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Occupy, out of focus

Let’s be honest about this, coverage of the Occupy movement has neither been fair nor balanced in most cases.  What coverage there has been has usually centered on 1) how much of a mess these sites are making, 2) on how the absence of explicit demands makes them “incoherent”, and 3) on how the major political parties may or may not try to turn the frustrations of the protesters to their advantage in the coming national election cycle.  Much of the coverage that I’ve seen has focused on the second of these items, on how the protests seem to be just a sort of collective “acting out”.  “With no clear message”, so goes the refrain, “how can the Occupy protesters hope to achieve their aims (whatever they are)?” (more…)

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Harman announced on Twitter today that the full text of his 1987 book on reasoning, Change in View had been made available for free download at his website.  Readers of RAIL will, I think, find Harman’s book interesting if they’ve not yet been exposed to it.  Chapter 2 in particular will be of interest to many, as Harman there argues that “logic is not of any special relevance” to the theory of reasoning.  Chapter 7, on explanatory coherence is also likely to arouse the interest of many readers. Apart from Chapters two and seven there are treatments of belief revision, implicit commitments, and reason and obligation that are likely to be of interest as well. Harman’s characteristically thorough and challenging analysis are evident throughout Change in View. The book can be downloaded in sections or as one file. Either way, it’s a great opportunity to get a hold of a fascinating book by one of the most influential American philosophers of the last 40 years.

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OSSA 2011 is now officially in the bag.  It was a good week. With such a high volume of papers presented it’s possible to follow many trajectories, but these were my highlights:

The Ambassador Bridge

  • Attending a pre-conference workshop on normative pragmatics with Jean Goodwin and Beth Innocenti. Jean and Beth did a fantastic job explaining their views and those of Fred Kauffeld, with whom I was also fortunate enough to chat with at length. Even having known something of these views before, I left considerably enriched for the experience, and convinced that normative pragmatics is a research program that deserves a lot more investigation and development.
  • Discourse analyst Karen Tracy’s keynote address on reasonable hostility in public hearings was also rich with ideas that I intend to think a lot more about in the coming weeks–especially her conception of how issues move through phases of being unarguable (unreflectively taken as settled), arguable (manifestly unsettled or controversial) and then unarguable again (settled sufficiently for the public discussion to move on).  This is not to say that the other keynotes were not also worthwhile–they were. Paul Thagard’s effort to bring a neuropsychological viewpoint to the discussion over the nature of critical thinking was timely, and David Hitchcock’s presentation of his work on inference claims was as interesting and challenging as those who know his work would expect it to be. (You can read the abstracts of the keynotes here.)
  • Having the chance both to attend Maurice Finocchiaro’s session on deep disagreement and to chat with him about it afterwards was illuminating.  As readers of this blog will know, deep disagreement is one of my areas of interest within argumentation theory. Finocchiaro’s work, which will be part of a forthcoming book on meta-argumentation, moves the discussion of deep disagreement forward in what I think are all the right ways.  I’m very glad he’s taken the problem on in the way that he has.
  • Of course I have to thank the wonderful audience that attended my presentation on the history of conductive argument and reflective equilibrium as well. We had an excellent discussion from which I learned much that I will bear in mind as I carry forward my work on this and other projects.

Finally, no discussion of an OSSA conference would be complete without mention of the enormous camaraderie and good will that animates these events.  Coming away from this iteration of OSSA I am reminded of my initial impression that the argumentation community models what I think are scholarly ideals of diversity of approach, internationality and interdisciplinarity.  Of course, we have our divisions and competitive moments just like any other body of scholars.  This is only natural among diverse people who care deeply about what they study and who struggle to get it right.  What is impressive about argumentation theory is that these divisions enliven the discussions rather than hamper them.  In many ways, these gatherings are as much gatherings of friends as they are academic gatherings. Thus, though I won’t try the reader’s patience with a long list of names, I will close this entry by saying how glad I am to have had the chance to catch up with so many old friends, and to have made so many new ones. All in all, it was a week well spent. I look forward to the next one.

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Rhetoric and argumentation don’t usually seem like tools of war.  Typically, we think of them as ways of preventing war; of wars as something that happens when rhetoric and

German stamp showing the pen and sword together, via Wikimedia Commons

argumentation (under form of diplomacy) fail.  A recent article changes this picture entirely. “Information Operations”, or “IO”: military operations with the general goal of influencing or compromising the decision making of adversaries or of protecting one’s own decision making from such interference, are now an openly acknowledged part of what the US military (and one would assume, that of many other nations) does. The article, “Military Social Influence in the Global Information Environment: A Civilian Primer” by Sara King, appears in the August 2010 issue of the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy and gives a strikingly detailed overview of IO. King supports her overview with ample evidence from actual uses of IO in current, and in some cases even ongoing conflicts. The article can be read online here in its entirety (at the time of this writing). Psychologist Vaughan Bell also has an interesting write up about the article on the blog Mind Hacks.

As King notes, it isn’t necessarily news that the military does this. What is news is the degree to which they do it comprehensively, and the degree to which the management of public opinion both abroad and at home is the focus of ongoing military concern.

This, I think, is something which scholars of argument and rhetoric should take very seriously. It raises a number of hard questions. Many will no doubt be horrified by the military’s use of techniques of persuasion across the smallest and largest of scales, but if the desired result is less use of lethal force, then how strenuous should those objections be made?  Similarly, while one might not object to IO aimed at making it harder for terrorists to recruit new members to their causes, it does to some degree compromise the autonomous decision making processes of the individuals involved–and isn’t this the very basis on which we would object to being subject to similar manipulations?  Does the fact that we are “at war” make it alright to do this? If so, why? To what degree?  And what does knowing that these kinds of operations are going on all the time do to our trustworthiness in traditional media outlets and the institution of journalism overall?  These and other questions, I think, are well worth our time. No matter how we answer them, the fact remains that some of the techniques we teach are now, for better or for worse, openly acknowledged weapons of war. It’s worth considering whether or not the ethical approach we take to teaching them needs reevaluation in that light.

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"carrier pigeons" with messages attached. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, No. 275, April, 1873. via Wikimedia Commons

Thankfully, messaging technology is now far more advanced than this.

Recently I had the pleasure to participate in an online argumentation colloquium. We used Skype for the actual video interaction and Dropbox to share files before, during, and after the event. Frank Zenker (also an author here) was the driving force behind the project. Jean Goodwin, Bart Verheij, Frank, and myself all did presentations or read papers which we then discussed. It is safe to say that all participants unanimously regarded the event as a success.  You can read Frank’s excellent summary of the experience and what we learned by doing it in Informal Logic here or by downloading the pdf (containing screen-shots of the event) from his website here.

As those with a scholarly interest in argumentation know, our peers and friends in this field are scattered across the entire planet. Other areas of research can say the same thing of course, but in many cases the number of folks working in those areas is such that getting together doesn’t necessarily require extensive international travel.  Often, unless a scholar in argumentation studies has the good fortune to be located near a university-sponsored institute or grad program like the ones at the University of Windsor, UVA or Lugano, one has to wait until a conference to see one’s colleagues and have the chance to discuss works in progress.  Put that together with the increasing financial constraints most of us find ourselves under, with the environmental impacts of all those plane, train, and taxi rides, and with the increasing quality, availability, and ease of use of the requisite software, and the idea of online collaboration of the sort we tried starts to make more and more sense.

It seems clear that online colloquia couldn’t take the place of large scale gatherings like ISSA, OSSA, the RSA or ArgMAS. Still, they’re a great way to stay in contact and work collaboratively to move our research programs forward.  At least, that’s what we think.  What do you think? Would you be open to participating in or hosting events of this kind? Perhaps you’ve already tried this sort of thing. If so, how did it go for you?

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Electronic Journal of Integrated Studies in Discourse and Argumentation

From the EID&A home page:

Linked to the Department of Arts and Literature of Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, the Journal EID&A – Electronic Journal of Integrated Studies in Discourse and Argumentation – arises from a mission to contribute to the dissemination of studies located in the interface between Discourse Analysis and Argumentation. Thus, papers submitted to this Scientific Committee should be taken on the perspective of studies that comprise the argumentation in the process of constructing meaning in discourse and in the utterance situation. The goal is to promote discussion of theoretical objects or analysis of these discursive practices in society.

Call for Papers

The first issue EID&A will gather papers which focus precisely on the essence, problems and prospects from the interface between Discourse Analysis and Argumentation.

The journal EID&A – Electronic Journal of Integrated Studies in Discourse and Argumentation – invites researchers to contribute with papers focused on the discussion about the nature, problems and prospects of the interface between the Discourse Analysis and the Argumentation.

The Journal EID&A is going to publish papers, translations and reviews. For more details, authors must consult the rules for submissions of papers, available on the website www.uesc.br/revistas/eidea/english.

The deadline for submission of papers will end on July 1st, 2011. The first edition of the EID&A is awaited to September 2011.

Read the original announcement via the Analysis and Discourse wiki here.

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The folks over at the blog Less Wrong use the term ‘dark arts’ to refer to the usage of knowledge about heuristics and biases, fallacies, and human rationality generally in a manipulative, destructive or otherwise sinister way.  A recent post there focuses on this manner of using presuppositions:

An excellent way of doing this is to embed your desired conclusion as a presupposition to an enticing argument.  If you are debating abortion, and you wish people to believe that human and non-human life are qualitatively different, begin by saying, “We all agree that killing humans is immoral.  So when does human life begin?”  People will be so eager to jump into the debate about whether a life becomes “human” at conception, the second trimester, or at birth (I myself favor “on moving out of the house”), they won’t notice that they agreed to the embedded presupposition that the problem should be phrased as a binary category membership problem, rather than as one of tradeoffs or utility calculations.

This sort of thing is nothing new to argumentation theorists, of course, but the explicit labeling of such maneuvers as “dark arts” may well be.  Argumentation theorists, rhetoricians, and informal logicians often think in terms of fallacies, mistakes or blunders instead, usually meaning to impute no moral status to such things.  In the main I think this is wise, as highly developed skill at arguing and avoiding fallacies and other such mistakes is rare. That being the case it would be deeply problematic to assume nefarious motives lying behind every fallacy.

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Dear colleagues

We would like to let you know about our new book which has just been published: Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking. The approach taken to critical thinking instruction is dialectical, focusing on the kind of comparative evaluation of contending positions and arguments which we make in actual contexts of disagreement and debate.
For more information, please contact the publisher, McGraw-Hill Ryerson at:
or
Cheers,
Sharon Bailin & Mark Battersby
Note: below is a downloadable flyer with more information. –SP

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RAIL @ ISSA 2010

Hello all,

As many of you are no doubt aware, ISSA 2010 is but a couple short weeks away.  I will be there, and hope to do some postings live from the event (IF I can find free or at least very cheap wi-fi access).  The aim of these posts will be to give those who cannot attend ISSA a snapshot of the goings-on there, as well as to provide a forum for continuing conversation for participants and attendees.

Certainly I’ll be including summaries of keynote presentations as I will be present for all of them, but I’m curious to know which other aspects of the conference you might be interested in reading about here.  If no one posts anything you’ll just get my take on the papers I want to see (caveat emptor!). 🙂 If there seems to be a lot of interest in particular topics or papers though I’ll make an effort to get to those sessions and write about them too.

So, is there anything in particular at this year’s ISSA conference that you’d like to see covered here at RAIL?  If so, post here and I’ll do the best I can to honor the requests with the most support. If this goes well, I’ll do something similar for OSSA 2011 next year too.

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Upon opening my e-mail this morning I found a forward of this article from the New York Times on the popular fact-checking website snopes.com. I found the article interesting for more than a few reasons.

What has always fascinated me about Snopes is how it evolved organically online out of a felt need for objectivity. Since the beginning the web has always been a fertile breeding ground for rumors, urban legends and half-truths, and people (who I think are more sophisticated than we often believe) know this.  They are well aware of the multiple, conflicting biases that color the information they find online.  They know that these biases can lead to slanting and distortion, and to some degree they expect it.  For those who are not simply looking for confirmation of their own viewpoints, this is a problem.  Simply knowing that bias abounds on the web, however, is not a sufficient defense.  People with this kind of interest don’t want just any story, they want the story.  They want to know what really happened.  The multiple, conflicting accounts available online don’t tell them that.  The result is that people who want to use the web for information gathering purposes have to have some way of sifting the facts out of the voluminous chaff of rumor, exaggeration, and partisan cheerleading in which they lay hidden.

Enter Snopes, which as the article explains, evolved into its role as a “fact-checking” site.  (It did not start out that way.)  Nevertheless, it is now regarded by many as an authority on which stories are and are not credible on the web.

To my mind two things stand out from the article. The first is this quote:

For the Mikkelsons, the site affirms what cultural critics have bemoaned for years: the rejection of nuance and facts that run contrary to one’s point of view.

“Especially in politics, most everything has infinite shades of gray to it, but people just want things to be true or false,” Mr. Mikkelson said. “In the larger sense, it’s people wanting confirmation of their world view.”

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