Friday, February 22, 2013

Induction and Writing Papers

In my previous blog post, I made a sincere, if imperfect, effort to draw some basic distinctions between deductive and inductive reasoning. Although deductive reasoning is an essential part of our cognitive framework, much of the reasoning we do when we write essays or research papers is inductive. A key part of completing many writing assignments, not to mention an infinite number of non-writing tasks, is to generate and defend conclusions based on the words or the testimony of an expert. 

Obviously, the concept of "expertise" is complex. When does a person become an expert in some field? How do we decide when to bestow that title on an "expert?"

To give an example of this complexity, consider the legal career of Thurgood Marshall. I would imagine that most people presume that a lawyer is an expert on the law because of the education that he completed. Colloquially speaking, the concept of "education" would basically reduce to the following two questions: 

"When did you graduate from law school?" 
"What law school did you graduate from?" 

Thurgood Marshall earned his Juris Doctor from Howard University Law School in 1933, graduating first in his class. He then went on to become the first African American appointed to The United States Supreme Court. It's an impressive resume, isn't it?

While every lawyer doesn't have such a sterling profile, most of us assume that a person who earns a Juris Doctor degree from an American Bar Association accredited law school is an "expert" about, if not the entire American Legal Code, then at least some particular aspect of it. One lawyer could be an expert on the criminal legal code; another lawyer could be an expert on the U.S. Constitution. Thurgood Marshall, being a Supreme Court justice, would be an expert on both the criminal legal code and on the U.S. Constitution.  

The point is that if I'm writing an essay in my composition class about the FCC and its policies toward censoring the f-word on the public airwaves, I would, if he were still alive, ask Thurgood Marshall for his assessment of the issue. The answers he articulates for me would provide a well-forged link in my reasoning chain. The link would be well-forged because, as an expert in the U.S. Constitution, Thurgood Marshall  would have knowledge about it that can trusted by all reasonable non-legal experts.

My reasoning chain might be constructed in the following way:

1. Some people believe that XYZ is true about the First Amendment 
2. Thurgood Marshall  believes that X is true and Y is true about the First Amendment, but he disputes that Z is true.
3. Thurgood Marshall is an expert about the First Amendment.
4. Thus, I have a good reason to doubt the truth of Z. 
In the same way that a lawyer is an expert on certain legal topics, someone with a Ph.D. in particular academic discipline would be an expert in that discipline. This is why many of your professors want you to consider the author of text when you look for research sources. The author of a book or the author of a peer reviewed academic journal probably has a Ph.D. in a particular field thus we can justifiably assume that he/she is an expert in that field. Appealing to that expert's authority to justify a conclusion is an acceptable way to construct a chain of reasoning. 

Complexity will almost always arise when you write a paper. For example, what happens when two experts disagree? When experts disagree, it actually allows you to carefully consider each person's position and then ask yourself which one is the more cogent. If you're writing a paper about Psychology, obviously the research (its methodology, for example) would be a good place to consider which expert you find more persuasive.

Of course, there are ways for a person to achieve expertise in a particular discipline without earning an advanced degree. For example, while a person could become an expert in journalism by earning a Ph.D in Journalism, there are many professional journalists who attain expertise on a topic by carefully researching a topic as an employee for a news organization like The New York Times or PBS.    

If a journalist from The New York Times  spends six months writing a series of feature length articles about the pros and cons of hydraulic fracking, many of us would justifiably consider that journalist, if not an "expert," then certainly someone who's opinion about hydraulic fracking is more informed, more nuanced than, say, the owner of my local Seven Eleven. 

The journalist's stories become reliable sources because of the expertise he/she has achieved.  When you write an argumentative paper, you might appeal to the journalist's authority about hydraulic fracking to make your case. When you appeal to a relevant authority in an argument, you are arguing inductively.   

All this talk about becoming an expert or achieving an expertise is relevant because most of our inductive arguments rely on the authority of experts. Much of the article by the journalist in The New York Times  will be quotes and paraphrases from experts in geology and petroleum engineering. The article will also probably include the testimony from people who've been deeply affected by agreeing to lease their land to a natural gas drilling company.  

In this sense, whatever the journalist concludes, his/her reasoning will be inductive in nature. 


  1. This is one of the best explanations of the use of sources in argumentative writing that I've read.

  2. I agree. And I think, perhaps, one of the best blogs that Eric has written. I really enjoyed it.