Makessense Stop!

by John Holbo on May 13, 2014

When I wasn’t MOOC’ing my heart out this semester, I was trying to help my students improve their writing. In my classes that means: writing fairly short essays that are supposed to contain arguments. The real challenge is getting through to the students who are very bad at this, despite really trying. Good, hardworking students are easy to teach. You point out what’s wrong and they don’t do it anymore, most days. But the hardworking student who persists in submitting terrible stuff can be a real puzzle. You pin and label individual errors. But they just do it again. Teaching ‘informal reasoning’ doesn’t help, mostly. Students who have trouble seeing that there are major problems with their arguments – up to and including: you have no argument – are not assisted by lists of fallacies.

Teaching fallacies is mostly helpful for good students, even though it seems very basic. You are giving names to things they already get, thereby sharpening existing perception. The bad students, by contrast, have more of an ‘if it were a bear, it would have bitten you’ problem. Providing labels – brown, black, grizzly – is not going to help with ‘why did you completely miss it?’

To those of us with the practiced knack for making (and breaking!) arguments (we can’t stop ourselves, except by going to sleep! or watching TV!) it is hard to know what to say to someone who seems to miss the obvious. What more obvious thing can be pointed out, to make the obvious obvious? How can you think you have made an argument, in a short paper, when you haven’t even made a bad one? Isn’t that the sort of mistake that you would have to notice yourself making, while you were in the process of making it? (We all make stupid mistakes in our writing and thinking, of course. This is an important clue. But it still isn’t an answer.)

I took a very bad course in college. It was kind of an ‘intro music appreciation’ something-or-other. I was slumming, as I had been playing French horn for years, and the course didn’t even list ‘ability to read music’ as a prereq. The instructor really wanted us to listen to Mozart and appreciate sonata form. Fair enough. He clearly felt he couldn’t talk about Mozart, in any minimally substantive way, if we didn’t ‘get’ sonata, on some baby-ish level. Again, fair enough. But then the maniac assigned us to write these little sub-sonata sonata compositions. He got around that whole ‘not able to read music’ problem by teaching where middle-C is. From there you just count up or down, right? You can ‘hear’ whether it’s sonata form, right? How hard could it be, if you’ve got ears? Well, everyone failed. I think I got a B-. He yelled at us, blamed us for failing at this simplest of all possible things. His problem was that, for him, ‘creature that can listen to Mozart and sort of hear that it’s a sonata yet can’t analyze sonata form, let alone write the world’s simplest sonata’ was a real ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ problem. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to be us, and he blamed us for it. (Asshole!)

[UPDATE: Now that I think about it, that class was sort of like this.]

This isn’t a perfect analogy. Everyone can make an argument, even though everyone can’t write a sonata. If you’ve misplaced your keys and tried to figure out where you must have left them – congratulations! you’ve made an argument! (We all tell our nervous students this stuff, to give them courage in making arguments.) Even so, the moral applies: don’t get annoyed if students can’t do something that is very intuitive to you. It’s your job to go to them, if they can’t come to you. (Just because someone can look for his keys, doesn’t mean he can write 3-pages on Kant, even though the transcendental deduction really is an argument to the best explanation, and that’s what looking for your keys is!)

What are students doing, when they aren’t making arguments? Here’s one helpful diagnosis, via Jonathan Haidt. (I happened to be teaching Haidt this semester, and when I told students that the following passage amounted to excellent advice about how not to write, some of them found it quite helpful.)

When people are given difficult questions to think about — for example, whether the minimum wage should be raised — they generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming. For example, a person whose first instinct is that the minimum wage should be raised looks around for supporting evidence. If she thinks of her Aunt Flo who is working for the minimum wage and can’t support her family on it then yes, that means the minimum wage should be raised. All done. Deanna Kuhn, a cognitive psychologist who has studied such everyday reasoning, found that most people readily offered “pseudoevidence” like the anecdote about Aunt Flo. Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions. David Perkins, a Harvard psychologist who has devoted his career to improving reasoning, found the same thing. He says that thinking generally uses the “makessense” stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence — enough so that our position “makes sense” — we stop thinking.

Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (pp. 64-65). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

This isn’t rocket science, but it’s better than teaching fallacies because it’s closer to how the actual wheels turn. Students confront a topic. A question you have set them. Point out to your students that, psychologically, they often don’t investigate what they should say, in answer to your question, prior to starting to write. Often, they just pick an answer (maybe one that you have told them is one of several possible, reasonable positions.) Then they write in defense of whatever they picked. This isn’t necessarily a bad method. Just picking a side and seeing how much can be said for it is one way to tackle a many-sided issue. This approach may be the beginning of something systematic. But if you do this without a sense of how basically arbitrary your ‘pick’ was, you distort your own thinking in predictable ways. Specifically, this produces an endowment effect, which can be surprisingly strong. Picking your thesis is kind of like being given a coffee mug. Suddenly, you like your thesis. You are a bit biased towards it. Even though that’s crazy. Five minutes ago you had no opinion about Descartes’ dream argument. Now you ‘know’ you want to defend radical skepticism. Or attack it. Which is kind of nuts.

What does this endowment effect do to your writing? It turns you into a kind of public relations officer for your thesis statement. It’s easy to start spinning and story-telling. You do a little ‘makessense stop’ number, per the passage. The thing that’s important to get across to students is how and why ‘makessense stop’ feels like making an argument. It feels like premises, then conclusion. But it’s not. You have to get the students to see how they mentally baited-and-switched themselves from one form of sense-making to a different kind, usually of a more ‘narrative’ sort. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a flack, certainly not with being a storyteller.)

One way to fight this, which is very traditional, is to tell students that they have to counter-argue against their own argument, whatever it is. This is good advice. But it often fails. What you get, instead of solid counter-argument, which really ought to shape up the argument, is a kind of low or no-contact ‘combat’. A kind of Rashomon fu, with dueling ‘makesense stop’ narratives circling around each other, trying to sound impressive and convincing (as Dale Carnegie says). You get pseudoevidence on both sides. Then the student rather arbitrarily declares a winner. To the student it really looks like, formally, they did what was asked. They made an argument. They argued against their argument. They drew a conclusion.

Here’s something that I tried with a couple students who really were having a great deal of trouble getting past this sort of Rashomon effect problem. Ask them what their thesis is. Then assign them to compose the most attractive-distractorish sort of bad, ‘makessense stop’ argument for their thesis they can think of. Assign them to do the thing they always do anyway – only this time on purpose. Then assign them to explain how and why what they did isn’t a proper argument. You don’t need to make them do this on paper (although that would work, too). This is a good thing to do in office hours, or as a general group exercise in discussion. Just ask the class: ‘give me a really bad, ‘makesense stop’ argument for utilitarianism. Why is it bad? Now another. Why is it bad? Now another. Why is it bad? Now give me a GOOD argument for utilitarianism.’ In addition to making it likely that you will get a good argument, in the end, this is a good way to get discussion going. Telling people to offer a bad argument is more likely to get shy students to talk than asking for good arguments. You aren’t at risk of sounding like a real idiot if you’ve been assigned to pretend to be an idiot.

Forced ‘makessense stop’ is kind of like cognitive therapy for people who don’t argue, but have a hard time seeing this about themselves.

There are lots of interesting, related issues about storytelling vs. argument, which can be profitably discussed at this point. It isn’t clear where the line is between story and argument – or even that there is one. But, before getting on to that more advanced issue, keep it simple. Mostly students don’t write bad arguments because they are superadvanced students of Richard Rorty.

{ 304 comments }

1

shah8 05.13.14 at 7:33 am

You obviously need the services of the fellow indicated here:

http://existentialcomics.com/comic/9

2

reason 05.13.14 at 7:40 am

“except by going to sleep! or watching TV!) “

No that doesn’t work either. I still analyse what is happening on TV and what might be wrong with it, and I solve many problems while I sleep.

3

reason 05.13.14 at 7:55 am

mmm.
My feeling is that there are two ways of resolving disputes, one is a power struggle (shouting or brow beating) and the other is by convincing the other side. So maybe the solution is to ask people how they would go about convincing somebody who was skeptical of their viewpoint. The problem is that the people they know with other viewpoints, avoid being convinced, by avoiding confronting contrary arguments. So you need to ask them to imagine how a neutral would go about deciding the issue.

4

John Holbo 05.13.14 at 8:01 am

“So maybe the solution is to ask people how they would go about convincing somebody who was skeptical of their viewpoint.”

This will typically produce the wrong result because, frankly, ‘makesense stop’ is likely to be as convincing, psychologically, as a good argument. Storytelling and favorable framing are excellent ways to induce belief. If you want someone to believe P, you should avoid properly arguing for it. If you argue for it, you render salient the possibility of -P. You tempt people into the argument zone, and then they might think of a counter-argument. Better just to say: P. Repeatedly.

5

J Thomas 05.13.14 at 8:10 am

“So you need to ask them to imagine how a neutral would go about deciding the issue.”

They might not know anybody who decides issues that way.

Maybe ask them how a logical man from Mars who didn’t really care would decide it.

6

godoggo 05.13.14 at 8:11 am

The one fallacy everybody seems to know is ad hominem, which I find is a really useful heuristic.

7

John Holbo 05.13.14 at 8:15 am

“The one fallacy everybody seems to know is ad hominem.”

Yeah, I know that guy!

8

godoggo 05.13.14 at 8:16 am

I don’t get it.

9

Niall McAuley 05.13.14 at 8:40 am

That’s because you’re stupid!

10

Sasha Clarkson 05.13.14 at 9:34 am

Makesense – Stop! from Flanders and Swann The Reluctant Cannibal:

“If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, He wouldn’t have made us of meat.
… They’ll eat YOU, even if they can’t digest your opinions”

11

J Thomas 05.13.14 at 9:37 am

If the guy is not one of Us but one of Them, and you know he has Our worst interests at heart, why give him a chance to corrupt your thinking?

12

Sam Clark 05.13.14 at 9:39 am

Just because some philosopher has to complain about this, and it might as well be me: the naturalistic fallacy is not, as represented in the ‘Fallacy Man’ comic, the error of thinking that ‘carrots are better than candy, because it comes from nature’ (let’s call that the organic fallacy). The naturalistic fallacy is loosely used to mean the (supposed) error of deriving an ought from an is (better to call that a violation of Hume’s law), or precisely used to mean the error (according to G. E. Moore) of trying to define ‘good’.

13

david 05.13.14 at 10:29 am

The Less Wrong folks have been writing posts like this for years, in a way which is not particularly good intro philosophy, but does get at how folk reasoning normally proceeds, I think. What you call a ‘makesense stop’ argument is what they (and the LW people have names for everything) call a semantic stopsign.

Personally I suspect that the LW classification, despite its good intentions, is really more the product of engaged students reverse-engineering intro philosophy rather than any actual appreciation of how non-engaged students think (despite the handy labeling). In philosophy there’s already a notion of epistemic duty and virtue, a compulsion to engage with the proffered problem. Perhaps some students just don’t feel the same epistemic obligations as their tutor does – if you toss Gettier at them, is their main instinct not “wow, how do I define knowledge to myself” but “this is a completely stupid waste of time, just give me my degree already”?

Surely the motivation for complex rationalizations is not “let’s go over the self-evidently interesting trolley problem once again, now only more slowly” but instead “here is a complex and real-life ethical disagreement with clear mutual appeal, and as we tear down complex rationalizations for each position, we perceive that the core disagreement is the universal trolley problem, so we are sulkily obliged to do readings on it”? i.e., your group sessions may be working because they are group sessions and each student is offering arguments which feel wrong, but not too ineffably wrong, to the others. For the first time they feel like they have an objection that can be formulated at a level they are capable of voicing. You may have much faster progress with fields that your students already feel combative about – perhaps on equity in sports (was that a fair play?) or justice in music (who should receive credit?)

14

david 05.13.14 at 10:39 am

and believe me, a fresher with apparently nothing but contempt for theories of justice can turn out to have a highly-tuned sense of fairness when it comes to whether his football men are being treated right by their coach and their owners.

15

Francis Spufford 05.13.14 at 10:41 am

There is a parallel problem in teaching writing. What you do (or at any rate what I do) is to go over a piece of the student’s work with them in as much detail as they (and you) can stand, pointing out specific things that have gone wrong and right, in relation to their aim for that particular passage: problems of word choice, tone, pace, viewpoint, dialogue, plotting, etc. And you hope that they will then, from this, build for themselves by induction an improved model inside their heads of what it means for writing to succeed. And mostly they do. You tell them once, and off they go and rejig not only their prose but their intentions. But there is a category of students who, while able to take every specific point you make, don’t or won’t or can’t work backwards from the specific to a change in the model. They come back with another set of specific difficulties of the same kind to work through. You have stopped being their teacher and become their editor. And the problem here – probably the point at which the parallel breaks down – is that it is very difficult to see how, for such people, to help create the inductive links that allow the revision of the model. For one thing, the ‘model’ is in fact hopelessly plural and malleable, and only really exists meaningfully in relation to a specific project. The general lessons you can install directly are all truisms. ‘Show, don’t tell’ becomes useful once someone has started to develop an experienced – inductive – sense of how the proportions of showing and telling might be adjusted locally to make a chosen thing happen. I would love to know how to help those for whom this stuff does not come easily.

16

david 05.13.14 at 10:49 am

I do wonder whether such students actually regard fiction that tells instead of showing as feeling worse to them as readers, rather than writers. If they don’t share the same sense of the literary good as the norm, then everything being taught to them may as well be a bafflingly arbitrary magic incantation.

17

Francis Spufford 05.13.14 at 11:05 am

I think I’d locate the bafflement slightly differently. On the whole they do share the same normative sense of the literary good, because successful storytelling works for more or less everyone; and mostly they are also able to see that something is not quite right with their own work, by the normative standards. But in both cases, what they’re not doing is reading like writers. Both with other people’s fiction and their own, they’re not seeing the component pieces of the story as proceeding, imperfectly but intelligibly, from a nice concrete intention that is assembling the story from the materials available to it. Getting a non-instinctual access to the intention that wields the material, showing and telling by turns as necessary, is the knack that lets you get better – and, unfairly enough, refines your instincts so you can hand whole domains of storytelling safely back to them.

18

Steven 05.13.14 at 11:08 am

My trick is to get them to come up with a thesis in response to a research question–but only let them pick a question that they don’t know the answer to, especially ones that they recognize as having more than one answer. They are more likely to look for more evidence and take it seriously, when they are not quite sure what it means yet.

19

david 05.13.14 at 11:15 am

Wait, how do you know that they share the same sense of the literary good? Why should successful storytelling be universally agreed upon – surely the variation of personal experience should have some effect, even amongst students who are all part of the Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic cultural process? How do you know that your students aren’t just guessing what they think you want them to say regarding writing quality?

20

John Holbo 05.13.14 at 11:25 am

“Perhaps some students just don’t feel the same epistemic obligations as their tutor does”

The thought had certainly crossed my mind!

But no. I’m not talking about students who get what I am asking them to do, broadly speaking, but reject the model. There are those, of course. But that’s a very different case.

21

Andy Wilson 05.13.14 at 11:33 am

I find a strong endowment effect with issues like ‘legalisation’ (or not) of drugs. The tendency is to go for legalisation because the internet is filled with advocates who re-produce a range (weak to good) correlations and assumptions to make the case. Taking this position is fine as long as it engages the evidence in a critical way. The advice I give is to adopt the opposite position – if you believe in legalisation take the opposite stance (to try ‘force’ thought about the benefits of regulation backed by criminal sanctions).
It’s a nice idea – it doesn’t work!

22

david 05.13.14 at 11:33 am

… would a student who doesn’t have the same sense of epistemic duty necessarily be capable of recognizing and explicating this to an intimidatingly senior tutor? Eh.

Certainly there are students who would stand up and cry “that isn’t a sonata, this is a sonata!” but such hidden musical prodigies would surely be few and far in between. Rather: Is that a sonata? Well, if you insist, Professor.

23

Francis Spufford 05.13.14 at 11:58 am

Obviously I don’t know that; it’s guesswork and inference on my part, no doubt salted with a healthy amount of my own tastes and prejudices. And the kind of storytelling I am talking about — oops, false universal alert — is fictional practice as it descends from the innovations of the 18th century in Europe. Though now extraordinarily diversified, and internally subdivided in terms of genre, and open to new cultural appropriations apparently without limit, it does have a set of norms which are not self-evident or inevitable consequences of ‘storytelling’ as such, and which mark its difference both from preceding European stories and from other models for fiction around the world. I mean the stuff about the representation of time, characterisation with an eye to individual difference, and the emphasis set on vividness and refreshment of vision rather than on recognised or authorised judgements. There’s a lot of ‘storytelling’ that doesn’t do any of that, and I should have acknowledged it, instead of coming over all Joseph Campbell. But what I can say, is that none of my students who have had difficulties appear to have had them because they are attached to models of storytelling that fall outside the post-18th C consensus. Individual experience and individual taste manifest as preferences within this world of fictional practice, rather than reaching beyond it. I’ve had lots of people who’d rather be writing fantasy or SF than literary fiction — fine by me — but none who seem to yearn to be expressing themselves in Inuit folk-tales or classical Chinese novels. Honestly, I think you need to allow for how basic the point I am making here is. I’m not talking about adherence to any singular model of what a story ought to be, within the broad domain I’ve outlined, only about a set of technical efficiencies (ideologically and culturally and historically saturated, no doubt) that allow a narrative shaped in many ways by personal experience to work communicatively upon the reader.

24

Francis Spufford 05.13.14 at 12:21 pm

I’m going to shut up about writing now. It’s a thread derailment, and I’d rather learn what I’m learning by attending to John H.

25

mdc 05.13.14 at 12:56 pm

Do all the same problems occur in the context of reading arguments? There, the question is not ‘am I being convincing?’, but the more straightforward ‘am I convinced’? (In fact, I think the second is always hidden in the first, where good arguments are concerned.)

26

Matt 05.13.14 at 1:07 pm

Picking your thesis is kind of like being given a coffee mug. Suddenly, you like your thesis. You are a bit biased towards it. Even though that’s crazy.

If, say, you work with students doing moot court (or possibly debate), you see this in spades. In a well done instance, the case is worked up so that there is no winner as a matter of law, so that you can’t just depend on the law winning for you. It’s meant to be a test of advocacy. People are assigned sides randomly. But, teams become very invested in their “side”, and quite passionate that their side is “right”. It’s very strange and a bit disturbing to watch.

27

Matt_L 05.13.14 at 1:09 pm

This is great! I am in the middle of reading senior theses for history undergraduates. We have the same problem. None of them can make an argument. Its devilishly hard and the students struggle with it all semester. Maybe 10% will eventually come up with a thesis statement that argues something specific and significant about their topic. The rest grind out a chronologically organized narrative made up of spare scraps of information they find lying about the internet or on the shelves of the library.

I am going to use your advice in my senior seminar course next semester.

28

david 05.13.14 at 1:15 pm

Certainly misc problematic undergraduate #135,551,281 is not actually objecting due to a preference for Slavic oral tradition. That is a level of sophistication which is far too un-basic; most students will not have read enough world lit to be able to make intelligent comparative study.

I mean, I see what you’re getting at – you don’t have to like, e.g., stream-of-consciousness narrative in order to execute it well, with enough study and appreciation. So a hypothetical rejection of the dominant mode of narrative is likewise not a respectable reason for incompetence. But this presumes a level of intuitive empathy for other modes of narrative construction, and I’m wondering whether that empathy really universally exists to begin with – even only amongst the subset of the student population that self-selects into writing classes.

You (and I) would think: this is pretty darned basic. And yet here we are wondering why yet another cohort of freshmen includes a handful who, by any indication, apparently only a very dim idea of what constitutes an argument, instead of what feels like an argument. These may not be stupid people; if anything, deliberately reading a philosophy course through strenuous imitation without understanding seems harder, not easier. But they might be lacking the appropriate qualia, so to speak. You can compel a blind student to memorize that roses are red, but then you would hardly be surprised when they can’t work backwards to a model for figuring out the colours of non-rose objects.

(And not being able to understand what distinguishes an argument from rhetoric is not actually universally crippling, either – it is itself a product of a political culture that places nominal importance on rationalism and human reason. If the dominant mode was 9th century Asharite occasionalism, an invocation of reason would mark you as a fool; it is tribal unity that wins the day, especially unity in the form of two hundred thousand Mongol horsemen. In such situations, it is Aunt Flo arguments which actually matter; one doesn’t need to be postmodernist to see that rationalist seeking of relationship-destroying truths is not always immediately rewarding. It might not be rewarding for centuries.)

In the age of the Internet and automated spellcheck, there’s plenty of un-edited bad writing out there. Grammatical, spelt coherently, but delivered badly. Do these get no readers whatsoever? On the contrary, I’ve seen some of these receive non-sarcastic support like: I like this, you should write more of these. And then the hapless writer goes to college and takes writing classes, I presume.

29

Trader Joe 05.13.14 at 1:16 pm

Sometimes asking for very brief outlines helps. Many students get so lost in BSing their way through an argument so that they can puff up the word/page count they lose complete track of the fact that they are writing something which is more akin to informal speaking than analytical writing.

Using a form of something like: Thesis, three main arguments, 2-3 supports for each argument – perhaps 12 lines of total outline. Forcing the brevity sometimes helps them see where the support is lacking.

That said – some students just can’t seem to think this way. Its like they are only wired for non-linearity, leaps of thought and anecdatal proof….for which I’ll blame TV news shows which allows an expert 30 seconds to give his view on say, why the Iraq war was good – in 30 seconds someone might make it sound sensible, any longer than that it would have no hope.

30

MPAVictoria 05.13.14 at 1:25 pm

I just want to say that I enjoyed this post and the comments more than I thought possible given the topic. So bravo to all.

31

MPAVictoria 05.13.14 at 1:28 pm

“Grammatical, spelt coherently, but delivered badly. Do these get no readers whatsoever? On the contrary, I’ve seen some of these receive non-sarcastic support like: I like this, you should write more of these. “

You have been reading online erotica I see….

32

marcel 05.13.14 at 1:34 pm

On a purely pedantic note, …

Everyone can make an argument, even though everyone can’t write a sonata.

This is clearly wrong, since I can present not one (Mozart), not two (and Beethoven), not three (and Haydn) but many, many (and a lot of other composers) have written what are generally recognized as sonatas. I think Professor Holbo’s intended point is more accurately stated as,

Everyone can make an argument, even though not everyone can write a sonata.

33

marcel 05.13.14 at 1:35 pm

I should read before clicking “Submit”. My comment, correctly stated, is:

On a purely pedantic note, …

Everyone can make an argument, even though everyone can’t write a sonata.

This is clearly wrong, since I can present not one (Mozart), not two (and Beethoven), not three (and Haydn) but many, many (and a lot of other composers have written what are generally recognized as sonatas) counter-examples. I think Professor Holbo’s intended point is more accurately stated as,

Everyone can make an argument, even though not everyone can write a sonata.

34

david 05.13.14 at 1:41 pm

I was actually thinking of closely-related topic of fanfic, particularly the (possibly universal?) patterns that show up between highly disparate communities of writers. Take the example of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The Trekkies invented the label of a ‘Mary Sue’ in the 70s, and every American pop-cultural phenomenon since has made the same observation of their own waves of amateur fan-written fiction. But it’s not obvious, I think, that the disapproval is actually universal, particularly amongst the writers thereof.

In a world where there are museums for naïve_art, it’s possible that the most accurate remark to these writers is not that their writing is fundamentally bad, but that almost all readers would find it repellent, for reasons which are hard to pin down but eh, the universe is unfair. Perhaps another course would be more suited to you, o student. Try accountancy.

But your example is a better one, I think. If there’s a field of narrative writing where personal tastes as to good delivery clearly vary extremely widely, it’s erotica.

35

MPAVictoria 05.13.14 at 1:45 pm

“If there’s a field of narrative writing where personal tastes as to good delivery clearly vary extremely widely, it’s erotica.”

And how!

http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2014/05/friday-creatures-feature-dont-think-youre-ready-jellyfish-edition#more-58668

36

Nick 05.13.14 at 2:02 pm

This is probably a sign that I’ve gotten old and tired of thinking at all, but I think the example of a bad argument (Aunt Flo and the minimum wage) is actually about the best argument possible for raising the minimum wage. The only thing wrong with it is that it’s completely unanswerable, and so probably useless — where would academics be if issues were settled?

But as I said, I’ve reached the life stage of re-reading all the books I know I like, so I’m probably not the guy to ask.

37

John Holbo 05.13.14 at 2:04 pm

Everyone can make an argument, even though not everyone can write a sonata.

Indeed, I am not a sonata denialist. All scope ambiguities should be resolved accordingly.

38

david 05.13.14 at 2:07 pm

@37

Can everyone distinguish an argument from persuasive rhetoric? @36 seems to be volunteering as Exhibit A for the prosecution…

39

William Timberman 05.13.14 at 2:10 pm

Arguments I have heard, or read about:

From my own adolescence,

1. Better dead than red!
2. But with nuclear weapons….
3. Commie! Come on boys, let’s show this pinko what we think about commies around here.

From slightly further back in history,

1. There’s lots of surplus value to be extracted from cotton.
2. White people aren’t at all suited to the work of extraction, black people are ideally suited to it.
3. Africans are better off doing this work for us as our slaves than living as savages in their native country.
4. By advocating an end to slavery, Yankees are showing their ignorance of 1,2, and 3, and not coincidentally, their malice toward us. What they really intend is to bankrupt us, and destroy our sacred way of life.
5. Fort Sumter.

I don’t think that my exposure to the Mongolian horde form of argument, as described by david@26, and exemplified above, is at all untypical, although I have only anecdotal evidence to support my thesis.

Philosophers, and other kinds of rigorous thinkers, seem to me very good at abstracting principles from a more or less undifferentiated mass of cognitive possibilities, and at banging them against one another more or less systematically over time. No doubt this has done us all a lot of good, but the very process of abstraction involved ab initio, raises doubts that such thinking can ever actually clear the fog we’re embedded in.

40

david 05.13.14 at 2:23 pm

I suspect resolution of disagreements via physical threats backed up by family/friend networks, i.e., William Timberman’s #3, are more common in the lives of some of our students than is generally perceived.

Not very common, of course – this is the industrial life – but it does exist.

Really, “no, Virginia, anecdata from your cousin’s life experiences doesn’t constitute knowledge” is only a sensible standard if you are culturally inclined toward believing instead in supposedly neutral experts making incomprehensible manipulations of data gathered by allegedly non-partisan bureaucracies – in particular, that this bureaucracy will also protect you if word gets out that you’re going around publicly doubting your cousin. Likewise, you’re not also supposed to endorse anything on the mere basis that your relatives will benefit materially from it being the case – rhetorically, at least, you are supposed to allude to universal and shared experiences.

Surely the importance of accurately describing a underlying shared physical reality, rather than flattering an existing web of human relationships (which happens to be backed with the underlying threat of force), is something that is context-dependent?

41

david 05.13.14 at 2:24 pm

Gellner, primitive vs industrial cognition, multi-stranded vs single-stranded thinking…

42

Phil Koop 05.13.14 at 2:40 pm

“Better just to say: P. Repeatedly.”

LOL. That view was memorably presented in my 2nd-favourite political cartoon of all time: http://bizarrocomic.blogspot.com/2008/11/bizarro-is-brought-to-you-today-by.html.

43

Rakesh Bhandari 05.13.14 at 2:43 pm

Argument is only one way to persuade–perhaps this should be recognized up-front.

Advertisers attempt to persuade people to make purchases most often without argument, and students are most familiar and thus likely comfortable with the kinds of persuasion that an advertiser is likely to try.

To introduce argument, I have assigned John Shand (Arguing Well), Alec Fisher (Logic of Real Argument and Critical Thinking) and Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein (They Say, I Say). Andrea Lunsford and Michael Billig are also quite good at bringing out the implicit arguments in everyday life.

I think it would be interesting to discuss what makes the Aunt Flo story only pseudo-evidence for raising the minimum wage. I would not be so dismissive of the story. Is there any reason to believe that Aunt Flo’s situation is atypical of those who survive on the minimum wage? Or is the point that simply relating Aunt Flo’s story provides no argument as for what life opportunities even minimum wages should offer? Or is the fear that personalizing working poverty makes it impossible to have a “rational” discussion of what the minimum wage should be?

44

Witt 05.13.14 at 2:49 pm

I would be curious to know how your students’ writing changed (if at all) if you hammered home the point from your very first class that when you say “argument” it bears NO RELATION to the common meaning of the word.

I do policy advocacy and communications for a living — which is to say I work to convince people of things and get them to act on them — and I make arguments all the time. But I’m pretty sure that I haven’t made a philosophical-type argument since I left Intro to Philosophy ~20 years ago.

Shorter me: If you want students to learn a new-to-them style of argument, you have to make it cognitively easier for them to set aside what they already know, and what works in every other corner of their lives, about “making an argument.”

45

William Timberman 05.13.14 at 2:56 pm

david @ 40

Precisely. To think that this — not to mention television, hyperlinking, texting, twittering. and all the other ADHD-inducing elements of a modern life — has no bearing at all on the perceived reasoning skills of young people plunked down in a college classroom after 18+ years of TCV (Total Cultural Verwirrung) is a bit like believing in the tooth fairy.

John Holbo has my respect, and my sympathy, and so do all the other contributors to CT, but I do wonder whether, despite their heroic rear-guard action, we’re not almost at the point of throwing up our hands, hiding all the books and our daughters, and waiting for the madness to pass. (If it isn’t madness, but rather the birth pangs of a new cultural phoenix, than it’s not our problem. In other words, color me agnostic.)

46

Shelley 05.13.14 at 3:08 pm

I don’t want to assign argument papers because I just don’t have time to refute the misinformation in every sentence.

With misinformation validated in the larger media, how can it be discredited in a shaky undergraduate paper?

Sigh.

47

SusanC 05.13.14 at 3:08 pm

1. I don’t think “looking for your keys” is a good example of an argument, because this is a situation where we are faced with the falibility of our own cognitive processes:

- If my perception of the world and my memory of my past perceptions was completely reliable, I would not be worrying about where my keys were in the first place: I would know where I had put them
– Maybe they’re on the kitchen table (that’s where I think I usually put them). Suppose I have a memory that I have already checked there today, and my keys weren’t there. How much trust should I place in that memory being real? Should I recheck, just in case?

Never mind the deceiver hypthesized by Descartes, my memory, perception and cognition and evidently so poor that I can’t even locate my car keys…

By contrast, in the philosophical argument game, the usual social convention is you’re allowed to pretend that the speaker and listener are some kind of idealized rational entity, despite strong hints that this might not be the case for actually existing human beings.

2. “Rational argument” is a rather special kind of writing genre, with unusual and specific rules. Students often seem to find hard the kind of reasoning required for mathematical proof: they’re better in concrete cases than they are with anything that has a universal quantifier in front of it (“For all integers X …”). Philosophical arguments are not quite mathematical proofs (compare Plato’s Meno) but have something of the same difficult, unnatural quality.

3. Even writers who are quite clearly philosophers doing philosophy don’t stick to the rules (at least, the Continental ones don’t). Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir, Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo don’t always follow the genre convention.

48

Anarcissie 05.13.14 at 3:12 pm

A relative who teaches or taught computer programming told me that, with each class that came along, there were a certain number of quite intelligent students who couldn’t get it, in the sense that they sort of knew what was going on, but could not do it themselves no matter how hard they tried. This was hard for us to understand because we’re ‘naturals’ — both of us could do it about as soon as we heard about it. Yet it’s a very peculiar form of thinking, breaking a problem down into very tiny, seemingly unrelated pieces while retaining the overall flow and direction of the work.

Probably similarly, there are people who can’t learn a new language, although they have no trouble at all with those they learned in childhood, and people who can’t learn to draw, even though they possess good vision and muscular coordination. or who can’t learn a musical instrument, although they can ‘carry a tune’ and know a lot about music.

I think making a good argument and telling a story well (according to our, or someone’s lights) are probably similar talents, largely intuitive faculties which are actually not well understood.

49

EB 05.13.14 at 3:19 pm

No (yet) is making the observation that students who find it difficult to construct an argument may have had no experience with that format in high school. Many, many high school writing assignments are not very demanding on this score; they allow students to veer off into strongly-held opinion or widely-held opinion; they allow snippets of internet research to stand in for authoritative sources; they don’t require any attempt to find countervailing evidence, etc.

At the same time, I’m a big fan of the type of researcg.writing assignment that does not rest on argument. When the goal is not to form an argument but to absorb and assess a body of already-exissting knowledge and characterize it in some way, students have the opportunity to see experts in the field developing their own analyses, which often include elements of argumentation, and to get conversant and comfortable with what argumentation really is in a situation where they do not have to construct an argument themselves.

50

Phil Koop 05.13.14 at 3:20 pm

I don’t believe that it is necessary to start with an endowment of the “leaning one way or the other” type. Nor is lack of motivation a complete explanation. It may not seem so for those who enjoy argument, I but I think that the effort required to formulate an argument can be aversive in itself, and that in many cases this is sufficient explanation.

One sees this clearly in a neutral setting such as the bridge table, where there are no strong prior beliefs in play and declarer is generally strongly motivated to succeed. And yet, very often a weak declarer counts his likely tricks, sees, say, that a winning finesse will land the contract, and proceeds to take the finesse. Declarer is not positively arguing that the finesse is likely to succeed, merely observing that it offers a possibility of success. “Makessensestop.” This is an “endowment” only in the sense of ready availability.

The ability to go further involves many elements that go into formulating a good argument: generation of alternative hypotheses (“Is LHO really likely to hold the Queen?”, “Might the Queen drop doubleton?”, “Can I throw in RHO?”), consideration of the evidence supporting these hypotheses (“Is the bidding consistent with my picture of the hand? Is the opening lead?”), and contingent reasoning (“If the finesse does not succeed, I cannot make the contract; therefore I must assume it will succeed. What are the implications of this assumption?”)

None of these elements seems difficult and the poor player has likely seen (and indeed paid to see) many expositions of similar hands, and understood them after the fact. And yet he does not think this way at the table. I think that much of the difference between good and poor players is that the former enjoy this process of reasoning whereas the latter find it disagreeable.

If you could find a way to reverse this preference, you could turn bad players into good ones; yes, and turn many weak writers into strong ones too.

51

Trader Joe 05.13.14 at 3:34 pm

@50
The problem is the output suggests the students aren’t even asking these sort of questions. Even if you prompt them that the question to be addressed: “Is LHO really likely to hold the Queen?”

The support would be along the lines of 1) He spent a lot of time sorting his cards 2) He prefers country music and Queen is a rock band 3) He bid 2 spades. All of which might be true and supported with cited examples (credible or not) but none of which sheds any light on whether there is any case for LHO holding the queen.

In their mind, these are well supported logical strands since they involve cards, the game of bridge, the word Queen all of which appeared in the question to be addressed.

52

bianca steele 05.13.14 at 4:05 pm

Really, “no, Virginia, anecdata from your cousin’s life experiences doesn’t constitute knowledge” is only a sensible standard if

Isn’t this a strawman argument? Though I couldn’t say I’ve never heard it before . . . so, is there a fallacy called something like “stick internet troll” [1] argument?

The statement of the anecdote strikes me as a very simplified version of trying to get students to understand why you need to know statistics, not a broad statement that facts about individual cases should have no bearing on conclusions about public policy. Though I would guess that someone who thinks “I know someone who can’t get by on minimum wage,” characterized the way it is, isn’t any kind of evidence for raising the minimum wage, is inclined against raising the minimum wage and has a possibly unreasonable standard for evidence in favor of raising it.

[1] as in the three little pigs: straw, sticks, brick

53

Harold 05.13.14 at 4:25 pm

Being able to self correct is an important ability. I think in teaching music or languages having someone deliberately make the mistake can be a useful way of promoting awareness. Another way is presenting examples of the right and wrong way and asking the person to distinguish which is which. You have to be careful, it can make the person very upset and even angry and discouraged when they realize they have been doing something “incorrectly”! (It is probably better to mostly present positive models of the thing you want to teach.) When my four-year-old had a severe speech impairment the therapist would sometimes pronounce a word two ways and ask him which was right. He could hear the difference in other people’s speech but was unable to monitor his own speech sounds. Eventually, he developed virtually flawless diction (it took 3 years) and would be the one the teacher chose to read things aloud in class.

54

Lee A. Arnold 05.13.14 at 4:27 pm

John Holbo : “It isn’t clear where the line is between story and argument – or even that there is one.”

Strongly disagree. A lot of people do draw a clear line between story and argument: people “bracket” [pull out, put aside, consider] a story as a fiction, with a beginning and an end. Not all people bracket arguments in that way.

Some people bracket arguments as if the conduct of real life depends upon it. It verges upon the “political tribalism” territory. To them, “argument” means “advocacy”. Thus to them, there is no “good” argument for utilitarianism, because utilitarianism has not been universally adopted: i.e., none of the advocacy worked.

Are these students clear that an argument must include both viewpoints, like the protagonist/antagonist in a story?

Maybe argument sometimes needs to be taught by putting it into a real story: i.e., by holding a debate.

There, two viewpoints are argued against each other, to form the “conflict” of a story. By agreement, only one side wins the debate, and gets a prize, the MacGuffin. One way to teach argument might be to hold a debate, or five or six a year, before the full class audience, and impartial teacher judges the winner (the story “climax”) and then teaches the basis of the decision in the next lecture (the “denouement”).

Not easily done for MOOCs, unless someone gets to work on software that splits the screen and prints the argument points (and judge’s response) in prose, maybe in realtime, under the talking heads. Who knows, the internet might improve argument!

55

Dogenfrost 05.13.14 at 4:34 pm

What happens if you spend a couple or three weeks teaching them the basics of Formal Symbolic Logic, with little story-puzzles that demonstrate how to use it in real life?

56

Anarcissie 05.13.14 at 4:38 pm

Some people with highly complex, integrated views of life will have a hard time applying formal logic to the so-called real world (I mean the one of lived experience).

57

marcel 05.13.14 at 4:46 pm

Everyone can make an argument, even though everyone can’t write a sonata.

Perhaps what you (JH) need for your students is an argument clinic.

58

TM 05.13.14 at 4:54 pm

Why would your students be better at making arguments than the pundits or politicians they watch on TV? Our culture simply doesn’t provide much of a positive model. What would you expect?

59

david 05.13.14 at 5:00 pm

bianca steele @52, possibly you are being distracted by the topic of the minimum wage, rather than the chosen method of argument.

Have you never had… say, a student from South or Central Asia, or Southeastern Europe, and had the topic of discussion stray onto anything tangentially related to some nationalist dispute du jour? There are large numbers of people who will genuinely stop at anecdotes and ethnic-national mythologizing, not move on to statistics. The usual form of the argument is not “I have relatives who can’t get by on minimum wage”, it’s “I have relatives who were beaten up by Russians/Turkmen/etc.”. And that is your cue to end the discussion, because young nationalist gentlemen can get quite disruptive if their clueless fellow students defend the relevant ethnicity too much. This is a decently common campus version of Timberman’s own Dixie anecdote.

I mean, your instinct is to see anecdotes as relevant but nonetheless subordinate to statistics. That’s exactly the point, isn’t it? You wage argumentative war with a claim about universal experience and shared reality, a Fact, and you expect your opponent to do the same, if badly, and you expect to resolve the argument via adding more and more facts and then appealing to public reason and universal interest – not blood relatives or ethnic brotherhood – on the aggregated facts. But it’s possible to grow up, even in the West, entirely missing the memo about ‘proper’ discourse. Indeed, as Rakesh Bhandari @43 noted, commercial advertisement (and its persuasion via appeals to affiliation) is pretty common. It’s not a high-SES mode of discourse, but it’s prevalent, and you might not get that it’s not a high-SES discourse.

60

NickS 05.13.14 at 5:11 pm

my 2nd-favourite political cartoon of all time:

I am slightly confused by that cartoon.

Does it assume that the reader knows that Plato was, in some cases, a proponent of the “noble lie” and that Rove is genuinely asking Plato for his support. Or is Plato just supposed to stand in for a generic “ancient philosopher” and “seeker of truth” and we are to read him as appalled by Rove’s complete disregard for Truth as a thing to seek.

61

mud man 05.13.14 at 5:51 pm

Seems people today don’t want to disagree up close and personal, and that’s where argumentation lives. These days its important to be in with the crowd, for young people more than ever.

For mass annihilation of enemy aliens, you want fire-and-forget weapons. The archers of Crecy and like that.

62

bianca steele 05.13.14 at 5:52 pm

david,

I’ve never taught (TAing mathy computer science classes, you don’t run into this problem much), so I haven’t had students. I’ve certainly seen classes get derailed by the kind of thing you describe, enough that I’m really puzzled by your statement that it’s only by people of a certain race who do it.

The two situations seem to have an important difference. The student who says “Aunt Flo [really?] can’t make ends meet” seems to me (as someone who, as an undergraduate, was not uninclined to make arguments like these) to be saying that she knows from personal experience that there is at least one person for whom the minimum wage is insufficient. To me, I think the distance from a simple statement of an anecdote to an actual argument is quite small (to someone who’s heard people argue that no one starves in the US, for example, an anecdote about one person starving would seem perfectly relevant). Obviously one piece of evidence is not an argument yet, but the claim (admittedly, probably taken out of context and thus seeming stronger than was intended) is that it’s not evidence. The student who says “they killed my grandparents’ friends” is not coming as close to an argument, that I can see, though I don’t know the context.

However, I don’t see why we’re slipping from “what is an argument” to “what kinds of statements should be discouraged in classroom discussion (or they’ll pull the class off-track).”

63

John Garrett 05.13.14 at 6:06 pm

I wonder whether this problem is getting better or worse as a new generation of college students arrives. I would hypothesize that it is worse now, with the “whatever” generation. It seems to me that with one sided statements flourishing on the media, and often at home, young adults are reluctant to talk about topics where there may be disagreement, with “whatever” ending the discussion. Seems to me, in retrospect, all we did in college was debate, with everybody from the Birchies to the Maoists joining in, and all except perhaps the PWP remaining relatively civil. My sense is that just doesn’t happen now.

JG

64

Harold 05.13.14 at 6:07 pm

The “noble lie” as I understood it, involved, not a base and blatant deception, but rather a truth presented in a form that people could readily absorb and that was not only not incompatible with truth but rather would facilitate understanding of truth. Something like what is explained here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Lee

65

Harold 05.13.14 at 6:12 pm

I agree with a lot of what people have observed about our popular discourse on this thread. Particularly the idea of advocacy having largely replaced deliberative debate (or whatever it is called).

66

roy belmont 05.13.14 at 6:22 pm

Rakesh Bhandari:

Dude, bizarro/Dan Piraro is/was my hero comix guy for years but then he disappeared from the usual outlet and I thought he disappeared from everywhere.
Current link found thanks to you
http://bizarrocomics.com/
Much gratitude.

67

BananaGuard 05.13.14 at 6:31 pm

There is a right way and a wrong way to do things.

That, I think, is the often unexamined starting point for everyone in a classroom. Students come armed to think in the “right” way, and their instructors come armed in a very different “right” way. Holbo seems to understand that very clearly.

When the person in the front of the classroom (or within the book’s covers or whatever) has an actual grasp of an academic discipline and the way(s) of thinking used in that discipline, then the job is to make students understand the discipline’s way(s) of thinking. That job usually involves telling the students that their ” right” way is actually wrong. You are asking them to put down their old way of thinking, the way that is “right” to them when they arrive. For some of us, that just isn’t possible. For many, it’s very hard. “Good” students are the one’s who seem to grasp that in signing up for a class (or picking up a book), they are asking to learn a new way of thinking, a new “right” way, which means putting down the old “right” way. Bad students don’t necessarily disagree. They simply can’t conceive of what it means to set aside their own way of thinking.

The difference between your “good” students and the ones you have avoided labeling “bad” may be that one has arrived actively and willingly plastic, while the other has no real appreciation for what “actively and willingly plastic” might mean.

68

shah8 05.13.14 at 6:46 pm

Isn’t this education problem a more global version of Ben Goldacre’s point that ““You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”

People have a whole host of not very well defined ideologies that other people have taught them to invest their sense of self in–replete with terminal arguments on all sorts of crazy things. A few people have a lot of trouble disassociating themselves from any sort of adversarial role. I mean, imagine a Seventh Day Adventist having to argue that the Polynesian concept of divinity is just as correct as their own. How many of them would be able to set aside their belief structure, just to argue? I imagine that 99% of the work is getting students not to go “if you say so…” defensiveness/cluelessness at any stage of the pedagogy.

Moreover, people with certain psychological pathologies, like what characterizes dry drunks, can have difficulties psychologically separating themselves from what they are doing. Other people, like me, for example, will have trouble with certain kinds of short term memory, and clear mental abstraction is very laborious. I only barely passed Set Theory back in the day, and I could understand circuits, but have severe trouble retaining that understanding. The only way around that sort of trouble is pretty much supervised “chop wood” until said student doesn’t have to load into that bad memory, if that’s the problem. Labor intensive, I think.

Hmmm, whole arguments? or sound out all the bits and pieces all tedious-like?

69

ben w 05.13.14 at 6:55 pm

“makesense stop” seems like a decent explanation for why many of Holbo’s posts have their characteristic baffling structure and non-obvious thrust: their author, perhaps, finds an argumentative frame and form that makes sense to him and proceeds to write without first questioning whether someone who does not already know the point will be able to recover it.

(I say this with love, John.)

70

david 05.13.14 at 6:58 pm

It’s not intrinsic to ‘people of a certain race’ – it was the first instance that came to mind where a Western academic might actually encounter a recognizably alien and proudly defended form of discourse, without any prior mental preparation to brush it off.

The student who says “Aunt Flo [really?] can’t make ends meet” seems to me (as someone who, as an undergraduate, was not uninclined to make arguments like these) to be saying that she knows from personal experience that there is at least one person for whom the minimum wage is insufficient. To me, I think the distance from a simple statement of an anecdote to an actual argument is quite small…

Well, there are two problems here. The first is the failure to understand that personal testimony doesn’t qualify as an authority when writing exposition – that this skepticism isn’t a personal attack on one’s trustworthiness, but a standard that makes reasoned public deliberation in a diverse society possible. You know Aunt Flo, but the reader doesn’t, so all that has been achieved is to give the reader cause to suspect any professed neutrality. Again: universal values and shared experiences. Aunt Flo the starving minimum-wage two-job single mother is no more relevant than Aunt Flo the Cadillac-driving lobster-eating welfare queen, no matter how well you claim to know either.

And the second is the special pleading regarding the distance between anecdote and argument. The work is being done by the perceived shortness of the distance, not by the anecdote, so it is the mental framework of distances that has to be explained in the essay.

The student who says “they killed my grandparents’ friends” is not coming as close to an argument, that I can see, though I don’t know the context.

And here I think you are being deliberately obtuse. Take the open white supremacist (an admittedly much rarer creature on American campuses). If they go on and on about the black men who attacked their cousin, do you really feel utterly unable to guess what argument they are fishing for? Or do you wring your hands and say, well, assaults do happen, here are my sympathies for your cousin and condemnations of his/her attackers?

71

Matthew 05.13.14 at 7:21 pm

It sounds like the problem with your students’ writing is that they attempt a narrative explanation of their thesis rather than an actual logical defense of it. I think part of why some students have trouble seeing the difference is because they don’t get very many examples of actual argumentation in school. Almost all of the crap that schools assign students to read are narratives of one form or another–most reading is done in english and history classes, which both heavily emphasize reading narratives (even if they, too, try to get students to write arguments). All of the other classes feature text books that explain but don’t argue–phyisics textbooks, for example, tell you to memorize Newton’s laws of motion or whatever, but don’t actually attempt to provide a proof (exception here is math–the only textbooks that regularly provide proofs, though american schools tend to skip over them).

Schools should substitute out much of their reading curriculum in favor of reading persuasive essays. I’m a strong proponent of the idea that humans learn primarily through emulating examples, so we should provide students with good examples of what we expect from them, and in time they will understand what makes those examples good.

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TM 05.13.14 at 7:29 pm

49: “Many, many high school writing assignments are not very demanding on this score; they allow students to veer off into strongly-held opinion or widely-held opinion; they allow snippets of internet research to stand in for authoritative sources; they don’t require any attempt to find countervailing evidence, etc.”

And the same is often true in college. Students don’t come up with these poor habits themselves, they have learned them somewhere.

73

Harold 05.13.14 at 7:44 pm

I agree that *some* essays should be taught. When I was in high school, Addison and Charles Lamb were still being read in high school (though in ultra-minute doses). Most young (especially) people simply glaze over when such material is introduced, however. Indeed, I can remember skimming, with tears of boredom in my eyes, any quotation that involved a change in register from the main text. Now I love such quotations.

74

Omega Centauri 05.13.14 at 8:04 pm

As others have mentioned, your students are deeply embedded in the popular culture. And one phemomena of recent populat culture has been increasingly sophisticated psycological advocacy. Those who are seen on TV and on average increasingly exposed to this -particularly political junkies, but also commercial advertising. So they’ve had a couple of decades practice thinking -and reacting this way. Cluing them into the fact, that what for them appears to be natural thinking style can lead to dangerously wrong conclusions won’t be an easy process. And to be fair rigorous thinking requires a lot of discipline, for most it just isn’t fun.

75

BananaGuard 05.13.14 at 8:18 pm

Matthew,

Yes, exactly. If narrative is their “right” way to think, but wrong in the context of a class featuring argumentation, somebody needs to make the distinction between narrative and argumentation. If nobody makes that distinction, then all they are able to hear is “wrong, wrong, wrong”. What’s wrong about a given mental behavior is instructive, but not very instructive unless the contrast with right behavior. Narrative vs argument is a dichotomy that might help.

Once, in a riding class in which nobody was making any progress – including me – I asked myself why a bunch of people sitting on horses were not getting better at riding. Sit on a horse outside a class and you get better with time, so this class was worse than just sitting on a horse without instruction. Then it hit me – the instructor was only telling students what they were doing wrong. He offered no “right” behavior as a substitute. He never contrasted right and wrong behavior so that we could get past knowing a long list of things not to do. There is a pretty wide variety of behaviors that are wrong on horseback, and we were all learning about those wrong behaviors, one at a time, as we invented them. All we heard was “wrong, wrong, wrong”. You never want that to be the only thing a student hears. Tell a student that they haven’t presented an argument, and they hear “wrong”.

76

Main Street Muse 05.13.14 at 9:09 pm

First of all, John – didn’t you have thousands of MOOC students? HOW on earth can you possible give feedback/grade all those papers? I honestly don’t see how massive on-line courses can really help students understand the intricacies of the argument. So many voices! So removed from each other by the miracle of online communication!

I teach public speaking and persuasive writing (two separate courses.) I come from the private sector, after years in the communications field as a freelancer, where I had a good amount of work because many, many, many people have no idea how to string sentences together.

My biggest shock when I started teaching – how appallingly uneducated students are in 1) writing; and 2) arguing a cogent and persuasive case for anything. (What happened to the comma? Why doesn’t anyone understand how to use apostrophes? Or, as my students like to write: apostrophe’s!)

My students (primarily American, Southern, Christian – though I’ve had international students and some American Muslim students as well) are not stupid. They have, however, grown up in a world where there are no arguments, only broad claims stated as fact – in news media outlets that make it easy to hear only one side of a story (Fox, MSNBC, etc.) Some arguments my students may or may not have heard:

“47% of Americans will vote for the president no matter what.” When we look at Romney’s speech about moochers and takers in our class, I point out that all of us are at a state university, and thus fall within his definition of “moocher and taker.”

I ask when NSA spying started; most will say this started with Obama (it is all Obama’s fault – all of it!) I show them evidence that the NSA itself started more than half a century ago, when the enemy was communist. I also not that 9/11 (when Bush was president) expanded the nature of government spying. A shock to all in the room.

All of us have grown up in a world where arguments are never really anything more than statements strung together. No one makes a valid case for anything it seems. And this is not new to Millennials.

I think “Paying for the Party” makes a terrible case for the argument that inequality is fostered by colleges – following one floor of freshmen women at one university and announcing that those students conclusively show that “college maintains inequality” is not a well-argued thesis. But this book has become widely discussed (even here on CT) and in some cases, accepted as fact. That this cohort of freshman women was also part of the class of 2008 makes the case even weaker – following a group of students who graduated in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is really a bummer if you want to make a case about upward/downward mobility of college students.

My students never heard of the domino theory, but I am old enough to remember when ALL of Asia would fall like dominoes to communism if we did not stop Viet Nam from becoming communist. Many Americans firmly believe Saddam Hussein was in control of those planes that flew into the World Trade Centers on that awful day in September and that we went to war in Iraq to prevent the smoking gun from being a mushroom cloud (thank you Condi!)

Arguing is an art form. Most do not have the discipline or the inclination to do it well.

77

Main Street Muse 05.13.14 at 9:15 pm

[I cannot believe no one has posted any links to Stop Making Sense! So I will… here’s a link to Burning Down the House: http://bit.ly/1mSWEgs

“… and you have not seen nuthin’ yet
Everything’s stuck together
I don’t know what you expect starring into the TV set
Fighting fire with fire”

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bianca steele 05.13.14 at 9:25 pm

universal values and shared experiences

No. Incidentally, which of those is statistics?

79

david 05.13.14 at 9:44 pm

Um… both? presumably a common acknowledgement of the relevance of frequentist and/or bayesian reasoning (including the rough nature of the null/priors), the neutrality of any data sources, and the appropriateness of the model and bundled assumptions used to construct the statistical argument?

Hence, universal values to provide the theory, shared experiences to provide plausibility to shared stylized assumptions, and both to motivate recognition of the same data authorities?

more likely, given that most people are not experts in every field over which they care to have a passionately-held opinion, such commonalities are instead in the form of who we trust to interpret knowledge on our behalf. “scientists”, “scientific consensus”, &c.

80

Sasha Clarkson 05.13.14 at 10:56 pm

Shah @68 “You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”

That may often be true, but perhaps you can stop them using sloppy reasoning to justify prejudice. When I was 16, I read Robert Thoulless’ Straight And Crooked Thinking It helped me understand the flaws in others’ reasoning, but I still had a tendency to confuse my own prejudices with informed opinion. However, that changed in 1977, strangely enough when I encountered Professor Gordon Dunstan whilst taking a theology subsidiary at King’s College London. (My degree was Chemistry with Mathematics: Dunstan’s speciality was ethics.)

Examination was via two long essays. I wrote my first one on “Justice”. I thought it was a beaut – until I had to receive it back and discuss it with Prof D. Gently, kindly, thoroughly, he demolished my pristine prose and made me ashamed of it. For example, I described Mr Justice Melford Stephenson as “a latter day Hanging Judge” Prof D’s terse annotation: “How many people has he hung?” Another annotation: “Where is your evidence?” I took my medicine and he passed me, but I never forgot the lesson and was always grateful for it.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/RPO930QU386FQ/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#RPO930QU386FQ

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1452031/The-Rev-Professor-Gordon-Dunstan.html

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Nick 05.13.14 at 11:36 pm

I made my earlier comment because this thread seems very typical of an approach that simply and easily dismisses entire fields of human endeavour. David’s commment:

“The first is the failure to understand that personal testimony doesn’t qualify as an authority when writing exposition “

sounds like a critique of humanity by an economist. What about anthropology? This is a field where the statement “My aunt Flo can’t get by on minimum wage” is the foundation of basic understanding. I don’t really care much one way or another about this argument, I thought the original post was interesting but the comment thread is less so — but do you really think that if you’re dismissing narrative, people who analyze problems in terms of lived experience, that you’re really that great of a teacher?

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Harold 05.14.14 at 1:07 am

Aunt Flo could be a very good argument, but one must also make a case that Aunt Flo is representative.

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bianca steele 05.14.14 at 1:21 am

The more I think about it, the more I’m realizing that the Deanna Kuhn research sounds like it somehow maybe tangentially recapitulates the Kohlberg-Gilligan controversy, which is interesting, because it would be interesting to see how Haidt’s argument, about how conservatives are different from liberals, matches up with or differs from Gilligan’s, about how women are different from men.

If you combine those arguments in a certain way, I suppose, you get the result that I, like all or at least most women, are incapable of producing the requisite type of argument. Just throwing that out there.

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John Holbo 05.14.14 at 1:55 am

“First of all, John – didn’t you have thousands of MOOC students? HOW on earth can you possible give feedback/grade all those papers?”

I gave my MOOC students my don’t write ‘makessense stop’ advice, wholesale. I dispensed it wholesale to my NUS students (there were 100 in my class), and I did what I suggest in the post one-on-one – retail – to some students who met with me on office hours because they were having trouble with their papers.

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John Holbo 05.14.14 at 2:15 am

bananaguard: “You never want that to be the only thing a student hears. Tell a student that they haven’t presented an argument, and they hear “wrong”.”

Actually, what I do is march up to them saying wee-ooo wee-ooo wee-ooo. (Just a little Adventure Time humor, you understand.)

No, more seriously. I think you are wrongly inferring from the fact that the post discusses correcting errors that maybe the ONLY thing I do, as a writing teacher, is repeatedly tell students they aren’t making arguments. Which would, admittedly, be bad teaching. There is, I assure you, a lot more to it.

It IS true that written critique of student papers consists largely of pointing out things that go wrong, wrong, wrong. This is due to constraints of time. Big stack. Lots of problems. Short turnaround. Writing comments on a big batch of papers is like triage at the site of a major accident. Not a lot of time for bedside manner or routine positive healthcheck results ‘your chest sounds fine, Mr. Smith!’

For this reason one thing that I always tell the students is that written comments on their papers have a dreary ‘wrong … wrong … wrong’ quality. But they shouldn’t misconstrue this as a social indicator. On paper I say ‘wrong … wrong … wrong’ to everyone, even those who get an A. In person, I don’t say that to anyone, even those who get a C. That would be rude. If they really want sympathetic engagement with their teacher about what they’ve written, with their ideas – which they should want! – they shouldn’t expect that through written comments on their paper. They should come see me in office hours. That’s just how it goes. Nothing personal.

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Harold 05.14.14 at 2:24 am

People generally cannot stand to have more than one error at a time pointed out. But of course, college students are supposed to be tougher.

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John Holbo 05.14.14 at 2:41 am

“It sounds like the problem with your students’ writing is that they attempt a narrative explanation of their thesis rather than an actual logical defense of it.”

“I think it would be interesting to discuss what makes the Aunt Flo story only pseudo-evidence for raising the minimum wage. I would not be so dismissive of the story. Is there any reason to believe that Aunt Flo’s situation is atypical of those who survive on the minimum wage?”

A number of commenters have questioned, rightly, whether the aunt Flo story is necessarily so bad, as an argument. This connects with the question of what students are really offering, when they (for example) peddle personal anecdotes as arguments. Are they offering very bad inductions from a single case? Are they telling stories. What?

Surely it varies, but I think it is generally best to think of students as doing several things, simultaneously, in a very preliminary, incomplete, proto-sort of way. We might call the sum of these things: weak coherentism. As the psychologists in the quoted bit say, it feels like ‘making sense’. When students have this ‘making sense’ feeling, they think they’ve made an argument. But really they haven’t. Not yet. They have, rather, taken a proto or preliminary argumentative step, while simultaneously taking a proto narrative step, and making a proto personal/emotional appeal. We might add: they have sort of made a toy/preliminary model for a possible argument. (That is, they have sort of said ‘I am about to offer an argument that can be crudely stated as ‘whatever helps Aunt Flo is good’. This is not the same as actually offering a good argument, but might be useful for the reader to get before getting the actually good argument.) They have sort of offered an illustration that might go with a possible argument. (An illustration is not quite the same as a preliminary model.)

There is a very loose sense that ‘the pieces fit’. Sort of doing several things at once feels like doing a lot, ergo feels like getting something done. Ergo feels like having argued.

When the student has the ‘these pieces fit’ feeling – a flimsy sort of emotional-logical-narrative-rhetorical alloy – the student stops. It’s worth noting that I, too, when I write, rely on a ‘these pieces fit’ feelings, to tell me when I’ve said enough, or not enough. It’s just that my intuitions are rather more trained and reliable in this regard. (I don’t mean to be crudely subjectivist/empiricist about it. I don’t think I look in my breast and see that I have a beetle in my argument box and conclude that I have made an argument.) The reason why students don’t notice they haven’t made an argument is that they have a feeling of weak coherence, about what they said. They mistake this for an argument. The trick is, then, to get them to NOT keep getting false positive results for ‘I made an argument!’, due to this feeling of weak coherence. Seems to me.

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John Holbo 05.14.14 at 2:51 am

“People generally cannot stand to have more than one error at a time pointed out. But of course, college students are supposed to be tougher.”

I always tell me students exactly this. What I add is that if you got a math test back, or a Japanese language test back, and there were 10 little red -1 marks on the test, you might be upset or dismayed but you wouldn’t say ‘how rude!’ It’s important that the ‘wrong … wrong … wrong’ quality of paper comments not be taken (wrongly!) as a rude violation of the social convention that you don’t tell people, to their face, that there are 10 things wrong with them. If you want to learn from your mistakes you have to know, intellectually, that the grader isn’t repeatedly aggressing against you, socially. It helps to be told, in advance, that everyone WILL get comments of the form ‘wrong … wrong … wrong’. That’s just the template.

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Tracy Lightcap 05.14.14 at 3:01 am

I think several posters here have gotten very close to the problem.

I think the students who prove impervious to John’s advice are probably students whose past experience led them to adopt the “makesense” methods. It worked for them and they’re having a hard time seeing why it shouldn’t keep on working for them. This is a common learning problem with students and a hard one to whip. I’d recommend reading the first principle in How Learning Works and applying the strategies therein. This book is the Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang of teaching texts. Try what they (learning theory folks at CMU) say and it’ll work.

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js. 05.14.14 at 4:26 am

The first half of this made me laugh out loud. Cheers.

But… this:

the transcendental deduction really is an argument to the best explanation

is false.

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John Holbo 05.14.14 at 4:31 am

“the transcendental deduction really is an argument to the best explanation”

It’s supposed to be false. It’s bad news for Kant if it’s true. I have a sinking suspicion that it’s true.

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Alan White 05.14.14 at 4:33 am

I had an interesting conversation with a really good non-trad student today that reinforced my convictions about stressing distinctions as groundwork for further argument. She kinda understood the differences between free will incompatibilism and compatibilism, but really didn’t get the distinction between them, so arguments based on really grasping the distinction eluded her. So I brought in the good old argument by analogy to clarify the distinction. (I did this on the spot but realized I needed to work this in to my FW-based 101 ASAP.)

There are people who believe in the Christian god, and disbelieve in the Christian god. So here are two groups who agree on the concept–a triune omnipropertied god empahsized as god-man–but divide on whether such a god exists or existed. That’s like all incompatibilists who stress that determinism is inconsistent with indeterministic free will–some in fact believe in indeterministic free will (libertarians), some don’t (hard incompatibilists). But there are others who also believe in god, but not the Christian god–like Hindus, Islamists, and the like–and so are like compatibilists, who believe in a form of free will but not the incompatibilist form, and even disagree among themselves on what the true form of free will is, just as non-Christian believers disagree on what the true concept of god is. (This even helps understand semantical FW skeptics parallel to complete non-theists rejecting any belief in god.)

She visibly brightened. Evidence about determinism suddenly really mattered to all incompatibilists of any ilk just as evidence about a historical Jesus might to anyone concerned about him as deity, both positively and negatively. But not to Hindus or Islam so much, just as determinism is generally uninteresting to compatibilists.

Arguments require as clear an understanding of relevant terms as possible or they become meaningless mush. Another lesson for me on this today: sometimes it takes simple arguments like this analogical one to unlock distinctions that make understanding further more complicated arguments possible.

FWIW.

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js. 05.14.14 at 4:41 am

It’s bad news for Kant if it’s true.

Yes! Just another case of me missing the joke, I guess (the first time around).

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js. 05.14.14 at 4:59 am

One way to fight this, which is very traditional, is to tell students that they have to counter-argue against their own argument, whatever it is. This is good advice. But it often fails. What you get, instead of solid counter-argument, which really ought to shape up the argument, is a kind of low or no-contact ‘combat’. A kind of Rashomon fu, with dueling ‘makesense stop’ narratives circling around each other, trying to sound impressive and convincing

It’s almost worse than this, though. A lot of times—and I think with the kind of students you have in mimd—it’s hard enough to get across that X, while possibly vaguely related to the topic under consideration, is not actually a consideration against Y. That is, they’ve come up with some not-entirely-unrelated consideration, but it’s not actually a counter against the argument they’re asked to consider, or against their own argument. But they can’t see this.

I do like the idea of deliberately making them come up with bad arguments (so to speak) and then having them critique these. Though I suppose it’s not obvious to me why this helps more than anything else—why this way they do suddenly get what an argument is supposed to be. (I haven’t read the whole thread, so maybe this has already been answered.)

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anon today 05.14.14 at 5:10 am

Huh. I got a bit stressed reading this because I kept applying it to my work, where I struggle (and fail) to correct with a couple people on purely technical problems.

It’s really almost exactly the same–I try to walk them through a problem they’ve failed to solve, and get them explain it to me. And even though they know their solution didn’t succeed they do a ‘makessense’ approach to justifying it, and then a ‘makessense’ argument to create external factors that explain the failure, and if I try to walk them through that flaw they repeat in a different way until I’m like that music prof.

Like Tracy @89 says, I do think it’s because it’s a strategy that has worked well enough for them.

Since the problem is similar I need to think through variations on the suggestions here that I haven’t tried and see if I can come up with a way of applying it. Doing purposely bad troubleshooting is something I never thought of.

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js. 05.14.14 at 5:52 am

One other thing: I am entirely unconvinced that “popular culture”, “political spin”, “marketing”, or whatever has really any explanatory power here. I’ve had tons of conversations with people who don’t at all fit the kids-these-days profile (often, they grew up without a teevee in the house!), and you see what Holbo’s identifying as “makessense stop!” reasoning all over the place. Having taught philosophy, I’m somewhat attuned to this, and you really do see that most people who haven’t been trained in specific ways fall prey to this sort of thing, that they just don’t get the canons of “proper” argument (tho of course some can glom on a whole lot faster than others).

To forestall david-style objections, all that I’m claiming is that I have what I consider to be significant, albeit anecdotal, reasons to believe that “makessense stop” isn’t simply an artefact of modern Western spin-oriented consumer culture. Countervailing evidence is welcome.

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William Timberman 05.14.14 at 7:04 am

js @ 95

A good point, except that the dominant cultural form — presumptively incoherence in this case — is as pervasive/invasive as it malignant. To use an analogy — boo, hiss — no matter how far up the Amazon you go, you’re still gonna find the occasional indigenous tribesperson wearing a pair of pink rubber flip-flops. The rest can be explained, I suppose, by an appeal to the psychological — perhaps evolutionary-psychological — peculiarities characteristic of all humans regardless of their temporo-cultural milieu.

Or not.

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dbk 05.14.14 at 7:14 am

Tom Stafford has just published a very good piece on Contributoria entitled “What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?” It makes most of the points made in comments here and backs them up (!)

One of the points he makes, that in order to engage with the validity/non-validity of arguments students need to be engaged at more than the rational level, was born out to me while I was teaching college composition, a course I organized in accordance with the rhetorical modes and their perceived difficulty: description – narration – persuasion – argument. The final paper was generally a combination of these as appropriate to the topic, which I always left open to students themselves to select. Much, much better papers resulted when students chose to write about something they cared about.

99

david 05.14.14 at 8:15 am

js @96

‘david-style objections’? Hah ;)

I actually had Gellner in mind, which marks modernity as the overwhelmingly single-stranded cognitive style, vs the traditional mode of thought (which, presumably, is the relationship-driven argument from personal affiliation, ideas as tribal markers, etc.). It is Timberman who suggested hyperstimulative cognitive overload.

100

maidhc 05.14.14 at 8:46 am

I found this a very interesting thread, but I’m afraid I can’t help thinking about the Monty Python sketch:

“I came here for an argument!”
“No you didn’t!”

101

Sumana Harihareswara 05.14.14 at 10:38 am

Anarcissie, I wonder whether some of those students were like me. A 1998 college CS class did not turn me into A Programmer; later learning in a much different style and environment did.

In general, John, your idea (the “make a deliberately bad argument and explain why it’s bad” repetition) sounds promising! How has it gone? I also very much appreciated your refusal to scorn people who don’t have a particular skill yet, and your articulation:

What does this endowment effect do to your writing? It turns you into a kind of public relations officer for your thesis statement.

Is there a philosophy equivalent of the engineering learning styles by Felder & Silverman? I’m curious about educational research on this topic but my hasty web searches haven’t been fruitful.

102

J Thomas 05.14.14 at 11:23 am

I wonder if it would help if they played Eleusis.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleusis_%28card_game%29

To do well at eleusis you don’t have to make arguments about why your reasoning is correct, but you do have to reason. It’s very easy to see a pattern and believe in it, not noticing that you yourself created the pattern. Then somebody plays a card which doesn’t fit your pattern and you find out you were wrong.

The actual experience of using bad logic and getting quick feedback that it’s bad, that you jumped to conclusions that were wrong, not in the context that some wise guy is trying to make you look bad but just in the course of the game, might teach better than anything else.

First there are the techniques of actually coming up with logical answers. A lot of people are weak at that. Then there are the techniques of describing why your answer makes sense. And third for things like writing classes, there’s the matter of persuading students that they are supposed to be looking at problems and coming up with logical solutions, and not just discussing bullshit opinions.

If they think it’s about presenting opinions, and you tell them they’re being illogical, they’re likely to think you just disagree with them and you’re taking out your irritation on them because they said what they really think instead of the bullshit you wanted them to agree with.

Conservatives tend to believe that the universities are stocked with liberals who discriminate against them for saying the truth. If they assume you are a liberal, and then you criticise their opinions as being illogical, it’s only natural that they’d stop right there and not come up with a second hypothesis about why you’re doing it.

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Ronan(rf) 05.14.14 at 12:30 pm

“This is probably a sign that I’ve gotten old and tired of thinking at all, but I think the example of a bad argument (Aunt Flo and the minimum wage) is actually about the best argument possible for raising the minimum wage. The only thing wrong with it is that it’s completely unanswerable, and so probably useless — where would academics be if issues were settled?”

Yeah, precisely. The only difference really between my anecdote and the academics data is that they have better sources to back up their normative preference. So I can reasonably say they should raise the minimum wage because my aunt Flo told me being broke is a a pain in the ass, and the academic can counter ‘well in Denver in 2005 a 10% increase in the minimum wage cost the garment indutry 20 jobs etc etc’ then another acadamic can counter ‘ that 1 of those unemployed garment workers used her free time and redundancy pay to start a little restaurant which ended up hiring 4 people, and someone else working in a low paid service job put away that 10% towards a college fund for her intelligent daughter who went to community college, then Harvard and then eventually built the successor to tumblr, employing hundreds and making millions.’
Who cares to get into the weeds of what every increase in the minimum wage has meant in every context ever, the anecdote to aunt Flo is still the best argument available.
I would say as a layman (so probably incorrectly, but also by my logic unfalsifiably) that the point of argument is to get nice stuff. The data nerds can work out after the fact what it all meant, but I *got* that extra 7p on the £ so can go out and buy that sports car I always wanted.

104

Ronan(rf) 05.14.14 at 12:34 pm

..7p on the £ would obviously be a 7% increase (but Im accounting for a 3% tax increase as well, is that the way it works ? It doesnt matter !)

105

Harold 05.14.14 at 1:23 pm

The truth is that college students are probably not that much tougher than anyone else. I like comment 98, which focuses on teaching one thing at a time.

106

Belle Waring 05.14.14 at 1:48 pm

“Take the example of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The Trekkies invented the label of a ‘Mary Sue’ in the 70s, and every American pop-cultural phenomenon since has made the same observation of their own waves of amateur fan-written fiction. But it’s not obvious, I think, that the disapproval is actually universal, particularly amongst the writers thereof.”

I find it interesting that although purveyors of “hard SF” are among the most egregious Gary Stu abusers in the world, the SF/Fantasy world went to the conspicuously female Mary Sue (“the youngest ensign…yadda yadda”) when grasping to describe this tendency. Now, it’s true that fanfic has more successful women practitioners than there are actual female writers getting published in SF and Fantasy, and than men writing fanfic I would idly guess, all in all, but it’s still a notable thing to do so early in the history of the genre. This sort of transparent wish fulfillment is for girls. Men write about sciency stuff, and battles, and that bullshit The Force is made of. OK, I was just pretending not to know; it’s midichlorians, fine.

107

bianca steele 05.14.14 at 2:07 pm

Belle,

What you say is very true. Also, sometimes I think that if you took every novel written by a man that had a significant female character, and you took away the ones where a major character is a thinly disguised depiction of his ex-wife for purposes of revenge or “redemption,” and then you took away the ones where a major character is a Mary Sue stand-in for the male author, you might not have anything left. (You might also have to take away the ones where a sympathetic female character was taken by everyone to be a Mary Sue but when you took into account biography and private communications from the author, it turned out not.)

On the other hand, I suppose the fact that men (not only in SF/fantasy) sometimes write female Mary Sue stand-ins for themselves suggests that the concept isn’t really gender-coded at all, after all, they’re willing to view themselves and other men in the same light. So.

Or maybe not.

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js. 05.14.14 at 2:22 pm

‘david-style objections’? Hah ;)

I actually had Gellner in mind

I meant more that it might seem as if I were going straight from anecdote to general conclusion, and I wanted to point out that I wasn’t. Anyway, I’m certainly not completely opposed to the Gellner view.

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Anarcissie 05.14.14 at 2:29 pm

Sumana Harihareswara 05.14.14 at 10:38 am @ 101 — I have never taught computer programming (or much of anything else) so I can speak with the confidence of total inexperience when I say that the notion of different learning styles seems on the mark. I am also mindful of Aristotle’s observation in Nichomachean Ethics: ‘The things we have to learn, in order to do them, we learn by doing them.’ Watching someone else do them is also helpful: ‘Monkey see, monkey do.’ But Aristotle and the proverb may be referring to those who already have some prerequisite talent others don’t possess. Making a good argument and telling a story well may require peculiar abilities not generally possessed, and may differ widely from one cultural context to another.

At one time I resided among a number of people who were mostly functionally illiterate for texts above the level of road signs. When it was discovered that I knew how to write, I was asked to write letters. It was no use telling those desiring this service to just write down what they would say if their mother or girlfriend were standing in front of them, because people don’t talk as they write; written-down informal speech looks like gibberish, as anyone who has read transcripts of conversation and testimony will know. So I became a scribe. This was a good learning experience for me, and maybe it would have enabled me to become a passable teacher of writing, had I also the long-suffering patience to put up with both recalcitrant students and educational bureaucracy and administration.

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david 05.14.14 at 2:37 pm

From Stafford’s piece mentioned by @98 –

Bloom cites an idea Peter Singer describes in his book “the Expanding Circle”. This is that when you decide to make a moral argument – i.e. an argument about what is right or wrong – you must to some extent step outside of your self and adopt an impartial perspective. If you want to persuade another that you should have more of the share of the food, you need to advance a rule that the other people can agree to. “I should get more because I’m me” won’t persuade anyone, but “I should get more because I did more work, and people who did more work should get more” might. But once you employ an impartial perspective to persuade you lend force to a general rule, which may take on a life of its own. Maybe tomorrow you slack off, so your own rule will work against you. In order to persuade you struck a bargain with the group’s shared understanding of what’s reasonable. Once you’ve done this, Singer argues, you breathe life into the internal logic of argument. The “impartial perspective” develops its own dynamic, driving reason forward quite apart from the external influences of emotion, prejudice and environment. Not only can the arguments you advance come back to bite you, but they might even lead you to conclusions you didn’t expect when you first formulated them.

Sure. But a student might observe “I should get more because I did more work, and people who did more work should get more” and take away the lesson of epistemically virtuous general rules. Or they might take the lesson that those who proclaim the tribal identifiers “we are all brothers and sisters in the tribe going by the label of people-who-did-more-work” and “people-who-did-more-work should get more” should get more. These would certainly seem indistinguishable in typical rhetoric – indeed, the latter is arguably more directly persuasive; it lacks any risk of ‘biting back’. It’s a cargo cult of epistemic method.

Once one is stuck there, one way to escape the trap is to suppress the pavlovian reward for churning up more and more affiliation-demonstrating beliefs. Name another tribal identifier! NO. BAD. And another! NO. BAD. IRRELEVANT. *sprays citrus*

And that, I think, is how Holbo’s sessions are achieving real progress. At least, I hope it’s not merely training students to keep digging until the professor approves, but training students to distinguish between beliefs that all produce the same indistinguishable warm glow of belonging. Rather than the comparatively easy task of distinguishing between beliefs that do and don’t affiliate — which is where the Rashomon duelling is coming from.

111

William Timberman 05.14.14 at 2:58 pm

js@96, david@99

If pressed, I think I could make a david-style objection myself, but first I’d have to make a Bruce Wilder-style detour, and assert that most of observable human behavior is over-determined. Accordingly I do not believe that how we argue, or don’t argue, effectively can be explained by simply asserting that TV or the Internet rots kids minds, or that bullies and Mongolian horsemen always win the day. I do believe that david’s — and therefore Gellner’s — description of modernity as single-stranded thinking makes sense only if we’re determined to understand modernity as a uniform cognitive field administered by mandarins trained to see themselves as its arbiters, and logical argument as its only legitimate form of arbitration. If that’s how we define modernity, then John is on the right track with his students. He is, after all, in the business of training new mandarins.

What I think of as modernity — modernity as one finds it in the street, you might say — is the very opposite of single-stranded. It’s a right mess, in fact, with a simultaneity of cultural flotsam that recalls McLuhan’s imagery far more than it does Gellner’s. Coherent arguments made on this ground can proceed, as they always have, by abstraction, but are unlikely, I think to explain anything satisfactorily to anyone being threatened with immediate inundation. Think of John Holbo’s teaching as a shipyard and Aunt Flo stories as a life raft, and I think you’ll have got it about right.

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david 05.14.14 at 3:07 pm

Belle Waring @106

Yes, exactly! It’s hardly the case that nobody finds the gender-specific wish-fulfillment (and other violations of the norms of communicating a narrative to the reader) fulfilling. Rather, it’s that most don’t. Which may be due to a culture of integrated gender bias, etc., but it does mean that writing courses aiming to teach the norms can’t just assume that the norms of storytelling and their appeal are actually self-evident to all students.

113

david 05.14.14 at 3:33 pm

William Timberman @111

Well, I daresay most students are capable of making Mandarin arguments; here we are talking about the handful who fell through the gaps in an otherwise overwhelmingly successful process of acculturation. Presumably this reflects the triumph of said Mandarins in constructing modernity, which I take to be Gellner’s point. The street still exists, but in a weakened form; it loomed even larger in the days and places of Dixie white terrorism, never mind in the days of Tatar steppe hordes.

114

William Timberman 05.14.14 at 3:56 pm

david@113

Well, one hopes. Or maybe one doesn’t, as there’s lots of artist types who think that the triumph of the mandarins implies that a great light will have gone out of the world. Do we really prefer the world of 2001, a Space Odyssey pre-metamorphosis to that of Blade Runner? More to the point, do we believe that the metamorphosis depicted in the former is at all likely? Never mind Eldon Tyrell and the various sins of pride implied, I think I’d prefer the world of Blade Runner, mainly because it more resembles the world I live in. Better to catch and roast my rats over a flaming oil drum in the shadow of the technocrat’s tower, than to be either Michael Hayden or Edward Snowden, who, it seems to me, are the more likely future replacements for John Holbo’s young Jedi.

115

TM 05.14.14 at 4:07 pm

Question here, isn’t there a style of essay where the student is given a question and their assignment is to provide thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, iow they have to come up with the strongest possible arguments pro and con, and then come to a conclusion based on the strength of these arguments? Isn’t that the natural way to approach this conundrum?

Understood that these essays are longer and take more grading time. I was introduced to this style (called Eroerterung, quite unpopular) in High School (Gymnasium), where teachers still had the time to grade long essays. I don’t know much about how this is taught in the US but I once saw a college prof give students the following assignment: they watched An Inconvenient Truth and then were told to “craft an argument, pro or con, of whether you agree with the movie”. There were way too many students to actually grade these “essays” so everybody got an A, which I consider an unforgivable sin. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how some of John’s problem students have been taught writing essays. This wouldn’t perhaps explain everything but quite a lot. Also, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned this but don’t you know how students are taught to write SAT and GRE essays? Make it long and reasonably coherent and check spelling. That’s the basis on which admissions officers select the best and brightest students. What can you expect from such an educational system?

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david 05.14.14 at 4:45 pm

@115

Unfortunately, no, it’s not that simple – as Holbo describes (and my own admittedly-brief experience concurs), asking the relevant students to provide a thesis, antithesis and then draw a conclusion leads to the student writing a kabuki theater duel between strawmen. It’s not even the sin of selecting the worst possible argument for your opponent, it’s the sin of selecting completely unrelated arguments, both for your own side and for the other, and then calling a winner for no apparent reason.

Frustratingly, in conversations with the student, the student may turn out to have some kind of rationalization, but they just don’t see the relevance of writing it down. The particular rationalization may also change alarmingly in between one study session and another. So they can rationalize, but they don’t commit, which may be related.

117

Omega Centauri 05.14.14 at 6:00 pm

js @96.
I don’t think anyone here is arguing that the sort of slopy thinking John is trying to correct, is only a result of modernity. Its just that our “modern” set of powerful influencers are amplyfying a natural mode of thinking that has always been there, making it still tougher to counter than would otherwise have been the case.

118

Colin Danby 05.14.14 at 6:09 pm

Agreed with 116. The basic point, which the OP makes eloquently, is the backward aspect to thesis-driven writing: students are asked to leap to a premature conclusion and then backfill how someone might get there.

The same problem afflicts research papers, which many students interpret as “go find evidence that supports your thesis.”

There’s perhaps a more basic pedagogical problem. Students have been raised to see the ideal as a seamless, convincing performance. But at some point we’re asking them to switch over, and look for the seams. We ask them to be name the weak points in their reasoning, identify the holes in their evidence, consider the blind spots in the methodology they’re using. To a student this can look like some kind of trick: why should I undermine the work I just did?

I face this on a smaller scale all the time with the question of how to comment on student writing. If a student makes a strong, clear argument, that’s great, and my first instinct is to probe for the holes in it. But it’s hard to make clear that this doesn’t mean they’ve done a wrong thing: I’m deeply grateful not to have mush, but something that makes sufficiently clear claims that we can learn by approaching it critically.

119

UserGoogol 05.14.14 at 6:10 pm

Belle Waring @ 106: The Force isn’t made of midichlorians, midichlorians are the mechanism by which force-users interact with The Force.

120

William Timberman 05.14.14 at 6:17 pm

UserGoogol, that explains a lot. In order to ensure that my reach always exceeds my grasp, well-meaning CT commenters have been slipping midichlorians into my tea. I’m the better for it, I suppose, but lemme tell ya, it’s a cruel destiny that they thereby impose on us poor slackers.

121

Trader Joe 05.14.14 at 6:32 pm

I concur with David @116 and Colin @118.

This is a hard point to describe in words to a Crooked Timber audience that as a collective is pretty handy with constructing arguments, seeing strawmen and refuting counterfactuals. The students in question don’t see these things. Its not a matter of labels or cognitive bias or any of the other things – its just something they can’t see.

JH’s example of the musical sonnets was in the right ballpark….another might be trying to ask a colorblind person to differentiate between two blue neck-ties when they only see two green ones. You need a different language than the language or logic or reason since in their mind what they are doing is entirely logical and reasonable. Even providing a good example or rubric answer doesn’t always help because they often see their arguments as just as supportive as the ones given. These are usually smart kids, just not ones that structure arguments well.

I do think topic makes a difference. A guy might be able to perfectly well defend (verbally anyway) why the Browns should start Manziel at QB but asking them to go either pro or con on the minimum wage tosses them into a deep end they can’t swim out of without non sequitors or grasping at distantly related data points (the Aunt Flo arguments).

I liked the Eleusis idea up above…that seems like the right sort of training to exercise the logic muscles, but time doesn’t generally allow for a lot of that. Its not an easy teaching point to tackle and I expect – while the emphsis is different, its not dissimilar to getting the non-math oriented to be able to work calculus problems (except calculus ultimately has a right answer, whereas analytical writing doesnt).

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js. 05.14.14 at 6:40 pm

Well, I daresay most students are capable of making Mandarin arguments; here we are talking about the handful who fell through the gaps in an otherwise overwhelmingly successful process of acculturation.

Right, exactly. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the issue isn’t some generalized inability, but rather a (weird kind of)* difficulty faced by a subset of students. I also don’t think you really need any grand thesis about modernity (not to say that the thesis is false or even inapplicable)—I think argument in the specific sense at issue is a learnable skill. Yes, some people have more of a “natural aptitude” for it, or some such; others don’t and for them it’s harder. Still I do think it’s worth stressing that it’s much, more like other learnable skills than it is something like a talent that you either have or don’t. And I think one can see this point without committing oneself to any specific thesis about what (historical or other) conditions made this particular skill valuable or necessary.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.14.14 at 6:52 pm

It could be partly due to a person’s relationship to words, learned by example in the family. Some people think words are used to express thoughts and motives largely emotional, and how you say it may be subject to change. Other people think words have concrete meanings which are supposed to amount to a real universe.

I grew up forced into the second kind due to a misapprehension of language in a family dysfunction. Being of the first kind was precluded: emotions ruled out! Being of the second kind then built mountains out of molehills to deflect from real issues, engendering a contorted personality. I don’t think it was atypical: “I don’t know how you were inverted, no one alerted you.”

Anyway, imagine next: that both kinds of people were to accelerate their diversions: a student whose rationalizations change alarmingly between sessions, and an instructor who does NOT explain that an Argument is a species of fiction, i.e. a coherent fight between protagonist and opponent in a fictional universe with rules (rules which by the way are arguably fictional too.)

124

TM 05.14.14 at 6:56 pm

118: “the backward aspect to thesis-driven writing: students are asked to leap to a premature conclusion and then backfill how someone might get there.”

What I was referring to is not to make a case but to actually come up with strong arguments for both sides. Isn’t that the antidote to “thesis-driven writing”? Maybe one should leave out the conclusion part if that is what distracts the students. “Thesis-driven” speech is of course what happens on TV all the time and students may get the impression that this is what is expected of them. Give them honest grades and tell them what they need to do to do better.

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david 05.14.14 at 7:04 pm

They genuinely see their arguments as strong. They’re not sure why you, the instructor, arbitrarily disagree. And why shouldn’t they? To the student, the argument certainly feels like it affiliates beliefs together well.

126

William Timberman 05.14.14 at 7:19 pm

js @ 122

An eminently reasonable distillation of the OP, as was david’s comment preceding. My take has been largely off-topic, I admit, but not because I’m immune to John’s reasoning. Rather I’m concerned more broadly about the future utility/applicability of what he’s teaching, and of the perverted uses to which it’s already been put in a world much changed from the one in which we hitherto expected its hegemony to be less and less challenged over time.

I’m not indifferent to what John is concerned about, but I’m also a bit nervous about what we may expect as an outcome of his efforts and those of his colleagues. Whatever it turns out to be, I’m not convinced that it’s a certainty to live up to our expectations, let alone our fondest hopes, however much more refinement of form our diligent chiseling gives it.

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J Thomas 05.14.14 at 7:25 pm

“I liked the Eleusis idea up above…that seems like the right sort of training to exercise the logic muscles, but time doesn’t generally allow for a lot of that.”

If they play it in class they’ll tend to forget it before midterm. If you can get them to play Eleusis part of the time they’d otherwise be playing spades or hearts, then it might do a lot of good.

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david 05.14.14 at 7:30 pm

To indulge in more grand historical hypothesizing, with apologies to js., but with possible reference to Lee Arnold wrt the role of language –

The central idea in the notion of bureaucratic conduct is the orderly treatment of cases in accordance with fixed rules—the ethic of rules, as opposed to the ethic of loyalty. The mechanistic world-picture is, in this sense, simply the bureaucratisation of nature. This deep underlying affinity is of great importance. Kant’s account of morality applies best to the ethics of cognition: tolerate no exceptions! For him, the essence of sin is the making of exceptions. Similarly, only symmetrical, ‘universalisable’ concepts, whose compartment does not vary from case to case or individual to individual, are to be allowed in a real science…

Philosophers do not generally believe the division of labour to be their special concern. Yet the most characteristic form of modern philosophy — the form in which it also makes the greatest impact on the general public — is as a set of doctrines which in fact concern the intellectual or cognitive division of labour. Typically, it consists of a classification and characterisation of broad types of knowledge (or uses of language). These types are generally defined in terms of the criteria of validity employed within each of them. Thus, in one of the best known and simplest forms of this kind of theory, assertions are classified into four groups: those which stand and fall in virtue of factual checking, those which stand and fall in virtue of formal calculation, those which stand or fall in virtue of consonance with the speaker’s feelings, and those which have no basis or anchorage at all.

What requires note is this: theories of this kind make a really powerful impact not so much through the specific detail of what they teach (i.e. through the manner in which they list and define their particular categories of knowledge or of discourse) as through the general point and approach which is shared by all of them, and which is largely taken for granted—namely, the assumption of specificity of function. By habituating people to the idea that there is indeed a single, simple criterion and function, governing the evaluation of any one given cognitive or verbal act, they profoundly modify their outlook. What these theories really inculcate is what sociologists are liable to call functional specificity. Of course, these thinkers do not deny that, in life as it is actually lived, or in language as it is actually spoken, various purposes or functions are very often conflated and confused. But this is dismissed as accident or shorthand, a compromise with the hurry and untidiness of daily life. The various functions are seen as ‘really’ distinct.

On this view, complexity and conflation are only there on the surface; underneath there is neat specificity. In fact, of course, this is a covert value-judgment of the utmost importance. What is presented as an analytic, neutral requirement or interpretation, in fact prejudges the question of the distinction, and the relative merits, of the savage and the scientific mind. It is of the essence of the savage mind, as it is of savage institutions, that there is little functional specificity. The tacit but persistent propaganda by modern philosophy, in quite a broad sense, on behalf of functional specificity (which however is introduced ‘innocently’, as a neutral analytic device), in fact insidiously favours the mechanistic, disenchanted vision of the world as against magical enchantment. The enchanted vision works through the systematic conflation of descriptive, evaluative, identificatory, status-conferring and other roles of language. A sense of the separability of the various functions, on the other hand, is the surest way to the disenchantment of the world. At this point, the present argument is in complete harmony with Horton’s. Horton puts the same point as follows:

One theory is judged better than another with explicit reference to its efficacy in explanation and prediction. And as these ends become more clearly defined, it gets increasingly evident that no other ends are compatible with them. People come to see that if ideas are to be used as efficient tools of explanation and prediction, they must not be allowed to be tools of anything else.

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david 05.14.14 at 7:42 pm

(Gellner, 1979, Legitimation of Belief. I suspect postmodernist studies of language games make much the same observations, albeit from the other side of the lens.)

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Bruce Wilder 05.14.14 at 7:45 pm

Demanding “a good argument” is inviting an existential reverie. There’s a sadistic undercurrent, not unlike that in the demand: “tell a good joke, make me laugh!”

All you can teach, really, and all you should try to teach, imho, are the forms of arguments. What are the necessary and sufficient elements? What drives a standard sequence of presentation? What are useful techniques (tactics)? Metaphors. Lists. Diagrams. Other literary tropes. Visual and auditory tricks. Dichotomies and analysis. Marshalling evidence. What makes the form of the argument clear and persuasive?

There are a great many forms in use. Teaching people how to write a one or two-page memo is useful in business life, and lends itself to a rapid cycle of trial and error exercises, within the bounds of a class meeting twice a week.

Writing instructions on how to accomplish some task in a popular computer application or on a popular website is another example of an exercise, which can be structured for a rapid, trial-and-error cycle of progressive improvement. (Why are instructions hard to read? Why are they hard to scan? What’s the difference between explaining the procedures, the strategy and the model?) This could be a lot like looking for lost keys.

A dramatic narrative story follows entirely different conventions, but, in its way, attempts to persuade.

Assigning students to transliterate someone else’s argument from one form of argument to another, as a whole or in parts, can be useful. What parts can be represented as a syllogism? Can part of an assigned essay be presented as a list or visual diagram? A cartoon or joke? News reporting? A narrative tale?

Certain forms of literary criticism are simple and easy, and directly address the tyranny of the blank page — which, from my memory of student days, can be a huge obstacle. Literary criticism starts from restating an argument and moves to appreciating it — these are very useful activities for someone trying to learning what goes into a “good argument”. It can start with simply finding the thesis in an essay. Some of the standard ways of bootstrapping criticism — the simplest forms of deconstruction, for example — could be a revelation for students, who are stumped for something to say, and don’t seem to have a clue about getting started in constructing an argument. And, they get to write, “wrong, wrong, wrong, . . .” someone else’s efforts, if they like.

I think hypnosis should be taught as a form of argument. Many common forms and techniques of argument are dictated by the susceptibility of humans to trance-induction and suggestion, and they can be observed in almost any sales pitch or television commercial. Key elements in the structure of many persuasive essays, dictated by the requirements of hypnotic processes, would be difficult to explain analytically as required by logical exposition alone.

Finally, there are the deep issues of why every argument seems to have “holes” and is never wholly persuasive. What’s it mean to agree? What motivates disagreement? What is a worldview? What’s good taste? What’s the nature of consensus? How is consensus achieved? What’s status and hierarchy got to do with it? What drives the dynamics of a committee? These are questions to which the insights of philosophy of science, social psychology, or sociology can be relevant. Just noticing that, is useful instruction.

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TM 05.14.14 at 8:15 pm

125 etc., there are always students who don’t get something. Guess what it happens in Math too. Your duh doesn’t explain in what sense poor reasoning is distinct from a student not getting percent calculation, and why it deserves a discussion thread on CT (which the the pedagogy of percent calculation apparently doesn’t). And I think that it might deserve that special attention but it can’t be just because duh some students just don’t get something what else is new.

132

TM 05.14.14 at 8:21 pm

“Demanding “a good argument” is inviting an existential reverie. There’s a sadistic undercurrent, not unlike that in the demand: “tell a good joke, make me laugh!””

I don’t think this is necessarily so but it might often be (as in the example at 115). When I foray into letting students write something for grade, I usually just ask for something empirically descriptive: here’s a graph, or a set of data (demographic, economic, environmental), describe what it tells us about reality. What does it imply about X and Y?

It’s actually hard enough for students to just describe something, many immediately think they need to make a point. And I think that is because that’s how they were conditioned: this is how you write to get good grades.

133

david 05.14.14 at 8:27 pm

Some students have perfect pitch, or don’t; some students are colourblind, or aren’t – there are plenty of different ways in which apparently basic abilities can fail.

Surely this deserves a thread on CT beacuse… well, you’d think argumentative cognition is a basic skill, so a failure case is, in itself, an interesting topic of study? And, more practically, understanding the nature of the dysfunction, like understanding dyslexia or dyscalculia, allows one to structure a course to navigate around or hopefully out of it. Much better than screaming at a colourblind student to just see green already.

134

roy belmont 05.14.14 at 9:01 pm

bianca steele 107, at 2:07 pm:

You should maybe read Dalva by Jim Harrison.
I won’t prejudice that with anything personal except to say I think it would make it through your winnowing filters unscathed.

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Bruce Wilder 05.14.14 at 9:14 pm

TM @ 132: It’s actually hard enough for students to just describe something, many immediately think they need to make a point.

As a student, I had this problem. (Can you tell?) One of my best teachers, encountered toward the end of my academic course, taught me to have a point, . . . later. It was a valuable lesson, though not fully absorbed even now.

136

TM 05.14.14 at 10:02 pm

;-)

137

LFC 05.14.14 at 10:12 pm

TM @115:

Also, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned this but don’t you know how students are taught to write SAT and GRE essays? Make it long and reasonably coherent and check spelling. That’s the basis on which admissions officers select the best and brightest students. What can you expect from such an educational system?

For most of its existence the SAT did not include any writing section. Some years back (I don’t recall when exactly) an essay section was added, but in the most recent round of reforms to the SAT, the College Bd. removed the essay (if I recall the news reports on this correctly). As for the GRE, I’m not sure it has ever had an essay (someone will correct/inform me on this, no doubt). But the point is that across the arc of the SAT’s decades-long history the essay can be seen as an anomaly; it didn’t last that long, now that they’ve apparently gotten rid of it (even if it lasted 20 or 25 yrs, that’s not long as a fraction of the test’s existence). One of the reasons for the recent changes was apparently that the SAT was losing market share to the ACT, which I believe doesn’t have an essay.

The sort of pt you are making here *might* better apply, in some cases, to the essays high school students write on AP exams, but only a minority, albeit these days, I think, a fairly large minority, take them.

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William Timberman 05.14.14 at 10:16 pm

I suspect that my bout of cognitive dissonance today comes from reading this post and comments thread concurrently with Glenn Greenwald’s new book. When I see something like this snipped from an NSA document: our new collection posture is collect it all, sniff it all, process it all, partner it all, exploit it all, I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s I jes say “good luck.”

Never mind the poor student who’s tone-deaf to logical progression. Talk to the guys at NSA who come up with stuff like the above, and those who expect great things of them. Logic in the service of why seems a noble enterprise; logic in the service of how, particularly when its full gladness comes to pass, bids fair to become humankind’s worst ever nightmare.

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TM 05.14.14 at 10:50 pm

137: I might have mixed the SAT up with the ACT. It doesn’t matter which is more silly. I think my general point stands: the successful students are those who fulfill the system’s expectations, and I don’t think that being really good at measured reasoning (in the sense discussed here, as opposed to debating clubs and the like) does much for most students’ academic advancement – perhaps until they take a class from John Holbo, but honestly that grade will be far less consequential for the student than these other tests.

The GRE had an essay section when I took it a few years back (it has changed since, I don’t know how). The preparation book I used had the advice to just write as much as possible, and that turned out to be right on the money. Now remember, GRE is the graduate school admissions test! It is well known and a source of many jokes that these essays are graded by minions who are poorly paid by volume. To my surprise, the particular bureaucracy for which I went through the GRE hassle (which I am thankful for since I learned so much about the US education system) put a lot of weight on the essay section of all things. The others (quantitative and verbal) at least are consistently graded (namely by computer), for what it’s worth (not much!). Now I should perhaps add that I’m not saying being good at reasoning will necessarily hurt the test-taker, just that it’s not something you are likely to get points for in the academic game.

140

Bikenap 05.15.14 at 12:21 am

I’m surprised nobody has referred to Nozick’s “optional stop rule”: “I do not stop the philosophical reasoning until it leads me where I want to go; then I stop.” ( Philosophical Explanations, p. 2).

Maybe everyone employs ‘makessense stop’, it’s just that some people have much higher standards for what makes sense than others.

141

john c. halasz 05.15.14 at 1:05 am

Sorry, I haven’t read the thread. But has anyone mentioned Wittgenstein’s “explanations have to come to an end somewhere”? ISTM the same would go for arguments. Just how good are arguments as a mode of discovery or understanding?

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Lee A. Arnold 05.15.14 at 1:40 am

Well, the illustration of narrative diffusion rather answers the question. But I started here:

David #133: “you’d think argumentative cognition is a basic skill”

Well you’d think that, but what if not?

If John Holbo can write, “It isn’t clear where the line is between story and argument – or even that there is one,” then perhaps we ought to look at the similarity of argument to story, for clues about basic skills.

We find that most people are not good storytellers.

I am a terrible storyteller and I admit it. I know several screenwriters (who put up with me regardless) and I would guess they think it is partly an innate gift, if they bothered to analyze it at all. Some people cannot even link a series of personal events into a coherent narrative, much less a compelling one, so this may not be an easy hurdle.

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bianca steele 05.15.14 at 2:03 am

roy,

By “Mary Sue” in the parenthetical I meant to include something like a story about a deeply flawed, very explicitly unadmirable woman who, readers assume, for pretty good reasons, is a thinly disguised portrait of the author and a hidden plea for sympathy for those who share the same flaws–who turns out to be an even more thinly disguised portrait of an ex, so thinly disguised and such a clear expression of aggression that the “hidden plea for sympathy” becomes something hideously perverse. So would the story you recommend still be one you recommend?

It’s the aggression hidden behind the clear but false plea for sympathy for the aggressed-against person that’s really the only thing that sets me off in that group. And as it happens the only book I closed without finishing recently, far from being a book like those I described in the comment, was Earthsea.

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Bruce Wilder 05.15.14 at 2:23 am

What would any of you make of the classic,
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
by Walker Evans and James Agee?

Much of it is photographs by Evans and minutely detailed descriptions by Agee.

It’s profoundly affecting, and I would venture, “persuasive”, though, in some important ways, it is little more than an artful version of an Aunt Flo story.

And, what do we make of retrospective questioning of its “truthfulness”?
http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/the-case-of-the-inappropriate-alarm-clock-part-3

145

Belle Waring 05.15.14 at 2:28 am

david @ 128: interestingly, this comment goes just as well if we imagine the Horton to be the one in “Horton Hears a Who.”

UserGoogol: well, that’ll show me not to have read any EU stories in like 15 years. Thanks for the correction.

TM @ 115: you are missing the point here. The students will just prop up some likely strawman on the pro side, and then a quite unrelated one on the anti, which does not even attempt to refute the first, however feeble that first may be, and which indeed is in an entirely different mode of argument. The first will be waving its arms haplessly straw-utilitarian and the second will crawl in a feeble, wingless fly-like way in a circle along the bottom of the paper in the mode of tribal affiliations. Then they will just spray some canned whipped-cream on the top, the canned cream of whatever answer seemed to them most likely to be the one John wanted, plus sprinkles they think John wanted, plus battery acid they think he wanted but land o’goshen he did not want it. Then the paper will melt. It is really pretty bad. And it’s not like the students are all stupid or anything like that! It’s just not something they know how to do yet.

146

Harold 05.15.14 at 2:28 am

Most people who are not “innately talented”, if such a thing exists, can nevertheless reach quite a high level of skill through careful training. (Innately talented means certain things are already in place that other people have to struggle to acquire.) But unless they have some sort of brain damage most people can acquire the same skills through practice. (Of course, they might rather not.)

Just off hand, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow might be of some help, since your students are mired in the “thinking fast stage.” Also, Style: Ten Lessons In Clarity And Grace by Joseph M. Williams has helped some people, according to testimonials I have heard.

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PJW 05.15.14 at 2:52 am

Techne.

148

roy belmont 05.15.14 at 4:48 am

bianca steele at 2:03 am:

Yes, I recommend that book to anyone who reads, but especially to someone who wants to get past pathological masking in literature.
I’m sketchy on attaching, to a book I value highly, whatever you think my writings here represent viz my literary aesthetic cred. Or sanity. Though you seem quite capable of ignoring any detrimental tarnishing effect.
So, yes.
Dalva‘s the single most moving portrait of a loved woman I’ve ever read. I’ve read a lot. If you’ve read Ondaatje, when he writes women he has a similar, in the sense of it’s a man writing about a woman… open-heartedness? Honesty? Humility and strength in the face of a mysterious and necessary thing?
For the artist the homage is in the accurate rendering of the portrait.
Maybe knowing some of Harrison’s bio would help in this instance, though it shouldn’t matter I think.
He lost his sister when he was a young man. That may inform the book, on a psychological level that’s deeper than artistic plotting, I don’t know, I don’t normally think about literature in these terms.
The book is essentially a portrait of a woman, but the love for womanhood generally in it is profound.
Harrison’s one of those not obscure, but not as honored as they should be, American artists the French are crazy about, the serious French I mean. The Parthenon ones.

149

Niall McAuley 05.15.14 at 10:12 am

@ Belle #145:

One theory is judged to be best, you will see,
with explicit ref’rence to it’s efficacy
in explanation and prediction as well.
As these get more clearly defined you can tell
that no other ends are compatible with them.
As efficient tools, we must wholly commit ‘em.

150

SusanC 05.15.14 at 2:08 pm

1. The “Aunt Flo” type arguments are unacceptable because there’s a implicit assumption that the argument takes place in a large, anonymous, bureaucratic society:
(a) Your Aunt Flo might not be typical (implicit assumption: the population is question is sufficient large that this is plausible)
(b) You might know your Aunt Flo, and hence find the argument convincing, but the persons you are trying to convince probably don’t (implicit assumption: the population of people having the argument is sufficiently large that it is not the case that everyone knows everyone else).

In a context where these implicit assumptions don’t hold, “Aunt Flo” type arguments can be valid. That is, you can enumerate the specific individuals who will be affected by the decision you’re arguing about, and everyone knows the situation of these individuals. This is likely to be the case if the context of the argument is within a family, or some small-scale society.

Sure, it’s hard to derive universal principles this way, but you might only be concerned with the pragmatics of specific instances. Universal principles become more useful in large, “ration-bureaucratic” systems. (Or to philosophers)

2. Possibly, emotional reaction is a critical component of human decision making. Abstracting too much may lead us into poor decisions, because we become too distant from the emotional content. So, as a matter of rhetoric, telling a sufficiently specific story may be an effective way to explicate the relevant emotion to the person you’re trying to convince.

“The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic”.

e.g. The Diary of Anne Frank is at least partially persuasive the the Holocaust was a Bad Thing, notwithstanding statistical objections along the lines that Anne Frank’s experience was not necessarily typical and does not constitute a random sample.

151

Harold 05.15.14 at 2:22 pm

Anne Frank’s example was both unique and all too typical. Innocence, talent and privilege were not spared.

152

TM 05.15.14 at 3:59 pm

Belle 145, am I missing the point? The point I thought I was addressing is the “Makessense stop” rule. John was reporting from his experience with giving students “short essays that are supposed to contain arguments”. I don’t know the details of his assignments but the assignment that I described – come up with the strongest arguments pro an con (at least three each) wouldn’t lend itself so easily to a “makessense stop” kind of thinking.

“Then the paper will melt. It is really pretty bad. And it’s not like the students are all stupid or anything like that! It’s just not something they know how to do yet.”

This is all very delicious. It seems there is a lot of pleasure to be gained from reporting how badly students can screw up. I don’t doubt a word of what you say. But what do we learn from it? Why are college students in a position that they just don’t “know how to do” this yet? I have attempted some partial answers. They may be wrong, maybe it’s just that students will always be students. Maybe we are just wasting our time with this discussion. Why don’t we talk about them students not getting percentages? I’m sure we could have a lot of fun with that.

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david 05.15.14 at 4:38 pm

I don’t know the details of his assignments but the assignment that I described – come up with the strongest arguments pro an con (at least three each) wouldn’t lend itself so easily to a “makessense stop” kind of thinking.

Er, yes, it would. That’s the point, which I’m sorry to confirm that you probably have therefore missed.

We could remark upon the fact that, amongst preschoolers, there are always a handful who cannot leap from times tables to an intuitive grasp of multiplication (say). This can go higher and lower: amongst high-schoolers, those who flip out about 1=0.999…, and amongst toddlers, those who cannot grasp giving different quantities a distinctive symbol. Of course, the toddler is a tricky case, but one can hope to reason the high schooler out of their mental morass – we need to theorize about the student’s private mental model.

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bob mcmanus 05.15.14 at 4:42 pm

150 is very good. Finally.

This is likely to be the case if the context of the argument is within a family, or some small-scale society.

This is where most effective argument and propaganda takes place. You hadlt ever, never, convince 300 people at once; usually you give one sympathetic person some tools to use in one-on-one or small group conversations.

Other good books Jacques Ellul Propaganda and Rick Falkvinge Swarmwise

In a Different Voice came out thirty years ago. Have we regressed?

Arguments are utilitarian, and the measure or their worth is in their effectiveness. The effectiveness of at least public discourse is measured in action. Obama and his supporters didn’t have to “convince” me of very much at all…all they had to do is get my vote. It is a liberal or late-capitalist delusion that we need their hearts and minds…if we have their bodies and wallets.

Bodies. Action. Both Ellul and Falkvinge agree, it is huge step going from getting someone to nod in their living room to getting activism, action, a desired activity. For that you need a lot more than an aesthetically pleasing rational formally correct bit of prose.

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bianca steele 05.15.14 at 4:53 pm

I really don’t see what the issue is with Aunt Flo. In the example as described by Haidt, there’s an implicit argument: everyone should be able to make ends meet on their wages, at least one woman exists who can’t make ends meet on her wages, therefore the minimum wage should be raised. What I get from the OP is that students aren’t able to make the step from describing their Aunt Flo to being explicit about what their argument is, which doesn’t surprise me. I’m not imagining that a student who reported an economics professor’s proof that the minimum wage should or shouldn’t be raised would meet the requirements of the assignment. I’m not imagining that a student who offered a description instead of an argument but made the description universally appealing to all possible readers would meet the requirement. I think the example might be a little distracting for some people, but in the context of the class it seems pretty straightforward.

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bianca steele 05.15.14 at 4:55 pm

I’m also not assuming that the point is, here, some geeky people think argument and philosophy are all about syllogisms and nonsense like that, but John Holbo’s secret purpose in teaching philosophy is to teach eighteen year olds to ignore all of it and go straight to the heart of true Philosophy or something, and if it isn’t, to bad for John Holbo.

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david 05.15.14 at 5:03 pm

I confess confusion as to the meaning of @155 and @156, bianca…

158

Bloix 05.15.14 at 5:18 pm

#150 – Aunt Flo arguments are only partially about anecdotes as a substitute for data. They are primarily about loyalty.

The story of Anne Frank is powerful not only because she was a single person, but because she was a person “like us” – a girl who could have been the daughter of any western European or American middle class family. She evokes the pull of loyalty that is the most powerful component in decision-making.

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bianca steele 05.15.14 at 5:19 pm

david,

I confess confusion as to why you replied to those comments.

160

Harold 05.15.14 at 5:21 pm

“What I get from the OP is that students aren’t able to make the step from describing their Aunt Flo to being explicit about what their argument is, which doesn’t surprise me. “

This is exactly right. Most people only perceive or make that first step, or as little as needed for quick processing. When you hear untrained music students, they don’t hold a note to the end of the beat, they perform the first part of the piece accurately and then peter out at the end. Readers need read the first part of a word — the brain fills in the rest. I guess it is part of “fast thinking”

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Bloix 05.15.14 at 5:22 pm

#155 – perhaps people can’t make the jump from “Aunt Flo” to “everyone” because Aunt Flo is not a stand-in for “everyone.” She is an example of “my family.” Argument demands that you put aside loyalty and substitute logic, and many people resist doing so – it’s repugnant to them.

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david 05.15.14 at 5:23 pm

To inquire for clarification, of course :p. I’m not sure what the negative “I’m not iterations are supposed to underscore

163

LFC 05.15.14 at 5:23 pm

from the OP:
In my classes that means: writing fairly short essays that are supposed to contain arguments.</i<

I think I could appreciate this discussion more if JHolbo wd give a specific example or two of exactly what his students were supposed to write arguments about. (I know he teaches philosophy and ‘moral reasoning’ etc, but some examples wd still be helpful, ISTM. If he got more specific in this way and I missed it, apologies.)

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LFC 05.15.14 at 5:26 pm

p.s. I assume “should the minimum wage be raised?” was not one of his actual questions, just something he ginned up for the post. What I’m asking for is one of his actual questions.

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bianca steele 05.15.14 at 5:26 pm

Bloix,

If you’re saying that readers cannot make the jump from Aunt Flo to everyone, that is true. That’s why the student failed.

If you’re saying that it doesn’t follow from “Aunt Flo cannot make ends meet” that “one person cannot make ends meet”–but only that “someone I’m loyal to can’t make ends meet”–then, no.

If you’re saying that if you, Bloix, were to use Aunt Flo as an example, you would be offering, not my suggested argument, but “someone I love can’t make ends meet, I want people I love to be happy, therefore the minimum wage should be raised,” okay.

If you’re saying that because you, Bloix, would use the second argument, I am wrong to want to use the first, or to suggest that there are students who want to use the first, no.

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LFC 05.15.14 at 5:35 pm

bianca s. 155:

In the example as described by Haidt, there’s an implicit argument: everyone should be able to make ends meet on their wages, at least one woman exists who can’t make ends meet on her wages, therefore the minimum wage should be raised. What I get from the OP is that students aren’t able to make the step from describing their Aunt Flo to being explicit about what their argument is, which doesn’t surprise me.

There may indeed be students wanting to make this argument, but it’s hard to say, istm, precisely b.c it has remained implicit.

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TM 05.15.14 at 5:40 pm

david 153, “Er, yes, it would.” “No it wouldn’t.” “Yes it would!”

You keep making assertions without substantiating them. How fitting. I wonder what a prof trying to teach the art of thoughtful reasoning would do with this whole thread. I guess I have to admit I am guilty of taking recourse to anecdotal evidence, like everybody here, insofar as evidence is offered at all (although I think that at least the advice from test prep books I referred to is not just anecdotal – that is how millions of students prepare for writing consequential essays). Maybe we all need to sweep before our own doors?

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bianca steele 05.15.14 at 5:41 pm

LFC, sure, but there are other arguments they could make, like the one I gave in 165. I don’t see the basis for assuming either that there’s no possible argument including a description of Aunt Flo’s case, or that what’s been said in the OP and comment thread includes an implicit theory about sympathy, loyalty, universality, economics, bureaucracy, or anything along those lines, which theory has to be accepted in order to pass Holbo’s class.

I think the OP did give an example of an argument: for or against Descartes’ dream theory in favor of skepticism, though that may have been for a different course.

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david 05.15.14 at 5:46 pm

@167

The pointlessness of demanding that the student offer their strongest pro- and con- arguments been explained several times, by at at least three people and including Holbo’s own original post, so I’m honestly at a loss as to how to explain the particular pickle. I’m settling for pointing out where we disagree, though, which is a message I am gratified to see has gone through.

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TM 05.15.14 at 5:52 pm

Also second 163. I would point out two things:
(1) Understanding what an argument is is not something students should first hear about in college. They should have been taught that in 10th grade at the latest. If they haven’t, I can see that it is very difficult for a college philosophy prof to do much about that deficiency, just as it is really hard to get college students understand percentages when they haven’t learned that in middle school.
(2) Grading essays, even short ones (but long essays should be preferable) thoroughly and giving the kind of feedback that these students would need, and doing it over and over (because students can only learn from doing), is time consuming and that time is often, or usually, lacking.

Finally, I don’t think what we are talking about is just a failure of individual students. There’s a whole culture out there that doesn’t appreciate thoughtful reasoning all that much. Would anybody disagree with that observation?

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TM 05.15.14 at 5:53 pm

david, there’s a difference between “explaining” and “asserting”. But I’ll leave it at that and agree to disagree.

172

david 05.15.14 at 6:09 pm

The student has a big mental box, labelled “ideas that I identify with”. When you ask them for an argument for an idea that is in that box, they pull out a similar idea and give that to you. When you ask them for their strongest argument, they select the similar idea that they like the most.

When you exasperatedly tell them, no, no, that’s not what I want, now instead try to give me a refutation of this idea – they construct a big mental box labelled “ideas that I reject identification with”, again pull out an idea most tangential to the topical idea, and give that to you. When you ask for their strongest refutation, they select the similar idea that they despise the most.

Now, tearing your hair out, you tell them that they have to actually perform gosh-dang argument upon weighing these beliefs. So the now confused student looks at one hand and sees a favourite idea, looks at the other and sees a hated idea, and triumphantly informs you that as a result of Logic™, they have decided that the former belongs in the Ideas I Identify With box and the other doesn’t.

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Bloix 05.15.14 at 6:19 pm

#165- When we claim that a family member is in a certain position, we foreclose by reason of loyalty all the possible objections that might be raised by an objective counter-argument:

“Some people can’t make it on the minimum wage.”
Objections:
(1) But some people are just lazy or not very skilled and aren’t worth more (you calling my aunt lazy and stupid?)
(2) If you raise the minimum wage, employers will hire fewer people (I don’t care about other people, I care about Aunt Flo)
(3) employers should be free to pay what employees will accept, without government interference (are you listening to me? My Aunt Flo needs more money)

Aunt Flo cannot be generalized to “everyone” because she is not being offered as a specific example of a generic phenomenon. She is offered as a member of the family to whom the speaker has loyalty.

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david 05.15.14 at 6:27 pm

(to be clear, I don’t have an instrument that can look into student minds. The account I give in @172 is a model for why students give incomprehensible ‘arguments’, which accounts for both the makessense stopping and the Rashomon dueling – the problem is not, as as the ‘makesense stop’ label implies, a defectively hasty stopping rule, but instead an inappropriate mental classification of ideas. Not a universally wrong understanding – in contexts of small-group persuasion, it is the appropriate and most efficient/effective communication mode – but it’s inappropriate for a term paper)

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david 05.15.14 at 6:50 pm

@173 – I don’t think that’s Steele’s point? I interpreted it as saying that the implied argument (that everyone should be able to make ends meet on their wages, at least one woman exists who can’t make ends meet on her wages, therefore the minimum wage should be raised) is obvious enough that the Aunt Flo invocation should be charitably interpreted in the same light. Therefore, outside an examination context (but remaining inside a context with pretensions to rigorous argument), it should be sufficiently relevant. As Steele correctly observed, it is relevant to a careless assertion that everyone already earns a living wage (for instance).

The problem, rather, is that the tacit form of the argument positively invites a diversion into an attack on the deservingness of Aunt Flo, or Aunt-Flo-like anecdotes, instead of enforcing a explicit defense of the general notion that all people deserving living wages (including repellent or ostracized people). That is to say, the problem with anecdotes is that your opponent has anecdotes, too. As I said earlier – Aunt Flo the minimum-wage worker is met by Aunt Flo the lazy welfare queen Other.

If you dare your opponent to call your aunt lazy, they’ll call your bluff. Why not? You’re their enemy. Of course people like you are lazy and dishonest. And then the argument rapidly ceases to have pretensions toward good faith.

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bob mcmanus 05.15.14 at 7:21 pm

“Why not? You’re their enemy.

Tell me again why I am arguing with my enemy? I don’t read my enemy and barely acknowledge their existence.

Is this some sort of aesthetic contest to impress sympathetic third-parties, captive students or blog-readers? “Great topic sentence there, Holbo, nifty alloisis that followed. I judge 6.5.”

Possibly better to find an emotional connection with the sympathetic third party:”You went to school with Aunt Flo, didn’t you? Do you want to say in front of these people that she’s lazy?”

This judging of the tools of rhetoric and politics on aesthetic grounds is why Republicans think liberals are effete and why they usually win.

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david 05.15.14 at 8:10 pm

It’s an aesthetic contest to impress course instructors, if you want to be pedantic.

Of course, as emotional connections go, frankly, going to school with Aunt Flo is small beans next to pointing out that one knows a mob of angry young men who strenuously persuaded Aunt Flo to conduct self-criticism and denunciation of the Enemy in public last week.

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novakant 05.15.14 at 11:32 pm

#173

None of your “objective” objections invalidate the initial statement – unless you want people to starve or something.

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J Thomas 05.15.14 at 11:45 pm

#176

“This judging of the tools of rhetoric and politics on aesthetic grounds is why Republicans think liberals are effete and why they usually win.”

But Republicans don’t usually win. Except among the people who have a particular aesthetic.

The fundamental Republican stand is that there is not enough to go around, so we must work hard to make sure that our tribe gets enough. Everybody else wants the government to take stuff from us and give it to them. Unless the GOP fights hard we will lose all our special advantages and we will be poor, and nobody will help us.

The GOP appeals to people whose aesthetics involve putting aside the hypocrisy and PC thinking and facing cold hard reality, and do what is necessary.

It does not appeal to people who hope there could be a warmer, friendlier reality, but only to the people who know that it doesn’t get any better than this and that they must adapt to the cruel truth.

There’s a certain bitterness that comes from this version of reality, a sort of cynical coolness and an illusion of competence. But when you accept reality as it is, then you know that you are a real man, a man among aging liberal boys, so it holds a lot of satisfaction.

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Bruce Wilder 05.16.14 at 12:08 am

J Thomas @ 11:45 pm

There are at least two kinds of Republicans, and one kind does win almost all political struggles they care about. The other kind, not so much. It is worth distinguishing between them, if only to know who is paying for the clown show and why.

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J Thomas 05.16.14 at 12:58 am

OK, tell me about the kind of Republican who almost always wins?

182

John Holbo 05.16.14 at 1:55 am

“In a context where these implicit assumptions don’t hold, “Aunt Flo” type arguments can be valid. That is, you can enumerate the specific individuals who will be affected by the decision you’re arguing about, and everyone knows the situation of these individuals. This is likely to be the case if the context of the argument is within a family, or some small-scale society.”

I’m having a hard time thinking of any cases in which you would both be 1) thinking of passing a comprehensive minimum wage law and 2) within a family or other small-scale society. Surely such matters in the latter case are always handled more informally.

183

Belle Waring 05.16.14 at 3:56 am

david: this seems like a pretty good account of how things go wrong. I think there is also a cultural consideration; John’s students are all young Singaporeans and the memorization-heavy primary and high-school education they receive is dependent on a series of high stakes tests. Even to get into 1st grade at a good public school they have to do well on that I think many (most) American kids headed into 3rd grade would fail. They students this system produces are smart. And great at math! But they have not been encouraged to think critically or to question their teachers or the learning material they are provided. So no, they were not taught how to make arguments in 10th grade (actually junior college, but whatevs.) And in many cases their written English is really not up to par. When I was grading I was anguished by my inner copy-editor, who wanted to fix every grammatical and stylistic error. Then, too, they tend to have more communitarian values generally, and to side with Euthyphro on the grounds that it’s his dad! This isn’t actually an argumentative problem per se but it does mean that they are (and perhaps it is they who are right) especially likely to accept the Aunt Flo anecdote as an argument. Again, maybe a values issue, but in practice in a paper indistinguishable from an argumentative issue.

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david 05.16.14 at 4:25 am

John’s NUS students are young elite Singaporeans, though, who’ve generally been put through a wringer of English-language courses. Which perhaps don’t teach critical thinking, but do put a high premium on being able to generate exposition from different jigsaw pieces in a hurry – toward the opinions which can be efficiently expressed in three hours, not toward the student’s own thoughts.

TM bemoaned the diminished role of essay-type questions, but the A-level used in Singapore still has a General Paper.

As acculturation goes, you’d get humanities undergrads who are very good at looking up what answers they are supposed to give – what scholars to cite, memorized descriptions of the contesting views – but being less able to navigate questions without outside the territory of the readings. They’d be able to juggle arguments, though; they need to be able to do so on command, under time pressure, with the consideration of producing a coherent result taking priority over any personal inclinations. If anything, the flaw should be too little personal reasoning rather than too much.

I don’t dispute the communitarian values, but I note the tendency for the Singaporean state to prescribe its hyper-pragmatist rhetoric upon the syllabus, at least within 6th form and college economics – whilst I didn’t go to college there, I’ve seen some of it second-hand. Not sure how that would play in philosophy, but it’s not a good place for Aunt Flos.

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LFC 05.16.14 at 4:40 am

What I don’t esp like about the Haidt passage quoted in the OP is that it refers to someone’s “first instinct” being that the minimum wage shd be raised (or not). But what Haidt calls “first instinct” might be, instead, an application of a general political view. This pt may not apply to JHolbo’s Singaporean students — I don’t know — but it cd well apply to a group of students who have political worldviews or ideologies (whether they use those words or not) and whose reactions to “shd the minimum wage be raised?” flow from those worldviews. That still leaves the issue of making an explicit argument but it reduces or removes the problem of ‘arbitrarily picking a side,’ b.c. the choice in this case is not “arbitrary” in the way that flipping a coin to make a decision is arbitrary.

(Not sure how clear that was — it’s late here. A good excuse.)

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bxg 05.16.14 at 5:04 am

> When people are given difficult questions to think about — for example, whether the minimum wage should be raised

IMO that’s a REALLY hard question to seek a well-argued answer for. Is it silly
to suggest you should start with easier questions?

For myself, I can imagine myself arguing a view on the likely consequences of raising the minimum wage (will unemployment rise? If so, significantly? What will the cost to consumers be, and for which products? And so forth). I can use economics, reason, appeal to evidence, prior research, natural experiments; there’s lots of good stuff. A relatively easy question. I probably will not invoke Aunt Flo, or if so I will explain in detail why it’s relevant.

But to argue next, whether this _should_ happen or not. Different request. Say we both agree perhaps that something like X people will benefit, although Y people will lose employment entirely, and the average consumer will pay $Z extra per year. Now I argue, contra you, that this is a good tradeoff (you think Y is way too high but would be happy if it were a tenth as much). This is really tough to do well. I might invoke Aunt Flo, and though it won’t make my argument strong it would be for a different purpose (“yes, you are rightly concerned about all the new unemployed, but perhaps you are underweighting how truly transformational a few extra dollars/hour can be to those who do keep working; here’s an example that might help you see why a calibrate this benefit more highly than you do”). But overall, this question unlike the first
is simply much, much, harder if you want not an explanation of one’s preference but an actual argument for it.

187

js. 05.16.14 at 5:04 am

What I don’t esp like about the Haidt passage quoted in the OP is that it refers to someone’s “first instinct” being that the minimum wage shd be raised (or not). But what Haidt calls “first instinct” might be, instead, an application of a general political view.

I strongly suspect that this is right — there is some kind of implicit worldview being gestured at. It’s just that, when you’re dealing with the kinds of students that Holbo’s talking about, it’s extremely hard not to get the sense that the implicit view is so damn incoherent that it’s practically well impossible to get a halfway articulate expression of it, let alone getting that articulation from the student herself. It really is kind of like Belle described it @145 — the paper will melt!

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js. 05.16.14 at 5:16 am

I’m concerned more broadly about the future utility/applicability of what he’s teaching, and of the perverted uses to which it’s already been put in a world much changed from the one in which we hitherto expected its hegemony to be less and less challenged over time.

Well, sure, argument can be put to perverse uses. (I’m inclined to say, what can’t be? but that’s a somewhat dumb and clichéd thing to say, so I won’t.) I suppose you could be thinking something like: in our circumstances, all argument is sophistry, and the better the argument, the cleverer the sophistry. But I don’t see why I should think that. And I don’t see why I should think that argument is especially liable to be put to nefarious uses, in ways that other modes of discourse aren’t. In fact, naïve as it may be, and demuring to put up anything like a robust argument for argument (so to speak), I do think that’s there’s genuine value in teaching that argument needn’t in fact be sophistry.

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Meredith 05.16.14 at 5:22 am

I really do like this post (fresh from one semi-final round of paper-reading and steeling myself for the last) and appreciate the different threads in the comments. But I am left with something like, Argue me this:

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js. 05.16.14 at 5:36 am

One more thing, about Aunt Flo (of course). Rereading the quoted passage—and just that—there is something a bit bizarre about the way Haidt seems to be using that example. So: suppose this is an Intro Phil class where students haven’t been exposed to philosophical arguments before. You give them the minimum wage topic. And one of them comes up with the Aunt Flo example and… stops. Ok, it’s not an argument. But the thing is: it’s a really fucking good beginning for an argument.

If they can’t get past this point, then that’s a different thing, but in the quoted passage it’s presented like the first stop. And I really don’t see how you could complain about that in the context of an intro class.

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godoggo 05.16.14 at 6:38 am

John Coltrane once told Miles Davis he didn’t know how to stop. Miles suggested he take the horn out of his mouth.

192

dax 05.16.14 at 9:20 am

*Is* there a good argument for utilitarianism? It is not obvious to me there is, or even what such an argument might look like, other than some more sophisticated variation of, “It looks okay to me.”

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J Thomas 05.16.14 at 10:47 am

*Is* there a good argument for utilitarianism?

Try an alternative. I say that what’s important is what’s good for me. I don’t care about doing good for people I’ve never met.

I argue this position. You argue that I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter so much what’s good for me, the important thing is what’s good for *you*. It’s hard for people who take this fundamental approach to lobby together.

But if we both say that we will work for what’s good for both of us, then we can cooperate easier and team up against the individualists.

If we say that we will work for what’s good for everybody then we can attract support easier. We will of course work for what’s good for ourselves, and we can help other people too. The more support we get the more we win.

So claiming to be a utilitarian is generally a winning strategy. It tends to outcompete other strategies. If you use it you are more likely to prosper than if you use strategies that are less good at encouraging cooperation.

When claiming to be utilitarian makes you better off, you should claim to be utilitarian.

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dax 05.16.14 at 11:09 am

“If we say that we will work for what’s good for everybody then we can attract support easier. ” Only if other people are naive. In general what you’ve written is full of hand-waving assertions and invalid implications. (How does trying one alternative provide a general argument? Surely cooperation doesn’t always leads to better outcomes. Cooperation leads to armies and war, for instance.) I could easily say also, “Snow is black. If snow is back, then utilitarianism. Therefore utilitarianism.”

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William Timberman 05.16.14 at 1:03 pm

js @ 188

I’d like to protest that I’m not a Luddite when it comes to argument as John defines it, nor deaf to his lament about how difficult it seems for some of his students to grasp its essentials. As I say, my take on the OP was personal, and, off-topic in the sense that it arose out of a broader context, namely the context in which we make claims for argument of that kind which far exceed its actual utility, and in fact use those claims as a club to beat others with, principally those we’re allowed by custom to think of as disadvantaged.

Consider the exchange between bob mcmanus and david @176 and 177. There’s a very rich adversarial context in those two short snippets, which most of us can follow even though almost none of it is explicit. Nearly all of John’s rules are being violated, it seems to me, but I don’t think any third party from the same cultural background would miss any of the implications. This, I would argue assert, is how most arguments proceed when more is at stake than clarity of the sort John’s form of argumentation produces, and facility with his form may not be a prerequisite to effective use of the rest.

Can this richer, if less precise form be taught? I imagine most people would say not; you either have a talent for it or you don’t. If so, I’d reply that they have it backwards. This is what most people do instinctively, and that being the case, we might be better off after all if we taught rhetoric rather than argument.

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J Thomas 05.16.14 at 1:58 pm

How does trying one alternative provide a general argument?

It doesn’t, but it provides a template to test other alternatives against. The general argument is that people who cooperate with each other can compete better against others who cooperate less, and that utilitarianism is a potentially effective approach to encourage cooperation.

Surely cooperation doesn’t always leads to better outcomes. Cooperation leads to armies and war, for instance.

Sure, and armies that cooperate better are more likely to win. Winning is a better outcome than losing, and a better outcome than being trampled by armies that consider you part of the environment they can use to help them win.

It’s also a good approach toward ending a war. If you claim that you care about the welfare of your enemy he is more likely to enter negotiations, and if your terms tend to convince him of that he is more likely to agree to peace rather than fight until he has nothing left and must accept unconditional surrender. Many people believe that a ending a war with less death and destruction is good, although some feel that if the eenemy doesn’t feel thoroughly defeated he’s more likely to make you do it again, and others feel that it’s safer to destroy your enemies utterly.

I don’t claim that there’s nothing better than utilitarianism. I haven’t thought of everything yet. But you asked for a good argument in its favor, and this is an argument that it is better than some alternatives, for people who value their own well-being.

If you instead believe that there is a god who will reward you proportional to your suffering while you kill as many human beings as possible, then this argument is not for you.

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John Holbo 05.16.14 at 2:02 pm

“Can this richer, if less precise form be taught?”

Could I induce my students to become … more Bob McManus-like? (I like old James Whale films. And I ain’t talking about “Showboat”!) My understanding is that there ethical guidelines about the use of human experimental subjects that might be … skirted if I tried that. I’d probably have to get them to sign release forms at the very least.

On a more serious note: one thing that I think is getting a bit lost in all this – interesting as the thread has shaped up to be! – is that I really am not singing some kind of ‘why johnny can’t argue’ lament. Most of my students are fine. A lot of them are pretty good. Some of them are great. But some of them have a lot of trouble. Some have a lot of trouble because something is going wrong in their lives, or they are just busy with four tough engineering courses this semester or whatever. Mostly I can’t help with that. Anyway, I don’t regard it as any sort of tough nut to crack that students who are not putting much work into my class, for whatever personal reason, tend not to do all that well. The post is really ONLY about those students who work hard and … just don’t get it. Presumably lots of them sort of lack the aptitude. Not sure how that works, but people are different, so it seems. I hope they are good at other stuff. Probably very few of these students will ever become great writers. But I would like to turn them from poor writers into more or less competent ones. That seems do-able and worth doing. This is rather humble, as goals go. (I think it’s a bit distracting to get loftily ‘arguments come to an end somewhere!’ about this sort of problem, for example. That’s hardly relevant to this sort of case, in my experience.) But it’s very hard to do, in part because – like my bad music teacher – I have a hard time remembering what it’s like to not find this stuff … pretty intuitive.

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William Timberman 05.16.14 at 2:24 pm

John Holbo @ 197

:-) How about teaching them to be more bob mcmanus-like one day, and more Keith Alexander-like the next? (If, of course, you’re at all interested in fitting them for the savagery of the world outside the classroom.)

But I take your point. We’re making mountains out of your molehill. It’s just that we’re having so much fun doing it, and it’s not as though you didn’t know we would, amirite?

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John Holbo 05.16.14 at 2:32 pm

“We’re making mountains out of your molehill.”

Damn straight. It’s damn flattering that you all like my molehill enough to make a damn mountain out of it.

200

godoggo 05.16.14 at 2:44 pm

Did you remember to tell them that an argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition?

201

John Holbo 05.16.14 at 2:49 pm

Yes!

202

godoggo 05.16.14 at 2:52 pm

No you didn’t.

203

SusanC 05.16.14 at 3:49 pm

For what it’s worth, when I’ve ended up being a TA for introductory critical thinking classes (for scientists, not philosophy majors) we usually take scientific papers for the readings, not economics. It’s at least conceivable that topics in economics are a poor choice for this kind of exercise, as the examples of economic reasoning the students will be influenced by are especially bad (in the respect of the predominance of rhetoric over anything that might resemble an logical argument). Sure, this can make the class exercises easier (in a “shooting fish in a barrel” sense), but there’s a bit of an issue of being influenced by many very bad examples.

(Even scientific papers in respectable journals can start looking moderately bad when when you start asking questions along the lines of: what is the argument here? what evidence does the author provide in support of their conclusions? etc.)

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js. 05.16.14 at 3:51 pm

This, I would argue assert, is how most arguments proceed when more is at stake than clarity of the sort John’s form of argumentation produces, and facility with his form may not be a prerequisite to effective use of the rest.

Oh, I see. I just disagree with you. Or at least, I think learning argument, in the philosophers’ sense, can very well help you make more effective use of other rhetorical techniques, or techniques of persuasion, or whatever. I actually thought that was the point you were making — that learning argument teaches one to be clever without teaching one virtue (to put it as Aristotle might), that in effect it teaches you to become a sophist (at least in current circumstances).

I don’t agree with this, but I can see how it would go. It strikes me as far less plausible that learning argument wouldn’t help you with the rest. Admittedly, you said it needn’t be necessary, and maybe that’s true, but it’s surely quite helpful.

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William Timberman 05.16.14 at 4:10 pm

js @ 204

FWIW, I don’t think we disagree fundamentally; it’s more about which part of the matrix we’ve chosen to accentuate. Yes, argument in the philosopher’s sense can help clarify one’s thinking, and focus one’s rhetoric. On the dark side, I don’t see how we can deny that the training of sophists is a significant risk, but even more significant, it seems to me, is what happens when a decorous abstraction is the sine qua non requirement of admission to a debate on public policy. If that’s in fact the case, as in say, discussions of the consequences of the surveillance state, or of a national minimum wage, surely we lose more than we gain. Aunt Flo deserves to be heard; only after hearing her, and others like — and unlike — her, are we in a position to understand what our big data is telling us.

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js. 05.16.14 at 4:20 pm

I agree with all of that, I think. Yes, the ability to reason in certain abstract ways shouldn’t be “the sine qua non requirement” of participation in public policy debates. I do think it should be a requirement (ideally). There should be other requirements, say good faith, a sense of sympathy, etc. (again, ideally).

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godoggo 05.16.14 at 5:57 pm

It just seems to me that if you want to argue about something like minimum wage step one is look at the data. Otherwise you end up arguing about 1st principals, and we know where that leads.

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godoggo 05.16.14 at 5:59 pm

And anecdotes, too. But not only.

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godoggo 05.16.14 at 6:06 pm

js., I like the bit about “good faith.”

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Anarcissie 05.16.14 at 6:42 pm

godoggo 05.16.14 at 5:57 pm @ 207 –
‘Looking at the data’, when the data is Aunt Flo, means using direct observation. ‘Looking at the data’, when the data is statistics, means having faith in usually remote institutions, whose work is likely to be unverifiable and which may be directed by persons with very different class, organizational, and other interests than the looker. (The folk express this in proverbial form: ‘Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.’)

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Val 05.17.14 at 11:21 am

I haven’t read all the comments sorry, but want to say something. I love in a country (Australia) with a vile government. Seems like you would like me to make the arguments – maybe they’re vile – here’s the evidence – maybe they’re not vile – here’s the evidence – here’s the balance of arguments – conclusion.

You don’t seem to take into account that maybe people have been making the argument for a long, long time. I’m over it. They’re vile.

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Val 05.17.14 at 11:24 am

“Live” in a country, I mean. But I do love it / love in it, because I was born here, my loved ones live here, and so on. But sometimes things are just wrong, and you can’t expect people to keep making the arguments.

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hix 05.17.14 at 12:31 pm

I think this is more a question of ability to adapt/pick up on different expectations how things are supposed to be done. This includes adaption to expectations of different graders within college, not just from school/work to college.

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John Holbo 05.17.14 at 2:24 pm

“Seems like you would like me to make the arguments – maybe they’re vile – here’s the evidence – maybe they’re not vile – here’s the evidence – here’s the balance of arguments – conclusion.”

Just because I assign my students to make arguments, in essays, does not mean I think everyone in the world is morally obliged to be making arguments, pro and con, about everything, at all times. So, actually, I have no preferences about what you do in this case.

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Sasha Clarkson 05.17.14 at 7:33 pm

Logic and reason don’t operate in a vacuum: in the beginning, we all have premisses based upon emotional preferences for our own lives and, as social creatures, those of any groups of people we interact with.

The reasoning skills John encourages help us test these basic assumptions, both for mutual compatibility and for consequences which we may not like. Then we might have to rethink. For some of us that’s a life-long recursive process. Those who can’t rethink might carry on believing in the possibility of a square circle for the rest of their lives and become very bitter, blaming conspiracies and the rest of the world for the consequences of their cognitive dissonance.

Bad arguments are (often deliberately) designed to deceive others into acting against their own best interests. Eg “Vote to cut taxes for the rich: that will make all you poor oiks richer too!” or “Buy this face-cream – it will make you look 10 years younger.” Then reasoning with facts and logical argument can help some see through the deceptions, and hopefully through any subliminal message, eg “if you’re over thirty, you are wrinkly and unattractive, but you deserve an easy solution out of a bottle.

The alternative to reasoning is deciding to trust others with important decisions, or making them on the basis of an emotional wish-list.

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mattski 05.17.14 at 9:35 pm

WT @ 195

There’s a very rich adversarial context in those two short snippets, which most of us can follow even though almost none of it is explicit. Nearly all of John’s rules are being violated, it seems to me, but I don’t think any third party from the same cultural background would miss any of the implications.

Except an “argument” is supposed to be impersonal. It shouldn’t matter who is making it. But the tete-a-tete you reference is all about the personalities (or at least mcmanus’s) and the baggage associate with such. That is what made that exchange interesting. Broken windows and guillotines are just icing on the cake.

js. @ 204

I actually thought that was the point you were making — that learning argument teaches one to be clever without teaching one virtue (to put it as Aristotle might), that in effect it teaches you to become a sophist (at least in current circumstances).

That was, in fact, Socrates’ gig.

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godoggo 05.17.14 at 11:29 pm

Or a pilpulist!

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mattski 05.18.14 at 11:37 am

Are we damned twixt the poles of excessively coarse & excessively fine distinctions?!

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William Timberman 05.18.14 at 12:56 pm

mattski @ 216

Mattski, you are implicitly arguing, and not for the first time, that emotional thinking gave us Hitler, and ideological thinking gave us Stalin, so therefore both are bad. What you can’t or won’t see is that the purity of argument you say we’re supposed to treasure is every bit as likely to give us War Is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and Freedom Is Slavery. Objective journalism, its bastard child, can, when shorn of its pretension, give us Judith Miller at the Times, and all Dick Cheney all the time on the talk shows.

What John Holbo is teaching his students is a tool, not sacred writ, a tool which offers us the virtue of clarity at the risk of irrelevant abstraction. Its proper use is a matter of discrimination and judgment in the broadest possible sense. John Holbo knows this, and you apparently do not. It really is just that simple.

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mattski 05.18.14 at 2:25 pm

William,

I think you are mixing things up that don’t belong together. At 216 I was merely trying to show where I thought you were talking about something different than the art of constructing a rational, fact-based argument which is what I take John Holbo to be talking about.

You can mark me down as believing in rational discourse. And, I think you’re completely mistaken to make claims like,

What you can’t or won’t see is that the purity of argument you say we’re supposed to treasure is every bit as likely to give us War Is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and Freedom Is Slavery. Objective journalism, its bastard child, can, when shorn of its pretension, give us Judith Miller at the Times, and all Dick Cheney all the time on the talk shows.

Yes, I like to remind folks that people like bob mcmanus are advocates of class-based violence.

No, rational discourse is not what gets us Judith Miller, etc. That’s more than a little absurd.

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Bruce Wilder 05.18.14 at 4:57 pm

mattski @ 216: Except an “argument” is supposed to be impersonal. It shouldn’t matter who is making it.

Who made that rule? That’s not a rule.

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William Timberman 05.18.14 at 5:04 pm

mattski @ 220

This is what you’re missing, and bob mcmanus gets in spades: If you control the premise, you control the argument. If you have the power to mandate a list of acceptable premises, then at very least you give argument a bad name. Also, selecting premises is of necessity a mysterious process, which tends to make argument in the philosophical sense deceptively linear. Scientists don’t speak of the importance of intuition only when they loosen their ties, and poets don’t employ metaphor for merely frivolous reasons. Both are aiming at a certain density in the process of ratiocination-in-general which pure logic avoids whenever possible — arguably for very good reasons, but certainly not all-embracing ones.

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Harold 05.18.14 at 6:36 pm

Rational argument led to Bernays, but it ought to lead to how to counter the techniques developed by Bernays as well. (See Power of Nightmares/Century of the Self).

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Rakesh Bhandari 05.18.14 at 7:44 pm

It would be nice to have arguments about the legacy of Stuart Hall or the implications of Modi’s victory or….why doesn’t CT consider diversifying its blog roll?

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Sasha Clarkson 05.18.14 at 8:18 pm

@222 WT “If you control the premise, you control the argument.”

Yes, but there are (at least) two types of premiss: those of preference, and those of fact.

In an ideal world, combining the two may lead to “rational” decisions, of the the form:

P∧F→A, or P∧¬F→¬A
(Preference plus fact implies action, but preference plus not-fact implies not-action.)

Of course, for most of us, some of our own set of preferences {P}, may be mutually incompatible, but precise definition and logic can sort this out – IF that is what we really want: then the preferences may be prioritised.

Different people all have their own {P}, but a naive person might hope that {F} would be less contentious. Unfortunately, the way political propaganda often works is that someone may, in principle, accept that P∧F→A, but it turns out that, in reality ¬A is part of {P}, their set of preferences. Then the only way out is a form of contrapostion: to junk the offending factual premiss(es) at all costs. Krugman regularly argues that this has been happening wholesale with the American Right.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/16/opinion/krugman-points-of-no-return.html

So far as one’s own contradictions are concerned, a sort of illustration of this is in For Whom The Bell Tolls from the conversation between Primitivo and Robert Jordan: ” … ‘But are there not many fascists in your country?’ ‘There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.’ “

My own advice to people agonising over a difficult decision is “Toss a coin: if it comes down the wrong way, you’ll know what you really want!”

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mattski 05.18.14 at 9:48 pm

221

Bruce, if the meaning or the power of an argument can change as a result of the identity of the person presenting it wouldn’t that say something rather less than complimentary about the argument??

Or is reason a matter of popularity?

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Collin Street 05.18.14 at 10:17 pm

@mattski: the meaning we apply to words depends in part on the identity of the person using the words, or different people use different words to mean the same thing, and conversely describe different things using the same words.

A person with a history of using word A to mean X will have their arguments interpreted in a different way to a person who uses word A to mean Y, because, well, it’s obvious. Nazis and real-estate agents get interpreted differently when they’re talking about “living room”, and so forth.

There are a lot of subtleties to the art of assigning meaning to statements: most people recognise them intuitively, but most people don’t go into these sorts of linguistic issues when they’re getting educated in formal logic/rhetoric, which means that for a lot of people their informal thinking is actually stronger/more useful than if they think about things “more logically”.

[because their logic can’t properly describe differences that turn out to be important.]

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mattski 05.18.14 at 10:19 pm

William,

If you control the premise, you control the argument. If you have the power to mandate a list of acceptable premises, then at very least you give argument a bad name.

I find this puzzling. Who mentioned “controlling premises?” And if some people have the de facto power to control premises–which undoubtedly some do–does that mean that in doing so they are engaging in ‘rational argument?’

This post is about what distinguishes a rational argument from a prejudice, or a ‘prior belief.’ I didn’t notice anyone on this thread advancing the idea that the way to practice reason is to refer to facts, but only certain kinds of facts. So, ISTM you have this discussion confused with a different discussion, one about propaganda.

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Harold 05.18.14 at 10:26 pm

“Bruce, if the meaning or the power of an argument can change as a result of the identity of the person presenting it wouldn’t that say something rather less than complimentary about the argument??

Or is reason a matter of popularity?”

More like trust.

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William Timberman 05.18.14 at 10:56 pm

mattski @ 228

Yes, the intent of the post is clear enough. What’s in contention is that rational argument is the sole key to understanding what’s eternally puzzling about reality. Being structurally indistinguishable from certain forms of propaganda is one of its defects, to be sure, but not in my view its most significant one. I don’t worry as much about sophistry, in other words, as I do about self-deception.

All of which is neither here nor there to you, nor — as you point out, and I have already conceded above — to the intent of the original post. John doesn’t really deserve to be raked over the coals for something outside the scope of that intent, but neither should bob mcmanus be accused by interested parties — you again — of crimes he hasn’t committed.

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William Timberman 05.18.14 at 11:02 pm

P.S. If you want to know what rational argument leaves out, ask any psychologist, phenomenologist, poet, musician, quantum physicist or Zen master. Contrary to Stephen J. Gould, all magisteria are overlapping.

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J Thomas 05.19.14 at 12:14 am

“This post is about what distinguishes a rational argument from a prejudice, or a ‘prior belief.’”

But rational arguments are always based on prior beliefs. “Nothing comes from nothing.” If you have no beliefs to base an argument on, then you have no argument.

Rational argument involves sorting out the prior beliefs so they fit together.

So you can point out that somebody else’s argument has a flaw and is therefore false. “Over here, you assume A to get your conclusion. But in this other place, you assume ~A to get the conclusion you want. But they can’t both be true, so at least one of your conclusions does not follow.”

But of course, they can explain that you missed the point. “Yes, over here I assume A. But the second place, I really assume A and M with the result ~A’. Both are true, I know it in my heart, and they do not contradict.”

So for example, a person can assert that private business is always good and government is always bad, but also assert that we need a strong government-run military.

Isn’t this a contradiction? Wouldn’t we be better off to hire many efficient mercenary outfits to do all our fighting for us, and allow free competition when they bid for the job, instead of having a wasteful, inefficient, inherently-bad US Army and US Navy?

But it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. When you buy from a private corporation, you don’t usually expect to be their only customer. And you don’t expect them to ever sell to you at a loss. A mercenary regiment that changed sides whenever the opponent offered more money, and that stopped selling their services whenever the war got hard, would not fit our needs. But that is the efficient approach for them. For an army, we need men who will be loyal to the nation, who will sacrifice themselves if necessary, who will follow their orders even if it leads to certain death. You simply can’t expect that from private businesses. We must have inefficient wasteful armies to protect us from foreign inefficient wasteful armies. No contradictions.

But we can have good, efficient private businesses that create weapons and sell them to our government and also to allies and neutrals and potential enemies. That’s good, where government armories that try to make their own weapons are inherently bad.

Whenever you find a contradiction in somebody else’s argument, they can always find finer distinctions to eliminate the contradiction.

Rational thinking is a tool to help us sort out our prior beliefs. That’s all. [cue video of Jack Sparrow standing on the rocky shore and his ship has sailed without him. “They done what’s right by them. Can’t expect more than that.”]

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Harold 05.19.14 at 12:30 am

Probability (Hume), a preponderance of evidence, and inductive reasoning come in somewhere here. I am not at all well versed in philosophy, so I am sure someone more knowledgeable than me, whose specialty is philosophy (such as John Holbo) can explain it.

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LFC 05.19.14 at 12:48 am

Rakesh Bhandari @224
I think you mean diversifying or expanding its roster of contributors. (The blog roll is the thing on the sidebar headed, in this case, ‘Lumber Room’.)

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John Holbo 05.19.14 at 3:03 am

“What’s in contention is that rational argument is the sole key to understanding what’s eternally puzzling about reality.”

I understand that you are attacking this contention, William, but who do you take to be defending it?

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mattski 05.19.14 at 3:20 am

William @ 230

What’s in contention is that rational argument is the sole key to understanding what’s eternally puzzling about reality.

No. I don’t know where you got this, but you didn’t get it from me. Really.

but neither should bob mcmanus be accused by interested parties — you again — of crimes he hasn’t committed.

I accused him of advocating class based violence. Something he does openly and repeatedly.

You know, Harold has a good point about the role of trust when it comes to persuasion. Over time we get to know people. Over time we build up trust in certain people we find persuasive. So we do tend to see arguments differently depending on who they are coming from. But it is important to bear in mind that this is not a purely rational thing to do. Neither is it completely irrational, since some people clearly are more trustworthy than others. But a) not everyone has the same capacity for weighing facts in a disinterested manner and b) when a reasonable person ‘trusts’ an argument from a familiar and sympathetic source, the act of trusting is provisional, not final.

Example: I trust Krugman. I give his arguments the benefit of the doubt. But that doesn’t mean I suspend critical judgement on anything he writes. What it means is most of what I get from him goes into the “probably sound” folder in my mind. It tends to stay there until someone else provides a superior argument for why Krugman was wrong in such and such a case. So, trust plays a role, but mostly just a facilitating role.

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mattski 05.19.14 at 3:30 am

@ 232

There is something a little ironic about the liberal use of sweeping generalizations in a thread about constructing rational arguments.

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J Thomas 05.19.14 at 3:44 am

“There is something a little ironic about the liberal use of sweeping generalizations in a thread about constructing rational arguments.”

Mattski, I gave examples of sweeping generalizations to make a point.

But then I also made sweeping generalizations of my own. Do you have examples where my own sweeping generalizations fail to fit your experience?

“But rational arguments are always based on prior beliefs.”

You can also make rational arguments based on hypothetical assumptions that you do not believe at all. But I doubt you will claim much truth for the results.

“Rational argument involves sorting out the prior beliefs so they fit together.”

“Whenever you find a contradiction in somebody else’s argument, they can always find finer distinctions to eliminate the contradiction.”

I guess some people are not skilled at that and might admit a contradiction rather than patch their argument.

Would you argue that my generalizations are in general wrong?

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William Timberman 05.19.14 at 4:01 am

John Holbo @ 235

Not you, certainly. Few would defend it openly, I imagine, but it’s often embedded in the assumptions underlying the conventional wisdom about what’s reasonable, such as mattski’s

<blockquoteBruce, if the meaning or the power of an argument can change as a result of the identity of the person presenting it wouldn’t that say something rather less than complimentary about the argument?? (Has he not really been reading all those less than complimentary things that had already been said in the previous comments?)

or J. Thomas’s Nothing comes from nothing. I’ve already caught hell from geo by arguing that, in fact, everything comes from nothing, so there’s probably no profit in going there again. I grant you, Eff the ineffable is a proper stance down at the pub, but I’d expect less bravado — if that’s what it is — from those charged with custody of the culture.

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William Timberman 05.19.14 at 4:14 am

Mmm…that last was a right mess, wonnit? Fyslexic dingers being the universal sign to scuttle away while you still can, let me just apologize for bollixing your thread and go do something useful for a change.

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Belle Waring 05.19.14 at 6:16 am

I volunteer to return to my TA position exclusively for the “make students more like mcmanus-sensei” semester. This is going to be great.

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Bruce Wilder 05.19.14 at 8:43 am

mattski @ 226:

if the meaning or the power of an argument can change as a result of the identity of the person presenting it wouldn’t that say something rather less than complimentary about the argument??

The Gettysburg Address was a powerful argument for the meaning and purpose of the American Civil War in part because the man making the argument was President.

Arguments are made by people in society: advocates and opponents, speakers and listeners, writers and readers. We shouldn’t imagine arguments are disembodied or de-socialized, if we are trying to make arguments of our own.

There’s something to the proposition that most of the arguments we witness are disembodied in the sense that they are recorded and replayed, scripted performances by professionals. That isn’t complimentary to the argument; it’s a short form way of noting that we are all exposed to massive amounts of propaganda. Another commenter mentioned Bernays, the father of public relations.

That we are passive consumers of so much performative propaganda may be a factor in the difficulty a minority of students have, in “getting” what it means to make an argument. If so, it may be a more direct analogy to the sonata problem than the OP indicated. If you are always eating in restaurants, you don’t learn to cook by eating, and you may have very odd and shallow notions about how food is prepared and certain effects of kitchen chemistry are achieved.

But, I don’t think you were making a point about propaganda. In subsequent comments, you defended the value of “rational” argument, but it’s not clear to me what work you want “rational” to do for you; rather more work than “rational” is capable of doing, is what I’m thinking. I hope you are not identifying “argument” with proving theorems in geometry or algebra, by invoking “rational” as a standard. Beyond that, it is not clear to me what your argument is. (ironic, no?)

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Consumatopia 05.19.14 at 11:04 am

“We must have inefficient wasteful armies to protect us from foreign inefficient wasteful armies. No contradictions.”

Then our wasteful, inefficient government armies are good. Contradiction.

“Whenever you find a contradiction in somebody else’s argument, they can always find finer distinctions to eliminate the contradiction.”

Well, not quite. In the example you gave, they cannot–they have to believe something else at least slightly different. If they’re being honest, they cannot simply refine their argument, they must refine their beliefs, i.e. admit that their prior beliefs were at least slightly wrong. And that slight change opens up new vulnerabilities in their position–e.g. is the military really the only institution in which it’s socially good for people to put the national interest above their own?

Of course, we all make sweeping generalizations like that (both like your own sweeping statements and those of your hypothetical anti-government military supporter). This world is more complicated and surprising than any human can conceive, therefore everyone will find some contradiction in their prior beliefs given enough time spent gathering observations and honestly comparing them for consistency.

“Rational thinking is a tool to help us sort out our prior beliefs. That’s all.”

Most people will have to change their prior beliefs in order for them to be sorted out. I know I have and do.

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mattski 05.19.14 at 12:55 pm

J Thomas,

But rational arguments are always based on prior beliefs.

As a rule, sweeping statements like this raise red flags. Did the person who wrote this think hard about it? Did they look for exceptions, either actual or possible? ISTM this generalization is shaky, to say the least. … I guess I want to ask you why you think it is necessary to make a claim like this?

To my way of thinking the process of rationality is the discipline of looking for and acknowledging facts. An important aspect of this discipline is learning to distinguish facts from desires. Another important aspect of reason is keeping one’s perspective on language. Because it is easy and seductive to move from language which is relatively objective and specific to language which is increasingly abstract and general. And as you get more general and more abstract with your terms you–quickly–enter a twilight zone where the claims you’re making are neither falsifiable nor useful.

Rational thinking is a tool to help us sort out our prior beliefs. That’s all.

This is murky at best. You make it sound as though we have only our “prior beliefs” to choose from! Rational thinking, to me, is how I deliver myself from ignorance. It is how I attempt to have accurate beliefs about the world. In the words of Thomas Huxley, “to sit down as a child before the fact.”

So for example, a person can assert that private business is always good and government is always bad, but also assert that we need a strong government-run military.

If a person wants to argue that private enterprise is always good and government is always bad, then let that person present an argument to that effect, and let us judge the merits of his/her presentation. Let’s see the “facts” assembled to support the claim. Let’s see the response when we present counter-arguments. This is called ‘rational debate’. Do you know a better way to get closer to the truth?

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mattski 05.19.14 at 1:07 pm

Bruce,

Fortunately, the fact that Bush was president didn’t make his case for invading Iraq more reasonable than it was. But are you going to blame reason for the fact that Bush got his wish? I certainly hope not.

Beyond that, it is not clear to me what your argument is.

I don’t think I’ll take responsibility for this.

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William Timberman 05.19.14 at 1:21 pm

Belle Waring @ 241

I volunteer to return to my TA position exclusively for the “make students more like mcmanus-sensei” semester. This is going to be great.

Totally different orders of creative perversity. More or less gives the lie to my all magisteria are overlapping. Still, it’s a class I wouldn’t mind sitting in on, if only way at the back of the room, with dark sunglasses on, and a Groucho mustache.

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William Timberman 05.19.14 at 1:22 pm

And not for credit.

248

J Thomas 05.19.14 at 2:29 pm

“To my way of thinking the process of rationality is the discipline of looking for and acknowledging facts.”

To my way of thinking, once you believe you have found a fact, then you have a belief that you can combine with other beliefs to argue for conclusions. You organize combinations of things you believe are facts to make rational arguments.

“Rational thinking, to me, is how I deliver myself from ignorance. It is how I attempt to have accurate beliefs about the world.”

If you notice that a collection of facts you believe in are not compatible with some of your other beliefs, you can use rational thinking to discard some beliefs so that you wind up with beliefs that are more compatible.

Or you might find ways to re-interpret some of your facts, or to isolate them. So for example, a person who is a fundamentalist christian and who also believes in evolution, can decide that God made the world and the way that God made the plants and animals was by evolution. The seven days of creation then do not mean days like rotations of the earth. Or he can decide that the story of the Creation is literally true, but the Devil provided all our fossil evidence to trick us. Evolution that happens in the lab and in the wild in real-time, things like bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics, is something that happens but that does not reflect the history. Or he can decide that science and religion belong in different compartments and he can believe both in their own context without having to worry about conflicts. If physicists can do that within science, believing in waves sometimes and particles other times whichever is more convenient, why can’t he do that too? There are lots of rational ways to deal with conflicting beliefs, and rationality does not usually constrain us to just one answer.

“If a person wants to argue that private enterprise is always good and government is always bad, then let that person present an argument to that effect, and let us judge the merits of his/her presentation.”

Sure, if he wants to argue about that. But if he has accepted it as a universal fact, something he believes is always true, then he would not think to argue that it’s true.

If you challenge him on that, he might remember various arguments he has heard. There is the argument from complexity. To make and distribute a pencil requires many millions of decisions, which cannot possibly be made by central planning. But private enterprises manage it without anyone knowing how it’s done, somehow they automaticly produce the right amount of pencils at the cheapest possible cost, better than any possible alternative system.

Then there’s the argument from unintended consequences. When people do things we always get results we didn’t intend. People who think they have good intentions always create misery, while people who greedily try to succeed in business result in the best possible outcomes for everybody. That’s just how it comes out. There are lots of examples, and no examples where good intentions get only good results.

Etc. You will not be impressed by such arguments because you start from different beliefs. That’s how it goes with rational argument, when the arguments are in fact rational then people agree only if they agree with the assumptions the rational arguments are built on.

“This is called ‘rational debate’. Do you know a better way to get closer to the truth?”

My preferred approach is to look for reproducible events, and then make up at least two ideas about what’s happening (but better more than two, as many as I can handle). Then come up with tests that ought to show one or more of the ideas is wrong, and see what happens. Throw out the ideas that cannot be right, and make more new ideas that fit the known facts, making sure to always have at least two. Continue this process until I die with at least two alternatives still available.

People who have settled on one single idea that’s supposed to fit the facts, suffer from a lack of imagination. They are likely to think they know the truth. And so they become a menace.

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Harold 05.19.14 at 2:46 pm

J. Thomas, I believe you are talking about *rationalizing* arguments, not rational argument.
Your preferred approach is indeed the rational one.

Rationalize (verb) an attempt to explain or justify (one’s own or another’s behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.
“she couldn’t rationalize her urge to return to the cottage”
synonyms: justify, explain, explain away, account for, defend, vindicate, excuse More

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john c. halasz 05.19.14 at 5:07 pm

Mattski @245
Have you ever actually heard of pragmatics or speech-act theory?

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Bruce Wilder 05.19.14 at 6:32 pm

mattski @ 245

the fact that Bush was president didn’t make his case for invading Iraq more reasonable than it was.

Bush lied, people died.

Again, do you have a point?

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J Thomas 05.19.14 at 6:46 pm

Harold, I believe I’m talking about the same sort of rational arguments everybody else is.

What people call rational arguments is not usually much involved in how people choose the beliefs they base other beliefs on.

Here is an example. A young man finds a technique that reliably gets him two to four new women to have sex with each week. (Depending on how many women he is actually up to having sex with each week. He may say he has a new one every night, but more likely it’s two to four a week.) He will probably have ideas about why it works. And he will probably believe that all women are like the ones he seduces. He will believe that his “success” is evidence that his theories are correct.

But it’s easy for me to believe that other theories could explain his results just as well. If you would, for example, choose women randomly out of a 3-years-old high-school yearbook and challenge him to seduce them, there’s a strong chance that he would not do as well. He almost certainly has ways — conscious and unconscious — that predispose him to choose women who are compatible with his methods. My own experience tells me that women vary in most ways and are not all alike at all.

Similarly, he has ideas why his methods work. For example, he might believe that women unconsciously want to be dominated, and that they fall for that. But maybe some of the women who sleep with him are looking for sex but definitely do not want a relationship at the moment, and by choosing an obvious asshole they prevent the temptation that they might agree to a second date. There are lots of ways it could go. He knows what to do (with the women he has screened) but he probably doesn’t know why.

Our experience is highly biased, and that’s a good thing. We have learned how to deal with our own specific environments. They are not representative of the whole. We know how to get predictable results in some specific circumstances and our theories about how it happens at least don’t keep us from doing the things that get those results, and maybe help us to do the right things to get our results. But they likely don’t have a lot of truth.

And the things people call “rational argument”, where do those fit in? Do they teach us to carefully observe the biases in our observations? Do they teach us how to assign good controls for our experiments? How to do careful statistics? No, they’re mostly about a particular formal way to argue with other people about what it all means. Kind of like Queensbury rules for boxing.

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Harold 05.19.14 at 7:18 pm

“They are like Queensbury rules for boxing.” So what.

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Consumatopia 05.19.14 at 10:47 pm

My preferred approach is to look for reproducible events, and then make up at least two ideas about what’s happening (but better more than two, as many as I can handle). Then come up with tests that ought to show one or more of the ideas is wrong, and see what happens. Throw out the ideas that cannot be right, and make more new ideas that fit the known facts, making sure to always have at least two. Continue this process until I die with at least two alternatives still available.

This process is still dependent on “rational thinking” as you’ve defined it, because of that key phrase “Throw out the ideas that cannot be right”. That step is not sufficient for good decision making, but it is necessary.

But the rest of the process you describe isn’t sufficient either. That process doesn’t prevent you from having an internal Alan Colmes in your mental dialogue, subconsciously making weak arguments to bolster the alternative view, the one that you really want to believe. Or it could turn you in to David Broder, having two preset views, each of which must be as true as the other.

I don’t actually consider it likely that you’ll succumb to either of these fates–you seem like a reasonable person. There is still a missing step–that of what we are to do when we come across two different beliefs or observations that conflict with each other. None of us has a completely worked out and successful theory for accomplishing that–if someone did, they could implement it on a machine and replace human reasoning, which no one seems to have done yet. But most of us have the intuition that some ways of doing this are better–more reliable, more honest–than others.

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J Thomas 05.19.14 at 10:48 pm

“They are like Queensbury rules for boxing.” So what.

Well, it’s fine when you have a referee who’ll enforce the rules and maybe decide the winner on points and such.

But when it’s the audience who decides the winner, and a lot of them don’t care about the rules, and the opponent cares more about winning than civility, you got to watch out. Maybe some of your friends confront him later.

“Hey, you broke the rules.”
“Huh? Oh, you’re talking about that liberal who was so stupid he brought Marquess of Queensbury rules to a gunfight….”

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john c. halasz 05.19.14 at 10:54 pm

@255:

You might want to look up Robert Brandom on “deontic score-keeping”.

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J Thomas 05.19.14 at 11:08 pm

“There is still a missing step–that of what we are to do when we come across two different beliefs or observations that conflict with each other.”

Two observations that conflict with each other? You mean, like, two people see the same event at the same time, but one of them sees a clown on a bicycle holding a sparkler, and the other one sees a terrorist on a Harley shooting his AK47 into the crowd? When it’s only a few observations that conflict we usually throw those out and base our predictions on the rest. When it’s one observer who often sees different things from the rest, and we don’t get evidence he’s right, we usually throw out his conflicting observations.

If it’s a few observations that don’t fit in with the rest, usually we call them outliers and throw them out. Unless they’re important. There are lots of times that statistical analysis can founder on a few extreme outliers, and in fact there can be lots of probability distributions that do not have finite variance. But censor the data a little and it gets much better behaved.

Mostly observations are just observations, they are the raw material you work with and they don’t usually conflict — our ideas about them conflict but the observations are just themselves. If you measure a liquid’s temperature and it’s 39 degrees, and a minute later it’s 41 and then another minute later it’s 39 again, those are just your observations. You can make conflicting explanations how that’s possible, but the observations aren’t in conflict.

When beliefs conflict, we can look at the differences in what they predict, and then look for examples where they predict different things. If one of them is always right while the other is wrong, then we throw out the wrong one. Far too often they’re both wrong, and then we’re likely to fudge one or more of them and say that the times it’s wrong aren’t important. We can of course patch up both of them to explain the errors, but as the beliefs get more complicated it gets harder to keep track until they just aren’t worth keeping up with.

On the other hand, sometimes beliefs that seem to violently conflict predict the same observable results. Then in my opinion they are operationally the same theory and there’s no point arguing about the unobservable parts.

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Harold 05.19.14 at 11:32 pm

Congrats. You have made a reasoned argument. (I think.)

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Consumatopia 05.20.14 at 12:52 am

You mean, like, two people see the same event at the same time, but one of them sees a clown on a bicycle holding a sparkler, and the other one sees a terrorist on a Harley shooting his AK47 into the crowd?

Well, I didn’t say two observations could conflict with each others (I said “beliefs or observations”), but, sure, those seem like conflicting observations. But I suppose it all comes down to how you define “observation” and “conflict”.

I guess what I was trying to hint at by tossing in “observation” is that we shouldn’t think of the selection of beliefs in the face of contradiction to be a timeless process–we constantly receive new data that matches some beliefs better than other beliefs. For any finite series of observations you can create some explanation that reconciles them to your beliefs. But if those beliefs are ultimately incorrect, then chances are when you make more observations that explanation won’t hold up anymore. But you’ve still only got a finite series of observations, so you’ll be able to find another explanation to reconcile those.

Rationality can’t guarantee that you’ll be correct about anything after any finite series of observations, all it can promise is how you’ll behave during an infinite series of them. Something like “if you make an infinite series of observations, then about any given factual matter you will be correct ‘almost always’.”

The promise isn’t as useful as we’d like it to be–none of us gets the chance to make an infinite series of observations. Worse, it isn’t itself even a falsifiable belief–if you’re confronted with a Cartesian Evil Demon you might well be continually wrong about everything forever even if you employ reason. It’s more like an exculpatory justification–either you’re in a world in which reason works, therefore your wrong beliefs will eventually be corrected, or you’re in a world where reason doesn’t work, in which case you can’t be blamed for wrong beliefs.

When beliefs conflict, we can look at the differences in what they predict, and then look for examples where they predict different things. If one of them is always right while the other is wrong, then we throw out the wrong one. Far too often they’re both wrong, and then we’re likely to fudge one or more of them and say that the times it’s wrong aren’t important. We can of course patch up both of them to explain the errors, but as the beliefs get more complicated it gets harder to keep track until they just aren’t worth keeping up with.

Sounds good to me. But don’t we have to play by some approximation of what we’ve called “Queensbury” rules for this process to work?

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Bruce Wilder 05.20.14 at 1:09 am

J Thomas @ 257

“Mostly observations are just observations, they are the raw material you work with and they don’t usually conflict — our ideas about them conflict but the observations are just themselves. If you measure a liquid’s temperature and it’s 39 degrees, and a minute later it’s 41 and then another minute later it’s 39 again, those are just your observations. You can make conflicting explanations how that’s possible, but the observations aren’t in conflict.”

I could observe the water, and say it was “warm” and you could observe the same water, and term it, “tepid”. Those would be subjective evaluations, probably incorporating our individual expectations and needs. Maybe I’m preparing a bath, and you’re preparing tea. Maybe, I’ve been burned by hot water. Our individual histories and needs color how we see things, name them, feel about them.

There’s a whole social construction involved in sticking a thermometer in the water and reading off a conventional measurement, instead of just communicating our subjective evaluations and impressions. We “objectify” things that way, to facilitate social cooperation and communication. For some purposes, constructing an “objective” measurement or set of terms is a strategy for getting to agreement. People can let go of subjective feelings and “agree” on a shared reality, denominated in objective measurements. For other purposes, the subjective experience matters, and should matter. It doesn’t become “irrational” to eschew irrelevant metrics, when they are, in fact, irrelevant.

As to what observations we retain, and which we reject or discard — well, that isn’t “objective” measurement operating, that’s likely to be a very strong confirmation bias or social conformity. Other people agree on certain conventions — but they’re not measurement conventions, they’re priors and terms of reference, and assumptions about what’s good or pure or right — and they are pretty much immune to the stream of facts and experience, because of the randomness of the stream of facts and experience. No single flip of the coin or turn of the roulette wheel indicates whether the coin or the roulette wheel is fair or biased.

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mattski 05.20.14 at 1:33 am

jch @ 250

No, I haven’t. What about it?

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J Thomas 05.20.14 at 1:38 am

#259

“…either you’re in a world in which reason works, therefore your wrong beliefs will eventually be corrected, or you’re in a world where reason doesn’t work, in which case you can’t be blamed for wrong beliefs.”

If I come up with a hypothesis which fits the data I have, and new data shows it’s wrong, I refuse to accept blame for doing that. I would prefer to come up with two hypotheses which both fit the data I have, and if one or both of them later get falsified I refuse to accept blame for that, also.

However, people might blame me for using reason whether or not it later turns out that reason will work on average or will fail. People are quite capable of blaming other people for being right, if they think someone is right.

It isn’t supposed to make sense.

“But don’t we have to play by some approximation of what we’ve called “Queensbury” rules for this process to work?”

Sure. It only works for the people who go to the effort of making it work. Other people do things other ways.

I once dated a woman who sincerely believed in astrology. She asked my birth data so she could compute a horoscope to decide whether she wanted to be with me. I didn’t know what hour I was born and I called my parents. They laughed and said they couldn’t remember. But it might have been during the night shift, and they weren’t sure which day wound up getting put on the birth certificate. She was upset by that. She started computing horoscopes for each hour of the day, and then she’d ask me leading questions. “When you were in high school were you like a badass from Compton?” “Did your mother have a crisis and die or almost die the summer when you were 10?” Her intention was to see which horoscope had already come true to find my hour of birth. She really believed in it. She wound up picking a horoscope that said I had bad intentions and evil magic and she ran. I can’t say I was entirely disappointed. Life with her was more than a little surreal.

A couple of years later my parents laughed about births. The doctor induced labor at 10 AM for my youngest sibling, because he said he was up at 3 AM for every other delivery and he wasn’t going to do that again. They were quite reasonably lying when they said they didn’t know. They still insisted they didn’t know whether it was 3 AM the day the birth certificate claimed I was born, or 3 AM the next day. So if I met another woman like that I still wouldn’t be able to tell her.

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john c. halasz 05.20.14 at 2:03 am

@261:

Look it up or re-read the thread and what you were purporting to be responding to.

@262:

Your dating history is fascinating…

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Consumatopia 05.20.14 at 2:27 am

@262,

Okay, sure, you can be blamed, but not honestly or reasonably blamed. In order to honestly blame me for thinking that reason would work, you have to claim that I should have known better–that whatever my starting prior beliefs where, the internal contradictions should have led me to realize that there was a better alternative to reason (otherwise, it wasn’t my fault, it was just my bad luck to be born with the wrong prior beliefs.) But if that were the case, then we would say that reason works. In other words, to honestly criticize me for believing in reason, you have to assume that I’m right about reason.

Sure, you can blame me just for having the wrong prior beliefs, but when pushed people aren’t usually willing to assent to this as a general rule. We only convict someone of involuntary manslaughter if we can show that they should have known better.

Sure. It only works for the people who go to the effort of making it work. Other people do things other ways.

Sure, we don’t always go to the effort of being honest. When failing to make that effort hurts other people (something that almost all of us are guilty of at some time or another), that’s a moral failing on our part.

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Val 05.20.14 at 2:44 am

John Holbo @ 214
As this thread is still active, I hope you might read this. Yes, sorry, I was venting a bit because the area of health in which I work, population health promotion – which is based on evidence and reasoned argument – is being targeted for cuts by the present government. The reasons are a little obscure but I think reflect an overall agenda of commercialisation and privatisation.

The broader point, however, remains: in the current political climate of the Anglosphere, reasoned argument is simply not working. In this situation, are you doing your students a disservice by focusing on making them better at reasoned argument, without (apparently) giving equal weight to analysing power, assumptions and the construction of knowledge? Maybe you are doing that in other parts of your course, but the connection was not made explicit in the post.

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Harold 05.20.14 at 3:20 am

Vaccine opponents can be immune to education.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/09/upshot/vaccine-opponents-can-be-immune-to-education.html?ref=health

Excerpt: Surprising as this may seem, our finding is consistent with a great deal of research on how people react to their beliefs being challenged. People frequently resist information that contradicts their views, such as corrective information— for example, by bringing to mind reasons to maintain their belief — and in some cases actually end up believing it more strongly as a result.

our results show that other types of messages used by public health agencies — information about disease risks, a dramatic narrative and images of sick children — were also ineffective.

****
These findings, which were recently published in the journal Pediatrics, suggest some caution is necessary among those proposing parental educational mandates, which were recently enacted in Oregon.

The sorts of beliefs that contribute to high vaccine exemption rates in some states aren’t necessarily about facts at all and can’t be easily legislated away.

A more promising approach would require parents to consult with their health care provider, as the Oregon law also allows them to do. Parents name their children’s doctor as their most trusted source of vaccine information. That trust might allow doctors to do what evidence alone cannot: persuade parents to protect their children as well as yours and mine.

[I think that knowing someone who had actually had had small pox (like my step-father) or had died of diphtheria or been crippled by polio, might make one more inclined to accept vaccination against these diseases. There is no education like first-hand experience. When things are far away in time or distance (or size) we are less likely to care about them or even to think they are real. — Harold]

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mattski 05.20.14 at 3:24 am

J Thomas 248

To my way of thinking, once you believe you have found a fact, then you have a belief that you can combine with other beliefs to argue for conclusions. You organize combinations of things you believe are facts to make rational arguments.

Aren’t you making a sort of semantic play on fact v belief?

Sure, I ‘believe’ in my ‘facts.’ But belief isn’t sufficient. I have to be able to show evidence for my facts. You show your evidence, I show mine. Then we, and any other interested parties, judge the evidence. You can object that lots of people will ignore good evidence because it damages their prior beliefs and this is no doubt true. But this is a defect in human nature, not a defect in reason, if you ask me.

Over time, groups who ignore good evidence and cling to prior beliefs no matter how unsupported will be seen as unreasonable by free-thinking people, who also, no coincidence, will tend to be higher functioning.

And a truly rational argument will separate out its normative component from its analytic component. “If you want to get such-and-such a result, then you should do X, Y and Z.”

If you notice that a collection of facts you believe in are not compatible with some of your other beliefs, you can use rational thinking to discard some beliefs so that you wind up with beliefs that are more compatible.

I think you should make a specific example here. And I don’t think your fundamentalist Christian who believes in evolution is a satisfactory example. Why? Because there isn’t any evidence for the god of the Bible. Or none that I know of. So we haven’t risen to the level of facts, or reasonably close questions of facts.

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Bruce Wilder 05.20.14 at 4:51 am

Harold @ 266

Why do you suppose no one studies the elites, who squander their credibility?

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Harold 05.20.14 at 5:24 am

Bruce W., I am not sure what you are referring to. I just thought that this study appears to show that people can have more trust in those that are close to them and with whom they have interacted before. It was also about people resistant to rational argument.

As to why elites squander their credibility — I don’t know quite what you are getting at. I am not sure one can use elites interchangeably with expert opinion. An expert might be a very obscure person.

I did know a woman, the parent of some of my child’s classmates, who found a homeopathic doctor who persuaded her to vaccinate her sons against measles, mumps and dipheria, when he allowed her to skip one of the less dangerous vaccines (I forget which since this was quite a few years ago, as well as giving her some of the homeopathic treatments that she did believe in, which allowed her to feel a sense of dignity and agency. I thought, not believing in homeopathy myself, that it was interesting she let herself be persuaded. Perhaps deep down she was not really so adverse to being persuaded, but really wanted to be heard and acknowledged. (This is an anecdote, a true one). I observed that there are huge numbers of business people who have vested interests in attacking elite medical opinions — sellers of notrums, who have been very persuasive in alienating people from mainstream medicine. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that by their arrogance, blundering, non-chalance, ignorance, and general non-availability , the medical community brought this on themselves. That, in combination with the fact that we don’t have a lot of first-hand experience with these diseases and their effects any more, thanks to vaccines.

I don’t know if this answers the question you were asking.

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J Thomas 05.20.14 at 7:55 am

“To my way of thinking, once you believe you have found a fact, then you have a belief that you can combine with other beliefs to argue for conclusions. You organize combinations of things you believe are facts to make rational arguments.”

Aren’t you making a sort of semantic play on fact v belief?

Yes. Belief is primary.

Sure, I ‘believe’ in my ‘facts.’ But belief isn’t sufficient. I have to be able to show evidence for my facts.

No, you don’t have to. Many people can’t. And standards of evidence vary every which way.

You show your evidence, I show mine. Then we, and any other interested parties, judge the evidence.

You make it sound so — clinical. Like we’re both supposed to display our naked evidence to any interested parties and they will judge.

Over time, groups who ignore good evidence and cling to prior beliefs no matter how unsupported will be seen as unreasonable by free-thinking people, who also, no coincidence, will tend to be higher functioning.

It doesn’t take very long. Most people immediately decide that anybody who disagrees with them is being unreasonable. Some of us are willing to listen to others and perhaps see that by their own lights they are not so unreasonable after all.

I think you should make a specific example here. And I don’t think your fundamentalist Christian who believes in evolution is a satisfactory example. Why? Because there isn’t any evidence for the god of the Bible. Or none that I know of.

See, you have pre-judged the issue. In your opinion, people should not believe anything until they have “facts” which justify their beliefs in your opinion. But Christians have different values. They think it’s valuable to believe in the word of God. Jesus said if you have faith like a mustard seed you can move mountains. Jesus worked miracles — for those who had faith, who believed.

You value skepticism — to disbelieve everything until it is proven to your satisfaction. They value faith. Which is better? I don’t know. Herodotus said not to judge a man’s life until he is dead. I kind of approve of that.

So we haven’t risen to the level of facts, or reasonably close questions of facts.

No, and in blog comments we are unlikely to rise to that level. Nor will we in political debates where candidates talk for two minutes at a time.

I don’t think we got to that level in my qualifying exams. I remember it like it was yesterday. One of the committee members was this guy from india who had an upper-class british accent. A couple of weeks before the exam he told a racist joke and expected me to laugh, and I stood there embarrassed, wondering what to do. Then during the meeting I had just answered a question about plasmid transfer, and he asked me, what about transfer mediated by KF1! And he sat back like he had totally refuted me. I thought fast because KF1 did not mediate transfer at all, and how could I say that without making him look like a total idiot? He could cause me a whole lot of trouble. He would hold a grudge. I couldn’t see any way to say it. And was there some chance he was right, something recent I’d never heard of? But it would be big news, I’d have heard of it. How could I say it? After a significant number of seconds he smirked and asked something else. At 90 minutes they called an intermission. The Indian guy cornered me in the hall and repeated the same racist joke word for word and waited for me to laugh. I giggled nervously. He nodded and moved on. My advisor came to me. “Why didn’t you tell Singh that KF1 doesn’t mediate transfer at all? He would have looked like a complete idiot.”

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Val 05.20.14 at 12:28 pm

Still trying to work through my earlier train of thought – in the Anglosphere, it seems political parties, at least conservatives, have an agenda which does not reflect what most people (or even half the people) say they want. I know that’s so in Australia, because I’ve looked at the evidence and I think it’s probably true in US, at least.

In these circumstances, conservative governments can’t get elected via a coherent policy platform. So they have to lie and talk nonsense. So reasoned argument is no longer relevant, at least when you have a conservative government. Not that I’m saying it shouldn’t be – just that it isn’t. So where do we go from there?

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Val 05.20.14 at 12:32 pm

Also when conservative parties get elected by lying and talking nonsense, it makes it harder for other parties not to do the same I think. So the whole political context begins to deteriorate.

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Anarcissie 05.20.14 at 2:49 pm

J Thomas 05.20.14 at 7:55 am (270):
‘You value skepticism — to disbelieve everything until it is proven to your satisfaction.’

Mattski is not skeptical about rationality.

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mattski 05.20.14 at 3:14 pm

I said, Sure, I ‘believe’ in my ‘facts.’ But belief isn’t sufficient. I have to be able to show evidence for my facts.

J Thomas replied, No, you don’t have to. Many people can’t. And standards of evidence vary every which way.

I think we are talking about different things. In my world you don’t believe things without evidence. That is what is meant by ‘rational.’ The moment you make a claim based on stories people tell and completely lacking evidence you have passed into a realm where rationality doesn’t operate.

Anarcissie says I’m not skeptical of rationality. Skepticism IS rationality!! Show me evidence and I’ll grant you a hearing. If all you have is a lovely story… you don’t have much at all.

You know what really strikes me as ironic? I’ve been an advocate here for skepticism about excessive conceptualizing. I’ve been a proponent of the idea that we tend to think too much. And I firmly believe this is the case, and that many people have no clue as to how repetitive and obsessive their thoughts are. That’s why I’ve linked to videos by people like Eckhart Tolle. I believe in the scientific method, but that also extends to our subjective experience. Which is why going on a silent meditation retreat, for example, can be a transformative experience. When you come face to face with your repetitive thoughts you begin to take them a little less seriously.

I strongly recommend this to many of my ideologically inclined friends here.

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Anarcissie 05.20.14 at 3:44 pm

mattski 05.20.14 at 3:14 pm (274):
‘Anarcissie says I’m not skeptical of rationality. Skepticism IS rationality!!’

You believe that rationality produces truth. I am skeptical of this proposition. I would criticize it, but I think that has already been done, and in any case my experience has been that those who believe, like yourself, will resist my doubts very strongly, so that my efforts will be wasted.

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Bruce Wilder 05.20.14 at 4:05 pm

Harold @ 269

[The article] was also about people resistant to rational argument. . . . As to why elites squander their credibility — I don’t know quite what you are getting at. I am not sure one can use elites interchangeably with expert opinion. An expert might be a very obscure person.

The article was premised on the idea that rational argument could be reliably equated to the prescriptions of authority. People resist authority, with regard to giving their children vaccines as mandated by law, and this is transmuted to people resist “rational argument”, and the article is about how best to get people to comply with authority. They find that the authority of the family physician is more trusted. (The author’s test instrument for resistance to “rational argument” was an article “debunking” the alleged association between vaccination and autism. You’d think he might conclude that there was something wrong with the rhetoric of the “debunking” article — that maybe it missed the target somehow, but, instead, he shows contempt for the audience.)

I think your anecdote about the woman, who was persuaded by her homeopathic physician, gets closer to the truth about resistance.

I’m troubled about the way “rational argument” is carelessly thrown around in this comment thread and generally. As in this argument, I think it’s often a deceptive stand-in for legitimate authority, particularly in arguments where the legitimacy of the authority ought to be in question.

Brendan Nyhan doesn’t present a value-neutral, analytic argument, with scientifically valid parameters, for vaccination in the N.Y. Times article you linked to. He talks, instead, about the achievements of Science in using vaccination to reduce or eliminate disease. His argument is that Science has earned authority by its achievements, and that authority should be believed, and he’s distressed when it isn’t.

I’m not saying that people would be open to, or able to process the science behind the decision to vaccinate. Frankly, I’m not sure that, if people were presented the science and they were able to understand it in scientific terms, that that would produce the necessary levels of social compliance for an effective vaccination program. The truth is that for the “rational” individual, opting out of vaccination is a superior strategy; social compliance is not. (I don’t know that this game-theoretic insight plays any part in popular resistance to vaccination — I’m just pointing out that openness to “rational argument” defined in an honest way would not necessarily result in social compliance. This is a clear indication that Brendan Nyhan isn’t defining “rational argument” in that particular honest way.) It’s just a general instance of the principle that a free-ride is a good choice for the individual and a bad choice for the society.

At best, a democratic society can openly explain and rationalize the decisions made by authority. They can show why these particular vaccines have been developed and chosen for distribution, and the precautions taken, and the monitoring programs in place, and the plans for revision of policy in light of experience, etc. But, they still have to use force to achieve social compliance. Bad news for libertarians, I guess.

Openness to “rational argument” per se helps in the case of vaccination only to the extent it enhances the legitimacy and credibility of authority. “Rational argument” doesn’t, by itself, enhance social compliance, and shouldn’t be expected to. (Remember the free rider problem.) “Rational argument” is not going to end, even ideally, in all cases with unanimous agreement about what is true. That’s a bad model of what a rational argument is or can do. A “rational argument” is not truth, nor is it authority; it may be in service to either. That’s why I was pressing against mattski’s sweeping determination to detach “rational argument” from people and society, as if a rational argument could float among the clouds of Kantian categories.

People can argue that vaccines are a good thing, because of the good experience with using smallpox vaccination to eradicate the disease. But, that’s an argument for the value of using authority to coordinate a program requiring social compliance, not an argument for a particular vaccine. It would be insane, for example, to vaccinate against smallpox today. There hasn’t been an endemic case of smallpox since 1977, and administering the vaccination to millions of people would cause minor problems for everyone vaccinated, and serious problems for a small number of people. The vast majority of polio cases in the U.S. since 1979 have been caused by the vaccine. Even though the safety of the vaccine has been greatly improved, general administration of the polio vaccine doesn’t make sense any more. As vaccination programs are successful, the benefits of a free-ride increase. And, as the diseases being vaccinated against become less common, or less acute or life-threatening, the social benefits of the program, itself, diminish.

Given that the American medical system is, generally, a giant rip-off, and a threat to public health in many of its practices — hospitals kill more people than automobile accidents — I cannot imagine why rational people would simply accept that the vaccines being pressed upon their children are uniformly safe (enough) or worthwhile. Saying that in resisting, people are resisting “rational argument” seems, at best, patronizing, and, at worst, actively dishonest.

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Harold 05.20.14 at 4:33 pm

I am not sure what your quarrel is with me, Bruce W., since I do agree with you, basically. The arguments against vaccines are certainly not irrational. (Our cat died of cancer caused by a rabies vaccine. And I notice that with our new cat, the vet actually suggested we skip the vaccines.) On the other hand, neither are the arguments for vaccines irrational. (I spent some years of my childhood in a place where there were no pet vaccines and our dog did come down with distemper.) That is the problem with the issue. It is not one of absolutes but of lesser evils.

As I write, I am experiencing a bout of shingles, a disease for which I was vaccinated and which I thought only people quite a bit older than me suffered from. I little thought when I got the vaccine, which was very expensive, it would only provide imperfect protection. Nevertheless, no one would suggest (I hope) that we get rid of vaccines, or of rational argument.

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J Thomas 05.20.14 at 4:38 pm

#274

“In my world you don’t believe things without evidence. That is what is meant by ‘rational.’”

You’re talking about what you think people ought to do. But in my world, the majority of people conspicuously do not do that, a lot of the time.

I have a theory that what people actually do gets better results for society in the long run. I can’t prove it’s true, but I can describe a scenario that demonstrates that it *might* be true.

Imagine your society has a situation where there are 12 plausible choices for individuals to make. Five of them are obviously terrible. Three of them look very good. The other four look kind of mediocre.

If everybody was rational, we would try the three choices that look good. Then say it turned out that one of them is bad for reasons we could not have foreseen. When we find out we quit that one. Then we study the two remaining choices until we see which is better. Perhaps we find that one of them has bad long-term effects (like chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer). We discard the worse choice, and we say the remaining one is the right way to do this particular thing. Then we’re done.

But when most people ar4e not rational, they try say eleven of the twelve choices. And they don’t just quit when their choices look bad. They dig in their heels and they *believe* despite the evidence. Over an extended period the bad choices gradually lose membership, and the choices that in fact have good results gain. Maybe one of the choices that looked mediocre and one that looked bad both come out better than the best rational choice, because in a complicated situation our rationality can’t predict well. So on average we come out better. We still have the overhead of the people who stay with their bad choices through thick and thin. But if circumstances change, they provide us with ready-made alternatives and they maintain the methods they have found to make those choices not as bad as they would be if we were first starting out trying them.

I contend that maybe — just maybe — society is better off when some people sometimes irrationally sacrifice themselves trying out approaches that from a rational standpoint look bad. We don’t really know what to expect from them until we try. Rationality probably helps us as individuals — surely our rational choices are better on average than sheer random choices. But society — as opposed to our rational individual selves — does better when we explore lots of choices, not just rational ones.

I can imagine scenarios where that fails, too. But society has created lots of irrational individuals who sometimes suffer for their mistakes and who sometimes bad together in large groups to make you suffer in their place. Perhaps — perhaps — this is on average good for society, since it is what society has in fact created.

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TM 05.20.14 at 4:43 pm

183: so the students in question are all Singaporeans. Could it be that these students’ problems are particular to their culture and education and not generalizable to, say, Americans? I don’t know but since Belle felt it important to mention, maybe it was important to mention. Although John apparently felt it wasn’t important to mention.

As to the Aunt Flo quote, I agree it’s pretty useless.

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TM 05.20.14 at 4:54 pm

John: “The post is really ONLY about those students who work hard and … just don’t get it. Presumably lots of them sort of lack the aptitude. Not sure how that works, but people are different, so it seems.”

Well yes we kind of knew that. But you also seemed to be making or at least implying generalizations. Especially the Haidt quote, which you described as “helpful”, isn’t referring to a small fraction of (Singaporean) students. He says “generally” and “most people”. So which is it?

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TM 05.20.14 at 5:13 pm

BW 242: “The Gettysburg Address was a powerful argument”

Now I’m flabbergasted. There is not a single argument contained in that speech! If that were a student essay in a reasoning class, it should get a failing grade. It is an excellent example of political rhetoric and maybe even poetry – but not of argument.

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Harold 05.20.14 at 5:48 pm

Rational argument, as presented here, is about persuasion, or a non-coercive way of soliciting agreement (and defending the innocent), which was considered by many since the time of the Greeks to be essential to freedom and democracy. It is interesting to me that so many people on this thread appear to believe that persuasion is in and of itself a bad thing. It is as though we have to re-invent the wheel.

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Karl Dickman 05.20.14 at 6:46 pm

I once encountered a man who argued against a higher inflation rate with “A higher inflation rate will ruin my investments in short-term debt instruments.” Not only could he not grasp that this was a weak argument (akin to Aunt Flo), he could not even grasp that people might exist who would find it unpersuasive. I can understand why he wanted his debt instruments to perform well; I cannot understand why he thought their performance would sway my opinion.

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Anarcissie 05.20.14 at 7:20 pm

I missed the part about persuasion being a bad thing. Where was that?

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Sasha Clarkson 05.20.14 at 9:58 pm

Appeals to emotion to persuade people to support a principle or end are an integral part of human interaction. At some point, we all must decide which side we are on: or at least, which side we are not on (like Tolkien’s Treebeard.) Rational argument then can help us deduce the consequences of our emotional choices and, if necessary, refine them.

Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh?” is one of the most powerful emotional appeals for common humanity in the English language. Accept it or reject it, and then consider the consequences. Is this what you really want?

Allowing emotion and reason to work together is a way we might avoid to “achieve our heart’s desire but find despair” (slight misquote from C S Lewis).

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mattski 05.20.14 at 11:09 pm

Anarcissie,

You believe that rationality produces truth. I am skeptical of this proposition.

Well, not exactly. We need to pay close attention to how we are using words. A word like ‘rational’ has different levels of usage. At the most basic level, to be rational is to look at what is, observe reality, be aware of what is real. But the moment we open our mouths and enter the realm of thought and language we have taken a step away from reality. Now we’re dealing in symbolic representation of what is.

Nevertheless, it is possible to make statements about the world that are supported by evidence. So even though ‘the truth’ is never perfectly conveyed by words it is still possible and necessary to distinguish between beliefs which have strong evidence to support them and beliefs which are weakly supported.

I mean, this is a lefty blog, is it not? Are there climate change deniers taking part in this discussion? Because I certainly don’t want to hurt anyones feelings by calling their beliefs STUPID. [heh!]

Say, do you have an hour and 45 minutes to spare? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KNefVPDbsQ

:^)

J Thomas

You’re talking about what you think people ought to do. But in my world, the majority of people conspicuously do not do that, a lot of the time.

It’s not so much that I’m talking about what I think people ought to do, although to some extent you’re right. It’s more that I’m trying to make a distinction between certain types of thinking and belief. If a person wants to believe things without evidence that’s up to them. I’m only saying their behavior is irrational.

Here’s a Chinese proverb your post reminded me of: http://www.drmarlo.com/?page_id=181

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John Holbo 05.20.14 at 11:29 pm

“Could it be that these students’ problems are particular to their culture and education and not generalizable to, say, Americans? I don’t know but since Belle felt it important to mention, maybe it was important to mention. Although John apparently felt it wasn’t important to mention.”

That some students have trouble writing argumentative essays is more or less a cultural universal, in my limited experience. I teach in Singapore, but I used to encounter the same troubles as a TA in Berkeley, in the 90’s. There are cultural differences, of course, but I didn’t mention them because I didn’t really think they were relevant to the post.

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John Holbo 05.20.14 at 11:32 pm

“It is interesting to me that so many people on this thread appear to believe that persuasion is in and of itself a bad thing. “

I am unpersuaded that the thread exhibits this feature. I demand an argument!

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J Thomas 05.21.14 at 1:36 am

“It is interesting to me that so many people on this thread appear to believe that persuasion is in and of itself a bad thing. “

I am unpersuaded that the thread exhibits this feature. I demand an argument!

I will sketch an argument, without pointing fingers at actual comments.

Some people claimed that rational argument does not in fact persuade people very well. I didn’t notice anybody dispute this and claim that rational arguments are in general persuasive. While silence does not truly prove consent, it is a better indication of consent then denial, so I will proceed as if we have a consensus that rational argument does not persuade well.

Some people claimed that other methods do persuade well. Irrational emotional arguments. Appeal to authorities that the listener actually considers to be authorities. The argument from tradition, that people have always believed this because it’s true. (Only usable when the claim can be presented as if it’s traditional.) The argument from consensus, that many people believe it and they are prospering. (In a similar thread going on right now, some people have argued that we should accept particular scientific theories because a consensus of scientists believe them. http://dreamcafe.com/2014/05/17/how-do-you-know-you-know/ Various arguments that are widely considered fallacies and not rational, in fact do convince very often.

If rational argument is the correct way to establish beliefs, then irrational arguments are bad. And if irrational arguments are the only ones that in reality do persuade, then persuasion is bad.

I myself would figure that we should consider the question, bad for who?. If I need to persuade people and I use a method that works, I am better off. The people I persuade might be better or worse off, depending. Ethically I should only persuade them of things that will be good for them to believe. If my persuasion hurts them, that’s bad for them. I should persuade my friends of things that are good for them to believe, while to the extent I can I should entangle my deadly enemies in a fog of false beliefs that will kill them.

On a deeper level, if I encourage my friends to be persuaded by bad methods, that is also bad for them. To the extent I can, I should persuade them to be rational provided I believe that rational thought is good for them. I should use whatever method that works to persuade them to be rational.

But then, is it true that it’s good for people to restrict themselves to rational thought? I noticed people get some impressive results with astrology. I discounted their success at the stock market — it was a bull market then and easy to get paper profits. But they often did excellent character analysis. It’s possible I was fooled by various biases, but I think there was more to it than that. The complicated calculations they did, even when most of the actual work was done by computer programs, let them add lots of subconscious bias. If they tried to pay close attention to what their subconscious thinking told them, they would probably get it wrong a lot. But when they let it slip in across many judgements when they are busy consciously thinking about something else, they get it more reliably. Things they didn’t notice they had noticed, things they would not come out and say, get incorporated into their horoscopes and impress people.

Sometimes that’s clearly bad. When your words correctly fit the things they refer to, when your conscious ideas correctly fit the reality and there’s nothing else important going on, then unconscious bias cannot help. But for real problems, where our thinking is confused and we don’t have all the data, could hunches and intuitions and ideas that we can’t rationally justify be on average better? I don’t know how to test that, but I think it might be so.

I can imagine ways to test it. Track ten thousand children who are raised to be supremely rational, and compare against a control group of ten thousand children who grow up normally, and watch what happens to them over their lifetimes. Which do better on average, by whatever criteria we care about. But I don’t have the funding to set up the study, and unless the rational kids have unusually short lifespans I would be dead before it was complete.

TLDR: If rational argument doesn’t persuade and irrational argument is bad, then persuasion is bad.

But maybe persuasion is OK if you help people prosper, and bad if you persuade them of things that are bad for them.

If rationality is good, then maybe it’s good to use any method that works to persuade people to be rational.

But maybe in real life rationality is over-rated. Maybe for real-life problems people have arational methos that work better. Can we test that, rather than just assume that there is nothing better than rationality? Yes, but it would be so hard to test adequately that I’m not surprised no one has tried.

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John Holbo 05.21.14 at 2:15 am

“If rational argument is the correct way to establish beliefs, then irrational arguments are bad. And if irrational arguments are the only ones that in reality do persuade, then persuasion is bad.”

First, no one said rational argument is NEVER persuasive. All anyone said – me, for example: because it’s true! – is that, if your goal is just persuasion that P, without any further consideration as to whether it’s reasonable, rational, wise, etc. to believe P, rational argument is not your go-to tool. Other methods of inducing belief in P – for example, just emphatically, repeatedly asserting P – are far more effective. Emotional appeals are, for most people, much more moving than arguments. That said, there are cases in which rational arguments can be highly persuasive. (Other things being equal, arguments don’t change the human mind. But other things are not always equal.) That’s really all you need, right there, to see that those who believe 1) argument is good and 2) arguments mostly don’t persuade are not committed to 3) persuasion is bad.

You can do it even more simply. The point of argument is, ultimately, to induce belief. (Narrowly, argument is just supposed to show you which P’s you would be justified in believing. But if showing you that you would be justified in believing P never actually induced belief in P, there wouldn’t be much point to the exercise.) Inducing belief is persuasion. If persuasion is bad, per se, then argument itself is bad, because it is, ultimately, a tool for doing a job that, by hypothesis, shouldn’t be done. There really is no way to believe that argument is good yet persuasion is, categorically, bad.

There is also the psychological consideration that, since the dawn of time, obviously no one has believed that the persuasion, i.e. the inducement of beliefs in humans, is, per se, a bad thing. It would be quite striking if this thread inaugurated a departure from this tradition.

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godoggo 05.21.14 at 2:45 am

Personally I find it helpful to supplement my rational arguments with a bit of sleep deprivation.

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bxg 05.21.14 at 3:18 am

> You can do it even more simply. The point of argument is, ultimately, to induce belief.

Really? I argue when I think there’s a good chance I can learn something and change my mind. What I do when I’m convinced I’m right, well, that’s very context dependent but if argumentation works so be it but if manipulation or authority or intimidation or whatever is faster then I’ll go to that. If I really, really, “know” I’m right and the purpose is to induce agreement then anything that works, goes. Sham argument if it fits, but anything else if it fits better or saves me time.

I’d like to think I’ve arranged a life and work for myself where that essentially never happens. Where “argument” carries a good-faith assumption – which “it’s all about
inducing belief” does not.

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John Holbo 05.21.14 at 3:41 am

“Really? I argue when I think there’s a good chance I can learn something and change my mind.”

How is this a counter-example to the idea that the point of argument is to induce belief?

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The Temporary Name 05.21.14 at 4:24 am

It just IS.

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godoggo 05.21.14 at 5:02 am

No, it isn’t.

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Bruce Wilder 05.21.14 at 6:14 am

TM @ 281

I gave the Gettysburg Address as an example of an effective and important argument precisely because I thought it would clash with some of the presuppositions being cast about. There is an argument in it, to the effect that the country’s founding principle was at stake in the war, and that defined the war’s meaning. It’s an argument about meaning. Like a lot of arguments, it is about inducing social cooperation. (Whether arguments are, in general, about inducing belief, seems a dubious proposition to me.) Since it’s about inducing social cooperation, that it is made by an official leader is important to its power and effects.

mattski @ 241 You know what really strikes me as ironic? I’ve been an advocate here for skepticism about excessive conceptualizing.

It strikes me as ironic that you have been alternating in this thread between sweeping generalizations and complaints about people making sweeping generalizations.

I am one of those people you sometimes accuse of excessive conceptualizing, but I wouldn’t make the sweeping generalizations you have about what’s “rational” or “beliefs” precisely because I wouldn’t know how to conceptualize “rational” or “belief”. I see people use the words, but I’m not always sure what idea they are referring to, so I approach with caution.

mattski: If all you have is a lovely story… you don’t have much at all.

I’m not so sure. Stories — narrative dramas — are what most people seem to want most of the time. They want to know what something “means”, whose good and what’s bad or mad. If you have a lovely story, you may have all you really need to persuade. Explanatory stories are retailed in journalism and social science with abandon. Policy turns on whether people believe Aunt Flo is genuinely needy, innocent and virtuous, or greedy and lazy and in need of sharper motivation.

Harold @ 277: I am not sure what your quarrel is with me

I didn’t think we had any great disagreement, and didn’t intend to give any sort of personal offense. I just wanted to hold out against the idea that people are “resisting” rationality, per se, or that others, in supporting authority are championing rationality.

Prescribing a set of beliefs, or a set of conventions for expressing beliefs, and calling these, “rational” and opposing beliefs and conventions, “irrational” seems prejudicial and contemptuous in ways that are uncalled for. It’s not my idea of “a good argument”. I thought the Brendan Nyhan article you linked to, and the paper he linked to, were good examples of abusing the notion of rational argument, by privileging certain assertions and advocates as “rational” and opposing advocates and arguments — which, admittedly, might not be conventionally well-expressed or entirely sensible — as “irrational” (and by implication, illegitimate).

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J Thomas 05.21.14 at 8:25 am

#293

“Really? I argue when I think there’s a good chance I can learn something and change my mind.”

How is this a counter-example to the idea that the point of argument is to induce belief?

Speaking for myself, very often my purpose is to weaken belief.

When someone disagrees with me, it’s very unlikely that I can persuade him to change his mind. Often people’s beliefs are tied into their sense of themselves, and they tend to be very reluctant to change *that*. Since he disagrees with my conclusions, then working backward he will also disagree with my arguments and if necessary with my facts.

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken” is asking too much. What I can hope to get across is that in some alternate universe where my facts are right,
it would be reasonable to believe as I do. That I am not merely irrational, but my thinking makes sense in its own context, and in areas where our conclusions overlap we can reasonably agree.

If I can get to there from “My way is the only way and anybody who disagrees is crazy” I consider it a success. You could look at that as me persuading them of something, and yet for me it seems more like unpersuading them. That success means getting them to give up a belief.

In the extreme case, I might persuade somebody that their facts are not certain, and it’s worthwhile to do research and find out the actual facts which nobody knows yet. Again, for me it seems like in that unusual situation they wind up knowing less than they did before. Agreeing on the value of finding out things that they before were sure of, is more unpersuading than persuading.

“Really? I argue when I think there’s a good chance I can learn something and change my mind.”

If he starts out with his mind made up, he might pass through a stage where he doesn’t know. If he immediately grabs onto the other guy’s belief because the other guy argues better than he does, to me that’s sad. I like to give it a while to sort things out. It’s useful to find out I’m wrong. The guy who shows me that might not be right either.

Like the old joke. Nasrudin was appointed a judge. On his first case, the plaintiff spoke and he made his case so badly that Nasrudin stood up and said “You’re wrong.” The court clerk came to him and said “Sit down, sit down Judge. You have to listen to the defendant first.” Nasrudin sat down, and the defendant sounded so guilty that Nasrudin stood up and said, “You’re wrong too.” The court cler came to him and said “Sit down, sit down Judge. They can’t both be wrong, can they?” Nasrudin stood up again and said “You’re wrong too!”.

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Matt 05.21.14 at 8:36 am

Something that changed my thinking about rational argument is seeing repeated iterations of argument over the Ticking Time Bomb scenario/justification for torture on utilitarian grounds. The first time I saw it I think I still believed that rational argument was the way to go no matter how controversial or important the issue at stake. In fact I believed that strictly rational argument was more important the greater the issues at stake.

After more than a decade and many iterations of this argument I have come to the opposite conclusion. Engaging with torture advocates on the level of argument only works in their favor. Give an inch and they’ll take a mile — pretty soon the “ticking time bomb” is “any possible future threat” and it’s not a couple hours of field expedient torture but years of cruelty. Repeated debate desensitizes people to actual abuses even if the torturers don’t have the better arguments. Torture advocates need to be shamed, flamed, baited, mocked, and harassed if they show up seeking a “rational” debate on the merits of torture. Anything that hinders them is good, anything that gives them the advantage is bad, no matter how rational/irrational the methods reaching those ends. If you ever get the chance to debate John Yoo, don’t bring your best arguments. Bring a pair of running shoes so you can pull his pants down and then get away before anyone can react.

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mattski 05.21.14 at 1:31 pm

Bruce,

I wouldn’t make the sweeping generalizations you have about what’s “rational” or “beliefs” precisely because I wouldn’t know how to conceptualize “rational” or “belief”.

To me, “rational” means, roughly, “supported by observation” or “validated by observation.” To be reasonable means to ground oneself in reality as opposed to fantasy. The very idea of poo-pooing rationality strikes me as hugely dismaying. So, maybe I’m mistaken, but my use of the word “rational” feels pretty well grounded to me. And that makes it possible to generalize about paying attention to experience.

I object to generalizing when ISTM that words are being used in highly abstract, ambiguous & murky ways.

BTW, I don’t discount the value of story telling per se. Stories can be powerful teachers, of course. But it is important to keep in mind how art & mythology work. They work in a different way than science & reason. In fact, ISTM that by their very nature stories are generalizations. They get their meaning and traction from specific instances and events, but they synthesize general lessons from specific instances.

So, a (fictitious) story might impart a certain (valid) moral, but if you can’t tie that lesson to specific, real events then the lesson is suspect, to say the least.

Matt @ 298

I think I agree that the ticking time bomb scenario is a real hornets nest for this subject. But I don’t agree with your conclusion. I think rationality shows that in almost all cases torture is not justified. ??

There was a fairly fascinating thread on CT, I wish I could remember when & what. It was one of those “Trolley Problem” threads, I believe. A real-world example was given where (going on shaky memory here) three suspects were taken into custody and the officer, given his level of information, elected to shoot one of the suspects dead in front of the other two. And he got the information he was seeking. The point being that in extremis the rules can change. What is critical is that we don’t allow the paranoia of fear-mongers to normalize practices that are appropriate ONLY in vanishingly unlikely scenarios.

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J Thomas 05.21.14 at 2:16 pm

A real-world example was given where (going on shaky memory here) three suspects were taken into custody and the officer, given his level of information, elected to shoot one of the suspects dead in front of the other two. And he got the information he was seeking.

I read about that. It was claimed that both the German army and the Russian army used this method a lot during WWII, and it was effective.

The Americans claimed that what they did instead, was first they asked questions of the first POW, and when he did not answer they took him off behind a truck, and then they fired a weapon. The two remaining POWs did not actually know whether the third one was dead or not, but the Americans said it worked just as well. The idea was that smart good guys could get results without being evil. This approach was also thrifty. If it didn’t work you had three POWs to try out something else on, and if nothing else worked you can always bring the third guy back and kill him in front of the others, later.

However, the information tended to not be all that valuable. Usually, soldiers who got captured did not know all that much.

“The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte

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mattski 05.21.14 at 2:56 pm

**It occurs to me that the generalizations Bruce accuses me of are more on the order of defining how I am using language and less about abstract claims of truth, etc.

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Sasha Clarkson 05.21.14 at 7:20 pm

People can also be persuaded by total nonsense – especially if the argument makes them laugh!

“If a man who turnips cries,
Cry not when his father dies,
‘Tis a proof that he had rather
Have a turnip than his father.”

(Samuel Johnson)

My late mother, who was an expert at illogic if she wanted to wind someone up, once said
“Organic vegetables? Huh!!
We ALL know what they put on those: give me nice clean chemicals any day!”

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Matt 05.21.14 at 10:02 pm

Mattski,

I agree that rational/utilitarian reasoning shows that torture is almost never justified. There seems to be a problem that repeatedly debating/reasoning about torture can leave people thinking about the rare case instead of the common case. They remember the surprising thing that torture is sometimes justified instead of buttressing their original emotional commitment against torture with reason. Seeing the reasoning worked out in detail can actually weaken commitments against torture, as opposed to sticking with one’s unthinking, visceral loathing of torture. Let Alan Dershowitz debate in front of a public audience enough times and their brains might end up as broken as his.

To illustrate by yet another analogy: I think it would weaken rather than strengthen norms against rape if there were regular arguments/discussions about the utilitarian ethics of rape, and the side arguing “for” rape was treated as if their arguments should be considered with respect and countered with reason alone. It doesn’t even matter if, in the end, the pro-rape side doesn’t have a single argument that works. Even indulging the form of respectful debate with people who are trying to find justifications for the very worst of human behavior can weaken norms against those behaviors. The audience doesn’t just see: oh, the pro-rape side had worse arguments. The audience sees something more insidious: oh, you can argue in favor of rape and not be a pariah. I don’t see any way to have the debate without the subtext, so I feel like there are certain subjects where anyone arguing the “pro-” side should be shut down by any means at hand, and the debate cut short. Because to do otherwise is to increase the risk of harm to actual human beings.

I think that some advocates for the disabled see Peter Singer’s arguments this way: the very act of debate weakens the norms for respect of human life that they want to keep strong. If they debate Singer in an environment that signals mutual respect and consideration, they lose even if they win. I agree with Singer on more than I disagree with him, but I understand why sincere and passionate critics may refuse to argue “rationally” with him.

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mattski 05.22.14 at 4:24 pm

Matt,

I think you did a good job of articulating your position here. You made me want to stage some ‘mock debates’ where, maybe with professional actors, we stage exactly the “rape” debate you describe and let two writers, or two groups of writers, control the dialogue and re-work the dialogue until both sides feel like they made their optimal arguments. :^)

My feeling is that the “pro-rape” side is going to inevitably emerge from such an encounter as a completely odious point of view. They will make of themselves a pariah. I think this is not an exaggeration. Because any argument for rape can be immediately turned round upon its proponent.

“OK, then, so it’s basically not a problem if me and my mates here tie YOU to an oak tree and fuck you in the ass without your consent. As much as we want. Right?”

Then there is the bigger consideration of sanctioning censorship, which is the road I see your point of view pointing towards. By ruling certain discussions out of bounds we are sending the message that people cannot be trusted to figure things out for themselves. We need a big brother to make sure we don’t venture into areas we’re incompetent to handle. I don’t think that’s a great precedent to set.

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