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Academic Writing: Balancing Objectivity and Persuasion

You may be wondering why anyone would want to talk about "balancing" objectivity and persuasion when academic writing is so largely a matter of documentation, rigorous testing, and other objective controls. Academic writers know they cannot merely assert something as true - express a personal opinion - without acknowledged factual support. Research and objectivity are essential, we assert, to formal academic writing.

All true. And yet, no matter how "objective" your facts, statistics, results of experiments, or quotations from respected sources, your argument is still by its very nature "subjective." It is, after all, your hypothesis, your experiment, your vision that you wish your readers to take seriously. You inevitably want your readers at the very least to say, "your idea merits consideration." To get this result, you must be persuasive, even as you base your position on objective evidence.

Ancient Greek students of argument assigned names to three forms of rhetorical appeals to ask for the audience's assent. In Greek, these appeals are identified as ethospathos, andlogos, or ethical, emotional, and logical appeal. All three are tools which you can use to try to make an argument acceptable to an audience.

Ethos or ethical appeal: focuses on the writer (or speaker), presenting him or her as a person worthy of the reader's trust. You are trying, in other words, to create an appropriate image for yourself in the text. Much of your success will depend upon the audience to whom you are appealing, although it's safe to say that for academic degree purposes, your audience is your advisor and your committee. But in the course of your career, your audiences will vary. Ethos is fundamentally a writer's attempt to adjust to the tastes of the audience in question. In writing, you must depend upon your choice of words and their arrangement, as well as tone, to convey your ethos.

Pathos or emotional appeal: aimed to affect the specific inclinations of the audience. This will probably be your least used appeal in your graduate school writing, if indeed you'll use it at all. Outside of graduate school, a pathos appeal can be highly effective - or a total disaster. Use sparingly and handle with care.

Logos or logical appeal: derives from the intellectual understanding shared by the arguer and the audience. This is clearly your most valuable tool for academic writing, and is the direct link between objectivity and persuasion. If you can persuade your audience to acknowledge the logos of your argument - which includes all facts, statistics, definitions, analogies, quotations from authorities, and other evidence offered in support of your claims - then you have truly learned to balance objectivity and persuasion. 

(thanks to Bradbury & Quinn)

In summary, "the most successful arguments rest on a firm foundation of solid, logical support. In addition, many arguments include emotion because it can play an important part in swaying reader opinion. Furthermore, writers often make ethical appeals by projecting favorable images of themselves since readers form conclusions based on their judgement of the writer."

(thanks to J. Ferganchick-Neufang)

That "firm foundation of solid, logical support" can be elusive, however, unless you take care to ferret out logical fallacies. These are sneaky little lapses in logic that can happen to anyone who isn't on guard, and can weaken every argument they manage to creep into. They usually emerge when you have either (1) failed to examine underlying assumptions critically, (2) neglected to establish solid ground to support a claim, or (3) chosen wording that is muddy and open to misinterpretation. Whatever the reason for the appearance of logical fallacies in your argument, be on guard against them since a perceptive reader can spot them and use them to discredit your argument.

Here are the most common logical fallacies (in alphabetical order):

    1. Begging the question (also known as circular reasoning). Argues that a claim is true by repeating the claim in different words.

    2. Confusing chronology with causality (also known as post hoc, ergo prompter hocor "after this, therefore because of this"). Assumes that because factor A preceded factor B, factor A caused factor B

    3. Either/ or reasoning. Assumes there are only two sides to the question, and yours is the correct one.

    4. Equivocating. Misleads with ambiguous word choices.

    5. Failing to accept the burden of proof. Asserts a claim without presenting evidence to support it.

    6. False analogy. Assumes that because two things or circumstances resemble each other in some ways, they do so in all ways.

    7. Overreliance on authority. Assumes that an assertion is true, even in the face of contrary evidence, simply because an expert says so.

    8. Hasty generalization. Results when a conclusion is based on inadequate or incomplete evidence.

    9. Oversimplifying. Offers easy answers to complicated questions, often by appealing to emotions.

    10. Personal attack (or ad hominem, "against the man"). Focuses on the character of the speaker or writer, rather than on the argument.

    11. Red herring. Misdirects the argument by raising an unrelated point.

    12. Slanting. Emphasizes supporting evidence and suppressing contradictory evidence.

    13. Slippery slope. Assumes that one thing inevitably leads to another.

    14. Straw man. Directs the argument against a claim that nobody actually holds, or is weak.

Keep an eye on your own thinking to be certain you haven't fallen victim to one of these logical fallacies! There's no quicker way to unbalance your careful balance between objectivity and persuasion than to lower your own credibility in the reader's eyes.

As you progress in your investigation of your topic you may begin to hold a strong opinion about it. You may therefore find yourself wanting very much to persuade your reader to agree with you. But it's a good idea to try to be as objective in your assessment of the topic for as long as possible, because ultimately readers will be more influenced by factual, well documented evidence that you have checked and rechecked. The best way to be persuasive is to be careful and as accurate as humanly possible. Ask yourself ongoing questions about your developing position:

  • Have I examined a variety of evidence to support my position?

  • How substantial is the evidence?

  • If I'm using statistics and opinions of authorities, are they reliable? Could they be biased in some way?

  • What might the objections be to my position, and how can I effectively counter them? Are some of these objections valid?

  • If I were to suggest a course of action (if relevant), what might be the consequences?

Asking yourself such questions will help you to maintain a sense of objectivity until you have reached a satisfactory completion of your research. If you've struggled to keep an open mind throughout your investigation, and you are finally convinced that your position is valid and defensible, you are far more likely to truly be persuasive.