Imagine if

So far, we've made fun of people who make up evidence, and we've made up some of our own.

But, believe it or not, there is a legitimate role for made-up evidence in arguments, in the form of imaginary scenarios or hypotheticals.

For example, the Victorian Transport Accident Commission wanted to make a proposal argument that everyone should prioritise safety features when buying a car.

As part of the evidence to support this argument, they produced Graham:

Who or what is Graham?

Graham is a hypothetical: he's an imagined example of what humans would look like if we had evolved to survive car crashes:

Graham Towards Zero Infographic

How does Graham support the argument that we should prioritise safety features when buying cars?

Graham is like a piece of reverse psychology.

By demonstrating how radically different our bodies would need to be to survive a car accident, Graham makes us more likely to accept the claim that we are extremely vulnerable in accidents and so agree that we should prioritise safety features.

A good hypothetical is based on solid evidence

Even though a hypothetical might not be true, it can and should be based on real evidence.

The better the underlying evidence and reasoning, the more valid the hypothetical.

For example, Graham was based on a lot of evidence and created by a multidisciplinary team of experts (in this snippet, we can even see our old friend, "studies have shown"):

In a shift from its traditional road safety campaigns, the TAC has collaborated with a leading trauma surgeon, a crash investigation expert and a world-renowned Melbourne artist to produce ‘Graham’, an interactive lifelike sculpture demonstrating human vulnerability.

Graham has been designed with bodily features that might be present in humans if they had evolved to withstand the forces involved in crashes. Studies have shown that the human body can only cope with impacts at speeds people can reach on their own, unassisted by vehicles.

“People can survive running at full pace into a wall but when you’re talking about collisions involving vehicles, the speeds are faster, the forces are greater and the chances of survival are much slimmer,” TAC chief executive officer Joe Calafiore said.

Similarly, earlier in this lesson, we saw Randall Munroe make a hypothetical argument about whether or not a group of archers could fire enough arrows to blot out the sun.

Munroe has a background in physics and engineering, so he builds robust hypotheticals by combining causal reasoning with facts, estimates, & known natural laws.

Here's another example, where he considers the hypothetical of everyone on Earth jumping at once in the same place:

Q. What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant? — Thomas Bennett (and many others)

A. This is one of the most popular questions submitted through my website.

As discussed elsewhere, it doesn’t really affect the planet. Earth outweighs us by a factor of over ten trillion. On average, we humans can vertically jump maybe half a meter on a good day. Even if the Earth were rigid and responded instantly, it would be pushed down by less than an atom’s width.

What If?(2014)

That answer was pretty anti-climactic! Is that all there is to it?

Not according to Munroe, if you think about the logistics of getting 8 billion people into and out of a location the size of Rhode Island in New York:

A cell phone comes out of a pocket. Within seconds, the rest of the world’s five billion phones follow. All of them — even those compatible with the region’s towers — are displaying some version of “NO SIGNAL.” The cell networks have all collapsed under the unprecedented load. Outside Rhode Island, abandoned machinery begins grinding to a halt.

The T. F. Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island, handles a few thousand passengers a day. Assuming they got things organized (including sending out scouting missions to retrieve fuel), they could run at 500 percent capacity for years without making a dent in the crowd.

The edge of the crowd spreads outward into southern Massachusetts and Connecticut. Any two people who meet are unlikely to have a language in common, and almost nobody knows the area. The state becomes a chaotic patchwork of coalescing and collapsing social hierarchies. Violence is common. Everybody is hungry and thirsty. Grocery stores are emptied. Fresh water is hard to come by and there’s no efficient system for distributing it.

Within weeks, Rhode Island is a graveyard of billions.

The survivors spread out across the face of the world and struggle to build a new civilization atop the pristine ruins of the old. Our species staggers on, but our population has been greatly reduced. Earth’s orbit is completely unaffected—it spins along exactly as it did before our species-wide jump.

What If?(2014)

Randall Munroe and the Traffic Accident Commission both made excellent hypotheticals to support their arguments, based on solid foundational evidence and sound reasoning.

We're going to practice making a bad hypothetical.

Hypotheticals are very common in proposal arguments where we want to motivate someone to be enthusiastic or afraid about something.

Here's a photo of something innocuous. Use a hypothetical as evidence in a scare campaign about this subject (you can be general or specific):

Write a brief hypothetical to support a scare campaign based on this image. (3-5 sentences)

Here's an example of a scare campaign using hypothetical evidence:

There is a threat that strikes at the very heart of our community. Our precious children, full of life and vitality, are being dragged through the doors of aged care homes, only to be met with longing stares from our elderly residents.

Imagine that, in their desire to recapture lost youth, these seniors start nurturing a secret wish to swap places with their grandchildren!

We've all seen body swaps in movies and books and thought they were science fiction, but what if these visits make our wily senior citizens covet the vibrancy of youth so intensely that they turn all their savings to making body-swap technology real?

We must protect our children, and that's why I propose we immediately pass a law barring anyone under the age of 50 from entering an aged care facility, even on birthdays and Christmas!

In a nutshell

  • Some arguments require us to speculate about the future. These speculations are called hypotheticals.
  • Hypotheticals are made-up scenarios, but ideally they are based on accepted facts (or estimates) and solid reasoning.
  • The better the facts and the reasoning, the more realistic the hypothetical will be.
  • (Alternatively, if the facts & reasoning are bad, then a hypothetical could say anything.)
  • While a hypothetical can't be true, it can be convincing.