19.12.16

THE CASE FOR RULES OF ARGUMENT.

Jonathan Gold's "Teaching in the Post-Truth Era" opens with the Trenchant Observation of the Day.  “Critical literacy is essential, but not if it leads to a kind of moral relativism that tolerates all views and dismisses none in fits of false equivalence and both-siderism.”

The relativism might be a consequence of the decline of the gate-keepers, although it's the gatekeepers of the Oxford Dictionaries who have named post-truth as the word of the year.
Oxford describes post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” While the neologism “post-truth” is relatively new, the term fits into a broader context of unease about the ways the modern world, especially its attendant over-reliance on social media, affects one’s ability to acquire knowledge and share concepts of truth and values.
But it's not as though the gate-keepers didn't abdicate some of their own responsibilities, particularly those who put sneer quotes around words such as truth, or who gave the impression that any emergent phenomenon, because it was emergent, was an arbitrary construction that could be deconstructed without consequence.  Oops.

Perhaps it is that abdication that brings Mr Gold to this.
A second concern is supported by two new unsurprising but arresting studies, one from Sam Wineburg at Stanford and another from Joseph Kahne of UC Riverside and Benjamin Bowyer of Santa Clara University. Wineburg’s research shows that today’s students are dismayingly unskilled at detecting bias, identifying fake news, and evaluating truth claims. Similarly, Kahne and Bowyer show that high school students are especially susceptible to “directional motivated reasoning,” which means they prefer “to seek out evidence that aligns with their preexisting views, to work to dismiss or find counter-arguments for perspectives that contradict their beliefs, and to evaluate arguments that align with their views as stronger and more accurate than opposing arguments.” Notably, the authors saw these patterns of thought in students from across the political spectrum; they seem to be exacerbated by social media news consumption.
Epistemic closure, confirmation bias. Perhaps that's because the youngsters have had their skulls turned to mush by mushy-skulled adults.
A matrix of approaches, often grouped under the heading critical literacy, has been used by many progressive [c.q.] educators to teach students how to think. Descended from Marxist critical pedagogy, a critical literacy approach encourages students to interrogate texts for bias, uncover connections to systems of power and privilege, and identify and question missing voices and narratives. It means resisting passive acceptance of facts and authority as a source of truth. And yet, given the picture I’ve painted of our students’ knowledge landscape, I think the current moment calls for a more mature form of critical thinking. Indeed, skepticism about the sources of knowledge does not mean there is no knowledge, no commonly held set of facts or assumptions; rather, it means we have to be rigorous and objective in our scrutiny of that knowledge. We have to model for students that facts exist and help them develop their own thinking based on facts, evidence, and logic.
Perhaps an intellectual framework more rigorous than cultural Marxism would help.  "More essential is the development of a mature critical literacy that allows students to understand and interrogate both their own views and those held by people they disagree with and decide what to think for themselves. Again, critical skepticism doesn’t mean operating as if there’s no truth."  The use of that "interrogate" bothers me, but I digress.  Let's keep it simple: deny coherent beliefs of any kind, which is where resisting authority can lead, what you get is incoherence.  Or treating Wikipedia or social media as a source as valid as the original documents and records.

This is true, by the way, even if you're skeptical of any claim of truth, or of fact, or of proof.  In Scientific American, Julia Shaw spells this out.
Well, let me tell you a secret about science; scientists don’t prove anything. What we do is collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions. Sometimes we do things over and over again, in meaningfully different ways, and we get the same results, and then we call these findings facts. And, when we have lots and lots of replications and variations that all say the same thing, then we talk about theories or laws. Like evolution. Or gravity. But at no point have we proved anything.

Don’t get me wrong. The scientific method is totally awesome. It is unparalleled in its ability to get answers that can help us extend life, optimize output, and understand our own brains.

Scientists slowly break down the illusions created by our biased human perception, revealing what the universe actually looks like. In an incremental progress, each study adds a tiny bit of insight to our understanding.
Proof, properly viewed, is the demonstration of the consequences of a set of initial conditions by a rigorous argument.  For instance:  elliptic curves are modular, therefore Diophantine equations of order greater than two have no nondegenerate solutions in integers.  (There is not enough room in the margin for me to show you.)  But in experimental science, and in social science, the best you can do with empirical phenomena is come up with corroborations of working hypotheses, or anomalies thereto.  (And the fun is in the anomalies, whether we're talking about the speed of light or the periodic granting of amnesties.)  Here's how Ms Shaw puts it:  "But let’s make it our job as a society to encourage each other to find replicable and falsifiable evidence to support our views, and to logically argue our positions."  Note: logically argue.  Dressing it up in word-noise and pretending to be a sophisticate?  No.

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