This is the fourth blog, in a series, on applying critical thinking to information to make well-informed and sound decisions. The blogs, and white paper, are the result of a collaboration between SAP and published authors, and professors of Critical Thinking, Dr. Sharon Bailin and Dr. Mark Battersby. Subscribe to to read the subsequent blogs on this topic

Critical Thinking and Making A Case

When people think of critical thinking, they often assume that it’s all about how to be critical of other people’s arguments. We illustrated that aspect of critical thinking in a previous blog, where we focused on fallacies. But in this post, we want to focus on how critical thinking can help us make good arguments.  Corporations depend on people making appropriate and legitimate cases for their divisions, for their products, for their marketing strategies, etc. Good decisions usually rest on good arguments.

Of course, before you make your case you have to first do your homework and go through the steps necessary to make a fully informed decision (link to our first blog post). Once you’ve done this, the challenge is to present your reasoning in such a way that your audience will see the wisdom of it and come to the same conclusion.

The key consideration in making a good and persuasive argument is to remember just what the project is. Someone making a case is attempting to persuade others of something which they presumably don’t already believe. Otherwise, why make an argument? How do you persuade people of something they don’t already believe and do so reasonably and legitimately? You do that by considering your audience and considering what claims in support of your position your audience is likely already to believe. There is no sense starting out your argument with claims that your audience is unlikely to accept. The whole purpose of an argument is to show people that, based on claims they already accept or find reasonable, they should support the position that you are advocating. So now we can state our first principle.

First Principle of Argumentation: Use Credible Premises

You argument must be based on premises (reasons in support of a point) that are credible — more acceptable, less controversial — than the claim (conclusion) you are trying to achieve. Take the following argument:

        Any money spent on Research and Development pays off in the long run.

Therefore The company should support my current research project.

OK – it’s a truly terrible argument.  But let’s look at the premise.  No one is going to accept that all research and development pays off in the long run, so there is no sense starting with such a claim. And even if it were generally true that research and development expenses resulted in long-term company gains, that wouldn’t prove that this particular project was one of those that would be successful.

In order to have credible premises that support your conclusion, it may be that some of your premises will themselves need support if they are to be accepted by your audience. Sometimes claims will be accepted by your audience just on your say-so, if you are assumed to be a credible source of information. But in many cases an audience expects a person making an argument to support any less than obvious claim with credible evidence, often consisting of appropriate authoritative sources.

Second Principle of Argumentation: Premises must provide strong support for the conclusion

In order to illustrate the second principle of argumentation, let’s look at another argument, in this case an argument by analogy.

In light of Apple’s extraordinary success in focusing on the aesthetics of a product, even the aesthetics of the packaging, there seems to be a widespread view that doing the same will contribute significantly to sales and customer satisfaction.  My new Nexus comes in a box that could have come from Apple. So someone might argue that because Apple was successful in using this design focus, therefore, so should we.  In this case, the first claim, that ‘Apple was successful following certain design approaches,’ seems totally credible. The problem is whether it would follow that other companies in other situations, selling to other markets would also find the same benefit from using that design focus. We often argue by this kind of “historical” analogy: “It worked for them then, so it will work for us now.”  But such inferences from the past to the future need careful assessment.  Analogies can often be weaker than they appear1.

This illustrates the second principle of cogent argument: not only must your premises be credible, they must also provide strong support for your point (conclusion).

Third Principle of Argumentation: Identify and address anticipated objections

It’s likely that some of your audience will have objections to your argument. “But won’t your proposal be too expensive?”  “Is it really feasible given the time frame?” etc. A good way to make your case stronger is to anticipate the objections that might be raised and to address them directly as part of your argument. So when you sit down to make the case, you need to ask yourself: What objections might my audience raise and how can I respond to them? Do I need credible sources to support my claims? Why do I not find anticipated objections persuasive?

In Summary:

  1. A good argument should have credible premises that are acceptable to your audience.
  2. The premises, taken together, should  provide strong support for the conclusion, and
  3. Anticipated objections should be identified and addressed.

There it is. Three basic and principles that should help you make cogent and persuasive arguments.

1. Bailin, S. & Battersby, M. (2011). Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Chapter 5.

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