Month: July 2014

The Art of Being Right

“The discovery of objective truth must be separated from the art of winning acceptance for propositions; for objective truth is an entirely different matter: it is the business of sound judgment, reflection and experience, for which there is no special art.”

Instead: “Thrust and parry is the whole business.”

After professional athletes retire, they often have trouble adapting to a ‘normal life’. For these people, their job was their entire world. They cared deeply for it and were defined by it. So it’s unsurprising that once it’s finished the wheels come off.

Teachers, if twitter is anything to go by, apparently suffer the same existential crisis whenever they face longer than three days away from the classroom. ‘Debates’ quickly descend into mean-spirited personal attacks and large scale arguments, with teams building up on either side of a generic topic.

This saddens me. Not because I am faced with an embarrassing, vitriolic and immature representation of a profession that is supposed to be filled with role models for our next generation (although that stings) but because it seems to me that twitter could be a powerful tool in settling some of the big questions around education. So why isn’t it?

Pure Sophistry

Arthur Schopenauer, a nineteenth century philosopher, gives us the answer. In 1831 he published a short book called The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument. At first glance it seems to be a manual for winning debates, and includes such highlights as:

  • Petitio Principii (or begging the question).

Or, rather, accuse your opponent of begging the question whenever they ask you to accept something that will lead to their conclusion.

  • Place your opponents thesis into some odious category.

“You’re trying to dictate how everyone acts and thinks, which in my book is fascism.”

  • Find one instance to the contrary.

“You say that smoking causes lung cancer, but my Grandpa’s smoked his whole life and he’s still fit as a fiddle!”

And so on. In fact, you are treated 35 further techniques offered to help win your next argument. They’re really very effective, not only because you can deploy them during your next argument, but because you can detect when an opponent is doing the same and call them out on, for instance, ‘arguing ad hominem’ (attacking the person instead of the argument) or using a hononymy (using the same word to mean two different things, and conflating the meanings to your advantage). Armed with these, you’ll be invincible in your next battle of wits. Thanks Schopenhauer!

Never judge a book by it’s cover. Or its title. Or subtitle.

That’s not what Schopenhauer wants you to do. The whole manual is satire; a big two fingers to the art of sophistry, which he hates because its aim is not to uncover Truth but instead to appear victorious or to persuade an audience to your point of view regardless of whether or not it is true.

This, I think, is one of the problems with debates on twitter. It is not helped by the fact that twitter is so public, and that we are all very proud. AS puts it more poetically, “Our innate vanity, which is particularly sensitive in reference to our intellectual powers, will not suffer us to allow that our first position was wrong and our adversary’s right.” It is considered shameful to change your mind. We berate politicians for ‘flip-flopping’ and mock U-turns in policy or position. Perhaps we’re beginning to make some progress though, Carl Sagan thinks that scientists have begun to shed this vanity, and David Didau’s recent post gives me some hope that those in the education game could follow suit:

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.

Our Evolutionary Curse

Why is change painful? Schopenhauer marks it down to man’s natural obstinateness, and notes that if we discover that someone holds a contrary belief to ourself, we immediately go about trying to find a flaw in their beliefs. Nobody ever begins by inspecting their own thought processes to see if they might have made a mistake or taken something for granted.

AS didn’t know this, but there seems to be good evolutionary explanation for the fact that we become so stuck in our own beliefs, seeking out evidence that affirms them and rejecting anything to the contrary. Early humans who regularly changed their minds may have been perceived as weak and indecisive, and this trait wouldn’t have lent itself to being naturally selected, especially in more tribal societies.

Four Truths

But if we were ‘thoroughly honourable’, AS contends, we would only be concerned with uncovering truth. So when two or more people enter into a discussion (or debate, or argument) it should not be seen as Person A versus Person B, but rather Person A and B versus falsity. To examine exactly what he means he, we first need to do a little epistemology.

There are two kinds of truths, a priori and a posteriori.

A priori truths are those that are true by definition. We can deduce them by pure, deductive logic, independent of experience. A common example is “All bachelors are unmarried.” This statement is true by definition, and anyone who knows what the words ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried’ mean could not deny the truth of the sentence.

A posteriori truths, on the other hand, require empirical evidence. Their truth depends on how the world is, and so to determine their truth we have to ‘get off our posterior’ and check the way that the world is. For example, “Water boils at 100 degree Celsius,” is true, but to be sure you have to get a pan and a thermometer out.

We can also discern between objective and relative truths. This distinction rests on whether truth is affected by humans (relativism), or if truths are true independent of whether or not we believe it (objective truths). Some statements can be relatively true. For example, you could say “It is snowing here,” and I could say, “It is not snowing here,” and we could both be speaking the truth, despite our contrary positions (because we could be speaking on the phone, with you in the North Pole and me in Barbados).

Most of the time, however, when we assert something, we are asserting it to be an objective truth. Objective truth is when we assert something that corresponds with the way the world actually is (independent of our experience of it). It’s really important that we all agree that such a thing as objective truth exists, because radical relativism is a real – although overwhelmingly rejected, amongst philosophers – position which rejects the idea of absolute truth. The first step of a debate should be to check whether someone holds this awkward view, because if they do an argument is a waste of time; they will simply maintain that you are both right.

Arguing past each other.

With the epistemological housekeeping complete, I can (finally) get to my point. Most arguments on twitter between educators never stand a chance of reaching any sort of resolution because the interlocutors are arguing different things. Rarely are the positions set out at the beginning, and this is probably because those arguing aren’t usually entirely clear on exactly what they are claiming.

Take phonics, for example. Most debates on twitter about phonics go along the lines of “I really like phonics, I think that it’s good” versus “phonics isn’t that good”. The theses are so ill-defined that it’s difficult to see how either person could be correct or incorrect. This means that real, useful debate can never actually get off the ground.

Instead, the theses should be set out far more precisely from the start. Something like “I believe synthetic phonics instruction to be the most effective way to teach the vast majority of young children how to read.” Person A believes this to be objectively true, and since it’s not true a priori, they are going to have to collect some empirical evidence. (Well, actually, they wouldn’t need to, they could just check the empirical evidence that already exists.)

If someone were to contest the statement, it would be clear exactly what position they are taking: they believe that phonics is not the most effective way to teach the vast majority of young children to read. From which it follows that there is a more effective way to teach the vast majority of children to read. That makes Person A’s job really easy, because they can simply request the empirical evidence that Person B has which has led to their contention.

The common goal, lest we forget, is (or ought to be) seeking the truth, in this case about the most effective way to get the vast majority of children to read (an important truth to seek!). If Person B produces the empirical evidence requested, Person A should abandon their original position immediately. They have not lost, they have won; they have gained truth. If Person B cannot produce the evidence, or produces incredibly thin evidence, such as a personal anecdote, then it should be pointed out that the mass of evidence is in the favour of Person As position (which is why Person A holds such a position). Person B can than happily abandon their position.

Alternatively, they could both utilise Schopenhauer’s final technique:

Become Personal, Insulting, Rude

A last trick is to become personal, insulting, rude, as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand, and that you are going to come off worst. It consists in passing from the subject of dispute, as from a lost game, to the disputant himself, and in some way attacking his person.

It may be called the argumentum ad personam, to distinguish it from the argumentum ad hominem, which passes from the objective discussion of the subject pure and simple to the statements or admissions which your opponent has made in regard to it. But in becoming personal you leave the subject altogether, and turn your attack to his person, by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character. It is an appeal from the virtues of the intellect to the virtues of the body, or to mere animalism.

This is a very popular trick, because every one is able to carry it into effect; and so it is of frequent application. Now the question is, What counter-trick avails for the other party? for if he has recourse to the same rule, there will be blows, or a duel, or an action for slander.