Have you ever had a problem breaking down arguments in Critical Reasoning questions? Many students find it very difficult to separate the premise(s) from the conclusion. In an attempt to grant students’ requests, we are beginning a series of articles devoted to Critical Reasoning which we will be posting over the next few weeks. For some this may be old news but for most, if not all, it does not hurt to visit or re-visit the main dynamics involved in Critical Reasoning.
In todays’ article I would like to help you deal with the problem of identifying premises.
Have a look at the following:
(1) Sun block advertisements, according to a recent study, often contain misleading information, exaggerating the effectiveness of the advertised products.
(2) Skin doctors are worried that these advertisements could create a false sense of safety that would lead sun block consumers to spend prolonged periods of time in the sun.
Let’s begin with the obvious question: What is a Premise generally, and in the argument specifically?
The premise is the information that is accepted as a given and that is used in order to draw a conclusion (what the writer is trying to prove, which we will discuss in a later article). Think of it as a ‘truth’ that is used to form a conclusion. We may consider the premise as fact-based.
In the above argument, the phrase ‘according to a recent study’ demarcates the introduction of a premise as based on description of data or scientific FINDINGS. Other similar phrases that could also be used are, for example, ‘a study has shown that…’ and ‘according to a study’.
Here’s another argument:
John’s car has wheels because all cars have wheels.
Sometimes, finding the premise may be a bit more difficult. In the sentence above we can recognize that the first part is a CONCLUSION (it follows the conjunction ‘because’ – again, more on this later), whereas the second part is a PREMISE, since it gives the reason for the conclusion’s validity. It would not make sense to flip the argument and say that all cars have wheels because John’s car has wheels. Therefore, the validity of a conclusion must come from its premise(s) or proof. In this case, the fact (premise) that all cars have wheels allows for a conclusion to be drawn that John’s car must also have wheels and the conjunction helps us identify it as such.
Thus we have just identified the second way in which premises can be introduced in an argument, namely through the use of reason conjunctions such as BECAUSE, SINCE, AS, etc. Always pay attention to such conjunctions (that goes for Reading Comprehension too by the way!)
Now, let’s take a look at the third way of (indirectly) stating premises in an argument:
The number of people diagnosed as having a certain respiratory disease in Country X has dropped significantly last year. Health officials attribute this decrease to a reduction in air pollution.
How can we recognize what the premise is? Here we come to a situation in which we are clueless. The argument does not contain any markers, such as reason conjunctions or explicit ‘findings’ words.
However, have a look at the second sentence; One word presents not factual information but rather an OPINION. This word is ‘attribute’ and what follows is a conclusion. Based on this we can infer that the information which precedes the conclusion must be a PREMISE, since the argument must be based on some evidence. Every argument has at least one premise.
To make things even easier, if you think you have spotted the conclusion then ask yourself why the conclusion has been made. In this case, ask: Why do they attribute the decrease to reduced air pollution? The answer to this should be logical and flow from the premise. In other words, the answer to this why should be the premise. Here the answer is that the number….has decreased significantly since last year.
Bingo! We have just identified a premise in an argument despite the lack of clear-cut clues that would help us do the job.
If you tried to ask why regarding the first sentence, the answer would not make sense at all (why did the number drop significantly? Because they attribute it to reduced air pollution). Therefore, even when you are not provided with explicit clues, it is still possible to break down an argument.
- Look for expressions that would suggest that the information presented is a scientific finding or other factual information
- Reason conjunctions usually link a conclusion with the premise(s) it is based upon
- If you cannot find the premise right away, identify the conclusion and you will surely recognize which sentences state the premises upon which the conclusion must be based. Ask yourself why the conclusion has been made. The answer to the why should point to the premise(s).
To conclude, I would like to leave you with a few arguments to break down:
1. In the past few weeks, John, who is a teacher, has been arriving home late. When asked by Jane about this behavior, he muttered something about having lots of pressure at work. Jane has also noticed that he talks on his cellular phone in a hushed voice, but hangs up when she enters the room. Jane concluded that John must be leading a double life as a secret agent.
2. The Takuur Swamp frog is well-known mainly due to the peculiar protrusion that appears on the top of its head. Archaeological findings show that the Takuur and its evolutionary ancestor are almost identical, except for the ancestor’s slightly larger protrusion. Originally believed to be decorative, research being performed by a team of zoologists is leading them to believe that the protrusion belonging to the Takuur’s ancestor was used by the frog to swat insects on which it fed.