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“Decoys” by V.H. Hatter, CC SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. No endorsement implied.

The Phenomenon

The “fake news” phenomenon plays on highly predictable and prevalent weaknesses in human cognition: confirmation bias, ownership/endowment effects, and belief overkill using messages with high affective valence, usually negative. Emotions of fear, outrage, and suspicion typically are featured, but sometimes positive themes are used too, like appeals to feelings of patriotism or nostalgia for an idealized past. The images selected typically reflect whatever the emotional focus is, or whoever (or whatever, in the case of abstract institutions) is the target of that focus. There is no attempt at truthful communication. Sources are often described rather than named (think pizzagate’s “New York City police detective”, or phrases like “sources close to the Trump family”). Essentially, fake news stories follow the same sort of style as tabloid writing: sensationalistic, unverifiable, and over-the-top claims are made about publicly recognizable figures for money. That’s nothing new. Tabloid journalism has been around since papers started being printed. What’s “new” about fake news is that:

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Via Jan Albert van Laar’s post to the ARG-THRY mailing list:

Else Margarete Barth, emeritus professor in Analytic Philosophy at the
University of Groningen, has died on 6 January 2015. She was born in
Trondheim on 3 August 1928 and studied philosophy, physics, and mathematics
in Trondheim, Oslo (with Arne Naess), and Amsterdam (with Evert Willem
Beth). In 1971 she obtained a PhD from Leiden University, supervised by
Gabriël Nuchelmans. From 1971 to 1977 she was a lector in Logic at Utrecht
University and from 1977 to 1993 a professor in Analytic Philosophy at the
University of Groningen. Her main contributions to philosophy are in
argumentation theory, dialogue logic, formal semantics, and in the logical
analysis of authoritarianism. She was an outspoken advocate of women’s
rights in academia. Main publications include *The Logic of the Articles in
Traditional Philosophy* (1974), *From Axiom to Dialogue* (1982, with Erik
Krabbe), *Problems, Functions and Semantic Roles* (1986, with Rob Wiche),
*Women Philosophers: A Bibliography of Books* (1992), and *A Nazi Interior:
Quisling’s Hidden Philosophy* (2003). She leaves a husband.

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hacksetup

I’ve written on this blog before about the ways in which I think political discourse in the US serves democracy poorly. A recent article by David Gewirtz at ZDNet on the subject of the moral status of DDoS attacks has prompted me to write about this topic again.

Gewirtz writes in response to the arguments of Molly Sauter, of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Sauter summarizes her project like this:

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RIP: Jim Aune

With Jim Aune’s death, the discipline of rhetoric lost one of its bright lights this week.  Sincerest condolences to those who knew Prof. Aune, worked with him, learned from him, and wrote with him at The Blogora.

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Those acquainted with informal logic and argumentation will no doubt recognize Trudy Govier as one of the pioneers in the field.  RAIL is happy to report that her efforts have been recognized outside of the argumentation community too.  As the title of the post indicates, Prof. Govier has received the 2012 Distinguished Academic Award of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Association (CAFA).  The full story can be found here.  Well deserved!

 
(Thanks to Cate Hundleby for bringing this to my attention!)

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Some RAIL readers may recall the fracas that developed between Peter Wood, of the NAS and AILACT around the end of 2011.  Unfortunately, it’s a fracas in which RAIL played a direct role–something I sincerely regret. Though I had written what I hoped was a moderate-in-tone post questioning Wood’s use of the term ‘critical thinking’ before this, it was a guest post by Don Lazere that really earned Wood’s anger in sufficient quantity for him to denounce both RAIL and AILACT in a post at the Chronicle of Higher Education website. Many members of AILACT, including myself, found Wood’s characterization of the organization and its conception of critical thinking in this post to be both unfair and inaccurate.  In order to respond to Wood’s charges, the Board of AILACT wrote the following reply, which appears in the organization’s April Newsletter.  It is reproduced here, in its entirety, by permission of the Board.  In addition to setting the record straight about AILACT and the sense of critical thinking it endorses, I hope that it sets the stage for a more constructive dialogue between AILACT and Wood, and with others who care about critical thinking and its place in higher education.

A Reply by the AILACT Board to Peter Wood’s CHE Comments on “Critical Thinking” (more…)

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I had thought that the increasing strategy of reductio ad absurdum in US politics was because so much of US politics is verging on the absurd.  However, the picture may be more complicated than that, and it’s nice to think there is some source for the problem we might address systematically.

A series of “joke amendments” provide reductios to abortion bills that have recently surged.  These “jokes”, such as the suggestion that vasectomies be illegal, are a serious move, argues Jessica Ogilvie in The Gloss.  They reveal inattention to the medical nature of abortion procedures.

“Legislating against it is just as fucked up as, say, legislating against heart surgery. Or prostate cancer surgery. Or…vasectomies.”

How does this happen?  She suggests it’s political inflation:

“When we talk about abortion, we get so caught up in the politics of it, as well as the philosophical questions it brings up (questions that would be better addressed in a house of worship or a college class than on a Senate floor, for the record), that we tend to lose sight of one important fact: abortion is a medical procedure.”

But what is the source of this inflation?  Everyone likes to think he or she is a moral expert and may caught up in the headiness of the debate.  How many philosophers avoid teaching the abortion debate because it is just so very heady?  Too many, I’d say.  I concur with Ogilvie that that’s a proper venue, and I’d add underused.

What allows us to lose sight of the medical nature of abortion, and the fact that it is a rare law that prohibits people from choosing what to do with their bodies, right or wrong, is the proliferation of discourse.  Politics has become self-sustaining and spun off from the concrete contexts that give it significance; likewise medical decisions can be assigned to physicians (as abortion used to be in Canada) instead of patients.  Such divergent discourses are harder to avoid in a classroom, or in the personal decision (as this joke card makes clear).

Thank goodness feminist lawyers are trained in critical thinking and strategic argumentation that aids the revelation of assumptions, such as the assumption that abortion is not a medical procedure.

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University of Guelph graduate students (it’s my understanding) have been organizing in a serious fashion to take philosophy out of the ivory tower.  A two-day series of events, with six concurrent sessions addresses issues from Einstein to zombies, heuristics, and feminism. 

Philopolis Guelph, inspired by Philopolis Montreal aims to “[do] a better job [than academic philosophers have been doing] of engaging in dialogue with the public: this requires finding a common language, as well as being explicit about the relevance of the ideas at issue. Both academic philosophers and the broader public stand to benefit one another greatly through this kind of exchange—free of jargon, of minced words, and of exclusionary assumptions. ”

Philopolis’ resistance to academic jargon and presumption promises to make philosophy accountable as well as show non-philosophers how valuable philosophy can be.  The development of a common language is a creative endeavour that requires public engagement, and making assumptions explicit is an important principle of critical thinking to put into practice.

Philosophers sometimes think we own “critical thinking,” which is an extremely dangerous assumption in itself.  Sociologists, neurologists and physicists engage in critical thinking too, and are more aware of the limitations to their methods.

I know at Guelph they’ve been talking about this sort of event for years, and I spoke at one such around 2004.  Unfortunately, that lacked the upswell and publicity that supports this event.  Such savvy is to the credit of the graduate students, I expect.

As a faculty brat, I have a long-abiding affection for graduate students from the old days when there were more personal relationships between faculty and graduate students.  While that intimacy could and often did involve a number of problems regarding sexual morality and nepotism, some of us benefited in the most benign ways.  As the numbers of graduate students swell — at least in Canada where governments are putting money into that sector of education (mostly to the exclusion of others), many freshly-minted doctors will be disappointed by their job prospects.  The benefit however (and this is the reason the government puts the money there) is for society in general.  Graduate students have insight, passion, networking skills, and drive that can drive social and intellectual progress.  That power is well-demonstrated by Philopolis Guelph.

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Steve and I have had an extended discussion about the subversive potential of art since the (latest) Hendricks scandal broke.  The case of the public library in Troy, Michigan is a good case in point, I think, of how hiding the artistic quality of a communication can aid in critical thinking, foster political dialogue, and be constitutive to the art itself.

When the library was in danger of closing, supporters enacted a reductio ad absurdum on those pushing for the closure to save on taxes.  The supporters posted false publicity of a book burning party, a campaign that enraged so many people that the nature of the discourse shifted away from taxes and back to books; eventually the library was saved.

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A new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the decline of philosophy in the academy stresses again (see my previous post) the importance of philosophy in providing critical thinking education.  I’m pleased to see the props the author (Lee McIntyre) gives to feminist philosophers for their attention to pressing issues of our time, but I’m not sure his general despair over philosophy is warranted given other reports of the rising popularity of philosophy education.

McIntyre may simply be building a career as an alarmist.  His most recent book “Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior” despairs over losing the emancipatory potential of the social sciences.  (See Berel Dov Lerner’s review here.)  One begins to sense a pattern, and while I haven’t had a chance to investigate “Dark Ages” yet, I’m sceptical that it claims to promote value-free science.

However, his message about the need for a revaluation of the significance of philosophy education, and the central role of critical thinking in that context, may be important.  (He has a book coming out on this too.)  He says “the goal—especially at the undergraduate level—should be to help students recognize that philosophy matters. Not just because it will improve their LSAT scores (which it will), but because philosophy has the potential to change the very fabric of who they are as human beings.”  This requires taking critical thinking to a much higher level than most undergraduate programs will.

McIntyre blames the discipline for hiring sessional instructors, which is absurd since those decisions are made by administrators rather than faculty members.  However, philosophers do tend to view critical thinking, argumentation, and introductory education as less valuable, and so assign it to sessional instructors.  That might be rethought, but only if we begin to have philosophers trained in those methodological issues.

As argumentation theory and informal logic continue to grow (see the introductory editorial in Cogency), giving rise to new journals (such as Cogency) and becoming institutionalized in new research centres and doctoral programs, perhaps we will have the resources for that.   As it stands, critical thinking is much less a part of the philosophy curriculum than one might expect.

Philosophy is not alone in promising (and perhaps failing) to teach “critical thinking,” since that buzzword is so heavily used in education that it is almost meaningless.  Yet philosophers continue to claim a rightful ownership of that terrain.  That claim and the pride that goes with it flies in the face of typical educational and hiring practices that undervalue teaching and research in argumentation and informal logic.

What we need to turn things around may be a radical reconsideration of what is the purpose of a philosophy education.  McIntyre suggests that should be an appreciation of the value of philosophy, and that may require greater focus on the skills of philosophy. That will certainly depend on a broad consciousness-raising among philosophers, not to stem the hiring of sessional instructors but to demand that instructors of courses and authors of textbooks in critical thinking have expertise and training in informal logic.

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