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7.5 Resisting denial

Some truths are not pleasant to contemplate. They may make us feel uncomfortable, threaten our view of ourselves or even our way of life.

When such truths surface, so do arguments that seek to deny them. We convince ourselves a departed loved one is coming back, or must be waiting for us in another realm; perhaps we believe human cruelty on the scale of the Holocaust could not be real, and allow ourselves to be persuaded by denials; some cannot tolerate the idea of a black US President, and turn to the belief that he must be a secret Islamist, a Communist, a non-American and so on. Even when the factual evidence is overwhelming, there are often some that will construct arguments to rebut inconvenient truths.

In the following short essay, the author constructs what looks like a powerful denial of global warming. Try to use all the tips and tricks that we’ve covered since post 1 to see holes in the argument. We don’t need to add any other ideas or look for competing data; the most effective way to resist denials is to tackle the denier on their own terms, and to show how and why their argument does not add up to the conclusion they think it does.

Exercise 7.5: Read the following passage and see if you can answer the questions.

Despite the fact that the Earth’s atmosphere has been cooling since 1979, environmentalists, anti-industrialists and other luddites who would happily see the economy cruise into recession continue to insist that global warming is a survival-threatening challenge to the human race. Whatismore, they insist, it’s a man-made problem and therefore only a man-made solution will save us. ‘Stop burning fossil fuels and break out the windmills’, they cry. Meanwhile, using a brush instead of a hoover and cramming your neighbours into your car every time you want to take a ride downtown seem to be the only ethically correct things to do. But before you trade in the electric mower for a grass-munching Dolly-the-sheep, let’s just look at the evidence.

In the first place, the computer climate models that predict global warming are poorly designed. There are many factors that the models are unable to simulate, including the role of sea ice, snowcaps, local storms (like Hurricane Katrina), and agricultural feedback loops. Secondly, 70% of this century’s warming occurred in the early part of the century, long before the large-scale carbon emissions of modern industry were produced. Therefore, it seems unlikely that modern industrial output is somehow to blame for global warming. In addition, it is a largely ignored fact that fossil-fuel burning not only generates greenhouse gases, but also produces cooling gases such as SO2.

Still, if the weight of scientific evidence is not enough to put an end to the nonsense of the ‘man is causing global warming’ hypothesis, perhaps we should take a longer look at history. Long before man came about, the Earth was experiencing periodic changes in its climate: warm periods and ice ages are all part of the natural cycle, and man’s tiny activities will make little difference one way or another. If the planet is getting hotter, and we’re still not sure that it is, the causes are likely to be far larger than our day-to-day activities. Dolly might provide a nice new pet for the children, but substituting her for your lawnmower is not going to change a thing.

1. What is the main claim of the text (be specific)?


2. What are the premises that support this claim?

i. _____________________________________________

ii. ____________________________________________

iii. ___________________________________________

iv. ___________________________________________

Why is this a bad argument? (remember, you only need to examine the premises for what the argument itself says; do not bring in other information or facts to support a counter-argument).




When you are ready, check out the answer and explanation here, or continue reading

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7.1 Resisting statistics

The argument in the following exercise looks fairly straightforward at first blush, but statistical data should always be treated with caution. Try to analyse the argument in terms of its claim and premises. Does all the information add up to the conclusion, or is there reason to think the conclusion should be doubted?

Exercise 7.1

Living in the US makes you fat.* A team at Northwestern University in Chicago investigated whether there were changes in the waistlines of immigrants, most of whom come from countries with lower rates of obesity than the US, after moving to one of the world’s fattest countries. The team pulled data from the 2000 National Health Interview Survey, which is based on detailed interviews with 32,374 adult US residents. The Northwestern team found that after a year or less in the US, only 8 per cent of immigrants were obese. But after 15 years of American life, the figure rose to 19 percent – approaching the 22 per cent of US-born survey respondents who were obese. The 15-year link with obesity held for immigrant whites, Latinos and Asians, but not for foreign-born blacks. Significant weight gain did not appear until immigrants had lived in the US for at least 10 years. The team says this threshold may reflect how long it takes new residents to adopt the high-calorie diet and sedentary lifestyle that can make US-born Americans so large.

Type of argument: _________________________________________
Claim: _________________________________________________________

It is a good / bad argument because __________________________________

*This text has been adapted for non-commercial, educational purposes from here.

When you are ready, check out the answer here, or continue reading

7. Resisting persuasion

Analysing the validity of deductive arguments can be very useful. However, arguments can take many forms. We have seen three already: deductive, inductive, and argument from authority. Moreover, any given text often combines two or more forms of argument, and it is important to be aware of the competing demands mixed arguments make on the critical reader. The very best persuasive writers try to pummel their readers into submission with simultaneous assaults on several levels. The good critical reader needs to pull the different strategies apart and weigh them individually, resisting the temptation to be convinced by nothing other than sheer weight and variety of the assault.

As we have said, a claim that depends entirely on an argument from authority should be treated with caution, since you cannot weigh the argument yourself, you have to trust the authority. Moreover, whether the premises support the claim or not is more difficult with inductive arguments. Deciding whether an inductive argument supports the claim is a skill that you can only acquire with practice. It requires, amongst other things, the ability to imagine other possible explanations that would account for the evidence equally as well as the claim being offered.

In this post and the ones that will shortly follow, you will find a mixture of inductive, deductive and arguments from authority from a variety of sources, not just purely philosophical ones. Consider each carefully, and try to answer the questions. Here’s is the first. Study the answer key and explanatory notes before moving on to the next argument.

For the argument presented below, say what type of argument it is (deductive, inductive, argument from authority or a combination) and identify the claim. Then say WHY you think the premises either support or do not support the conclusion.

Exercise 7

Pythagoras proved that the squares on the two sides of a right-angled triangle are equal to the square on the hypotenuse. This can be seen by considering the figure below.

Square 1 and square 2 contain four triangles altogether. The large square 3 (top right), is the square on the hypotenuse c. It is the same size as the large square 4 (bottom left), which also contains four triangles. Therefore, the square on the hypotenuse c, is equal to the squares of the other two sides, a and b. Pythagoras sums this up in his famous equation, a2 + b2 = c2.

Type of argument: ___________________________________________
Claim: ________________________________________________________

It is a good/bad argument because _____________________________

When you’re done, you can check the surprising answer here. 🙂

Alternatively, continue reading the book…

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