Reasoning is the ability to think logically to formulate fair judgements and justify a position. In other words, it is about identifying, analysing and evaluating arguments.
In our study, in the workplace and in our everyday lives we need to make decisions, solve problems, formulate judgements and skilfully persuade. This can be difficult when there is so much information available, and so many competing perspectives. We could just flip a coin as a method to determine what to think. This may be correct 50% of the time, but this is not a very effective or reliable method. We want to make good decisions 100% of the time (or as close as possible) and be able to provide good justification for the choices that we do make - so we need to be proficient in the art of reasoning.
In this section, we will consider the following questions:
1. What is an argument?
The common understanding of an 'argument' typically involves an emotional and volatile state where people yell and hurl personal insults. At university, arguments mean something different.
An argument is a structured set of reasons (or objections) that seek to support (or refute) a central claim. The central claim is called a contention, conclusion, hypothesis or position - this is what the arguer/author wants you to believe. Claims that are given in support of other claims are called reasons. Claims that refute other claims are called objections or rebuttals.
In short, an argument contains a central claim plus at least one reason to believe that claim is true (or false in the case of an objection).
Contention: All university students should receive free public transport.
Reason: It would assist them financially.
Argument: All university students should receive free public transport because it would assist them financially.
This example illustrates the basic argument formulation of Contention + Reason. Note that the argument uses the term because to link these two claims.
Contention: The study of religions is vital.
Reason 1: Religions have wielded massive power.
Reason 2: To understand a culture one requires an understanding of their religion.
Argument: Hinnells (2009, pp. 5-6) argues that the study of religions is vital. His reasons are twofold: firstly that religions have "wielded massive power" (Hinnells 2009, p. 6) and secondly, that to understand a culture one requires an understanding of their religion (Hinnells 2009, p.6)
In this example there are two main reasons given to support the contention. The contention is in the first sentence and the two reasons stated in the second sentence. Alternatively, you could combine the contention and reasons to one, sentence or expand to two or three. Whatever you choose, when communicating your reasoning it is useful to establish the themes of the reasons – in this case, power (reason 1) and culture (reason 2).
Note: Whether you agree or disagree with these arguments, they are nonetheless arguments. When you reach the evaluating stage, then you can determine whether you think the argument is acceptable.
2. Where are arguments found?
Arguments are everywhere but, of course, that doesn’t mean we should accept them! They are located in journal articles, newspapers, books, TV, films, radio, social media, posters, fact sheets, green papers, websites, and in everyday discussions.
In different disciplines we may argue for or against an ideal, an issue, a method, theory, or the meaning of information. For instance:
- social workers may argue about the best policy to achieve social justice
- philosophers about whether there is a God
- historians about a particular interpretation of history
- lawyers about whether a particular piece of evidence is permissible
- economists about whether a particular tax incentive will increase employment
- chemists about whether a particular material is harmful to human health
- bioethicists as to whether embryonic stem cell research is justifiable, or
- scientists about causes and consequences of climate change
Arguments are everywhere but, of course, that doesn’t mean we should accept them!
Remember that contentions are contentious! They are claims which you could argue for or against. Contentions should be concise, to the point and capable of being either true or false. Also note that contentions must be statements or propositions. They are not themselves questions - they arise from a question. For instance, Does data mining pose a problem for privacy? becomes Data mining poses a problem for privacy, or, Data mining does not pose a problem for privacy.
3. What is the purpose of arguments?
The purpose of arguments is twofold - to inquire and to advocate.
Inquiry involves looking carefully at an argument in order to comprehend what the issue is about, the reasoning involved and the evidence it is based upon. This enables you to form a judgement about the issue at hand. In assignments you may be asked to inquire when you are asked to examine, consider, explore or discuss.
Advocating a point of view is trying to convince others what they should think about an issue. In assignments you may be asked to advocate your position when you are asked to argue, persuade or present a case.
4. What types of arguments are there?
Arguments are often characterised as being deductive or inductive.
Deductive arguments are valid arguments because of their logical form. This means that if the premises are true then the conclusion must necessarily be true. This provides a guarantee of the truth of the conclusion if the premises are correct, hence an argument with a deductive formulation is compelling (assuming it has true premises).
If Monash University is in the top 100 universities worldwide then it is a great university.
Monash University is in the top 100 universities worldwide, therefore Monash University is a great university.
Inductive arguments provide a likelihood or probability that if the premises are true then the conclusion is true. The likelihood or probability is considered strong or weak, unlike deductively valid arguments where there is a guarantee of truth. Inductive arguments typically arise where a generalisation or an analogy is provided, building on a small number of observations to a generalised conclusion about a given category or class. (Refer below to see how the scientific method uses observations and experiments).
A claim resulting from samples, observations, case studies or examples can lead to a generalised statement or statistical inference about a whole population.
75% of the university student sample were satisfied with the catering at their orientation program.
75% of the university student population were satisfied with the catering at their orientation program.
Note: The inference made about the population is based on the sample group and may not be accurate
5. What is the role of evidence? What types should you use?
To be convincing, arguments need evidence. Evidence provides support for claims by providing a foundation for claims people make. If the evidence is not reliable, it is unlikely that the claims will be acceptable. Identifying reliable evidence is therefore imperative for good reasoning. (More on identifying)
At university you will be encouraged to argue for or against a contention but you are expected to provide appropriate evidence to support the claims you make. This means that you need to research and utilise forms of evidence that are appropriate for your task and discipline. For instance, journals, news articles, research studies, laws, historical sources, reports, experimental data, statistics, meta-analysis, interviews and case studies. To ensure your evidence is reliable and appropriate for your discipline, seek guidance from your tutor or lecturer.
Read the following excerpt and answer the question that follows.
Contests over Australian history captivate governments, historians and public commentators; they grab headlines and spawn endless public commentary. The ‘history wars’, as those debates have come to be known, play out over museum exhibits, national commemorations, public apologies and the ways we teach the past to the next generation: should the Australian War Memorial commemorate the victims of the Australian frontier wars? Should Australians be sorry for historical actions in the past? Should Australian history be compulsory in school? (And so on.) But does that ‘national story’ have any meaning for Australian families and communities? This paper canvasses some recent qualitative research into historical consciousness in Australia to explore the ways those historical discourses operate beyond the public domain. It asks participants to speak in their own words about what history means: how they relate to their local and family histories, and how they engage with Australian history more broadly. Importantly, the project reveals a depth and complexity to Australians' historical engagement and demonstrates that public and personal discourses about the past do indeed intersect in everyday life around the country (Clark, 2016).
Expert tip: To find reliable evidence, Library guides provide advice about how to find scholarly sources, such as peer-reviewed journal articles and academic books. These will be filled with evidence-based research and claims that support or reject contentions. In scientific disciplines, evidence may also be generated through your experiments and observations. For humanities disciplines, interviews, case studies and specific methodologies (e.g. textual analysis) may be appropriate.
6. How do I locate an argument?
When you start researching for a topic, you need to locate the key argument components in texts, that is, the contention, reasons, objections and evidence. There are a few key tips to assist you do this:
1. Read the abstract
The abstract in a journal article will identify the key point (contention or conclusion) the author is making. Central reasons and evidence will typically also be identified.
Many, but not all, journal articles have abstracts. It is placed at the beginning of the article and acts as a summary of the issue and its argument. Abstracts are also included in Library database records, such as in the Details section of journal article records of the Monash library search tool (see below).
Click on the highlighted text below:
|Description||Under what circumstances do new constitutions promote democracy? Between 1974 and 2011, the level of democracy increased in 62 countries following the adoption of a new constitution, but decreased or stayed the same in 70 others. Using data covering all 138 new constitutions in 118 countries during that period, we explain this divergence through empirical tests showing that overall increased participation during the process of making the constitution positively impacts postpromulgation levels of democracy. Then, after disaggregating constitution-making into three stages (drafting, debating, and ratification) we find compelling evidence through robust statistical tests that the degree of citizen participation in the drafting stage has a much greater impact on the resulting regime. This lends support to some core principles of "deliberative" theories of democracy. We conclude that constitutional reformers should focus more on generating public "buy in" at the front end of the constitution-making process, rather than concentrating on ratification and referendums at the "back end" that are unlikely to correct for an "original sin" of limited citizen deliberation during drafting.|
The full record of the above example can be seen on Library Search.
2. Identify key indicator words
Indicator words are words or phrases which indicate where argument components are located. They are often placed in the middle of a sentence, but sometimes may be at the beginning. They act as signposts to advise the reader whether a contention or reason/objection follows.
Example 1: Monash is an excellent university since it is in the top 100 universities worldwide.
Example 2: Monash is an excellent university yet it is not in the top 5 universities worldwide.
Example 3: Monash is in the top 100 universities worldwide thus it is an excellent university.
Example 4: It is argued that Monash is an excellent university. Given that it is in the top 100 universities worldwide, we can see this claim is justified.
3. Placement of information
Locating the contention: The contention will typically be identifiable in the title, the abstract, the introduction or conclusion/summary. Sometimes it is not obvious what the contention is, or there may be more than one possibility. In such cases ask yourself: What is the main point the author wants me to believe? Is the contention contentious? Is there an implicit (unstated) contention? Does the reasoning support (or refute) this contention?
What is the contention here? Click on the hotspot to see the answer!
Locating the reasoning:
Reasoning will be located throughout the text, primarily in the text body. Nonetheless, the main reasons will typically be located in the introduction and often identified by sub-headings.
Eight reasons Leave won the UK's referendum on the EU
The UK has voted to quit the European Union following a referendum on its membership. So how did the Leave campaign win?
1. Brexit economic warnings backfire
This newspaper article numbers the reasons and provided them as subheadings. Note that in an essay you will not typically have headings. Instead you can indicate the reason in the topic sentence of each paragraph to indicate the central claim.
Locating the evidence:
Authors will also use evidence to support their claims. As you read, look out for the types of evidence that are being utilised - they may include statistics, census data, interviews, quotes, polls, expert opinions, specific events, laws, artefacts, research studies, case studies and examples. Evidence may be briefly referred to in the abstract but will certainly be provided in the body of the article. Look for tables and graphs - these will often provide data/statistics. Citations will display evidence in the form of quotations or paraphrasing from other experts and case studies may be used as examples to illustrate a more general claim.
7. How do I construct an argument?
The following steps will assist you with constructing arguments:
- Identify the contention: To construct an argument identify a contention, hypothesis or main point of an issue as a starting point from which to investigate. This may be derived from a central claim made by an author, provided to you in an assessment task, or based on some initial findings in an experiment. Note that this is a starting point. After you have identified and evaluated the argument, then you will have a conclusion.
- Identify reasons, objections and evidence: Locate the reasons and objections provided to support or refute the contention and other claims. These will require research and synthesis of different perspectives. Also, ensure you establish what evidence these claims have been based upon, or conduct your own experiments and research to establish the evidence foundation.
- Structure the argument: Establish the key themes around which the evidence and claims revolve to establish the central reasons. Then determine each line of argument and its logical structure. This is like a jigsaw - trying to piece together the claims and evidence to ensure it is logical and coherent.
8. Reasoning and the scientific method
The scientific method is the foundational framework upon which scientific research operates. This method seeks to ask questions, make hypotheses and test these hypotheses against evidence. When working with a hypothesis you are setting up a contention to test with claims and evidence - in other words it is an argument to which you are responding.