Evaluating Arguments

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the elements of an argument

Academic Arguments

Being able to convince someone of something or to hear someone else’s perspective on a subject is essential to human communication. We learn from one another by sharing different points of view and new ideas. Academic writing that contains an argument builds on this premise—that one of the functions of human communication is to persuade others or offer new perspectives. Being able to think critically in the world, whether it be to make decisions in the workplace or to make a personal financial decision, helps us understand the information presented to us and choose wisely. This is exactly what we are doing when we embark on the journey of writing an academic argument. You are already doing this all the time, so don’t think of this as a new skill, but as a process that you will be refining.

Friends talking. One says "Even though you don't like action films, you will LOVE this movie!" and the other has a thought bubble thinking, "I wonder why he is so certain I will like this movie?"

Figure 1. When sharing your opinion, even when talking with friends about movies, you are making an argument. You can support your argument with premises—claims supporting your conclusion.

Think about arguments this way: when a close friend asks for your opinion on a new movie, you are going to present your opinion of the movie while considering your friend’s interests and background. You might say, “Well, I know you’re not a big action film person, but you will love this movie.” That statement alone is not very convincing, but your friend is probably curious about why you would suggest an action film knowing that they don’t enjoy them and they probably want to know what it is about this movie they will love. You might also say, “It was horrible and a total waste of time and money.” In this case, you have not only shared your opinion, you have given reasons not to see it—a waste of time and money. While your friend might wonder why the movie was horrible, they are already considering their own time and money situation: something they may not have even considered as part of the equation before. In both scenarios, you gave your friend a conclusion and the start of an argument based on reasons, or premises, you think are the ones that will work best with this particular friend.

Let’s review the key vocabulary here—a premise is a claim, or piece of evidence, that supports the conclusion, and a conclusion is the main idea (or the “so what?”) of the argument, which is supported by the premises.  Here’s an example of an argument:

  • You will love this action movie because, in addition to the exciting action, there is a really sweet love story.

The premises are: there is exciting action in the movie and there is a sweet love story. The conclusion is that you will love the action movie.

Vocabulary for Logical Arguments

  • argument: a claim containing premises which support a conclusion
  • claim: a statement or opinion that is either true or false
  • conclusion: the main claim in an argument that each premise supports
  • premises: reasons that support an argument’s conclusion
Icon of a head filled with gears.

Figure 2. Your argument is only as strong as your sources. Are they reliable? Do the points they argue make logical sense?

In addition to understanding the relationship between claims, premises, and conclusions, there are evaluations you must make along the way in order to determine the logic and strength of an argument. This evaluation is important for both evaluating arguments that you read and for academic arguments that you construct (essays or otherwise). An argumentative essay is one that makes a clear assertion or argument about some topic or issue.

Arguments and Premises

No matter how well-constructed the argument is, the premises must be true or any inferences based on the premises will be unsound. It is not just about an argument seeming to make sense. The strength of the argument is based on the strength of the premises presented to make a reader see the conclusion as the most plausible result. If you offer weak or under-developed reasons to prove your conclusion, your reader is less likely to accept your conclusion.

One way to test the accuracy of a premise is to determine whether the premise is based on verifiable information, or a verifiable source (or person). If you were trying to buy a new snowboard and the person at the sales desk admitted to never having snowboarded before and then tried to convince you which snowboard was the best, you should evaluate whether or not that is the best source of information for such an important purchase.

snowboards

Figure 3. “You should totally buy this snowboard because it rocks!” There is no solid reason, or premise, for the conclusion the salesperson is trying to get you to agree with, which is that you should buy a certain snowboard.

Try It

Let’s consider the introduction to an essay by student Mariah Jackson, who wrote:

Beauty pageants have become a staple in American culture. Winners of pageants such as
Miss America are icons, representations of the ideal woman, and positive role models for young
girls. So society says. More recently, however, a new type of pageant has increased in popularity
to the point of being considered a national phenomenon. These pageants are just as glitzy, and
the competition is just as fierce; the only difference is that these contestants are the miniature
model. They are child beauty queens. The world of child beauty pageants has become a source of
fascination, as well as contention, in our society. Networks such as TLC and WE TV have
produced hit reality shows featuring the munchkin-sized divas because it sells, but one cannot
help but wonder, how can parading children about on stage like show ponies be a positive thing?
The truth is it is not. Beauty pageants are not a healthy activity for children because they force
young girls to act like little adults, exhibit age-inappropriate sexuality, and have negative body
image and mental health problems later in their lives. Children are the future of society, and even
those who do not have children should be concerned about the direction of the culture they have
to live in. Just because child beauty pageants are socially acceptable does not mean they should
be. Our culture needs to eliminate child beauty pageants, at least in their current form.

 

Writing Workshop: Conclusion of an Argument

Read a portion of this essay about recycling initiative on campus written by Emily Hanna from Oregon State University:

The new recycling system and education initiatives should be combined with a movement away from products that are the hardest to dispose of ethically and with concern for the environment. This not only limits waste, but also offsets some of the initial costs of the new endeavors. For example, the University of Maryland began using compostable takeout containers that cost a bit more than the old products (University of Maryland, 2010). However, they combined the use of these new products with an emphasis on using reusable plates, cups, and silverware. As a result, the food services produced less waste, needed fewer takeout containers, and spent less money. Zellar confirmed that one of the best ways to lessen the amount of waste being produced is to move away from heavily packaged items that contain unrecyclable elements.

Now you try. Open your working document to the section titled “Conclusion of an Argument.”

In your own words, what is the main point (or “conclusion”) of the argument in this paragraph?

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