One topic arguably worth debating

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IOL the thinker

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A statue of sculptor Auguste Rodin's The Thinker is seen in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum in Michigan, in the United States. Critical thinking is a subject and skill that can be taught. Picture: Rebecca Cook

It is in fact possible to learn to think, reason and communicate with greater regard for the rules of logic, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - Diagnosing a problem is easier than prescribing an effective solution for it.

Last week I argued that the ability to think critically is in short supply in our country. A few people were upset by that claim, but many also hastened to agree. In today’s column entry, I want to go beyond the diagnostic conclusion and explain why it’s not a train smash. It is in fact possible to learn to think, reason and communicate with greater regard for the rules of logic.

It’s only a minor exaggeration to say that the two most useful activities I signed up for at school were playing the piano and joining the debate club. Playing the piano for some 10 years, and studying classical music, especially at an all-boys school, enabled me to emote, and develop emotional maturity, through the arts. I wish every kid had the chance to learn to play a musical instrument. On another occasion I will fully explore the pedagogical benefits of that elite opportunity I had, and which I fortunately embraced fully as a kid.

Joining the debate club, however, was probably the single coolest, nerdish thing I did. It amazes me how many people wrongly think that speaking well, or constructing compelling arguments, are “gifts of the gab”. That kind of description both belittles the skill of logical argumentation, and belies the reality that it is a skill that can be taught, and sharpened.

The key to compelling argument is understanding the structure of an argument. Arguments consist of premises and conclusions. Conclusions are the stuff you’re trying to persuade a reader, an audience, a viewer, or any interlocutor – whoever is engaging you – to accept. But you persuade them of the truth, or acceptability, of your conclusion by supporting that conclusion with premises that lend logical support to that conclusion.

And this is where our poor education lets us down, unfortunately. The best way to support a conclusion that is contested is to construct premises that are empirically sound or, if it is not an empirical argument, then learning how to explain and justify principles or values that you rely on in support of the conclusion.

Two examples will make this theoretical stuff clear, I hope. If I’m trying to persuade you to accept that a wage increase for mineworkers is a bad idea, I need to support that conclusion with empirically sound premises that justify the claim. I might therefore, for example, demonstrate the conclusion’s truth by constructing premises about the impact of the wage bill on the overall cost of doing business.

But the key is to cite premises, and to explain why those premises are true, and then to make the case for why those premises are a good basis for accepting the conclusion.

Many debates, however, are not about empirical stuff.

If we’re debating gay rights, the death penalty or whether or not animals should have certain kinds of rights, to take typical debate club examples, the conclusions in these kinds of debates are not empirical. They are often about rights, values and principles. Then it becomes tricky. How do you assess an argument that cannot be assessed by simply asking whether or not the premises are true?

Here, too, poor educational experiences can be a fatal let-down. Because for non-empirical debates you need to have the ability to explain why appealing to a concept like “equality”, say, is legitimate, and why that concept should apply to both humans and non-humans in a debate about animal rights. But with practice, and training, you learn how to explain the content of the value “equality”, what it means, why it is important, and why – once you get to the crux of the contested issue in the debate – it is a concept that should be extended to non-human animals.

But here’s the conclusion – pardon the pun – of this column. Yes, many readers might find this meta-description of what the nature of argument is, dry and maybe even a little boring. But the bottom line is simple. Argumentation theory, and good practice, are not mysteries. They are technical subjects that are supported by a huge literature that is available to us to teach at school, and universities.

And if you invest the time to learn the structure of argument, the elements of a good argument, the nature of fallacious arguments and practising how to spot the most famous forms of fallacious argument, you will be rewarded with clarity of thought, and speech.

So we have a choice. Either admire that guy who constructs cogent arguments, and pretend – which is a lie – that he was born with an intrinsic skill set, or sign up for debate clubs and workshops that develop critical thinking skill. But be warned: public speaking coaches, and self-styled communications experts, are not necessarily experts in argumentation. Make sure you sign up for the real deal.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the host of Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power 98.7, weekdays 9am to noon.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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