I spent a large chunk of today working through 12 weeks of Critical Thinking lectures to work out what they were actually trying to say. I could see the ghost of pure deductive logic shining through, albeit somewhat obscured by a certain amount of hand-waving that I’m not convinced actually did anything to simplify the concepts. Still.
Now I have 5 pages of notes that summarise the key points.
I think for the sake of simplicity the lectures are taking some liberties with precision though. The examples supporting the distinction between arguments and explanations are too ambiguous to be didactically useful. And the distinction is open to interpretation to begin with… in many cases one person’s agreed fact is another’s unsupported premise, flipping an explanation into an argument.
Then it went into a whole notation system for structured analysis or an argument that didn’t get used again until the very last lecture, and without sufficient notational detail to actually illuminate the full structure of an argument. It’s either more than it needs, or not enough for comprehensiveness.
But maybe that’s my scientist brain rebelling against all the superfluous distinctions being introduced. An Argument consists of Premises leading to a Conclusion. Premises and Conclusions consist of Simple and Complex Propositions… why, why, why? An Argument is a Complex Proposition itself; one that asserts that the Implication of the conjunction of its Propositions forming the Premises is the Proposition of the Conclusion.
Either the course should have started from Formal Logic introducing far fewer muddling concepts to begin with, and building a firm and complete foundation for what follows, or it should just have spent less time on the incomplete formalisation it attempts. It just feels like empty calories; very unsatisfying.
As the lectures move from the more formal foundations into the more informal interpretation of arguments written in conversational English, it actually gets somewhat better. Explaining the underpinnings of a strong scientific argument, and correctly using and compositing representative samples gives a lot of practical tools to find the holes or weaknesses in typical “newspaper”* articles.
It does a pretty good job explaining the purpose of a control group in scientific experimentation. It provides some constructive suggestions how to check when correlation might not imply causation. It provides suggestions on how to test the strength of an argument through evaluating alternate explanations. It does a very concise overview of the most relevant fallacies in typical arguments.
It even, delightfully does a reasonably nuanced explanation of both the virtues and dangers of rhetorical devices when constructing an argument. It seems like rhetorical devices are most often either overlooked altogether, or so over-utilised that it harms the efficacy of the argument to convince. It even defines and advocates the ethical use of such devices, which is refreshing.
Still, I wish it were more rigorous and parsimonious throughout. It could be better! (from the perspective of this recovering perfectionist).
I just hope that my notes haven’t gone overboard as a result.
I was after all just helping someone study this material.
I may have gotten a little carried away with my thoughts.
* – for very liberal interpretations of what makes up a “newspaper” in this day and age. I don’t think it tends to involved paper so much.