Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

November 26, 2007

Discovering Truth Through Arguing

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 6:25 am

Linda O’Connor, a librarian at Great Meadows Middle School put up signs saying: “Just Say ‘No’ to Wikipedia.” I can only imagine how Ms. O’Connor feels about the Dewey Decimal System. Educators are correct that Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. To my knowledge, Wikipedia has never claimed to be perfect, or the world’s most authoritative encyclopedia. In fact, there are all sorts of warnings, advertising problems with particular articles.

If Ms. O’Connor’s point is to highlight problems with any one source that is perfectly fine. If her point is to say no with Wikipedia because it is currently the most popular, that is fine also. However, the underlying point needs to be that no one should just trust one source, and authority is one of the worst foundations for any argument. If the children’s takeaway from O’Connor’s message is simply: don’t use Wikipedia, then I feel a great educational opportunity has been lost.

In my mind, the strength of experts or authorities is that they should be able to make really convincing arguments, not just what they say is automatically gospel. It is unfortunate but a practical necessity to summarize main points or conclusions from certain works. For example, arguments for the theory of evolution rest on a huge body of evidence. In fact, some of the most conclusive evidence supporting evolution wasn’t discovered until well after Darwin’s death, DNA being one example. The salient point is that the theory of evolution is as true as any other theory in science can be. This notion of scientific truth is essential to get children to understand.

As a counterpoint, Newton was unquestionably a smart individual. However, he believed in a “Luminiferous Aether Wind” which was the universal propagation medium of light. One of the great tragedies of modern education is its emphasis on the “right” answer with little to no attention paid to the wrong tracks people have gone down. The most important aspect of education is the journey, not the destination. More can be learned by going down few wrongs paths than many right ones.

This brings me to arguing and the Internet. The Internet is an egalitarian battleground of ideas. Among, the greatest ills of the Internet is the inability for people to properly argue. “A Rulebook for Arguments” by Anthony Weston is a good example of what every child should be ingrained with since the beginning of their education. It not only presents how to make arguments, but also numerous logical fallacies (although finding online sources of logical fallacies is not too difficult either). As Weston states in the introduction, “some people thing that arguing is simply stating their prejudices in a new form.” As long as arguing is seen in this light, then any vetting of knowledge on the Internet is hopeless. However, arguing doesn’t have to be this way. Arguing should be about, “offer[ing] the reasons and evidence that convinced you. It is not a mistake to have strong views. The mistake is to have nothing else.”

A central point of education should be get children to agree on correct answers among themselves, not to reproduce the answer that agrees with the teacher’s. If the class produces the wrong answer, that is also a wonderful teaching opportunity for students to examine what went wrong. If we do not teach children to question authority, we are not safeguarding democracy. The Internet can be a grand teaching device to that end. A true test of a good education is not how faithfully a student can reproduce information, but rather how well they can identify the bad.

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