Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Making an argument.

There is a cafe that I attend regularly on Saturday mornings. slightly out of my way, but pretty much the best coffee in Auckland all these sad sad years since Brazil closed. I enjoy it there. The coffee is good. The food is good when I can afford it (not that it's expensive, it's more that I'm usually broke), the music is consistently all over the place and good and there's usually a few interesting characters at the bar.

A few weeks ago now, I was goaded into a conversation by one chap who I believe was playing devil's advocate via the "you can't prove there are no gods/unicorns/fairies" gambit. Easy enough to dismiss with a fairly standard reply (thank you Douglas Adams) that is sufficient for random Saturday morning discussions. Unfortunately, it brought out local conspiracy theorist/woo proponent into the fray. I don't recall how we got onto it, but soon enough we were talking about how he'd had an encounter with a psychic in the Coromandel who "knew things she couldn't possibly know". Don't they all. Anyway, long story short, I ended up trying to explain the logic of causation. i.e. just because he had had a "spiritual experience" doesn't mean that ghosts exists, just that he has had an experience of some sort. i.e A, B, does not imply that if A then B. It was an ... interesting morning, arguing with someone who will not consider that their view might be wrong.

All this comes to mind thanks to a post from Jennifer Rohn. She is a little more understanding than young Carl Zimmer who is currently despairing about the lack of scientific knowledge in the American population. Carl was alarmed by the fact that only 18% of the population could identify the definition of a molecule. And I think Jennifer was quite right in pointing out that this is part of a occupational vocabulary. What I find more alarming though is not that people can't remember definitions, it is that they can't follow through an argument. As in a proper logically constructed argument, not two people ranting at each other. When people can't see how a proposition cannot justify a conclusion. This is not, I think, a problem of science education. Or it is at a step removed. It is covered (badly) in first year classes in informal logic at university level. Even now though, a majority of our population do not go to university. I am beginning to think that all our science outreach programs to schools, should include a philosophical auxiliary class, on how one can reasonably structure an argument to defend a point of view. And maybe one on what science can actually know. Robert Nola would be the man to ask I think.

It doesn't solve the problem of trying to communicate the idea of constructing an argument to the general population though. I'd like to think it's not to late to reach them, given that large chunks of them will be running our societies for the next 40 or 50 years. 

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