Evaluating Arguments

The criteria we use to evaluate evidence are in large part the same criteria we use to evaluate arguments. If mnemonic devices help you remember things, remind yourself that Sufficiency, Typicality, Accuracy, and Relevance spell STAR.

Briefly, we’re not likely to be convinced by evidence or arguments that are not Sufficient to prove themselves beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, like those “regular guy” endorsements for miracle weight-loss cures, results that are not Typical aren’t enough to convince us that we’ll achieve similar results. Such promotions for diet products are also fond of bragging that their participants lost 41 inches, for example, which could be impressive or entirely inaccurate, depending on where and how the measurements were achieved. (Did the testers measure the skull, wrists, ankles, toes, height, forearms, calves, and biceps and add the results?) Such evidence might fail for both Accuracy and Relevance if my hope in starting the program is to reduce my waistline and not my hat size.

When gathering our own evidence, we need to test the quality of the material on these four criteria at least. We’ll also be interested in the Authority of the source, the Replicability of test results, the Objectivity of the maker of the material, and other characteristics, but for today, let’s focus on S, T, A, and R.

How much evidence we need to prove our case depends on the rhetorical context of our argument. Settling claims among friends may be easier (or harder!) than proving a similar case in court. For the purposes of a college academic paper, we have to presume our audience is actively skeptical not easily convinced. We need to be thorough enough to avoid hasty generalization from a single case or two, while at the same time avoiding tediously long recitations of similar sorts of evidence.

As you evaluate the White Papers on the blog for today’s assignment, ask yourself whether there is sufficient evidence in the world to prove the claims their authors propose to prove. If so, what sort of evidence would it take to convince you? Has the author even proposed to provide evidence of that sort?

In your comments, either criticize the work so far in evidence or recommend a category of evidence you think is needed, or both.

Whatever the source of our evidence and whatever claims we make, our readers need to believe that the material we present proves an argument worth proving, one with broad social implications generally applicable to common experience, not an extreme case that, even if proved, changes nobody’s perceptions about the world. Stephen Hawking’s particular experience prove nothing about how long a person stricken with ALS is likely to survive or how his condition will track. But Stephen Hawking’s particular presentation of ALS symptoms might be used to prove precisely that he either doesn’t have ALS or that he has a rare type worth studying or at least categorizing differently than everyone else’s.

As you evaluate the White Papers on the blog for today’s assignment, ask yourself whether the evidence so far mentioned will help us draw conclusions about anything more than a narrow particular case. If not, does the author promise to prove more than the evidence can support?

In your comments, either criticize the work as too narrow to be typical or recommend a narrow but valuable proof that can be supported, or both.

As ethical authors, we can’t conscientiously use evidence we know or suspect to be inaccurate, tainted, biased, tampered-with, distorted, unscrupulous, or just innocently botched. Nor can we be expected to field test the results of studies or experiments we find persuasive. Our responsibility is in the middle ground, to find the best evidence from reliable sources that proves a claim and to use it professionally by applying it carefully to prove only such claims that it reasonably can support.

As you evaluate the White Papers on the blog for today’s assignment, ask yourself whether the author appears to be depending on sources or evidence that will convincingly support the thesis on offer. Keep in mind, at this stage the author is not expected to have gathered all the evidence and the White Paper needn’t contain all the necessary evidence to be convincing.

In your comments, either question the value of the evidence the author appears to be depending on or recommend a source you think would be more accurate, or both.

Good evidence is wasted on arguments it can’t prove. Returning for a moment to the claims made by weight-loss supplements, the manufacturers might well conduct studies that correlate the weight loss of study subjects with use of their product without beginning to prove that the products caused the weight loss because of a failure of Relevance. They could, to take a simple example, provide unlimited supplies of their supplement to the casts of Jersey Shore, of The Biggest Loser, and of Survivor Desert Island. Odds are, the cast of Survivor will lose far more weight during their six weeks of hard labor and deprivation than the cast of The Biggest Loser no matter what they do. And everybody will lose more weight than the cast that lives on Red Bull and tequila shots. But the results will be utterly irrelevant to the argument of whether the product caused the weight loss of the Survivor cast.

As you evaluate the White Papers on the blog for today’s assignment, ask yourself whether the evidence the author wants to find will prove what it’s supposed to prove. This relevance evaluation is different from an evaluation of the sufficiency of evidence, in which the question is whether there will be enough evidence. Here the question is whether any amount of evidence could do the job. If one study is irrelevant, one hundred similar studies still won’t persuade a clear thinker.

In your comments, either point out why the evidence the author has found or seeks doesn’t actually contribute to a proof or recommend the sort of evidence that would actually be relevant to the argument, or both.

The Exercise in Brief

By the end of class, read and evaluate the White Paper of at least one classmate and, in the Reply field, make helpful evaluative comments in all four categories, Sufficiency, Typicality, Accuracy, and Relevance.


About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels. www.davidbdale.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Assignments, David Hodges, Evaluating Arguments, In Class Exercise, Professor Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

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