Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bad Political Argumentation

Yesterday I read a book of essays by Alfie Kohn, called What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?

Kohn makes a particular argument that I found to epitomize bad argumentation, in a way that is depressingly common among partisans on all sides of virtually every social and political issue. Here's the formula:

Side 1: "I think we should adopt Strategy A, with the goal of causing Result B."

Side 2, with the bad argument: "I don't think Strategy A would cause Result B. In fact, I think it's so clear that Strategy A won't cause Result B, and that it will instead cause horrible Result C, that I'll accuse Side 1 of lying when they say they want Result B in the first place. Thus, if they're proposing Strategy A, it's really because of a sinister and maleficent plot to bring about Result C."

Now this isn't necessarily a bad argument: It could theoretically be true that Side 1 is being dishonest when it claims to want Result B. But in most cases, Side 2 is just inventing the maleficence attributed to Side 1. That is, Side 2 wrongly assumes that no one can honestly disagree with Side 2's assessment of whether the means achieve the ends -- and that therefore anyone who claims Strategy A would cause Result B isn't just mistaken, but is pursuing another dishonest and sinister end.

Well, this is all rather abstract, so let me type out the egregiously bad passage from Alfie Kohn's book:
Knowing a lot of stuff may seem harmless, albeit insufficient, but the problem is that efforts to shape schooling around this goal, dressed up with pretentious labels like "cultural literacy," have the effect of taking time away from more meaningful objectives, such as knowing how to think. . . . .

The number of people who do, in fact, confuse the possession of a storehouse of knowledge with being "smart" . . . is testament to the naive appeal that such a model holds. But there are also political implications to be considered here. To emphasize the importance of absorbing a pile of information is to support a larger worldview that sees the primary purpose of education as reproducing our current culture. It is probably not a coincidence that a Core Knowledge model wins rave reviews from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum (and other conservative Christian groups) as well as from the likes of Investor's Business Daily. To be sure, not every individual who favors this approach is a right-winger [Kohn doesn't mention that the founder of Core Knowledge himself is anything but a right-winger], but defining the notion of educational mastery in terms of the number of facts one can recall is well suited to the task of preserving the status quo. By contrast, consider Dewey's suggestion that an educated person is one who has "gained the power of reflective attention, the power to hold problems, questions, before the mind."
Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that this argument is completely wrong, from start to finish. Cognitive psychologists have known for a long time that creative and critical thinking are impossible unless you're working with a huge base of factual knowledge.

If you don't believe me, try to come up with a critical assessment -- generated by your own brain, not quoted from elsewhere -- of ten-dimensional superstring theory, or Thomas Gold's abiogenic theory of oil formation. Can't do it? Neither can I, and it's precisely because I don't know enough facts about quantum physics and oil formation to be able even to understand what those theories say, let alone figure out how consistent they are with the evidence.

It's mystifying to me that anyone thinks it possible for students to be taught to "hold problems . . . before the mind" without knowing facts about the subject in question. Would it really be productive to ask students to think critically on the following problem: "Was the Civil War a good idea?," if they don't know who Lincoln was, have never heard about Reconstruction or the Missouri Compromise, and generally haven't learned lots of facts about what caused the Civil War, what happened during the Civil War, and what results occurred afterwards? And make no mistake: Americans are often abysmally ignorant of the most elementary facts (consider the 2007 poll finding that 31% of Americans couldn't even name Cheney when asked who was the Vice-President).

But as I say, leave all that aside. The real problem with Alfie Kohn's argument here is not just that he's wrong, but that he assumes that he's so obviously and indisputably right that no one could possibly disagree with him. To Kohn, trying to get kids to learn facts somehow prevents or precludes critical thinking -- and this is so obvious that no one could really think that it's important for students to learn facts. If anyone wants students to know that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa (as 18% of Americans think), it can only be because they hate critical thinking, and are just a bunch of mean right-wingers trying to oppress people by preserving the "status quo."

Kohn's argument is egregiously bad. But similar arguments can be found everywhere, if you look. Environmentalists couldn't really believe that global warming is a danger; therefore their real motive is to destroy the free market. Education reformers couldn't really believe that giving poor people a choice among schools is a good idea; therefore their real aim is to destroy public schools. Examples abound.



Blogger Paul Gowder said...

Hmm... the claim quoted doesn't seem to be "people who think P are lying bastards." It seems more to be "these people think P because they have biases (in favor of reproducing the current culture)," with the implicit extension "and when we correct for these biases, the appeal of P goes away."

Read in that form, Kohn's argument seems to be legitimate. It might not be convincing, but it would, if believed, lend some support for his conclusion. Non?

12:00 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Hey Paul!

I don't think Kohn is making quite that argument. Look, it would be one thing if Kohn would straight-up argue, "Here's some solid evidence from cognitive psychology why learning lots of facts won't, in fact, help you with your critical thinking; and here's a specific way that critical thinking can occur in the absence of detailed factual knowledge."

Then, and only then, it might be interesting, as a tag-on argument, to ask, "So why is it that some folks think that schools should spend so much time on facts instead of critical thinking? Aha, it's because of their bias for . . . , etc., etc."

But Kohn just skips that whole first part. He just assumes, without proving, that critical thinking and factual knowledge are somehow opposed, and his only argument is to point out that (some of) the folks who think students should know facts are "right-winger[s]."

The exact equivalent would be if someone wrote against the global warming theory, not by discussing any of the facts and evidence, but simply accusing believers in global warming of being left-wingers (apparently on the assumption that the reader will think, "left-wing = false"). Or, perhaps to use your phrasing, "These people believe in global warming because they have biases," and "if we correct for the bias of being left-wing, the appeal of global warming goes away." Which could be true, in theory, except that it is an argument that completely ignores the evidence.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Paul Gowder said...

Hey! Long time, no e-see (even longer time no see in person!).

Perhaps I am being too charitable to Kohn. But the Overcoming Bias Bayesian Conspiracy has gotten into my head enough that I can think of at least ways that "conservatives [or liberals] believe X" legitimately counts as evidence against X.

Both ways require the presupposition that we update on other people's beliefs: if someone is arguing for a particular kind of education, my posterior probability in the goodness of that kind of education is going to depend not only on my evaluation of their arguments, but also on my evaluation of their belief-formation processes. And that's rational, especially if I'm dealing with specialists: I can evaluate the arguments of an education professor to some extent, but I can't evaluate it as well as another education professor could, so some of my beliefs are going to have to be based on deference to specialized knowledge.

Then the first way Kohn-type arguments could be good is if there is a correlation with no rational connection between the beliefs. For example, if liberals overwhelmingly believed in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, while competing interpretations were more evenly divided, it would seem to count as some reason to disbelieve the Copenhagen interpretation -- or at least to discount the arguments of liberals for it, because there would be reason to believe that the belief-formation processes of liberals on quantum physics didn't track the strength of the evidence, but track something else instead -- something that causes both liberalism and Copenhagenism.

A second way would be if a false belief entails -- or at least supports -- the belief under examination. If A --> B, and the believers in B tend to believe in A, and A is false, there's reason to discount the arguments of Aists for B, because some of their belief-formation process probably comes from this false belief.

Sure, it would be better to have direct arguments and evidence for the goodness of a specific sort of education. But information about the belief-formation processes of people who support a proposition does, for a good little Bayesian, count as indirect evidence... albeit very weak evidence.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

I guess I agree with your points, although I still think Kohn's argument is much more simplistic, along the lines of my global warming hypo.

One addendum, though: I'm not sure how to apply your first approach. If it turns out as a particular educational issue that liberals tend to believe one way and conservatives the opposite, then both sides may be equally suspect in their belief-formation processes. (That seems quite likely: most people don't really think through most issues for themselves.) So where does that leave you? If you have a prior commitment to be aligned with the liberal or conservative positions on other (and separate) issues, then it may SEEM rational to you to assume that your teammates are the rational ones and it's those other guys who have the suspect belief-formation processes -- but that seems too convenient, and in any event could be said by the other side as well.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Michael Drake said...

You're only saying that because you're involved in the conspiracy to bring about C.

And Paul, seems like you're everywhere these days.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Paul Gowder said...

I'm stalking you through Stuart's blog until you put me on your blogroll. :-)

4:07 PM  
Blogger Michael Drake said...

Paul, you've been on my blogroll for well over a week. But if you're going to pay such scant attention to the contents of my blog, I'm going to have to remove you.

12:41 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Wow, this is getting really heated. I'm going to have to ask you guys to count to 10 before posting. If that doesn't work, you'll have to take this outside or something. :)

8:31 AM  
Blogger Paul Gowder said...

Michael, I forgive you. Provisionally :-)

10:42 AM  

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