The Role of Argument in Natural Sciences, Law, and Social Sciences

20 Aug

The following article has been written by Chaste, who has contributed to this blog before.

I will assume for the purposes of this piece that argument is the dominant form of writing in academia. This is also true of public discourse, but this piece will limit itself to academic writing, and more specifically to writing in the social sciences. If academia aims to produce worthwhile knowledge then the argument is the form that mediates our view of the object studied, and academia is the structure that mediates the production of the specific types of knowledge.

Mediating forms are layers of abstraction that can help understanding. They define a process for understanding that prevents distortion due to visceral or other perceptions. Yet as Adorno warns us, forms of viewing and the structures that regulate those forms can limit our understanding of the object studied. To take a simple instance, researcher-teachers argue a position to get published, and the success of such arguments in staking out and establishing a specific position within the field gets them promoted. Yet we expect researcher-teachers to conduct independent research, and train students to think with an open mind and to acquire comprehensive knowledge in a field. We must be wary lest the form of the argument and the structure of academia advance original/individualistic positions at the expense of responsible scholarship. We must also worry about the lure of political power for academics. Politics desires simple, narrow and sharply defined positions, whether for political posturing or for public programs. Succumbing to this lure can only exacerbate the effects of argument on knowledge.

Nature of Argument and its Role in Academia

I will quickly lay out the nature of the argument as used in academia. The argument typically takes the form of a declared purpose, followed by a description of the theoretical method, which the researcher will use for his analysis. It then applies this method to the selected data to come up with a conclusion that mirrors the declared aim. The primary critique of this form of argument uses a simple piece of reasoning. Applying a theoretical method to a selection of data should always produce the same result and conclusion. Therefore if “reasonable” (sic) minds disagree, this can only be because their aim/conclusion has pre-determined their choice of theoretical method and/or their selection of data.

The primary virtue of argument is its clarity. This is due to two qualities: consistency and discreteness. Yet consistency provides much greater explanatory power when we combine it with complexity than when we use it to support a single point. The argument often achieves discreteness by excluding other perspectives. We can gain greater explanatory power by defining relations between disparate issues perspectives, rather than by limiting them. “Cohere” is useful as it suggests both cohesion and coherence.

The popularity of the argument is doubtless because it mimics similar forms in science and law. Despite its recent success, scientific research is hardly a model of philosophical rigor. Recall the search for the “gay gene,” where scientists confused the biological phenomenon of sexual urge with the likely social phenomenon of sexual attractiveness. Or witness the ongoing fiasco about the continuous upward revision of global warming estimates because scientists had missed such obvious factors as the methane release from a permafrost melt, or missed the systematic differences caused by changes in methods for measuring temperature over the past century. Most scientific research is simple because it deals in the existence of facts. Reporting the properties of an element at 1000c has much scientific value. On the other hand, reporting my thoughts at any given moment has little value even though it may be an appropriate object of study for psychology or political science. Most scientific research does not involve speculative selection and aggregation of data. When it does, as in astronomy, public health, and climatology, its conclusions are no more reliable than those in the social sciences. “Speculative” is crucial when dealing with a seemingly infinite number of variables and infinite data. It underlines the necessity of an a priori judgment when faced with infinite variables and data. The analysis then turns into a test of the speculative judgment. It is at this point that ethics become crucial in such research. The researcher can choose his theoretical methods and select his data to prejudge the outcome in favor of the a priori judgment. Alternatively, the researcher can choose to be ethical. He could either come up with a new hypothesis and test it, or he could simply state the conclusion supported by the most appropriate selection of data and choice of methods.

The argument also mimics the dominant form used by law. However, the legal context is also quite different from that in social science research. It is true that lawyers select and even slant the data. However, the data is very limited. Again, the lawyer has no choice in the theoretical methods. Every legal point in dispute has a clearly established set of legal elements, which the lawyer must prove. It is this systematic exhaustion of every relevant legal element that makes legal briefs both thorough and thoroughly tedious. In academic arguments, exhaustive lists of theoretical methods are not possible. The infinite data and variables provide infinite scope for cherry-picking: the only criterion is that the method or data support the argument. Cross-disciplinary studies exacerbate these dangers. They make it easier to ignore any agreement in a discipline about the criteria for selecting relevant data, or about the best methods to analyze a particular type o data. In this instance, the proliferation of theoretical methods simply provides even more tools to derive a conclusion of one’s choosing. An extreme case of this phenomenon is that of the cross-disciplinary case study, which narrows the selection of data to a single instance, providing fertile ground for any conclusion whatever.

I do not suggest that such lax cross-disciplinary studies or case studies do not have any value. Their value is that of interpretive works and is similar to the value of literary works. Literary works sometimes reveal networks of meaning that cannot b openly discussed in their time. Cross-disciplinary case studies can straddle the boundary between what can and cannot be viably discussed in academia. As such, they can provoke thought and provide insights and skeletal structure for further analysis. An excellent work of this kind is Patricia Williams’ “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” which weaves together insightful arguments and moving, thought-provoking life experiences on various issues.

Another critical difference is that the law uses argument within an adversarial context. There is no counterpart in academic writing wherein a counter-argument immediately follows the argument. In this sense, an academic piece resembles an ex parte hearing in which the lawyer is required to disclose all facts favorable to the absent opponent. No such requirement exists in academic writing.

When used in the unsuitable academic context, the primary disadvantage of an argument is that it induces a loss of perspective by giving disproportionate emphasis to the position argued for. To a reader without extensive knowledge of the field, it is not possible to infer anything about the validity or worth of any claims. Unless the argument is part of a conversation, the only appropriate response is skepticism and a reserving of judgment. Judged by the credibility of its claims, the argument becomes worthless except as a data point in a survey or as part of a meta-reading.

Reforming the Argument

I will briefly examine a few alternatives to the argument as typically practiced. The first option is to abandon the argument in favor of a meditation that densely weaves together patterns of related insights. Meditation need not imply any loss of evidentiary or logical rigor, merely a flexible structure. The form of the meditation has several advantages. It dramatically reduces the problem of disproportionate emphasis on the one position. The substantive part of most arguments is less than 20% of their length. The rest is low-value elaboration masquerading as thoroughness. The more flexible structure of the meditation will encourage authors to replace the low-value elaboration with related information/insights. The weaving of patterns will become a pedagogical exercise, which will train the reader to map and relate the data in the field.

Meditation may be the ideal form; its practice is very likely to be something else. Authors will be tempted to spawn patchworks of recycled insights. This will make the editor’s job both time consuming and difficult.

Another solution involves a minor modification of the form of the argument. Editors can insist that the articles be self-aware: that they demonstrate how different conclusions can be drawn with different selections of data or variables and different choices of theoretical methods. This is the least resource-intensive of my three solutions. However, it runs the risk that the author will demonstrate only those alternatives that support rather than undermine his conclusion.

The most pragmatic solution is to have peer-reviewed publications. Unfortunately, most “peer reviewed” journals are a misnomer since they are only peer approved. The journals should publish the peer reviews, and allow the author to respond to the reviews. The reviews themselves should be an engagement with the material, and not merely indicate the quality of the piece. The editors must choose reviewers from different methodological expertise and disciplinary backgrounds (where that is appropriate). This will deter the author from making expedient selections of data and of theoretical methods and traditions. It will also give the reader an adequate perspective on the author’s argument. The interactive nature of the reviews and response will have pedagogical value not only for the reader but also for the author and the reviewers. It will enable the author and reviewers to possibly expand on the conversation outside the journal, and provide networking-related scholarly and career benefits. The article will come with a relatively objective assessment of its worth, which will help both readers and anyone else who may be interested in evaluating the work of the author. The editors should keep the approval process separate from the review process, and keep the submissions to reviewers anonymous. The editors should take care that the reviews not mimic the journalistic practice of seeking input from hacks representing stereotypes of established positions. However, this is achieved relatively easily in academia.

Peer review is reduced to peer approval in the sciences because unlike the social sciences, scientific research often deals in results rather than conclusions, and because the researcher is the only person with direct access to the results. Therefore, peers in sciences are largely concerned with fraudulent claims of results rather than with the validity of conclusions. In social sciences, the data is often public, and the value of the article lies primarily in the validity of the conclusions. Peer review will help determine this validity. It will also encourage responsible scholarship from authors. Not only will every article have to survive a more rigorous engagement; this engagement will be invigorating for all. Above all, it is achievable in practice because it does not impose unacceptable burdens on editors.