Spring Semester 2004, Thursdays, 7 - 9:30 pm, CBC B225A
Instructor: Robert Gladd, phone 260-0622 (h) 269-1266 (w)

Course Description

We focus on effective analysis and evaluation of arguments in ordinary language. The "analysis" part involves the process of getting at what is truly being argued by a proponent of a position on an issue. Only once we have done that can we begin to accurately assess the relative merits of a proposition—the "evaluation" phase. These skills are essential to grasp if we are to become honest and constructive contributors to debate and the resolution of issues.

Our 24/7 global communications civilization is awash in arguments ranging from the trivial to grand themes of moral import. Advocates of every stripe and theme pepper us relentlessly with persuasion messages ranging from the "short and sweet" to the dense and inscrutable. We have more to consider and evaluate than time permits, so we must prioritize. This we often do by making precipitous snap judgments—"Ready-Shoot-Aim"—which then frequently calcify into prejudice. The sophistication and nuance of language enables a savvy partisan to entice us into buying into an argument perhaps not well supported by the facts and logic.

This material is similar to that I have presented in UNLV undergraduate Philosophy 102, a.k.a. "Reasoning and Critical Thinking." My online course guide from that course remains available for your convenience on my website at www.bgladd.com/unlv. Please review the material there. My focus on this page will pertain to specific details relevant to this class.

January classes: the early going

In theory, this is all very simple. Arguments are simply discourses, mostly written or oral (but not exclusively), in which claims of truth are offered. These claims consist of "premises" ("reasons," in plain English) which are offered as evidence in support of "conclusions." The simplest argument contains one reason/premise in support of one conclusion. The most complex and lengthy of arguments consists of these basic elements, which are usually stated in the form "because of this (reason), therefore that (conclusion)."

Some basic terminology:

Pictorially, the basic argument flow chart, then, can be displayed via the following (click here.) Remember, an "assumption" is a premise that simply isn't stated.

Some basic pitfalls

It'd be nice if all arguments were presented in orderly fashion, with clearly stated reasons pointing directly to clearly stated conclusions. Right. We should be so lucky. The reality is that arguments are often made in random fashion (I like the "rat maze" analogy) , with assumptions and counter-evidence ignored, and sometimes with even the actual conclusions left out -- only implied. Moreover, arguments may be loaded down with a lot of "noise" comprised of logical and rhetorical fallacies, verbosity, redundancies, vague (imprecise) and ambiguous statements (those open to multiple interpretations) -- i.e., all of the chaotic "junk" of language. 

Some people get right to the point, others beat around the bush, others never really get to the point. Some people re-state over and over the little bit of evidence they actually provide, dressing up the reasons in different phraseology to try and inflate the apparent coverage of their claims. Sometimes intended definitions of key terms are left unclear.

Learning how to sort effectively through all this messy stuff and find truths is the essence of this course. Like I said: simple. In theory.

February thus far

Quick recap: recall my handout where I stressed that a good argument will have the following attributes, in appropriate measure:

  1. Clarity -- do I have to read an argument multiple times to understand it? Or, it is clear?

  2. Focus -- does the argument work systematically toward a final conclusion, or does it wander about, perhaps inferring multiple conclusions?

  3. Evidence -- are the premises/reasons comprised of facts (which include proper statistical evidence), or is it loaded down with irrelevancies and/or emotionally laden passages meant to be persuasive but lacking as objective evidence?

  4. Appropriate comprehensiveness -- is the argument fair, or biased? Is there enough evidence, across a necessary breadth (obviously the depth and breadth of evidence will differ dramatically between the OpEd piece and the Thesis)?

  5. Style -- is it presented in a manner making it easy to assimilate and a relative pleasure to read or listen to?

Recall also I made a distinction between an argument's evidentiary and logical merits and its persuasiveness. While points 1 - 4 above should contribute to persuasiveness, #5 ("style") helps "sell" the argument. Trouble is, often proponents sell the "sizzle" (style) and the expense of the "steak" (evidence and logic). Conversely, an argument which is strong on merits and logic but poorly presented (e.g., dense, unfocused, overlong) may not be persuasive. In the end, style, while never a proper substitute for facts and logic, is an entirely appropriate element of an argument made on solid factual and logical grounds.

OK, we had to examine and dissect an OpEd piece presenting one man's case in opposition to "faith based funding," a policy being enthusiastically pushed by the Bush Administration. Click here for a copy of my analysis of it if you like. As we saw in class, we might make the diagrams a bit differently here or there. The central point is simply to get at a fair assessment of just what argument is being presented. Where we may have doubts, we observe "the principle of charity" -- really just 'give the proponent the benefit of the doubt at first by construing the argument in a way most favorable prior to making any critique.'

Several argument jargon words to remember:

"Argument" here often refers to the sub-arguments within the larger argument which (one hopes) terminates with a final conclusion.

Question: What's the difference between an argument, and an explanation?

A few more key bits of argument terminology:

As we begin Chapter 2 of the text we'll be moving away from pure structural analysis (what does the author intend?) to evaluation -- what are the merits, the relative strengths and weaknesses of a proposition?

BTW - I am available for "office hours" every Thursday from 5:30 - 6:45 pm before class, in Bldg 6 over in the PolySci area (the temp bldgs where the softball field used to be. Sign on the door notes "Part-time instructor office").

Mini "Mid-term" #1, February 26th

Coverage: Materials from Chapters 1 and 2 pertaining to basic structural analysis of arguments (we will not test on syllogistic forms).

After this test, we begin Chapter 3, and will start to focus more and more on the "evaluation" part of the subject -- assessing the relative merits of argument evidence and conclusions.

Again. it will certainly help you to review the material on my other page at www.bgladd.com/unlv.


Chapter 3: Disorganized arguments

Many arguments, particularly those of substantial length and/or complexity, are too often not clearly presented in a manner making it easy to diagram the logic flow of reason(s)-to-conclusion. We typically encounter a lot of

When you encounter a disheveled argument, simply numbering the statements from beginning to end and then methodically "connecting the dots" will often prove frustrating. The author recommends a strategy ("Creative Interpretation and Condensation") comprised of the following:

When approaching an argument in this manner, you must try to stick to "the Principle of Charity," though, to avoid simply "jumping to conclusions" at the expense of the most honest, clear, and thorough analysis and evaluation.

We will move on to Chapter 4 (Fallacies) Pages 307 – 347 for March 11th. Again, there is a good list of rhetorical fallacies posted at my other page located at www.bgladd.com/unlv. You can also simply type in "rhetorical fallacies" or "logical fallacies" or "statistical fallacies" at Google.com to get at a wealth of online resources on these topics. I highly recommend doing so. Every writer has their own perspective and style for explaining such things. It's good to expose yourself to a variety of them.

Chapter 4: Informal Fallacies

Fallacies of the types discussed in Chapter 4 are typically statements that, while enticing toward getting us to buy into a conclusion, provide no useful and relevant evidence for doing so. They are nothing but distractions. Unfortunately, they are commonplace, particularly with respect to hot-button political and social issues. A basic list follows. You must learn to be able to spot them in arguments.

 Not in your text, but useful to recognize:

You may not see many of these in your argument analysis semester papers, but, if any are present, I expect that you will correctly identify them. Also, recall from our class discussions that the foregoing categories are not mutually exclusive. Again, a useful thing to do would be to copy any of these from the page and enter them into Google.com to find varied explanations of them out on the internet.

UPDATE: One of the best centralized online resources for examination of logical fallacies I've yet found is located at Wikipedia, the open source encyclopedia. Click this link.

Wikipedia is an interesting project, one to which anyone can contribute content -- and anyone else can then edit and/or add to it or other wise alter it. The concept is one of long-term self-correction, out of which emerges credible and convenient online information across the breadth of human knowledge. You should explore it. You may find some great and useful material.

SCHEDULE NOTE: Mini Mid-term #2 will be given on April 1st

Chapter 5: Practical Decision Making

This chapter simply discusses in detail the concept we addressed early on -- that of "objections," or "counters." In short, for every evidence statement proffered in an argument, there may well be (and usually is) reasonable counter-evidence that should be considered. The other aspect often overlooked is that of the assumption(s). An assumption is just what the word implies -- you (usually implicitly) assume the truth of some underlying evidence favoring your position. A good critical thinker is one who can point out underlying assumptions in an argument and evaluate their weight with respect to the strength or soundness of an argument.

CAUTION: In this chapter we encounter rather loose use of the word "valid." Remember: a "valid" argument is one in which the conclusion must be true given true reasons/premises. If an argument contains true premises and can still have a false conclusion, it is invalid in its structure (e.g., see "non sequitur").

ANOTHER CAUTION: As the author points out, a credible reason against a conclusion does not automatically constitute a reason for another conclusion (see pg 419).

Chapter 6: Analysis of Media Editorial Arguments

The media editorial/OpEd is often compromised by a number of weakening factors.

  1. Editors know their audiences, and tend to "preach to the choir," given that they feel compelled to give the customers what they want. In doing so they often simply regurgitate long standing positions in different language, without providing new or balanced evidence favoring a conclusion.

  2. Space (print media) and time (radio and TV) restrictions often dictate limitations on full and clear presentation of all relevant evidence pro and con.

  3. (Related to #1) The "if it bleeds, it leads" syndrome. Media editorial arguments are frequently structured in a way that posits "hot-button" or "blood in the water" assertions up front, with any caveats left until later (if ever addressed). This tends to bias the reader.

  4. Media editorial type arguments are where we frequently see an excess of rhetorical fallacies, loaded language, and invalid structure.

We've examined a number of current local and national media examples in class. You should be aware of the pitfalls by now, and be able to successfully analyze and evaluate this type of argument.

Chapter 7: Analysis of Philosophical Arguments

The problems and tactics reviewed in this chapter are directly relevant to your semester papers. The author points out that a long argument will often wander around in a manner making step-by-step, paragraph-by-paragraph analysis and evaluate difficult. You may will encounter reason statements that don't connect to a conclusion immediately, but rather one or more paragraphs further one in the argument.

Analytic and evaluation tactical recommendations:

  1. Look for the final conclusion first. Read the opening section, and then go to the end. Often the conclusion is alluded to right away, and then again in more detail in the concluding "wrap-up."

  2. Once you've got a good handle on the conclusion, look for the major evidence statements proffered to support it. In this way you "work backwards" from the conclusion.

  3. Drive in detail, by examining evidence and interim conclusions present in each paragraph. Do they map to the final conclusion?

This is often a necessary approach when dealing with a sub-optimally organized lengthy argument. The danger, though, is in the tendency to overlook substantive but small components of the argument, and only focus on those aspects that jump out at you in terms of your agreement or disagreement.

Evaluation checklist

Once you've established the logical structure of a complex argument, you then must evaluate each sub-argument leading to the final conclusion. Our evaluation checklist (which is in the class handout I provided):

A final point. Most complex arguments have areas of relative strengths and weaknesses. It is rare to find the "slam-dunk" case. And, you have two pitfalls to avoid: [1] missing or glossing over essential structure and/or evidence, and [2] playing the overly skeptical "yes, but" game. Some critical thinking students feel as though they're not doing a good job unless they relentlessly attack and tear down any and every argument assigned to them. The goal is not to "win" by showing how well you can destroy another's argument. The goal is to present a fair and thorough analysis and evaluation in order to advance our knowledge.

TAKE-HOME FINAL EXAM and SEMESTER ARGUMENT EVALUATION PAPERS are due in my mailbox no later than 5 pm Thursday, May 13th, in PolySci Bldg 4.

Again, I am available by phone or email should you need me. I've enjoyed being with all of you this term. Good luck

- BG