6 Chapter 6 (Audience)

Both in and out of academic arguments, changing someone’s mind is not as simple as being factually correct. Large numbers of people continue to believe things contrary to what the preponderance of evidence happens to show, to a point that makes satire difficult. For example, according to some research, perhaps 4% of young people believe the earth is flat. A number of people continue to believe in a thoroughly discredited link between autism and vaccination. The list could carry on at length.


The Scope of Arguments

Changing someone’s mind outside of the realm of fact is frequently even harder, because moral issues are less permeable to fact, and rules or regulations based on moral judgments are even harder to fine-tune. If I believe in a particular policy and you prove that it has less of a benefit than I thought it did, I don’t have to change my mind. I just have to change the reasons I support it. This mindset is not odd, it is actually a default way of looking at things. This is more than simple Confirmation Bias at work, even though that is a powerful force. No, the real issue is something called the Backfire Effect.

Put in simple terms, most people who are confronted with evidence that an opinion they hold is wrong do not change their opinion. Instead, they reject the contrary evidence and hold to their opinion even more strongly. This means that in order to engage arguments, it is necessary to do more than to simply throw facts at each other. Instead, we must engage in critical, thoughtful discussions. Some research even shows that having those discussion–having the reflex to analyze new information before it enters into our memory–is one of the most effective tools available at preventing erroneous information from becoming locked into our worldviews.

In the terms of college research, no matter how open-minded researchers try to be, there is a very real chance that their biases will influence them. This is one reason why the peer-review process exists, and it is also a reason that scientific experimentation goes to great length to “blind” both participants and researchers to which subjects are receiving which treatments. Unless studies are performed carefully, it is possible for bias to enter the equation. For new researchers simply reading studies—or looking for studies to read—there can be a powerful tendency to read only those sources that confirm our biases. Preconceived notions and opinions need constant monitoring, and student researchers who are not willing to have their minds changed on a subject should probably consider whether or not they are actually researching the subject or simply repeating their own opinions.


Rhetoric and Dialectic

Aristotle famously proclaimed that rhetoric was the counterpart to dialectic. In essence, he suggested that while logical discourse could certainly help someone arrive at valid conclusions, that getting others to accept those conclusions required a certain amount of skill or technique in persuasion. Most students in college will already be familiar with the three modes or appeals of rhetoric (logos, ethos, and pathos), but it might be difficult to place them in the broader context of debate. They might be sterile concepts–fine for the classroom but without much other value. The reality is, however, that these three modes are important to any effort at advocacy, and they are much more vital than we tend to believe.

Logos: This is the emphasis for most research papers, for reasons discussed in the previous chapters. Suffice it to say, however, that in order to engage in an argument, it is useful to be familiar with logic, to be able to identify and counter common logical fallacies, and to be ready to set aside personal involvement in favor of analysis.

One important note is that many beginning writers make the mistake of leaving out what Toulmin would refer to as the warrants. In other words, they simply offer evidence and conclusions without explaining to readers why they believe the evidence in question supports the conclusions. Because not all readers will interpret the same facts identically, this sort of mistake can lead to misunderstanding.

Ethos: Whether it’s a job interview, a college paper, or an attempt to change the minds of many people on an issue of personal importance, ethos has a greater impact than most people consider, and it is shaped in any number of ways.

Consider clothing. While it is a superficial criterion, many employers embrace the idea that personal appearance is part of professionalism. It is. As much as we might like to live in a society that is immune to the impact of appearance, we do not. In fact, study after study has confirmed the idea that dress and attractiveness influence everything ranging from how likely someone is to be hired, how much someone will be made, and how trustworthy that person is considered.

Now consider reputation. A student writer who has already been caught making one mistake, exaggerating one claim, or trusting at least one unreliable source not lacks credibility when that same student writer offers a new line of reasoning or introduces another questionable source. A student who stretches the truth for one argument is not far more likely to be discounted when making a subsequent argument.

Outside of college essays, one of the most important concepts is identification. This refers to the tendency of people to hold positive views those they see as like themselves. That does not mean that the person in question is seen as “honest” or “credible” in a traditional sense. Instead, it simply means that if I see something of myself in you, I am more likely to respond favorably to you; likewise, if you see something of yourself in someone else, you are more likely to forgive missteps on their part (especially missteps you personally find relatable).

Pathos: It’s hard to ignore the fact that people aren’t rational. People make decisions on emotional bases all the time, and so it is important to be able to reach others emotionally. It is even more important to be able to show others how an emotional goal is not met by a course of action.

In simple terms, people confronted with a problem will frequently want to do something–anything–to resolve the problem. However, if that action does not actually have any solvency, then the emotional impulse to act will be misguided and have unintended consequences. Consider the example of post-9/11 airport security. The pressure to increase screening was so great that the U.S. added a number of measures that cost money and time. However, those measures have been found, repeatedly, to be ineffective.

Were there problems before 9/11? Obviously. Were those problems actually made better by the government’s action? That would be really tough to prove to a reasonable audience. One task researchers face is helping to overcome the emotional resistance of readers and trying to reach the point where people are willing to accept that they might be wrong about something.


Cutting the Knot

Imagine if a restaurant is known to serve extraordinarily spicy versions of typical dishes. People with a love for spicy food might argue that this makes the restaurant more appealing, while people with less tolerance for heat might want to avoid the exact same location. However, if the same restaurant can be demonstrated to have both spicy and non-spicy dishes, then maybe there isn’t a conflict at all.

Alexander the Great supposedly found himself confronted with an unsolvable knot, and his response was to cut it with his sword. Instead of trying to unravel every cord, he chopped the whole thing apart.

A number of issues are based on Gordian knots, and a skilled researcher is able to get to the core of an issue. If asked “is it worth violating civil liberties to use torture to gain information about terror acts?”, one knot-cutting question is “will torture even gain useful information about terror acts?” If it won’t, then there is no ethical quandary, because instead you’re just arguing about wanting to torture people.

A specific logical fallacy comes to play time and again when it’s time to cut knots, and that’s the fallacy of the complex question. Should I spend more money to buy myself a more reliable car? Well, maybe. However, if (within my price range) there is no difference in the reliability of the cars available, then there is no need to spend the extra money to gain a (nonexistent) increase in reliability. When considering the Toulmin model, people often assume warrants that should not be granted, and this causes their arguments to break down.

In order to fully engage arguments, it’s necessary to understand the emotional reasons people have for their beliefs. When engaging arguments, it’s important to remember that simply being correct by our own standards is not enough. Instead, researchers must try their best to meet the standards of a skeptical and even hostile audience.


Unreasonable People

One question that arises while performing any sort of research is “how much evidence is enough” to persuade someone? The answer varies dramatically, and it tends to be based on the readers of a given argument. In other words, in order for a researcher to know how much evidence is needed to make an argument, that researcher needs to have researched possible readers, as well. This is not actually hard, and it should not require significant extra work.

Good, thorough research will familiarize a researcher with the range of informed opinions that exist on a subject, already. Instead of guessing what those who disagree might believe, the researcher learns what the different opinions actually are—and learns why those opinions are held. This means that even sources that are not useful for supporting an argument can be useful to frame concessions or to offer background. In the course of this research, it is very likely that students will encounter people who cannot be readily persuaded by evidence.

One easy way to locate unreasonable readers (and researchers) is by how uninterested they are in learning about other viewpoints. Every so often, a researcher will encounter a source that does not seem to have done its own research, that uses hostile or derogatory language for those who disagree with it, or that makes sweeping assertions. An argument that frames its perspective, or other perspectives, without qualifiers should be held in skepticism. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but some people seem to believe that extraordinary claims should be accepted on the basis of their personal authority.

How does an academic argument reach these readers? Well, the reality is that it might not be possible to reach all audiences. At no point does an academic researcher have an obligation to compromise on fact. However, it is sometimes best to refine the scope of an argument so readers only have to accept so much change or controversy at one time.

A student writing about reducing drug regulation might not be able to reach people who have a strict moral resistance to drugs, but that same student can avoid antagonizing readers who have lost family members to drug abuse by admitting that rehabilitation programs and other safety nets are not completely effective. Likewise, that same student might not be able to persuade someone who outright refuses to consider that different drugs have different rates of addiction and different side effects.

Finally, as in non-academic settings, there are some arguments that simply are not reasonable topics for an academic essay. Essays attempting to establish that birds are living beings (and not drones) or that the Earth is round (and not flat) do not have reasonable readers available. Those readers who could be persuaded by evidence likely have been, and those readers who are not persuaded by the existing evidence are unlikely to change their mind after reading a few pages. This is similar to a professional setting, wherein an employee might have a great proposal in mind but the business itself is unable or unwilling to listen to such ideas except in special settings.



When writing an academic argument, it is safe to assume a reasonable and moderately educated readership, but nothing more (and nothing less). That means that a wide variety of viewpoints need to be considered, and also that an overly rude or informal tone or substantially fringe arguments are not appropriate.





Research, Evidence, and Written Arguments Copyright © by jsunderb. All Rights Reserved.

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