This error has been bothering me more and more since more people seem to be making it even in public life. The word means 'disprove'; it does not mean 'dispute' or 'deny,' although that misuse is so common that it now appears in some (culpably descriptivist) dictionaries.
Just for the record, here's a discussion from the Columbia Journalism Review.
... note that “refute,” as misused by Kavanaugh, does not mean “rebut” or “dispute,” as many people seem to think.
Especially in the legal world, it means “disprove” ...
The word you want most of the time is “rebut,” a denial accompanied by argument or presentation of less-than-definitive evidence.
The confusion over “rebut” and “refute” is more than a century old, as we wrote, and though the difference is significant, the needle is starting to move. Merriam-Webster’s second definition for “refute” is “to deny the truth or accuracy of,” and its definition of “rebut” includes “to expose the falsity of: refute.” It treats the two words as all but synonyms. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one preferred by many news organizations, comes close as well:
It defines “rebut” as “to contradict, refute, or oppose, esp. in a formal manner by argument, proof, etc.,” and its “refute” definition includes “to deny the truth or validity of: usage objected to by some
The “some” includes The Associated Press, whose stylebook says “Rebut means to argue to the contrary: He rebutted his opponent’s statement. Refute connotes success in argument and almost always implies an editorial judgment. Instead, use deny, dispute, rebut or respond to. The New York Times Manual of Style of Usage also preserves the distinction. Its “rebut, refute” entry reads: “Rebut, a neutral word, means reply and take issue. Refute goes further, and often beyond what a writer intends: it means disprove, and successfully. Unless that is the intention, use rebut, dispute, deny or reject.
Garner’s Modern English Usage also holds the line, not unsurprising[ly], since Bryan A. Garner is a lawyer and the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, among other law-related books. He lists the misuse of “refute” for “rebut” and vice versa at Stage 1 on the five-stage Language-Change Index, equivalent to expulsion from a parliamentary body.
Journalists seeking truth and legitimacy should probably avoid “refute” unless there is indisputable evidence that something was inaccurate. Words like “deny” and “dispute” are harder to “refute.”https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/rebut-ref...