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Argument Essay: Finding Flaws In An Argument Part I

When we say that someone is “always finding flaws” in another person – we usually mean that in an unflattering way. However, the AWA Argument essay is where you can allow this flaw-finding faculty of yours to shine, if you have it. To write a successful argument essay, you will need to uncover flaws in the author’s reasoning. Our post today will discuss how to do this, and present one fairly fail-safe technique for uncovering such flaws – by looking for slight difference in the premises and conclusion of the argument.

Let’s take a look at a sample Argument essay question, taken from the website, on the test-structure-and-overview page.

The following appeared as part of a campaign to sell advertising time on a local radio station to local businesses: “The Cumquat Café began advertising on our local radio station this year and was delighted to see its business increase by 10 percent over last year’s totals. Their success shows you how you can use radio advertising to make your business more profitable.”
Note that the argument essay question always contains the following directive:

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking, etc.

As the words I highlighted in bold indicates, a typical reasoning flaw is a questionable assumption. Questionable does not mean the assumption is necessarily untrue – all it means is that it is open to question. Another way to think of this is to describe such assumptions as “unstated assumptions,” which may or may not be true. The first task in approaching the Argument essay on the AWA is therefore to break down the argument presented, much in the same way as we would break down the argument in a Critical Reasoning question. We want to discover the premises and the conclusions and then think about the hidden assumptions that in the author’s mind justify the logical leap from premise to conclusion.

In the argument given here as an example we find two premises:

Premise 1:  The Cumquat Café began advertising on our local radio station this year
Premise 2: and was delighted to see its business increase by 10 percent over last year’s totals.
The conclusion is given in the form of a recommendation:
Conclusion: Their success shows you how you can use radio advertising to make your business more profitable.

Now, how might we go about finding a flaw in this argument?

It seems to make sense: one business used radio advertising successfully to increase its profits – so should you!

Upon thinking more carefully, you might say: “Well, we don’t know that advertising was really the cause of the cafe’s success” – that’s a questionable assumption that is folded into Premise 1. It might be that the cafe’s success had other causes (e.g. the introduction of a prize-winning carrot cake into its menu), and the fact that it happened to also invest in radio advertising is mere coincidence. This assumption of a causal connection, where no such connection has been established, is a common flaw type. But you still need to find more than one flaw in order to create two to three paragraphs for your essay. Where can you go from here?

One possible trick for digging deeper into the argument is to look at small nuances and differences between the premises and conclusions. Notice that Premise 1 discusses radio advertising and so does the conclusion. Radio advertising is the common denominator that allows the leap of reasoning from premise to conclusion. But is it really a common denominator? Look again. The premise mentions advertising on our local radio station, while the conclusion speaks generally about radio advertising.

Such a slight difference is something that you can seize upon to develop a counterargument about a possible questionable assumption.  The premise was about local advertising: so even if we assume that the cafe’s success can be attributed to radio advertising, perhaps radio advertising was successful because Qumquat cafe is a modest local business in a close-knit community, where everyone tunes into local radio, and so it was able to benefit from local advertising. But we have no information in the argument telling us that “your business,” mentioned in the conclusion, is analogous to the example described in the first perhaps. Perhaps yours is not a local business, but rather a national, global, or online business that relies on a dispersed clientele. If so, it might not necessarily benefit sufficiently from local or even broader radio advertising. You can take this further: perhaps larger businesses’ success cannot rely solely on a campaign in one medium, but must combine different media and advertising channels.

To test this technique for sussing out flaws, check out the official list of argument essay questions and try it yourself: remember, you are looking for differences in the premises and conclusions. In the case we just analyzed, the premise contained a different word, “local.” When you try your hand at this, also look out for questions in which the conclusion has added words.


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