Scientific Argumentation

What Is a Scientific Argument?

The word argument evokes many images. Arguments are often verbal disagreements between people with different views. The goal of an argument is to arrive at a conclusion on a topic through a process of logical reasoning that includes debate and persuasion. However, arguments can sometimes involve a lot of emotion, and often people seek to avoid arguments.

In contrast, a scientific argument is a series of claims that are supported by empirical evidence (data acquired by observation or experimentation). The purpose of a scientific argument should be to explain some phenomenon in the natural or social world. 

A Scientific Argument

scientists' claim A scientific argument is not as much an argument as it is a process that scientists follow to guide their research activities. Scientists identify weaknesses and limitations in others’ arguments with the ultimate goal being to refine and improve explanations and experimental designs. Over time, the process of developing scientific knowledge about particular phenomena is similar to participating in one long argument.

The social process in which two or more individuals critique one another’s logic and evidence is known as scientific (evidence-based) argumentation

A Framework for Climate Science Argumentation

The Framework for Climate Science Argumentation shows one strategy for addressing climate skeptics’ claims. The component in green represent the skeptics’ argument (including their claim, evidence, and justification). The components in blue represent the sequence of a typical scientist’s counter-argument. These components include the scientists’ claim, evidence, justification, and rebuttal to the skeptics’ argument. The written and/or oral communication of the arguments is evaluated or critiqued. A well-developed argument provides appropriate and relevant evidence, justifies each type of evidence using scientific explanations, refutes the skeptics’ argument with valid evidence, justifications, and explanations, and references trustworthy scientific resources. 


Scientific argumentation can have either a theoretical (classical) or practical purpose. Theoretical or classical scientific argumentation often involves a disagreement between scientific explanations and involves rebutting or refuting a counter-argument (as shown in the figure above). Empirical evidence (data) is used to justify each explanation, and the controversy focuses on how the evidence (or data) was collected, what evidence can or should be included, and what inferences (or explanations) can be made based on the evidence.

Practical deliberative argumentation is another type of scientific argumentation. Practical deliberative arguments, such as those used to develop policies to address climate 

change, involve not only science, but also social, economic, and environmental considerations. These types of arguments have practical purposes. For example, there are a variety of arguments for implementing different actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By using global climate models, scientists can first project how greenhouse gas emissions are likely to change in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made these projections based on four emission scenarios.


Projected warming for three emissions scenarios Models project the geographical pattern 
 of annual average surface air temperature changes at three future time periods (relative to 
the average temperatures for the period 1961–1990) for three different scenarios of emissions. 
The projected warming by the end of the 21st century is less extreme in the B1 scenario, 
which assumes smaller greenhouse gas emissions, than in either the A1B scenario or the A2 
“business as usual” scenario. Source: National Research Council 2010a

The arguments for specific actions depend on which scenario is used and will have different social, economic, and environmental implications. The cost of reducing emissions today is then compared to the social, economic, and environmental costs of climate change in the future. Arguments can be made for various policies to mitigate––lessen the impact of climate change––and/or adapt to climate change.