Argument vs. Explanation Study Guide (page 3)

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Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Feelings and Beliefs

Distinguishing between arguments and explanations can be tricky if they involve statements about how someone thinks, feels, or what he or she believes. Since explanations aren't value judgments or recommendations, you wouldn't expect to see words like "believe" or "feel" in them, but you might. For example, you're thinking about buying stock in a company where two of your friends work. One tells you, "The company is doing really well. Sales are high, and one of our products won an award." The other says, "Economists believe our company is doing really well because our sales are high, and one of our products won an award." The word "believe" is a warning signal that the statement is an opinion. But look closely. Whose belief is it? Your friend isn't one of the economists. She is simply stating a fact—that economists hold that belief.

The first friend is trying to convince you that her conclusion is valid by giving you evidence. The second is explaining the reasons why a group of people believe something. Perhaps you won't buy the stock after either friends' statement, but if you are thinking critically, you know the motivation of each.

Fast Forward

What about the future? If someone is talking about what will happen tomorrow, you might think it must be an argument. Explanations are about undisputed facts, and arguments are about judgments and opinions. Can there be a fact about something that has not even happened yet? The answer is yes. Just because you see the words "tomorrow," "next week," or "someday" does not mean you are looking at an argument.

Here are a few examples of explanadums about the future:

When Evidence Is Missing

When do people tend to use an explanation when they really need to make an argument? When they are trying to justify an opinion. Think about the persuasive advertisements examined in Lesson 9. When an advertiser wants to convince you to buy his or her product, he or she needs an argument with evidence. But typically, there is no evidence. One detergent is just as good as another; one brand of tires performs equally with other brands. How, then, can the advertiser construct an argument without evidence? By using explanations that either give no new information, or give irrelevant information, such as "our dish detergent is much better than Brand X, because it smells like lemons." When you see through these types of claims, you are distinguishing between explanations and evidence. Critical-thinking skills help you to understand that weak or unsubstantiated explanations are no substitute for scarce or missing evidence.

This fall, the leaves will turn colors before dropping to the ground.

Someday, we will all die.

I am going to turn 25 next week.

The point is that facts are not just about things that have already happened. There are many things about the future that we can accept with certainty. When you pay careful attention to the context of the argument or explanation, you can tell the difference between the two, regardless of whether they have to do with last week or next week.

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