Being able to formulate a good argument is the foundation of good journalism and writing in general. Learning how to formulate a good argument, however, is tricky. A good argument should be substantiated by facts, but only considering and presenting facts that reinforce your argument is not formulating a good argument. Isn’t that odd?
Confirmation bias is a psychological tendency where people mould information to confirm an opinion. I am a vegetarian, so I interpret all information relating to eating meat or the meat industry in a pro-vegetarian light. When confronted with an argument about vegetarianism, it’s easy for me to manipulate all the information at hand to make my point. The trouble is, I disregard valuable information in the process.
If, for example, the topic is factory farming, I would argue that it’s cruel to animals and the meat is unhealthy because of hormones injected into factory animals. When I argue this point I disregard the fact that it’s often cheaper to run a factory farm, which means more people can get food at affordable prices.
In your individual capacity you are entitled to cling to an opinion just because you’ve always had it, but as a writer – especially a journalist – you owe it to your readers to be aware of and avoid confirmation bias. Human nature is complex and nothing is ever just black and white. Arguing a point without considering the complexities of the topic is breeding ground for ignorance.
The Boy Wonder (TBW) sent me this synopsis of the book Childlessness Transformed: Stories of Alternative Parenting (it seems interesting – get it here) and I was struck by how powerful it could be to just present opposing facts.
Author Jane English approaches the potentially contentious issue of childlessness by presenting different views of childlessness through the ages and across cultures. In the synopsis she is not trying to persuade the reader of the merits of child bearing or childlessness, she is simply presenting the facts. The reader has the freedom to consider the information the author collated and to draw his or her own conclusions.
A good argument is not only the responsibility of the writer. As readers we have a responsibility to understand the intentions of the person writing the article and to question whether the writer is presenting a good argument. Are you always aware of both sides of the argument when you read? If we’re perfectly honest, more often than not the answer is probably no. You have to ask yourself why that is before accepting the information as fact. Why am I writing an article on good writing? Because I want you to believe that I’m a good and fair writer. If you ask why the article was written by the end of each article, you are forcing yourself to acknowledge the fact that you could have been presented with only one aspect of a complex issue.