Rebuttals: Counter-Evidence

Weakening an Opponent's Claim with Facts

"A good rebuttal argument," says Thomas A. Mauet, "is short, focused, and positive" (Trials: Strategy, Skills, and the New Powers of Persuasion, 2005). (Hill Street Studio/Getty Images)

In an argument or debate, a rebuttal is strictly defined as the presentation of evidence and reasoning meant to weaken or undermine an opponent's claim; however, in persuasive speaking a rebuttal is typically part of a discourse with colleagues and rarely as a stand-alone speech.

Also called a counterargument, the word rebuttal can be used interchangeably with refutation, which includes any contradictory statement in an argument; however, strictly speaking, the distinction between the two is that a rebuttal must provide evidence whereas a refutation merely relies on a contrary opinion.

"If you disagree with a comment explain the reason," says Tim Gillespie in "Doing Literary Criticism."  He continues that "mocking, scoffing, hooting, or put-downs reflect poorly on your character and on your point of view. The most effective rebuttal to an opinion with which you strongly disagree is an articulate counterargument."

Refutation and Rebuttal

Often used interchangeably, refutations and rebuttals actually differ in legal and argumentation contexts, wherein refutation involves any counter argument while rebuttals rely on contradictory evidence to provide a means for a counter-argument.

Austin J. Freeley and David L. Steinberg present the definition of refute in "Argumentation and Debate: Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision Making" as meaning "to overcome opposing evidence and reasoning by proving it to be false or erroneous." In this definition then, a successful refutation must disprove evidence with reasoning.

Freeley and Steinberg continue that strictly interpreted, the rebuttal "refers to argumentation meant 'to overcome opposing evidence and reasoning by introducing other evidence and reasoning that will destroy its effect.'" Rebuttals must present evidence and typically have a designated time in academic debate as the second speech a speaker makes.

Characteristics of an Effective Rebuttal

With evidence as its central focal point, a good rebuttal relies on several elements to win an argument including a clear presentation of the counter-claim, recognizing the inherent barrier standing in the way of the listener accepting the statement as truth, and presenting evidence in a clear and concise manner while remaining courteous and highly rational.

Allan A. Glatthorn writes in "Publish Or Perish: The Educator's Imperative" that an effective rebuttal is "constructively critical" and avoids using ridicule to make the points, rather relying on a "professional tone marked by courtesy and rationality." 

The evidence, as a result, must do the bulk work of proving the argument while the speaker should also preemptively defend certain erroneous attacks the opponent might make against it. As James Golden states in "The Rhetoric of Western Thought: From the Mediterranean World to the Global Setting," a rebuttal acts as a "safety valve or escape hatch, and is, as a rule, appended to claim statement" wherein it "recognizes conditions under which the claim will not hold good or will hold good only in a qualified and restricted way."