March 18:  Reasoning Day

On this day in 1923, the New York Times published an article about the English mountaineer George Mallory (1886-1824) who was pursuing his goal of climbing Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain (29,029 feet).  When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory 1915.jpgAt the time Mallory gave his answer, no expedition had ever successfully summited the world’s highest mountain.  Mallory, himself, had participated in two previous expeditions and was preparing for his third.

On the morning of June 8, 1924, Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine set out for the summit from their camp at 26,800 feet, but they never returned.  The disappearance of the two climbers was a mystery for 75 years, until Mallory’s body was found on the mountain in 1999. No one knows for sure whether or not Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit.

Twenty-nine years after the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to successfully reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953 (1).

Mallory’s simple three-word answer, “Because it’s there,” became his epitaph and captured the imagination of generations of explorers and risk takers.  It also shows the power of giving a reason — any reason.

A psychological study completed in 1977 demonstrated the power of the word “because.”  People waiting in line to make copies were asked by someone behind them to skip ahead in line.  The people who gave a reason to skip, saying, “Excuse me, may I use the copy machine because I’m in a rush” were 30% more likely to be allowed to skip ahead in line than those who gave no reason.  This worked even for people who gave a nonsensical reason, saying “May I use the copy machine because I have to make copies.” Readers are more likely to accept your claims if you provide clear reasons that support them.  Appeal to your reader’s logical side by laying down the clear reasons behind your claims. For even better results, string your reasons together using parallelism to add rhythm, repetition, and resonance (2).

The persuasive nature of reasoning is nothing new.  In the fifth century, the philosopher Aristotle wrote the first textbook explaining the art of persuasion, On Rhetoric.  Aristotle made logical argument accessible through a device he called the enthymeme, a sentence that explicitly states a claim and a reason.  The additional essential element of an enthymeme is an assumption, which is implicit rather than stated.

For example, as an enthymeme, Mallory’s justification for attempting to climb Mount Everest might be stated as follows:

Claim:  I should climb Mount Everest.

Reason: because it exists.

Assumption:  The existence of a mountain is sufficient justification for climbing it.

With the enthymeme, Aristotle emphasized the role of logic (or logos) in making a sound argument.  He also emphasized, however, that effective persuasion takes more than just pure logic. Any successful writer or speaker must consider his or her audience and establish the audience’s trust (ethos).  Furthermore, the speaker or writer must not only make the audience think, he or she should also make the audience feel something (pathos).(3)

Today’s Challenge:  Unpack Your Enthymemes

What are some current issues that people are arguing about at the local, national, or international level? What are the core claims, reasons, and assumptions that make up a specific argument? Brainstorm some general issues of controversy and find a recently published editorial that addresses one of the issues. Read the editorial carefully and analyze the writer’s argument by identifying the claim, reasons, and assumptions.  Also identify how the writer appeals to the audience by establishing trust and credibility, as well as how the writer appeals to the emotions of the audience. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are. And we think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision. -Daniel Kahneman