Washington Evening Journal
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No matter the year, no matter the person, no matter the political landscape, everyone makes arguments all the time.
This is not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with some healthy disagreement, it’s the source of most changes, after all, and changes tend to be good.
Arguments aren’t even necessarily founded on disagreements. Rather, they are a type of statement characterized by three distinct traits.
Knowing these traits, however, does happen to make one better at arguing, by which I do mean the act of disagreeing with others on non-objective grounds.
Please note: I’m about to give several examples of arguments and parts of arguments. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with any of these statements, they’ve been chosen because they’re good examples, and for no other reasons.
With that out of the way, we’re off to the races. Every argument has three parts.
1. The claim.
This is the obvious one. A claim is anything that you claim is true.
A claim doesn’t necessarily have to be true, mind you; it just needs to be phrased as if it were. There is no such thing as a good or a bad claim, just claims that are easier and harder to support.
“Spain is a country” is as much of a claim as “Spain is a fictional location.” The two statements differ greatly on how difficult they will be to support, which we’ll come back to momentarily, but as far as definitions go, they both meet the criteria and qualify as claims.
Claims need not be objective. In fact, in most arguments, the claim is a matter of opinion. These claims include things like “Pineapple on pizza is good,” or “This water main project is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Unsupported claims are common in a politically polarized environment because leaders don’t have to worry about persuading anyone. Donald Trump’s unsupported statement in June that his office won Wisconsin in 2020 is a great example. So is President Joe Biden’s claim in February that the minimum wage, if indexed to inflation, would be $20 by now.
The claim is only the face of an argument, it’s the point you’re trying to make. Politics notwithstanding, it does not stand on its own. That’s where data comes in.
2. The data
Data is any evidence used to support an argument. It’s not limited to numerical figures, as the word conventionally suggests, but to provable facts one can draw on to support their claim.
Using an example from above, “Spain is a country,” is a pretty easy argument to back up with evidence. In this case: “The United Nations recognizes Spain as a sovereign nation,” is pretty compelling evidence.
Sometimes, however, bad data makes for a bad argument. This can even happy to perfectly logical arguments. Consider the following claim and data:
“Ethanol subsidies are a waste of taxpayer dollars because global warming isn’t real.”
The argument, if all facts were taken as written, would be compelling. If global warming were not real, the net CO2 emission reduction from ethanol would not matter, and subsidies wouldn’t be a worthwhile investment of taxpayer dollars.
However, despite its logical validity, the argument breaks down upon closer examination of the data. Most scientists agree, citing the overwhelming majority of reputable evidence from a variety of fields, that global warming is a real thing, and that carbon dioxide produced by human activity does impact the process. Therefore, because the data is bad, the argument is bad by extension.
However, plenty of bad arguments are made with good data. These arguments tend to fall apart at the third and final step of argumentation: the warrant.
3. The warrant.
The warrant is the reason the data supports the claim. Or, more precisely, the explanation of why the data logically supports the claim.
This is where most arguments fall apart. The warrant is by far the hardest part of an argument to explain, and all too often, people will go entirely without explaining the warrant, hoping that it’s implied by their claim and data.
More than anywhere else, I see this mistake in discourse about health care policy. Consider the following example:
“Germany’s health care system is more cost effective that the U.S. health care system. An appendectomy costs roughly $3,000 in Germany, and roughly $28,000 in the U.S.”
The first sentence in the above paragraph is a claim, and the second sentence is data. Because it has no stated warrant, however, it is not an argument, although it does suggest one. The claim gives context to the data, implying that the difference in appendectomy prices is caused by a difference in cost effectiveness.
This is where the argument breaks down. Without an explanation of why the data supports the claim, the above statement only implies a warrant.
The use of implication like this is actually quite popular among far-right and far-left politicians: by only implying their stance’s rationale without explicitly stating it, politicians set up a situation where their supporters, who already agree with the argument, understand the implied warrant and rally behind the argument, while opponents, who don’t agree and don’t recognize the implied warrant, write the claim off as unpersuasive and choose not to interact with it. The resulting echo chamber is, if nothing else, horrible for public debate.
Returning to the health care example: explicitly stating a warrant makes any argument more persuasive. The German health care argument, with a good warrant attached, goes from an implication to the following:
“Germany’s health care system is more cost effective that the U.S. health care system. An appendectomy costs roughly $3,000 in Germany, and roughly $28,000 in the U.S. Because an appendectomy is a low-risk but high-skill medical procedure with a nearly 100% success rate in any developed country, the difference in price is caused by the system itself, not by differences in quality.”
Now that it has a clear, logical warrant, the health care example has become not just an argument, but a far more compelling one.
An argument with good data and a logical warrant is a good argument. An argument with bad data or an illogical warrant is a bad argument. An argument without data or a warrant is not an argument at all.
Therefore, knowing your own claim, data and warrant will make you a more persuasive arguer. Keeping an eye out for flaws in the data and warrants of arguments you disagree with is the best way to refute those arguments.
Or at least, that’s what I would argue.