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Analysing statements and arguments

An argument is a reason or set of reasons that you use for persuading other people to support your views, opinions, findings etc.

The most common weaknesses with arguments fall into the following categories:

1.   Some arguments go around in circles because the conclusion is saying the same as the reason (the premise).

Example: It is a decent, ethical thing to help another human being escape suffering through death. Therefore, active euthanasia is morally acceptable.

‘Decent’ and ‘ethical’ mean ‘morally acceptable’, while ‘active euthanasia’ means ‘help another human being escape suffering through death’. Thus, the conclusion and the premise are the same.

2.   Some arguments confuse necessary and sufficient conditions. A necessary condition means that x is necessary for y, if y cannot occur without x. Whenever you have y, you have x. (If we do not have x, we will not have y).

Example: x: election system      y: democracy

An election system is necessary for democracy. Therefore without an election system we cannot have democracy. So an election system is a necessary condition for democracy. Here we are making an assumption that if we have democracy, we must also have an election system.

A sufficient condition means that x is sufficient for y, if x guarantees y. Whenever you have x, you have y. (If we have x, then y must follow).

Example: x: election system      y: democracy

Although an election system is a necessary condition for democracy, it is not a sufficient condition.

The presence of an election system does not guarantee the presence of democracy. For example, very few people may have the right to vote, or the system may be fraudulent/corrupt, or the choice of candidates may be unjustly controlled.

In an academic argument not all of the necessary or sufficient conditions may have been considered. This may result in a weakness in the argument and so the argument may be logically flawed. For this reason you should undertake a critical analysis of an issue or an argument and evaluate it by examining its parts and how they relate to each other.

3.   In some arguments, the conclusion may not follow logically from the reason (premise).

Example: Since the school leaving age has been raised to sixteen, fewer students are taking French. Therefore, raising the school leaving age has led to a drop in the number of students taking French.

If two things (A and B) are found together, there may be a causal relationship between them, or the association may be coincidence. It is important to evaluate arguments in which relationships between pieces of evidence are used to draw conclusions. Is the evidence sufficient? Are there other possible explanations? Is the author making any assumptions? Is the link between the two conditions clear?

4.   In some arguments the premise is simply not true. 

Example: Walking or riding a cycle to school is very dangerous for most children. Therefore, all children should only travel to school by bus or car.

While it may be dangerous for some children in certain circumstances (eg young age, dangerous local roads), this statement is far too categorical and imprecise to be true (‘very’, ‘most’). Even if the statement were true, the second sentence does not follow logically: ‘most children’ in sentence one becomes ‘all children’ in sentence two.

5.   In some extended arguments, the argument may be based on certain implicit assumptions; it may be presented in a superficially, but misleadingly, objective way; and the weaknesses of the argument may lie in what is not stated as much as in what is stated. Only a critical reading of the text will make this clear.