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Internet Research Guide
Part 5


Building an argument with web research

The term argument has certain negative connotations in everyday use. However, argument in its academic sense is very different. An argument in everyday life usually involves tension, confrontation, even anger, and almost always involves personal, emotional attacks and counter-attacks.

Academic argument, in contrast, involves taking a position on a subject and then defending the position you've taken with certain kinds of evidence. Academic arguments should always be made for or against ideas, not for or against people. An argument "to the man," that is, against a person, is called an ad hominem argument. Everyday arguments are always ad hominem and that's what makes them so awful sometimes. Academic arguments should be clear, controlled presentations of ideas, opinions, and facts.

Academic arguments must always be well thought out and well constructed. Consider how you want to build each argument you make. Often, the basic parts for any argument you might build are the same. It is how you choose to put those parts together that gives each argument its particular look.

Claims and supports
Practice: Recognizing claims and supports
Logical fallacies
Generalizations
False cause and effect
Steps in cause and effect arguments
False authority (ad verecundiam in Latin)
Practice: Identifying logical fallacies


Claims and supports

The basic parts of an argument are a claim and a support. These terms are often exchanged with others (like position/assertion and evidence/reason), but their functions remain basically the same. A claim is simply a statement of opinion, implicitly your opinion, since you are the writer. In some cases, the claim in your paper might be a restatement of a general stance on a given issue, and thus many people might have the same opinion as you. A support, as the term suggests, supports, proves, or backs-up, the claim you've just made.
It is good practice to make sure that every claim you make is connected to a support. For example, I can argue that the Beatles are one of the best rock bands of all time. You can tell this is an argument in the academic sense, because there is clearly another side, which someone could take.

Note that a statement like "There is symbolism in literature" is not an arguable claim (and therefore not a thesis statement, or an argument in the academic sense) since there is no reasonable way anybody could take an opposing side. Who would argue that there isn't symbolism in literature?

Note also that topics are not arguments. That is, "advertising" is not an argument; it's a topic. "Advertising in the 1930s" is not an argument either; it's a more specific topic. Be sure when you are writing that you understand whether you are writing to cover a certain topic or, as is more common, if you have to formulate an argument about that topic.

My claim about the Beatles remains only a claim until I offer some support. To support this particular claim I might do research to find out how many top ten hits the Beatles had, how many shows they sold out, how many albums they've sold, or any number of other facts. The claim and support together go to make a valid argument. (Be sure to be explicit in your writing when you link claims and supports—don't leave that work for your reader.)

The Internet is invaluable for doing research to find information that can support your claims. Do not use the Internet to find or borrow claims that others have made and use them as your own in your research projects. Of course research may shape the kinds of arguments you eventually make in your papers, but do not start off by surfing the web to find an argument to borrow.

Ideally, the web is best for finding information that is up to date. So if you claim that smoking has adverse effects on health, doing research using the Internet is likely to yield a great deal of very current information which can go to support your claim. You might find statistics on recent smoking-related deaths or illnesses, health-care costs related to smoking, or expert opinion based on very recent studies.

Practice: Recognizing claims and supports

Label the statements in this list as either "claim" or "support," and be prepared to explain each of your answers.

A rose generally represents love in traditional, literary symbolism.

Some kinds of ice cream are very high in saturated fat.

The first ingredient in most soda pop is carbonated water.

Only 10% of respondents said they did not always wear a seatbelt.

The speed limit on most major highways is too low.

The speed limit on I-75 is 70mph for the most part.

Victor Frankenstein is a very troubled individual in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Donald Ault writes that, "Blake directly assaults the reader and challenges him to come to terms with the unusual form of his [Blake's] narrative" (298).2


2Ault, Donald. "Incommensurability and Interconnection in Blake's Anti-Newtonian Text." Studies in Romanticism. Vol. 16 Number 3, Summer 1977.


Logical fallacies

There are certain dangers in building arguments since it is possible to put claims and supports together in incorrect ways. Some of these are called logical fallacies. Logical fallacies involve supports which do not actually prove claims, though they are marshalled to do so. To do effective research, you need to understand some of the more common logical fallacies in order to determine how best to find the right supports for your claims.

Generalizations

A generalization takes a small piece of evidence and applies it to all situations, or uses it to support a much broader claim. For example, if I claim that football is a dangerous sport because of all the injuries which occur, and then I support that claim with evidence from a single game in which there were an inordinate number of injuries, I've made a false generalization. As a writer trying to argue my case that football is dangerous, clearly I would do research to find a game in which many injuries occurred and choose that game as my support. Perceptive readers will recognize this strategy and will be able to discount my argument simply by pointing out the unreasonable generalization I've made.

It is important to realize, however, that most arguments do, in fact, involve a certain degree of generalization, since it is usually impossible to account for all variants of any given thing (it would be impossible to deal with all football games ever played). It is up to the writer to decide what level of generalization is acceptable in supporting a claim. Would counting the injuries in an entire season constitute a reasonable generalization? How about injuries in both college and NFL games? What you must consider is whether or not your reader is likely to react to your argument by claiming that the support for your claim is too narrow in scope. Often, assessing the reasonableness of your generalizations is simply a matter of practice, and of reading how other, more experienced authors, manage the same difficulty.

Note that generalization as a logical error can take very serious form, as with stereotyping, particularly racist and sexist stereotyping. Learning to manage generalization in argumentation can help you to be aware of the dangers—and the persistence—of racism, sexism and other stereotypes in modern culture.


False cause and effect

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase which translates roughly as "after this, therefore because of this." It describes the logical fallacy where the support for your claim describes a cause which might—but doesn't necessarily—lead to a stated effect; it is assumed to do so only because it comes before the effect. For example, for three days in a row I had toast for breakfast. On each of those days, I forgot my office key. I might argue that because I had toast for breakfast, I forgot my office key. (Losing my key came after eating toast, therefore, I argue, it was caused by eating toast.)

The (false) support for the claim is my own experience of one thing following the other as if that meant that one thing caused the other. However, we know intuitively that eating toast did not likely cause the effect I am claiming it caused: eating toast did not make me forget my keys.

Advertising depends heavily on the post hoc, ergo propter hoc logical fallacy to make many of its claims. For example, a new toothpaste is claimed to make your teeth whiter. So you buy the toothpaste, use it twice as often as you used your old toothpaste, and your teeth are whiter. Apparently the toothpaste itself caused your whiter teeth. But what other possible reasons are there for the change? How about the fact that you brushed more often, since you were hyped on having the whiter teeth promised in the ads? Just because whiter teeth came after using the new toothpaste does not mean that the new toothpaste is the only cause of the whiter teeth.


Steps in cause and effect arguments

Consider this claim: Certain air conditioners cause global warming. Intuitively it may seem an unreasonable argument. How could things that make air cold actually cause global warming? The fact is, however, that certain kinds of chemicals used in air conditioners escape into the atmosphere, react with other gases, affect the way sunlight warms the earth, and do lead to increased average temperatures in some areas. In this case, the support for the claim will involve explaining each of the steps involved in the process. So rather than jumping directly from air conditioners to global warming and leaving just that for readers to deal with, you may have to break your cause-effect arguments into smaller (more believable) steps. Be sure then to consider how you need to research each step to prove that it is viable and reasonable.

In cases where you cannot make the connection between the cause and effect, your argument will involve a cause and effect logical fallacy.


False authority (ad verecundiam in Latin)

One of the greatest dangers in using the Internet for research is, ironically, that you will likely be able to find information to support almost any claim. However, be careful that if you import authority into your writing from Internet research (or any kind of research), the authority you import is genuine, reliable and that you quote him, her or it, accurately and fairly. Also, be sure that when you quote a so-called expert, the field of his or her expertise is, in fact, the field you are dealing with. Note how commercial advertising transfers expertise in one area (race car driving, for example) into completely unrelated areas (choice of hamburgers).

This is to say that your friend Dave might be a pretty smart and suave guy, but that does not make him an authority on Drug Testing in the Olympics. So even if www.davespage.com says that drug testing is necessary for equality in Olympic competition, and just because that is exactly the quotation you are looking for to support the claim you've made in your research paper, if the authority of your source is not legitimate and relevant, then you are committing the logical error of false authority.



Practice: Identifying logical fallacies

Search the Internet to try and find examples of these logical fallacies:
  • false cause and effect
  • generalizations
  • false authority
Look in particular for instances of sexism and racism as examples of generalizations (in some cases you might be able to find subtle evidence for each in surprising places). Discuss the logical fallacies with your class or with a peer.


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