Sunday, March 26, 2017

Are Reasoned Arguments Still (Publicly) Useful?

Perhaps not as much as one might assume. Political discussions in particular have become more polarized, even as professionals attempt to do the "hard" thinking on behalf of the average citizen. How much uncertainty regarding long term prosperity, can be traced back to a failure of economics, for instance? One can only wonder.

Even though reasoned arguments can still be found in national discussion, statistics are often expected to perform much of the "heavy lifting". Narratives increasingly fill the role of persuasion as well, even though they are sometimes presented in a biased fashion. Narratives and statistics may substitute for reasoned argument, especially if subject matter becomes so complicated no one has time to take more complex factors of discussion into account.

While in the process of rereading "Thinking Like Your Editor", I was reminded that many serious non fiction writers do not find argumentation as useful, as did previous generations. For instance, Susan Rabiner writes of her younger authors:
...many say they associate argument in writing with a type of discourse long gone out of fashion - the deductively reasoned essay. Argument, I am often told, is what authors from another time employed to win over readers to the validity of their analysis in the absence of data to prove it. As one author put it, today one's data is one's argument.
"Thinking Like Your Editor" is a pure pleasure to read. Even though - speaking as a former bookseller - this writer's guide also serves as an apt reminder, how much our world has already changed. I especially agree with her response to the above author:
Let me put this misconception to rest. While good argument is most effective when built on solid research, a piling on of facts does not an argument make. Absent an intellectual process that carefully marshals and positions these facts in support of a point, even the most thorough accumulation of data will come off as a boring recitation of all the author knows about the subject. 
In fairness to those who still enjoy reading serious nonfiction, there's only so much time to delve into the particulars of fields outside one's main interests. Hence books which rely more on narrative than argument, can tempt readers to sample what they might otherwise pass by. Like statistics, narrative can "persuade" in ways which require fewer demands on a reader's thought processes, than complex reasoning. In one sense, research results serve as a form of shorthand for the informed citizen, who has little remaining time for the more difficult demands of reasoned argument.

Reasoned argument has also suffered, from too many crude applications of the term. How many believe arguments to be little more than personal disagreement with others, for instance? Even so, argument is the best means by which a writer can pull together the various strands of their thought processes into a cohesive whole. Again, from "Thinking Like Your Editor":
Yet argument is more than a set of expository or rhetorical skills. Like art itself, a successful piece of argument communicates somewhat more than it says explicitly. It stimulates readers to think in new ways not only about the author's topic but about other aspects of their lives as well.

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