Tips for Effective Argumentation

I've been reading a lot more articles from columnists and pundits lately as opposed to from academics and researchers. I've also been following more mainstream media lately--CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and all points in-between. Across the spectrum, but PARTICULARLY at many partisan political websites and blogs, (Daily Kos, Townhall, Daily Beast, RedState, and others) the articles posted and the comments attached to them drive me up the wall. There are certain common strategies in making a point that should absolutely be avoided when trying to make a cogent, coherent point. Here are some of them:

1) "__ does it, so we should do it back to them / we are allowed to do it now too." If you profess to hold a certain type of principle or set of ideals, you should follow it and be the better person than the thing you are arguing against. The worst thing about this method of argumentation is that you lower yourself to the level of the thing which you are arguing against.

(Real Life Example: Republicans should filibuster the Democrats' judicial nominees--after all, they're the ones that started doing it during the Bush Administration.)

-- Democrats did indeed filibuster judicial nominees--and the Republicans stated that they would be absolutely against such partisan battles (for the most part.) In this case, we see an abandonment of past principle merely because the other side lowered the bar. To lower one's self to the same level means that you lose credibility in your argument, as you become the same thing you are arguing against.

2) "__ has given money to/hung around/advocated for "Bad Group X" during their lifetime, despite the fact that most of their contributions/associations/advocations are perfectly fine and are not questionable." This is more formally known as "guilt by association", something I would eradicate from the Earth if at all possible. The implication is that by having once supported a group with questionable morale, that your own ideals and morals match the ideals/morals of that particular group. I find that to be highly errant--I have some friends which hold very different ideals from me. My being friends with them doesn't mean that I hold those ideals as well. The same should hold true in our arguments.

(Real Life Example: The Knight Foundation has made many charitable contributions to communications organizations such as PBS, C-SPAN, and Time Magazine. However, because they also donated to al-Anara television this year (a group that has been known to support Hezbollah candidates for political office), they are certainly anti-American and sympathize with terrorists.)

-- The Knight Foundation cannot possibly take on the philosophies of everyone they may donate to, because many of the philosophies are directly contradictory. For example, they donate to both The Progressive Magazine and The Heritage Foundation, two organizations which have in the past directly condemned the other for what they saw as biased research tactics. The Knight Foundation holds a view that anything to foster open communication is good, and to extend beyond that is fallacious.

3) "__ and __ happened at a similar time. Therefore, one is the cause of the other." In academia, we utter and re-utter the phrase "correlation does NOT imply causation." It is somewhat wondrous to me how common such arguments are. You will find these everywhere from the daily pundit shows to the local newspaper. Implying a causal link between two correlated things is typically a tactic one resorts to when concrete evidence is unavailable. It makes for a convenient argument, but an incredibly fallacious one. If it rains on Tuesday and there is a shooting on Tuesday, that does not mean that the shooting happened BECAUSE it rained.

(Real Life Example: Since President Obama has been in office, the Dow Jones has rebounded to levels above 11,000 points--nearly 5,000 points higher than its low in March 2009; a mere 2 months after his employment. The President has clearly had a positive impact on the market.)

-- The argument makes no actual argument as to WHY President Obama has had a positive effect on the economy, merely that he was in power during a positive period for the market. The claim may or may not be true, but there is no effort by the author to establish an argument.

4) "__ once belonged to 'Group Y', and recently 'Group Y' has come out and said something radical. Therefore, __ is someone to be afraid of." This is highly related to #2, but there is an important distinction: that of time. There is often an attempt to imply the values/ethics of an organization that were around decades ago to a situation that is taking place in the present day. It is important to recognize and make a clear distinction in the mind that a company or a person or a group undergoes countless changes across the years. There is no set year for when it's "okay" to begin making comparisons, but as a general rule, academics don't like using research more than ten years old when trying to use it to supplement current events. There are exceptions, but they are generally very clear and there is a direct link to be made.

(Real Life Example: In 1983, AT&T was a bloodthirsty corporation that monopolized the telecommunications industry. It would be irresponsible to trust them to hold exclusive rights to the iPhone broadband distribution.)

-- AT&T was forcibly broken up by the Supreme Court into a number of smaller organizations. They are no longer the same company they were in 1983, although they have grown since their bust-up.

5) "___ is wrong--they are a corporate idiot powered by special interests, and they have no room to criticize me!" This really should go without saying, but calling people names in arguing isn't actually arguing at all--it's venting; no one is actually making any sort of a coherent point. Yet, this is one of the most common forms of argument we see in the media. Republicans call Democrats anti-American and Democrats call Republicans bigoted; pundits call each other pompous bloviators and scoundrels and all manner of things. Yet, no one actually makes any sort of argument. They just yell and point. It amounts to no more than a childhood skirmish where people whine at one another and call each other names.

(Real Life Example: Haley Barbour is a moronic bigot with no sense of justice or responsibility--only spite and prejudice!)

-- Haley Barbour did indeed say that people criticizing Bob McDonnell for not mentioning slavery when declaring April 'Confederate History Month' were trying to make a big deal out of something that "didn't amount to diddly", but that comment doesn't address that at all--it just pouts and outrages without offering anything substantial to the conversation.


There are a number of other things to watch out for when listening to arguments in class, on television, in debates, and when talking to parents and friends. Feel free to mention the things that bug you the most in the comments! I do find it to be very important that people re-learn more effective communications, research, and debate strategies. It would be wonderful if we could really make an effort to implement better argumentation across our culture, so that we could hopefully turn our national debates into more civil and better reasoned ones. If it trickled all the way up to the top (haha, I know), then we would be able to foster more effective leadership. Our leaders are ultimately representative of ourselves, and as much as we don't like them sometimes, they often act in similar ways that we do. If we insist upon a better political discourse, we may be pleased with the results it has in Congress and beyond.

Note: I'm not sure is causing the problem with the italics in the 1st section. Sorry for that.

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