Arguments are made up of statements organized around the act of inference with the background purpose of providing an answer to an issue. This means that all arguments involve collections of statements. But not all collections of statements are arguments. Much of what is read these days, or listened to, is not an argument in the critical thinking sense. A news report on television or in a traditional newspaper is usually just that, a report or description of information that is meant to describe what has happened, where, and when. Sometimes reporters provide their own perspective on the story or an analysis of events, and these activities could be considered to be presenting an argument. The defining factor is whether reasons are being provided to answer a question, sometimes called an issue, in a particular way. In a traditional newspaper, the op-ed section is where you are most likely to find some kind of argument, although sometimes writers simply express an opinion without offering reasons or take the opportunity to rant. Beyond the news outlets, we are constantly bombarded by arguments, with advertising as one common source.
One way to determine if a passage contains an argument is to look for an issue and conclusion. Is there a question being addressed? It might be stated, or unstated, but if you can identify an issue, you have a strong clue there is an argument.
Here is a passage with the conclusion underlined, and the issue in italics:
Doomsday preppers expect the infrastructure of contemporary life to be compromised or destroyed through a catastrophe in the near future. Is it rational to be a prepper? One key issue in the ongoing debate is how likely a doomsday scenario is. It is irrational to use finite resources to prepare for an emergency that is extremely unlikely. On the other hand, it is irrational to refuse to prepare for emergencies that are very likely to happen. Given the many ways our infrastructure can crash – conventional or nuclear war, coordinated terrorist attacks, catastrophic weather events, infrastructure fragility, etc — I think an emergency is very likely to happen in the near future. That’s why I think prepping makes sense.
A second way to decide if a passage contains an argument is to look for indicator words (markers)–words or phrases which indicate that a person is using a statement as either a premise OR a conclusion.
Premise indicators are followed by sentences functioning as premises. Common premise indicators are:
- provided that
- implies (that)
- for the reason that
- assuming that
- inasmuch as
The premise follows a premise indicator word or phrase and the conclusion often precedes the indicator. Conclusion indicators are followed by sentences functioning as the conclusion.
Common conclusion indicators are:
- it follows (that)
- supports (that)
- suggests (that)
- we may conclude (that)
- for this reason
- implies that
- means that
The conclusion FOLLOWS the conclusion indicator word or phrase, and the premises often precede the indicator word or phrase.
The list of indicator words is not exhaustive, meaning there are more indicators than those listed here. Also, some of these words or phrases can have other uses. For this reason, they can only be treated as offering clues or hints. You can combine the hunt for indicator words with the first method – looking for an issue and conclusion. If you find what you think is a conclusion and then find or articulate the issue it relates to, you have good reason to think you have located an argument. You then need to examine if there is at least one premise that is used to provide support for the conclusion. Ask yourself, “Does the author/speaker give any reason that lends support to why they think this way?” If no easily identifiable reason is given, then it is most likely not an argument.
One key feature of fast-thinking mode is this: people EVALUATE reasoning they encounter before they ANALYZE it. If we slow ourselves down, we reverse this order. We want to make sure we understand what someone’s thinking IS before we decide if it is good or bad.
Your own reasoning as it passes through your consciousness might feel convincing. Or it might trip a feeling of doubt. Either way, if the matter is important, you might want to move into slow-thinking mode and analyze your own reasoning as a way of double-checking.