We've talked in depth about what constitutes an argument in What is an Academic Paper? Still, it's worth repeating the fundamental elements of argument here.
A good argument will have, at the very least:
- a thesis that declares the writer's position on the problem at hand;
- an acknowledgment of the opposition that nods to, or quibbles with other points of view;
- a set of clearly defined premises that illustrate the argument's line of reasoning;
- evidence that validates the argument's premises;
- a conclusion that convinces the reader that the argument has been soundly and persuasively made.
If your paper has these essential features, then you've probably
presented a sound argument. Of course, "probably" isn't good enough for
the good writer and scholar. How can you be sure that your argument is sound?
It's important to understand that an argument can be logical without
necessarily being true. Consider, for example, the following:
- All women are brilliant.
- I am a woman.
- Therefore, I am brilliant.
Is this argument logical? Indeed, it is. The test for logic in this
instance is not whether the statement is reasonable, but whether the
argument follows the almost mathematical construction of the syllogism.
A syllogism, like the one above, is made up of three statements: the
major premise, or general observation; the minor premise, or particular
observation; and the conclusion, which is something that one might
rightly deduce from the premises given.
Consider the following syllogism, and note how it differs from the one above:
- Everyone who has been exposed to the E-Boli virus has died.
- John Q. has been exposed to the E-Boli virus.
- John Q. will die.
What is the difference between the two syllogisms? It's very clear
that in the first syllogism, the major premise is not true. Surely
there are women in the world who are not brilliant. On the other hand,
the major premise of the second syllogism we can accept as true. While
there may in fact be people who have been exposed to this virus and
lived, we have no record of them. On the other hand, every case of
E-Boli that we've seen has resulted in death. Therefore, we can proceed
confidently from our major premise to a conclusion that is sound.
Of course, in any syllogism all premises must be true (or considered
true) if the argument is to stand. Consider the following syllogism:
- Murder is a terrible crime.
- Abortion is murder.
- Abortion is a terrible crime.
In this case, it is the minor premise that is most open to
challenge. Is abortion indeed murder? If the writer can convince his
reader that it is, then the reader will accept his conclusion.
This way of arguing is called deduction. When one deduces,
she moves from a general argument to a specific argument. The great
detective Sherlock Holmes was famous for his deductive arguments. A
crime might be solved, for example, along these lines:
- All watchdogs bark at strangers.
- When X was murdered, the dogs did not bark.
- X was not killed by a stranger.
Most detectives, however, use a different kind of reasoning when they try to solve a crime: inductive reasoning.
When you reason inductively, you observe the specific(s) and move to
the general. Detectives like Columbo and Kojak might gather their clues
from specific observations. From these observations they then determine
inductively who the murderer is.
It's important to note that many of the major premises used in
syllogisms are often arrived at through inductive reasoning. For
example, epidemiologists studying the E-Boli virus certainly had to
observe the disease carefully before they could come to the general
observation that E-Boli always kills. If we recall the early days of
the AIDS virus, we will remember that researchers were initially
stumped by the illness. Because so many cases in America involved gay
men, researchers erroneously dubbed the disease, "Gay Cancer." When
they began to gather more information about the disease, researchers
were able to understand that the disease is a virus passed from one
individual to another via bodily fluids. AIDS is not cancer. Nor is it
a gay disease.
Reasoning inductively is perhaps more difficult than reasoning
deductively, because it is easy to make a mistake in your observations.
It is also possible that the evidence you have to work with isn't
complete, making it difficult to draw persuasive conclusions.
So how do you create an argument with solid premises? You review
your evidence, making sure that it is fair, objective, and complete.
Ask yourself the following questions about the evidence in your paper.
Have you suppressed any facts? The
opponent's point of view needs to be reckoned with, not ignored.
Perhaps you are in the middle of writing what you think is a brilliant
paper that argues that Christianity as we know it was created (or
recreated) by Paul. You discover a compelling argument that states
otherwise. (Or, even more depressing, you discover a book that steals
your thunder.) Resist the temptation to pretend that you never saw
these books. Work them into your argument in such a way that your work
as a whole is strengthened by their presence.
Have you manipulated any facts? Sometimes
we dig up information that can only loosely support our point of view.
But we need that information in order to make our argument stand. Is it
fair to stretch the information to suit our own purposes? Absolutely
not - unless you are going to acknowledge the stretch to the reader,
and leave it to him to decide whether your stretch is a fair one.
Do you have enough evidence? Review the
main points of your argument and consider whether or not each point is
convincing based on the evidence alone. Do you find yourself relying on
your rhetoric alone to make a point? If you are, you may need to return
to your sources for evidence.
Do you have too much evidence? Take a look
at your paper. Do your quoted passages outweigh your own prose? If so,
perhaps your argument has been buried under the arguments of others.
It's likely, too, that your reader will find so much information
difficult to wade through. She'll be looking hard for an argument that
may in fact be impossible to find.
Is your evidence current? Reputable? It's
not that you can't use dated sources in a paper, it's simply that you
run the risk of not considering more current information that might
challenge your point of view. You've also got to make sure that your
evidence is reputable. Remember the dictum, "You can't believe
everything you read." This is especially true of information you find
on the Internet, where anyone can post anything, sometimes without the
slightest concern for its validity.
Logical fallacies are mistakes in reasoning. They may be intentional
or unintentional, but in either case they undermine the strength of an
argument. Some common fallacies are defined below.
- Hasty Generalization: A generalization based on too little
evidence, or on evidence that is biased. Example: All men are
testosterone-driven idiots. Or: After being in New York for a week, I
can tell you: all New Yorkers are rude.
- Either/Or Fallacy: Only two possibilities are presented when in
fact several exist. Example: America: love it or leave it. Or: Shut
down all nuclear power plants, or watch your children and grandchildren
die from radiation poisoning.
- Non Sequitur: The conclusion does not follow logically from
the premise. Example: My teacher is pretty; I'll learn a lot from her.
Or: George Bush was a war hero; he'll be willing to stand tough for
- Ad Hominem: Arguing against the man instead of against the
issue. Example: We can't elect him mayor. He cheats on his wife! Or: He
doesn't really believe in the First Amendment. He just wants to defend
his right to see porno flicks.
- Red Herring: Distracting the audience by drawing attention to an
irrelevant issue. Example: How can he be expected to manage the
company? Look at how he manages his wife! Or: Why worry about nuclear
war when we're all going to die anyway?
- Circular Reasoning: Asserting a point that has just been made.
Sometimes called "begging the question." Example: She is ignorant
because she was never educated. Or: We sin because we're sinners.
- False Analogy: Wrongly assuming that because two things are alike
in some ways, they must be alike in all ways. Example: An old
grandmother's advice to her granddaughter, who is contemplating living
with her boyfriend: "Why should he buy the cow when he can get the milk
- Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc: The mistake of assuming that, because event a is followed by event b, event a caused event b.
Example: It rained today because I washed my car. Or: The stock market
fell because the Japanese are considering implementing an import tax.
- Equivocation: Equates two meanings of the same word falsely.
Example: The end of a thing is its perfection; hence, death is the
perfection of life. (The argument is fallacious because there are two
different definitions of the word "end" involved in the argument.)