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Intellectually-honest and intellectually-dishonest debate tactics.

Posted by John T. Reed on

Copyright by John T. Reed

I welcome intellectually-honest debate. It is one of my favorite ways to test my theories and learn. 

That is the How to Spot Dishonest Arguments and keep your own thinking straightway we were trained at Harvard Business School where all lessons are taught by the case method and my wife and I got our MBA's. When Harvard Business School was founded in 1908, it was modeled after Harvard Law School, which also uses the case method of instruction.

In college, I was on the debate team during my freshman year. Retired general and unsuccessful presidential candidate Wesley Clark was on that debate team as well. He was my “Table Commandant” in the mess hall at West Point three meals a day for a number of months that year.

I have expanded this popular article into a book titled How to Spot Dishonest Arguments and keep your own thinking straight.

Fox News used to have various interesting regular segments most notably Tonya Reiman’s body-language analyses, O’Reilly’s “Truth Serum” and “Is it Legal?” segments, and Howard Kurtz’s ongoing Media Buzz which evaluates the truth and journalistic ethics of various public figures, reporters, and analysts.

They need to add a regular segment that does what this article and my Dishonest Arguments book do—identify intellectually-dishonest debate tactics of various prominent speeches or debates—and I suspect it would be more popular and enduring than the fact-check and body-language segments and actually elevate the discourse in America. My book is a mix of logic fallacies, the scientific method, engineering, probability and statistics, decision theory, risk management, behavioral economics, the Federal Rules of Evidence and various other sources.

One of my readers said reading this article changed his life. I was surprised by that. But I find myself returning more and more to it over time. Google Analytics says it is one of my most popular web articles and I have thousands of web articles.

Most arguments and debates are one dishonest tactic after another

About 90% to 95% of the statements made by my opponents to prove that I am wrong have been of the intellectually-dishonest variety. Almost all arguments consist of one intellectually-dishonest debate tactic after another. The general failure to recognize these tactics as intellectually-dishonest and invalid are one of the reasons why our country has gotten so screwed up.

Lest I be accused of intellectually-dishonest debate myself, I hereby explain the difference.

Two intellectually-honest tactics

There are only two intellectually-honest debate tactics:

1. pointing out errors or omissions in your opponent’s facts
2. pointing out errors or omissions in your opponent’s logic

That’s it. Simple! The dishonest list is much longer.

Rules of debate

All other debate tactics are intellectually dishonest. Generally, the Federal Rules of Evidence of our courts attempt to make the argument or debate there intellectually honest. Roberts Rules of Order, which were written by my fellow West Point Graduate (Class of 1857) Henry Martyn Robert, are used to govern debate in many organization meetings. For example, one of Robert’s Rules, Number 43 says,

“It is not allowable to arraign the motives of a member, but the nature or consequences of a measure may be condemned in strong terms. It is not the man, but the measure, that is the subject of debate.”

Some debate organizations have rules like the Code of the Debater from the University of Virginia which says among other things:

“I will research my topic and know what I am talking about.

“I will be honest about my arguments and evidence and those of others. 

Federal Rules of Evidence

The Federal Rules of Evidence are also excellent. Here is an excellent summary of the list of objections to questions that lawyers can make in court. Some Federal Rules of Evidence are technical and therefore do not apply outside of a court room, like “beyond the scope” which refers to the fact that in a cross examination, you cannot ask a question that does not relate to the other lawyer’s questions of the same witness during his direct examination.

Politicians, con men

Intellectually-dishonest debate tactics are typically employed by dishonest politicians, journalists, lawyers of guilty parties, dishonest salespeople, cads, cults, and others who are attempting to perpetrate a fraud. 

Below is a list of the intellectually-dishonest debate tactics I have identified thus far. I appreciate any help from readers to expand the list or to better define each tactic. I am numbering the list in order to refer back to it quickly elsewhere at this Web site and in my book. One of the things that my book has but not this article is an antidote for each dishonest debate tactic.

1. Name calling: debater tries to diminish the argument of his opponent by calling the opponent a name that is subjective and unattractive

2. Changing the subject:

3. Stating WHY you are wrong without stating WHERE you are wrong

4. Questioning the motives of the opponent

5. ‘They know too much, your honor. 

6. Stereotyping

7. My resume’s bigger than yours

8. Your resume is not big enough for you to comment on this and my resume is irrelevant to whether I can ban you from the discussion by pointing out the inadequacy of yours. 

9. ‘We have to do something’ syndrome

10. Sloganeering: 

11. Invalid analogy: 

12. Motivation end justifies dishonest means

13. Cult of personality

14. Vagueness

15. Playing on widely held fantasies or fears

16. Claiming privacy with regard to claims about self

17. Claiming something is secret when it is not a legitimate secret. 


18 Scapegoating

19. Arousing envy

20. Redefining words

21. Citing over-valued credentials

22. Claiming membership in a group affiliated with audience members
23. Accusation of taking a quote out of context:”

24. Cherry picking.

25. Straw man

26. Violation of non-existent or irrelevant law. 

27. Rejecting facts or logic as mere opinion, preference, personal taste, or like:

28. Argument from intimidation

29. Theatrical fake laughter or sighs or eye rolls:

30. Innuendo

31. Insinuation:  

32. Halo effect claims of expertise

33. Peer approval of subjective opinion:

34. Trump’s Russia ‘dossier”.

35. Ill-defined words:

36. Hearsay

37. Finding small error

38. Protest-too-much quantity of sources:

39. Accusing opponent of being overly “simplistic:” 

40. Assertion of non-existent ‘rights.’ 

41. Claiming hyperbole = dishonesty.

42. Repeating sarcasm without indicating it was sarcasm.

43. Sunk cost

44 Evaluating decisions based on results 

45. Both sides of the story

46. Political correctness.

47. Mockery

48. Dismissing your failure to abandon your position because you “just don’t get it.” 

49. ‘Everything you say is wrong and everything I say is right because you support [Bush or Cheney or Palin or any other person or policy the liberals are deranged about] or because you watch Fox News and I do not.’  

50. Shouting down, jamming, or intimidating the opponent. This is another left-only dishonest-debate tactic. Republican or conservative speakers are routinely shouted down at college campuses and elsewhere, e.g., the Wisconsin statehouse when they made WI a right-to-work state.

51. Badgering.

52. Claiming well-defined words are vague or ill-defined

53. Rhetorical question.  

54. Ignorance is not an opinion
55. ‘Lawyering.’

56. Insufficiently-supported slippery slope or domino argument.

57. Reversing cause and effect or confusing correlation with causation.

58 Anecdotal evidence. 

59. Attempts to ban ad hominem attacks

60. Tu quoque or appeal to hypocrisy

61. Denouncing refusal to compromise per se.

62. Argumentum ad antiquitatem

63. So what? 

64. Conclusory statements
65. Sour grapes

66. Rejecting a best practice on philosophical grounds

67. Claiming an intellectually-dishonest debate tactic is okay because the person using it is not debating you
68. Claiming to “disagree” with non-opinion statements
69. Nothing new

70. You commit [insert dishonest debate tactic here] all the time.

71. False choice

72. Assuming facts not in evidence. 

73. Ignoring net effect

74. Pluralizing the singular

75. Converting past tense to present

76. Slight misquote that significantly changes meaning.

77. The missing corner technique

78. Passive-aggressive behavior. 

79. Moral equivalence

80. ‘Your tone is unacceptable.’

81. Your timing is terrible

82. ‘Newer is always better than old.’ 

83. ‘Rich people are smarter.’ 

84. Older are wiser than younger. 

85. Appeal to pity or other emotions

86. Bafflegab, inappropriate but impressive sounding jargon 

87. ‘Studies prove you are wrong.’ 

88. Conspiracy theory

89. Comparison to perfection.  

90. Effort or intentions are an acceptable substitute for results


91. Debate tactics that are erroneously believed to be dishonest. 

92. Natural is always better than non-natural.  

93. Talking faster or louder 

94. Demanding that your opponent answer a question that he has already answered

95. A Clifford Irving. 

96. Speaking in a childlike voice. 
97. Accusing you of being thin-skinned
98. Claiming that the LENGTH of your rebuttal proves you are wrong.

99. Straussian or ‘esoteric writing’ hiding the speaker’s real meaning

101. Assumes facts not in evidence:

102. Unqualified expert opinion

Other lists of intellectually dishonest debate tactics

There is a more comprehensive list of intellectually-dishonest debate tactics at And others at and I also recommend Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection kit which says:

Baloney Detection Kit

Warning signs that suggest deception. Based on the book by Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World. The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities"). There are examples of this at
  • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours

Since 1990, I have had my own Real Estate B.S. Artist Detection Checklist. A reader sent this additional URL:

Here’s another from another reader:

No doubt the bad gurus reading this will immediately go to those sites to memorize all those new, useful, con-artist techniques.

Negative pregnant

Many intellectually dishonest debate tactics are variations of negative pregnants. A negative pregnant is a statement that seems to deny something, but when closely examined only denies a narrower question that was not asked. The classic example would be the question, “Did you murder Jones?” followed by the answer “I did not shoot Jones.” Although the answer is phrased in the negative—“I did not”—it contains or is pregnant with the opposite implication: “Yes, I killed him, but at least I didn’t do it with a gun.”

In most cases, the person responding is trying to seem like they are saying no, when in fact they are not saying no to the actual question that was asked, meaning they must be saying yes. They are changing the subject of the question in order to answer a question the answer to which does not make them look as bad as the answer to the actual question that was asked would. This is what is generally being referred to when a person—Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, I’m looking at you—is accused of “parsing” words. It is a favorite lawyer trick and both Bill and hillary are graduates of Yale Law School.

Roughly speaking, you could reasonably reply to all negative pregnant answers by saying, “So you admit you really agree with me and you’re trying to hide that fact by dishonestly seeming to disagree without really addressing the actual question?”

During Watergate, this was called a “non-denial denial.” The Wikipedia entry on that starts with 

“Non-denial denial is a statement that seems direct, clearcut and unambiguous at first hearing, but when carefully parsed is revealed not to be a denial at all, and is thus not untruthful. It is a case in which words that are literally true are used to convey a false impression; analysis of whether or when such behavior constitutes lying is a long-standing issue in ethics. London's newspaper The Sunday Times has defined it as "an on-the-record statement, usually made by a politician, repudiating a journalist's story, but in such a way as to leave open the possibility that it is actually true."

Here is an email I got and my response:


I enjoyed reading your page on dishonest debate tactics. It did seem, however, to get more stridently political as it went on. It was, ultimately, somewhat impeached by the fact that at times it seemed to be engaging in a debate with a straw man, itself, or at least with an empty chair. It also assumed facts not in evidence in several places, including some facts very much in dispute. It might serve your purpose (more honest and well-reasoned debate) better to strike the argumentative language and let the document stand as an excellent explication of all the ways ANYONE can engage in deceptive argument, and not just the left.

Best regards,

C. Swasey

Not happening. There is no straw man or empty chair. Each point in the article is a response to the many debates I have at my Facebook wall and elsewhere. When I spot a new one that is used by multiple people, I add it. I generally do not use examples in the article to keep it streamlined as an easy reference.

Among the recent pattens I have noticed watching TV and at my wall is the debate between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians is not as symmetrical as the libs would have us believe. Your “ANYONE can engage” is a perfect example of this line that I reject. What people “can” do is not the issue. What they habitually do is.

I have seen comedians on TV explain that they make fun of conservatives more because they laugh at it, but liberals go road-rage nuts when they are made fun of. 

Similarly, liberals are socialists who want to boss the rest of us around. Starting with those immoral positions forces them to use intellectually-dishonest debate tactics more often than their opponents who are essentially in favor of free markets and liberty. Most liberals are Fabian Socialists, that is, stealth socialists pretending they are not socialists. When your fundamental nature is stealth or dishonesty, it is no surprise that you are forced to use many, if not exclusively, intellectually-dishonest tactics.

I refuse to get into the political suck-up mode of ritualistically saying both sides are equally guilty, which is tactic # 36. 

And unlike most people, and apparently you, I do not live my life like some amateur politician constantly trying to maximizing my popularity with the most people. See my web article

Your “strident” accusation, which is name calling, reflects nothing but the chronological nature of the list. I started it years ago then have added one or two items a year over the ensuing years. During that period, media outlets with different perspectives have proliferated making comparisons between the various debate tactics used, and the various groups like liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, much easier to isolate and recognize.


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