Several of the aims of Science in Society require the ability to assimilate information in different forms, to reflect on this information and to develop a reasoned conclusion. In other words students are expected to evaluate arguments put forward by others and to present reasoned arguments of their own. To do this well requires a range of skills which can be developed through the Science in Society course. In the assessment the ability to construct a good argument is included the performance descriptors for AO2, (Specification p. 69) and is particularly relevant to the internal assessment and to longer written answers in the exam papers.
It is important that students become confident in using these ideas. They also need to realise that the use of ‘argument’ in logic is different from the way in which they use the word in every day contexts.
The structure of argument
A range of different terminologies are in use. We are suggesting the following, partly to conform to usage in other courses that involve argument:
- At the very minimum an argument must consist of a conclusion and at least one reason for accepting the conclusion. The nature of the reason will depend on the type of conclusion. It may be data used as evidence for a factual conclusion or it may be an ethical principle to justify a decision. A good argument will usually include several reasons.
- The link between reason and conclusion will often involve underlying assumptions, not made explicit but essential to the reasoning.
- In many cases a counter-argument reaching a different conclusion is possible. This might use the same data but come to a different conclusion, it may use different data, or it may involve different values.
- Counter argument is an important part of a debate between two or more people but the existence of counter-argument should also be acknowledged in any fully developed written argument, where it would then be criticised.
- A detailed argument on a complex issue may involve several simple arguments where the intermediate conclusions build up to an overall conclusion. The strength of the overall argument will depend on the strength of the component parts.
Any of the component parts of an argument can be criticised, including the link between reason and conclusion.
Explicit teaching of argument structure and skills is included in the following activities, but students should be encouraged to use these skills in all Science in Society work.