Things I’ve Worked On: A Primer on Everyday Argumentation

Democracies call on people to argue and form opinions. In many ways, this is a good thing. We gain agency and are forced to maintain a certain level of knowledge about the happenings of our nation. But everyone having an opinion about everything becomes a problem when these opinions are mostly ill qualified.

Welcome to 21st century America, where people just do not know how to argue. Worse yet, this is a pretty serious (education) crisis that is not getting any attention. How can we argue about complicated issues in a meaningful way if we haven’t even figured out how to argue in a consistent way? To that end, I would like to discuss three essential ingredients of argumentation within a sociopolitical context–truth (whether the premise of the argument is true), logic (whether the conclusion of the argument does in fact follow consequentially from the premise) and relevance (whether the argument, however sound, fits within the larger sociopolitical or conversational narrative)–and how they all fit together.

Before I start, I’d like to note here that I’m using the terms described above, particularly truth and logic, in a very loose manner. Logic is a general term relating to arguments, represents a field of study and also approximates to the term validity, the idea to which I’m mainly referring; however, given that policy-making is deductive (where we assess arguments by their validity) and inductive (i.e., where we assess arguments by their strength), I thought it would be improper to use the word valid.

1) Truth

Although trite, truths or facts, based on repeated observations, are self-evident by their nature. And as pundits on any cable news channel will tell you, general consensus on what is true is a necessary building block of civil society. There is nothing enlightening I can say about this topic, except that we as a society must collectively accept a bare minimum of things as true in order to function.

2) Logic

Validity is just as important as truth in an argument. Facts are important if and only if they are relevant to the conclusion, i.e., so long as conclusion B follows from fact A. And not just sorta relevant–totally relevant. Argumentation, the basis of human interaction, is essentially a proof, those things all my friends say they hated and didn’t understand in math class (Yikes!).

3) Relevance

Together, truth and validity constitute soundness. When an argument has true premises and follows consequential steps to reach a conclusion, it becomes sound. But beyond our presenting sound arguments, we must also present arguments that are themselves relevant to the collective ongoing narrative. That is to say, the conclusion of an argument must be relevant to the premise and the argument itself must then be relevant to all other ongoing arguments (essentially, something as small as the ongoing conversation or as large as the zeitgeist).

Where Arguments Go Wrong

For each aspect of arguments I highlighted above, there are ways in which arguers can err:

  • Type 1: Mistruths
  • Type 2: Illogical Reasoning
  • Type 3: Irrelevant arguments

Furthermore, the level of these errors can vary. I’ll present examples using some Trump-related examples.

  • Sean Spicer defending the attendance of Trump’s inauguration–It was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.
    • This isn’t necessarily an argument; however, there is an implied argument that Trump clearly has a large fan base. And of course, one could argue about the meaning of a large audience. For example, if you measure the large-ness of an audience by its average weight, his statement may be true. However, this is generally interpreted to mean that the inauguration had the highest number of people view it. Particularly referring to the statement about viewers there in person, one can count the number of people on the mall and see that that statement was simply not true (strong Type 1 error).
  • Trump on Twitter –An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama‘s birth certificate is a fraud.
    • There is nothing necessarily untrue about this statement. He may well be presenting actual hearsay about Barack Obama’s birth from a person someone considers “extremely credible” (perhaps just himself). However, the posting to Twitter, a medium for broadcasting one’s views to the general public, implies that Trump believes it be is socially relevant. Presenting a finding based on one source is inferentially problematic (strong Type 2 error) and arguably not all that relevant (weak Type 3 error).
  • Trump on Twitter–Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again–just watch. He can do much better!
    • Although there is an urge to call this type 3 error, Trump was in fact just a celebrity when he made this argument, so one could say it was in his wheelhouse. However, stating that it is a certainty that Kristen Stewart will cheat again is a strong Type 2 error.
  • Trump on Twitter–26,000 unreported sexual assults [sic] in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?
    • Generally, Trump simply states inaccurate things that are irrelevant to policy-making, so arguments and Type 2 errors are more difficult to come by. In this case, Trump makes inaccurate (weak Type 1 error) arguments (strong Type 2 error) that are relevant to policy-making.


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