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Confusing Claims

We hope you now have a better grasp of different types of claims that might be advanced in an argument. As we noted earlier, being able to distinguish between factual, value, policy, and definitional claims can help you avoid problems. By way of example, a common error involves confusing factual claims (what is the case) with policy claims (what should be the case). Consider the following exchange:

Mona: “I think handguns should be banned in all 50 states.”

Zach: “That’ll never happen.”

Mona: “I didn’t say it would happen, I said it should. Guns kill almost 10,000 people per year in the U.S., compared with about 40 gun deaths per year in England.”

In this example, Zach has committed what is known as a should/would fallacy by responding to a policy claim (“I think handguns should be banned in all 50 states”) as if it were a factual claim (“Handguns will be banned in all 50 states”). Had Zach recognized that Mona’s argument was based on a policy claim, he could have countered her argument more effectively. He could have argued, for example, that Chicago has some of the toughest gun laws in the U.S., and it also has one of the highest murder rates.

Another common mistake involves confusing a factual claim with a value or judgment claim. Consider the dialogue below:

Betty: “Abortion is murder, plain and simple, because human life begins at the moment of conception.”

Roy: “How do you know when human life begins? And what do you define as human life?”

Betty: “If a fetus is human, and it’s alive, then it’s a living human being. It’s just an earlier stage

of human life.”

Roy: “But there isn’t a fetus at the moment of conception. There is a one-celled zygote. Cell

division and cell specialization haven’t occurred. There is no brain, no heart, no central nervous system. There isn’t a person.”

Betty: “A. zygote already has its own unique DNA. All the ingredients necessary for human life are present in a zygote.”

Roy: “The necessary ingredients may be present, but they aren’t sufficient to guarantee

human life. The zygote has to form an embryo, and the embryo has to attach itself to the uterine wall before there is a fetus. And the fetus still wouldn’t possess conscious awareness.”

Betty: “Those are all stages of human life, just as childhood or adolescence are stages of human life. As for awareness, an infant lacks the cognitive development of an adult, but it is no less human.”

In this example, both Roy and Betty are arguing as if they are stating facts, but a decision about when human life begins is a matter of judgment. The judgment may be based on facts, but the interpretation of those facts requires judgment. Accordingly, to make coherent arguments or refute others’ arguments, one must respond to the specific type of claim being made.

Proof: The Grounds for Arguments

Now that you understand what claims are, let’s examine the second part of an argument: grounds. A helpful way to understand the relationship between claims and grounds is to think about a house and its foundation. Specifically, in the same way that a house needs a solid foundation, a claim requires solid support. When someone asks you, “What’s your proof?” or “Who says?” or “How do you know?” the person is asking about grounds or support for the claim you are making. Grounds, then, are synonymous with proof. If you find yourself presenting an argument, there are a number of ways you might prove your claim (see Hitchcock, 2005). You might, for example, use studies, reports, eyewitness accounts, facts and figures, expert opinion, nonverbal cues, controlled experiments, physical evidence or other artifacts to prove your case. In addition, demonstrations or your own personal experience can function as proof, as well as examples drawn from others’ experiences. Importantly, premises that have previously been accepted by your target audience can also serve as grounds. For instance, if your audience agrees that chess is a sport, you might convince them that chess should be in the Olympics too. Don’t laugh. Did you know that the Olympics used to award medals for painting, literature, and music?

As noted in Chapter 3, grounds, like claims, can often be spotted using “clue words.” Specifically, grounds often follow words such as “because,” “since,” “according to . . .” “given that ...” and “based on . . ..” Of course, if you are unsure about another person’s grounds you can always ask the person, “Why do you think so?” or “And you know this how?” or “Got any evidence to back that up?”

Multi-Grounded Arguments

It also bears repeating that some arguments contain multiple grounds. Imagine, for a moment, that Sonia and Gigi are roommates. Sonia has been out on a string of bad dates. They have the following conversation:

Sonia: “My last dinner date was a disaster. The guy was wearing a fanny pack, talked about his old girlfriend, ate food off my plate without asking, and both of his credit cards were declined.”

Gigi: “No way!”

Sonia: “Guess who paid? Not Mr. Overdrawn.”

Gigi: “You should try an online dating service. You’ll have a bigger selection of guys, you

can screen out losers without having to meet them face to face, and it’s a lot safer.”

Notice that Sonia provided four different reasons why her last dinner date was a nightmare (i.e., the fanny pack, the topic of conversation, food pilfering, and the overdrawn credit cards). Likewise, Gigi provided three different grounds to support her recommendation that Sonia try an online dating service (i.e., more choices, pre-screening, and safety). Clearly, arguers often have more than one reason for advocating a claim.

Have You Got a Warrant?

With a firm grasp of claims and grounds behind us, let’s now examine the third part of an argument: the warrant. To help understand what a warrant is and does, consider an example from the world of law enforcement. Specifically, in the same way that a search warrant gives police the right to search a person’s residence, providing authorization to cross the threshold from door to domicile, you might think of the warrant in an argument as authorizing the inferential leap that listeners make when connecting the claim to the grounds. A similar thing happens in the world of humor. For example, when the comedian Tim Vine says “Velcro . . . what a rip off!”—you need to know that Velcro makes a ripping sound. Otherwise, you won’t get his joke. In a nutshell, then, understanding an argument “entails a cognitive process of moving from the grounds to the claim (Brockriede & Ehninger, 1960, p. 44). It takes some time, even if it is milliseconds, to grasp the warrant. A person hears an argument, the brain starts whirring, then the person thinks “Oh ... I get it.”

Of course, when making arguments, an arguer can state the warrant explicitly, in which case the listener doesn’t have to connect the dots. In most cases, however, warrants are unstated (Brockriede & Ehninger, 1960). To make sense, they must be implicitly understood by the recipient of an argument. That is, the receiver must decipher the connection between the grounds and the claim. Interestingly, people are better at understanding warrants than they are at articulating them. What’s more, an argument often “sounds” like a good one, or a bad one, even if a person can’t clearly identify the warrant. This suggests that making sense of arguments occurs at a “deep” level of consciousness. It also suggests that people are innately rational, but not strictly logical in their thinking.

Deciphering Warrants

Of the three basic elements of an argument, the warrant is the most difficult to identify. Claims and grounds, as we’ve seen, can be spotted by looking for clue words. In contrast, because warrants are usually unstated, they lack these linguistic markers or “clue words” (Keith & Beard, 2008). As such, the implicit nature of warrants often leads to confusion in everyday arguments. If you can’t grasp the warrant, you might be left saying, “Huh? I don’t get it.” Imagine, for example, that someone told you, “The Boswells probably believe in ghosts because they drive a hybrid car.” If you’re like us, you’d be left scratching your head. In contrast, consider the statement, “The Boswells must be environmentally conscious because they drive a hybrid car.” In this case, you would have no trouble making the connection.

A receiver might fail to grasp the inferential leap for a variety of reasons. To name a few, the warrant might be based on a value assumption that the receiver does not share, a belief the receiver does not hold, or a cultural norm about which the receiver is unaware. In China, for example, belching can indicate an appreciation for good food. If you didn’t know that, however, imagine what you’d think if a Chinese person told you, “Zhang is a wonderful guest. He burped at the dinner table.” For these reasons and others, it is not uncommon for a listener to draw the wrong inference by making a different connection than the one that the arguer intended. The following exchange illustrates this problem.

Mabel: “Our town recently added a dozen more police officers and reports of breaking and entering increased by 50 percent.”

Chuck: “Wow, so the new cops are committing a lot of burglaries.”

Mabel: “No, citizens are more willing to report break-ins because they believe the police will be able to do something about it.”

Chuck: “Or maybe your town hired a lot of bad cops.”

The recipient of an argument needn’t agree with the warrant in order to make sense of it, but a person must be able to make sense of another’s warrant to disagree effectively.

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