In my first post on critical thinking, I spoke a little about values and how important they are. In the next few posts I’m going to look at the various means by which one can dissect an argument into its composite parts.
The first thing that it is important to get a grasp of when listening to, or reading an argument is; what the hell are they arguing about? The subject matter of the argument is often referred to as the ‘issue’. Sometimes they can be easy to spot because the person states the issue clearly, sometimes they are more ambiguous. To give you more of an idea of what an issue is, here are some examples:
- Should the USA have stricter gun control?
- Does creationism have any place in a science class?
- Do violent video games negatively affect children?
- Should George Lucas be allowed to make more Star Wars films?
As you can see, the issue takes the form of a question. This question is what the person making the argument is trying to answer. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes this question is not actually mentioned directly during the discussion, but one can deduce the issue from looking at the conclusion of the argument. Here’s an example:
“Many people, adults and children alike suffer with obesity and the health risks that come with it. Therefore junk food should contain similar warnings to those found on tobacco products.”
We can find the conclusion by looking at indicator words, in this case “therefore,” other examples of such words include; ‘thus’, ‘so’, ‘ergo’, and ‘consequently’ etc. These words tell us that the following sentence is likely to be the conclusion of their argument. Now if we look at the conclusion above, we merely have to rearrange the sentence a little to see that the issue is; should junk food contain similar warnings to those found on tobacco products?
This all seems pretty straightforward, and probably obvious to most of you. But there are instances in which people direct a discussion off course by going for a different issue than the original one raised—be it intentionally or unintentionally. This is often called a red herring. An example of this would be a creationist stating; “scientists carried out carbon-dating on newly formed igneous rocks and they came out as forty billion years old” during a discussion about whether creationism should be taught in schools. However, this does not address the issue at hand, rather it is addressing a completely different issue of ‘does radiometric dating provide accurate results?’ (rather badly at that). This merely serves to throw the discussion off course, and for that reason it is useful to be able to derive the issue(s) from the conclusion(s) of a persons argument and see if they match up to the original issue that you began with. If they don’t then you can discard them and politely request that the discussion gets back to the real issue.
There are of course some issues that cover a whole range of sub-issues. Does God exist? For example, also covers issues like what is the nature of evidence? And what are the attributes of God? etc. It is important to keep track of these and to try to make it as clear as possible what these are and how they relate to the original issue in your presentation. Once we begin to learn how to de-construct arguments to analyse their components, we can begin to make much stronger arguments ourselves. Looking for, and clearly stating the issue at hand might seem obvious, but it is important in order to argue with clarity and to begin to see whether someone’s overall argument fits together.
As always, comments, questions, criticisms and suggestions are welcome in the discussion thread.