No, that doesn’t actually beg the question

Greetings from the Franschhoek Literary Festival where, when we’re not sitting in panel discussions, you might often find us sitting drinking wine and debating important matters. Today, after our table resolved the issue of whether you should wear your name tag in a visible (to some, ostentatious) fashion (yes), we moved on to talking about whether it was worth contesting the increasingly prevalent misuse of the phrase “begs the question”.

Much like the use of “bias” where the sentence in question actually requires “biased”, I find myself annoyed when people say “begs the question” when they actually mean “raises the question”. One friend tells me that “it’s got a new meaning, and language evolves”, and while he was not making the claim that we should accept any evolution of language, his sentiment does raise the question of whether some developments in usage should be contested, on some sort of principled grounds.

In this case, I think we have sufficient grounds to hold the line here, and to remind ourselves of the value in preserving the phrase “begs the question” for those cases the Flying Spaghetti Monster intended for it to describe.

My argument is this: there are woefully few principles of informal logic that are in current circulation or broadly understood. The ones that are are worth preserving, in that the standard of critical thinking in popular discourse is generally poor, so when one of the useful tools for argumentative clarity is fairly common usage, it’s irrational for us to willingly accede to its demise.

Furthermore, there is little cost to preserving clarity here, as a phrase like “asks the question” or “raises the question” is hardly more cumbersome than “begs the question”. But at this point, I should probably make the difference clear, seeing as some of those who are reading this might not be aware of the distinction I am making reference to.

Here are two examples from a piece in the New York Times, which make the difference clear. (With a cautionary note: the author suggests that “begging the question” is the same thing as a circular argument, and I don’t mean to endorse that part of the column, seeing as that is also a matter of contestation. But that debate is one I’m happy to give up on, or consider a matter for pedants rather than those merely seeking linguistic clarity.)

Imagine that we’re discussing Lindsay Lohan.

YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.

ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.
YOU: That begs the question.

ME: Huh?

Your use of the phrase is correct. In arguing that Lindsay is important enough to merit heavy news coverage, I cite as evidence the fact that she gets heavy news coverage. It’s a circular argument that begs the question.

•••

But imagine this conversation.

ME: I can’t understand why all the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous.

YOU: I’m sure they do it just to sell papers and magazines.

ME: Yeah — which begs the question, why do people want to read about her?

YOU: That’s not begging the question. That’s simply raising the question.

ME: Huh?

My use is incorrect, though it is becoming extremely common. There’s even a Web site dedicated to stamping out this abuse of the term (begthequestion.info). You can print out handy cards that explain the correct meaning, and pass them out to strangers if you hear them misusing the phrase. (I am not endorsing this approach.)

“Begging the question”, then, is the informal fallacy in which (in short) the premises assume the truth of the conclusion. In the first example above, the question of why Lohan is given so much coverage is answered by asserting that she’s a big deal, as evidenced by the fact that she gets so much coverage. The answer doesn’t offer independent argument as to why she should be treated as a “big deal”, which is what the question was asking for.

In other words, the phrase “begs the question” fulfils an entirely different role in language than “raises the question” does, as it is a comment on the quality of a purported answer to that question, rather than being a comment on whether the question merited being asked in the first place.

I would of course agree that the technical (correct!) usage is meaningless without adequate explanation, and furthermore that we should not go around being annoying pedants about this in ordinary conversation. But why isn’t the burden here on users of the phrase to use it correctly, rather than on the phrase itself to justify its existence (in that we are so quick to discard it, even though it’s useful, when people start misusing it)?

As I said to a (different) friend on Facebook, I don’t go around talking about “hydrostatic equilibrium”, because I’m not a physicist, and will likely get it wrong. Why do we think that a useful phrase from logic should be so readily impoverished, even as it’s a phrase that could be, and has been correctly used by non-logicians for decades, to make important points about arguments?

Having said that, I do realise that language is what people make of it, and that the popular usage can mostly likely not be fought. My point is simply this: the fact that something might be inevitable doesn’t mean that you need to endorse the slide into the Alice in Wonderland world where words mean simply what you mean them to, or deny that there is value in holding that slide back for as long as you can.

The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy

There’s an interesting – and important – discussion going on in South African professional philosophy at the moment. You can read about it on the Mail&Guardian, but the nutshell summary is that tensions regarding the “apparent supremacy of European philosophy over African philosophy” have resulted in the president and “several black philosophers” resigning from the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa (PSSA). Continue reading “The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy”

Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)

As you’ve no doubt heard, “post-truth” has been named “word of the year” by Oxford dictionaries. But that shouldn’t lead us to think that truth or evidence has ever mattered as much as we might prefer, or that this post-truth world represents a complete break from the past.

All of us have always been susceptible to various forms of irrational thought resulting from bias in how we interpret – and even recognise – evidence, as elegantly illustrated in the work of people like Kahneman and Tversky, as well as in popular science books by Dan Ariely and others (like me and Caleb Lack (sorry not sorry)). Continue reading “Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)”

Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall

The University of Cape Town’s Senate met this morning. I had to leave at 12:15, but the meeting – which started at 10:00 – had up until that point merely confirmed what we all know is the case: that there are no easy answers, and very little agreement on how to proceed.

What agreement there was consisted of a general consensus that we’d like to be able to teach, and that students would like to be able to learn. Teaching and learning are obviously core business for a university, and why most of us are there, so agreement on this is no surprise. Continue reading “Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall”

Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town

The Academics Union at UCT recently organised a panel discussion on academic freedom at UCT, following the dis-invitation of Flemming Rose as the TB Davie Memoral speaker.

The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope. Continue reading “Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town”

On opinions, and how the world needs editors

The reading material for my “Evidence-based Management” course at the University of Cape Town contains an early draft of what ended up becoming chapter 1 of Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience.

Springer book coverIn the book, Dr. Caleb Lack and I argue that phrases like “everybody is entitled to their opinions” are typically trite or misleading.

They can be meaningless, in the sense that of course it’s true that everyone is legally entitled to hold whatever opinions they like.

This doesn’t seem to be what we mean when using the phrase, though – we typically say: “well, you’re entitled to your opinion” precisely when an opinion has been expressed, where we disagree with the expressed opinion, and where we express that disagreement by using the phrase in question. Continue reading “On opinions, and how the world needs editors”

Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture

The University of Cape Town Executive have decided to countermand the invitation extended to Flemming Rose by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to deliver the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture.

While the AFC (a committee that I currently chair) has released a statement on this decision, I would like to offer some additional comment. Any views expressed here should not be assumed to be shared by anyone else, in particular other members of the AFC. Continue reading “Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture”

The mutual symbiosis of a “regressive left” and a “reactionary right”

It’s not insightful to say that social media are probably unrepresentative of what the common person thinks, nor that platforms like Twitter encourage hyperbole and argument.

I do however think that the hyperbole is an expression of the same lack of charity and unwillingness to find a middle ground that we see in newspaper coverage of contentious issues such as Hilary vs. Bernie, whether Trump is a fascist or not, or whether South African students need to be applauded or pilloried.

It’s possible for us to disagree with each other, but to do so in such a way that doesn’t caricature, and that doesn’t disincentivise any future attempts at debate. And, there is of course little chance of persauding someone that they are wrong, if they are no longer talking to you.

That last point is why last night, I tweeted:

Consider this example, from yesterday’s Washington Post, titled “College students run crying to Daddy Administrator“. I’m sometimes as annoyed by students as anyone could be – it’s difficult to avoid being so when you deal with 1 500 of them a year. They can be lazy, oversensitive, rude, and so forth.

But, they are also inexperienced at being a small anonymous cog in a large machine that isn’t necessarily geared for giving them personal attention, or for allowing them the time to discover, and explain, what it is that feels alienating, oppressive or offensive.

They also, quite simply, haven’t necessarily learned the conventions and language of what it is to negotiate in good faith in a civil society – why would they have, having grown up on discussion forums, Twitter and Facebook?

Colleges are supposed to be places where young adults develop the critical thinking and social skills to peacefully, productively engage with people with whom they disagree, whose ideas they may even find detestable. But today’s students — and tomorrow’s workers — are discouraged from resolving such conflicts on their own.

They are not learning to use their “logic and reason and words,” as President Obama urged in his Rutgers University commencement speech, during which he chided students for forcing Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from an earlier talk.

That (from the Washington Post piece) is all true. But I think it’s also true that calling people “babies”, or mocking them for taking offense too easily, can serve to simply validate their concerns.

Likewise, insisting that everyone who disagrees with you – no matter whether their disagreement is polite and thoughtful (even if wrong or confused, by your lights) is a member of some out-group like the “regressive left” can serve to simply confirm to them that you’re part of some “reactionary right” – and neither side is then left feeling that there is any point in talking to the other.

It is indeed a problem that people can have overly thin skins, because robust debate and disagreement is necessary to improve our arguments and our characters. But it’s also a problem when you have concerns (even if they might be trivial or unjustified concerns to others), and those you express the concerns to respond with ridicule.

Both these extremes are a problem, and there’s no reason you have to choose either of them.

UCT, art, and the negotiation of transformation

It’s sometimes difficult to know when you’re making the right decision, or whether you’re rather not making a decision at all, so much as being pressured into doing what someone else thinks you should.

Or, perhaps, the right decision can be made in the wrong way – too hurriedly, and without enough deliberation. At UCT, we’ve been treading these fine lines for a year now, where even if you think – as I do – that many of our decisions are correct and long-overdue (for example, the renaming of buildings), you might simultaneously fear that the idea of a university as a place of open debate is at risk.

Of course, calls for debate can privilege the established point of view, and often do so. They can serve to slow things down, or to trivialise the concerns of those who demand urgent action.

It’s in cases like this where we need to be careful of embracing an entirely false dichotomy, though, whereby either you’re on the side of virtue and join the revolution, or you’re an obstacle to it, in appealing for more debate and reflection.

You might be on the side of virtue, yet also see value in being as sure as you can be that you’re making the right decision. Which brings me to UCT’s artwork, and the ongoing discussions around what should be done about it.

To quote myself, from this article in GroundUp:

There are a number of artworks in UCT’s collection that could legitimately be regarded as problematic. Even so, any piece of art is potentially offensive to someone, and the very point of art is to provoke reflection and sometimes, discomfort.

It is therefore crucial that any deliberations around the potential removal of art – while being sensitive to those who feel insulted by any given artwork – are also sensitive to the rights and creative intent of the artist concerned.

Where art is removed for the sake of prudence, in fear of it being destroyed or defaced, that removal must be provisional, and on the understanding that a full objective reassessment of the artwork concerned and what it signifies will follow.

Furthermore, artworks need to be understood in the context of their curation. It is both possible, and often desirable, for an artwork that might be offensive in isolation to serve as a valuable spur to debate, when placed in an appropriate context.

That curation is not a task for which everybody is equally qualified. I’m not qualified at all, having zero expertise in art or art history. So, if I were offended by a particular piece of art, I have an epistemic duty to listen to the views of experts, and to give them an opportunity to explain to me that my offense is misplaced.

My opinion, and my subjective feelings of offense, are less relevant data points, and can even be entirely irrelevant to the decision, because only the most benign or even meaningless pieces of art could ever offend nobody at all.

There’s a danger here of overcompensating, and conflating art that is productively offensive with art that is gratuitously so, in the sense that it uncritically reflects racial or other stereotypes. This is why the deliberations need to be conducted carefully, and by experts.

A recent UCT communique includes the following (my emphasis):

It is important to understand that we are not censoring any artworks. Much of the negative public comment fails to recognise that current removals are provisional. It is our belief that the artworks will all ultimately be on display once curatorial policies have been developed. The University remains committed to enabling scholars and the public to engage with the most difficult and challenging works, including those presently under discussion, and many others that may arrive in the future. What is currently at issue is not whether this should be done, but how.

I’m don’t share that belief. As you can read in the statement, a broad consultative process is going to take place, and “cultural, religious or political” sensibilities taken into account.

Any of you who have been part of these sorts of processes – especially in volatile times like those we’re experiencing now – know that the maximally safe or risk-averse strategy is typically followed, which means that subjective offense becomes a trump card, rather than simply a data point in the deliberations.

I hope I’m wrong. But assuming I’m not, some of you might nevertheless think that’s as it should be, and that those subjective feelings should be a trump card. We’ll have to wait and see, though, how this is going to work: is one offended party sufficient reason to consider an artwork problematic, or five? Will the distaste that one of my correspondents has for abstract art count as a “cultural” objection?

If you find these questions silly, I’d like to hear on what principled grounds you think these decisions can be made. There are no objective criteria for offense, and we’re operating in an environment where dialogue is in short-supply, and threats plentiful.

I’m not as animated by these developments as, say, Breyten Breytenbach is (here and here). And I think that Nazi/ISIS comparisons are false and unhelpful, because they trivialise the concerns of protesters and can also be uncharitable towards the institutional response which, while made under pressure, is well-intentioned.

But anyone who thinks, or argues, that these decisions will be made by those qualified to do so, in an environment that allows for them to do so on grounds of the best evidence and careful reasoning, is sorely mistaken.

Critical thinking, science and pseudoscience

Monday 28 March sees the release of Critical Thinking, Science, & Pseudoscience: Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain, co-written by Caleb Lack and me. Caleb is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma, who I met at TAM 2013 in Las Vegas.

As Caleb notes in his announcement of the book (where much of the text below is copied and pasted from),

it is based largely around the critical thinking courses that Jacques and I have been teaching at our respective universities. The book is designed to teach the reader how to separate sense from nonsense, how to think critically about claims both large and small, and how to be a better consumer of information in general.

Although it’s being mostly advertised towards the academic market, we have purposefully written it to be highly readable, entertaining, and great for anyone wanting to sharpen (or build from scratch) their critical faculties.

South African readers will be alarmed at the price of the book, which is a factor of exactly the point Caleb makes above – that it’s been pitched at the textbook market by the publisher. We are hoping to arrange a local distributor, which should bring the price down substantially.

And if you’re planning to attend the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year, I’ll be in conversation with John Maytham about the book and its themes on Sunday, May 15 at 10am.

The early reviews we received are gratifyingly positive. Michael Shermer (Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University) said:
Michael Shermer

This is the best collection of ideas on critical thinking and skepticism between two covers ever published.

Lack and Rousseau have put together the ideal textbook for students who need to learn how to think, which is to say every student in America.

I plan to assign the book to my Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University and recommend that every professor teaching critical thinking courses at all colleges and universities do the same. Well written, comprehensive, and engaging. Bravo!

Elizabeth LoftusElizabeth Loftus, past president of the Association for Psychological Science, Distinguished Professor at the University of California – Irvine, and one of the foremost memory researchers in the world, wrote:

What’s wrong with believing in pseudoscientific claims and why do so many people do it? Lack & Rousseau take us on a fascinating excursion into these questions and convincingly show us how junk science harms our wallets and our health.

Importantly, they teach us tips for spotting true claims and false ones, good arguments and bad ones. They raise awareness about our “mental furniture” – a valuable contribution to any reader who cares about truth.

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist, and Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. She is the coauthor of the textbook Psychology and the (highly recommended) trade book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). After reading our book she wrote that:

Teachers and students will find this comprehensive, well-written textbook to be a helpful resource that illuminates the principles and applications of critical thinking–a skill that is crucial in our world of bombast, hype, and misinformation.

Russell BlackfordFinally, we have Russell Blackford, noted (and prolific) author (most recently of The Mystery of Moral Authority and Humanity Enhanced) and philosopher.

He’s a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, a regular op.ed. columnist with Free Inquiry, and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

An entertaining introduction to clear thinking, science, and the lure of pseudoscience. Lack and Rousseau clearly explain the principles of logical reasoning, together with the human tendencies that all-too-often undermine it. They show how easily motivated reasoning can prevail over clarity and logic; better, they offer tools to think more critically, whether in science, policy, or our everyday choices.

For those instructors interested in using this in their class, we have also constructed full lecture slides for the book and an instructor’s guide with sample assignments, recommended videos, and more. Feel free to let our publishers know if you’d like to be considered for an adoption copy.