In my last post I spoke about issues and how to spot them in an argument. This post will follow in a similar fashion, about how to spot conclusions and premises in an argument.
I spoke briefly about how to find conclusions in my previous post. In a sound argument the conclusion should be a statement that follows logically or can be inferred or deducted from the premise(s). Generally these tend to follow what I’d term indicator words such as the following:
Generally the sentences that follow these words are a conclusion to part of, or the entire argument. Of course these words aren’t always used, one might conclude their argument by saying ‘so in conclusion…’ or ‘this shows that…’. With a little practise you should have no problem being able to find the conclusions in someone’s argument.
Premises are the bulk of an argument, they are the reasoning that supports the conclusion(s) that you make. These can be statistics, facts, examples, logic, refutations of counter arguments, and so on. These are essentially the pieces of information that you wish to use to convince someone that the conclusion(s) you are drawing are valid.
Here are some example arguments, with the premises in yellow, and the conclusions in red:
In 2011 there were 8,748 alcohol-related deaths in the UK, heavy drinkers increase their risk of liver problems, cancer and other health issues, therefore alcohol should be more strictly controlled by the government.
[sources used: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-united-kingdom/2011/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-uk–2011.html and http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/alcohol/Pages/Effectsofalcohol.aspx]
46% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, this calls for a great effort to improve science education in the United States
[NOTE: These arguments do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the author, they merely serve as examples for education purposes]
Sometimes a conclusion will not follow from a particular premise, or series of premises. This is called a non-sequitur (literally meaning ‘it does not follow’). Here’s an example that many of you will be familiar with:
There is no evidence for evolution, therefore creationism is true.
The conclusion does not follow because it excludes the possibility of both evolution and creationism being false.
In order to spot non-sequiturs, it is advisable to read through the premises of an argument, and think about what kind of conclusions could logically be drawn from them (assuming that all the premises are true). If the conclusion differs greatly from the conclusions that you think are reasonable to have drawn from the premises, then it’s likely that this person has made a non-sequitur.
General tips when making arguments
In order to make your argument as sound as possible, there are some important things to consider when coming up with your premises and conclusions. These are: does my conclusion follow from my premise(s)? Are there any logical flaws in my premise(s)? Is there any research/facts that counters my conclusion(s)? Have I cited references for my argument? Are these references trustworthy? What are the counter arguments to my position?
If you continually scrutinize your arguments in such a way, you will inevitably come up with stronger ones. If you find that your argument is flawed in any way, the most honest thing you can do is discard it. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing your position, it might just mean finding better arguments. However, if you find that no arguments tend to support your position, then the most humble thing you can do is change your position, rather than defending it with bad arguments just to maintain your bias.
In my next post I shall look into some ways in which premises can be flawed, misleading or plain wrong.
Any comments, questions, suggestions etc. about this post are welcome in the discussion thread.