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Who Should Return to Campus?

I need to take a brief break from logos, pathos and ethos to apply some of the principles you have been learning about here at LogicCheck to important questions being debated in higher education over whether and how schools should reopen in the fall.

In between returning to business as usual and continuing with 100% distance learning, colleges and universities are looking at over a dozen different options for how to configure the fall term. Each of these choices tries to balance giving students the opportunity to take part in campus life with the need to maintain safe social distancing.

Some of these choices play with time, by starting fall semester later, for example, or pushing fall semester out one term. Others involve bringing some but not all students back to campus while others continue their studies remotely.

One of those “some-but-not-all” options would bring just graduate students back on campus while undergraduates continue to learn from home. While I don’t presume that college administrators and professors are swapping logical proofs as they analyze their choices, if they were to write up this “graduate-student-only” alternative as an informal argument, it might look like this:

Premise 1: Fewer graduate students attend our college than undergraduates.

Premise 2: Graduate students do not generally spend time in large, crowded lecture courses.

Premise 3: Graduate students tend to be older and more mature than undergraduates.

Conclusion: It is more likely graduate students can practice safe social distancing on campus than can undergraduates.

As skilled logic-checkers, you now know that this is an inductive argument in which the premises support but do not guarantee the truth of the conclusion. This is why that conclusion is qualified with the phrase “It is more likely…” to indicate this argument is dealing with probability, rather than certainty. And if you accept the premises of this argument as true (or at least reasonable), they seem to provide strong evidence to support the conclusion, making this a strong argument.

One of the problems with using informal logic to analyze complex issues is that they require you to create a number of linked arguments in order to capture the reasoning behind complex analyses that branch in different directions. You have already learned one way to capture this complexity graphically using Toulmin Diagrams. In order to analyze another option colleges are considering - whether to allow only freshmen back on campus - I’d like to use a different graphical form of logical analysis called argument mapping.

I’ll be getting into argument maps in more detail in the next few weeks (and if you’re in a hurry to learn more, you can check out this site). But for now, all you need to know is that an argument map begins with the conclusion at the top (sometimes referred to as the “main claim”) with premises appearing in boxes below the main claim indicating support for the conclusion.

In this diagram, the argument to only allow freshmen back on campus is supported by three different independent premises, each of which supplies a single reason why a “freshmen-only” option is preferable. Two of those supporting premises require additional support themselves, which is why another box appears below them that provides backing for the premise above.

As you can see, argument maps can “go deep” with premises supported by other premises in a chain of reasoning. They can also “go wide,” allowing you to capture many branches of an argument, similar to what you saw with Toulmin diagrams.

Like our informal argument over graduate students, this is a simple map that just highlights a few points, but you can probably imagine how this method can be used to capture the reasoning behind more comprehensive arguments that include multiple lines of reasoning, as well as objections (which can also be included in an argument map).

Colleges and universities are making major decisions that hinge on unknowns, such as future infection rates and when a COVID vaccine might be available. While we cannot “fact check” future events, we can argue out alternatives and use logic checking to make decisions based on the strongest arguments. Today, more than ever, the critical-thinking skills colleges and universities claim to be instilling in students can be applied to a situation of uncertainty, the very thing critical-thinking techniques are designed to handle.


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