Black Tools

End of the Debate

(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 9--10, March/April 2000.)

Black Tools is the name I gave to the art of winning a debate irrespective of who is in the right. Many debates are fought to win, mostly debates in front of an audience. The art of winning such a debate is often applied in an unethical way, thus the name Black Tools.

Unfortunately, debating is like fencing. It scarcely matters who is right or wrong, who fights for a good cause or for a bad one. If one debater knows how to hit and parry and the other doesn't, it is decided from the start who wins. If you don't want to lose debates solely for technical reasons, you should know at least the basic tricks of intellectual fencing.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer compiled the list of 38 tricks I have shown you in the six preceding issues of this Newsletter. Schopenhauer never published his list of tricks, although he possibly presented it in lectures at the University of Berlin in 1830. His way of explaining the tricks is rather outdated now so I took his list, combined it with some of my own philosophy, and recorded it in six Black Tools columns; I'll call them [1; March/April 1999] to [6; January/February 2000].

Apart from containing lots of cynical common sense (for example, my remarks about political correctness in [3]), the six articles were also about my personal attempt to reconcile realism and relativism. Realism is the assumption that there is a real world that exists independently of what we perceive and think. Many realists also believe that there are so-called facts, things that are true independent of who perceives and thinks about them. This extreme form of realism is called logical positivism.

Relativism is the opposite idea, namely, that something can be true or wrong only in relation to a certain context, world view, culture, or theory. Some relativists believe that nothing at all is independent of the beholder. This extreme form is called radical relativism.

I think that both realism and relativism are good concepts: Everything we know and say about the world is true only relative to a certain theoretical, cultural, or social context, but such contexts do not develop arbitrarily, so that reality is reflected somehow in the theories, cultures, and societies.

I started the philosophical part of the Black Tools column with an attack against yes-no logic [2], went on to discuss different world views and how to use them in debates [3], and then explained how facts (even scientific ones) are made rather than discovered [4].

Then I pointed out the difference between expert knowledge, which is accessible only to a small group of people (esoteric knowledge), and common sense, which is accessible to a large number of people (exoteric knowledge) [5]. Finally, I explained the difference between theory and practice by portraying theory as a matter of thinking and practice as a matter of caring [6].

Although truth is relative, there is still truth within a certain context. For example, two electrical engineers have a lot of principles in common and, within the context of electrical engineering, they can argue in an objective way, using true-false logic. Eight tricks deal with the matter at hand alone, mainly by distorting it slightly to the advantage of one of the debaters: Generalization [1, Trick 3], the Extension Contraction Game [1, T1], Homonymy [1, T2], Proof by Induction [2, T11], the Extreme Contrary [3, T13], the Proof of a Paradox [3, T15], the Do-It-Yourself Conclusion [4, T20], and the Concrete Counterexample [4, T25]. A debater can also use his opponent's world view against him, or what the opponent said earlier, or even what the opponent's friends or allies said. Then truth becomes relative again. Seven tricks work with setting truth by altering the context of the debate: the Gambit [2, T5], Asking Questions [2, T7], To Mock a Mockingbird [3, T16], Make Undesired Conclusions [4, T24], Turn the Tables [4, T26], Answer Bad Arguments with Bad Arguments [4, T21], and As You Don't Like It [6, T35].

If the debate is observed by an audience, one truth is always truth according to the audience's views. Using the audience's views for your own ends is the subject of eight more tricks: Good Labels [3, T12], You Just State What You Should Actually Prove [4, T22], Convince the Jury [5, T28], Declare Yourself Incompetent [5, T31], Authority and Common Sense [5, T30], Pejorative Classification [5, T32], Toasting Bad Proofs [6, T37], and perhaps the most dangerous trick of all—This May Work in Theory But It Is Wrong in Practice [6, T33].

Looking at this arsenal of discussion tricks, it's no surprise that the art of evading attacks is also well developed. Five of the tricks are purely evasive: Fine Distinctions [3, T17], Change the Topic [3, T18], Life, the Universe, and Everything [3, T19], Diversion [5, T29], and If You Can't Convince Them, Confuse Them [6, T36].

Seven tricks deal with tricking your opponent, either by hiding from him what you're getting at until it is too late for him, or by using his stubbornness against him: the Stealth Salami [2, T4], Hidden Postulation [2, T6], Stealth Questions [2, T9], Dig Their Heels Out [2, T10], the Hollywood Proof [3, T14], and Provoking Exaggerations [4, T23].

The last four tricks are about hitting the opponent himself: the Last Trick (Insult Your Opponent) [1, T38], Evoking Anger [2, T8], Pressing on Weak Spots [4, T27], and Breaking a Noisy Silence [6, T34].

Although there are many more tricks, it is already difficult enough to remember these 38 basic ones during a debate. Fortunately, you can do something in debating that you cannot do in fencing: You can take your time. It is well known that the present is not just the infinitesimally short moment when the future becomes the past. In a human mind the present lasts three to four seconds.

Since a problem and its solution cannot happen simultaneously, one of them must be in the past. Thus, if you're in trouble, just take a deep breath, and the three seconds you win will make a huge difference.

By the way, those three to four seconds turn up in places as diverse as music (most musical motifs last three to four seconds) and didactics (a teacher who asks a question should wait three seconds before calling on someone to give an answer, and also before commenting on that answer).

With these words, I say goodbye to the Black Tools, but hopefully not to you. I'll go on writing about implications of different philosophies on the art of professional communication every now and again.


  Hanspeter Schmid is an analog-IC designer and lecturer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zürich) who has an untameable interest in modern philosophy of science and society. Since he believes that there are always several sides to any problem, and there's truth in all of them, he can always go into opposition in any debate and even take it almost seriously. These articles are now posted on his Web page,