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The Charger Bulletin

Tips on Arguing: Inductive Reasoning

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | April 11, 2012

In ancient Greece, philosophers and thinkers invented a process for arriving at truths about the world that we know today as deduction. These processes relied on taking general statements about the world and applying various logical rules to them in order to answer particular questions.

Deduction was enormously useful, especially in mathematics. It is deductive reasoning that led to the Pythagorean equation, a general statement that works with every right triangle you will ever encounter.

Deduction had weaknesses, however, because it could give you answers that did not fit your observations. That was what drove the seventeenth-century English philosopher Francis Bacon to popularize a new way of organizing thought: induction.

Inductive reasoning takes deduction and flips it around. Instead of inventing axioms and applying them to specific observations, induction worked by collecting numerous observations and then deriving general principles from the amassed observations.

Bacon’s empirical approach was a great leap forward for the study of the natural sciences by giving precedence to observations over theories. If you collected 100 observations and 99 of them could not be explained with your current theory, the theory would have to be changed.

The modern scientific method is dependent upon inductive reasoning. However, Bacon himself warned against equating the two. Induction is only half of science. Eventually, enough observations have been collected to develop a strong theory, such as the theory of gravity.

At that point, the theory becomes the standard for future observations. Our observation of a heavier-than-air jet does not lead us to conclude that gravity is being violated – we know that the plane is in fact operating according to the rules of gravity. We also assume those rules are consistent, or else we could never be sure if the next jet would get off the ground.

Induction is incredibly versatile, and it encourages a healthy skepticism about statements that can’t be verified by facts. If used properly, this form of reasoning is one of the best ways to align your ideas and beliefs with empirical reality.

Tips on Arguing: Tautologies

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | April 4, 2012

Ever wonder why people call it a PIN number or an ATM machine? Ever hear someone say, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and think to yourself, well, duh? If you have, then you’ve already stumbled upon some common tautologies.

A tautology is, roughly, the act of saying the same thing twice. It is a repetition of meaning through different words, or the use of a concept’s definition as support for that concept. In mathematical terms, it can be expressed as “A=B, therefore A=B.” The second equation tells us nothing new about the first, and that is a tautology’s major flaw – irrelevant information.

For instance, the phrase ‘PIN number’ utilizes an acronym (the first letters of words are used as an abbreviation) to say something redundant: ‘Personal Identification Number number.’ The same applies in the case of the ‘ATM machine’ – ATM already means ‘Automatic Teller Machine.’  Adding the second ‘machine’ doesn’t actually say anything meaningful.

The most insidious tautologies employ a disguised circular logic to make it seem as if a redundant statement is conveying new information. Proponents of aromatherapy often use the definition of smell to suggest that their products have much broader psychological applications. The website Aromatherapy.com, for example, says that inhaling essential oils “is widely believed to stimulate brain function.” The site then advertises oils for use in combating problems like depression.

There is no dispute that smells of all kinds trigger brain functions, just as all sensory stimuli do. However, no one would suggest that you could cure a mental illness by looking at a pretty picture or listening to a happy song. Considered in this way, the argument that aromatherapy works by stimulating the brain becomes an empty echo of itself.

Tautologies are much more common than people sometimes realize, but they can be difficult to catch. One way to root them out is by plugging them into the mathematical format. If you’re not comfortable with that, though, try asking for explanations. Ask for lots of definition and clarification. If you are facing a tautology, the answers will go nowhere pretty fast.

Tips on Arguing: Stay Detached

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | March 28, 2012

Andrew Brody, host of the Princeton Review podcast, LSAT Logic in Everyday Life, ends every episode with a reminder for his listeners: “don’t get emotionally involved with the subject matter.”  Brody’s advice applies to any situation in which you must apply critical thinking – that is, almost every situation. Remaining detached gives you multiple advantages in formulating and articulating an argument.

In your initial information gathering, staying above the fray helps you to cut through propaganda and recognize legitimate points. It also provides you with the necessary perspective to focus on your primary objective – convincing someone else that your reasoning is correct.

A level-headed approach will also make a better impression when you go to argue your case. You’ll appear to be more well-prepared and objective than if you pelt your audience with impassioned invective.

This is not to say that you cannot be passionate about a subject: a bit of flame, if measured correctly, can light all kinds of fires. The purpose of detachment is to ensure that your passions are dedicated to the truth above any personal agenda.

Staying detached usually means having to ask tough questions of yourself and of others. That’s a good thing, though – all the important discoveries in life begin with a willingness to sail in uncharted waters.

Tips on Arguing: Correlation versus Causation

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | March 21, 2012

When two events are shown to be related in some way, they are said to correlate. When one event makes the other happen, the first is said to cause the second.

These two terms may at first appear to be similar, and they are. But the distinction is vital: two events can be related without having any kind of causal relationship. When you burn logs in a fireplace, for example, both smoke and light are produced. Though they occur together, neither causes the other – combustion is the cause of both. The smoke and light are therefore correlative, but not causative.

Causation can be a difficult phenomenon to pin down. Scientists will generally only claim such a relationship after many experiments have been performed, replicated, and reviewed. Even when a causal relationship is established, it can always be challenged by the introduction of new evidence.

Causation is often assumed without warrant in both public and private spheres. Perhaps you’ve heard that drug use is a cause of crime? While both do often happen in conjunction; however, poverty is actually a better predictor of both.

Perhaps you’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth and have been led to believe that Hurricane Katrina was a result of global warming. In actuality, we don’t know if there is even a correlation in this case. Such devastating hurricanes are hardly unprecedented near the Gulf Coast. They have been happening for centuries, long before humans started pouring extra carbon into the atmosphere.

On the other hand, the germ theory of disease was generally accepted after Robert Koch’s Postulates were published in 1890 based on his work showing that anthrax was caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Most viruses were too small to see until the invention of the electron microscope in 1931, but scientists nevertheless postulated (correctly) that they existed and caused illnesses.

When presented with an argument that presumes causality, it’s useful to first ask yourself: is there some other factor that could explain this? Is there a mechanism that could explain a causal relationship? If not, the most you can say is that two events are associated.

The key is caution. Jumping too quickly to causative arguments can lead you frustratingly far down a false path.

Tips on Arguing: Use Qualifiers Carefully

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | February 29, 2012

A qualifier is any word or phrase that provides a “reference point” for a claim. Knowing how to use them can both increase the strength of an argument and shield it from attacks. English is full of qualifiers for different situations. They’re generally divided into two groups: absolute and relative.

Absolute qualifiers say something conclusive about a subject. They include words such as always, never, all, none, you must, I know, best, worst. In each of these cases, the assertion is unwavering, complete. When you say “Mike never makes it up that hill,” you’re leaving no space for fault. If Mike gets to the top of the hill at any point in his lifetime, you’ll be wrong.

Relative qualifiers, on the other hand, are more flexible. Words like sometimes, usually, most, less, I think, you might, better, and worse are common examples. Here, the assertion is less powerful, but more likely to be accurate. If you say, “Mike usually doesn’t make it up that hill,” then you’re not necessarily wrong if he gets to the top next time. As long as he fails more times than he succeeds, your claim is solid.

Absolute qualifiers have a sort of alluring energy behind them that can be useful in certain circumstances. Saying “we know there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” is a lot more convincing than saying “we think there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” Most of the time, though, it’s best to avoid using absolute qualifiers, because they put you in an all-or-nothing situation that can be difficult to defend.

Relative qualifiers, if chosen carefully, can be incredibly helpful. They provide a context for your message that eliminates enough fuzziness so that your point can’t be misunderstood, but don’t box you in so much that you’re unable to account for situations that might otherwise contradict your argument. That way, if you say, “most young boys prefer to play with other boys,” and someone shows you a boy who plays with girls, you can respond by referring to your qualifier: “I said most, not all. Of course there are exceptions.”

Use your qualifiers recklessly, and you’ll go down faster than a certain infamous boat that could “never sink.” Use them wisely, and you’ll have smooth sailing.

Tips on Arguing: Argument from Authority

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | February 22, 2012

If someone told you that alchemy must be a legitimate science because Isaac Newton practiced it, would you start trying to turn lead into gold? Of course not. Yet that is exactly how the argument from authority works – by replacing logic and evidence with the name of a respected or powerful person. Whenever you hear such a name used to back up an argument, you should immediately ask yourself two questions:

First, is the named person a relevant expert on the topic? Francis Crick is a legitimate authority on genetics. Oprah Winfrey is not. If, however, you are discussing media entrepreneurship, Winfrey’s perspective could offer valuable insights.

Second, does the authority’s position make sense? Although Isaac Newton had reasons to believe alchemy might be true in his day, the evidence has since led us to abandon transmutation for modern chemistry. It does not make sense to practice alchemy based on Newton’s stance on the matter.

The inherent caveat of any argument from authority is this: no matter how high on the totem pole a person may be, no matter how much expertise on a subject he or she may have, it is always possible to make mistakes. Even the brightest of us is still only human.

Whenever someone flashes a big name to boost an argument, always be suspicious. Names are only as good as the ideas behind them.

Tips on Arguing: Formal Debates

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | February 15, 2012

Formal debates take many forms. Some are sponsored through national or international organizations, but they may also be conducted in an impromptu fashion within high school and college classrooms. The venue may consist of a town hall or a television studio. The topics can also be diverse, from philosophical concepts to zoning policies.

Knowing how to debate in a structured forum is invaluable for several reasons. Having limited time encourages you to be able to articulate your position succinctly and convincingly. Being confined to a specific proposal can help you to focus your thinking. Having to respond to your opponent’s statements, as well as fielding questions posed by a moderator or audience member, puts you in a position where you must learn to think on your feet (which is often the situation in real life, where we don’t have the chance to research our answers beforehand).

Although there is no single standard of formal debate structure, there are a few types that have gained prominence in the United States. The foremost of these is the “Parliamentary” style, named thus because of its origins in British Parliament. In this format, two teams of people speak either for or against a particular resolution. The side for the resolution is known as the “government,” while the other is called the “opposition.”

In Parliamentary debate, participants are awarded points for several aspects of their arguments, including style and research. The American Parliamentary Debate Association and the National Parliamentary Debate Association are the two largest sponsors of this kind of debate in U.S. colleges and universities, and the associations hold competitions around the country every year.

Other formal debate structures are also common. The famous Lincoln-Douglas style involves one-on-one debating, with the focus generally geared towards the application of a particular value to a given policy. The Public Debate format is also popular in the U.S. In contrast to Parliamentary Debate, Public Debate focuses less on rhetoric and more on knowledge. Winners are usually determined by which team presents the best evidence and logic.

Formal debates offer a great way to hash out ideas, to kindle public discourse, and to increase the proficiency of arguments you make in every part of your life. They can also be a lot of fun.

Tips on Arguing: Active Versus Passive Voice

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | February 8, 2012

The way you phrase a sentence can influence its meaning. The choice between using active and passive voice is one of the more common examples of how sentence structure matters. The difference is subtle, but can have profound ramifications that arise from the order in which you place the actors and their actions in a sentence.

For example:

Passive Voice: The man was bitten by the dog.

Active Voice: The dog bit the man.

In the first case, the main character of the sentence is the man, who is having something happen to him. In the second, the main character is the dog, because he is mentioned first. The dog, unlike the man, is doing something – initiating the bite. This sentence is also more concise, a valuable quality in many cases.

Generally, it’s preferable to use the active form of the sentence. It’s shorter, easier to understand, and conveys an “action-y” tone that keeps readers closer to the edge of their seats. Once in a while, though, there may be a valid reason to use passive voice. Suppose you want to draw attention to the plight of the man?

The point is to know the difference. Politicians know, and some take advantage of this. Listen carefully to the associations they draw. When something good happens, they stress their participation in it. They talk about things that they’ve done: “I enacted the Happy Sunshine Law so folks never have to get rained on.” When the association is negative, they often avoid speaking of themselves as the actors, thus placing distance between themselves and the action: “A national drought has been caused by the Happy Sunshine Law. Mistakes were made.”

Being aware of the nuanced connotations of sentences can help you to form a more compelling argument – one that allows you to shape the focus of a conversation. It can give you a richer reading or listening experience. And most importantly, it can sharpen your critical faculties.

Tips on Arguing: Admit When You’re Wrong

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | February 1, 2012

We’d all like to win our arguments. We’d all like to believe that our positions are the “right” ones. We’d all like to have the facts on our side. But life isn’t that simple. Circumstances change. New facts are discovered, and sometimes they challenge even the staunchest of beliefs. “Truth” rarely remains unchanged over the long run. To be able to argue effectively, you have to be prepared to be wrong.

That’s easier said than done, though. Even if you recognize on an intellectual level that your statements and beliefs are subject to change, actually admitting and acting upon it can have some unpalatable consequences: embarrassment; suspicion from others; loss of one’s job; legal action.

In the long term, however, refusing to admit a mistake or clinging to an outdated notion is a losing gambit. Consider the Toyota recall debacle that began in late 2009. It was revealed that Toyota had been neglecting safety concerns in several of its models long before it recalled any cars. The public backlash was devastating. Within two weeks, research by Kelley Blue Book estimated that “27 percent of those who said they were considering a Toyota prior to the recall now say they no longer are considering the brand for their next vehicle purchase.” Of those disillusioned car buyers, about half said they weren’t sure if they would consider buying a Toyota after the company’s problems were resolved.

It was a huge hit for Toyota, which still had to recall over 6.5 million vehicles and temporarily shut down several North American plants. The damage to Toyota’s brand – and the deaths caused by its negligence – could have been minimized if the executives had been willing to recognize their errors. The company didn’t escape the negative consequences of public apology, either. Embarrassment, mistrust, and legal penalties were all amplified by Toyota’s inaction.

It can be hard to be open about your failings. It can be hard to abandon your established beliefs, especially if they’re central to your life or work. Eventually, though, it’s always much harder not to admit when you’re wrong.

Tips on Arguing: Margin of Error

by Brandon T. Bisceglia | January 25, 2012

Have you ever noticed that news organizations will pelt you with polling data during an election cycle, and then wonder why the actual results defy the polls? There are a lot of reasons this happens, but one of the most pervasive is due to a misunderstanding about something called the margin of error.

Every survey contains an inherent margin of error that is calculated using methods developed by statisticians. The primary reason for doing this is that survey-takers only talk to a portion of the total population, and they can never be completely sure that those people are representative of the whole group. Some people lie. Some people forget to vote. Others change their minds. And there’s always the possibility that the people you did not ask would have given you completely different answers.

Figuring out the margin of error in a given case requires some mathematical background. Fortunately, it is often done by the pollsters ahead of time, and knowing how to interpret the result is a process that takes less than a minute. It’s so easy to do that any reporter who fails to account for the margin of error is practicing shoddy journalism.

Let’s say that Abel and Bob are running for mayor of Blandeville. The night before the election, a poll of registered voters reveals that 51 percent are in favor of Abel, and 44 percent are in favor of Bob (the rest are undecided), with a margin of error of ± (plus or minus) four percentage points. Abel must be a shoe-in, right?

Not necessarily. The margin of error shows that any of these numbers is likely to be four percent below or above what the pollsters determined. What the poll really says is that Abel’s chances may be as low as 47 percent, or as high as 55 percent. Likewise, Bob’s support may be anywhere from 40 percent to 48 percent.

Since Abel’s lowest possible score (47) is less than Bob’s highest (48), Bob may actually be ahead. Nobody who pays attention to this will be surprised if Bob ekes out a victory tomorrow.

Don’t be fooled by people who ignore a margin of error. It can make all the difference.

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