Last time I wrote about crafting better arguments I discussed the overall structure of arguments and the importance of premises and conclusions. You can read the original article here in case you missed it.
As a brief recap, sound arguments are composed of a (1) conclusion and (2) premises. The conclusion is the point you are trying to make while the premise (or premises) is the evidence or reason supporting your conclusion. So take the following argument for example: “Studies have shown that smoking causes lung cancer.” This argument contains both the conclusion and premise within the same sentence. (1) The conclusion is “smoking causes lung cancer.” This is the ultimate point the argument attempts to make. (2) The premise supporting the conclusion entails the “studies” involved in making that determination. As obvious as this may seem, if you take the time to deconstruct most arguments made in the heat of battle, you will often find that people either have no idea what their conclusion is or they have failed to logically support their conclusion with valid premises.
This edition expands on the first article and focuses on the importance of strengthening your premises. If we go back to the “studies have shown that smoking causing lung cancer” argument above, we can quickly determine that the argument, in a vacuum, is weak and poorly crafted. Yes, although we all know how harmful smoking is, the goal of this article is to learn to develop solid arguments by using both reliable and ironclad premises while learning to identify weaknesses in both your arguments and your opposition’s arguments.
When either attacking someone else’s argument or working on strengthening yours, the first step (after coming up with a clear and concise conclusion) is to analyze and strengthen your premises. The premise in the above lung cancer example is “studies have shown.” What studies? How many studies? Over what period of time? How many people have been studied? Who is conducting these studies and are they conducted by reliable sources? Are there conflicting studies with contradictory findings? Are the correlations to lung cancer related or are they simply coincidental? By really scrutinizing and questioning the premise in its current state, we quickly come to realize that the argument is very fragile and subject to attack without elaborating on the studies mentioned in the argument and supporting them with reliable sources and sub-premises.
Always ask yourself:
Is my or my opponent’s premise weak?
Can I come up with examples that refute his premise?
What evidence do I need to support my premise and make sure it’s reliable?
Is his premise reliable?
Is the source reliable?
Are there other reliable premises I can think of that will contradict or cripple his premise?
Do the premises appropriately relate to the conclusion my opponent is trying to prove without relying on assumptions?
Does his argument improperly correlate his premise to his conclusion?
I used the lung cancer example above because it also helps point out a major weakness found in many of our opinions and arguments—the weakness of bias and having our minds already made up on issues. When our minds are already made up on an issue we become biased towards it and we tend to overlook the reliability and strength of the premises founded on those biases. Often-time we present flimsy premises subject to defeat only because we’ve failed to identify our own biases and presume that the person listening to our premises has the same foundational beliefs as us without presenting any evidence to support our biases. I’m sure most people who initially read the argument “studies have shown that smoking causes lung cancer” failed to critically analyze the strength of the argument in its current state (and took it as well-reasoned) because most people already have their mind made up on the issue. The same faulty analysis is what drives and spreads poor arguments and ideas—just look at most political debates and observe the predetermined biases and ideas in each party’s position. In the lung cancer example, the bias created by the fact that we all pretty much know that smoking is bad for you leads to a harmless fault in our analysis; however, most arguments are not so black and white—take things like gun violence and immigration issues for example.
In conclusion, always make sure to clearly determine what your conclusion is and what your opponent’s conclusion is. Afterwards, identify what the premises are and scrutinize them. Your success in argument will be det
ermined by how well you can link your well reasoned and reliable premises to your conclusion while at the same time deconstructing your opponent’s argument and pointing out the unreliability of his premises and his failure to firmly link his premises to his conclusion.
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