27 December 2013

A Brief Guide to Making a Better Argument

The ability to muster up a decent argument is an important life skill; it's why we live in a democratic civil society governed by the rule of law rather than an anarchic Thunderdome where might makes right. It's not just first-year university students who benefit from the ability to make a good argument. It's what you need when you want to pitch an idea to your boss, ask for a raise, write an editorial, sell a product, argue an application in court, or comment on a blog post.

The fundamental purpose of an argument is to persuade the listener to reach a particular conclusion by giving reasons why the conclusion is correct. The giving reasons part of this is really important; saying "just 'cause" won't cut it. Giving reasons is the hard part of making an argument because you really need to think about exactly why your conclusion is correct.

Here, for example, is a simple but valid argument:
All cats are mammals. All mammals die. Therefore all cats die.
If the reasons for the argument are true (that cats are mammals and that mammals die), then the conclusion must be true. This is very basic example of a valid argument; you might make other, more complicated valid arguments about:
  • why you should buy this car as opposed to that car,
  • why you cast your vote a particular way during an election, or why you might decide not to vote at all,
  • why you and your spouse should separate,
  • why a certain parenting schedule should prevail after separation, or
  • why someone's argument in a blog post is incorrect.
However, not all arguments are good arguments. Some are contradictory or nonsensical, and others contain errors of reasoning. For example, here's an argument that sounds like a good argument:
Some people are mechanics. Some mechanics fix cars. Therefore some people fix cars.
But it's not a good argument. Here's a counter-example that shows the error in reasoning:
Some machines are capable of flight. Some things capable of flight are birds. Therefore some machines are birds.
Formal logic errors can be difficult to detect, but they're fun to find when you do. Of course, in legal matters, finding a logic error can depend on not just the structure of an argument, but on having a deeper understanding of the legal principles that apply, and equally deep understanding of the facts. For example, an argument like
I am entitled to see the children and I am required to pay child support. She doesn't let me see the children. Therefore I don't have to pay child support.
won't fly, even though it may sound reasonable at first glance. The reason why it won't fly is that there is no legal connection between a parent's obligation to pay child support and a parent's entitlement to spend time with the children support is being paid for. They are entirely separate issues.

As well as formal logic errors and errors of law, there are the informal logic errors called fallacies. These are errors in how we think about things and analyze a problem, and frequently appear in letters to the editor, arguments in court and comments to blog posts. The following are a few of my favourite fallacies.

The circular argument

In this sort of argument, also called the circulus in demonstrando, the correctness of the conclusion is assumed and becomes the reason why the conclusion is correct. For example:
A equal parenting schedule is fair because it is an equal parenting schedule.
Arguments like this aren't very helpful because the reason for the conclusion is the conclusion itself.

Argument from ignorance

This argument, the argumentum ad ignorantiam, says that something is true because it hasn't been proven not to be true, or that something is false because it hasn't been proven to be true. For example:
This bill simply makes it the applicant's job to prove that it is NOT in the best interests of the child to have that sort of arrangement. So you will have to explain better why this isn't beneficial. Children have a right to an equal relationship with their parents.
This argument says that because the original speaker has not explained why a proposed legal presumption is inappropriate to the satisfaction of the speaker that it must be appropriate. The argument isn't very helpful because it doesn't add any information to the discussion in support of the speaker's views apart from his disagreement with the position of the original speaker.

The argument against the person

Also known as an ad hominem argument, this argument argues for its conclusion by avoiding the actual subject at issue and attacking the other person. Here are a number of examples:
Looks like ol' JP and his cohorts here stand to lose a significant amount of income if equal parenting amendments pass.

What it this? I read this in its entirety and its a blatent
[sic] attack piece. Misrepresentation at its worst. By who else but a Family Law Lawyer. By the way this is the group who stand to lost the most if such an ammendment [sic] were to be made into law. Compensation cowboys, the scum of the earth.

Surprise, surprise! A lawyer doesn't like this bill and has misrepresented it. How would you hold custody over opposing counsels head if this went through? It certainly will be hard to draw out, expensive and desperate fights if both parties are on equal footing, won't it?
Perhaps being a Family Law lawyer you are just used to presenting baseless assertions.
The problem with arguments like these is that they say nothing about the subject at issue. They merely attack the person who is disagreed with. They also come across as rather juvenile and undermine the speaker's credibility.

Argument by appeal to authority

This argument, also called the argumentum ab auctoritate, tries to support its conclusion because of the authority or standing of the person making the argument, or of another person who has made the argument. For example:
We strongly disagree with your opinions. Leading Women For Shared Parenting is an international child advocacy group with but one cause: a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting in family law. We have a strong group of practicing family lawyers, domestic violence advocates, shared parenting researchers, elected officials and others who all support shared parenting.
This is yet another kind of argument which explains nothing about the reasons supporting the conclusion, and the context in which the argument is made, including in reply to the argument of someone else, is irrelevant. It says "this conclusion is correct because it is I who hold it." Unless you are prepared to uncritically subscribe to the speaker's authority, this argument is pointless.

Here's another example, in which the speaker merely quotes someone in a position of authority and high social regard:
"If there is a divorce in the family, I urge a presumption of joint custody of the children. Whereas it is impossible to change thousands of years of sex-role stereotyping through legislation, we can hope, in an existential fashion, that attitudes can be changed through education and the passage of laws." 
- Karen DeCrow, American feminist attorney, President of the National Organization for Women
The fact that Ms DeCrow has said this doesn't mean that she is right, and, as a result, it doesn't mean that the speaker is right either. Here's a counter-example to prove my point.
"Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If there's oxygen, that means we can breathe." 
- Dan Quayle, American business person, former Vice-President of the United States of America.
See what I mean?

However, it is not an appeal to authority to refer the listener to a source of information, such as website, book, journal or academic paper. For example:
The work of Professor John Wade is a good starting point on the subject.
The difference here is that speaker is providing a resource for further reading on the part of the listener rather than relying on the resource as authority for the speaker's proposition.

Argument by taking out of context

This sort of argument, also called the fallacy by quoting out of context, is particularly popular in American politics and attacks a position by taking the speaker's original words out of context and dumping them into a new context. for example:
And of course all the child murders in Australia is a good reason to oppose it too, right JP?
This selective reference distorts the speaker's meaning by presenting them without explaining the circumstances surrounding the original speech.

The red herring argument

This argument presents a side- or non-issue to distract from the issue being discussed. For example, a statement like
The argument that I don't buy into is that if one parent was previously a bread winner they are presumed to be a less capable parent.
which purports to reply to an argument or reason that has not been stated by the original speaker. This sort of argument says nothing about the main subject under discussion. Here's another:
One also wonders why the rights of the father mean nothing and their financial futures are destroyed without any regard to their rights or feelings. First their children are forcefully taken away from them, then they are forced to pay crippling amounts of money to "support" children they rarely get to see. Sounds suspiciously like financial slavery to me.
In the context of a discussion about the merits of a presumption in favour of shared parenting, the payment of child support and histrionic claims of "financial slavery" are irrelevant and don't add anything to the central issue of shared parenting. They merely distract from the subject of the discussion.

Argument by Shifting the Burden of Proof

In this argument, the speaker argues that it is the listener's job to disprove the speaker's conclusion rather than providing reasons to prove the speaker's conclusion. For example:
There's no justifiable reason for not giving equal access from day one of most separations.
This sort of non-argument provides no support for the speaker's conclusion.

The argument through false dichotomy

Also called the black-or-white fallacy, this argument sets up two positions as polar opposites, implying that the subject of the argument is either all one thing or all the other. For example:
You know what the presumption is in high conflict separations currently. It is specifically 2 weekends a month for the "visitor" parent, with 1 movie night in between.
In the context of a discussion about shared parenting, this misleading statement suggests that either there is shared parenting or one parent has the children for two weekends a month, as if there were no other potential arrangements for the children's time. Here's another example:
To clarify, when a mother wins custody, a father must lose it. He must give up has children to the mother or go to jail.
In fact, joint custody — where both parents have custody — is a very common post-separation arrangement in Canada and people don't go to jail about it. The point of arguments like these is that they try to strengthen the speaker's point by establishing the greatest possible contrast between the two positions and eliminating the possibility of a middle ground. And another example:
One wonders why the system must be adversarial, arbitrarily picking winners and losers. One also wonders why the winners are almost always women and the losers are almost always men. One also wonders why the rights of the father mean nothing and their financial futures are destroyed without any regard to their rights or feelings.
The appeal to hypocrisy argument

This argument, also called the tu quoque fallacy, attempts to counter an argument by asserting that the original speaker has personally behaved in a manner inconsistent with his or her argument. It attacks the speaker rather than the argument. For example:
"A equal parenting schedule is fair because it is an equal parenting schedule." Those were YOUR words JP! No one in your comment section wrote that. Again, nice straw man you knocked down there.
This argument attacks the speaker rather than the substance of the argument, and in this example is especially egregious as the premise itself is false. Here's another example:
Did you get my challenge to ACTUALLY post evidence in support of your claim that "the Australian experiment was disastrous"? You must be busy over the holiday season. Or perhaps being a Family Law lawyer you are just used to presenting baseless assertions.
The problem with the appeal to hypocrisy is that, like the ad hominem argument, it attacks the speaker while avoiding addressing the issue on its merits.


I will close by repeating my remarks from the beginning of this post. The fundamental purpose of an argument is to persuade the listener to reach a particular conclusion by giving reasons why the conclusion is correct. The giving reasons part of this is really important; saying "just 'cause" won't cut it. Giving reasons is the hard part of making an argument because you really need to think about exactly why your conclusion is correct. 

Properly reasoned arguments, advanced without formal logical errors or fallacies, are, in general, compelling and encourage respect for the speaker and the point he or she is making. Good arguments can also move the listener toward accepting the speaker's conclusion, and this accomplishment can be tremendously important, whether the listener is a judge, a client or a potential client, a police officer or border guard, an employer, a landlord, a politician or the author of a blog. What I have presented here is only a small fraction of the formal and informal logic errors that can sink an argument. If you are interested in working on your ability to argue, you should consider joining a debating club, such as the UBC Debate Society, picking up a book on logic, or taking a course in logic from your local university's Department of Philosophy. 

12 comments:

  1. Unbelievable!

    Just a bit of background: In a response to JP (THAT HE CENSORED), I accused Mr. Boyd of using a logical fallacy. Seems he wants to jump on my bandwagon and yell "No YOU use logical fallacies!" Although, he has forgotten two, the "Straw Man Fallacy" and "tu-quoque".

    "A equal parenting schedule is fair because it is an equal parenting schedule."

    Those were YOUR words JP! No one in your comment section wrote that. Again, nice straw man you knocked down there.

    "And of course all the child murders in Australia is a good reason to oppose it too, right JP?"

    Out of context? You placed your unsubstantiated claim about Australia into the context of your argument. How is that out of context?

    Re: Quote from Karen DeCrow "... I urge a presumption of joint custody of the children..."

    Appeal to authority? JP, you know full well that that quote was in direct to response to someone bringing up Feminism. If I had wanted to appeal to authority I would have documented the countless doctors, child psychologists and social workers workers who support shared parenting regimes and I would have used proper citations to do so.

    I'll repeat the essence of my post, which you conveniently censored, in which I accuse you of using the Appeal to authority fallacy:

    You said: "There's plenty of academic research on the subject, some of which is available from the website of the Attorney-General's Department at www.ag.gov.au/Publications/Pages/default.aspx" *An appeal to authority* (and worse does not support your claim of "several children murdered")

    "distorts the speaker's meaning"? Let's get back to your comment about several children killed as the result of Shared Parenting laws in Australia (that was your meaning). I will ask for the 100th time now, to properly cite your source on this and copy the text into this comment section.

    In the same post of yours:

    "The work of Professor John Wade is a good starting point on the subject." Yet another appeal to authority on your part. Pot, meet kettle.

    I will record this comment, and will make sure the public sees that it was submitted to you in the event you censor me a second time.

    "tu-quoque" Mr. Boyd if you're so sure of the argument that you have started, then you will have no problem discussing it on its merit, and ability to cite your claims, rather than avoid the substance of what people are presenting to you; rather than accusing them of debating fallaciously.

    Thank you.




    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Robert, thank you again for your thoughtful and well-intentioned comments. I assume you are suggesting that I "censored" you by not publishing another of your submissions? Please do check, and if you can't find it send the comment to me again and I'll be sure not to overlook it a second time.

      Delete
    2. Woah take a pill, dude. Is this your blog? I think you need to take it easy and cut back on the coffee.

      Delete
    3. "Is this your blog?"

      This is a blog written by someone who has claimed that a certain legal presumption will result in "several deaths" of children, who after repeated requests has not been able to provide citations for said claim.

      Help my out Mr. Boyd. What do you think I should do first, take a pill or cut back on the coffee? Is this a logical argument that I have somehow missed? Will cutting down on caffeine consumption give me the clairvoyance to find your proof that the many jurisdictions around the world with shared parenting presumptions will result in the murder of several children?

      I find Surfer Bros comment fascinating and I'd like to subscribe to his newsletter.

      .

      Delete
    4. Wow, man. First you threaten the guy who writes this blog and now you're down to name-calling? You really need to relax and let your hostility simmer down a bit.

      Delete
    5. With respect to my claims about the Australian experiment, my too off-hand comment about the deaths of children were based on information obtained in a personal communication with Professor John Wade. Now that I am back in the office, I have been able to track down a number of the references which informed my understanding of the Australian effort at a presumption of shared parenting and the deaths of children in connection the legislated presumption:

      · "Suffer the little children," Jen Jewel Brown, Melbourne Sunday Age p. 15, 3 May 2009

      · "Custody laws hit children - judge," Matther Fynes-Clinton, Brisbane Courier Mail p. 3, 10 November 2008

      · "50-50 is not fair," Matthew Fynes-Clinton, Brisbane Courier Mail p. 20, 10 November 2008

      Delete
    6. Three weeks later and Robert has yet to explain how I have "censored" him or provide a comment that has not been posted.

      Delete
  2. "65.6% of the Justices and Masters of the British Columbia Supreme Court are men, by the way.)"
    - Red herring. The sex of the adjudicator isn't evidence of anymore more than the sex of the adjuciator. How can you know by sex alone the reasons for judgment without looking at the broader context and cause and effect patterns?

    "women are still underpaid, over-represented in pink-collar jobs, and make something like $0.70 for every dollar men earn"
    - The gap being a result of discrimination (not your claim I know) is largely a myth. See http://www.warrenfarrell.net/Summary/ for a great summary of a book by Warren Farrell on the topic. Excellent reading if you're a woman and want to earn more money. Another article at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/10/why-are-women-paid-less/263776/ on the same topic speaks to the point that young unmarried people have a much more narrow wage gap.
    In fact, once you understand that young couples earn the same and that it's choices related to children that then affect salary, this point becomes a red herring. Taking a broad 70% statistic applied to an entire population rather than the specific sub-group isn't representative of anything. It only serves to distract.

    "it may be contrary to the children's best interests, and potentially even harmful, to impose shared parenting arrangements on interim applications when so little evidence is available to the court"
    It's hard to decide where to start with this. Why would potentially harmful decisions be made at all without enough information? Why conflate interim decision making criteria with non-iterim criteria?
    Taking an example of 50/50 compared to a common situation of a 3 day weekend plus 2 evening every other week example. Is the childs safety impacted by a chance of 22% (50% vs. 72%)? If it is that tenuous, there should be no access.

    "From my perspective, the "weekend dad" is a straw man set up by fathers' rights groups to more dramatically contrast its shrivelled parody of fatherhood with the effulgent wholesomeness of "shared parenting dad." In reality, this all-or-nothing dichotomy between weekend dad and shared parenting dad does not exist. At least, it doesn't exist in Canada."
    Unfortunately, this doesn't match what I’ve seen women ask for in court. I asked for 50/50. My ex-wife asked for full custody and guardianship with generous access. I dated three women with children. Each of them said unequivocally that only they were the right person to care for their children and their ex-husbands weren't capable. Not one of my men friends that are divorced made the same claim. It's a small data pool but from my vantage point, there seems there is bias in individual self-assessments.
    "This argument presents a side- or non-issue to distract from the issue being discussed. For example, a statement like
    The argument that I don't buy into is that if one parent was previously a bread winner they are presumed to be a less capable parent.
    which purports to reply to an argument or reason that has not been stated by the original speaker."

    Actually, indirectly you did. You stated factors considered by the courts which included:
    "which parent was the primary caregiver during their relationship"
    Less capable is one way to looking at this. The other perhaps is less familiarity by the child to the non-primary caregiver. The implications are obvious though. The primary caregiver is presumed to be better able to care for the child. This just isn't accurate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that the writer mentioned the gender of judges as an aside, not as his main argument.

      His comment about women's pay compared to men's pay, was made to suggest that there might be an economic incentive for women to stay home and be primarily responsible for the kids.

      I think his point about initial orders wasn't about some the math of the distribution of parenting time, but to say that each family needs to have the order appropriate to that family. Talking about a "22% chance" really misses the issue.

      About the "weekend dad straw man" thing, if your experience is dating three women and marrying a fourth, and this guy is a divorce lawyer who's had who knows how many files, you probably don't have any idea of what you're talking about.

      And about bread winners being less capable parents. If one parent is mostly responsible for the kids, that parent is the primary caregiver. It's not saying that the other parent is worse, it's just an observation about who was responsible for what. If she was a stay at home mom, would you say she is the less capable employee because the other parent has a job?

      You need to get your head straight and actually read what the guy wrote. If you're going to be so hostile, you should be more careful with your comments or you just sound like a pissed off loser.

      Delete
  3. JP - you have the patience of a saint. If this were my blog...well lets just say I doubt I'd be half as gracious as you have been.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, there are some rather raw nerves exposed here! My reply is more related to the content of this specific post, however.
    Check out www.bookofbadarguments.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Nathan, thanks very much for that. That's an awesome and very accessible book, and the illustrations are great.

      Delete