Tag Archives: logic

Education & Negativity Bias

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In general, people suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases. One of these is known as negativity bias and it is manifested by the tendency people have to give more weight to the negative than to the positive. For example, people tend to weigh the wrongs done to them more heavily than the good done to them. As another example, people tend to be more swayed by negative political advertisements than by positives ones. This bias can also have an impact on education.

A colleague of mine asks his logic students each semester how many of them are planning on law school. In the past, he had many students. Now, the number is considerably less. Curious about this, he checked and found that logic had switched from being a requirement for pre-law to being a mere recommendation. My colleague noted that it seemed irrational for students who plan on taking the LSAT and becoming lawyers to avoid the logic class, given that the LSAT is largely a logic test and that law school requires skill in logic. He made the point that students often prefer to avoid the useful when it is not required and only grudgingly take what is required. We discussed a bit how this relates to the negativity bias: a student who did not take the logic class when it was required would be punished by being unable to graduate. Now that the class is optional, there is only the positive benefit of a likely improvement on the LSAT and better performance in law school. Since people weigh punishments more than rewards, this behavior makes sense—but is still irrational. Especially since many of the students who skip the logic class will end up spending money taking LSAT preparation classes that will endeavor to spackle over their lack of skills in logic.

I have seen a similar sort of thing in my own classes. At my university, university policy allows us to lower student grades on the basis of a lack of attendance. We are even permitted to fail a student for excessive absences. While attendance is mandatory in my classes, I do not have a special punishment for missing class. Not surprisingly, when the students figure this out around week three or four, attendance plummets and then stabilizes at a low level. Before I used BlackBoard for quizzes, exams and for turning in assignments and papers, attendance would spike back up for days on which something had to be done in class. Since students can do their work via BlackBoard, these spikes are gone. They are, however, replaced by post-exam spikes when students do badly on the exams because they have not been in class. Then attendance slumps again. Interestingly, students often claim that they think the class is interesting and useful. But, since there is no direct and immediate punishment for not attending (just a delayed “punishment” in terms of lower grades and a lack of learning), many students are not motivated to attend class.

Naturally, I do consider the possibility that I am a bad professor who is teaching a subject that students regard as useless or boring. However, my evaluations are consistently good, former students have returned to say good things about me and my classes, and so on. That said, perhaps I am merely deluding myself and being humored. That said, it is easy enough to draw an analogy to exercise: exercise does not provide immediate rewards and there is no immediate punishment for not staying fit—just a loss of benefits. Most people elect to under-exercise or avoid it altogether. This, and similar things, does show that people generally avoid that which is difficult now but yields lasting benefits latter.

I have, of course, considered going to the punishment model for my classes. However, I have resisted this for a variety of reasons. The first is that my personality is such that I am more inclined to want to offer benefits rather than punishments. This seems to be a clear mistake given the general psychology of people. The second is that I believe in free choice: like God, I think people should be free to make bad choices and not be coerced into doing what is right. It has to be a free choice. Naturally, choosing poorly brings its own punishment—albeit later on. The third is the hassle of dealing with attendance: the paper work, having to handle excuses, being lied to regularly and so on. The fourth is the fact that classes are generally better for the good students when the students who do not want to be in class elect to not attend. While I want everyone to learn, I would rather have the people who would prefer not to learn not be in class disrupting the learning of others—college is not the place where the educator should have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. The fifth is I prefer to reduce the amount of lying that students think they have to engage in.

In terms of why I have been considering using the punishment model, there are three reasons. One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something. The second is that this model is a lesson for what the workplace will be like for most of the students—so habituating them to this (or, rather, keeping the habituation they should have acquired in K-12) would be valuable. After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die. The third is that perhaps many people lack the discipline to do what they should and they simply must be compelled by punishment—this is, of course, the model put forth by thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes.

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A Million Dollar Puzzle: The Newcomb Paradox

I’ve put together a new interactive activity at Philosophy Experiments. It’s here:

A Million Dollar Puzzle

If you follow me on Twitter, then you’ll probably already have played through it. Thing is, I find it genuinely baffling, so I’m not sure I have much to say about it, other than see what you think.

You’ll see at the end that people simply don’t agree about the best answer – there is nothing like a crowd-sourced consensus here.

The activity is a version of Newcomb’s Paradox, which you can read about here. Apparently, Robert Nozick once said of the puzzle, "To almost everyone, it is perfectly clear and obvious what should be done. The difficulty is that these people seem to divide almost evenly on the problem, with large numbers thinking that the opposing half is just being silly."

For what it’s worth, I’m inclined towards the response that is slightly the more popular (see final analysis page).

The Evolution of the Irrational

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While doing my part to keep the print media alive, I read Sharon Begley’s “The Limits of Reason .” Yes, I do see the irony in linking to the online version.

Begley begins her discussion by pointing out the obvious: humans are bad at reasoning. While she notes that psychologists have been documenting this from the 1960s, I would be remiss not to point out that philosophers have been discussing this since the beginnings of philosophy.

According to Begley, a new wave in philosophy and cognitive science is the view that such failures of reason have a purpose in that they enable us todevise and evaluate arguments that are intended to persuade other people.”  She notes that  Hugo Mercier and  Dan Sperber claim that this poor reasoning is, in fact, an effective strategy aimed at winning arguments. This point is, of course, something that has been made by teacher of logic and critical thing for quite some time. For example, when I taught my first logic class a student asked me why people use fallacies. I  still use the two answers I gave back then. The first is that people are generally bad at reasoning. The second is that it works (as a way to persuade).

In philosophy, it is generally assumed that the goal of argumentation is to establish truth. However, Begley considers the idea that argumentation is about overcoming opposing views. That is, the goal is to persuade rather than to prove. The idea that people argue in the informal sense in order to persuade is, obviously enough, nothing new. However a standard approach in critical thinking is to distinguish between the goal of argumentation (truth) and persuasion (to get someone to believe). Part of making this distinction involves  pointing out that people often confuse persuasion and argumentation. As such, to say that the goal of argumentation is to  overcome opposition is to merely call persuasion by the name “argumentation.” Since there are two distinct goals and methods, it certainly makes excellent sense to maintain a distinction in terms.

To anticipate some obvious objections, arguments can be used to persuade and persuasive techniques can be used in arguments. However, the fact that a hammer can be used to pound in screws does not make it a screwdriver.

Begley then turns to a specific error, that of confirmation bias. As folks who read blogs have surely noticed, people tend to focus on evidence that supports their view and ignore that which goes against it. She notes that this serves a useful purpose when “arguing” because  ”it maximizes the artillery we wield when trying to convince someone…” Mercier even claims that “it contributes to effective argumentation.”

Having observed this numerous times, I do agree that it can be an effective persuasive tool. Of course, it depends on the opposition not being prepared with evidence and also on the ignorance of the target. Someone who is aware that the person using this artillery is selectively focusing on supporting evidence will hardly find this approach convincing (either logically or rhetorically).

As a tool of argumentation in the proper sense, it is obviously not effective. After all, falling victim to the confirmation bias is not an effective way to establish truth. If someone wants to say that the goal of argumentation is persuasion, then that is fine. However, we will need a new term for what it is that we do when we try to establish truth. Sticking with the spirit of the thing, perhaps we should call that “persuasion.”

Begley moves on to note the value of motivated reasoning. An example of this is when a person looks very hard for flaws in a blog that supports a position she disagrees with. Another example is when people dismiss evidence that goes against their view. From a logical standpoint, falling victim to this is an error since it will impede an objective assessment. However, as Begley points out it does have its advantages. Someone who falls victim to this will tend to be more effective in finding flaws. Of course, there is the concern that the flaws might be imagined as opposed to real. There is also the concern that evidence will simply be ignored (as in Begley’s example of the Birthers who refuse to accept Obama’s birth certificate as real).

Begley finishes with a last example, what she calls the “sunk-cost fallacy” (often presented as a slippery slope variant). This fallacy occurs when a person believes that she should or must follow a course of action because she is already embarked on that course.  This, as she notes, is a rather effective persuasive device. For example, this sort of fallacy was used to “argue” in favor of re-electing George Bush. As another example, this fallacy is sometimes called the “Vietnam fallacy” and that war nicely illustrates how persuasive it can be. However, it is clearly bad logic.

While Begley does not go into any detail, the subtitle of the essay “Why evolution may favor irrationality” suggests her overall point. The idea seems to be that the dominance of bad reasoning can be explained on the grounds that bad reasoning confers an evolutionary advantage.

Based on my own experience studying and teaching critical thinking, I can attest to the persuasive power of poor reasoning and fallacies. As I mentioned above, I tell my students that one of the main reasons people use fallacies is because they work marvelously as persuasive devices. This, of course, gives those who effectively use such methods an advantage in terms of convincing others. Presumably this provides a reproductive advantage so that people who are bad at reasoning but good at persuading tend to be selected.

However, fallacies and poor reasoning are obviously not very effective when it comes to getting things right.  In fact, the fallacies and errors Begley used as examples tend to lead people towards disaster and death.  For example, the sunk-cost fallacy can keep people stupidly grinding away on a failed plan, war, or way of life.  In a nutshell, our greater persuasive skills can overcome our inferior logic skills and convince us to do remarkably unwise and stupid things.

Obviously, poor reasoning has not killed off the species…yet. However, it is interesting to speculate what the long term consequences might be if the hypothesis that Begley considers is correct.

While the evolution folks tend to focus almost entirely on what they think are the evolutionary advantages of our traits, they should give due consideration to the negative aspect of natural selection. To be specific, perhaps our tendency to reason poorly and to be persuaded by poor reasoning are traits that will result in our species being selected out of the evolutionary game. Perhaps a long time hence clever academics from whatever species succeeds us will be writing essays about how evolution weeded out the irrational animal known as man.  I imagine one of the sentences would be something like this: “Homo sapiens became extinct largely because humans were very good at persuading each other to believe very stupid things and very bad at telling what was, in fact, very stupid.”

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Hitchens on Sports

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While I am a professional philosopher, I am also an amateur athlete and, as such, found Hitchens’ recent article on sports to be rather…interesting.

Hitchens does make some reasonable and valid criticisms of international sports. To be specific, he does point out that international sporting events have led to serious conflicts and some rather reprehensible behavior. However, he does not stop there. He moves on to attack sportsmanship itself by pointing out bad behavior on the part of athletes and fans. He also attacks the overuse of sports metaphors in politics, complains about the coverage afforded sports, and takes the usual shots at the overemphasis of sports in major universities.

His criticism of sports does have some merit. After all, the incidents and behavior he points to are quite real. Like him, I find the excessive coverage of sports a bit tedious and I also have been critical of how sports is often handled at the university level. However, Hitchens sweeping attack has a rather serious flaw, namely that he is engaging in a relentless straw man attack.

His specific form of a straw man is one that I point out to my students in my critical thinking class: one way to make a straw man of something is to focus entirely on the negative aspects of the target, while conveniently ignoring or underplaying the positive aspects.  To fairly assess something, such as sports, it is important to consider the positive aspects as well. After all, focusing merely on the negatives will produce a rather distorted assessment  (as would focusing only on the positive). Naturally enough, such a balanced assessment can lead to the conclusion that something is rather negative. But, at least such a conclusion would be properly justified.

This tactic is standard for Hitchens and one he routinely employs against religion.  Perhaps he honestly sees the world this way and is psychologically incapable of  presenting a fair assessment. Perhaps he merely uses this tool because it works as a persuasive device (while failing as a logical method). However, his motivations are (obviously enough) irrelevant to assessing his case.

To begin with my reply, I am obligated to say once more that I am an athlete so as to allow people to be aware of this as a possible biasing factor in my views. I competed in high shool and college and still compete today. Of course, the merit of my case has no connection to my status as an athlete-to think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem fallacy.

My main contention against his case is, as noted above, that he seems to simply ignore any positive evidence in favor of sports. While my view of sports is based on my own experiences, these still count as evidence for the positive aspects of sports.

First, my own experience as an athlete has made me a better person. My coaches always emphasized fairness, good sportsmanship and character and they took all this very seriously. Through their guidance and through the lessons of competition I learned the importance of competing fairly, of maintaining integrity and showing respect to my fellow athletes.  I can honestly say that sports helped shape my moral character and much of what is best about me has come through sports.  I am not claiming to be a saint or exceptionally good. But, I do know that my experience in sports has, as Aristotlewould say, has developed my virtues.

Second, my observations of my fellow athletes has shown that most of them have also benefited from sports. With some notable exceptions, the people I have competed with and against have shown good character. To see this for yourself, go to a local road race or even a large race and observe how people behave. To use just a few examples, runners will share water with their competitors, tell people they are racing against the right way to go, and even stop to help an injured competitor.  People also volunteer to work at such races, often getting up very early and sometimes enduring rather tough conditions. This is hardly a sign of bad character or poor behavior. Yes, there are some people who are jerks (I’ve taken a few needless elbows to the chest, for example). But, what I have observed has generally been rather positive in character. Lest I be accused of presenting a small sample or a biased one, I have competed in hundreds of races ranging from the Beach to Beacon 10K to the Columbus Marathon to high school meets to college meets and so on. As such, I have a fairly broad sample to work with.

Of course, I can still  be accused of presenting a biased sample. After all, my experience has been primarily with runners and often with runners I know. Perhaps running is different from other sports in significant ways. Also, there is the obvious concern about extending my experiences from this one sport to other sports. However, even if running is unusual it does serve as counterexample against Hitchens’ attacks on sports. Also, Hitchens can also be accused of using a biased sample: he focuses only on the negative while ignoring the positive.

To finish up, I do agree that Hitchens makes some points well worth considering. Sports can lead to rather bad behavior and serious problems. However, this is not a quality that seems to be inherent to sports. Rather, it is a problem with how people react to sports and how people behave. The fact that some athletes act badly and that some fans are true fanatics who engage in violence over sports merely serves to show their failings rather than the failings of sports. As noted above, my experiences with running have been very positive and shows that sports can be something very positive. Like everything else in life, sports is largely what we make of it. Those who bring vice to sports will find it there. Those who bring virtue will find that.

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The Political Brain & Inconsistency

One thing I love about the Daily Show is that Jon Stewart and his fellows take the effort to find videos which show the inconsistency of political figures. A recent episode featured a plethora of examples of such inconsistency.

The first part of the segment featured Karl Rove. When asked about Sarah Palin’s qualifications, he noted that she had been mayor of the second largest town in Alaska (with a population under 10,000) and is now the governor of Alaska. As such, his principle seems to be that experience as the mayor of a small town and as governor qualifies a person to be Vice President.

Interestingly enough, when Governor Kaine was being considered as a possible VP pick by the Democrats, Rove had this to say:

“With all due respect again to Governor Kaine, he’s been a governor for three years.  He’s been able but undistinguished. I don’t think people could really name a big, important thing that he’s done … [Kaine] was mayor of the 105th largest city in America. And again, with all due respect to Richmond, Virginia, it’s smaller than Chula Vista, California; Aurora, Colorado; Mesa, or Gilbert, Arizona; North Las Vegas, or Henderson, Nevada. It’s not a big town…So if he were to pick Governor Kaine, it would be an intensely political choice where he said, `You know what? I’m really not, first and foremost, concerned with — is this person capable of being president of the United States?’”

In this quote, Rowe seems to be following quite a different set of standards than he used to assess Palin. After all, Kaine (like Palin) was a mayor and is a governor. In fact, he was the mayor of a much larger city and is the governor of a more heavily populated state. If Rove had applied the same set of standards to both, they would either both be equally qualified or neither would be qualified.

Naturally enough, this sort of political “reasoning” is quite interesting and can be addressed philosophically.

It is tempting to respond to such inconsistency by simply rejecting what, for example, Rove said about Palin. However, to do so would be to commit one version of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. If a person makes inconsistent claims, then at least one of his claims must be false. However, the inconsistency does not (in itself) reveal which claim is in error. In this example, Rove is either mistaken about Palin or Kaine. This is because either being a mayor and a governor qualifies a person for the VP position or it does not. Not even Rove can have it both ways. Hence, he is wrong-but it must be determined whether he is wrong about Palin or Kaine.

It is certainly interesting to speculate about how intelligent people can hold such inconsistent views and apply their principles in such an inconsistent manner. It is, however, not surprising. When it comes to politics,  Mill seems to have gotten it quite right in his work on Liberty . He notes that “men very rarely chose a side because of a consistently held opinion about what is fit to be done by government.” The same can be said about the principles people use to assess political matters, such as the qualifications of a candidate.

In terms of why people are inconsistent, one possibility is that such people have poor memories. Perhaps, for example, Rove simply forgot the standards he used to assess Kaine when he went to assess Palin. Presumably people also forget that when they say something on television, it is recorded and can be replayed later.

Another possibility is that such people are simply poor at reasoning and do not grasp the concepts of consistency and inconsistency. As such, the sort of inconsistency presented by Rove and others is a sign of a cognitive defect. If so, they should seek treatment-perhaps it has an underlying medical cause.

A third possibility is that such people are simply ruled by their political passions. As such, they tend to “feel” rather than reason when it comes to political situations. For example, since Rove is a devoted Republican, his political passion might lead him to feel positive emotions for the Republican Palin and negative emotions for the Democrat Kaine. These emotions could cause him to regard Palin as qualified and Kaine as unqualified. Since his “judgment” is based on feeling (rather than a rational assessment) and he feels two different emotions, he would have no sense of inconsistency. If his assessment was based on a standard, then he would have (obviously enough)reached the same judgment for both Palin and Kaine.

A fourth possibility is that such people simply change their standards a great deal. In what can only be a series of amazing coincidences, they just happen to always change their principles in accord with their political views.

A fifth possibility is that such people say whatever they think will support the claim they are making at the time and they do not worry too much about what they say from day to day. In this case, such people do have a principle that they apply consistently: I will say whatever I think will support the claim I am making now.

While I have been using an example from the American right, the same sort of behavior occurs with equal frequency on the left. This sort of “reasoning” no doubt contributes to many of the problems in the world.

The Value of Philosophy, Yet Again

One of the most annoying things about being a professional philosopher is the fact that I so often am called upon to defend the value of my profession and my discipline. One thing that makes it especially annoying is that so many philosophers have written so much about the value of philosophy (including, of course, Russell’s work on the subject). One would think that the value of philosophy would be a settled matter by now. However, this is not the case.

Like almost all professors, I have to deal with the occasional student who questions the value of my discipline in general or my class in particular. I have, naturally enough, worked out a well developed reply to such questions. In addition to the challenges put forth by students, philosophers also face a challenge put forth by fellow academics. For example, The Philosophers’ Magazine (third quarter 2008, pages 120-126) features an article by Julian Baggini in which Lewis Wolpert’s view of philosophy is discussed. Wolpert puts forth the usual charge against philosophy: “…philosophy is not successful. It has achieved nothing.” (page 121). He does concede that Aristotle did make a difference and does allow a place for political and moral philosophy. Other than that, he regards philosophy as not making “the slightest difference” in regards to what we know.

Naturally enough, these criticisms have some plausibility. Philosophy has long been attacked because it bakes no bread, builds no weapons, and seems to do nothing. In short, philosophy seems to be useless. If this is the case, then philosophy professors like me have worked out quite a scheme: we get paid to achieve nothing. However, I think that Wolpert and the other critics are fundamentally mistaken about the value of philosophy.

One stock argument is to present the accomplishment of philosophers such as Thales, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton and others. Since these people accomplished so much in terms of science, mathematics, and geometry it would seem mistaken to regard philosophy as lacking in achievements.
Of course, there is an obvious reply to this. While Thales, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton were all philosophers, it could be argued that their achievements were within other disciplines. For example, Descartes’ work in mathematics and geometry were great achievements-of mathematics and geometry. To use analogy, while I am a philosopher and I have won 5Ks and 10Ks, it would be incorrect to say that philosophy has achieved victories in running. Rather, I just happen to be a philosopher who is also a runner. It is as a runner that I accomplish such achievements. Likewise, it is as a scientist that Newton accomplished his great achievements. Thus, the mere fact that philosophers have had great achievements does not entail that philosophy has achieved anything.

Another stock argument is to present achievements that seem to clearly be within the discipline of philosophy. The modern sciences, it is often argued, arose from philosophy (mainly what was known as “natural philosophy”). Further, logic, critical thinking and reasoning are all within the domain of philosophy. Wolpert himself notes the importance of avoiding logical contradictions (page 125) when using the scientific method. Thus, it would seem that philosophy has achieved something after all.
Not surprisingly, there are ways to reply to this defense of philosophy.

In regards to the sciences, it can be argued that while philosophers did contribute to the rise of the sciences, they did so as scientists (or pre-scientists). This is a variation on the argument given above. It could be conceded that (as Wolpert does for Aristotle) that philosophy did give rise to the sciences. However, it could be argued that this is analogous to parents having children who accomplish great things. While the child would not exist without the parents, the children’s accomplishments are their own and hence do not count as achievements for the parents. Philosophy can, of course, take pride in bringing such children into the world. But that is all the credit she deserves.

The matter of logic (broadly taken) does present a tougher dragon to slay. On the face of it, there seem to be two important points here. First, logic belongs to philosophy. Second, logic is extremely useful and seems to be quite a feather in philosophy’s cap. Not to brag, but logic is critical to the information age. Without such logic, there would be no PCs, no internet, no Nintendo Wiis, no Xboxes (360 or otherwise), and no iPods. This alone should refute the charge that philosophy has achieved nothing. Of course, logic and its various domains (such as critical thinking) are also useful in many other ways. Imagine a world without logic and critical thinking and their value seems evident.

This would seem to provide philosophy with an iron clad claim to achievements. However, perhaps philosophy can still be robbed of her prize.

One way to rob philosophy in this matter is to argue that logic belongs to another discipline or that specific types of logic belong to specific disciplines. For example, symbolic logic could be seen as belonging to the discipline of mathematics. The logic used in computers could be seen as belonging to computer science. Scientific and professional reasoning (law, economics, business, etc.) could be seen as belonging to those disciplines. This approach, obviously enough, mimics that used by Socrates against Ion. Socrates argued that the specific content of a poem belonged not to poetry but rather to some other field. For example, while chariot racing is described in the Iliad, the art of racing does not belong to poetry and poets cannot claim the accomplishments of the chariot racers as their own. Likewise, while philosophers talk about logic, logic does not belong to philosophy. Hence, philosophy deserves no credit for the value of logic. Rather, proper credit belongs to all the various disciplines that own a piece of logic.

In defense of philosophy, it can be argued that while other disciplines have employed and developed logic, philosophy deserves the credit for creating logic. To use an analogy, to deny philosophy credit for logic would be like denying Thomas Edison credit for his inventions because other people have developed them in so many new and useful ways over the years.

While this seems like a reasonable argument, there is a way to counter it. When I was in graduate school, I first encountered what turned out to be a standard means of arguing that philosophy accomplishes nothing. Put bluntly, the tactic is to argue that every accomplishment attributed to philosophy belongs to another discipline. This is often done by defining “philosophy” in such a way that achieving results means that one is no longer practicing philosophy but doing something else. For example, once a philosopher begins to develop logic, then he is no longer doing philosophy. Hence, philosophy did not even give the world the beginnings of logic.

This approach does, in a way, work. If the discipline of philosophy is defined in a way that precludes achievement, then philosophy can (by definition) never achieve anything. The same sort of method can be used to “prove” that a liberal can never accomplish anything. Just define “liberal” such that if someone achieves something, then she is not a liberal.

There seems to be no compelling reason why philosophers should accept this view of philosophy. Naturally enough, those who claim philosophy accomplishes nothing would need to provide an adequate defense of such a definition. Philosophers are, of course, obligated to provide an alternative definition.