Explanations for Arguments Help (page 3)
Introduction to Explanations for Arguments
"You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you."
—James Allen, British philosophical writer (1864–1912)
In this lesson, you'll learn how explanations are different from arguments. You'll also learn the criteria for determining whether the explanation you're being offered is good or not.
You are an hour and a half late to work. The moment you walk through the door, your boss calls you into his office. "Where have you been?" he asks. "I demand an explanation."
Explanations are very closely related to arguments, but they're not quite the same thing. Whereas an argument generally aims to convince you that a certain claim is true, an explanation aims to convince you why a claim is true. For example, compare the following examples:
- You should be more careful going down these stairs. They're steep and lots of people fall.
- He fell down the stairs because they're very steep and he wasn't careful.
The first example is an argument. The writer is trying to convince you to be more careful on the stairs (conclusion) because the steps are steep (premise) and lots of people fall (premise). The second example, on the other hand, is an explanation. The writer here is telling you why someone fell down the stairs—because they're steep and because he wasn't careful.
So explanations are different from arguments. But what does this have to do with critical thinking and reasoning skills?
Well, just as you will be presented with arguments of all types almost every day of your life, you will also be presented with explanations of all kinds. And just as you need to evaluate arguments carefully before you decide whether or not to accept them, you should also evaluate explanations carefully before you decide whether or not they're valid.
When it comes to explanations, there are four criteria that you should look for:
- Compatibility with existing knowledge
Think back to your English classes again. Remember all of those essays, book reports and research papers you wrote? Remember your teacher emphasizing that you needed to include details, anecdotes and/or statistics—as long as they were relevant? She didn't want to see lines covered in useless information and other fillers. The same is true in arguments: everything should be relevant.
One of the first tests any explanation should undergo is the test for relevance. Is the explanation that is provided clearly relevant to the issue being explained? That is, is there a clear and obvious connection between the issue and the explanation?
For example, you might say to your boss, "I'm late because the electricity went off during the night and my alarm never went off." Is that relevant? Absolutely. Your ability to arrive on time depends upon your ability to wake up on time. However, an explanation like the following is certainly not relevant:
"I'm late because Macy's is having a sale this weekend."
Macy's sale—while it may be important to you—has no bearing on your ability to get to work on time. This is obvious, of course, but that doesn't prevent people from offering irrelevant explanations.
One important thing to keep in mind about explanations is that an explanation can pass the relevancy test and still not be a good explanation. For example, "I'm late because last night I was at a Super- Bowl party" is not a good explanation, but it is a relevant explanation—because you were out late, you didn't get up in time for work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Explanations for Arguments In Short
Explanations, much like arguments, need to meet certain criteria before you should feel comfortable accepting them. To be valid, an explanation should be relevant—clearly related to the event or issue in question—and testable—able to be verified in some way. Circular explanations—ones that double back on themselves like circular arguments—should be rejected, and you should be careful about accepting explanations that contradict your knowledge or accepted theories.
Skill Building until Next Time
- Pay attention to the explanations around you: at home, at work, at school, and on TV. See how often you find people offering explanations that don't meet the criteria discussed in this lesson.
- Once again, sitcoms can help you sharpen your critical thinking and reasoning skills. Characters on sitcoms often find themselves in situations where they have to come up with a quick explanation—and usually those explanations are quite bad. Be on the lookout for these explanations and use the criteria you've learned to evaluate them. Are they relevant? Circular? Testable? Just plain absurd?
Exercises for this lesson can be found at Explanations for Arguments Practice.
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