Part 1 of this series on how to apply critical thinking techniques to opinion articles defined critical thinking, and explained why it's an important skill to have when reading articles on political topics. In this installment I'm going to talk about arguments. When I use the word “argument” here, I mean an attempt to convince the reader or listener that something is true. Editorials and opinion pieces are usually arguments.
Arguments contain a conclusion of some sort, and at least one premise to back it up. Both the conclusion and the premises are statements. A statement is sentence that can be shown to be true or false. That doesn't mean that it would be easy to show that it's true or false, or that there is no disagreement over the truth or falsehood of the statement.
One of the most famous arguments in recent history was the justification for invading Iraq. The Bush administration argued that:
Iraq has a history of aggression against its neighbors
Iraq has links to Al Queda
Iraq has been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction
The best course of action for the U.S. and its allies is to invade Iraq
Every one of those statements could be found to be either true or false, although the truth of statement 4, the conclusion, is more complicated to determine than the three premises.
The Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq was clearly an argument. It has premises and a conclusion, and is an attempt to convince. But there is one more criterion for declaring a set of statements an argument. There has to be possible disagreement about the truth of the conclusion. If the statement is non-controversial and obvious, then the set of statements is an explanation, not an argument. Where arguments have premises and conclusions, the equivalent parts of explanations are known as explanans and explanandums.
In the next installment we'll begin our step by step examination of the article How Islamic Fundamentalists Will Rule Mosul, by Karen Leigh, the managing editor of Syria Deeply. It was published in the July 27th edition of the New York Times.
Her article is about ISIS, a Sunni Islamist group, whose English acronym stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been an active fighter in the Syrian civil war, and recently expanded its territorial gains into Iraq, including the large city of Mosul.
Briefly summarized, Leigh's article asserts that ISIS's conduct in the region it controls in Syria provides a good prediction for how it will run Mosul, but that in Mosul ISIS will have to move more slowly implementing their policies than they did in Syria.
In the next post in this series we'll break down Leigh's article into statements, determine whether it should be considered an argument or an explanation, and evaluate the strength of her statements.