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Building an argument

Learn more about how to build strong arguments using different types of reasoning

The commissioner and the sandy hollow

He was the Commissioner of Roots and Tubers. This is one of his many adventures.

Dispatched to a sandy hollow to explore its possibilities as a source of tasty-starchy vegetable matter to enrich the diets of the wandering masses, our hero, the newly appointed Commissioner of Roots and Tubers, interviewed the much-to-be-feared Lord High Director of Earthworks and Irrigation, who assumed the form of a jewel-encrusted serpent crested with the fiery plumage of his noble rank.

“Mr. Lord High Director,” asked the Commissioner of Roots and Tubers, “what about this sandy hallow? Will it support the cultivation of savoury roots and tubers?”

The director’s eye, a massive slit of deep-black-dark across an orb of opalescent gold-flecked green, narrowed menacingly upon the Commissioner as he paused to consider the Commissioner’s question.

After what seemed like an eternity of silence, the Director finally hissed his reply: “The soil, little one, is too sandy, too poor in nutrients to support savoury roots and tubers.” The inner eyelid of the massive green eye of the Director then closed over the orb of green. The Director himself disappeared within his own enfolding, jewel-encrusted coils, signalling that the interview was over.

The Commissioner of Roots and Tubers composed his report to the board of the directors. It read:

The soil in the hollow is too sandy, too poor in nutrients to support savoury roots and tubers, said the Director of Earthworks and Irrigation. Thus and therefore—hence, and in grim conclusion—we may rest confident in the metaphysical certainty that the soils of our hollow will not support the savoury roots and tubers that will bring delight to our stewpots and joy to our soup-bowls.

Yours etc.,
C. of R&T

The Commissioner did not have to wait long to receive a reply from the board, from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), no less.

Dearest, dearest Commissioner. Your report, such as it is, reduces to a quote to which you attach a comment as if it were a conclusion, when it is not a conclusion but is rather a paraphrase of the chief claim of the quote itself. In other words, you lead your reader in a circle, and not a very broad one.

Let me ask you, dear Commissioner, do Directors of Earthworks and Irrigation speak infallibly like Popes? Are we to receive their claims uncritically, un-inferred, entirely on their face (prima facie) and without question, as if their words descended to us from on high? No, I say! Please allow yourself to weigh, test, and to evaluate the claims of those whose voices you recruit to support you reasoning. Please allow yourself to ask the hard questions, to investigate further, to search, to understand, and to infer. Otherwise, I would ask that you resign your position in favour of a candidate with guts and brains enough to interrogate his or her sources, whether they are people or texts or whatever. Then you can take your rightful place in our kitchen as a scrubber of crusty pots, a position that requires far less intellect combined with initiative.

Yours etc.,
CEO of the universe

“But what do I know of sandy hallows and intensive agriculture?” wrote the Commissioner to the CEO. “Am I wrong to defer to an expert?”

“You may not be an expert, dear Director,” wrote the CEO in response, “but you are, I presume, gifted with ordinary powers of reason, are you not? Expert knowledge must never be accepted on its face. Rather, it must be applied to the circumstances, to the concrete conditions of a particular problem, challenge, or goal. Apply, little one! Apply! Now get you to work!”

"A-HA! I think I have it!" shouted the Commissioner, and, running, he returned to the dark and clammy lair of the Lord High Director all nested within his own bejeweled coils. The Director lifted his reptile head from within his nest of coils only high enough so that a single massive reptile eye could gaze unbelievingly upon the ridiculous figure of the Commissioner, who was jumping up and down and firing question after question. However, as the Director began to realize that the Commissioner was finally asking the hard questions, he began to slough his hideous reptile hide. That is, he began to molt, to cast off in long and raggedy shreds his slithery form in favour of the more familiar form of an ordinary person.

After the interview, the Commissioner composed and submitted his final report. It read as follows:

“The soil in the hollow is too sandy, too poor in nutrients to support savoury roots and tubers,” reports the Lord High Director of Earthworks and Irrigation. Yes, esteemed members of the board, that is the Director’s position, and were I to simply accept what the Director tells me on its face, that is what I, too, would conclude, and move on to other business. But no, esteemed members of the board, I am one who weighs, tests, and evaluates every claim with respect to the concrete conditions of a particular case. I am one who is never content to accept any claim on its face (prima facie). I am one who reasons, who questions, who infers, and it is therefore that I returned to the Lord High Director—who turns out to be a rather ordinary guy, by the way—to puzzle through his position as it applies to our particular case, to our particular goals.

“Just what will this hollow support?” I asked of the Director.

“Good question,” he responded, “grass and scrub, for the most part.” 

"Why do you suppose this is the case?" I asked as I pursued the issue.

“Good question,” said the Director, “the sad, small hollow was long ago deforested by a beetle infestation that left the loamy soils exposed to wind and sun and driving rain. The hollow never recovered.”

So what does this mean, esteemed members of the board? From the Director’s testimony, we may infer several courses of action if it is our goal to use our hollow to produce savoury roots and tubers.

First, I researched deforestation and reclamation; then, I researched what people can do with sandy soils. The first option I developed is reclamation in the form of planting stands of trees in deep beds of imported soils that we net and cover to protect from erosion. This would be expensive and only return benefits over a long period of time.

The second option is to select roots and tubers that the dry, sandy soils will support. Grass and scrub do have root systems, however shallow. As long as we are willing to carefully limit the intensity of our cultivation—this means spacing out our root and tuber plants, and allowing other vegetation to grow side by side with it as opposed to developing a monoculture—we can probably, in a few years, develop a yield at least enough to pay for the operation itself.

What I would suggest is that we combine the two approaches, as the material investments for each—irrigation, earthworks, skilled personnel—overlap, which would help us economize. As we slowly re-forest and re-soil parts of the hollow, it will gain in productivity, but only over time. In the meantime we can still enjoy, though in a limited sort of way, the tasty results of our enterprise.

So, as you can see, comrades, I accept completely the testimony of the Director. I do not disagree with him at all. He is an expert, after all. But I too am possessed of the warm and searching light of human reason, and I was therefore prepared to ask the hard questions. I was prepared to investigate, to research, and to infer. And based on that I have developed a plan in the form of recommendations even though I am not an expert in this field. Oh, I am certain there is still more investigating to do, more questions to address. But it is my hope that you, the esteemed members of the board, will accept this as at least a preliminary report, as a beginning for our discussions, as a lamp to light our way forward.

Yours etc.,
C. of R&T