Audio Version (September 2021):
Why look for strengths if the argument is flawed?
Often in assessing an argument we focus first on the negative as we test the argument for flaws. If we do not uncover any weaknesses as we review the argument’s logical structure, use of evidence, and handling of counterarguments, then we can naturally describe those as strengths.
However, even if we do find weaknesses, it’s important to recognize any contributions as well. Doing so will show readers that our assessment is fair-minded. An assessment can be precise about what holds up to scrutiny and what doesn’t. Even if the argument is fatally flawed, it may still contain some valuable insight or move the conversation forward in another way. We might conclude that an argument is not valid, but still see ways in which this argument can help us get closer to the truth on a particular topic. At the very least, if we see nothing redeeming in the article itself, we can pull a lesson or an insight out of our own experience of assessing it.
The following sections outline some ways we can point to strengths in an argument.
Praise part of the argument
After we zero in on the weakness, we can highlight whatever parts of the argument proved to be sound. If we are assessing an argument that is developed over the course of one or more pages, there will be many related claims and reasons. The reasoning in one section might be valid even if the next point has us wincing or wanting to rant.
Often, inductive arguments might present evidence that is suggestive, intriguing or compelling even if it does not leave us completely convinced of the conclusions the authors draw. For example, an assessment of an argument about UFOs might conclude, “Although X’s speculation that UFOs have abducted people seems unjustified given the scant data, their factual recounting of the details of two credible sightings of UFOs does convince us that they are probably real.”
Here are some sample phrases for praising a subsection of an argument:
Although the argument does not succeed in proving that _____________, it does help us understand _____________.
Though the evidence X presents does not prove _____________, it does provide rich material for further discussion.
X’s conclusion that _____________ doesn’t seem fully justified, but the evidence does show that _____________.
X makes an important point when they note that _____________.
X’s insight into _____________ sheds new light on _____________.
X clearly outlines the problem of _____________, even though their solution leaves much to be desired.
This piece does clarify the nature of _____________ even though it does not _____________.
Praise the argument for bringing attention to an issue
Sometimes we see value not in the content of the argument but in the focus it brings to a topic. Perhaps the argument shows why something is urgent or relevant. For example, let’s imagine we want to assess a proposal for a law that stops mentally ill people from buying guns. It might say, “This proposal draws attention to the terrifying consequences of the lack of social support for people with mental illness. Yet the decision to focus gun control legislation on this population only stigmatizes it further.”
We can praise an argument for drawing attention to something with phrases like these:
X brings much-needed attention to the issue of _____________, which is helpful because_____________.
The essay drives home the need for more focus on _____________.
This piece highlights the urgent situation of _____________.
Praise the argument for framing an issue in a useful way
Sometimes an argument’s value lies in its particular approach to an issue. We may not agree with all of the reasoning but may feel that the argument frames its topic in a useful way. A fresh way to think about something could lead to other insights in other arguments.
For example, here is an assessment of a book about nurse practitioners that focuses on how an argument approaches its subject:
In her book More than Medicine: Nurse Practitioners and the Problems They Solve for Patients, Health Care Organizations, and the State, sociologist LaTonya Trotter argues that nurse practitioners often help patients with problems that are not medical at all. Her great contribution to the study of this profession is to frame nurse practitioners not as substitute doctors but as first responders to the crisis of poverty.
We can praise the framing of an argument with phrases like the following:
X’s discussion of _____________ provides a new way to think about _____________.
The argument’s biggest contribution lies in its framing of _____________ as _____________.
Praise it for raising an important question
Sometimes an argument points toward something worth considering even if it doesn’t convince us completely. It may raise an important question for further discussion or study. For example, let’s take this sentence from an assessment of a book about America’s mental health crisis: “Sheila Chin asks a crucial question: how can doctors and therapists collaborate to learn more about the links between physical and mental health?”
Here are some ways to praise an argument for pointing out a question:
X’s focus on _____________ helps clarify an important question for further exploration: _____________?
The argument points toward the need for further study of _____________ to determine _____________.
X’s analysis reveals the gaps in our understanding of _____________.
Praise it for clarifying a position
Even if we find the reasoning flawed, we may want to give the argument some credit for articulating that reasoning. Laying out the reasons and evidence for a claim at least facilitates critical thinking about the topic. It may lay bare the underpinnings of a common belief and enable more substantive discussion of that belief.
For example, let’s take this excerpt from a review of a Heritage Foundation article by Ryan T. Anderson entitled, “Transgender Ideology Is Riddled With Contradictions. Here Are the Big Ones”:
Anderson’s attack on transgender identity does clearly represent the reasoning of those who object to recognizing transgender identity. Thus, it provides opportunities for transgender activitsts to clarify their own positions and correct common misconceptions.
We can praise an argument for clarity with phrases like the following:
- This piece clearly articulates the case that _____________.
- The argument lays bare the assumptions on which the whole case for _____________ is based.
- X has clarified the reasoning that underpins the common opinion that _____________.
Pick an argument you disagree with. It might be one you have recently read for class or an argument you commonly hear in everyday life. Describe a strength you can genuinely appreciate in it. How does this flawed argument help to move the conversation on the topic forward?