RACT watch this space

IMG_1348-0 Tomorrow begins the conference on Reasoning, Argumentation and Critical Thinking Instruction at Lund University in Sweden. Dr. Frank Zenker, a researcher at Lund, has hosted several conferences in recent years on social epistemology that I would have loved to attend, but I’m especially happy to attend this one as it deals with an intersection of academic topics of special importance. It’s an open question whether argumentation fosters critical thinking and how it affects reasoning, and the recent decades of psychological research on reasoning suggest that people’s thought is much less critical than we might tend to otherwise recognize. All sorts of bias — from perceptual to social — colour our interaction with and reasoning about the world.

The picture at the top is of a lovely brass band playing in the pub this evening, and here are a few speakers who’ve convened so far.

IMG_1355 I will post summaries and commentary on the talks as we proceed over the next few days.

What Is Argument Repair?

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the language of “argument repair.” I don’t think this is my term, but borrowed from others. Many people have found it the most interesting concept in my analysis of textbook treatments of fallacies.  Some textbook authors have asked for sources, and some instructors have developed their own exercises.

I have only found one scholarly discussion of it, and no articles aside from mine, but in critical thinking and argumentation studies it’s quite common for  innovative scholarship to be presented in textbook form.  (A great recent example of this is Maureen Linker’s Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice — I plan to post on that soon.) Richard Epstein’s Critical Thinking (Thomson Wadsworth) devotes a chapter to the argument repair, and perhaps that’s where I picked up the term.  It’s no longer in print, unfortunately, but you can find a discussion of it here.

What attracts me to the notion of argument repair is that it suggests a dialectical context. We may repair arguments in response to criticism, though we cannot in change our central reasoning (how to identify that central reasoning is the big question). That dialectical engagement distinguishes argument repair as a practice from simply charitable interpretation, which does not involve the arguer revising what is said but only an audience interpretation. (It may also include repairing one’s own argument, in an internal dialectic.) That dialectical element is present when “argument repair” appears in the one other place I’ve found the phrase, a poem “On the Immortality of the Soul” by Charles William Jones (of Islington):

In matters of such import, pith, and weight,
As the soul’s welfare and a future state,
Each should endeavour for himself to judge,
Invoke the contest, and refuse to budge:
Then to the field of argument repair,
Wisely engage in manly conflict there;
But should conviction’s force your breast assail,
Retire at once, nor your defeat bewail

This rich depiction of argument as war is far from what I want, and yet conflict is certainly part of the dialectical picture.  What interests me is that the audience allows the speaker the opportunity for argument repair.  The speaker can take “to the field” and “retire” in turns.

Although dialectical context distinguishes argument repair from simply charitable interpretation, each may follow the same guidelines.  We don’t want to shoehorn all arguments into deductive form, and yet we want to allow for implied premises, and also “blunders” in Douglas Walton’s terms (see Tindale’s article here).  Epstein in a later edition along with Carolyn Kernberger provide the following Guide to Repairing Arguments (206, 68):

Given an (implicit) argument that is apparently defective, we are justified in adding a premise or conclusion if it satisfies all three of the following:

  1. The argument becomes stronger or valid
  2. The premise is plausible and would seem plausible to the other person
  3. The premise is more plausible than the conclusion.

If the argument is valid or strong, we may delete a premise if doing so doesn’t make the argument worse.

The three criteria involve additions to the argument: the audience “putting words in the speaker’s mouth” in a non-pejorative sense, or the speaker making additions; but it’s also noted that an argument might be improved but trimming off extraneous information. Epstein and Kernberger also suggest the following limits to argument repair (206, 68):

  • There’s no argument here

  • The argument is so lacking in coherence that there’s nothing obvious to add

  • A premise it uses is false or dubious and cannot be deleted

  • Two of its premises are contradictory, and neither can be deleted

  • The obvious premise to add would make the argument weak

  • The obvious premise to add to make the argument strong or valid is is false

  • The conclusion is clearly false.

None of this indicates a dialectical context, so it’s interesting that they choose terminology different from the traditional “charity.”  So, it seems that I need to look closer at my own past practice to see if I’m doing anything different, and have made explicit my interest in the dialectical context. I’ve also sent out some inquiries to people who might know better than I, and I’ll report back.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for Critical Thinking Squared.  2014 was a pretty slow year here, as I turned my attention to other projects (The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies and a festschrift on the work of Trudy Govier, forthcoming from Windsor Studies in Argumentation).  However, this year I return to my own research, and a book on fallacies.  Part of my interest in fallacies concerns their central role of (and the central justification for using a fallacies approach to argument evaluation arising from) their use to teach critical thinking; so expect this blog to become more active again!

You can also expect that we (Hundleby and her student assistants) will complete the textbook database on critical thinking in philosophy. We have around 70 books analyzed already, and only a few left before we’ve covered every one that we can locate in English for a North American audience. (Sometimes we include other texts recommended to us, and we aim to make our coverage err on the side of comprehension rather than exclusion.)

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,500 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 42 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Critical Thinking Movement

The critical thinking movement has roots in the US and links to the informal logic movement likewise rooted in Canada, specifically anglophone Canada. Critical thinking as a set of values and goals for education has gained momentum, though the term may be regularly abused, and the pedagogy often fail to reflect the scholarship.

So I welcome evidence that this situation might change — which I like to think of as new movement in the movement. An excellent example is the work of Guillaume Beaulac, here interviewed in French on CBC Radio. While some of us may be frustrated at our inability to understand this particular piece, it’s a sign of room for change and innovation. Not only is Beaulac concerned with providing critical thinking in French, he’s also concerned to make its techniques reflect the best available sciences of cognition and learning. You can find his work in English via his website.

Toddlers argue badly

Lot’s of interestingly bad — but emotionally understandable — argumentation here:

  • Dogmatic appeals to authority
  • Ad baculum
  • Relativism: “You’re not real. I’m real.”

A great clip for class, I’d think: just two minutes long.

Get more than what you can pay for: Free on-line CT texts

(Report from Brigham Bartol.)

One simple way of avoiding the struggle to get exactly what you want from a textbook that will be a big expense for your students is to skip the publisher altogether and post content online. There are several online sources for critical thinking, from webpages to handbooks to blogs. There are a few authors, however, who take web-based critical thinking material even further by providing entire textbooks online for free. So far we’ve included two of these books in our analysis – Cathal Woods’ “An Introduction to Reasoning” and Chris Swoyer’s “Critical Thinking: A User’s Manual”.  Swoyer’s and a few others were discussed here two years ago.

Cathal Woods’ “An Introduction to Reasoning” provides a very clear and straightforward but still thorough introduction to the basic elements of reasoning, with special attention to scientific reasoning and what Woods dubs “real-world” applications. One of the benefits of an online text is that the author is free to organize chapters in a more accessible way than printed texts allow – Woods’ text comes in four folders for four different sections, which could be read through as a whole or taken separately. The book makes great use of hyperlinks to other chapters and outside sources, so that if students ever become lost they can more easily navigate technical terms and references. Perhaps the most useful thing about Woods’ text, which gives it an advantage over others, is that it is constantly being updated and edited. Uploading his publicly accessible text to Google Drive, Woods makes weekly edits to the documents, ensuring that they are always up to date.

The text does a good job of covering both deduction and induction, but the chapter on “real-world” reasoning is particularly useful for critical thinking. In this section Woods teaches the reader how to analyze, interpret, classify, diagram, and evaluate arguments, making extensive use of exercises so that the reader is constantly engaging in the practices they are reading about. Woods’ examples are often drawn from real-life sources, or common arguments that many readers might encounter. One section which stands out as unique is devoted to ‘reasoning substitutes’ – common strategies used to avoid giving reasons, shift the burden of proof, or offer up false reasons. Woods describes how to recognize these tactics and deal with them appropriately. This sort of accessible and practical approach to everyday problems in reasoning and argument is not always included in reasoning texts, but seems essential to any good critical thinking course.

Chris Swoyer’s “Critical Thinking: A User’s Manual” is available in full as a pdf file. As in Woods’ text, hyperlinks make navigating the contents of the book much easier than in a traditional printed text. A User’s Manual pays detailed attention to psychology, focusing on perception, memory, and emotion. It devotes one of its chapters to heuristics and biases, and another to problems in reasoning which arise in social contexts. At 640 pages, Swoyer’s text is a detailed and thorough look into critical thinking, and should especially be considered as a source by anyone developing a critical thinking course which focuses on the psychological aspects of reasoning.

Online texts maintain both authorial integrity and accessibility. With a subject like critical thinking, which is so important across all disciplines, it’s vital to have open and accessible texts which are also relevant and accurate. Both Woods and Swoyer seem to have achieved this goal, and we hope that more authors will turn to the internet as a way of spreading educational material.

2013 in CT squared

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this website. I’m glad it continues to interest people, and I aim to continue adding posts about once per month.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 42 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Celebrity Endorsement

Celebrity Endorsement

My holiday gift to you for your Critical Thinking class: a short video from Slate on something related to inappropriate appeal to authority.  Call it perhaps irresponsible appeal to celebrity?  

Personally I think it’s important to remember that ad verecundiam originally referred to social status, and not expertise.  The point was to direct us toward expertise. Only more recently have we needed more finely grained distinctions, but it seems we may still have things to learn from Locke and Whately.

Critical Thinking and “Academically Adrift”

The central purpose of my CT2 guide is to advise philosophy instructors about their choices in developing critical thinking courses.  The responsibility for the development of critical thinking skills does not rest solely on instructors however, as one can see in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

Other important factors include student preparation, work habits, and social resources — both work and funding. For instance, educated parents, studying alone rather than in groups, and working on campus improve performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment  (chapter 2 and chapter 3).  All this, they suggest, indicates trouble for the desired goal of increasing “critical thinking,” complex reasoning, and clear written communication, though these terms are never defined. Part of the problem according to Arum and Roksa is the current culture of college education that presents studying as part-time, and school as a last fling before the sombre (and sober?) world of work (chapter 4).

Nevertheless, Arum and Roksa conclude with recommendations for instructors. They advise more reading and writing, with the caveat that it may not go over well with students and may look bad on student evaluations and other currently accepted measures of teaching.  How much?  40 pages of reading per week and 20 pages of writing per term. This seems a lot to me.  I assign about 30 pages of reading per week (10 per class hour), based on small books, and so often as little as 15 pages per week.  I maintain, and explain to students that philosophy must be read three times to be understood well, and that our reading demands thus will be less than in history and English.  The same goes for writing, I’d argue.  Few sources are needed, so the analysis is more spare and focussed and I could not expect it to be as long as in other disciplines.  But now, I’m just getting defensive … I imagine Arum and Roksa might accept this ammendment.

What they really want is for us to engage in what they consider a more direct ethic of education, to produce reasoners rather than credentials.  They turn explicitly to the tradition of John Dewey in stressing rigour and frequent assessment.  This would entail a turn away from the collaborative learning models that have become popular. Again, this might hurt teaching evaluations, and would demand deep structural change to support instructor-level practices.

I have a number of misgivings about the book, and many criticisms can be found on-line.  My biggest concern is that the results can seem to show simply that individual reasoning does not benefit from collaborative instruction.  That seems unsurprising.  The need for assessment to reflect instructional methods and techniques is known as “alignment” and — as I understand it — the canonical work in this regard is Teaching for Quality Learning at University by John Biggs.  Ignoring this element deeply undermines Arum and Roksa’s approach as the technique is central to the outcomes based model of education they criticize.  It’s akin to giving a US-based IQ test to an African student and remarking at how poor the results are.

That said, if we agree that the skills assessed by the CLA are important, we need to consider how those outcomes have been side-lined in favour of more concrete and specific, and — yes — social skills.  Do we want individual or collaborative thinkers? Collaboration is more popular with students but that is that what employers want?  I haven’t yet seen this general question posed to Arum and Roksa, though some concerns have been similar.  They admit that they do not account for the subject-specific strengths students may gain.  But I’m pointing to something a little different, an understanding of general reasoning as collaborative or cooperative, which conflicts with the enlightenment notion of reasoning implicit in the CLA.  That type of reasoning is important, but there are alternatives.