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Project Logicality: Argumentation’s Basic Assumptions


An argument is a connected series of statement...

An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. (Photo credit: harold.lloyd)

This is the second re-release in my Project Logicality series, and it was posted in its original form in April of 2011. I’ve corrected and re-written this and reposted it here, hopefully clearer and to the point. May all your arguments be rational and all your disputes be resolved. ~ Troythulu

We persuade others through our arguments, to get them to accept the statements and claims we make as likely true of their own free choice, justified on the basis of the reasons we give rather than prove them absolutely. Argumentation contributes to healthy discussion and debate, to let those so arguing find common ground, and to make easier a willingness to compromise.

People argue daily, though seldom with skill, and in my view, argumentation as a well-honed tool of a functional democratic republic is needed more than ever with the increasing decay of social discourse, political polarization and interpersonal conflicts that ever more are seen as irreconcilable.

In this post, I’ll describe the basic assumptions and basic conditions that go into any attempt at constructive argument, and before I do, I’ll note as before that good argument is intellectual in force, not coercive or deceptive. It is an ethical means of influencing others, limiting their freedom of action without imposing on their freedom of will.

First, argument is carried out under conditions of uncertainty: We generally don’t argue about things we think certain, though that doesn’t prevent us from talking about them.

We argue about things because we think it important enough to convince others of them, and things may well turn out to be otherwise. If things were absolutely self-evident, they would be so to all, and there would be no need to convince anyone of them.

These differences may be implied and apparent to an analyst, concealed in the context of an argument, or explicit, obvious to an audience. Bear in mind that even the concept of certainty can depend on the audience addressed and the assumptions they bring to the table as to what it means.

Second, Argumentation must consider the needs of an audience. people argue about things that matter to them, attempting to resolve what they think are conflicting positions that cannot simply be settled by any non-argumentative means; appealing to common knowledge, or widely-shared empirical methods; things they consider to be non-trivial, matters important enough to need resolution.

This is not to pander to their biases, or to say that one claim is just as good as any other, it’s just that in being ethical, we must consider what is likely to persuade a given audience as if they were exercising their critical judgment on the merits of the arguments we give, and the soundness of the justifications we offer for our claims.

The audience is the final judge of whether an argument is strong or weak, justified or not, assenting to it if it is strong or justified, rejecting it if not.

Third, argumentation is both adversarial and cooperative. we make choices in arguments, choices in what arguments to select, and how to arrange and present them, based upon the audience we are addressing.

The adversarial components of argumentation help the rigor of the discussion; they help us avoid hasty generalizations; they reduce omission of important details. Skilled arguers seek first to find common ground which is itself the bedrock upon which they can meaningfully discuss their disagreement. Ultimately, these enhance our confidence of the outcome, a confidence pending better arguments to be made in future.

Fourth, argumentation involves restrained partisanship. It requires a cooperative effort between arguer and audience, despite the contentiousness often associated with everyday argument.

Arguers must share a common system of terms, assumptions, and meanings. This allows resolution of the dispute, and is needed to permit any meaningful argument at all.

Fifth, and finally, argument involves elements of risk. This is the risk of losing the argument, the risk of being shown wrong, the risk of having to alter one’s views and position, and in either case the emotional disruption of wounding one’s self-esteem or losing face with others.

But the cooperative aspect of argument means that in willingly accepting these risks, each arguer is respecting the rights and personhood of the other, and in so doing, claiming that same privilege of respect from the other for him or herself.

I think that these are good situational benchmarks, and are the optimal conditions, I would argue even necessary conditions, under which can be made any serious attempt to argue constructively, for the purpose of reaching the best possible conclusions given the means at hand.

 

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Why I get my science from scientists and not #FauxNews…


I feel up to blogging for this morning, and during this day and the next I’ll be reading up on SF approaches to zero-point energy production for a friend of mine, which should be fun.

*waves at @Ravenpenny*

Especially important in looking into zero-point energy is avoiding any use of blatant pseudoscience from so called “free energy” machine sellers…

Rubber science is acceptable within the context of fiction, implausible technological quackery is NOT!

So far, I’ve got two reference pages out of five candidates in separate browser tags. The other three candidate pages are all crank sites, with obvious red flags. I won’t sully my reputation, such as that is as a relative no-name in the skeptical community, by using those last as sources.

This raises a question…

Out of the arguments of both proponents and critics of any claim, how do I decide which claimant is more credible?

There are a set of steps I use that make for a useful start of any inquiry, and I’ll put these into three groups of related questions:

  • First: Which side in a given controversy, genuine or manufactroversy, commits the fewest logical fallacies? Which side has the most valid or cogent arguments and makes the fewest errors in reasoning? Once these are compared and an answer obtained, I then choose the side with the best arguments and go to step two. Remember though, to take care to see fallacious arguments that are actually there, and not the result of wishful seeing. And so…
  • Secondly: Which side has the better factual support for their claims. Do their respective claims add up under adequate fact-checking using reliable sources? Do credible sources support or reject the claims made? Which sources have the better track-record and reputation as a valid and reliable? Next…
  • Thirdly: Related to the second, but worth it’s own step: Which factual statements, when checked, even if and when true, are actually relevant to the claims and counterclaims made? Does the alleged factual support of a given claim actually have anything to do with it?

These three points are a basic rundown of the steps I use.

Answering these questions on science and science-relevant news are one reason I tend to support climate scientists over so-called climate sceptics, and professional biologists over the various species of creationists found online and in religion and politics.

They are the reason that I tend to give more credence to the statements of astronomers than I do astrologers, Physicists and psychologists more than psychic claimants, chemists over alchemists, and neuroscientists over phrenologists.

These questions are the reasons I don’t get my science from clergymen, religious apologists, allegedly fair and balanced media outlets, politicians or radio talk-show propagandists.

Those are not what I would call credible sources.

I get my science from scientists, and science-writers with a real background in the field, thank you, not preachers, partisan bloggers, or people who loudly decry government and taxation while also running for public office so they can get paid a rather handsome salary, with kickbacks and bribes paid by lobbyists, otherwise funded by my taxes.

Silence must fall…


I’m a naturally argumentative sort, not a thing to be proud of as I tend to get very emotional in face-to-face encounters — most unseemly for a skeptic — but I’m working on that, and I’ve learned to use the silent approach in some discussions, to verbally shun my opponent by saying nothing.

No response at all, this approach, not acknowledging their argument, and not even acknowledging their presence.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t do this as consistently as I’d like — For me, it’s a better way to handle potentially acrimonious debates with people I’d rather remain friends with — and it gets easier with practice.

And it works.

There’s even a study that shows it to be more effective for keeping one’s cool in a disagreeable situation with otherwise disagreeable people.

It’s good to have the science confirm what seemed already to be a good idea.

Responding to an argument with silence is not weakness, but good for resource conservation, and in many cases, much more effective.

So, yes, in many situations, silence must fall…

…and it shall.

As long as it doesn’t break up into a million and six pieces when it hits the floor, of course…

I Don’t Call People Stupid…


facebook engancha

facebook engancha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

…and I don’t, not because I’m a nice guy — there are times where my darker nature frightens even me — but because it diminishes me and demeans the one I’d otherwise call stupid. Believe me, there are times I’ve been sorely tempted, and each day I plan out arguments, but not those I will use — those I won’t, or those arguments I hope never to have to use — so scathing do they seem to me in the unvoiced rehearsal of my internal monologue.

But scathing is not something I do well, nor do I hope to. All too often, there’s the temptation to, as Carl Sagan put it, “…wax contemptuous and superior” and the temptation disgusts me.

This is a good thing, I suppose, for snark is a skill set I don’t like to exercise, as I’m forced daily to recognize boundaries for civil relations with people that should not be crossed if effective communication is to be achieved. I suspect that there’s a lot of native intelligence even in the willfully ignorant, and that its not so much people who are stupid, but dogmatic ideologies, erroneous doctrines, and fallacious arguments, failed promises, and exaggerated claims meant to snare the unwary.

I know paranormal believers and people of religious faith, many of them friends and family, and I have no intention of considering them idiots.

I don’t call people stupid — not because of some noble impulse or silly sense of high-mindedness — but because I just don’t feel comfortable doing it. It doesn’t sit well with me but I also don’t judge those who do it, for that would say nothing of them and speak volumes about me. Let others use the methods that work for them.

But calling people stupid leaves an ugly feeling in my gut.

There was an incident on Facebook last evening. Someone I know had private messaged me and went on a tirade about my calling her husband stupid, and I’m pretty sure that no such thing happened — it is simply not done — and confused, I pressed her to explain, but she would give me no specifics. Finally I grew tired of the game being played and asked her to name one instance, just one, where and when I called her husband stupid.

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Her only reply: “Never mind.”

She gave no answer to my question, leaving me to conclude that she didn’t have one.

I thanked her in annoyance and broke off the chat at that point. I’d had my fill of vacuous nonsense and was quite angry with her, and at no time had she ever shown any specific knowledge of what she claimed. I’ll say this much: If ever that night I had been tempted to call anyone stupid, it wouldn’t have been her husband, who is more intelligent than me in a number of ways.

She owes me an apology, by the way, for my anger at her cost me several valuable hours of restful sleep which would have been useful before my kitten, Mr Eccles, got me up later that morning to be fed. How rude. Not Eccles — her — for ruining a potential good night’s sleep over trumped-up churlish foolishness.

But I’m not that nice, I’m just not that good at putting people down with skill and finesse — I’d make a poor standup comic — So I use what works, naughty or nice.

Monty Python — Argument Clinic


As many of you know, I’m, well, rather argumentative, and am learning to put that to better use than would otherwise be the case.

I’ve already completed my first argumentation course, and am learning more still of the subject matter and modes of reasoning, but often I’ve been almost pedantically serious about it, so just to keep from being a mean old curmudgeon, here’s a rather good skit from Monty Python, to mock it all, with a big hat-tip and a bow to Marianne Talbot of the University of Oxford.

Humor is something we all need, and something often all too lacking in the world. You’d be amazed at how close to reality this skit is, but doesn’t the best comedy often reflect how things actually are?

Uploaded by on Nov 14, 2008

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