Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Argumentation in the 21st century

How often have you found yourself arguing with someone who misrepresents what you say and shoots down the resulting straw men, presents “I disagree with you” and various vacuous appeals to authority as arguments, and/or simply restates his or her position along with his or her original arguments—all this, instead of actually engaging with your actual arguments?

It may be harder to teach adults new tricks, but at least we should be able to do better by our children. My impression, however, is that the prevailing approach to research and opinion-writing in today’s K12 schools is on the wrong track. The typical assignment seems to be: identify your opinion on such and such an issue, and then track down x pieces of evidence (typically over the Internet) that support your opinion (where x typically equals 3). Problems with this approach include:

1. Opinions preceding evidence.

2. Supporting your opinion crowding out curiosity as the driving force behind research

3. Internet data mining turning up “evidence” in support of anything

4. The cutting and pasting of that “evidence” substituting for argumentation.

Decent argumentation involves accurately characterizing all known counter-arguments (drawing the line somewhere out on the crackpot end of the spectrum) and anticipating other possible (non-crackpot) counter-arguments, and then actually engaging with the substance of those arguments— without distorting it into straw. It means making a convincing case either that a given counter-argument is faulty, or that its merits vs. the merits of your opposing point(s) boil down to matters of opinion.

Of course, this should be a life skill as well as a classroom skill. But how often does life hold us accountable? As for today's children, how often do their grades reflect their ability to argue--in the best, most timeless sense of the term?


ChemProf said...

Current educational definition of crackpot idea (with which we need not engage): any and all conservative arguments. So we are all good!

ChemProf said...

As opposed to Holocaust denial, which is fodder for "critical thinking" assignments, complete with instructions to read a specific website:


Anonymous said...

My kiddo has been doing debate recently, and, boy have I seen your example of the bad argumentation recently.

One egregious example involved a debate on "resolved, Organ donation should be mandatory". The child had clearly done a cursory search on the internet, and found the 3 points, one of which was, "it would be better if more people died, because that would help save the environment." When she actually said the point, in front of an audience, she realized what she was saying and stopped talking.

If you look at the teaching plans of the debate league, http://www.middleschooldebate.com/resources/resourcesmain.htm, the organization is trying to teach the more robust methods of argumentation you describe, though. But, the format of arguing a debate side and laziness/lack of time might encourage the shortcut you describe in spite of the purported goals.


Hainish said...

Somehow, Holocaust denial is somehow *not* a conservative opinion? Granted, it's a very fringe conservative opinion that I would ascribe to very few actual conservatives, but really now?

Hainish said...

I'm not sure this is a new trend. I'd always encountered assignments that assume the opinion comes before the supporting evidence. I remember it not making much sense to me back then, either.

ChemProf said...

Hainish, you really think the teachers in Rialto, CA were a bunch of conservatives?

Hainish said...

^^ This is why reading comprehension is so important.

I could ask, do you think that liberals are, by and large, in denial that the Holocaust happened?

This is more what I had in mind:

Anonymous said...

In my day, we were assigned our debate positions -- so yes, the opinion came before the evidence. But the evidence had to be good.

Auntie Ann said...


The article above shows how college debate has changed from fact-based argumentation to now include personal narratives, hip-hop and free-form poetry.

If Debate can't even hold onto fact-based debate, it's hard to see anyone else doing so. I wonder what they're teaching in law schools...

Anonymous said...

So much absurdity is performed in the name of reason! Don't forget these two classic moves:

-Citing an authoritative source and then making an argument which is not supported by or may even be contradicted by that source;

-Responding to a criticism of one's statement by saying something on the order of "I was just kidding" or "I didn't really mean that."

Those are two more great moves for assuring one's arguments are merely a thin tissue over one's prejudices.

Hainish said...

This reminds me of the one time that Holocaust denial seemed remotely possible: I was in high school, and the topic came up, and teacher's response was that it was a terrible! terrible! thing. I had to wonder why she couldn't simply appeal to the evidence instead of making a moral argument.

Personally, I think an assignment that focuses on analyzing evidence for the Holocaust and presenting and anti-denialist argument would be a much better use of students' time (even if the conclusion comes first, in this case).

Anonymous said...

I am puzzled. You are an interesting writer with strong opinions, but you never cite any evidence. You occasionally share anecdotes. Is that what you mean by "evidence'?

Katharine Beals said...

You got it, Anonymous. Nary a chart, graph, footnote, or double-blind, randomized, controlled study to be found on this blog. Just anecdotes, math problems, test questions, reading passages, personal stories, and the occasional reference to secondary sources. I am, however, happy to engage with any evidence that challenges stuff I’ve written here. You’re welcome to send it my way. And, heck, if it’s compelling enough, I might even engage with it on a blog post.

Anonymous said...

Let me be sure that I'm getting this right. Supporting your opinions with evidence is just for other people not for you. And you see nothing hypocritical about this double standard.

Katharine Beals said...

Like pretty much every person I know, I don’t ask people to provide evidence for every opinion they voice; I mainly ask for evidence for opinions that sound wrong to me. I am happy to reciprocate. Not to do so would, indeed, be a double standard.

Catherine Johnson said...

"someone who misrepresents what you say and shoots down the resulting straw men, presents “I disagree with you” and various vacuous appeals to authority as arguments, and/or simply restates his or her position along with his or her original arguments—all this, instead of actually engaging with your actual arguments?"

This never happens to me!

Catherine Johnson said...

One of the Common Core appendices -- the one that contains writing exemplars -- includes an essay that says people should vote 'yes' on the school bond because the schools need more money.

I was kind of gobsmacked by that one, although I suppose I shouldn't be.

I don't think they offer exemplars explicitly arguing that liberals are better than conservatives (or conservatives better than liberals), but they've produced an exemplar taking a strong position on a polarizing issue that splits school districts right down the middle -- and takes the side of the school as an institution.

Anonymous said...

You've got it right, Anonymous: it's a double standard. But it's not hypocritical, because she figures you'd do the same thing on your blog.

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure what an un-hypocritical double standard would be, but, yes, you do have a point. In blog posts (as opposed to academic articles--at least in certain fields), people generally don't support their opinions with solid evidence. The same is true of comments on blogs posts (and, indeed, of casual conversation more generally). In these non-academic venues, a single standard applies: people mainly support their opinions (to the extent that they can) when asked for evidence, and people mainly ask for evidence for opinions that they think sound wrong.

It's also important to keep in mind that most opinions (including these here!) are based, not on hard-core/easily citable evidence, but, in the absence of (or lack of access to) such evidence, on impressions based on anecdotal evidence, or on analysis of, or conjecture based on that evidence. Many opinions are intuitive and probabilistic in nature: intuitions about what is the most likely explanation for the things one has observed. Given the absence of solid evidence (e.g., randomized, controlled studies, or studies of explanatory accuracy or predictive power) pertaining to most questions, to insist that all published opinions be backed up with hard-core/easily citable evidence is to filter out most opinions--whether in blog posts, Op-Ed pieces, or books.

In the absence of hard core evidence, the best we can hope for, to return to another point I'm making here, is an honest, open, courteous debate in which we engage with one another's arguments without distorting them or dismissing them out of hand.