The Borrowed Argument Trap


July 15, 2009

One of the basic concepts that my fellow teachers and I try to teach our students is the avoidance of borrowed arguments in their essays. A borrowed argument is the use of secondary sources as one's evidence without going back to primary sources to verify the truth of those secondary sources. I do wish other contemporaries would set better examples for those students.

From time to time, we all find ourselves trying to understand information that is not within our formal education information set. I do this all the time, convincing myself that I am justified because the skill sets involved in my North American History and Literature degree are research and communication. In theory anyway, those skill sets allow me to find accurate information about any subject and make a clear case for the ideas that I derive from it.

Every so often I need to remind myself to get back to primary source materials rather than just accept secondary source information as being true. Certainly secondary sources are more readily available and very useful to find a path to original information. They also contain the syntheses and extrapolations of people far more qualified than I in many subject areas.

However, the basis for these secondary sources must always be checked out and verified at least in part by getting to primary sources. The internet makes this at once easy, since one can get directly to many primary documents, and daunting, since one can be misled by claims of the authenticity of those documents.

Recently, a local philosophy professor, who must surely have learned this lesson at some point in his academic career, reduced his credibility by ignoring this simple idea. There is no question that he was operating well outside his natural skill set-abstract logic-when he decided to take on a subject based on climatology.

In his attempt to dismiss global warming he built an argument based on data that reveal an actual drop in temperature observed from satellites. His error was to accept an oil-fired economist as a valid secondary source for this information without checking out the primary source.

In this case, the economist erroneously treated the temperature data from the satellites as earth-surface data when, in fact, satellites gather temperature data from above the stratosphere. I was able to get to NASA's primary data easily enough on the Internet and verify this. The drop in temperature at the stratospheric level verifies the increase in insulation from increased greenhouse gases rather than refuting the general rise in surface temperatures. This simple informational gap led an otherwise erudite and intelligent individual to accept a completely wrong interpretation as fact.

Given that we are presented with so much interpretive information, we are also confronted with an increased need to get back to primary evidence as much as possible. Extrapolation and synthesis are useful tools, but only if there is primary evidence upon which to base them.


Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist, an agnostic member of SOFREE (Society of Ontario Freethinkers), and an active member of the Humanist Association of Canada. He is also Managing Editor of Canadian Freethinker.