There’s been an interesting shift in the tactics of the online grumbling-community in the past few years. Not in the general tenor of online debate (which continues to sink like Arnie at the end of Terminator 2 but leaving a raised middle finger instead of a thumbs-up) but rather in the tactics employed by people presenting their arguments. There has been a definite increase in people deploying the twin techniques of demanding evidence and calling out fallacies. Or at least it would appear so on the surface.
Take the use of evidence in arguments. Initially it would seem to be a good thing that people are asking for sources of evidence and becoming increasingly sceptical in their approach to new information, particularly of course anything that clashes against a currently held belief. The idea of providing sources and data that can be independently checked would surely make help to improve our understanding of argument and come to more reasoned conclusions. Evidence is the great leveller, right?
The system however is open to abuse. Taking science for example, as the most easily understood example of where evidence sits unopposed on the Fe56 throne, the tactic of endlessly asking for more evidence of something is used as both a delaying tactic and to plant the idea that evidence may be more open to interpretation than it may appear. Questioning of evidence is bread and butter to science, but there are established rules and conventions about how the evidence is challenged. Peer review is one gatekeeper, as is transparency with data (not that science is perfect at this), but there comes a point where scientists will generally start to accept that something is more than likely a reasonable approximation of being true. If that idea seems a little awkward it’s because I phrased it from a scientific perspective in that science never proves anything with certainty. But that very idea can be turned against it to introduce the idea that lack of certainty is equivalent to all ideas and explanations being of equal worth and validity. And that’s simply not the case. Asking for more and more evidence does nothing after a certain time to move anything forward. Nor is all evidence itself created equal. Which brings us to the other half of the apparent shift to rational thought online: critical thinking.
You won’t need to scroll far down an online argument (choose your own poison in terms of the platform) before accusations of ad hominem attacks or strawmen appear. They may well be justified. It certainly appears to be reasonable to point out this informal fallacy as a way to counter an argument (you can judge for yourself if it actually works…) but it is becoming increasingly brandished as a triumphant argument winner, the Ace of spades flourished as the ultimate trump to beat all else. Perhaps the point in an argument where the ad hominem is alleged marks a turn in the discussion where all previous rules are abandoned and a free-for-all ensues, like at the end of We are the Champions when Ron Pickering shouted “Away you go!” and everyone went crazy in the pool.
Of course the decline in online civility does also mean an increase in genuine ad hominem attacks, but simply throwing out a fallacy is not necessarily the point at which you can crown yourself with the laurel wreath spray the crowds with champagne. Correctly identifying genuine formal and (more commonly) informal fallacies is hard. Very hard in fact. It marches under the banner of Critical Thinking, a term that is increasingly found in educational discussions.
The suggestion that students should be taught CT or it should be embedded in courses seems to be not only plausible but desirable. The palpable exasperation from commenters on the US elections at people unable to distinguish news from fake-news (something no country is immune from of course) makes the CT cause a more urgent for one for schools. I would suggest however that people making this suggestion are rarely coming from a position where they don’t already have a lot of prior knowledge that can be used to identify how and when CT is used. And this is knowledge that students in schools rarely have. Not too long ago my Year 13 were writing a practical task using quadrats to compare plant species in two areas. When it came to graphing the results one of the areas had a high number of one species compared to a low number in the other. One of the students had already raised a question about plotting: ‘two graphs or one?’. The students who took maths A level were quickly able to work out that using two graphs could be problematic because you could use a different scale for each, making the data more confusing. Younger children would not have been far less likely to consider this since they just don’t have the experience of presenting data and constructing graphs.
I won’t re-hash the arguments for knowledge-rich curricula here, but if people are serious about CT then the first steps have to come from knowing stuff. The more in-depth approaches to CT are difficult for educated adults (though I think it can be taught, just not in the way people may imagine at school level). From a science perspective, students have to take what we have told them in most cases as being the scientifically accepted version of events rather than questioning every detail of what they come across. There is simply no time to pull apart every claim, nor should it be necessary. That doesn’t mean that some of the principles can’t be approached (I try to get my students questioning health headlines and newspaper articles for example) but developing genuine CT skills takes time and needs a base of knowledge. To go back to the problem of evidence, deciding whether an argument from authority fallacy is being used it is very useful to understand how academic systems and qualifications work, something things not really available to a school student in the way it is to a qualified teacher. This is a huge reason why students struggle with tasks like assessing the validity of sources.
I can’t really talk about how CT would apply in other curriculum areas, though I doubt in some subjects it is anything like as relevant as say science or some areas of the humanities. Which isn’t any of my business really (please, feel free to keep post-modernism to yourselves, you’re more than welcome to it) but if people want to use the approaches of evidence and CT into their arguments than you need to be playing by the agreed rules. Critical thinking, contrary to what some people seem to assume and promote, does not simply mean ‘thinking about things and saying why you think them’. That’s completely valid in the right circumstances but is a different area of thinking and epistemology altogether. I’m interested in how we can improve CT in schools, but the airy hand wafting of ‘Teach CT in schools’ is not enough. It requires deliberate planning and effort to introduce.