Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Argument and Evidence Evaluation: A Call for Scholars to Engage Contemporary Public Debates

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Argument and Evidence Evaluation: A Call for Scholars to Engage Contemporary Public Debates

Article excerpt

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. …

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