Argument and evidence evaluation: a call for scholars to engage contemporary public debates.

Author:Bruschke, Jon

There is much that can and has been said to criticize the content of, rancor in, and access to public debate in modern U.S. democracy. But without a doubt it is clear that argument flourishes within the system. Several of these arguments are of great consequence, and even some of the less-well publicized arguments are of tremendous importance to the disputants involved. Given the prevalence and salience of public argument, it is unusual that argument scholars are so rarely engaged in civic debates. It is also surprising that they are so rarely sought out for comment. Health care experts routinely comment on health care debates, and forensics specialists appear in the courtrooms to comment on trial evidence. Except for the occasional debate coach or rhetorician who assesses a presidential debate for some media outlet, argument scholars very rarely find themselves in the thick of public dialogue.

If the reason for this strange silence is that the public at large has simply failed to turn to the field of argumentation for its guidance, this situation might be viewed as unfortunate but essentially a question of public relations. But I fear that the true cause of the silence is, in fact, theoretical and (more directly) teleological, and the reason that scholars of argument so rarely engage the public debates of our time is that our self-selected purpose does not equip us to do so. It is not the case that our journals are filled with poignant articles discussing the proven and unproven points of significant debates that are being ignored by the larger body politic. It is, instead, the case that our journals lack such contributions.

This essay maintains that elevating the attention given to evidence can remedy this shortcoming. Three central questions are pursued. First, what are "real" arguments like, and what role does evidence play in them? Second, why do our current theories seem to turn the field of argument away from tackling questions of evidence and evidence quality as they arise in public debates? Third, what teleological directions can our area of study take that would better allow us to engage our object of study? The thesis of this essay is that evaluating evidence should be a core task for argument scholars.


Traditional studies of formal deductive logic have been well-flayed by the now vast number of approaches that locate argumentation as a practical exercise. A core objection is that the formalist schemes do not seem to speak to the arguments that interlocutors typically face. Ralph Johnson's (2000) excellent work is subtitled "A Pragmatic Theory of Argument," and his history of the field identifies no shortage of thinkers seeking to direct focus away from artificial examples in textbooks and toward "argumentation in ordinary and natural contexts" (p. 122). Johnson notes Govier's various terms for this place of argument: "'naturally occurring arguments,' 'natural argumentation,' 'real arguments.' Others have used phrases such as 'mundane argument' or 'everyday argument'" (p. 92). Ryle's term is "full blooded" argument (as cited in Johnson, 2000, p. 116). My purpose here is not to recount all the authors moving in this direction but simply to note the descriptors that have been applied to the sort of arguments that occur in North American democracy.

What are these natural, full-blooded exchanges like? There are two characteristics of interest here. First, they operate in a manner both controlled and chaotic. A fractal analogy is apt; there are easily recognizable micro-structures that still produce massively unpredictable overall forms. Second, and remarkably, they proceed with a mutual commitment to rationality and evidence use despite the many and profound disagreements between the arguers.

The first central characteristic of natural argument is that the content and structure is widely varied and indivisibly mixed. Individual premises are certainly advanced, but these almost always occur as part of a much larger superstructure. That larger context almost invariably involves questions of fact, value, and policy, all together and at once. The warrants for these premises are sometimes inductive, sometimes deductive, may sometimes be called conductive (Wellman, 1971), or might even be something else. But more striking than the names of the super- and sub-structural elements is the point that even careful scholars trying to apply schemes of structure find that each argument, while it will retain elements of structure, uses a unique structure that is never fully separate from existing structural schemes but is neither fully captured by them (Newman & Marshall, n.d.). As but one poignant example, what is a claim and what are grounds is impossibly blurred (Bruschke, 2004) and often dependent on context. Actual arguments also tend to be episodic; in a presidential election, for example, they play out over several discursive exchanges at different times, such as various debates, town hall meetings, political advertisements, and partisan rallies. This episodic nature means that the audiences can vary over time and even within encounters.

Quickly consider a full-blooded debate about troop withdrawal from Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. Many individual points (what might be called premises) might be advanced: Al Qaeda did or did not have a presence before the United States overthrew Hussein; the Iraqi populace might or might not consider themselves better off after the overthrow; the civilian casualties might be higher or lower than officially reported; the abuses by U.S. troops at places like Abu Ghraib might or might not be typical. Each fact (the majority of Iraqis want the U.S. out) immediately invokes values (we shouldn't stay where we're not wanted) and policies (we should announce a timetable for withdrawal). This is not to impose an order of facts to values to policies. Each policy suggestion invokes values and implies a list of factual questions to be answered. Similarly, each value statement implies policy actions to be taken and presumes the truth of certain factual items. What the central premise of any dispute is may not be evident even to an individual arguer, and argumentative opponents are certainly unlikely to agree on what the central issues are. Some might view an issue as essentially one of morality. Others might see it as an issue of global order. Some could see a cultural clash. Broad thinkers could view the conflict as the inevitable consequence of a military-industrial complex, and still others would see it as a much more limited question of military security. And this list hardly scratches the surface of possibilities.

All of this means that identifying a central structure to the argument is all but impossible. If even the central premise cannot be located, figuring out how to place the supporting claims is elusive. Even if the central premise(s) and supporting claims were clearly understood, parsing out the connections between the remaining points would be hard. But this does not render structural inquiry moot. The arguments unfold the same way a dischordant jazz piece with shifting time signatures might; never separate from structure, but equally undisciplined by it.

The second characteristic of full-blooded arguments is that they proceed with a mutual commitment to rationality, even when arguers vehemently disagree on what conclusions rationality and evidence sustain and even when arguments are issued from the most extreme of sources. Although it is not uncommon for arguers to believe that only their own position has merit and that of their opponents is utterly unsubstantiated, in virtually all debates both sides will still agree that a careful consideration of evidence is the best way to make a decision. Because each side believes that evidence and reason will bear their position out and refute that of others, they implicitly adopt what has been called a C-R-C model of argument: claims connected to reasons (see Willard, 1989). One can read the Peace and Freedom party website (n.d.), "committed to socialism, democracy, ecology, feminism and racial equality," alongside the horrifying website, sponsored by the hate group White Pride World Wide, and find little difference in their commitment to the use of evidence. The Peace and Freedom group will argue, for example, that the war on drugs is counterproductive and offer evidence and reasons in full confidence that evidence and reason will bear out their position. The discussion board is littered with defenses of Hitler and aspersions cast at Martin Luther King Jr., similarly convinced that a full consideration of the historical record will exonerate their (dangerous and errant) conclusions.

These examples are chosen, of course, for their polarity. The point is not that their conclusions are equally worthy, nor that good argument scholarship should base its principles on extreme forms of argument. But the examples do demonstrate that even the least popular arguments from the least typical (and even least laudable) groups still share a commitment to reason and the use of evidence. It is striking that these principles are so firmly held that never are they even called into question. Evidence is no less central than reason.

This is not to say that arguers never engage in dirty tricks, or assert things that are factually false, or that disputants never lie. They do. But it is almost never the case that arguers believe that they are in fact wrong and that their ultimate position is without merit. Even though a given group might advance an idea that is persuasive but specious, they generally do so with the belief that they are willing to sacrifice individual means for desirable ends; that is, they are so convinced of the value of their ultimate position they view it as a small sin to advance less-than-laudable arguments as a means to their ultimate goal...

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