Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Critical Thinking: Systems of Belief 2: Know Your Audience

Hey guys, in the last section we looked at systems of belief from the point of view of the arguer.  Doing so helps us to become better critical thinkers in two important ways

(a)  it helps us to identify what might be hidden assumptions in the argument that we might (i) attack or (ii) (if we agree with the position) try to strengthen.  

(b) When we turn a critical eye on our own beliefs and values, understanding systems of belief allows us to identify premises or beliefs that might not be accepted at face value by our opponent(s).  If we can identify these elements, we can anticipate where our opponent will attack our argument and launch a pre-emptive defensive strike by strengthening those premises/assumptions.

One final review note is to recall the elements that influence our system of belief 
(often unbeknownst to us). They include things like: race, sex, nationality, culture, language, family, economic class, social class, religion/non-religion, peer group, career, education, and whether you like cilantro or not. 

Systems of Belief and the Audience
Obviously facts about the person making the argument are important (especially when it's me!) but as critical thinkers and arguers it's also good to consider the system of belief of the audience to whom the argument is addressed.  

There are two general ways to "chop up" the concept of 'audience': (a) according to clusters of values and (b) according to anticipated receptivity to our argument.

When we consider an audience as a group that shares common beliefs and values we call this a specific audience.  Some examples would be Catholics, faculty, Democrats, hockey fans, the NRA, the ACLU, Hispanics, tourists, people that live in Summerlin, philosophers, and so on.  There are often specific audiences within larger specific audiences.  For example, Republicans are a sub-group of American, and 'Ron-Paul Republican' is a sub-group of Republicans.  Wherever there are 'clumps' of values, there are specific audiences.

universal audience is more of an abstract concept than an actual blood and flesh audience.  While it's debatable that there is a set of (non-trivial) values that unite everyone, you should think of a universal audience as "the common person." As an arguer addressing a universal audience, you'd want to begin with assumptions/values/beliefs that just about any rational person could agree to (such as pizza makes us happy).

Suppose you were a Ron-Paul-lovin', Ayn-Rand-worshipping, pick-up-truck-drivin' Libertarian and you wanted to logically explain to a Karl Marx-lovin', Grateful dead-listenin', group-hug hippy Liberal why there should be no restrictions on the right to bear arms.  It might do you some good to consider something about your audience's values and basic assumptions.  Much of what you might say about gun rights would take for granted things that those damn hippies would object to! 

So, what should you do? Well, what you'd want to do is "construct an argument that makes an effort to respond to your audiences convictions and concerns" (p. 19).  If you begin with premises/assumptions/values that you share with the hippies, then you stand a chance of working an argument that they will at least consider.  

Conversely, if you begin your reasoning with premises that bear no relation to those of your audience, they won't even try to follow your reasoning because you are beginning with premises to which they don't agree.

Key point:  A good argument is sensitive to the values/beliefs/convictions of the intended audience.  A good arguer will modify their argument depending on the audience.

Three Types of Audiences based on Receptivity:
Generally we can distinguish between 3 types of audience based on (anticipated) degree of receptivity to the argument. 

A sympathetic audience probably already agrees with many of the values connected to the conclusion of the argument.  For example, if I'm arguing against abortion to a group of evangelical christians, I probably don't have to spend much time arguing for the premise that a fetus is a person with rights.

An open audience does not share our position but is open to considering it.  Such audiences generally don't have values so disparate from those of the arguer.  We don't have to search too hard to find common ground in values and beliefs from which we may begin to reason toward our argument.

hostile audience does not share our position or many of our values and beliefs and is not open to considering it.  For obvious reasons this is the toughest type of audience to argue with.  When common beliefs and values are scarce, it is difficult to find a starting point from which to begin.  Some political debates can appear this way because some groups value individual autonomy over collective needs.  When differences are so fundamental, it's hard to know where to begin.  

Also, with a hostile audience, because the differences in beliefs and values are so fundamental, they are central to that group's identity.  Relinquishing those values might mean leaving the group, something to which most are adverse. The emotional component makes arguing with a hostile audience even more difficult because heightened emotions often shut us off to 'reason'.

The Flip Side
While it is very helpful to take into account your audiences' beliefs and values, we should be cautious not to exploit them.  We see this happen all the time with cults, psychics, medical quackery, and--of course--politics.  An unscrupulous cult leader or "psychic" can appeal to an audiences' values for reasons of exploitation.  

Recall from previous lessons that most of our values and beliefs are acquired uncritically as a result of how we experience the world.  Because of their uncritical origins, we are often eager to assent with anyone who shares our beliefs/values.  Right?  Now look into my eyes and give me all your money!

However, while you might be able to pursued a particular audience with an argument that appeals to specific values, once you try to apply that same argument to a broader audience, you will surely encounter resistance!

The lesson here is that it is important to take into account the values and beliefs of your audience in how you present your argument.  The most effective arguments begin with the values and beliefs shared by the specific audience at which the argument is targeted.  And then, using reason, reasons, and evidence you lead them down the garden path into the waiting jaws of your conclusion.

A caveat is that, while your argument should be tailored to a specific audience, it should not rely so heavily on the beliefs and values of that audience such that a more general audience wouldn't take the argument seriously. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Critical Thinking: Arguers and Systems of Belief

In the last post we gave a formal definition to an argument:  a set of reasons and evidence that support a conclusion.  We also discussed the two main components of an argument: the premises and the conclusion.  Recall that the conclusion is the central claim that the arguer is trying to make.  If they do their job well, they will support that claim with relevant premises (i.e., reasons and evidence).  If they don't, they might as well just be waiving their hands in the air and jumping up and down.

In this next section we will look at how certain facts about the person or group making an argument influences various aspects their argument.

Arguers and Systems of Belief
As much as many of us would like to think we are objective thinkers, we often are not.  Hume famously argued that "reason is slave to the passions."  The general idea is this:  We begin with a position that we are emotionally attached to and we collect evidence and arguments to support what we already believe.  This is as opposed to how most people think they operate; that is, collect evidence and consider reasons and then see where that leads.  There is a wealth of psychological research showing that Hume was right about most people, most of the time.

Mommy, Where do Beliefs Come from?
As we go through our early life, we uncritically acquire a "web" of beliefs based on experiences.  How we experience the world, and the types of experiences we have depend heavily on things out of our control.  Typical elements that form our system of belief include: race, culture, socio-economic class, attractiveness, gender, education, family life, religion/non-religion, nationality, geography, and so on.

Often, before our ability to reason develops, may of these beliefs become central to our identity.  To have them shown to be false would be to admit that something important to our identity is false.  Having our identity come under scrutiny is often an emotionally painful experience and so we vigorously protect the beliefs that form the core of our identity--often ignoring contravening reasons and evidence.

So, why does this all matter?  Because when it comes to arguments about things that are really important to us, our arguments are often driven by emotion rather than reason and even-handed evaluation of reasons and evidence.  So, on such issues, instead of entering the debate with the attitude, "well, lets look at the reasons and evidence for both positions and evaluate which is best," what often happens is we enter a debate with a pre-existing particular position.  We then use arguments to defend the position that we already held--no matter the relative quality of argument for the other position.

In other words, we are emotionally attached to a conclusion before any real critical thought begins.  From that conclusion, we use argumentation, reason, logic to arrive where we already were!  Our reason is slave to the passions; i.e., reason serves to justify the positions we already hold.  Or, to paraphrase Hume again, "man is not the rational animal but the rationalizing animal."

(Note: There are several recent trends in psychology and philosophy that argue that rather than having a distorting effect, emotions play an important role in various domains such as social and ethical reasoning.)

Now, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with holding a position on an issue, however, what is important is to be aware of how our web of beliefs and emotions influence our ability to effectively argue for a position and evaluate the issue

Elements of a Web of Belief
As critical thinkers we need to pay close attention to how a person's web of beliefs influences the assumptions they will make; that is, what sorts of things will they take for granted. For example, in the abortion debate, opponents of abortion will often take it for granted that a fetus is a person.  This assumption stems from many facts about their personal history.  Such facts might include: race, religiosity and religion (or lack of), gender, sex, education, career, and socio-economic class.

Some proponents of abortion might even agree that fetus is in some ways a person.  But for them the desires of the autonomous woman carrying the fetus outweigh those of the fetus.  But is this a scientific question where someone in a lab coat can put all the fetus' desires into a beaker and put all the pregnant woman's desires into another then put them on a scale and measure which have more weight?  No.  To demonstrate that one set of desires has more weight than the other requires argument--and that argument must begin from common premises if opposing sides are to have any hope of agreement. 

For many people in this debate, the answer to this question will depend heavily upon the different elements that helped to build that individual's web of beliefs.  Their position will likely not come out of having spent month studying the academic literature on the issue and carefully evaluating the arguments on all sides.  It is for this reason that arguers must seek and begin with common ground with their opponents.

Why Do the Elements that Build Someone's System of Belief Matter?

How to Win an Argument
What is interesting is that based on a person's web of beliefs we can sometimes "reverse engineer" some of the elements that influenced their web of beliefs and also identify what many of their unstated assumptions are.  Doing so can be an important step in deciding how to engage with the arguer.

If our goal is to show our opponent why his argument is problematic or persuade him to our point of view, you must be able search for and identify common ground from which you can build to your conclusion rather than his.  If you both begin from different assumptions, no progress will ever likely be made!

A key to bringing someone to your point of view is to find common assumptions (premises) and show how your conclusion, rather than your opponents follows from these assumptions.

How to be a Philosopher
A true philosopher seeks truth above all else--or at least (non-foolish) consistency.  While we can use our understanding of systems of beliefs and the elements that form them, we can also use this information on ourselves.

It would be foolish to think that magically we are the only ones without ideological blind spots and unexamined assumptions!  Introspection on how our own gender, culture, religion/non-religion, family, education, career, peer group, etc... shape the way we experience the world (and in turn our beliefs and assumptions about it) is a valuable exercise. Doing so allows us to see where we have uncritically accepted certain views.

I can give a recent example in my own life.  Because I grew up agnostic/atheist and most of my friends are agnostic/atheist, for most of my life I've tended to see religion as a harmful thing.  However, over the last half-year or so, I've seen and experienced religion in different contexts beyond something to criticize.

My study of the role community in restoration of criminals to productive members of society has led me to see religion as a (positive) powerful force for bringing the elements of community necessary for restoration.  While I doubt you'll find me in the pews any time soon, re-evaluating some of my assumptions about religion has changed my system of beliefs and many of my fundamental assumptions toward religion.

Interestingly, it was the emotional impact of reading about and experiencing (I went to a church with a friend to experience it) how the community elements of religion can change lives for the better in ways that might be much more difficult (but not impossible) for secular society.   In short, this is more evidence that much of what Hume said was right.  It is our emotions that lead our reason, not the other way around.

Next week we will read an article by J. Haidt, a psychologist, who gives empirical evidence for Hume's idea that we often can't change peoples deeply held views by reasoning, it must be through emotion.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Critical Thinking: Case Study on How to Lay the Smack Down

So, this meme has been floating around the intertubes for a couple of years. It popped up again in my feed. It's such a great example of a poor argument. I've commented on it before, but not to the degree that you will soon experience. In the comments section, a friend and former roommate of mine from U of H gave a pretty good example of how to deconstruct a poor argument. So, sit back and enjoy, how to lay the smack down on facebook with Seth Robertson:

Note: I want to make clear that my intent (in this particular post) is not to post things that are deliberately anti-religious. The fact that this meme has to do with religion is incidental. The main point is that this meme is a poor argument for the existence of God and does not adequately address the professor's concerns. This does not necessarily imply there is no God, it only suggests that the particular argument in the meme is a poor one to use as an argument for God's existence. There are also poor atheist arguments, and as I see them in my news feed, I will post them too. And again, a poor argument against there being a god doesn't mean we ought to conclude that there is one. It only tells us that the particular argument being used is a poor one.

That said, we should not suppose that arguments are irrelevant to what we should or should not believe. In perennial issues, such as God's existence, while we should not attach our assent or dissent to just one argument, we should be sensitive to the relative strength of arguments on either side. That sensitivity should be reflected in the degree of certainty we hold in certain beliefs.

First read the argument (dialectic) then check out my friend's comments which I've posted below.

Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ?

Student : Yes, sir.

Professor: So, you believe in GOD ?

Student : Absolutely, sir.

Professor : Is GOD good ?

Student : Sure.

Professor: Is GOD all powerful ?

Student : Yes.

Professor: My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to GOD to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm?

(Student was silent.)

Professor: You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, young fella. Is GOD good?

Student : Yes.

Professor: Is satan good ?

Student : No.

Professor: Where does satan come from ?

Student : From … GOD …

Professor: That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this world?

Student : Yes.

Professor: Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make everything. Correct?

Student : Yes.

Professor: So who created evil ?

(Student did not answer.)

Professor: Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things exist in the world, don’t they?

Student : Yes, sir.

Professor: So, who created them ?

(Student had no answer.)

Professor: Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Tell me, son, have you ever seen GOD?

Student : No, sir.

Professor: Tell us if you have ever heard your GOD?

Student : No , sir.

Professor: Have you ever felt your GOD, tasted your GOD, smelt your GOD? Have you ever had any sensory perception of GOD for that matter?

Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t.

Professor: Yet you still believe in Him?

Student : Yes.

Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?

Student : Nothing. I only have my faith.

Professor: Yes, faith. And that is the problem Science has.

Student : Professor, is there such a thing as heat?

Professor: Yes.

Student : And is there such a thing as cold?

Professor: Yes.

Student : No, sir. There isn’t.

(The lecture theater became very quiet with this turn of events.)

Student : Sir, you can have lots of heat, even more heat, superheat, mega heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat. But we don’t have anything called cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold. Cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.

(There was pin-drop silence in the lecture theater.)

Student : What about darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as darkness?

Professor: Yes. What is night if there isn’t darkness?

Student : You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?

Professor: So what is the point you are making, young man ?

Student : Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed.

Professor: Flawed ? Can you explain how?

Student : Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good GOD and a bad GOD. You are viewing the concept of GOD as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, Science can’t even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing.

Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. Now tell me, Professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?

Professor: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.

Student : Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?

(The Professor shook his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument was going.)

Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?

(The class was in uproar.)

Student : Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor’s brain?

(The class broke out into laughter. )

Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

(The room was silent. The Professor stared at the student, his face unfathomable.)

Professor: I guess you’ll have to take them on faith, son.

Student : That is it sir … Exactly ! The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving.


I believe you have enjoyed the conversation. And if so, you’ll probably want your friends / colleagues to enjoy the same, won’t you?

Forward this to increase their knowledge … or FAITH.

By the way, that student was EINSTEIN.

Seth's Comments:
Problems with this letter:

1. Einstein never did this. It does not even match with Einstein's religious beliefs. Einstein was agnostic.

2. If this was a real professor, he should be reprimanded or fired for harassing a student.

3. If this was a real professor, he should be reprimanded or fired for being a total idiot.

3. If this was a philosophy professor, he'd be the worst philosopher ever. Excluding Heidegger.

4. The professor begins with a very poorly articulated version of the infamous"problem of evil." A better version of it goes like this. God is always good (all-good). If one has the power, it is good to intervene to stop an evil thing from happening. God has the power to do anything (all-powerful). But there is evil in the world, which means that God did not intervene (even though he could have, because he is all-powerful. That means that there is a good thing that God didn't do. So God is not simultaneously all-good and all-powerful.

5. This "problem of evil" is a big deal. It is such a big deal that not only does it have its own name, but attempted solutions to it have their own name (theodicies). It's not easy to solve.

6. Even if it was easy to solve, the student never even tries. At no point does he offer a counter-argument to the problem of evil. Personally, I think it is possible to solve the problem of evil. The student doesn't bother. That's no way to win an argument.

7. The professor then says " Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you." Actually, science doesn't say that. We clearly have more than five senses. In addition to the obvious five, there are also senses like balance and proprioception (you can close your eyes, move your hand to the left, and still tell roughly where your hand is). In fact, I think the commonly agreed upon number of senses for now is somewhere around 20 or 21.

8. Next, the professor gives a just terrible argument that no agnostic or atheist one in her right mind would make. It goes like this: We don't perceive God with sight, smell, taste, sound, or touch, so "science says" God does not exist. Evidently, by "science," the professor means some version of hyper-radical empiricism that no scientist ever actually believed in. If we could only believe in the existence of things that we personally perceived, I would not be justified in believing that my great-great grandfather existed, or that atoms existed, or that planets that were too far away to see with the naked eye existed.

9. The more philosophically robust version of the terrible argument that the professor ran goes like this: as science progresses, we create new scientific theories that explain phenomenon naturalistically that were previously thought of as only explainable supernaturallistically. Thus, there is less and less of a motivation to posit a theoretical supernatural entity as the cause of events in our world.

10. Let me re-emphasize that no scientist thinks that we are only justified in believing things that we can directly perceive.

11. The student then goes on to deploy some quasi-Augustinian argument about the nature of heat and light. He says that "heat is energy." More accurately it is molecular kinetic energy. But whatevs. The student then says that cold is the absence of heat, so there is no such thing as cold. This is a non-sequiter. There is such a thing as "cold." It is roughly any atmosphere below a certain threshold of molecular kinetic energy. It is subjective to humans, but that doesn't mean it does not exist.

12. The student does the same thing with light. I swear, the only point of this section is to rehash an ancient argument provided by Augustine that the author must have thought was neat because it is totally irrelevant to any point. The student says , "In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?" Again, this is a non-sequiter. Just because "darkness" occurs when there is lower than a certain threshold of light particles and reflective surfaces does not mean that "darkness" does not exist.

13. Same thing with death.

14. The student tries to get to the point. It seems to be that the problem of evil assumes duality. Well, Christianty cerainly assumes duality in many cases too (heaven & hell, right and wrong, for example).

15. The student says "Science can't even explain a thought." Wait what?

16. The student says "To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing" Aww, that is very touching and profound. But it has absolutely nothing to do with anything the professor said.

17. The student then tries to turn the tables on the professor, but arguing that unobserved entities and processes do exist. This is actually fair. The problem is that his individual arguments are so bad.

18. The student says " Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor." What? We've observed evolution happening tons and tons and tons of time.

19. The student then says "Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?" This implies that evolutionary theory is just an opinion. If you're a creationist, fine, but evolutionary theory is not "just like your opinion, man." Further, at the collegiate level, it is very common for professors to give a lecture about their opinions on certain matters. That's why they are professors.

20. "(The class was in uproar.)" Yeah right. If this actually happened, everyone would be sitting there, abashed, waiting for this student to get down off her pulpit so class can continue. It would be awkwardly silent, not uproarious. Also, hopefully, students would transfer out of the class because the professor is a moron.

21. The student asks if anyone has seen the professor's brain. There is a dis-analogy between this argument and the "we-can't-observe-God-so-he-doesn't-exist" argument. We could, in principle, observe the professors brain. It'd be easy. It would not be so easy to observe God.

22. Then, it says "The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving." Is this really a Christian principle? That it is faith that keeps things alive and moving? Then who do unfaithful people live or move around? There are lots of them. And they're living. And they are moving. If there were no people, there could be no faith. But the planets would still move. And plants would still live. So this claim must be false.

In conclusion, this "article" is really problematic. If Christians want to be afforded any intellectual respect, we / they can't keep arguing against idiot strawmen like the "professor" from the article. Christians as a whole have to stop their anti-intellectualism - if they have any faith at all they should believe that the things they believe in would be proven by science, given enough time. Instead, they'd rather forward chain letters containing no real substance, but managing to make the Christian reader feel giddy that some down-home country boy sitting in that great cesspit of sin (the American college classroom) had proved the atheist college professor (who probably had pre-marital sex and voted for Obama) wrong.

Oh yeah. And that down-home country boy in the American college classroom / cesspit of sin was Einstein.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Critical Thinking: Defining an Argument, Premises, and Conclusions

Defining an Argument
Argument: vas is das? For most of us when we hear the word 'argument' we think of something we'd rather avoid.  As it is commonly understood, an argument involves some sort of unpleasant confrontation (well, maybe not always unpleasant--it can feel pretty good when you win!).  While this is one notion of 'argument,' it's (generally) not what the term refers to in philosophy.

In philosophy what we mean by argument is "a set of reasons offered in support of a claim."  An argument, in this narrower sense, also generally implies some sort of structure.  For now we'll ignore the more particular structural aspects and focus on the two primary elements that make up an argument: premises and conclusions.

Lets talk about conclusions first because their definition is pretty simple.  A conclusion is the final assertion that is supported with evidence and reasons.  What's important is the relationship between premises and conclusions.  The premises are independent reasons and evidence that support the conclusion.  In an argument, the conclusion should follow from the premises.

Lets consider a simple example:
Reason (1): Everyone thought Miley Cyrus' performance was a travesty. 

Reason (2):  Some people thought her performance was offensive.
Conclusion:  Therefore, some people thought her performance was both a travesty and offensive.

Notice that so long as we accept reason 1 and reason 2 as true, then we must also accept the conclusion.  This is what we mean by "the conclusion 'follows' from the premises."

Lets examine premises a little more closely.  A premise is any reason or evidence that supports the conclusion of the argument.  In the context of arguments we can use 'reasons', 'evidence', and 'premises' interchangeably.  For example, if my conclusion is that dogs are better pets than cats, I might offer the following reasons:

(P1) dogs are generally more affectionate than cats and
(P2) dogs are more responsive to their owners' commands than cats.

From my two premises, I infer my conclusion that

(C) dogs are better pets than cats.

Lets return to the definition of an argument.  Notice that in the definition, I've said that arguments are a set of reasons.  While this isn't always true, generally, a good argument will generally have more than one premise.  

Heuristics for Identifying Premises and Conclusions
Now that we know what each concept is, lets look at how to identify each one as we might encounter them "in nature" (e.g., in an article, in a conversation, in a meme, in a homework exercise, etc...).  First I'll explain each heuristic, then I'll apply them to some examples.

Identifying conclusions:  
The easiest way to go about decomposing arguments is to first try to find the conclusion.  This is a good strategy because there is usually only one conclusion so, if we can identify it, it means the rest of the passage are premises. For this reason, most of the heuristics focus on finding the conclusion.  

Heuristic 1:  Look for the most controversial statement in the argument.  The conclusion will generally be the most controversial statement in the argument.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  Typically arguments proceed by moving from assertions (i.e., premises) the audience agrees with then showing how these assertions imply something that the audience might not have previously agreed with.

Heuristic 2:  The conclusion is usually a statement that takes a position on an issue.  By implication, the premises will be reasons that support the position on the issue (i.e., the conclusion).  A good way to apply this heuristic is to ask "what is the arguer trying to get me to believe?".  The answer to this question is generally going to be the conclusion.

Heuristic 3:   The conclusion is usually (but not always) the first or last statement of the argument. 

Heuristic 4:  The "because" test.  Use this method you're having trouble figuring which of 2 statements is the conclusion.  The "because" test helps you figure out which statement is supporting which.  Recall that the premise(s) always supports the conclusion.  This method is best explained by using an example.  Suppose you encounter an argument that goes something like this:

It's a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit.  It tastes delicious.  Also, lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer

Suppose you're having trouble deciding what the conclusion it.  You've eliminated "it tastes delicious" as a candidate but you still have to choose between "it's a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit" and "lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer".  To use the because test, read one statement after the other but insert the word "because" between the two and see what makes more sense.  Lets try the two possibilities:

A:  It's a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit because lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer.

B:  Lots of facebook posts say that amazonian jungle fruit cures cancer because it's a good idea to eat lots of it. 

Which makes more sense?  Which is providing support for which?  

The answer is A.  Lots of facebook posts saying something is a reason (i.e. premise) to believe that it's a good idea to eat amazonian jungle fruit--despite the fact that it's not a very good reason...

Identifying the Premises
Heuristic 1:  Identifying the premises once you've identified the conclusion is cake.  Whatever isn't contained in the conclusion is either a premise or "filler" (i.e., not relevant to the argument).  We will explore the distinguishing between filler and relevant premises a bit later, so don't worry about that distinction for now.

Example 1
Gun availability should be regulated. Put simply, if your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re more likely to kill you than if they don’t have access. Interestingly, this turned out to be true not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too.

Ok, lets try heuristic #1.  What's the most controversial statement?  For most Americans, it is probably that "gun availability should be regulated."  This is probably the conclusion.  Just for fun lets try out the other heuristics.

Heuristic #2 says we should find a statement that takes a position on an issue.  Hmmm... the issue seems to be gun control, and the arguer takes a position.  Both heuristics converge on "gun availability should be regulated."

Heuristic #3 says the conclusion will usually be the first or last statement.  Guess what? Same result as the other heuristics.

Heuristic #4.  
A:  Gun availability should be regulated because people with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you. 


B:  People with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you because gun availability should be regulated.

A is the winner.

The conclusion in this argument is well established.  It follows that what's left over are premises (support for the conclusion):
(P1)  If your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re more likely to kill you than if they don’t have access. 
(P2)  Studies show that P1 is true, not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too. 
(C)  Gun availability should be regulated.

Example 2
If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns. This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage. Gun control is a bad idea.
Heuristic #1:  What's the most controversial statement? Probably "gun control is a bad idea."

Heuristic #2: Which statement takes a position on an issue? "Gun control is a bad idea."

Heuristic #3:  "Gun control is a bad idea" is last and also passed heuristic 1 and 2.  Probably a good bet as the conclusion. 

Heuristic #4:  
A: If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns because gun control is a bad idea.


B: Gun control is a bad idea because if you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns.

The winner is B, therefore, "gun control is a bad idea" is the conclusion. 

All 4 heuristics point to "gun control is a bad idea" as being the conclusion therefore we can safely infer that the other statements are premises:

(P1)   If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns.
(P2)   This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage.
(C)     Gun control is a bad idea.

Looking Ahead
Also, many arguments can also contain what are called 'hidden', 'unstated,' or 'assumed' premises.

To understand the notion of a hidden premise lets look at (P1).  Can you find the hidden premise?  Here it is: (HP1) What makes a good pet is that it is affectionate.  This is an assumption that displays the values of the arguer.  (Note: hidden premises might not always be about values.)

However, there may be people who don't value affection as a marker of being a good pet.  Maybe for some people what makes a good pet is that it is clean or self-reliant.  So, a huge part of being a good critical thinker is to look beyond the stated premises and to try to find the assumed premises.  When we do this, the task of assessing the relative strength and weaknesses of an argument's premises (and, in turn, the argument itself) becomes much easier.

A cat lover could now counter the dog-as-better-pets argument by showing that the hidden assumption upon which the relevance of (P1) relies isn't universally true, and therefore the conclusion doesn't necessarily follow.

So, the cat lover can show that (C) (dogs are better than cats) doesn't necessarily follow from (P1) (dogs are more affectionate than cats) because (P1) is only relevant to the conclusion if we also assume that affection-giving is a key determinant of 'good pet-ness'.  In other words, the dog proponent's argument only works if we also accept their hidden assumption/premise. 

However, showing that (C) doesn't follow from (P1) doesn't mean (C) is false, nor does it show the contrary, that cats are better pets than dogs, it only shows that "dogs are better pets than cats" can't be established through this particular argument.

In other words, it could very well be true that dogs are better pets than cats but this argument doesn't show it.  In order to prove that dogs are better than cats we'd need a different argument. 

This brings us to an interesting point which I'll discuss in the next section: systems of belief, biases, and values.  When (as often happens) arguments involve values, evaluating an argument as 'true' or 'false' becomes difficult because it is an open question whether a value (that is supporting a major premise or conclusion) can be 'right' or 'wrong'.  This is more a question for ethics, but as far as being good critical thinkers goes, it  is extremely important to be able to recognize when and how a premise or conclusion is ultimately supported by a value judgement, bias, or system of belief.

The next post will give an overview of systems of belief, biases, and values, and their role in arguments and critical thinking.

An argument is a set of reasons or evidence offered in support of a claim.

A premise is an individual reason or piece of evidence offered in support of a conclusion.

A conclusion is the claim that follows from or is supported by the premise(s).

Key ideas:
1) Just because a conclusion is true, it doesn't mean that the argument in support of the conclusion is a good one (i.e. valid).  Truth and justification are two different things!

2)  Be on the alert for hidden premises! 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Annual Fitness Advice Post: Using Social Psychology to Your Advantage

It seems every year I end up writing a post on how to get your fitness on.  But there's a prollem.  All the fitness advice in the world doesn't amount to a thang if'n it ain't put into practix.  So, in this year's post I'm going to focus on what we know about psychology and social psychology that can actually help us do what most of us already know we should do.  For that reason, I will only briefly go over nutrition and fitness plans because I've already dealt with these topics in detail in prior posts:

Brief Overview of Fitness Programs and Methods
There is the optimal work out and there is the one you will do.  Pick the latter.  Do I need to explain this?  Here's the low down: pick a physical activity that you will actually do at least 3 times a week.  It might not be optimal, but you'll actually do it--and that's what matters most.  It can be anything physical: dance, zumba, aerobics, martial arts, karate-chopping bricks, speed walking, weight training, basketball, yoga, ping pong, get the point.  

Also, it needn't always be the same activity.  Maybe one day you do yoga, other day you karate-chop bricks, and the other you play ping pong.  Whatever keeps you engaged and avoids stagnation. 

There are a few caveats: (a)  If it doesn't make you sweat, it's not intense enough, or you're not pushing yourself hard enough. (b) You should do the activity for no less than 45min per session and no fewer than 3 times a week.  Of course, sometimes life gets in the way and in such cases you can make exceptions, but for the most part, try to stick to these minimums.  

If you're too tired one day, go the next.  There are almost no good reasons for which you cannot do something 3 times a week.  Also, even on a really busy day, you can go for 30min--it's not optimal but it's better than not going.  Which leads me to an important psychological point. 

We are creatures of habit.  This quality on its own isn't a good or bad thing--what matters is the nature of the habits themselves.  What does this mean for fitness?  

You got it.  Establishing good habits is the only way to success.  Every fit person I know goes a little crazy when they miss workouts.  Just as people with bad habits go crazy when their habits are broken.  

If you create 'good' habits, you will eventually need to continue them--this means DO NOT skip workout days in the habit forming phase. The more you do, the easier it becomes to do so.  Unless you're sick, you should at least drag your butt to your activity for 30min.  Once you get started you'll find that you perform much better than you expected and you'll feel good about yourself for persevering.  Most importantly you are further reenforcing a good habit rather than a bad one (i.e., being an out-of-shape whiny baby--waaaaa! I'm too tired to work out).

Ok, you big babies, next is nutrition.  Here is my scientifical advice.  Eat a good breakfast.  Some protein (eggs) and some complex carbs.  Begin your lunch and dinner with meal-sized salads.  When you're done, eat your protein (chicken, fish, lean beef, vegetable protein).  If you're still hungry have a small serving of complex carbs (brown rice, whole grain bread).  

Yeah, I said it: bread.  Don't give me that crap about "but I'm gluten intolerant."  Bullshit.  Only a very very small percentage of the population is.  Oh! I know, you're soooooooooooo special and I don't understand how special you are with your gluten intolerance and sensitivity to wifi too...give me break.  But I digress...

So, why eat so much salad before your meals?  Cuz it will fill you up and you won't over eat the high calorie stuff that makes you jiggly.  Next!

Supplements:  99% of them are total BS.  Unless you live in the 3rd world and have nutritional deficiency or your diet is 100% twinkies, you're wasting your money.  And it doesn't count if your naturopathic "doctor" tells you that you are a very special person due to a deficiency they discovered through applied kinesiology (i.e., magic bullshit).  Besides, you can simply rectify the problem by wearing a hologram on a piece of rubber. Problem solved! 

Ok, so what supplements aren't a total waste of money?  For the recreational fitness participant, pretty much all.  If you are training at a level beyond recreational, you might benefit from protein supplementation (protein shakes-whey is best) and creatine (plain creatine monohydrate--don't buy that over-priced other crap).  

Everything else it a waste of money except Acai berries that cure all forms of cancer and every other disease and virus known to mankind.  I read that on the intertubes, so it must be true.  That's why there's no cancer in Brazil.  What?  You didn't know that?  Oh, and sharks don't get cancer either, so eat sharks.

Psychology and Healthy Eating
What counts as healthy eating shouldn't be much of a surprise to most people, so why do we so often fail at it?  One reason big is weakness of will.  Side-stepping the philosophical question of what 'will' is, lets assume the common (vague) understanding.  

Here's what we know about will power: (a) it is finite, (b) it diminishes as the day progresses and as we tire.  These facts aren't good or bad in themselves, what's important is how we apply them.

Just Say "No" Once:  If I know that my will power is finite then it is easier to turn down ice cream 1x than it is to turn it down 10x in the same day.  But how do we apply this?  It's like this y'all.  

When you go shopping DO NOT buy unhealthy food.  This is you saying 'no' once.  But if you buy it and bring it into your crib, you will have to say 'no' every time you walk by the fridge or think of ice cream.  The psychological laws predict that the ice cream will eventually win.  Don't let the ice cream win!!! You are better than ice cream!

Shop and Cook Yur Food in Advance.  Next implication:  Our will power decreases as the day progresses and as we tire (the two usually go hand in hand).  What do we do with this information?  

Here's a familiar scene:  Waaaaaa!  I'm a big baby.  I'm tired from work.  I don't feel like cooking.  I'm just going to grab some fast food at _____.  Sound familiar?  

We can't do anything about you being a big baby, but we can do something to prevent you from buying fast food cuz there's no food in the replicator:  Cook your food in advance.  Either cook your dinner when you make your lunch, or make dinner in a slow cooker when you leave for work, or cook a bunch of food at a time so you have meals for a few days, or cook a lot of food and freeze it in portions.  

Or do what I do: start cooking your protein first, then eat your salad while it's cooking.  When you're done your salad, dinner will be ready.  Ta! Da! Good habit preserved and bad habit averted! 

I should add that all this requires that you keep healthy food in your house.  There is no greater deterrent to cooking than a tired and hungry person without any healthy food in the house.

As with exercise, the same applies to nutrition--it's about creating good habits.  But enough of this habit stuff.  That habit stuff don't mean crap if I can't do it long enough to create the habit.  Am I right?  Ami right?  

Ok, so this is where we're going to appeal to social psychology to keep us on track long enough to establish good habits...

Social Psychology and Beginning & Keeping Good Habits
Premise:  We are extremely susceptible to the influences of our peers.  Not surprisingly, this also applies to health and fitness habits.  In a really cool 30 year study which followed 12, 067 people and their social networks these interesting conclusions were drawn: 

(a)  when a friend becomes obese, the chances of you becoming obese increases by 57%.
(b)  family and neighbor obesity had much smaller effects on an individuals obesity.
(c)  the greatest influence was on close friends:  if someone was close friends with someone who became obese, the non-obese person's likelihood of becoming obese rose to 171%!
(d)  the same effect was observed for weight loss.
(e)  the proposed mechanism is that friends affect each others' perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad. "You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you."

For a more detailed analysis here's a good write up:

So, how can we use this information to our advantage?  Should we drop our close friends if they become obese?  Probably not.  Instead we should also seek out peers that have healthy habits we wish to emulate.  This will have the effect of countering an obese peer and at least give us a fighting chance.  171% is a lot to overcome! But don't forget, the effect works both ways...

But where am I going to find peers with healthy lifestyles?  Um, maybe at the fitness activity you skipped out on yesterday to eat cupcakes with your other friend!  

Accountability and Support within Peer Groups
We increase the probability of our following through on something when we are held accountable and given support by our peer group.  Big whoop.  How does this apply?  Well, for example, in one study of those who went into a weight loss program with a friend, 95% completed the program (10 month program) and 66% maintained the loss.

While the numbers vary between studies, the general effect is clear.  Those who enter weight loss programs with peers have higher completion rates and long-term success rates.  

The moral of the story?  Get a fitness buddy or group to keep you on track, motivated, and accountable.

One interesting model I heard about on NPR was people starting using social networking for motivation and accountability.  This can be done on your personal page or you can create a private group.  In the show they talked about people announcing their starting weight and having to report every determined interval.  

I doubt many people who are already self-conscious about their weight would be comfortable with publishing their weight on facebook or even to their close friends.  I suggest the following solution.  Don't publish your weight.  Your weight is 'x'.  However, you do need to publish after each week how many pounds you've lost or gained.  You might also considering publishing whether you've attended your fitness activity as you promised to your friends.

Aside: This brings up a side issue of whether body weight is a good measure of fitness and health.  I won't engage in that debate.  Use whatever measure you like--BMI, waist circumference  bicep size--whatever.  It's not that important in the early stages.  Personally, I just look at my abs.  If I can see them, I'm on track.  If I can't, I've got work to do.

The Power of Competition
Most, but not all, of us like to compete.  Modern techmology has made quantification and comparison of fitness activities easy.  My sister wears a little device on her waist.  It's about the size of a thumb drive.  It uploads how much distance you cover in a day and about how many calories you've burned as well as other biometric info like heart rate.  

Now, here's the cool part.  Her company started a program where you can have all this info uploaded to a common website.  Everyone who opts in gets their info uploaded to this site.  So, everyone can see how everyone else is performing.

You'd be surprised how engaged people get in the competition.  Now, instead of driving a short distance, employees walk so they can 'beat' the other competitors for calories burned or distance covered.  Add incentives and you have a workforce full of fitness freaks.  

Trust me.   My sister's a maniac about it.  Every time we've gone for a run she has to bring her little device so she can beat the other employees.  

This same mentality can easily be harnessed between groups of friends.  For example, everyone puts $20.00 into a pot, whoever burns the most calories over t wins the money or gets to donate it to the charity of their choice.

Bottom line is that the most powerful motivational forces for humans are social.  Use them to your advantage in conjunction with rewards, punishment, and emotional support.  And go with your friends to buy one of those gadgets my sister has!

Rules vs "The Reasonable Person" 
This is an interesting one.  This belongs more to the realm of psychology proper rather than social psychology.  To illustrate consider the following typical scenario:

You're at home watching the boob tube.  You say to yourself "I'm just going to have one square of chocolate--besides, it's got antioxidants so it's good for me!"  Next thing you know you're thinking, "I've already broken my rule so I might as well have a few more pieces.  Five chocolate bars later you're not feeling so hot.  Then you think, "well, I've already broken my diet, I might as well eat the ice cream too."

This is the problem with rules.  Once we break them, there's no reason for us to act on them so we easily rationalize further transgressions.  I.e., "I've already broken the rule, so breaking it more isn't going to matter."  

The problem with rules is that they are often binary.  We are allowed to eat chocolate or we aren't.  We're on a diet, or we aren't.  We exercise, or we don't.  Once we put ourselves on one side of the disjunct, there's nothing preventing us from being extreme. So, what's the solution?  

The reasonable person approach:  We ax ourselves what a reasonable person would do in the situation.  Would a reasonable person who is overweight eat 5 chocolate bars and a tub of ice cream?  Nope.  Would a reasonable person skip the gym because they only have 30min rather than the usual 45min?  Nope.  When we avoid thinking in binary terms, the door opens for reasonable action.

This is not to say rules don't have their place.  Rules are a good pre-emptive defensive strike against rationalizing ourselves into doing unhealthy things.  In other words, I'm not saying you should do away with rules completely, but we should not be over-reliant on them.  Perhaps a hybrid approach will be more fruitful.  

Furthermore, the reasonable person approach is not without its own difficulties.  As Hume said, "Man is not a rational animal, but a rationalizing animal."

For more on this listen to the most excellent podcast "Very Bad Wizards" Episode 7.

There are a whole bunch of apps that will help you with self-discipline.  Some of these harness the effects of social psychology and some don't.  Opt for the ones that do.