July 16, 2014

Teaching Sophistry

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In the first years of my career as a librarian, I was working on the Reference Desk when an undergraduate student asked for help finding articles on a rather general subject in the social sciences.  My suspicion was that he would do better if he were able to refine his topic, and so I began a typical reference interview.  After a few questions from me, he smiled and told me that it really didn’t matter what the articles he came away with said, since he had already written the paper.  He was just looking for five sources to append to the paper to fulfill his professor’s requirement.  It was no surprise to me that there were students who were doing essentially faux research, but I was surprised that this student would be so up front about it.  Over the years, I have come to realize that faux research is quite a bit more common among undergraduates than I originally had thought.  Worse yet, the assignments that are being given by well-meaning professors and instructors, particularly at the freshman level, are encouraging this sort of thing.  Prior to becoming a librarian, I myself made such assignments, not realizing just how these assignments defeated the goal of training students to conduct serious, open-minded inquiries into important questions.

A common English 101 assignment where I work is for a student to develop a thesis on a controversial topic and then to go to the library (or the library’s web portal) to conduct research.  The student is required to find articles for and against their thesis and write a paper that defends their thesis, offering positive reasons for their position and refuting the arguments against their position.  As an English course, it is an exercise in composition and argumentation and an opportunity to get some experience with library resources.  Communication 107 requires something similar when the students compose a “persuasive speech.”  All of that is fine, of course, and I’m sure that very often the assignment is quite beneficial, but as this is often a student’s first experience with college-level writing, too many of them come away with the view that this is how research is done:  the researcher uncovers reasons to confirm their beliefs and thinks up clever arguments to dismiss what they don’t believe.  They are unconcerned about the cogency of their arguments and consequently are rewarded by employing all manner of fallacies.

In some instances, the thesis that they begin with does not lend itself well to the “taking sides” approach.  I recall one student whose thesis was that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were environmentally destructive.  She understood that there was a controversy about CAFOs and that many people claimed that they were environmentally destructive, so she assumed that there must be people “on the other side” who thought they were not destructive.  After finding a lot of sources that described the detrimental environmental effects of CAFOs (and spending a lot of time on this), she was frustrated by not being able to find any sources taking the “con” position.  She thought they surely must be out there, since CAFOs were so controversial.  Of course, her problem could have been solved if the instructor had been able to make it clear to her that the environmental impact of CAFOs was not a live debate.  Instead, the controversy lay with the larger questions about animal welfare, consumer choice, the economy, and the role of environmental regulations, but I doubt that the student had approached her instructor about the topic or discussed it in a manner that was sufficiently clear to get better direction about framing her thesis.  In any case, had she done so, I suspect her initial disposition against CAFOs probably would have caused her to fall into the advocacy trap taught in English 101.

Consider a more appropriate assignment model:  Frist, students form teams which select a topic about which they know little or have no strong opinion and are sent to the library to learn about it independently of each other.  They are to accumulate a variety of sources on the topic – the more the better and the more diverse the better – but there should be no suggestion that there are only two views (pro and con).  The students would then rank the sources according to which in their judgment was strongest and most insightful.  Second, they would share and read one another’s sources and convene their teams to discuss the relative merits of the sources.  Third, they each would write a paper based on the team’s sources, defending a thesis that the student would develop after completing the second phase of the assignment.  Finally, each student would read and comment on the quality of the work of each member of their team.

The assignment model I describe above provides a far better introduction to the actual process of serious research. It asks students to engage in a genuine inquiry, recognizes that they must learn from previous research, affirms the importance of hearing and understanding the views of others who are doing similar research, and asks them to make an honest judgment about the matter based not on their preconceived notions, but on the facts and/or values that truly bear on the question.  Most of all, it will help students avoid the trap of simply finding ways to confirm their own opinions and dismiss or ignore the serious arguments against those opinions.  It puts them in a situation in which they must listen to other opinions and honestly assess the strength of those opinions.  It potentially exposes them to a variety of research methods that they might not have considered and, of course, requires that they compose a quality essay that will stand up to review by their peers.  I wish I had made assignments of this sort when I was teaching Philosophy 105: Contemporary Moral Problems as well as a few other philosophy classes.  It even might have been useful as the only assignment in a capstone seminar.  As a librarian, I would love to work with students who are genuinely engaged in learning about an issue and not merely constructing an argument to complete an assignment.  We need to be certain that what we are doing is training students to be open to whatever evidence bears on their research question and especially open to whatever conclusions that evidence indicates.  We must be careful not to train them in the techniques of the sophist.

This leads me to a larger concern that too much of this sort of education has bred a population that conceives of public discourse to be English 101 writ large and that the disregard for the facts of the world and the principles of reason have turned public discourse into something that more resembles a verbal wrestling match or worse, a boxing match and not a conscientious discussion of important public matters aimed at collective agreement on a workable public policy.  I hear this on radio talk shows, read it in social media, in mainstream journalism, and in the comment sections that follow what is ostensibly news reporting; and it certainly appears in the numerous blogs that have the express purpose of advocating a particular view.  Certainly, this style of discourse always has been with us, but I sense that it is particularly virulent today.  I count the 1982 debut of the CNN program “Crossfire” as my first clear encounter with it in a national forum.  “Crossfire” was (and probably again is, though I have not watched its recent manifestation) a program in which guests were badgered by loaded questions, not allowed to finish their answers, and sometimes simply shouted down; a program which routinely produced more heat than light.  It valorized the worst style of dialog and sadly became something of a model for future public affairs talk shows.  Tellingly for the connection between this style of discourse and academia, George Washington University became the host site from which the program aired before a live audience for about three years.

The format reached the height of absurdity with the “Jerry Springer Show” which, of course, did not deal with public affairs and was purely “entertainment,” but nonetheless made confrontation the primary form of interpersonal interaction.  Eventually, partisan media coverage of public affairs retreated to their own corners and devolved into outlets for partisan propaganda first introduced by right-wing radio and FOX News, but quickly followed by Air America and MSNBC.  I would not maintain that there is parity between these ideological opponents, but their techniques for adversarial argumentation are formed in the same mold, and it is the mold that we subtly and sometimes not so subtly are teaching to our undergraduates.

I also am not suggesting that there is a position of pure objectivity that one can and should assume when discussing public affairs, but we are capable of exercising a little self-criticism and a sense of fairness.  We can recognize self-serving attitudes – even our own – and demonstrate respect for others with whom we disagree.  We can adopt an attitude that promotes a serious-minded search for public policy solutions that just might lie outside of our own pre-conceived notions.  Too often we lack the virtues of humility and charity in our discourse.  Humility recognizes that we are one among many people, each with a unique and limited experience of the issues, that we each have misconceptions and incomplete understandings of complicated questions, and that personally, the best thing that can come out of a dialog is that we ourselves will discover our misconceptions, expand our experience, and change our views to arrive at a corrected understanding of the issues and the world.  Charity recognizes that the arguments made by others may not always be couched in their strongest form and that instead of seeking chinks in one’s opponent’s armor, one should seek to construct the strongest case for everyone in the conversation.  By doing so our own views are better tested and can be legitimately corroborated or discarded for superior views.  These are the virtues of the Enlightenment which has received, I believe, unfair criticism for the short comings of certain Enlightenment figures.  It was best described by Immanuel Kant in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” as “the public use of reason.”  The public use of reason promises solutions to a huge number of problems we face, but it requires dialogical virtues that are rare today.

Perhaps the clearest distortion of public discourse through sophistic techniques has come from those who are against taking action to mitigate climate change by reducing the production of greenhouse gases.  The engines behind this distortion are the professional blogs established by groups that promote a libertarian economy regardless of obvious market failures and supported by the fossil fuel industry.  Anyone who is familiar with the research into the climate change will easily recognize the patent lies and distortions, the ad hominem attacks, and various other fallacies employed by these bloggers to confuse the public debate.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s landmark book The Merchants of Doubt remains an excellent exposé of the network of self-serving climate change denial and its history.  The denial industry’s power rests on the extraordinary wealth of its patrons. Beyond the blogs, our culture of discourse has become so debased that many people take their cues from these bloggers and engage in debates where they seek victory at any cost, regardless of fact or reason.  Their contribution to the discourse ranges from canny deceptions to incendiary trolling, and too often, their opponents fight fire with fire.  It is a sad and dangerous state of affairs perhaps best described in the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding):”

While money doesn’t talk, it swears / Obscenity, who really cares / Propaganda, all is phony.

As an educator and librarian I feel a responsibility to uphold the Enlightenment values that promote a fair-minded understanding of the world, but I feel swamped by an ever devolving culture of propaganda and sophistry.  It’s hard to know the way out.  If anyone has a compass, I’d love to hear from you.

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1 Comment »

  1. Alan, I love this: “there should be no suggestion that there are only two views (pro and con)” and was thinking as I read your opening paragraphs on student assignments that it’s time journalists learned this important lesson, too. And then you go on to say just that. I don’t have a compass but am searching for one myself. Am reading Lewis Lapham’s WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, which brings up many of your — our — concerns.

    Am off now to share this post with my friends.

    Comment by P. J. Grath — July 17, 2014 @ 8:29 am

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