• The Skill of Argumentation

    I do a lot of educational research. One thing that I work on is the idea of a learning progression. It’s something that a lot of people know about, but don’t know what it’s called.

    A learning progression is just a series of advancement in KSA (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities) in a subject. For example, a skater doesn’t do a double axel before they master a single axel (well maybe accidentally, but not in a skilled way). In education, we don’t teach Einstein’s equations until the student understands Newton’s equations and calculus. We don’t teach calculus until they understand algebra and we don’t teach algebra until they understand basic math.

    Any subject or topic has these learning progressions. I found some recent work on the skill of argumentation and thought it would be interesting to talk about and compare with some anti-science proponents.

    The learning progression for argumentation is broken down into four, more narrow categories: social (appeal building), taking a position, reasons and evidence, and framing a case (also called discourse). There are four levels discussed in this framework: Preliminary, Foundational, Basic, and Intermediate. This is to show the basics required for argumentation. The two early levels are very early levels of understanding of the idea of argumentation. At these levels, the student may not even be aware of the “argumentation” as a concept.

    For example, the preliminary level of Appeal Building is just an understanding that it takes a persuasive appeal to try and convince someone of something. I know that sounds shockingly basic, but I know many adults who lack this preliminary understanding. Stating the same thing over and over is not an appeal to others. It’s not an attempt to convince. It’s just beating a dead horse. These people aren’t engaged in an argument, or even a discussion, because they don’t even grasp the idea that it takes some effort and at least an attempt to convince others. As a side note, I think that the people who use the “I’d explain it, but you’re too stupid to understand.” attack haven’t even reached the level below this one. At that level, I think, they are still trying to grasp the idea that other people actually exist and are not just put on Earth to vex them.

    The foundational level of Appeal Building is the concept of creating a written argument and shows some simple understanding of how a writer (maybe themselves, maybe others) has appealed to an audience. Here’s a hint, just because one has a blog doesn’t mean that one understands the basic idea of crafting a written argument intended to reach a particular (even a general) audience. Writing in all caps with poor spelling, grammar, and sentence structure is not effective (and likely to turn a reasonably intelligent audience away from an argument).

    The basic and intermediate levels show more development in presenting arguments and an understanding of coordinating multiple appeals and rhetorical structures into a coherent whole. It also talks about presenting different arguments to different audiences.

    Now, some would say that some people know to present different arguments to different audiences, without understanding some of the other concepts. To that I would argue that it’s not “learning”, but instead “cunning”. It’s arguable either way.

    The next section is Taking a Position. Even the most preliminary level of this is beyond many people I (and probably you as well) have dealt with. At the preliminary level, one is expected to understand the idea that one should take a side in an argument (that’s pretty easy) and accept or reject another person’s statements based on how well one thinks it fits the facts (this is insanely difficult for some people).

    The problem here isn’t one of judging whether a statement fits the facts. The problem is that some people can’t even understand that some things are facts. I’m not even talking about complex subjects like evolution here. Just look at the people who are still arguing that Obama isn’t a US citizen. This is especially noticeable in our presidential candidates.

    At the basic level, a person should understand what is important to the discussion at hand (not introducing red herrings) and basing an argument on knowledge. That last can be a problem for people without any knowledge of a subject. Insert reference to the Dunning-Krueger study here.

    Finally, the intermediate level is one that I consider important and is most unlike many (if not all) of the anti-science promoters I have seen. At the intermediate level, a student is expected to successfully (key word) analyze assumptions, biases, and subjective elements of an argument and use that to advance and improve their own argument. Of course, this goes back to “what are the facts” and other similar issues. If one cannot recognize that one argument contains assumptions and one argument does not, then this intermediate level cannot be achieved.

    The third area of argumentation is that of Reasons and Evidence. Here’s where it gets really wild for my purposes.

    At the preliminary level, the student should understand that concept that a position may (odd choice of wording there) need to be supported with reasons that will be convincing to the audience. I fully accept that most creationists have achieved, at least, this level of argumentation skill. Of course, their audience is mostly people who do not recognize the assumptions and biases in the creationist argument (or in themselves) anyway, but at least the attempt is made.

    At the foundational level, there is more complexity. The student can recognize, create, and expand upon reasons including knowledge of the need for evidence used in one’s own arguments and to counter opposing arguments. “The need for evidence”, which is where all of the anti-science positions fail.

    There’s an “joke” that I like to use. What do you call “alternative medicine” that actually works? You call it “medicine”. In the same way, if someone who holds an anti-science position was using evidence, then they would actually be doing science (sort of). We can trace a lot of the anti-science movements to one of two things; money or ideology. Creationism can be traced back to the Christian (and Muslim) ideologies. Global warming denial, anti-GMOs, and anti-vaccine movements can all be traced back to money.

    I’m not talking about the average person who has been taken in by these positions, I’m talking about the root cause of the issue.  The rank and file anti-science warrior isn’t getting a profit from it, they are being used as cannon fodder for a cause that they don’t understand.

    The basic level is even more intense. It specifically states that the student understands the use of evidence and understands the need to provide evidence that is directly related to and supporting their points and are logically sound. As we have shown here for years, every creationist argument fails on these points. You can’t support ID by attacking evolution. And you can’t attack evolution by ignoring the research that supports it.

    The intermediate level is a further intensification of these requirements. At this level the student is expected to be able to understand the ideas of critique and rebuttal. Even further, they are able to reason about, consider, and respond to counter-evidence and critical questions.

    I consider the ability to respond to questions and counter-evidence one of the  most critical skills in argumentation. At this point, if someone refuses to answer basic questions about their own argument, then I’m done with them. It’s just not productive to discuss ideas with someone who can’t even handle the most basic criticism or answer basic questions about their notions.

    The final section of the argumentation learning progression is that of Discourse also called “Framing a Case”. This has more to do with the structure and construction of arguments.

    At the preliminary level, the student understands that an argument is a series of “turns” in which people present ideas, providing supporting evidence, answering questions, and dealing with counter-evidence and counter-arguments. This preliminary level is, in my opinion, a little more advanced than the other preliminary levels. I wouldn’t expect this level of knowledge and understanding of someone until they are in middle school (maybe early high school). So, ages 12+.

    This is not nearly as common as a reasonably intelligent person might think. One merely has to review the comments section of any political or contentious article to see this fact.

    The foundational level is only slightly more advanced. Though I will admit to seeing this from a higher level, so sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember the steps needed to work through these progressions. The foundational level requires that students organize a persuasive argument as a series of reasons with supporting evidence.

    Think of this is that 5 paragraph paper, much loved by middle school English teachers. You have an introduction paragraph, 3 body paragraphs, each with a statement and supporting evidence, and a conclusion.

    The basic level expand on the foundational level by adding the requirement that the argument be logically structured. I cannot find any thing in the text as to whether this is to be a logical argument or a logical arrangement of reasons and evidence. But I would think that both should apply.

    Finally, at the intermediate level, the student realizes that arguments are part of a dialogue with multiple perspectives, each with attention to counter-point, rebuttal, criticism, and evidence.

    This learning progression is not intended to be THE way that all students learn (or should learn) about argumentation. Some students will be at high levels in one section (for example, logically organized writing) and at preliminary levels in another (for example, positions needing to be supported with evidence).

    I hope that, as you read this, you will consider your own skill and knowledge of argumentation and those of the people you discuss things with. Perhaps link them to this article and encourage them to improve their own skills in argumentation.

    Category: EducationfeaturedSkepticism


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat