Refuting Versus Rebutting

On Pharyngula, commenter Zuckerfrosch talks about the myth that Darwin recanted on his death bed, using the word “refuted”: “But my comment is: who cares? Who cares if Darwin really refuted the theory of evolution?”

I answered,

I think you mean “denied.” To refute means to prove wrong: “the Great Depression refuted the classical notion that recessions were always self-correcting”; “many creationists have tried to refute the theory of natural selection, but none has been successful.”

What’s more interesting is the way the English language divides the semantic space of words like “debunk,” “refute,” and “rebut.” The way I’ve seen them used, “refute” tends to be a lot stronger than “rebut.” You rebut an argument and expect your rebuttal to be rebutted the next time your opponent speaks. In contrast, you refute a lie or something that in light of your refutation is obviously wrong.

A somewhat subtler quirk is that only people can rebut. Scientific evidence doesn’t rebut theories, but refutes or falsifies them.

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8 Responses to Refuting Versus Rebutting

  1. cfrost says:

    The persistence of such an idiotic myth refutes the theory that a 1.5 kilogram brain necessarily enables reasoning.

  2. Odile says:

    If we see a building full of activity, darwinists must think that the building is that what lives and creates the movements.

  3. Cairnarvon says:

    I’ve always been a big fan of “repudiate”, which tends to be what people mean half the time they say “refute”.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    I personally prefer “disavow” for that purpose, I think. But “repudiate” is pretty far away from the “rebut”/”refute”/”debunk”/”rebuke” semantic space.

  5. Serena Rocks says:

    100% Correct!!

  6. Serena says:

    I seem to like Refute way better than rebut… It sounds more professional!!

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