Brexit, debate techniques and fallacies

How do politicians use language to persuade voters? More specifically, what kinds of debate techniques and argumentation fallacies are common in televised, political debates? 

  1. Get into pairs and assign each pair of students a 'debate technique' or an 'argumentation fallacy' from the list below. Read the defnition of your technique or fallacy as provided below. Then watch the following debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage from 2014. It may seem like a historical document in light of the events that have unfolded since then. As you watch the debate, look for evidence of your technique or fallacy. Write down any example that you hear of your technique or fallacy. After the debate share your findings with your classmates.


  2. In any debate, speakers find the opportunity to clearly state their position on an issue. They are usually succinct in their choice of words, and often come in the form of 'sound bites'. An assertion should be supported by evidence.

    Because politicians often speak under time constraints, they list their arguments, outline what they will say and use linking words, such ‘firstly’, ‘furthermore’ and ‘finally’. These ‘discourse markers’ help the audience know what to expect, and they prevent the opponent from interrupting (if that is allowed).

    Sometimes politicians stop to define the topic, concept or phenomenon being discussed. These moments are hedged with phrases such as “Let’s be clear what we mean by...” There is fine line between defining and 'mansplaining', which is a way in which men (and sometimes women!) feel entitled to explain how the world works to others using an air of superiority.

    Politicians are known to avoid difficult questions. This may be because there are no clear answers, they want to avoid giving any unfavourable answers, or they are so wrapped up in attacking their opponent and asserting their own position. Answers are usually marked with language from the original question, or they are clearly signposted with language such as, “to answer your question.” Politicians sometimes ask themselves questions and offer an immediate answer, a technique known as hypophora.

    Statistics, facts, quotations, dates and recollections are few types of evidence that politicians may use to support their arguments. Politicians are often criticised for misconstruing evidence. A report or fact can sometimes be used to support opposite sides of an argument.

    Once politicians are attacked, they often defend themselves and their position in a ‘rebuttal’ (a formalised part of some debate structures), offering counterarguments. These can include claims, statements and assertions.

    Ad hominem in Latin means ‘against the man’. Such arguments are aimed at the person instead of his or her ideas. ‘You would say that’ is a typical ‘ad hominem’ argument.

    Also known as ‘argument ad ignorantiam’, this fallacy assumes that something must be true because it has not been proved false (or that something is false because it has not been proved true). For example, “Politicians must be scared that people will vote ‘no’ in a referendum, because they have never let us have one.”

    Also known as ‘circular reasoning’, this fallacy occurs when a premise is presented as a conclusion. For example, “Because we have never had a referendum, we should never have a referendum.”

    Often times, people confuse causal relationships with correlation. For example, on 1 January 2007 Bulgaria joined the EU. In 2008 many EU states experienced an economic downturn. Bulgaria, however cannot be blamed as the cause of the economic crisis. This fallacy is also known as ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, which is Latin for ‘after this therefore on account of this’.

    A false dichotomy is the same as a false dilemma. It presents two polar positions, as if they are the only positions in a debate. But there are often ‘third options’ or ‘grey areas’ between black and white extremes.

    This type of argument assumes that people in the past made decisions with just as much knowledge as people of the present. Politicians are often unfairly accused of being inconsistent in their decision making. Contexts and realities change.

    In debates, politicians sometimes raise new points to avoid a uncomfortable question or attack. ‘Red herring’ is a term to describe such tricks, where one is misled. Audiences are often distracted by arguments that appeal to fear, equality, tradition or popularity.

  3. To what extent should politicians be excused from or held accountable for using argumentation fallacies in debates on public policy? Find a video recording of politicians debating a topical issue and discuss your answer to this question, referring to their arguments.

  4. A televised debate between prominent politicians during an election campaign is an appropriate body of work for an HL Essay or individual oral. If you are interested in doing this, discuss the possibilities with your teacher.
Last modified: Wednesday, 29 January 2020, 2:54 PM