I've always wanted to add in a section on dirty debate tactics. I include some well known fallacies such as "Strawman fallacy", however, these are not so much 'fallacies' as much as they are often purposeful attempts to twist reality in order to convince another of your position. I will start out by looking more closely at rhetoric techniques, and then I will examine a few debate styles that are more are suspect... "

Foundational BiasEdit

Foundational bias is at root a fallacy of begging the question. One assumes one's conclusion from the

start. While all debaters in an argument take a position and defend it as best they can, we can cite foundational bias when

a debater specifically states that their position is taken on faith.

Rhetoric of ImperativesEdit

This rhetorical tactic occurs whenever we state terms in absolutes where an absolute does not exist, such as claiming that we must do something, (logical necessity) or that we should do something (a moral necessity). Whenever an arguer speaks in absolute shoulds and musts, (without conditionals) he may well be a rhetorician, not a logician. In psychological terms, this is known as Karen Horney's "tyranny of the shoulds" or Albert Ellis' "shoulding yourself" and "mustifications".

Consider the following rhetorical plea: We must save the rainforests!

This statement is pure rhetoric, because it makes a claim that saving the rainforest is a logical necessity. If the statement is reworded to read: We should save the rainforest! it again makes the error of false imperatives, this time on a moral basis.

In order to make these into logical statements, the use of a should, or a must, MUST include a conditional statement: We should save the rainforest, or we may perish from this earth! (Note that the inclusion of the word "may" makes this a logical and possible truth.) "We should save our forests, or face facts that we environmentally uncaring!" Again, this presents the original statement in logical terms.

Question Begging EpithetsEdit

This ploy occurs when slanted language is used to reaffirm what we wish to prove but have not proven yet. It is a form of rhetoric. See my rhetoric section for more.

No right-thinking American could support this measure, a cunning plot hatched in back rooms by corrupt politicians.

How can you believe the statistical analysis provided by corrupted researchers living off tobacco industry grants?

Be careful. Every negatively phrased question is not the fallacy of question begging epithets. For example, one could say "No competent medical doctor practices trepaning (cutting open heads to release evil spirits)." The statement is valid as long as the practice in question would violate known precepts of one's profession.


Also known in cognitive therapy as "fortune telling." This occurs when you predict the future negatively without considering other, more likely outcomes. Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this. Conservatives ask us to spend billions to save us from immanent doom from an ever changing set of enemies. Liberals demand attention and money must be given to environmental concerns, etc.


This is another example of poor debate style. It occurs when one uses one system or argument in one case, and then denies it or fails to apply it, in another case. It can occur either in self denigrating or self deferential manner. Carl Sagan's example from Candle In The Dark: Our government prudently plans for the worst of which an adversary is potentially capable, but thriftily ignores scientific projections on environmental dangers as "unproven." In psychology, the self denigrating manner of inconsistency is known as "disqualifying the positive" or the type of negative self appraisal that occurs during depression wherein a person ignores their good features and achievements and dwells upon the bad.

This fallacy can also be referred to as the EVERYONE BUT ME PHENOMENA when speakers specifically use a method that they find to be flawed only when it is used by another. The implied presumption is that EVERYBODY BUT ME is wrong if this argument is used. It is the narcissistic and irrational mindset where a thinker, believer in, or supporter of, some system of thought who accepts the invalidity of his justifications or proofs only when OTHERS use it in the service of defending beliefs in discord with the believer/thinker.

Certainly many examples exist in the secular world, but I will choose to pick on religion yet again. A fine example occurs in the debate between Christians and Mormons. Christians deny the contentions that an Angel named Maroni visited Joseph Smith and gave him golden plates containing new scripture. However, this contention differs not a whit from biblical proofs of Christianity that also depend on purported angelic visitation.

What to look for There are at least 2 logical deductions possible when inconsistency occurs: 1) Angelic evidence is too easy to fake, therefore both religions are unproven commodities or 2) Unfortunately both contentions are on equal footing, and Christianity must find other ways to prove Christianity's truth. (The natural desire to point to a greater preponderance of angelic visitation in Christianity is pointless if the very phenomenon itself is under fire as a questionable proof. See the Preponderance of Bullshit/Garbage fallacy.)

Some fine thinkers would recognize the reality of Angelic proofs and would choose option 1 - ending the dilemma right there. Other equally gifted thinkers would vote for choice number 2, and seek other proofs for their prospective religion. The problem is that many others would simply fall prey to the "everybody but me is crazy" phenomena - and hold that others who use the same arguments are wrong while they somehow are still correct - because they are somehow better or different - i.e. rational.

A therapist and a reporter are talking and the therapist is asked: Have you ever had two Napoleon complex patients at once at your clinic? Yes, he responds. Really? What happens when the meet?

Oh, that's easy - they immediately realize the truth - the other guys is nuts.

Red HerringEdit

Also known as "Ignoratio elenchi" or "missing the point", a red herring occurs when your opponent adds in information that is connected in some way to the current discussion, but in no way has any bearing on the argument at hand. A good example would be an argument I entered into recently:

Opponent: Where do you think mainstream Christianity shows up in Fowler's stage theory on the hierarchy of faiths?

Myself: Very low, I am afraid. Mainstream Christianity, with all its tenets, its dogma, would appear, ipso facto, at his conventional stage. Stage 3 of the 7. Opponent: Aha! But Fowler himself is Christian!
Myself: Yes... but this has no bearing on the matter unless you are insinuating that Fowler would shape his theory of faiths to ensure Christianity made the top of the list. But if this happened you would be implying that the theory was biased.

Red herrings can be used purposefully to draw away attention from the point of the argument. I've seen tons of good examples on Brooks's Bogus Beyond Belief website where christian apologists insist that Brooks (the website author) stop trying to debate the logical contradictions he finds in the bible, and instead devote his energy to studying Greek or Latin versions of the bible to uncover the "true meanings".

Just an aside here - but if apologists need to spend so much time going back to older biblical sources (and not of course, "original sources", which no longer exist, and of course, as human made documents were not any more sacrosanct as later versions anyway...), just what kind of job did the biblical translators do? And if these amateur apologists are so much better at transcribing the older sources, why aren't they writing newer and more correct versions of the bible?

Black HolingEdit

Black 'holing' refers to the endless void of a black hole in space, and it occurs in a debate when an opponent attempts to stall all discourse by continually demanding that you justify each and every future attempt to justify your position. For example, your opponent replies to the claim "psychology states that X is true" by demanding that you define "psychology". When you reply, he then demands that you define the terms used to define 'psychology', and so on, ad infinitum.

We can rightly hold that our opponent is black holing us when our level of justification reaches claims that even our opponent holds to... For example, if the person defending the concept of supernaturalism demands that you define naturalism, the proper counter is to return him to defining supernaturalism seeing as his term relies, in part, on naturalism!

Plurium interrogtionumEdit

A form of begging the question akin to complex question, this fallacy occurs when one's argument presupposes a claim that has not been demonstrated.

Strawman FallacyEdit

In the straw man fallacy, an arguer oversimplifies, or purposely distorts an opponent's argument (sets up the straw man), in order that he may attack it more easily (knock it down), and then claims that the opponent's position has been refuted. To see the straw man fallacy in use, listen to Rush Limbaugh discuss the concept of liberalism.

Iron Man FallacyEdit

The opposite of the Straw Man fallacy is the Iron Man Fallacy, when an arguer purposely (and deceptively) makes his argument out to be much stronger than he himself knows it to be. To see the iron man fallacy in use, listen to Rush Limbaugh discuss the concept of conservatism.

Additional point: An intriguing side note is that an opponent using the straw man fallacy is tipping you off that he is actually afraid to openly debate your real position, preferring instead to attack a much weaker version of your position. The same is true when he commits the iron man fallacy - he is tacitly conceding that his real position is weak.

Preponderance of Garbage DefenseEdit

Also known as "The Shotgun argument. This refers to any debator that offers up numerous arguments or bits of evidence, that if taken one by one, or case by case, would be easily refuted. The point of the style of arguing is to create a feeling that the sheer number of arguments proves the case even if each single bit of evidence itself is weak.

Taken from:

The Shotgun Argument. As Creationists must by now be well aware, there is no empirical evidence in support of their claims. Thus, as described above, they resort to attempting to tear down currently accepted scientific theories. In reality, however, their goal is not to make Creationism accepted amongst scientists; it is to trick the public into believing that Evolution is wrong. One way of accomplishing this goal is the "Shotgun Argument." Creationists are very keen to get into public debate-type situations and to encourage their adherents to memorize these arguments because they are so proficient at this particular mode of attack. Moreover, as it is inherently unscientific, it often catches knowledgeable scientists off-guard and unprepared. In short, a shotgun is a weapon which does not fire a single bullet; it fires shrapnel throughout a general direction. A gunner might use a shotgun if he knew that his aim was faulty, for as long as he points the gun in the general direction of his target, at least some of the shot is sure to hit the mark. Similarly, Creationists often let fly with a thousand tiny but invalid arguments on a hundred different topics in the hope that the responding party is ignorant of at least one of them. Since they are very aware of the fact that no one can be an expert on all areas of science, it is almost certain that at least some of the "shot" hits its mark. If the audience confuses the respondent's ignorance for a flaw in the theory, the Creationist scores public relations points. It should always be remembered, however, that the Shotgun Argument takes advantage of the victim's ignorance, not of the theory it purports to disprove. Sometimes I think that this alone is the reason Creationists combine Evolution with all sorts of other disciplines (Geology, Cosmology, etc.); no one has time to be an astronomer, geologist, biologist, physicist and chemist all at the same time, so no matter whom they are debating, there is always a false dilemma that the respondent cannot parry.

Sometimes the "coincidence" of the sheer number of cases itself is held to be proof so this is also referred to as a consensus of independently arrived at conclusions.

A good example would be evidence for UFOs. No UFO case has ever satisfactorily shown evidence of UFOs being of alien visitation. However, the consensus is that the overwhelming pile of weak evidence illustrates that they do exist, since what else would best describe this consistent phenomena?

The truth of course that this defense is specious. The sheer number of cases itself does nothing to verify any phenomena, just as the sheer weight or number of pages in one book over another does not indicate the initial book's superiority.

I was a member of the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board committee that investigated the Air Force's UFO study - called "Project Blue Book"... They had state-of-the-art technology in file retrieval. You asked about a given UFO incident and, somewhat like sweaters and suits at the dry cleaners, impressive reams of files made their way past you, until the engine stopped when the file you wanted arrived before you. But what was in those files wasn't worth much. - Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World, pg 82.- On how impressive amounts of useless evidence can gain the appearance of credible information.

What to look for: If in any important debate, your opponent insists on numerating countless facts, yet never bothers to delve into any one fact deeply, you may be dealing with a garbage dealer - one who is hoping that sheer weight of citations will intimidate you. A good example would be amateur theologians who point to hundreds of proven biblical "prophecies" without stopping to examine the fact that some of them really weren't prophecies in the first place, and the rest cannot be shown to have actually prophesied anything. In fact, its quite possible that these debators not even aware that the number quoted is sheer nonsense. They've just been won over by the "number." Other examples are more insidious: people such as creationist Kent Hovind, who's "debating style" consists solely of systematically spewing out refuted idea after refuted idea, but with such speed that the presentation gives the illusion to some that, "well, there must be something in all of that..."

Moving the GoalpostsEdit

"I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further." — Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back

"Moving the Goalposts" occurs whenever an opponent responds to a valid response to his challenge by simply changing his original challenge.

Example: You've been asked to "just name one example!" the response you receive is: "OK, fine, but can you name another?"

Intellectual DishonestyEdit

"Intellectual dishonesty' is a form of plagiarism, which is defined as the use of ideas and phrases in the writings of others as one's own without crediting the original author.

In laymen's parlance, intellectual dishonesty is often defined as the presentation of an argument in support or defense of something that one does not actually support or believe in.

Quote MiningEdit

In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote:

"If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, round which, according to my theory, there has been much extinction. Or again, if we look to an organ common to all the members of a large class, for in this latter case the organ must have been first formed at an extremely remote period, since which all the many members of the class have been developed; and in order to discover the early transitional grades through which the organ has passed, we should have to look to very ancient ancestral forms, long since become extinct."

Former scientist Michael Behe quotes this in Chapter two of his book. Well not exactly; Behe quotes only the first sentence, leaving his readers in the dark about the fact that Darwin answered his own question, and that he realized evidence might be irretrievably buried in the ash heap of history. This is a dishonest practice known as "quote mining."

- Darby McGraw

Suppressed EvidenceEdit

Closely related to intellectual dishonesty, suppressed evidence is offering only the positive (or negative) attributes of an argument, depending on the needs of the arguer. Important factors relevant to the conclusion are avoided because they present problems for the arguer. This could possibly be committed out of ignorance, but is much more likely done by unscrupulous arguers who seek to take advantage of an opponent's naivete. You should buy this used car, because it has new tires, a rebuilt engine, and has no rust. (It also has a bad clutch, an oil leak...) In cases where one suspects it is an honest mistake, the fallacy of suppressed memory is more gently referred to as SELECTIVE MEMORY.

Disadvantageous Comparison ErrorEdit

The disadvantageous comparison error occurs whenever someone accidentally, or purposely seeks to prove a point by comparing the most favorable characteristics of a phenomena to the least favorable characteristics of a competing phenomena, while ignoring the negatives of the first and the positives of the latter. This allows for a distorted view that takes the debaters away from the truth.

The most commonly seen version of this error is known as "the historical disadvantageous comparison error" and it typically occurs out of nostalgia - i.e. the cognitive phenomena that tends to romantize our past because of our youthful inability to recognize the true complexity of our childhood. Example:

Debator 1: Clearly the 1950s were a more idealic times... look at how peaceful our schools were. Debator 2: Oh really? Why not ask a black person how they feel about that. You know, those 'other' students who were trying to get in the schools, but kept being knocked over by firehoses?


This fallacy occurs when one creates a "prediction" after the fact. This is typically done through the use of 'revisioning' an ambiguously worded statement that is retro-fitted through revision to be a "prediction". Facts that fit the revisioned statement are underlined and those that do not fit are ignored. The process is subject to numerous biases, such as 'hindsight bias" which makes events appear more "predictable" than they actually are.

Predictions are only of value if they are 1) falsifiable and 2) capable of actually predicting the event!


This fallacy, or more correctly, deceitful debate tactic, occurs when there is an unwarranted and unsubstantiated insertion of words or new meanings into a statement or argument. In the Christian apologetic work, An Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties Gleason Archer argues against the existence of biblical contradictions. In one case, he argues against these contradictions:

John 6:46 "Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father."

1 John 4:12 "No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us."


Gen. 32:30 "And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."

Exod. 33:11 "And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend."

Well, that seems a clear contradiction, right? I mean the last quote even stresses that god appeared 'as a man speaks to his friend.'

Well, nothing is so clear that an apologist cannot muddy it up. In his argument, Archer claims that "God showed His face through an angel (as at the interview with Moses at the burning bush ( Ex. 3:2-6), or else through his glory cloud,..."

Yet, the Bible clearly states that Moses (Ex. 33:11) and Jacob (Gen.32:30) saw God face to face, not "through an angel" or "through His glory cloud." Archer is guilty of insertionism--the unwarranted and unsubstantiated insertion of words into a Biblical verse to escape contradictions or a mistake.

Remember this: In an argument, the evidence is 'sacrosanct'. We can cite evidence, compile it in statistics, but once you go rewriting the evidence itself to suit your needs, you've tainted the entire process. Once you start adding things to the evidence itself, you've basically broken the basic rule of argument - you're being dishonest. (***) You're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. That Archer rewrites god in order to settle a "biblical difficulty" makes this an especially galling and egregious violation of this fallacy.

By the way, even the title of the book: An Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties commits a fallacy. The use of the word "difficulties" is unwarranted, because this debate is about biblical contradictions, not "difficulties." So, Archer commits the fallacy of euphimism.

But then again, what other recourse does a christian have in debate anyway?

Stacking the DeckEdit

From the book "Attacking Faulty Reasoning", 5th Ed. by T. Edward. Stacking the deck is a form of selective attention, where one studiously ignores counter evidence to one's position. Damer writes: A method of thinking that allows blind adherence to claims or to assumptions from which such claims may be inferred without proper attention to counterevidence obstructs the discovery of truth. Such thinking also violates the principle of fallibility, which says that every nondefinitional claim has the inherent possibility of being false.

Misuse of StatisticsEdit

The suspect debate tactic of 'misusing statistics' is a complicated subject, requiring an examination of the skills related to the scientific method. Seeing as it is a complex subject, it is clear that many debaters misuse statistics out of ignorance (although a debater is always responsible for accidents due to his ignorance).

Misusing statistics out of ignoranceEdit

My favorite example would be a website I found once, which purported to prove that rock stars died, on average, much earlier than other people. He then claimed that this proved that god was punishing rock stars for being evil

On the surface, the argument looked good. It certainly would convince a fundy.

However, a quick perusal of the flaws in this research will help guide us through the various modes in which ignorance of science leads to misuse of statistics.

1) First, without realizing it, this fellow is making a disadvantageous comparison. (See above.) Rock music has only been around since the mid 1950s, whereas people have been living for thousands of years. So to compare the life spans of people performing an art form for only the last 60 years to all other people is unfair.

2) Next, we should pause and consider that the rock stars on his list are all DEAD. So, this means that only dead rocks stars are included on the list. This means that, of course, all rock stars who are still alive, and in their 60's and 70's are not included on the list!

3) Next, we have a definitional problem here. Just what is a rock star? The answer seems to be: anyone even remotely connected to rock and roll who has DIED.

4) Next, what sorts of death are included? It appears all deaths, even the possibility of deaths without any 'evil connotation are included. (death by natural causes, death by illness.)

In short, these stats are nonsense. They are built up through ignorance of statistical methodology. Recall this brief point in relation to statistical comparisons: We must always consider all the elements that need to be compared.

In the above example, this person included only 3 of the 4 typical phenomena that must be examined.

   1 elements that support my view
   2 elements that support my opponents view
   3 elements that debunk my view (and don't support his)
   4 elements that debunk my opponents view (and don't support mine)

Most bad statisticians leave out number 2 and especially 3. In this case, this fellow left out rock stars who are still alive. If he were to include their advanced ages, the 'discrepancy' between the lives of rock stars and ordinary people would disappear.

put quote here: Lies, damned lies and statistics -Ben Franklin

Of course, it is also possible to purposely distort information through statistics. The most common example would be using purposely misleading charts. In making a chart it is necessary to start with a true zero point, if possible. if we do not, we can create a chart that appears to have a great difference between two phenomena when no such difference exists. Here is a nice example. In this chart, it would appear that candidate A has a great lead over candidate b. However, when we make an honest chart, and begin at a true zero point, look what happens: Then, when we replace the 'error bars' which every honest and scientific chart must have: We see that not only is there no large difference, there isn't even a significant difference In fact, statistically we can say that the two candidates have statistically equal support

Insertionism and misuse of statistics are basically one step above the last, and most dishonest of all suspect debate tactics: Lying.

Those interested in testing their knowledge of informal fallacies should try this page:

There are four tests covering informal fallacies.

Those following the Course in Logic 101 should proceed to the next section: Categorical Propositions


  • Copi, I. M, Cohen, C., (2001), "Introduction to Logic", 11th Edition.
  • Hurely, P. J. (2000) A Concise Introduction to Logic - 7th Edition