Tag Archives: dialectic

Getting there from here: Critical thinking and debiasing

A primary lesson from the first day was that biases pose different problems in different contexts and need specific techniques to be negotiated. Ways to engage the social and emotional variables occupied a central role on the second day. In that afternoon, and today, the third and final day, we get more specific, considering how reasoning operates in particular contexts and the difficulties faced by critical thinking pedagogy in addressing those contexts and improving people’s practice.

Scientific reasoning concerns Ulrike Hahn, who directs us toward the advantages of Bayesian approaches to fallacies and argumentation. Hahn’s point of departure comes from Douglas Walton‘s analysis of argumentation schemes, including taking the appeal to ignorance as a central case. Accounting for how we gain and incorporate information into belief is the key benefit of Bayesian probablistic analysis, and Hahn makes quite a convincing case, at least if we take arguments to be monological. She takes the dialogical approaches of Walton and pragma-dialectics to become unnecessary in the wake of the Bayesian appraoch. Burden of proof and its dialogical shifts are a messy business, to be sure, but I don’t think we can dispense with analyzing them so easily. We need tools to reason with others, and judging by the social approaches to debiasing that prevailed on the second day, the social dimensions may be key to debiasing argumentation.

Mariusz Urbanski presented research completed with Katarzyna Paluszkiewicz and Joanna Urbanska showing that while untutored skill has a lasting effect on performance in deductive reasoning, training can improve performance on difficult deductive problems.

Debiasing was studied in legal contexts by Frank Zenker, Christian Dahlmann and  Farhan Sarwar, because it’s an environment that demands judgements be made; judges can’t suspend their evaluation of a case. People, and so perhaps judges, who score high on agreeableness seem especially influenced by anchoring.

This day gave us little room for optimism about debiasing, or the future of critical thinking as an ideal and an educational practice. An account of frustration with facilitating critical thinking at an institutional level provided the final talk, from Chip Sheffield, recounting his experience as the inaugural Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at Rochester Institute of Technology.IMG_1510 Sheffield described how institutional pressure to develop or adopt a new assessment instrument flew in the face of a lack of other institutional and faculty support, student resistance to the integration of critical thinking in courses, and only superficial resources in the larger critical thinking movement. Yet he found some progress in student panels and discussions, and community outreach.

The result of Sheffield’s experience is his recommendation of more critical thinking courses, and more at advanced levels. So it might seem that the problem is not how to teach critical thinking but how much to teach it. That could seem to be the only room for improvement given the disjunct between the experimental research on cognition and biases and the philosophical pedagogy of critical thinking. I was struck to hear the experimental psychologists express concern over the philosophers use of “bias” losely, just as the philosophers were discouraged by the inattention to the pressures to find practical strategie for students.

However, as much as this conference demonstrated an absence of the practical evidence we want to guide critical thinking education, it also paves the way for more engagements between the psychological evidence and the pedagogical and philosophical ideals. I take particular inspiration from the work of Kenyon & Beaulac, and Howes, as philosophers attempting to explore the implications of the psychological research, but also Weinstock, Schendel, Cooke, plus Urbanski, Paluszkiewicz & Urbanska, and Zenker, Dahlmann & Sarwar in assessing the impact of specific techniques on the development of critical thinking. We have barely begun to chart the possibilities and potentials for critical thinking education, and we need more research of the sort gathered at this conference to develop and explore options. Ideally, this should be like the work from Paglieri, Mercier & Boudry, directly engaging both the philosophical and the psychological. To start with, we should explore whether they or Goodwin are correct about the effects of classroom debate.


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.


Reasoning together

Hugo Mercier visited the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric at the University of Windsor last Fall to discuss his recent work with Dan Sperber in which they  argue that reason is meant to function socially, in contexts of argumentation and hence as part of communication.  This welcome message for argumentation theorists and social epistemologists draws together an immense amount of research in cognitive psychology about the conditions in which reasoning is successful.  I found it very exciting.

Not only does this view suggest a fundamental epistemological significance for argumentation, it suggests that argumentation is basically cooperative, not adversarial.  Sure, opposition can be part of valuable argumentative practice, but the more general or at least original benefit is learning from each other — not winning, as the view has been misrepresented in The New York Times.

What was disappointing is the appearance that Sperber and Mercier’s appeal to evolution, and their employment of “evolutionary psychology” is weak.  Does evolution provide explanatory power, connecting theory with one of the most important scientific innovations of the past several centuries?  Yeah sure.  But explanatory power is not enough, especially when more rigorous empirical standards are available from and demanded by evolutionary biology.  At least, so the consensus seems to be — I need to learn more about this area; but Mercier appealed only to the explanatory power of natural selection, not to anything concrete.

Evolutionary psychology is notoriously problematic, and seems especially prey to the assumption that what has evolved must have been selected for, having an advantage itself. Some evolutionary features, like chins and male nipples are by-product of other features, like jaws and female nipples.  The automatic assumption that all evolved features are adaptations has been described by Elisabeth Lloyd as “adaptationism.”


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