Inquiry: A Loose End Solution Discussion

I recently attended a workshop entitled “Argument vs. Inquiry.” At the end of our discussion one of the facilitators asked jokingly, “So, who won? Argument or Inquiry?” We laughed, but based on our previous discussions the answer seemed to be: neither; win, win; one informs the other.

We discovered that the evocative title of the workshop, Argument vs. Inquiry, limited the scope of the dialectic in terms of writing process and product. Rather than pitting argument against inquiry as is often expressed in the seemingly continual debate, I’ve chosen to use a tilde: Argument ⁓ Inquiry in an attempt to show, as we discovered, that the two methods define related ends of a continuum of critical thinking.

When teaching composition, we offer students ways to arrive at essays from a variety of pedagogical methods. A popular essay assignment is the persuasive essay in which students are expected to wield a well supported, powerfully proven argument. The high school five-paragraph essay offers a structural formula for identifying and using elements of argument such as claim, warrant, underlying assumptions, evidence, etc. The persuasive essay frequently employs deductive reasoning or methods that take research from the general to the specific in an attempt to come to a solid conclusion or even a solution at the end of the argument. Longer essays and research papers are also often expected to use this more linear, argumentative approach.

In contrast, an essay rooted in inquiry might be called a synthesis paper and would allow the topic or thesis to be more broadly considered by its audience. This method uses more inductive reasoning and brings a specific topic into a general field of understanding. The inquiry-based paper prioritizes an authentic process of critical thinking through observation, analysis and synthesis. The synthesis seems to require that a thesis be placed in conversation with other informing variables or opposing viewpoints in a way that honors complications and dilemmas over definite solutions or right answers.
Considering the two methods makes it clear that both types of writing are valuable in the discourse of the academy. One can enrich the other: while engaged in a strong rhetoric a writer would be remiss to ignore the value of inductive inquiry to arrive at a sound solution. Likewise, when engaged in the synthesis of multiple perspectives a writer can use the linearity, logic and focus that a more Aristotelian argument commands to keep the ideas from becoming too chaotic or all inclusive.

Bobby Burgess, a friend and fellow graduate student who is a Teaching Assistant in the Biology and Wildlife department, recently discussed his pedagogical methods with me, and I thought of him during the workshop. He said he often uses deductive reasoning in his classroom. Based on our workshop discussion and our collective perceptions of what scientific theory, inquiry, and critical thinking should be about, this preference or use of deductive reasoning seemed at odds with our notions about the science classroom. A serious student of the hard science, Bobby’s research interests are Climate Change, Biofuels, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, and Lignocellulose Degradation. I asked him to clarify his field’s preferences for critical thought:

“Generally, most scientists tend to dislike inductive reasoning and prefer deductive reasoning. My contention is that both are necessary for science, but for different reasons. Inductive reasoning is necessary for the formation of hypotheses based on observation, where deduction is necessary to test these hypotheses and find the truth. It should also be noted, however, that induction is used to apply certain assumptions (or even tested facts) appropriately when designing experiments. And in many fields of science, we induce general conclusions using statistics and probability under the assumption that a random sample is a representative sample.

“Really, in the classroom the “synthesis of facts” might require as much or more induction relative to deduction (depending on the subject) because the students are given facts and need to use inductive reasoning based on the assumption that these facts are true to come up with a bigger picture.

“I guess ultimately most scientists would say that deductive reasoning based on accurate premises is more important than inductive reasoning. For the most part, I agree, but I think that some scientists don’t realize how often they apply inductive reasoning as well.”

As we can see, the real winner (as usual) is science: general questions and specific proofs (and specific questions and general proofs) are equally valuable when digging at truth, and both inductive and deductive reasoning should be used as needed. An arguable inquiry of synthetic proportion ensues. The end.

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