Thursday, February 16, 2012

Simple Help to Understand Difficult Issues and its Argumentation

Gary Berg-Cross

The recent arguments on this Blog about supporting language-based charter schools in DC raised some fundamental issues about argumentation and bias in my mind. It starts from the obvious observation that there are usual many sides to an issue like this. But our experiences, values and broad stances often frames what we consider good arguments. Facts are certainly important in an argument. So the fact that “there are Christian Arabs” is one of many facts that can be cited to support an argument. They may be used to support or oppose principles and thus provide a coherent argument. But since there may be so many relevant facts it is often hard to focus down to critical facts and arguments can quickly become so complex they are difficult to follow, especially when the various sides of an issues have a large history and many interacting factors. In addition to heaps of facts in an argument one may cite such things as:

· Principles (schools should serve broad student bodies)

· Hidden agenda and motivation (Christian evangelical kids learning Hebrew so that they can proselytize in Israel) Again facts may be used to expose or distract from agendas ,

· Ideology and values (English is our official language or Charter movement is said to have shifted into an effort to privatize education and attack teachers' unions,) but (we shouldn’t have publish money going into religious schools and “Two yet-to-be-opened Hebrew charter schools in New Jersey each received federal grants of $200,000”)

· Backers & group associations (Some Charter schools have ties to religious groups ), and a variety of other factors that go into human situations and our understanding of them.

· Uncomfortable trends (Religious Charter Schools are proliferating)

Some of these as well as supporting facts I may have only a small knowledge of for example who is in back of language-based charter schools. I may have a general sense of how is in back of charter schools and wonder if this is a camel’s nose under the tent strategy. I may connect this to larger, religious agendas such as abortion control or teaching creationism is schools that work tirelessly to nibble away at resistance to their broader agenda. In such grey areas I may be in conflict because I can see a goal that has potential good, but may afford and opportunity for some downside too. If I hear that New Gingrich favors Hebrew language charter schools for DC and these are getting funds from Sheldon Adelstein, who is know to fund Independent Jewish schools, I might worry that there is an agenda here, although it is a loose chain of reasoning.

How do we assess all these factors and role them into a judgment on issues that are complex like this and where only limited facts are know and the environment is not transparent enough to be sure? One may ask how humans reach a reasoned judgment when there are so many factors. Learning a language, for example, is good while supporting schools that are anti-union is bad. It’s all more than a direct calculating and adding up of all supporting and opposing factors in some type of vast numerical calculation. Critical thinking & reducing complexity by analysis that breaks things down a bit helps. I’ve done just a bit of this in my bullets. Using argument maps to explore what has been said can be useful. Argument maps allow us to clarify the thoughts and look at various parts of an argument. But it takes time and training so it is a selective improvement.

This is now well enough researched in Cognitive Psychology and Decision Science to offer some insights. But it itself is complex enough that only a gesture to the full story is attempted here.

So how do we reach judgment under such complex situation? Our mind often shortcuts the complexity. One factor are frames that influence what we believe are facts and have much to do with our arguments on complex issues helping us simplify them down to what seems like a coherent argument. But another is active filtering and biases. We choose to seek out and accept the information that fits our existing mental model or viewpoint, instead of all information available. And so yes this often involves biases in our reasoning process.

One big factor in such judgments is a confirmatory bias - a tendency for us to favor information that confirms our beliefs, hypotheses or even our identities. So if we already hold a belief that teaching Hebrew is good (proselytize in Israel or maybe the tourist trade is good for the Israeli state) you can you can find data to support this and even the general notion that learning any new language is good confirms your belief. In other words, our judgment may be biased by seeking information which confirms an existing viewpoint. This simplifies things. We don’t have to worry about competing ideas such as, “well learning a new language is good, but why learn Arabic and not Spanish (with a growing population) or Italian (a nice place to visit)?”

What about new data? Well frames and a confirmatory bias helps direct interpretation of new “facts. It can be as simple as ignoring or downplaying information that doesn’t fit our concepts. But it can be active as new information is reinterpreted to match expectations and preconceptions. In controlled studies even if two people observed the same events, their interpretation can be completely different and influenced by preconceptions (shades of ideological thinking!).

So how do we get beyond things like confirmatory biases to understand what going on? Well being aware of the bias is a start. Critical thinking and a skeptical attitude helps. No matter what side you are on there are some general ideas such sharing your arguments with other critical thinkers. Since we are weak in finding flaws in our own reasoning other people may see the biases and fallacies. It can be hard on the ego though. Exposing arguments on a Blog like this is a way to do that, but one has to be open to personal progress and not rigid.

As to methods 2400 years ago or so Socrates came up with a dialogue method to help us get unstuck from our pre-judgments. It takes extended discussion that is less of one advocate clashing with another like 2 lawyers representing clients. It is more like a cooperative search for the truth.

We also have the rational, empirical scientific method which values challenging but testable hypotheses, questions data and has a way of converging on hypothesis that are supported by validated facts through systematic observation. Being more like a scientist and less like a lawyer just sounds better to me.

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