Academic Argument: Evidence-based Defense of a Non-obvious Position

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An academic argument is an evidence-based defense of a non-obvious position on a complex issue.

  • Unlike a personal essay, which can rely on personal experience and general observations, a research paper must draw on evidence — usually in the form of direct quotations or statistics from peer-reviewed academic journals.
  • You have no reason to “defend” a position unless some expert has presented credible evidence that challenges a claim you want to make. (Finding, quoting, and engaging with that evidence is part of your task as an academic writer.)
  • An academic argument is not a squabble, a difference of opinions, or an attorney’s courtroom statement. The author of an academic argument is more like the judge, who, after hearing out the best arguments in favor of various possible solutions, supports the best one. An academic argument is part of a discussion that respects multiple viewpoints (as long as those viewpoints are backed by credible evidence).

Academic Argument: Evidence-based Defense of a Non-obvious Position In everyday language, we may use the word “argument” to mean very different things.

  1. In the living room, siblings Charles and Petra argue about what movie to watch.
  2. The two groups of protestors chanted slogans and waved signs, arguing about abortion.
  3. The prosecutor argued that Wilson was at the scene of the crime, while the defense argued that Wilson was out of town.
  4. Jones argues that sibling rivalry is just as harmful to homeschooled children as bullying is to public school children; however, Smith argues that growing up with siblings makes children less likely to be victims of bullying in public schools.

What will each of these “arguments” probably look like?

  1. In the living room, siblings Charles and Petra argue about what movie to watch.
    Charles and Petra will each voice their preference, and if they can’t come to an immediate agreement, they may shout at each other, call each other names, hit each other with various objects, wrestle over the remote, and run crying to Mom or Dad.

    • Is this really an “argument”? (See the Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch.) An outside force may intervene — they may be ordered to make a compromise, or they may decide that who wins is not important — they may negotiate (“I’ll watch Clone Wars with you, if you play on the trampoline with me later….”).
    • Likely they will end up sharing a bowl of popcorn on the couch, watching something. This was not really an “argument,” but rather a childish spat, and the two parties got over it quickly.
  2. The two groups of protestors chanted slogans and waved signs, arguing about abortion.
    People who show up at a protest already know exactly what they think. They may stand on opposite sides of the street shouting slogans at each other (“Keep your laws off my body!” “It’s a child, not a choice!”)  They may label each other in unflattering terms (“You are a woman-hater!” “You are a baby-killer!”) and define the same issue using completely different terminology (“I support a woman’s right to choose, and you are anti-choice” “I support the baby’s right to life, and you are pro-abortion.” )

    • What I’ve described above is not really an “argument.” because the two sides have each defined the issue so sharply that there is no middle ground, and nobody participating in this exchange is likely to admit when the other side has a good point or admit when their own side lacks evidence.
    • The people who are waving signs and chanting slogans are doing it to rally the people who already agree with them, or to win uncommitted people over to their side. You won’t see someone holding one sign say “Is that true? I never thought of that before,” and suddenly change sides.
    • I discourage students from choosing, as topics for their research papers, deeply polarized issues such as gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, or firearms, because the thinking on the “pro” and “con” sides is so firm, the bumper stickers and T-shirt slogans are already so familiar, that it’s very hard for student writers to move beyond their strong, pre-existing beliefs, and really look at what the evidence says.
    • One student wrote a successful paper on abortion, but her argument was a synthesis — she found flaws in both the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” views. We can’t assume that the correct solution to any debate is a compromise (“Abortions are legal from midnight to noon, and illegal from noon to midnight,”) so she found common ground that people who identify as “pro choice” and people who identify as “pro life” could both work towards, and argued that working towards those goals was more important than winning people over to the side of “choice” or “life.”
  3. The prosecution argued that Wilson was at the scene of the crime, while the defense argued that Wilson was out of town. The prosecutor’s job is to present the strongest possible case that the defendant is guilty, making that answer look as likely as possible, and ignoring or waving away all evidence that points to a different assumption.
    • Our legal system expects that lawyers on both sides of the issue will be doing the same thing, so that the judge and jury will see all the evidence, and can therefore come to a just conclusion. Freshman writing students sometimes feel their job when defending an argument is to make their side sound so airtight that only an idiot could possibly disagree with their claims. That’s what the winning lawyers do in TV shows.
    • But I’m not asking my students to play a lawyer who is expected to make one solution look like a slam-dunk and any alternative look foolish. I am asking my students to be the judge, who has listened to all the best arguments in favor of multiple answers, and carefully explain why, out of all the possible good answers, one particular answer is best.
  4. Jones argues that sibling rivalry is just as harmful to homeschooled children as bullying is to public school children; however, Smith argues that growing up with siblings makes children less likely to be victims of bullying in public schools.
    • Jones will present the results of his study that spent ten years following the academic and social accomplishments of 104 children in a suburb of Chicago. He will crunch the numbers and announce that homeschool children who were most likely to be involved in intense sibling rivalries were also more likely to be involved in bullying incidents with other children. (Still with me? Good!)
    • Smith, on the other hand, will claim that Jones was flawed in his approach, since most of the bullying behavior Jones observed was caused by children who have no siblings; since the homeschool sibling rivalry study did not include homeschool children without siblings, Jones is comparing a random sampling of public school children with a non-random sampling of homeschool children, which means that Jones was testing two unequal groups. (Are you still with me? That’s impressive.)
    • Smith argues that her own results show that children who are homeschooled are not any more or less likely to engage in bullying behavior, but are much less likely to be victims of bullying incidents.
    • (By the way, I made up those claims for the sake of an example — I have no idea whether sibling rivalry and bullying are in any way comparable.)

My point is that an academic argument is complex. I don’t mean pointlessly confusing or pompously overblown. I do mean that the solution to an academic problem will not fit on a bumper sticker. That’s why students have to take a course to learn how to do it.

A successful academic argument is not a wrestling match or a clash of values. An academic argument takes an evidence-supported stand on a complex issue, using evidence to defend a position.

A good academic argument defends against the rational counter-arguments that intelligent, well-meaning experts promote in the defense of their own, different, argument.

If your position on a topic is so strong that you cannot imagine that a rational person would disagree with you, then you should probably pick a different topic. If the evidence is overwhelmingly on your side, the law is on your side, public opinion is on your side, and morality and ethics and common sense are all on your side, then you aren’t actually making a non-obvious statement about a complex issue with many potentially good solutions, you are making an obvious statement about a one-sided issue.

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