Yay Argument Orientation

Long ago I dove into science studies, which includes history, sociology, and philosophy of science. (Got a U. Chicago M.A. in it in 1983.) I concluded at the time that “science” doesn’t really have a coherent meaning, beyond the many diverse practices of many groups that called themselves “science”. But reflecting on my recent foray into astrophysics suggests to me that there may a simple related core concept after all.

Imagine you are in an organization with a boss who announces a new initiative, together with supporting arguments. Also imagine that you are somehow forced to hear a counter-argument against this initiative, offered by a much lower status person, expressed in language and using methods that are not especially high status. In most organizations, most people would not be much tempted to support this counter-argument; they’d rather pretend that they never heard of it.

More generally, imagine there is a standard claim, which is relevant enough to important enough topics to be worth consideration. This claim is associated with some status markers, such as the status of its supporters and their institutions, and the status of the language and methods used to argue for it. And imagine further that a counter-claim is made, with an associated argument, and also associated status markers of its supporters, languages, and methods.

The degree to which (status-weighted) people in a community would be inclined to support this counter-claim (or even to listen to supporting arguments offered) would depend on the relative strengths of both the arguments and the status markers on both sides. (And on the counter claim’s degree of informativeness and relevance regarding topics seen as important.) I’ll say that such a community is more “argument-oriented” to the degree that the arguments’ logical or Bayesian strengths are given more priority over the claims’ status strengths.

Even though almost everyone in most all communities feels obligated to offer supporting arguments for their claims, very few communities are actually very argument-oriented. You usually don’t contradict the boss in public, unless you can find pretty high status allies for your challenge; you know that the strength of your argument doesn’t count for much as an ally. So it is remarkable, and noteworthy, that there are at least some communities that are unusually argument-oriented. These include big areas of math, and smaller areas of philosophy and physics. And, alas, they include even smaller areas of most human and social sciences. So there really a sense in which some standard disciplines are more “scientific”.

Note that most people are especially averse to claims with especially low status markers. For example, when an argument made for a position is expressed using language that evokes in many people vague illicit associations, such as with racism, sexism, ghosts, or aliens. Or when the people who support a claim are thought to have had such associations on other topics. As such expressions are less likely to happen near topics in math, math is more intrinsically supportive of argument-oriented communities.

But even with supportive topic areas, argument-orientation is far from guaranteed. So let us try to identify and celebrate the communities and topic areas where it is more common, and perhaps find better ways to shame the others into becoming more argument-oriented. Such an orientation is plausibly a strong causal factor explaining variation in accuracy and progress across different communities and areas.

There are actually a few simple ways that academic fields could try to be and seem more argument-oriented. For example, while peer review is one of the main place where counter-arguments are now expressed, such reviews are usually private. Making peer review public might induce higher quality counter-arguments. Similarly, higher priority could be given to publishing articles that focus more on elaborating counter-arguments to other arguments. And communities might more strongly affirm their focus on the literal meanings of expressions, relative to drawing inferences from vague language associations.

(Note: that being “argumentative” is not very related to being “argument-oriented”. You can bluster and fight without giving much weight to logical and Bayesian strengths of arguments. And you can collect and weigh arguments in a consensus style without focusing on who disagrees with who.)

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