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How to Analyze an Argument's Effectiveness & Validity

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  • 0:01 Opposing Arguments
  • 0:48 Elements of an Argument
  • 3:06 Does This Argument Work?
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn how to analyze an argument. We will pay close attention to the parts of an argument and the questions we must ask about each of those parts in order to determine the argument's effectiveness and validity.

Opposing Arguments

You are surrounded by arguments every day. A friend tries to convert you to his position about a current issue. A company tries to convince you that its product is best. A book you read for class tries to persuade you that its view of a historical event is the most reasonable.

Our job as listeners and readers is to learn how to analyze these arguments and make up our own minds about their effectiveness and validity. That's what we're going to do in this lesson.

We'll begin with a formal definition of argument. An argument is a discussion, either written or spoken, that takes a position about an issue and then presents reasons and evidence to convince an audience that its position is true.

Elements of an Argument

The first step in analyzing an argument is to recognize its elements. First, we have the argument's claim, which is a statement of its position about an issue. For example, the editor of a college newspaper might write a piece arguing that students should not be charged a fee for parking on campus.

The claim of an argument must be supported by reasons, which are the points offered to justify the claim and tell why readers should accept it. The editor, for instance, might present three main reasons to justify his claim that students should not pay parking fees:

  1. Parking fees are burdensome to already financially-strapped students.
  2. The college is misusing the money from parking fees.
  3. Other schools have already successfully lowered or dropped parking fees.

These reasons cannot stand alone, however; they must be supported by evidence, which provides proof that the reasons are true or at least have some merit. Evidence may be verifiable facts or statistics, stories or examples, or testimony from expert witnesses. The editor might support his reasons with facts about increases in parking fees over the years, facts about how parking fees are supposed to be used by the college, statistics comparing the college's fees to those of other schools, stories of students who have had to sell books or borrow extra money just to pay parking fees, examples of other schools that have successfully lowered fees, and the testimony of an 'inside' witness who claims that the college has applied money from parking fees to improve the science building rather than repair the parking lots.

Along with a claim, reasons, and evidence, every argument contains assumptions, which are stated or unstated beliefs that must be held in order to accept the claim of the argument. The person making the argument holds assumptions as given and usually expects his or her audience to also. The editor, for example, might hold the assumptions that parking fees can be eliminated, that someone in the college's administration has the power to make that decision. He also assumes that students are indeed financially-strapped and that the conditions at other schools are similar to the conditions at his college. He expects his readers to hold these assumptions, too.

Does This Argument Work?

An argument is effective and valid. In other words, it works, only when all of its elements work. In order to determine the effectiveness and validity of an argument then, a listener or reader must look critically at each of the argument's elements and ask some demanding questions. Let's practice with the editor's argument about parking fees.

First off, we'll look at his claim that students shouldn't have to pay for parking on campus. On the surface, that claim looks pretty good. It's something that is arguable and can be supported by reasons and evidence, unlike, for instance, the claim that the color blue is prettier than the color green. As we dig a little deeper, though, we might ask ourselves why the editor is making this claim. Is he concerned with student welfare? Or is he merely angry because he has just had to pay a large penalty for failing to pay his parking fee? If the latter is true, he may be making his claim with a rather biased viewpoint.

Next, we'll move on to his reasons and ask ourselves if they are logical and clear, and if they are directly related to and truly support the claim. The editor's reason that parking fees are burdensome to already financially-strapped students certainly fits these qualifications, and his reason that other schools have already successfully lowered or dropped parking fees seems pretty good. However, what about his reason that the college is misusing the money from parking fees? Does it follow that the schools should therefore drop parking fees altogether? It seems more logical that, instead, the college should investigate the misuse and fix the situation as necessary. This reason is a bit shaky, and it makes his argument a bit shaky, too.

Now it's time to look at the editor's evidence and ask ourselves if it is convincing, relevant, and accurate and whether it truly supports the reasons. The editor seems to have a good collection of evidence, but what if we look a bit more closely and discover that he has given us some inaccurate or outdated facts or statistics? What if his 'inside' witness turns out to be the student who cleans the office? Would that student's testimony about misused fees still be convincing?

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