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What makes strong evidence in an argument?

What Makes a Piece of Evidence Compelling

Sometimes as writers (and readers) of fiction and nonfiction, we’ve to ask ourselves what makes a piece of evidence persuasive. Evidence is a magical part of any debate. It can end or contradict a dispute or argument and be used against the same information, depending on how it is presented. In law enforcement, it must be relevant, reliable, and trustworthy. Plausibility and simplicity, along with other factors, contribute to people actually believing a piece of evidence. This article takes a broad approach because the worlds of nonfiction and fiction can help each other more than you think!

Contents show

Compelling Evidence Is Evidence You Can’t Put Down Because It Looks Like the Truth

A compelling piece of evidence that looks like the truth. This type of evidence isn’t only true, but also believable. It’s important to use strong evidence when writing an argument because it helps convince readers of your point of view.

By the way, this applies to both nonfiction and fiction.

If you’ve trouble finding convincing evidence, think about what evidence would make you believe in something yourself.

Write down a list of 3-5 pieces of information that would most convince you if you were reading your own text. For example, if I believed nothing else about a particular topic, these are the things I’d want to see:

  • A statement from a respected person or organization that’s studied the topic and come to conclusions based on their research
  • Facts and statistics that support the original statement
  • Evidence from someone who’s been personally affected by the problem

Compelling evidence is important because it helps convince people to see things the way you see them (or the way your character or plot does).

You don’t want your audience to feel like you’re trying to convince them of something. Instead, you want them to feel like they came up with the idea themselves – and if you give them convincing evidence, they’ll be more likely to do so!

What’s a Compelling Argument?

A persuasive argument is an argument that makes a case for something and explains why it’s true.

When you write, you want to make a persuasive argument so that your reader will be convinced of your main point. The more interested and engaged your reader is, the more likely they’re to respond positively to what you’ve written.

  • A persuasive argument has many parts that give it power:
  • A strong assumption or thesis statement.
  • A logical flow of ideas.
  • Evidence to support the points.
  • A clear conclusion is based on the evidence and arguments presented in the body of the argument.

But credibility doesn’t come from a single piece of insightful evidence. Instead, it’s a compelling narrative that cuts through the fog of assumptions, logic, and facts to evoke strong emotional responses.

So where can you find examples of persuasive arguments? You can look online for examples in magazines like The Atlantic or Slate. Or you can search for academic essays on sites like JSTOR or Google Scholar to find more scholarly examples.

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Whether you’re reading about politics, science, or literature, try to pay attention to why some arguments are memorable and others are forgettable.

What’s a Good Example of Compelling Evidence?

Compelling evidence is persuasive evidence that helps make an argument more convincing.

Compelling evidence might be:

  • What a witness saw or experienced firsthand. Get their testimony.
  • Trace evidence, small but important clues left at the scene of a crime
  • Experimental evidence from a scientific experiment or study
  • Contextual evidence from historical events that informs or supports the current discussion
  • Statistical evidence from collected data about a specific event or situation

For example, imagine writing an essay about why you think the city council should build a new park in your city. You might cite the fact that a neighboring city already has a park that’s heavily used on summer weekends as evidence to support your argument.

In a detective story, a key witness might show up who saw the murderer hide the knife he used to commit the crime.

If someone filmed himself committing a crime and left the video on his computer for the police to find when they came looking for him, that would be compelling evidence of his guilt!

Or if someone was given money by a kidnapper who asked them to deliver a ransom note, but they refused and called the police instead, that would also be compelling evidence of a kidnapping.

Use Citations to Strengthen Your Argument

Using citations to support your claims isn’t only an important part of academic writing, but a must. Citing sources that support your argument is an important part of good research, and is a standard practice among professional researchers.

The first thing you should remember is that citations should always be used to support assertions. Assertions are statements you make that need to be substantiated. They aren’t proven facts (although they may be at some point, as we’ll explain in a moment).

Here’s an example of an assertion: “Coffee isn’t only a great way to wake up in the morning, it also has incredible health benefits.”

  • Next, check to see how trustworthy the source is.
  • Does it come from a reputable publication?
  • Does it come from a place with a scientific approach?
  • Have you read the entire source and made sure it doesn’t contain any factual errors?
  • Did you check to see if other credible sources reference or support this information?

Only after you’ve confirmed all of these factors are you allowed to claim something as a fact: “Coffee isn’t only a great way to wake up in the morning (source), but it also has incredible health benefits (source).”

However, it’s also important to know that citation doesn’t work the same way for all types of texts because different publications and audiences expect different forms of citation.

How to Use Quotations in Your Writing

Using quotes in your writing is a great way to engage with the text and provide concrete evidence for your main argument, but there are some rules you should follow.

  • Quotes should be short and to the point. If you use a phrase multiple times in a paragraph, it may be a sign that the quote is too long. Paraphrase instead!
  • Avoid using too many quotes in one paragraph. Use quotations to support specific points you make in the text, not to make the whole text work for you.
  • Put quotation marks (” “) around direct quotes from the text.
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Use Paraphrasing to Strengthen An Argument

In paraphrasing, you take another person’s ideas and insert them into your own words.

Good paraphrasing is an important research and writing skill. You need it when you want to show that you understand another person’s point of view, or when you want to make your point but don’t want to use a direct quote.

When you make your argument in someone else’s words, it doesn’t necessarily give the reader the sense that you understand and agree with the evidence.

By paraphrasing, you show that you can take information from one place and make sense of it in your own text. It also shows that you’ve read and understood the material well enough to reproduce it in your own words.

Any Time You Write It’s Important to Have Strong, Credible Evidence

As we learned above, your goal is to convince your readers that your position is the right one. This is especially true in creative writing; as the old adage goes ‘things need to make sense!’

In nonfiction, you need to provide clear and convincing evidence (or reasons) that support your thesis.

For example, if you’re writing an essay against the large-scale hunting of whales, you need evidence that shows why whale hunting is harmful or wrong. You can’t just state a fact like “whale hunting is bad because it kills whales.” You need to make sure that your arguments convince people who may not know or even disagree with you.

Applying this methodology to social media posts will have awesome results, by the way; you’ll stand out by the difference in your standards of evidence!

In fiction, you also need to keep track of the chains of evidence in your plot. Otherwise, the reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ may collapse because the holes in the plot become very obvious!

Compelling Evidence Can Be Hidden

When someone is investigating a crime, it’s their job to look at all the evidence and figure out what happened. This can be a bit difficult because criminals often try to throw investigators off by altering the evidence or hiding it.

If they do this well enough, investigators may not even realize there was a crime!

One way to add suspense to a fictional story is to have strong, believable evidence that’s hidden or hard to find. For example, if you’re writing about a murder case, you could use evidence from a witness that was hidden in past call records to show a pattern of behavior.

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The police can’t find that evidence if the person doesn’t cooperate. And that means you’ve to find them first. And provide a compelling reason, as the author, for why they are hiding!

By Author Paul Jenkins

Posted on April 8, 2022

Eight Types of Evidence – Strengths and Weaknesses

Overview: The ability to distinguish sources of evidence allows students to better evaluate and generate information in support of arguments.

Evidence is a huge component of reasoning and argument. Understanding how evidence works and how it might be questioned, probed, or attacked, significantly boosts students’ reasoning ability. The following material offers a vocabulary that can operate as a toolkit for use on any task that requires analysis or generation of evidence.

1. Personal Experience – It happened to you. You know what bronchitis feels like because you had it last year, and it was terrible.

Strengths – Emotionally intense and relevant, collected by your very own senses.

Weaknesses – The way you interpret your own experiences is very personal and based on your own expectations and biases. Also, your senses have all sorts of flaws, as does your memory. You remember events and moments that are bizarre, intense, or otherwise of interest to you, which is a small sliver of the world around you.

2. Personal Observation – You saw or measured the event. You haven’t had a migraine, but your mom gets them and you have witnessed how painful and awful they can be.

Strengths – Collected by the senses, scientific measurement techniques can carefully and cleverly isolate the information you are seeking.

Weaknesses – The same as Personal Experience, scientific measurements can be corrupted by factors you didn’t anticipate.

3. Testimonial – The experience or observation of someone else; a witness. My friend saw a guy with pink eye yesterday. He said it was pretty gross.

Strengths – They were there, emotional weight of hearing someone’s story or claim. We want to believe one another because lying is so dangerous to our social fabric.

Weaknesses – The person might be mistaken (see weaknesses of Personal Experience), lying, or leaving out important details.

4. Appeal to Authority – The experience or observations of a learned and/or respected person; an expert. My brother is a doctor and treated a guy with a broken arm. He told me that broken bones don’t always hurt as much as you would expect.

Strengths – This person presumably has a lot of access to information, a depth of experience, and a professional reputation on the line.

Weaknesses – Same as Testimonial, the person’s expertise could be based on a depth of experience in field separate from the one we’re dealing with. (See Appeal to Questionable Authority Fallacy).

5. Case Examples – Historical, literary, or other recorded examples. They could be the statements of witnesses or experts, or they could be more general events that we cite to support our claim. War is terrible for soldiers on the ground. You can read all about it in many Civil War diaries.

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Strengths – Same data available to everyone, you can carefully seek out and find examples that support your claim (see Confirmation Bias), emotional weight of vivid examples.

Weaknesses – Examples might be isolated and/or unrepresentative of “normal” experience (see Hasty Generalization).

6. Research Studies – Large sample of carefully gathered information scrutinized with statistical tools and peer-reviewed by other experts.

Strengths – Large samples protect against Hasty Generalizations, the same data is available to everyone.

Weaknesses – There is a long list of potential pitfalls to good research. They include poor design, poor data gathering, and poor data analysis. There are conflicting studies which cite different parts of the same data, and there are weak studies published to push a political agenda.

7. Analogy – Citing a similar circumstance; if it worked in that ugly situation, it will work in this ugly situation. If cigarettes give mice cancer, they probably give humans cancer.

Strengths – Much of life follows general rules; if something works in one place, there’s a pretty good chance it will work in another place.

Weaknesses – Places can be different! You have to look at salient details (a.k.a the details that actually contribute to whatever it is you are looking at). If a flying squirrel can fall from a tall building and survive, I should be able to do the same thing. We are both mammals! (See Bad Analogy Fallacy.)

8. Intuition – Your gut feeling, presumably based on years of experience. It feels true. The inferences that pop into your head first are likely to be based on intuition rather than research studies or other types of evidence. If you hear a bump in the night, the weight of your experience will offer a causal inference, and if that inference isn’t dangerous (“it was just the wind!”), you will likely just go back to sleep.

Strengths – For most issues, our experience is a good guide to life. We have built a pretty good picture of the world, and we can generally rely on it to stay consistent. Malcolm Gladwell explains the power of quick inferences in his book Blink, and Daniel Kahneman describes it as “fast thinking” in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Weaknesses – Your experience is personal and unique. Other people have had different experiences and will therefore have different gut feelings. There is no way to prove that your intuition is correct. If people trust it, it’s because you have been right many times in the past and will therefore trust you to be right again (see Appeal to Questionable Authority). All of the fallacies and biases that lead us to make weak inferences are relevant here.

Again, this list is adapted from Asking the Right Questions by Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley, which offers a more in-depth look at each type of evidence. I’ve simplified and adapted their work to serve as an introduction to students new to this approach.

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Evaluating arguments and evidence

For many students, the terms ‘critical’ and ‘argument’ sound a bit negative. You are probably used to thinking of an ‘argument’ as a disagreement or a row – not a very pleasant thing to experience. But the word ‘argument’ has a different meaning in an academic context.

At university, an argument means a statement that is backed up with some kind of objective evidence. You may be trying to identify the arguments of others, or you may be trying to build your own arguments; for example, while writing an academic essay or report.

Often, there is an ‘overarching argument’ or thesis (for example: there is a strong case for the government increasing student fees and introducing a student loan system) supported by a number of ‘contributing arguments’ (for example: current funding mechanisms are unsustainable and inequitable, such a system can be tweaked so that repayments are linked to income after graduation, and so on). Each contributing argument needs to be backed up with evidence.

Of course, for most arguments, there are also ‘counter-arguments’ – that is, opposing arguments – and these must be fully considered as well (for example, if we stay with the student fees and loans example: there are other options for funding higher education in a sustainable and equitable way, linking repayments to income after graduation can be problematic, and so on). Counter-arguments also need to be evidence-based.

When reading and researching for your course, it is really important to be able to, firstly, identify arguments, and then to analyse and evaluate them. Generally a statement is an ‘argument’ if it:

  • Presents a particular point of view
  • Bases that view on objective evidence

If you come across an assertion that is not based on evidence that can reasonably be considered objective, it is just that – an assertion, not an argument. Also, a statement of fact is not an argument, although it might be evidence that could be used in support of an argument.

When evaluating an argument, here are some things that you might consider:

  • Who is making the argument?
  • What gives them authority to make the argument?
  • What evidence is given in support of the argument? Has this evidence been tested elsewhere? Could alternative approaches have been used?
  • Does the evidence upon which the argument is based come from a reliable and independent source? How do you know? Who funded the research that produced the evidence?
  • Are there alternative perspectives or counter-arguments? You should evaluate any counter-arguments in just the same way.
  • What are the implications of the argument, for example, for policy or for practice?

You might also find the Reading and Research Skills section of the Academic Skills Hub useful.

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