Refutation With Wit

The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, a writer and politician said that ‘ridicule is the test of truth’. He was suggesting that if an idea can be ridiculed and survive, it must be the truth. Ridicule reveals falsity.

However, using wit can backfire. The Greek rhetorician Gorgias (5th-4th Century BCE) advised killing your opponent’s seriousness with ridicule and his ridicule with your seriousness.

Humour is so difficult to get right, especially when writing, it is easier just to avoid it most of the time. Puns, analogies, self-deprecation and sarcasm are the most common and accepted techniques. Bad language and ribald jokes (dirty jokes) rarely work well in writing. There is, however, a long history of effective refutation through satire.

The explanation of humour kills the fun, is boring to read, and is definitely boring to write. To give you some ideas of how you might use humour though, here are a couple of examples.


Example of Self-Deprecation Refutation

Context – Politician A demands that taxes on car pollution are reduced. In his demand, he says he takes a morning walk every Sunday alongside a bust road and has suffered no side-effects.

Refutation – Another politician writes ‘Unlike politician A who clearly has the lungs of superman and the heart of batman, I am a mere human being whose lungs and heart become riddled with disease if exposed the levels of pollution described.”




Definition: the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices


Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal (1729) anonymously. He wrote it to refute popular ideas at the time regarding the value of labour and land and social-engineering. One of the ‘problems’ identified by economists of the time was over-population in Ireland. The following is an extract from his essay, a refutation of the economic and social-engineering ideas of his contemporaries.



I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Jonathan Swift (1729) A Modest Proposal

Posted On February, 10 Friday 2017 10:41 AM

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