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We Need to Remember What an Argument Looks Like

Having lived through another multi-year deluge of dubious ideas badly argued, its good to pause and remember what rational discussion should look like. I’m not talking about “arguing” here, but about the unit of discourse known as an “argument.” There are established and widely accepted rules that apply.  

In the courts, news interviews, and even simpler discussions with acquaintances, any assertion about “the way things are” deserves a good defense. In a debate we would expect assertions to be supported by evidence.  In a less formal conversation it is not unreasonable to also assume that at least some compelling evidence will be offered, especially if a conversational partner expresses doubt. A judge would expect evidence that is more than just hearsay, also rejecting truth claims from those not in a position to make them. If a more informal exchange happens over a holiday gathering, you owe it to everyone in the room to do more than make an unsubstantiated claim and call it a day.

An argument considered in isolation can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple and contains at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. In schematic terms it is laid out like this:

That’s it. In its most basic form it is an assertion of fact supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on.  The asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. Somehow, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.

For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was free of fraud.” If I stop there in the presence of a MAGA true-believer, I’m uttering a statement that—in formal terms—lacks “force.” To be sure, we are only too happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. But they have no power to bind others to seriously consider them.

How can I meaningfully assert that the election was fair and accurate? Where is my evidence?  I ought to be able to supply it, and not—as the President does with its counter-argument—by offer a rewording of the claim to make it seem like a reason. So, if I am making a claim, I ought to be able to put “because” after it and find that the reasons that follow will make sense: will sound right.  Our example might unfold in the following sequence.

“The Election was free of fraud.”
                                    Because. . .
I. The Attorney General in the Trump Administration said so.
II. The administration’s cyber-security head said so.
III. No state government found evidence of significant instances of fraud.
IV. Virtually all respected journalists covering the election found no significant evidence of a corrupted vote.
V. A vast array of American courts couldn’t even find enough evidence to proceed to a trial.

To be sure, each of these assertions may need their own specifics or testimony. An example for the first claim could include Attorney General William Barr’s own words: “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” As testimony, Barr’s words are especially credible because he is (1) in a position to know, and (2) he is a “reluctant” source, meaning that Barr’s natural bias would be to support the views of the president who appointed him.

Arguments work best with truth claims. What can you do with your Uncle Fred’s assertion that he “believes” many dead Democrats “voted?” You can ask him for evidence. But Fred may use the intellectual slight-of-hand of converting what he “believes” into what he “knows.” That’s dishonest, but telling him so probably will not keep him up at nights. People uttering belief statements are best left to their magical thinking. You cannot usually do much about fantasies that individuals need to believe.