Argument vs. Explanation Study Guide (page 4)
Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; argument an exchange of ignorance.
Robert Quillen, American journalist and humorist (1887–1948)
So far, we've talked a lot about arguments—things like how to make them, what makes them valid or invalid, and how people use misleading techniques in them. In this lesson, you'll discover how to tell the difference between an argument and an explanation. You'll also find out how to judge explanations—what makes them effective or ineffective.
Ever hear or say this before? "You've got some explaining to do!" We all, at one time or another, have had to explain ourselves or hear explanations from others. It might have been a simple incident, like showing up late to a movie. Other times, an explanation can make or break things, or end up with a terrible result. We often take explanations for granted, thinking we can explain our way out of anything. But, as with arguments, explanations can be effective or ineffective. They can get someone off the hook, or deeper into trouble. It's important to understand what a good explanation is, and how it differs from an argument.
What Is an Explanation?
At first glance, this seems like a simple question. Someone asks, "Why did you do that?" Your reply is an explanation, giving reasons why you did what you did. But basically, an explanation is a statement or set of statements that give new information about something that's been accepted as fact. When answering the question, "Why did you do that?" you won't say you didn't do it, which would be an argument. It's an accepted fact that you did something, so you have to give information about why you did it.
An explanation has two parts: what will be explained, called the explanadum; and the statements that do the explaining, called the explanans. To answer the question, "Why did you buy that car?" someone might explain, "I bought it because it gets great gas mileage." The phrase "I bought it" is the explanadum. "It gets great gas mileage" is the explanan.
When an explanation is accepted, it removes or lessens a problem. The "why?" is solved. In the previous example, the person asking the question does not understand something (why someone bought a certain car). After the explanation, he or she will. In addition, a good explanation is relevant. That is, it speaks directly to the issue. If someone asks, "Why are you late?" and you reply, "I was late because my shirt is blue," you have given a poor explanation. It is not relevant to the question asked.
The four qualities of a good explanation are:
- it gives new information
- the topic is accepted as fact
- when given, it removes or lessens a problem
- it is relevant
Deductive Fallacy Study Guide explains the fallacy of circular reasoning. "I like chocolate chip because it is my favorite flavor" is an example of circular reasoning, because the premise (it is my favorite flavor) is the same as saying the conclusion (I like chocolate chip).
Explanations may be circular as well. When they are, they offer no new information.
I did well on my SATs because I got a high score.
The explanadum and the explanans simply repeat each other. Doing well on a test and getting a high score are different ways of saying the same thing. In order to make this an effective explanation, the speaker would have to give new information. We already know she did well on the test, but why? She might say:
I did well on my SATs because I studied and got enough rest before the test.
This explanation works because the explanans tell something new. It also fulfills the other three qualities of a good explanation: It is about something that is not disputed (the speaker did well on the SATs), it solves the problem of not knowing why the person did well, and it's relevant (the reasons make sense). If the speaker had said, "I did well on my SATs because I have a dog that won't walk on a leash," we would say the explanation was irrelevant. Having a dog has nothing to do with doing well on a standardized test.
Distinguishing an Explanation from an Argument
You know that a good explanation gives new, relevant information about an accepted fact that is problematic or puzzling. So it's usually easy to spot an explanation that doesn't work on one or more of these points. But it can be tricky when an argument masquerades as an explanation, or an explanation looks like an argument.
An explanation answers the question, "why?" and helps you understand something by telling what caused it. An argument, on the other hand, tries to convince you of the truth of a conclusion by giving reasons (premises) that are evidence for the conclusion. Simply put, an explanation provides causes, and an argument provides evidence. Even when you understand this basic difference, it can sometimes be difficult to tell one from the other. Why is it important to know the difference? Someone might label his or her explanation as an argument, trying to convince you of something by telling you its causes, as opposed to giving you evidence. So knowing three specific ways in which explanations and arguments differ is important.
An argument can't be just one statement, but you can give a concise explanation in one sentence. "Why did you choose this college?" "It has a well-respected education department, and I plan to be a teacher."
Recommendations and Value Judgments
Many arguments express a recommendation, or value judgment, and try to convince you of the goodness or rightness of it. Explanations do not contain such recommendations or judgments. They are about undisputed facts and not attempts at persuasion. For example, here is a conclusion to an argument:
The best place for a steak is Louie's Steak Shack. They use only high quality meat, and the décor is fabulous.
How do we know this isn't an explanation? It is the speaker's judgment and recommendation, an opinion rather than a fact. The statement could become an explanation if there were facts that the restaurant was "the best place for a steak." For example, state another person's opinion: "Eat-Out magazine says the best place for a steak is Louie's Steak Shack because it has only high quality meat, and the décor is fabulous."
Now we have a simple statement of fact, what the magazine says, followed by its causes, why the magazine has that opinion—the quality of the meat and the décor. Always remember that explanations are about an already-accepted fact. Judgments and recommendations aren't facts.
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.
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.
Remember to say exactly what you mean. If your words are confusing to listeners, they won't know if you're giving an explanation or an argument.
Good explanations are helpful. They give people the information they need to solve problems and understand situations. They differ from arguments in a number of key ways. Explanations answer the question, "why?" by giving reasons that are the causes of a particular fact. Arguments try to convince you of their conclusions by presenting evidence for them. While explanations are about facts, arguments can be value judgments or recommendations. Understanding these differences allows you to see through poor arguments that aim to convince you to do, buy, or think something based on little or no evidence. Being able to recognize and formulate good explanations is a valuable critical-thinking skill.
Skill Building Until Next Time
- Listen for explanations in conversations with friends and family. How often do you hear irrelevant explanans or circular reasoning?
- Imagine you want to start a small business. You have no experience, and you need funding from your bank. How would you explain your idea to a bank loan officer?
Exercises for this concept can be found at Argument vs. Explanation Practice Exercises.
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