Developing an Argument

There’s nothing like a good argument to get the adrenaline flowing and the brain cells clicking. But how do we argue in a paper, where there is only one of us, the writer? The argumentative essay has to take into consideration the fact that the writer is the only one who has permission to speak. What counts in an argumentative essay, then, is the writer’s ability to create a sense of interior debate, of allowing other voices their say, and maintaining equilibrium among those voices. It’s a matter of fairness and reasonableness.

One stylistic point: it is probably more true of the argumentative essay than it is of the other kinds of essays that we must be very careful of transitions: the devices we use to move from one point to another and to hold ideas together. Before writing an argumentative essay, it might be a good idea to review the section on using transitional tags.

Using Statistics

A well-placed statistic can be very helpful in convincing an audience of the validity of your argument. However, it is important to know that statistics can be used to misrepresent results. Depending on the scale used on a chart, the results will be shown differently, and that will have an impact on the reader’s perception.

Take a look at these two charts:

Chart 1: chart at 3000:1 scale. All amounts appear equal.

Chart 2: chart at 30:1 scale. Difference in amounts is easily distinguishable

While Chart 1 misrepresents the results since it may lead the reader to believe that the results are similar in each category, Chart 2 clearly shows the difference between the categories. The results are the same in both charts, but because of the different scales used (0 to 3000 in chart 1 and 0 to 30 in chart 2), they look completely different.

Also, statistics need to be recent — the number of high school students who smoked cigarettes in 1977 doesn’t mean much — and they need to be taken from a respected resource. Generally, government and academic resources are reliable, relatively unbiased providers of statistical information.

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Using Facts

The ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, interpretation or judgment is paramount to successful thinking and writing strategies. In fact, some people would argue that this is what education is really about. In an argumentative essay, it is essential to know what is fact and what is only asserted as fact. What kinds of statements can we make that our readers cannot reasonably dispute?

Historical Truths

There is no reason to get excited over someone saying that the American Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. If you found some evidence that it was actually signed on July 3, that would be exciting, but historical truths are those that are generally accepted by your readers as common knowledge. Be careful, though, where you push your historical evidence. It is widely accepted, for example, that six million Jews died in the holocaust of World War II, but can we claim in our essay, then, that this is the worst display of humankind’s systematic cruelty to other humans? Others could point to genocide in other parts of the world; over a much longer period — of centuries — it is estimated that sixty million Africans were killed in the slave trade. It is wise not to inflate a historical truth into a claim where it becomes debatable. Let the historical fact speak for itself, and it will probably do its job quite nicely.

Scientific Facts

No one would dispute the fact that the depletion of the ozone layer is a bad thing or that the loss of the ozone layer would prove catastrophic to humankind and other living things. People will dispute, however, the evidence that there is, in fact, a hole in the ozone layer that threatens us, and some will find even more debatable what causes ozone depletion and what measure should be taken to halt or reverse the process. A writer would have to be very careful in citing something as established scientific truth in this area; there are people with political and economic agendas who would love to argue the point.

It is interesting to watch the ebb and flow of what is acceptable scientific evidence. There are very few people who still hold that the earth is flat; in fact, we tend to ridicule those who do. But there was a time when many great minds accepted the notion of a flat world. Although it would be folly to accommodate the views of the Flat Earth Society in our astronomy research paper, a wise writer respectfully allows opposing but legitimate viewpoints their space in his or her essay; it only makes the writer seem that much more reasonable. On the other hand, there is no point in citing scientific evidence in an argument fraught with controversy, such as the debate about abortion. Deciding “when life begins” is subjective, and a scientist’s views on the subject are just as valid as another person’s.

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Using Analogies

When we argue from analogy, we say that something is like something else. For instance, we could argue that having two women’s professional basketball programs is a big mistake for the future of the sport. We can say this is like the experience of the two men’s leagues in professional football that were killing each other off in terms of divided fan support and media attention until they decided to merge and combine the merits of both leagues into one super league.

The writer must be fair in claiming likeness, however. Has the time passed since the merger of the two football leagues changed the climate of the country, the way that people watch sports? Is there something different about men’s and women’s sports that would make two leagues in women’s sports feasible where it wasn’t in a men’s sports? Would the enormous difference in the price of tickets make a difference?

Another example: Is it fair to say that those who resist the argument that we must do something at once about the depletion of the ozone layer are like those who refused to see the “truth” about smoking or those who refused to accept scientific evidence about evolution? You can argue it, but it is still only an analogy and may not prove anything at all. Be careful in your use of analogies in your argument paper. It may prove helpful, but it may be misleading. An inappropriate analogy is a fallacy known as the false analogy.

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Being Logical

When it comes to academic papers, it is important to be logically consistent and valid in our argument. In our writing, we must learn to look out for poor or invalid arguments. If our readers catch us in a fallacious statement or conclusion, our entire argument becomes weak. Here are several of the most common fallacies.

Non Sequitur (“It does not follow”) and Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (“After this, therefore because of this”)

These two fallacies are close cousins. We cannot assume that because something precedes a later development, the first event causes the later event. Causes not immediately evident to us and intervening causes between the first cause and final result may exist. Here is an example of a non sequitur:

  • John and Mary became vegetarians last fall and they’ve been sick all winter. The absence of meat in their diets must have weakened their immune systems.

A lot of other things could have made John and Mary sick this winter. Maybe they’ve been around sickly people, or they started working in a hospital, and their immune systems aren’t used to those germs. Maybe their immune system is fine; they’re just temporarily overloaded or tired. The non sequitur fallacy means that you’ve made a conclusion that is not justified on the grounds given. The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy means that you have concluded that because something happened earlier, it must be the cause of a later event. These two fallacies are similar to yet another fallacy known as jumping to conclusions or hasty generalization, which means that the evidence provided is not substantial enough to warrant the conclusion we’ve arrived at.

Stereotypical Thinking

To indulge in stereotypical thinking means that your brain has slipped into idle; you’re accepting as truth a commonplace assumption about people. “Women are lousy drivers. Scottish people are tight with money. White men can’t jump.” These stereotypes are not based on facts; therefore, they should not be included in academic writing (or, for that matter, anywhere else).

Argument Ad Hominem (“To the man”)

“To the Man” means that the writer attacks the character of his or her opponent rather than the opponent’s ideas or argument. Discussing someone’s personal life is not appropriate in academic discourse. Stick to the issues. Here is an example of ad hominem (an argument that is not valid because it attacks the character of a person, instead of their ideas):

  • The marine scientist who recommends freeing the orcas from marine parks was caught drinking and driving; therefore, we cannot value his point of view as an animal rights activist.

Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning is similar to a definition that restates the subject in its predicate: a computer virus is a virus that infects a computer. Circular reasoning should be avoided in academic papers. Here is another example of circular reasoning:

  • Vegetarianism is not healthy because it is not healthy to cut meat out of your diet.

Petitio Principii (“Begging the Question”)

This fallacy has an enduring hold on our thinking strategies because it is so easy to fall into this habit. It is similar to the child-parent argument we’ve all heard before:

“Why?”
“Because!”
“Why because?”
“Because because!”
“Why because because?”
“Because I said so!”

An argument cannot be built on a premise that simply claims something to be true but does not establish whose truth it is. Avoid this fallacy in academic papers. Here is an example of petitio principii:

  • People who adopt vegetarianism as a lifestyle are asking for health problems. Therefore, the Office of Student Services should set up a nutrition program to advise students not to become vegetarians, and the cafeteria should not be allowed to offer meat-substitute foods.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

If we assert a statement as truth, it is up to us to establish its validity. We can’t make the opponent of our argument responsible for proving its opposite.

  • Vegetarianism is an unnatural lifestyle, and I’d like to see anyone prove me wrong on that.

Stacking the Cards and Slanting the Evidence

These two fallacies are similar in that they’re unfair to the opposition. Stacking the cards means that we pile up the evidence on our side of the argument and cheat the other side of a fair representation. Slanting the evidence means that we use words in our description of the opposition’s argument that taint our readers’ perception of the opposition before they even read it.

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