« Poetry interlude: Starved Rock | Main | I hate the Armenian Alphabet »

November 14, 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Um. Your third quoted paragraph has a conceptual flaw: "A convincing way to argue [...] is to argue like a social scientist, and not like a lawyer."

Noel Maurer

I am not smart enough to see it. So here are two guesses:

The missing "to whom," to which I'm implicitly saying, "to everyone, in a perfect world." Including in a court of law, although I understand the practical reasons why that isn't feasible.

The missing "about social reality," in which case, yeah.

But if it's something else, like I said, I'm not quick enough to see it.


The purpose of convincing isn't to make a correct argument. The purpose of convincing is to make someone else believe your conclusion. Accuracy, quality, and logical rigor of the argument are often incidental or even detrimental to this purpose.

(I could make a crack about lawyers here, but that's half our readership.)

Unless you're seeking to convince other social scientists, a social scientific argument may not be the most efficient way to do it.

In this particular case, I would show the original writer's false comparison, and play up his rhetorical shift. *Then* I'd bring in the logical argument.

Noel Maurer

Yes, I misspoke. That's because, I suppose, at the end of the day I really am a social scientist.

My point is indeed about "finding the correct argument as best we can," not "convincing people that my argument is correct regardless of the underlying reality."

In other words, I should have said, "The way to make an argument convincing to people who care about the underlying reality is ..."


Not if you wanted to convince them! People might passionately care about the underlying reality, and not be familiar with social science methodology.

The logic looks easy. It's not. You're using a Boolean framework, but that wasn't invented until the 1850s. Falsifiability wasn't even a criterion until 1934. (Somehow science, even social science, got done before this.)

There's also the unspoken assumption that people will be able to recognize and judge the quality of confirming or falsifying observations. A single damning fact which falsifies a theory to *you* might look like argument by anecdote to someone of goodwill who doesn't understand the methodology behind that judgment.

In the same way, the division between A and not-A is also often a matter of judgment. Hard cases, edge cases, outliers.

So, what looks like a simple six-point plan is actually replete at the microlevel with a need for a lot of specialized skills.

Upshot: in practice -- and science is a social practice (and policy even more so) -- using this method of argument limits the participants in an argument to a very small group of the people who might be interested in the argument -- people who might, for instance, have falsifying observations of their own. I myself consider this socially problematic.

But your six-point plan is philosophically correct.


hey, Carlos, your first & second offerings are, yk, ++zzz, and then all of a sudden, zzz to 120 in the third. think about that (haha, are you 6? 8?), and I will tell you what I think later (not holding out, don't exactly know now).


Noel, are you back in T&T? That little map thingy they've put on the front page shows me in Puerto Rico, somebody (whose name I'm forgetting) in Bermuda, and somebody down there in the Antilles, looks like T&T to me, but given that the map dots are, like 1500 miles on a side, it's hard to tell for sure.

Just curious. And no, not germane to this post, because frankly, I don't understand diddly about what all you people here do. And this is an unfamiliar condition for me. So I try to ignore it.

Noel Maurer

Hey, Michael: Nope, I'm currently in Boston. Welcome, T&T readers!

As for what Carlos and I do, the post above is probably the easiest way of describing it in the broadest possible terms. We find problems, no, call them puzzles, and then use the above technique to come up with a plausible explanation.

As Carlos pointed out, points (3) and (4) can be a judgment call ... point (4) more than (3), but the principle holds.

If that doesn't help, I'm happy to go on at length. Heck, if people are interested, I'll start posting about work-in-progress. Bueller?


Always interested in work in progress on things I don't understand written by people whose style I like. So that's one vote yea.

The comments to this entry are closed.