For a lot of years, I’ve spent time, here and there, debating whatever seemed interesting on blogs and forums. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of back-and-forth interchanges and I’ve noticed that, much of the time, people are just talking past each other, rather than both dealing with the issues the other is raising. For this reason, I thought it appropriate to write another installment in the “philosophical theory” realm. This time, on the anatomy of the response.
There are three words that are relevant to this issue that need defined when discussing debate. They are “response”, “rebuttal”, and “refutation”. While the definitions should be well-known, they tend to get lost in the course of the debate, so here I offer them again.
A response, in its most basic definition, is a statement or set of statements that, in some way, addresses or evaluates another statement. This could be in agreement or disagreement, but basically, when someone says something and someone else says something about the first thing, he is responding. “Response”, therefore, has a very wide range of meaning, which incorporates both of the other terms we’re considering. For this reason, it is technically correct to call any rebuttal or refutation a response. As we shall see, each of the other terms narrows the definition.
A rebuttal is a specific kind of response that is intended to offer a contradictory viewpoint. It is often accompanied by supporting facts or argumentation that seek to persuade the listener (whether the original speaker or a third party) of the second viewpoint.
“Refutation” has a still narrower definition. A refutation is, to put it most simply, a successful, truthful rebuttal. What rebuttals attempt, refutations do. When someone says “I’ve refuted so-and-so’s argument”, he is saying that he offered a rebuttal that proved the original argument false.
Because of the narrowing of scope in each term, it is permissible to refer to all three as responses, and refutations as rebuttals. But it is not proper to go the other way. A response is not necessarily a refutation. Nor is a rebuttal. This is one of the mistakes I see frequently. Someone will say something that merely contradicts a position or argument and claim that they’ve “refuted” the argument. A refutation requires some kind of argument in itself. Simply articulating a contradictory viewpoint is not a refutation.
While all three terms are responses, sometimes even the term “response” is used incorrectly. If I say, “I’ve fully responded to your arguments. Why do you keep pushing them?,” then I’m using “responded” to say “refuted”. If the response I’m referring to is an unsuccessful rebuttal or mere contradictory opinion, then I’m not arguing properly.
Lastly, one logical fallacy is relevant to this discussion. “Straw-man” is a fallacy in which someone creates an inaccurate caricature of the position or argument that he’s rebutting and proceeds to refute that caricature. He burns a straw-man, not a real man. In such cases, the term “respond” then becomes incorrect. Consider the following exchange:
Bill: I think that global warming can’t be man-made, since the volcano that is the big island of Hawaii puts more carbon dioxide into the air each year than all man-made sources combined. And the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s put more into the air than the entire history of human industry.
Steve: Well, you’re just arguing that pollution is okay, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence that it is very harmful, so you’re argument fails.
Do you see how Steve creates a view that Bill did not endorse and then he refutes that view? Steve in no way addresses Bill’s argument. He just makes something up that is consistent with, but in no way follows from, Bill’s argument. In this way, one could say that Steve’s statement doesn’t even reach the level of a response. A response must properly address what has been said, even if it’s just to say, “Good point!”