Arguments: Not Just Screaming Matches

Quick! Read the two paragraphs below and consider: which one is a true argument?


  1. On the one hand, the cormorant, an aquatic bird also known as a ‘shag,’ has been used in heraldry to represent the Christian cross, in that the bird often raises its wings to dry them in the sun. On the other hand, in Milton’s Paradise Lost Satan took the form of a cormorant, perching greedily on the top of the Tree of Life to look upon Adam and Eve in their innocence. In a more mundane instance, the cormorant also served as the hood ornament for the old Packard automobile.

  2. Cormorants have relatively short wings and one of the highest flight costs of any bird species. The wandering albatross, meanwhile, has the longest wingspan of any extant bird, and its flight costs are relatively low. It would appear that there is an inverse relationship between the size of a bird’s wings and the flight costs it incurs.

If you said “the second,” give yourself a high five. (No really … we’ll wait!) Though the first paragraph has a lot of interesting facts, only the second makes a debatable claim based on certain factual premises: “There is an inverse relationship between the size of a bird’s wings and the flight costs it incurs.” With enough research (or by consulting an ornithologist), we could determine whether such a claim is true or false. Based on the evidence given, though, it may well be true or false--the evidence may suggest the conclusion, but doesn’t prove it.

We read claims like this all the time. And though any decent argument has a debatable claim (i.e., it’s worth discussing), many bottom line points are not falsifiable like the one above about birds. That is, they’re more matters of opinion:

“In a democracy, it’s every citizen’s duty to vote in national elections.”

“The Cubs are the thinking person’s choice in a baseball team.”

“My combination mohawk-mullet is the best look I’ve ever sported.”

These opinions are varying degrees of fun to toss around, depending on whom you’re talking to. But any discussion is going to founder hopelessly unless such opinions are supported by some relevant evidence. The speaker of the first claim might wax profound about the nature of democracy. For the second opinion one might marshal evidence concerning the Cubs’ unique history. The third speaker, well … s/he might just point up to the headward region, or perhaps recite a litany of other, more unfortunate haircuts s/he has rocked in the past.

But it can be very tricky to connect a debatable claim with evidence simultaneously relevant and persuasive, all while avoiding an argument that springs more holes than the Dutch boy’s dike. Consider the two arguments below; which claim has the better, well, claim to truth?

  1. “Any reasonably careful observer can see that Marcel is nervous today. He keeps fidgeting and rubbing his hands together; there are beads of sweat collecting at the top of his forehead; when I greeted him this morning he barely looked in my direction, whereas usually he is affable and quick to say hello.”

  2. “Any reasonably careful observer can see that the Holey Donut Shop is not doing well. When I drove by last night, there wasn’t a car in the parking lot. The place never stays open past 11 a.m., and the owner recently decided to close it entirely on Sundays. Finally, none of my friends at the gym have ever mentioned tasting a Holey Donut.”

The first one, right? The Holey Donut argument is, let’s say, holey. After all, who says a donut shop has to be open at night to be successful? And why might the owner decide to close on Sundays? Maybe she wanted to take a day off, and was already making money hand over first! And come on: your friends at the gym? Not exactly your typical donut eaters, most likely … and if they were pigging out on Holey Donuts, they might not admit it to they gym buddies, n’est-ce pas?

Meanwhile, notice something important about the first argument: no one should suggest that it’s absolutely, positively airtight. After all, Marcel could have some medical condition that’s causing all the symptoms we’re chalking up to his nerves. But at least this author has cited some relevant evidence that seems to suggest something regarding anxiety might be going on.

We at Clayborne think about making arguments a good deal … and not just when we’re tutoring for the LSAT. Election year or not, all of us can benefit now and then from an examination of our opinions in the cold light of logic. To this end--and just for fun (for us at least)--this summer we’ll be inaugurating Fallacy Friday on our social media feed. It’s yet another way to nerd out while perhaps giving someone somewhere a chance to learn something. Stay tuned!