If you’ve been on any social media platform, you’ve undoubtedly seen it happen: an argument breaks out between friends or family members on different sides of an issue. Differing opinions become rigid dividing lines; participants split into opposing camps. Facts and evidence are used subjectively; logical fallacies abound. Some participants resort to emotion or even name-calling. At the end of the day, everyone is angry, and no one has changed their mind about the issue at hand. If anything, people have dug their heels in even more.
How can we continue to disagree, and engage one another in a debate, without devolving into the scenario above? One solution is to just disengage or retreat into the so-called social media “filter bubble” of like-minded perspectives. But arguably our future as a country, or even as a global community, depends on the free exchange of ideas and a willingness to question, learn from, and challenge one another.
So in the discussion this week, we’ll put the critical reading, thinking, and argumentative reasoning skills we learned this week to work to engage in a civil debate on one of two topics relating to the future of our society. Before beginning, remember: the goal here is to maintain good netiquette and avoid the common pitfalls of arguments – name-calling, appealing to emotion, ignoring or distorting the facts.
Initial post: Begin by reading pages 3.6 through 3.9 of Chapter 3 in the webtext. Then, by Thursday of Module 3, choose 1 of the 2 topics listed below, and go to the forum associated with that topic to make your initial post.
You will argue the “con” position.
Should we continue to use genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production?
Should we send humans to Mars?
Include in your initial post:
An argument for why your side is correct. An argument for why the other side is incorrect. Make sure to use at least 2 credible, relevant sources to back up your points in your initial post.
Use this Tip Sheet for a Great Debate to make sure you are following best practices to engage in an academic debate effectively.
Link below is for the web text:
3.6 Critical Thinking
Now that you’ve had a chance to review the components of a peer-reviewed journal article, let’s examine why it’s so important to filter your resources and evidence using critical thinking skills. The sources you select inform your communication and analysis, so choosing wisely matters.
The ability to think critically is one of the most sought-after qualities in recent college graduates. According to a report analyzing employers’ hiring priorities, almost all the employers surveyed agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (Hart Research Associates, 2013, p. 1).
For the purposes of this course, we’re going to use the term critical thinking to refer to a variety of techniques used to structure complex situations and think about them systematically. Critical thinking requires the structured synthesis of facts and data, and it can be broken down into two broad areas: (1) problem solving and decision making and (2) argument and reasoning.
To learn to think critically is to acquire explicit strategies for making better decisions and finding better solutions. When you have a complex personal problem to tackle or a big life decision to make, using a step-by-step process can help you clarify the issue at hand, generate options, and pick the best one.
But to receive any benefit from critical thinking, you need to go beyond listing problems; you have to find the truth by selecting the best available evidence and building the strongest possible argument. Effective critical thinking is constructive in that it seeks to clarify the issue or problem, reach the most reasonable conclusion or decision, and articulate the best possible reasons for that conclusion.
While in daily life the word argument can have a variety of meanings, in scholarly journal articles it generally refers to a claim supported by reasons. In a study by Harvard University professor Richard Light, interviews with students who struggled academically revealed that many had not developed the critical thinking skills required for college-level work. According to Light, “One crucial skill that students must constantly refine is ‘critical thinking’: the ability to synthesize arguments and evidence from multiple sources, sources that often disagree” (2001, p. 37).
Most of your college classes will include writing assignments that require you to show evidence uncovered through research. In academic writing, making an argument goes beyond sharing an opinion or stating a fact. It requires you to use evidence, often from contradictory sources, to support your ideas. Successful students are able to demonstrate knowledge about a topic with clear statements supported by reasons.
You may associate the word critical with someone who’s always pointing out other people’s flaws. But that’s not actually the main focus of critical thinking. The video below offers more insight about what it truly means to think critically.
3.7 Structure of Arguments
All arguments consist of at least two parts: a premise, or one or more reasons or pieces of evidence to support the claim, and a conclusion, or the claim being supported. The logical leap from the premises to the conclusion is known as an inference. Whenever you draw a conclusion based on a piece of information, such as when you see a threateningly dark sky and decide there’s a good chance of rain, you’re making an inference. When these inferences are articulated with premises and conclusions, they make an argument.
To filter through all the ideas presented to you, to compare arguments from different sources, and to decide what to believe, you have to turn a skeptical eye to every argument you encounter.
The first step is to understand exactly what makes up an argument. Not every text or speech you encounter is necessarily an argument; remember that an argument needs to have both premises and a conclusion.
An argument also requires supporting evidence. Something might be a fact, but if no reasons are presented to back it up, it’s not an argument. Consider the following statements:
How we vote matters
Road trips cost more than you think
On their own, these are just assertions of belief, not arguments. However, once the speaker or writer supports these opinions by offering evidence in the form of premises, the claims become arguments. Read this passage from a magazine article to see how you might transform the assertion “How we vote matters” into an argument:
How we vote matters. When we vote, we can make government better or worse, and in turn, make people’s lives go better or worse. Bad choices at the polls can destroy economic opportunities, produce crises that lower everyone’s standards of living, lead to unjust and unnecessary wars (and thus to millions of deaths), lead to sexist, racist, and homophobic legislation, help reinforce poverty, produce overly punitive criminal legislation, and worse. (Brennan, 2012)
In this instance, the writer supports the claim that how we vote matters by providing examples of how bad choices at the polls can affect people:
Premise: Bad choices at the polls can destroy economic opportunities.
Premise: Bad choices at the polls can produce crises that lower everyone’s standards of living.
Premise: Bad choices at the polls can lead to unjust and unnecessary wars.
(And so on)
Conclusion: How we vote matters.
Finding Premises and Conclusions. When you’re spelling out arguments, the standard approach, as shown above, is to list the premises first and then state the conclusion to which they lead. But arguments in real life are often not so tidy. The ability to tease out the premises and conclusion in a body of text is a key part of analyzing arguments—and making sure that what you’re reading is an argument in the first place.
Here are some tips for locating the conclusion of an argument:
Look for indicator words. Sometimes speakers or writers provide clues about their conclusions with indicator words and phrases such as “therefore,” “so,” “consequently,” “hence,” “which shows that,” or “it follows that.” Of course, not all arguers use these phrases to mark their conclusion (and not every instance of these phrases indicates a conclusion!).
Look at key places in the text. What’s the title of the article? What does the last paragraph say? The first and last sentences of paragraphs are often where writers give clues about what point they’re trying to make.
Ask yourself “What’s the main point?” What is the writer trying to convince you of? What is the writer’s purpose for writing this piece?
Once you have a good idea about what the conclusion is, you’ll want to find the premises used to support it. Ask yourself “How is this claim supported? What reasons does the speaker or writer give for why I should believe this?”
Finally, remember that not every sentence in a passage is necessarily a premise or a conclusion. A given sentence may be providing background or tangential information, reiterating a point, or serving as a qualifying statement that acknowledges another perspective or anticipates a counterargument.
Now that you have a solid understanding of premises and conclusions, see whether you can identify the premises and conclusion in this example from the New York Times:
Voters in New Jersey should adopt a constitutional amendment that raises the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour starting on Jan. 1. If it is approved, more than 400,000 people now working at or near minimum wage could benefit…. Business leaders say, as they often do, that such increases would cost jobs. But a recent study by New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated that because the working poor spend virtually every extra dollar they earn, the increase in pay would add $175 million to the economy in 2014, most of it in New Jersey. (“Add a Dollar,” 2013)
3.8 Logical Fallacies
“But everyone else is doing it!” “Today you skip class, tomorrow you’ll drop out of school.” “Don’t listen to her argument about nutrition—she eats doughnuts every day!”
Do these arguments sound familiar? At first, they may seem to contain some validity, but they are all logical fallacies: Although they may sound good, they’re actually based on faulty logic. Human reasoning can be defective in many different ways, but some of our mistakes are so common that they have names. Fallacies inhabit the often ridiculous (but not always obvious) realm of flawed reasoning.
You should study fallacies for two reasons: to avoid being fooled by them and to avoid unintentionally committing them. If you can identify fallacies, you can recognize when a speaker or writer is using flawed reasoning to persuade an audience. Though the presence of a fallacy in an argument doesn’t necessarily mean the conclusion is false, it does mean that the reasoning behind the conclusion is flawed.
Here are some types of logical fallacies you may encounter:
Ad hominem attacks occur when the arguer simply attacks the character or motive of the opponent instead of discussing the issues at hand.
Circular arguments are those in which the premise is actually based on the conclusion, which itself supports the premise.
Slippery slope arguments result when the arguer suggests that one event is going to spark a chain of events leading to an undesirable outcome, even when there is no logical reason to believe the first event will cause that chain of events.
Causal fallacies are oversimplifications of an issue that reduce an argument’s complexities to a singular cause.
False dilemmas result when the arguer inaccurately portrays a circumstance as having a limited number of possible outcomes, setting up an either/or situation with only two outcomes and then presenting one as drastically more preferable than the other.
Straw man arguments are those in which the arguer sets up a vulnerable version of the opponent’s position and then presents evidence to knock down the distorted position.
3.9 Critical Thinking Is the Key
We’ve spent a lot of time in this module discussing the ability to think critically and identify logical arguments. But do these skills really matter? They are not easy to objectively measure and are often fluid, depending on the discipline. Many companies are looking for subject-matter experts, especially in the math and science fields. At the same time, employees who display cross-functionality and problem-solving skills quickly rise in value. Your ability to learn and apply the company’s mission, your success with collaborating across multiple teams, and your sense of curiosity will make you stand out.
Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University, offers insight into the relationship between measurable knowledge in STEM fields and the importance of critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking skills are the foundation of your college education. Being able to learn new tasks is not nearly enough. You need to be able to apply this knowledge to your creativity, problem-solving skills, and innovative spirit. Your ability to develop and share your own creative and reflective ideas are on display in this course—through your weekly discussion boards, your research paper, and even the responses you write in the webtext.
Aoun continues by explaining why these critical thinking skills must be consciously developed at the university level.
…when a lawyer mulls a thorny contract dispute and figures out how to position a client for a victory and when a marketer crafts the content of a website that keeps eyes on the screen, they are using cognitive capacities that are exclusively human. Critical thinking will therefore remain a cornerstone of human work in the digital age.
[. . .]
Because critical thinking and systems thinking are crucial for the human employees of the future, it is imperative that we instill them through the education of the present. Universities will have to develop methods to nurture these cognitive capacities in students if they hope to maintain their age-old social compact, equip graduates for fulfilling, productive lives, and generate new knowledge. To compete with intelligent, advanced machines, we will need to think intelligently about advancing higher education.
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