Arguments

One of my favorite shows is “Get Up” on ESPN. I watch it pretty much every day because I like the main man and he has some interesting former athletes each day who provide us with pithy comments and even some provocative insights into the inner-workings of sports. Not all the guests are equally adept at such things as speaking, of course, but they all have opinions and are ready to share those with us — whether we want to hear them or not.

The problem is that the “discussions” among the guests (several of whom are regular and thus familiar to those who watch even a few times) frequently degenerate into shouting matches which we mistake for genuine arguments — complete with interruptions, or course. In fact, television seems to have gone in that direction because (I assume) that’s what viewers want to watch. Not this viewer. I tire of it quickly.

Recently, after the Super Bowl, three of the guests went after one another on the topic of whether it was the San Fransisco coach who lost the game or the quarterback. On the one side were two guests who insisted that the coach was at fault because the strength of San Fransisco’s football team all year has been its running game and they abandoned it late in the game when they could have run out the clock and kept the “magic man” Patrick Mahomes off the field. Not an unreasonable position since the “magic man” won the game for the Kansas City Chiefs. But the third guest — who tends to get louder as he becomes more frustrated when others do not agree with him — insisted that the coach called excellent plays but the quarterback failed to execute the plays. He called a number of passing plays late in the game and they failed to connect. If they had the coach would have been seen as a genius.

I may not be doing either of those positions justice, but you get the picture. These people were not arguing, they were bickering. The two are not the same. An argument has evidence which we call the “premises,” and that evidence supports the conclusion. The conclusion is only as strong as the evidence that supports it. The way to attack an argument is to attack the evidence — not the conclusion. But these folks were simply stating their opinions (again and again) without any attempt to support those opinions with evidence.

And, given the nature of their claims, evidence would probably not be forthcoming. This is because the claims themselves (the opinions) were of a counter-factual nature. IF certain things had happened THEN other things would inevitably happen. There is no way to support such an argument because the antecedent is counter to fact. The San Fransisco coach did not call running pays so we have no idea what would have happened if he did. And the San Fransisco quarterback did not complete his passes and we can only speculate what would have happened if he had. So the “argument” simply goes around in circles with no outcome possible.

The best we can hope for in such cases is that the claim is “plausible” based on previous experience. In this instance the case for the coach losing the game is more compelling because it is true that the strength of the San Fransisco team was its running game. But we have no idea how they would have done against the Kansas City defense at the end of the game.

The only way to settle such disagreements, heated as they were, would be for one person to reach across the table and throttle this opponent. And one of the guests was a former lineman of considerable size and my money would be on him to win that “argument.” But I speculate because the man did not reach across the table — even though he mentioned that his opponent was starting to “piss him off.” And we can only guess what might have happened he had actually done so.

And viewers like this?? The point is that we are subjected to such displays every day and the result is that we have no idea what a sound argument is and what might make it weak. To begin with there must be an argument. It must have a conclusion and there must be an attempt to support that conclusion with evidence. The conclusion is often (though not always) preceded by words such as “therefore,” or “thus.” Or followed by such words as “because.” These are called “indicator terms” and they may or may not be there. But if there is an argument present we can determine what the conclusion and the support are by providing the indicator terms ourselves. We can say “there will be much celebration in Kansas City this week: their team won the Super Bowl.” It is easy to see that the latter statement supports the former and we could simply provide an indicator term “There will be celebrating because their team won.” And in this case the evidence, or premise, in indisputable.

The point of all this is that with an argument it is possible to attack or defend it by considering the support. Without support (or premises) there is no argument. There is just disagreement — sometimes heated, but always pointless.

Creationism As Science?

In the delightfully funny “Big Bang Theory” Penny’s boyfriend, Zack, wants to talk with the genius scientists who live across the hall because the thing he loves about science is “there’s no one right answer.” The laugh track cuts in and the “audience” laughs while the four scientists look at one another with dismay. I hate laugh tracks, but while it is a funny moment it is also a bit sad, because Zach’s statement reflects much common opinion today when an alarming number of “educated” people in this country (which group does not, apparently, include Zach) have no idea what science is and what it is not. Just consider: a recent study done at the University of Texas revealed that four in ten public school teachers of biology think that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time; three out of five adult Americans do not know that DNA governs heredity; and one in four Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. And most Americans, I dare say, think science and technology are the same thing.

Science is a word that describes a particular method of getting at the truth about our world and the universe in general. It leans on empirical evidence, gathered by the five senses, and/or mathematical proof. Both empirical evidence and mathematical proof are accessible to others in the scientific community and no scientific claim is accepted unless it is verifiable by anyone at any time. This notion of independent verification is key to the scientific method. When the claim was made not long ago that cold fusion had been discovered there was much excitement until it was later shown by other scientists that there were errors in the testing procedure and the claims were proved false. That is also a key: the claims must be open to independent testing and it must be possible to prove them false. If they cannot be proved false, they are accepted as true — subject to further tests.

Evolution is a scientific theory that has been supported again and again by empirical evidence to the point now where it is indisputable fact. But there are those who are convinced that evolution is incompatible with Genesis and either do not want evolution taught in the schools or want it taught alongside of creationism, or what has come to be called “intelligent design” in an attempt to make it sound more respectable. Both of these views argue that God created the world and the assumption is that He couldn’t have done this if species evolved as scientists contend.

Now there are two things we need to consider: (1) are evolution and creationism incompatible? and (2) is creationism science? The answer to the latter question is a resounding “no,” since independent testing is not possible; nor is it possible to prove the theory false. What would even count as a test for this view? But the answer to the first question is “yes,” and that’s why the battle that is going on in the schools is absurd. Both creationism and evolution can be true (for different reasons), since God could have chosen to create animal and plant life through evolution. But since creationism is not science, it should not be taught in the schools: it is a matter of faith, not reason. Thus while students should be taught evolution in science classes, they are also perfectly free to accept creationism on faith.

One is reminded of the medieval battle between reason and faith that went on in the universities and which the Catholic Church attempted in its way to adjudicate. In the end, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental Suma Theologica to reconcile faith and reason, to show that they were perfectly compatible.  Of course if there were conflicts Thomas insisted that faith had the final word. That was where things stood when Galileo ran into the Inquisition and had to recant and allow that the evidence he had about the earth’s motion was merely a theory, since it was in direct conflict with the Bible which speaks of the motion of the sun. Now, except for that 25% exposed by the Texas survey noted above, we now know that Galileo was right, and most regard the Biblical statements as metaphorical — true in their way, but not matters of science.

The same seems to me to be the case with creationism: it may be true in its way, but it most assuredly is not science. And since it is a matter of faith, not reason, it should not be taught in the schools — especially in schools supported by taxes in a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. But in any case it should not be taught in any school as science, which it clearly is not.

Weighing Evidence

A most interesting article has come to light about the unwillingness (inability) of persons like you and me to weigh evidence fairly if it touches on an issue we feel strongly about. In fact recent studies showed that a balanced perspective presented to people who have strong feelings about such things as capital punishment simply made them cling all the more strongly to their original point of view. Consider the following two paragraphs that address the question of whether presenting a balanced argument to people who are deeply committed to a particular point of view will help them change their minds:

The remedy for easing such polarization, here and abroad, may seem straightforward: provide balanced information to people of all sides. Surely, we might speculate, such information will correct falsehoods and promote mutual understanding. This, of course, has been a hope of countless dedicated journalists and public officials.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.

This is disturbing. What it amounts to is “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!” And I gather we all succumb to this intransigent position on most issues we hold dear.

What we do, apparently, is weigh the evidence that supports our own conviction more heavily than we do conflicting evidence — which we tend to dismiss. So much for John Stuart Mill’s notion that an intelligent person will attempt to see both sides of an issue before making up his or her mind. If we already lean in one direction or the other on an issue (and who does not?) we will simply find the evidence that supports our point of view compelling and the evidence on the other side weak and unconvincing — even if an outside observer might insist that what we regard as the weaker evidence is in fact the stronger.

As a person who spent his life dedicated to trying to help young people gain possession of their own minds, to become thinking human beings rather than performing robots, this article is  disturbing. But please note that my deeply held conviction that people can learn to be reasonable is being shaken by an argument I am not comfortable with — and yet I see the strength of that argument in spite of the fact that it calls into question everything I have taught for nearly 50 years. Isn’t this in itself an argument against the conclusions of the study examined in the piece for the New YorkTimes? An interesting paradox!

In any event, the article goes on to tell us that the only way we can really change a person’s mind is to have someone they respect — say someone they identify closely with or someone whose opinions they have always revered — evidence a radical alteration of opinion. If, for example, I revere George Will and read that he has decided that the Republican party no longer stands for the ideals and values that he holds close to his heart, that he has decided to become a Democrat and vote for Obama — if, I say, I read that this has happened, then I am likely to change my mind as well. I was always told that this was an appeal to authority and that it is a fallacious way to reason. But apparently it works. This would mean, if it is true, that reason is a slave to the passions, as David Hume told us more than a hundred years ago. And he had no psychological tests to revert to. He just found it to be the case.

But then there’s that nagging factoid hanging out there: I find the study summarized in the above article convincing even though I also find the conclusions of the research cited in conflict with my most deeply held beliefs. I am not aware of anyone I admire who has changed his mind about this question, yet I find myself increasingly inclined toward a disturbing point of view. That seems to make the conclusions of this study a bit less disturbing.

Creationism?

In the delightfully funny “Big Bang Theory” Penny’s boyfriend, Zack, wants to talk with the genius scientists who live across the hall because the thing he loves about science is “there’s no one right answer.” The laugh track cuts in and the “audience” laughs while the four scientists look at one another with dismay. I hate laugh tracks, but while it is a funny moment it is also a bit sad, because Zach’s statement reflects much common opinion today when an alarming number of “educated” people in this country (which group does not, apparently, include Zach) have no idea what science is and what it is not. Just consider: a recent study done at the University of Texas revealed that four in ten public school teachers of biology think that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time; three out of five adult Americans do not know that DNA governs heredity; and one in four Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. And most Americans, I dare say, confuse science with technology.

Science is a word that describes a particular method of getting at the truth about our world and the universe in general. It leans on empirical evidence, gathered by the five senses, and/or mathematical proof. Both empirical evidence and mathematical proof are accessible to others in the scientific community and no scientific claim is accepted unless it is verifiable by anyone at any time. This notion of independent verification is key to the scientific method. When the claim was made not long ago that cold fusion had been discovered there was much excitement until it was later shown by other scientists that there were errors in the testing procedure and the claims were proved false. That is also a key: the claims must be open to independent testing and it must be possible to prove them false. If they cannot be proved false, they are accepted as true — subject to further tests.

Evolution is a scientific theory that has been supported again and again by empirical evidence to the point now where it is indisputable fact. But there are those who are convinced that evolution is incompatible with Genesis and either do not want evolution taught in the schools or want it taught alongside of creationism, or what has come to be called “intelligent design” in an attempt to make it sound more respectable. Both of these two views argue that God created the world and the assumption is that He couldn’t have done this if species evolved as scientists contend.

Now there are two things we need to consider: (1) are evolution and creationism compatible? and (2) is creationism science? The answer to the latter question is a resounding “no,” since independent testing is not possible; nor is it possible to prove the theory false. What would even count as a test for this view? But the answer to the first question is “yes,” and that’s why the battle that is going on in the schools is absurd. Both creationism and evolution can be true (for different reasons), since God could have chosen to create animal and plant life through evolution. But since creationism is not science, it should not be taught in the schools: it is a matter of faith, not reason. Thus while students should be taught evolution in science classes, they are also perfectly free to accept creationism on faith.

One is reminded of the medieval battle between reason and faith that went on in the universities and which the Catholic Church attempted in its way to adjudicate. In the end, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental Suma Theologica to reconcile faith and reason, to show that they were perfectly compatible. If there were conflicts, of course, Thomas insisted that faith had the final word. That was where things stood when Galileo ran into the Inquisition and had to recant and allow that the evidence he had about the earth’s motion was merely a theory, since it was in direct conflict with the Bible which speaks of the motion of the sun. Now, except for that 25% exposed by the Texas survey noted above, we now know that Galileo was right, and most regard the Biblical statements as metaphorical — true in their way, but not matters of science.

The same seems to me to be the case with creationism: it may be true in its way, but it most assuredly is not science. And since it is a matter of faith, not reason, it should not be taught in the schools — especially in schools supported by taxes in a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. But it should not be taught in any school as science, which it clearly is not.