


One thing that strikes me about conspiracy theories is that they often require the blind acceptance of more improbabilities than the "orthodox" theory does. Occam needs a shave. Anyone see his razor around?

Rufus Coppertop
01-01-2014, 01:27 AM
I'll bet that's what they told you to say. Ah haaa! And that's what they would tell him to say which proves there's a conspiracy.

Once!
01-01-2014, 01:47 PM
One thing that strikes me about conspiracy theories is that they often require the blind acceptance of more improbabilities than the "orthodox" theory does. Occam needs a shave. Anyone see his razor around?

Good point.

I think that at the heart of most conspiracy theories is a misunderstanding about the nature of probability. Given a large enough sample, improbable things are certain to happen. The odds of winning the UK lottery are more than 13 million to 1, but if tens of million people play it there is a good chance that someone will win.

Flip a coin a million times and there is a very good chance that at some point in that sequence you will flip 20 heads in a row.

Mix the letters from the bible up in random ways and there's every chance that you will generate recognisable words.

Every time there is a plane crash there is a chance that someone will have changed their plans at the last minute so that they didn't get on that plane. It's nothing spooky. People miss flights all the time.

At some point in your life you will think about someone you know and they will telephone you out of the blue a few hours later. It's not because you are psychic. it's just a large sample. You think about lots of people during your lifetime. Lots of people call you. Eventually the two will coincide by pure chance.

Coincidences happen in large samples. They just do. The trick is to recognise them as coincidences and not get over-excited by them.

What conspiracy theorists tend to do is to fixate on a theory and then go looking for "evidence" to corroborate that theory. And they will often find something because coincidences do happen if the sample size is large enough.

But as you say, the conspiracy theorists then pile on improbable coincidence after improbable coincidence to try to keep their theory alive despite the evidence. One or two coincidences is happenstance - a whole sequence is wishful thinking.

shakeysix
01-01-2014, 05:50 PM
I really did see a ghost once. I was 44 years old and stone cold sober but I would never argue that ghosts exist because the experience was purely subjective. Subjective arguments are best expressed through song, poetry or literature--not formal arguments. --s6

Eli Hinze
01-02-2014, 07:28 AM
Seems like argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance) to me.

shakeysix
01-02-2014, 08:44 AM
My point.