What Is an Explanation

At first glance, this seems like a simple question. Someone asks, "why did you do it?"Your answer, the explanation, gives them the reasons. In an explanation, a statement, or set of statements, is made that gives new information about something that has been accepted as fact. In answer to the question, "why did you do it?" you are not going to reply that you did not do it (that would be an argument). It is accepted that you did something, and you are going to give information that tells why you did it.

An explanation is made up of two parts, the thing that will be explained (known as the explanadum), and the set of statements that is supposed to do the explaining (known as the explanans). If you were to answer the question, "why did you buy that car?" you might say, "I bought this car because it gets great gas mileage." The phrase "I bought this car" is the explanadum. "It gets great gas mileage" is the explanans.

When an explanation is accepted, it removes or lessens a problem. The "why?" is solved. In the example above, the person asking the question does not understand something (why you bought a certain car). After your explanation, she will. In addition, a good explanation is relevant. That is, it speaks directly to the issue. If someone asks you, "why did you show up late," and you reply, "I was late because my shirt is blue," you have given a poor explanation. It is not relevant to the question that was asked.

To summarize, the four indicators of a good explanation are:

1. it gives new information

2. its topic is accepted as fact

3. when accepted, it removes or lessens a problem

4. it is relevant

In Lesson 13, you learned about the fallacy of circular reasoning. Logical arguments must have premises that lead to a valid conclusion. If the premise is simply a restatement of the conclusion, the argument is circular (and therefore invalid). "I like the Cubs because they are my favorite team" is an example of circular reasoning, because the premise (they are my favorite team) is the same as saying the conclusion (I like the Cubs).

Explanations may be circular as well. When they are, they offer no new information.

Example

I did well on my SATs because I got a high score.

The explanadum and the explanans simply repeat each other. Doing well on a test and getting a high score are different ways of saying the same thing. In order to make this an effective explanation, the speaker would have to give new information. We already know she did well on the test, but why? She might say:

I did well on my SATs because I studied and got enough rest before the test.

This explanation works because the explanans tell something new (the facts that the speaker studied and got enough rest). It also fulfills the other three marks of a good explanation. It is about something that is not disputed—in this case, the fact that the speaker did well on her SATs. It solves the problem of not knowing why she did well. It is relevant; the reasons for the explanadum are good ones. They make sense. If the speaker said instead, "I did well on my SATs because I have a dog that won't walk on a leash," we could say that the explanation is irrelevant. The fact that he has a dog has nothing to do with doing well on a standardized test.

This seems straightforward enough. Good explanations give new, relevant information about a topic, accepted as fact, that is problematic or puzzling. It is usually easy to spot an explanation that does not work on one or more of these points, such as telling someone they need to drink more milk because the sky is blue. However, it can get confusing when an argument masquerades as an explanation, or an explanation looks like an argument.

Friendly Persuasion

Friendly Persuasion

To do this successfully you need to build a clear path of action by using tools if necessary. These tools would be facts, evidence and stories which you know they can relate to. Plus you always want to have their best interests at heart, in other words, you know what is good for them

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