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Types of Support: Counterarguments

Types of Support: Counterarguments

Author: Gavin McCall
Description:

This lesson teaches counterarguments—what they are, how to introduce them, and how to refute them to support an argument.

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Welcome to English composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today we're going to learn about counterarguments, including how to introduce and refute them in an essay. Then we'll look at some examples of this.

Counterarguments are, in the context of an academic argument, a representation of an opposing viewpoint or argument, including the restatement of the accuracy of the author's thesis, argument, or point, even given the other viewpoint.

Counterarguments are a key component of classical argumentation, but they're common and useful in other types or models of argumentation as well. Using a counterargument is a sophisticated way for a writer to demonstrate the depth and strength of his or her thoughts and knowledge about a topic and thesis.

Just as there can be more than one argument on any given topic, there may be more than one counterargument to a specific thesis. And it may seem counterintuitive, but writers should choose the best, even toughest, counterarguments to address in their essays. Believe me, the alternative of having those opposing arguments and positions out there without your words and points to refute them will not help your essay.

In short essays, it's pretty standard to devote one paragraph to a counterargument, but in longer works writers may need to address several counterarguments and use as many paragraphs as they need to do it. It's also feasible to briefly address small, specific counterarguments in a sentence or two, or even less throughout the essay.

For example, here's a short passage that quickly introduces and refutes two counterarguments. We shouldn't fight the development of genetically modified food crops because this is the wave of the future. Though some find the idea of man-made plans and animals frightening, this is real life, not science fiction. We cannot allow fear to keep us from scientific progress because if we don't do it, someone else will. And so, those who advocate for restricting GMO research in the United States will not stop the future from happening; all they can do is make sure Americans don't profit from it.

When introducing counterarguments, we can use direct quotes, paraphrases, or summaries from sources that demonstrate the counterargument's position. Or we can use hypotheticals and representative examples, like in this passage.

When incorporating counterarguments into their essays, writers are most likely to make one of three kinds of mistakes. The first, and probably the easiest to commit, is oversimplifying or otherwise mischaracterizing the other side, which is called the Straw Man Fallacy. The best way to avoid this is to imagine the person who holds the opposing viewpoint and ask if that person would agree with the way his or her idea is being represented, even if they disagree with your conclusion. If the answer is yes, then you have almost certainly represented the opposing viewpoint both accurately and ethically.

Writers can also slip into attacks on a person who holds the counter-viewpoint rather than the ideas or perspectives themselves. This is the Ad Hominem Fallacy, and a way to avoid this is to keep the focus on the opposing ideas, not on the person or people who express those ideas.

Finally, it's not uncommon for writers to focus so much of their attention on the other side's position that they forget to adequately support their own. Even though we always want to be fair and give enough time and space to counterarguments, our main goal should always be to show the validity of our thesis. So don't forget to always wrap up the section dealing with counterarguments with assertions, proof, reasoning, or other support for why your argument is true or accurate, even though others, namely those who agree with the counterarguments, likely disagree.

Now, let's look at some examples of how counterarguments can be used, for better or worse. Let's say I'm writing an essay that argues that requiring labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food will unfairly impact businesses and spread misinformation. There are certainly those who would disagree with this position. And so if I want to construct an effective argument, I should introduce and refute some of these counterarguments.

I shouldn't, however, do it like this. My opposition hates GMOs because they don't understand science. Rather, they're a bunch of hippies and hipsters, happy to jump on any bandwagon that labels things unnatural. The unnatural part makes the least sense because lots of natural things will kill you, like viruses and poisonous mushrooms. Clearly, these people are just idiots who are happy to be uninformed.

This is a pretty obvious example of why committing the Ad Hominem Fallacy is a bad idea in an essay. If I'm truly trying to convince people who don't already agree with my position, then insulting them is about the quickest way to make sure I fail.

Here's another short paragraph dealing with a possible counterargument, it's got problems too, though they're a bit less obvious. Those in favor of labeling call GMOs Frankenfoods, an evocative name that calls up of Victor Frankenstein's famous monster and his using science to meddle with the laws of nature. They argue that we have been given a planet capable of producing ample healthy food and that the only reason to monkey with nature is corporate greed. But I disagree, because GMOs feed the world.

This use of a counterargument is a little better, though it is a bit vague. However, the biggest problem here is that the paragraph hasn't done much of anything to actually refute the counterargument. Simply stating that GMOs feed the world doesn't do anything to counter the use of the term Frankenfoods. And without support of some kind, evidence would be best I think. It doesn't do much to refute the argument that the planet is capable of feeding us without GMOs either.

Now, consider this longer paragraph and its use of a counterargument. Many disagree with my position. The most common refrain from the opposing side is that consumers have a right to know what's in their food. Indeed, some even admit that, nutritionally, there seem to be few negatives and potentially some positives with GMOs. Yet they also express concerns about environmental impact and lack of corporate oversight.

I can see that we should consider the issues of environmental impact, but I also feel that fears about evil corporations are overblown. Corporations make up the backbone of the American economy and they are strongly regulated and overseen by the US government. Furthermore, the American public remains a problematically ignorant group. Slapping GMO labels on food products will not improve this issue, but, paradoxically, will likely have the opposite effect as consumers panic without first informing themselves of the facts behind GMOs.

As you can see, this paragraph is introducing and representing its opposing viewpoint with respect and it's doing a pretty good job of explaining why, even in the light of the counterargument, the argument's thesis that we shouldn't label GMO food products, is still valid.

What did we learn today? We learned all about counterarguments, including the good and bad ways to introduce and refute them. Then we looked at examples of both.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Counterargument

    In an argumentative composition, a representation of an opposing viewpoint or argument and then restatement of the accuracy of the author's thesis, argument, or point even given that other viewpoint.