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Explanations for Arguments Help (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 28, 2011

Testability

You may not be a scientist, but you've certainly performed some experiments in your life. You may have bought different brands of detergent, for example, to see which brand got your clothes cleaner. Or you may have tried different cold medicines to see which worked best for you. This type of experimenting enables you to explain why you use the brand you use: "I use Rinse-All because it doesn't bother my sensitive skin," for example. This explanation is one that can be tested. It therefore passes the next test of validity for explanations: testability.

Testability is as important as relevance when it comes to evaluating explanations. If someone provides an explanation that is impossible to test, then you should be highly suspicious. An untestable explanation is one that is impossible to verify through experimentation. And that's precisely why you should be on guard.

For example, imagine that someone offers you the following explanation:

Global warming is caused by invisible, weightless particles being hurled at us from an invisible universe.

Is there any way to test this explanation? If the particles can't be seen or weighed, and if the universe they come from is invisible, then no one can prove that this is or isn't the cause. It can't be verified and it can't be refuted. The theory is untestable (and absurd, but that's another story).

Here's another example:

We met because we were meant to meet.

Is there any way to test this explanation? No. There's no test for fate, after all. Though it may be romantic, this is an untestable—and therefore invalid—explanation.

Circularity

The lesson Logical Fallacies Help explains circular reasoning: arguments that double back on themselves because the conclusion and the premise say essentially the same thing. Explanations can be circular, too. You might say to your boss, for example:

I'm late because I didn't get here on time.

That's a circular explanation. "I'm late" and "I didn't get here on time" say essentially the same thing. The "explanation" simply restates the situation rather than explains it, and that doesn't make for a valid explanation.

Here's another example:

The inflation was caused by an increase in prices.

Notice that "inflation" and "increase in prices" are essentially the same thing. Once again, this is an explanation that goes in a circle. The explanation does not offer any insight as to how or why the situation occurred.

More Practice

Write two circular explanations of your own on a separate sheet of paper. To see if they're really circular, use this test: Does the explanation (usually the part that comes after the word because) really express the same idea as the issue you're supposed to be explaining?

Compatibility with Existing Knowledge

Your boss didn't like your "I'm late because I didn't get here on time" explanation, so you try again:

"I'm late because my helicopter is in the shop and I had to find another way to get here."

Chances are, your boss won't find your explanation very amusing—and he definitely won't find it valid. Why? Because he knows that there's no way you get to work by helicopter. You get to work by car, bus, train, or some other means of transportation, but not by helicopter. Your explanation goes against what he knows to be true, so he has every right to be very suspicious of it.

Scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs often surprise people and sometimes shatter theories that were long thought to be true. Remember, people once believed that Earth was flat. Still, in everyday life, it's a good idea to be wary of explanations that go against what you know from your past experience or from your education. For example, if you know that the office copier was just fixed this morning, and your assistant says she didn't finish the copies you requested because the copier is broken, you have good reason to doubt the validity of her explanation. Similarly, if your neighbor tells you that gravity is actually caused by a giant U-shaped magnet located at the center of Earth, you should be highly suspicious since his explanation conflicts with accepted scientific theories about the makeup of Earth's interior.

Some explanations, however, may sound odd or surprising to you without necessarily contradicting what you know from your experience or education. In this case, it's probably best to suspend your judgment anyway, until you can verify the explanation. Like tentative truths, these explanations might be valid, but you need to learn more before accepting them as true.

For example, imagine you are the boss and an employee tells you, "I'm late because there was a major accident on the freeway." Now you know that things like this happen. Depending upon the credibility of that employee, you could:

  • Accept that explanation as fact
  • Accept that explanation as a tentative truth
  • Reject the explanation, especially if that employee has a history of lying

In a case like this, the credibility of the person offering the explanation is a key factor. But it's important to note that this is not an untestable explanation. You could listen to traffic reports on the radio, talk to other employees who take that freeway, or watch for a report of an accident in tonight's paper to find out if the employee was telling the truth.

Tip

Everyone knows the story of the little boy who cried wolf, right? It was a story with a moral: lie a few times and no one will trust you anymore, even when you are telling the truth. This is also the case in explanations. Your reasons are going to be far more accepted if you have established trust with others and they know that you don't lie just to cover your tracks.

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