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8.5: Strategies for Answering Antithetical Arguments

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    It might not seem logical, but directly acknowledging and addressing positions that are different from the one you are holding in your research project can actually make your position stronger.  When you take on the antithesis in your research project, it shows you have thought carefully about the issue at hand and you acknowledge that there is no clear and easy “right” answer.  

    There are many different ways you might incorporate the antithesis into your research project to make your own thesis stronger and to address the concerns of those readers who might oppose your point of view.  For now, focus on three basic strategies:  directly refuting your opposition, weighing your position against the opposition, and making concessions.

    • Directly Refuting Your Opposition.  Perhaps the most obvious approach, one way to address those potential readers who might raise objections to your arguments is to simply refute their objections with better evidence and reasoning.  To answer the argument that the international community should not enact measures to preserve fisheries, demonstrate with your evidence that it has indeed been effective.  Of course, this is an example of yet another reason why it is so important to have good research that supports your position:  when the body of evidence and research is on your side, it is usually a lot easier to make a strong point.  

    Answering antithetical arguments with the research that supports your point of view is also an example of where you as a researcher might need to provide a more detailed evaluation of your evidence.  The sort of questions you should answer about your own research–– who wrote it, where was it published, when was it published, etc.–– are important to raise in countering antithetical arguments that you think come from suspicious sources.  For example, chances are that an article about the problems of more strict drunk driving laws that appears in a trade journal for the restaurant industry is going to betray a self-interested bias.

    Hyperlink: To review the process for evaluating the quality of your research, see Chapter One, “Thinking Critically About Research,” particularly the section called “Evaluating the quality and credibility of your research.”

    • Weighing Your Position Against the Opposition.  Readers who oppose the argument you are trying to support with your research might do so because they value or “weigh” the implications of your working thesis differently than you do.  Those opposed to a working thesis like “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” might think this because they think the advantages of advertising drugs on television—increased sales for pharmaceutical companies, revenue for advertising agencies and television stations, and so forth—are more significant than the disadvantages of advertising drugs on television.  Those who would argue against the working thesis “Tougher gun control laws would be of little help in the fight against teen violence” probably think that the advantage of having fewer guns available to teenagers to use for violence is less important than the disadvantageous effects stronger gun control laws might have on lawful gun owners.

    Besides recognizing and acknowledging the different ways of comparing the advantages and disadvantages suggested by your working thesis, the best way of answering these antithetical arguments in your own writing is to clearly explain how you weigh and compare the evidence.  In other words, even if the readers who oppose your point of view are in some ways correct, the advantages you advocate in your working thesis are much more significant than the disadvantages.  

    For example, a writer might argue that any of the loss of profit to pharmaceutical companies, advertising agencies, and television stations would be a small price to pay for the advantages of banning prescription drug TV ads.  A writer with a working thesis like “Tougher gun control laws would be of little help in the fight against teen violence” might have to defend his arguments against a hostile audience by suggesting that in the long-run, the costs of infringing the right to bear arms and our other liberties would far outweigh the few instances of teen violence that might be stopped with stronger gun control laws.

    • Making Concessions.  In the course of researching and thinking about the antithesis to your working thesis and its potentially hostile audiences, it may become clear to you that these opposing views have a point.  When this is the case, you may want to consider revising your working thesis or your approach to your research to make some concessions to these antithetical arguments.

    Sometimes, student researchers “make concessions” to the point of changing sides on their working thesis—that is, in the process of researching, writing, and thinking about their topic, a research moves from arguing a working thesis like “Most computer hackers are criminals and represent a great risk to Internet security” to one like “Most computer hackers are merely curious computer enthusiasts and can help solve problems with Internet security.”  

    This sort of shift in thought about an issue might seem surprising, but it makes perfect sense when you remember the purpose of research in the first place.  When we study the evidence on a particular issue, we often realize that our initial and uninformed impression or feelings on an issue were simply wrong.  That’s the role of research: we put more trust in opinions based on research than in things based on “gut instinct” or feelings.

    Usually, most concessions to antithetical perspectives on your working thesis are less dramatic and can be accomplished in a variety of ways.  You might want to employ some qualifying terms to “hedge” a bit.  For example, the working thesis “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” might be qualified to “Drug companies should be closely regulated about what they are allowed to advertise in TV.”  The working thesis “The international community should enact strict conservation measures to preserve fisheries and save endangered fish species around the world” might be changed to “The international community should enact stronger conservation measures to preserve fisheries and help endangered fish species around the world.” Both of these are still strong working theses, but they also acknowledge the sort of objections the opposition might have to the original working thesis.

    But be careful in using qualifying terms!  An over-qualified working thesis can be just as bad as a working thesis about something that everyone accepts as true:  it can become so watered-down as to not have any real significance anymore.  For example, theses like “Drug company television advertising is sometimes bad and sometimes good for patients” and “While there are good reasons for enacting stronger conversation measures for protecting endangered fish species, there are also good reasons to not make new conservation laws” are both over-qualified to the point of taking no real position at all.

    Exercise 8.3

    Once you understand the antithetical arguments to your working thesis, how might you answer them?  On a sheet of paper or in a word processing program, create two columns.  In the left column, write a brief summary of as many antithetical arguments as you can, arguments you came up with on your own or from Exercise 6.2.  In the right column, answer each of the antithetical arguments listed in the left, referring to the strategies noted in this section or other fitting approaches.

    But You Still Can’t Convince Everyone…

    If you are using research to convince an audience about something, then you must understand the opposite side of the argument you are trying to make.  That means you need to include antithetical positions in your on-going research, you should think about the opposites and alternatives to the point you are making with your working thesis, you have to imagine your hostile audience as clearly as possible, and you should employ different strategies to answer your hostile audiences’ objections.  

    But even after all this, you still can’t convince everyone that you’re “right.”  You probably already know this.  We have all been in conversations with friends or family members where, as certain as we were that we were right about something and as hard as we tried to prove we were right, our friends or family were simply unwilling to budge from their positions.  When we find ourselves in these sorts of deadlocks, we often try to smooth over the dispute with phrases like “You’re entitled to your opinion” or “We will have to agree to disagree” and then we change the subject.  In polite conversation, this is a good strategy to avoid a fight.  But in academic contexts, these deadlocks can be frustrating and difficult to negotiate.

    A couple of thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher and rhetorician Aristotle said that all of us respond to arguments based on three basic characteristics or appeals: logos or logic, pathos or emotional character, and ethos, the writer’s or speaker’s perceived character.  Academic writing tends to rely most heavily on logos and ethos because academics tend to highly value arguments based on logical research and arguments that come from writers with strong “character-building” qualifications—things like education, experience, previous publications, and the like.  But it’s important to remember that pathos is always there, and particularly strong emotions or feelings on a subject can obscure the best research.

    Most academic readers have respect for writers when they successfully argue for positions that they might not necessarily agree with.  Along these lines, most college writing instructors can certainly respect and give a positive evaluation to a piece of writing they don’t completely agree with as long as it uses sound logic and evidence to support its points.  However, all readers—students, instructors, and everyone else—come to your research project with various preconceptions about the point you are trying to make.  Some of them will already agree with you and won’t need much convincing.  Some of them will never completely  agree with you, but will be open to your argument to a point.  And some of your readers, because of the nature of the point you are trying to make and their own feelings and thoughts on the matter, will never agree with you, no matter what research evidence you present or what arguments you make.  So, while you need to consider the antithetical arguments to your thesis in your research project to convince as many members of your audience as possible that the point you are trying to make is correct, you should remember that you will likely not convince all of your readers all of the time.

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