Saturday, August 2, 2008

Without data, we only have a bloke*

"A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." —Chuckles the Clown (Mary Tyler More Show)

Now, lots of folks in academia claim to teach "argumentation"—how to argue. But they aren't always teaching the same things.

It has long struck me as odd that, while philosophers teach their students that facts about an arguer are irrelevant (this is the essence of their teachings re the "ad hominem" fallacy), writing and speech instructors often seem to teach the opposite, for they make a great point of the importance, for the writer or speaker (the arguer), of presenting himself in a certain way: as reasonable, knowledgeable, etc.

The explanation of this difference, of course, concerns the different purposes these people have. The philosopher/logician seeks the truth and thus teaches students how to seek the truth. Hence, he focuses on evidence and reasons—what writing instructors call "logos" or the "logical appeal." He is not concerned with "pathos" or "ethos"—i.e., the emotional appeal or the appeal that derives from how the writer presents himself.

Writing instructors, however, are more about effectiveness (or persuasion) than truth, and so, for them, "logic" is just one tool among several. For instance, if you want to convince your readers of something—say, that John McCain is too addled to be President—then, assuming they aren't very logical (usually a safe assumption), you'd be a fool to offer mere logic. Reasons and evidence? Most audiences will become bored with that; they'll walk away. Better get out the blooper reel. (See Why we need rhetoric.)

Philosophers, as philosophers, are happy to have people walk away. They want to know the truth, and knowing the truth has nothing to do with having lots of eager listeners or readers. (Indeed, folks who seek the truth invariably become very nervous when their ideas become attractive to others.)

Roughly speaking, writing instructors are unhappy when the audience (or the "reasonable" among the audience) walks away. And so they spend a good deal of time talking about the importance of presenting yourself properly, i.e., effectively. (Ironically, writing and speech instructors can trace their body of theory to the writings of a philosopher/logician, but one who held audiences in low esteem. See Aristotle's rhetoric.)

Um, but if your readers buy that, they're committing a fallacy, right?

—Oh, absolutely. Great. Now show us Obama Girl!

A recent column by Ben Oldacre (in the Guardian: Testing the plausibility effect) concerns what happens when audiences focus on how a speaker presents himself (ethos) without focussing on his evidence and reasons (logos). He notes the case of a Dr. Somebody, an impressive government advisor, who claimed to have done a study that showed that a recent spate of suicides all lived close to a mobile home mast. After a few phone calls, Oldacre determined that Somebody wasn’t a doctor, wasn’t a government advisor, and he had lost his data:

Without data, we have only a bloke. Week in, week out, we see apparently scientific claims being made in the newspapers with great confidence, as if they were based on evidence, when in reality they are based on nothing more than authority, and often from one man. This is because science is communicated to the public by journalists, who sometimes have no understanding of what it means for there to be evidence for an assertion. They are impressed by enthusiasm, long words, by a PhD, a white coat, or a medical qualification. [My emphasis.]

Oldacre recalls an experiment performed in the early 70s. Researchers hired a man to play the role of an authority “on the application of mathematics to human behaviour.” In fact, the man knew nothing about the subject. They gave him an impressive fake CV. They had him give a presentation at an academic conference on medical education. His lecture and Q&A was filled with “double talk, jargon, dubious neologisms, non sequiturs, and mutually contradictory statements.”

The lecture was a hit. They tried the charade several times. They always got the same result.

My advice? Let's start teaching students what is relevant and what is not. We're drowning in illogic.

* * * * *

[Thomas Hobbes] maintains that the establishment of ethos is an irrelevance not merely in the natural sciences…but in the moral sciences as well. His translation of Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric accordingly omits the entire section in which Aristotle speaks of the crucial importance of taking steps to make a good impression on one’s audience.

—From Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, Quentin Skinner

“A second type of … argument is the speaker’s character, not only as established by his reputation, but also as conveyed in the speech itself. Most orators agree that one’s character is the most potent weapon in one’s rhetorical arsenal.”

—From A Brief Summary of Classical Rhetoric, made available to students at Harvard

*This post is a slightly edited version of something I wrote recently for Dissent the Blog (Without data.)


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