Since Trump took power in the US and the populist PTI was put in charge in Pakistan, I find myself avoiding following the daily flow of news too closely. Twitter is a cesspool of a different kind where civilized discussion is impossible. Nuanced arguments that require communicating more than two thoughts are not amenable to a 250 character limit. Tweets are not read but scanned for ‘keywords,’ blanks are filled in, assumptions are made and outrage ensues.
Instead, I have been rewatching Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The West Wing’, a TV show that first aired about 20 years ago about the White House administration of a fictional Democratic president, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, played by Martin Sheen. What makes it watchable even today is the fact that events over the last two decades have made it a case of life imitating art. It gives a window into how an ethical administration, and the checks and balances on it, should work. Regardless of the differences between the American and Pakistani systems of government, it offers an education, and I recommend it to our political class. However, most of all I like that it is filled with situations of political, ideological and ethical conflicts which are sometimes resolved and sometimes left unresolved after weighing logically delivered complicated arguments.
Turn to most political talk-shows on Pakistani cable news channels and you will find a split screen of three to six talking heads. When two (or more) of them are not shouting each other down, you get to hear them argue or answer questions. Many times, the worst answers take the form of ‘whataboutisms,’ which really are no answers at all. Whataboutism is the deflection of a question or accusation by not answering it and just throwing back a counter-question or counter-accusation, i.e., when the response to a question takes the form of, “But what about when you / your party did …?” Too often when two political opponents are talking, that kind of back-and-forth is all you see (I am watching it happen right now as I am typing these words).
Another thing you will witness is arguing from analogy, often times using metaphors. These types of arguments resonate with a lot of people in Pakistan, perhaps because arguing by analogy and metaphors is how a lot of preaching is done at Friday sermons. Metaphors are abstract representation that can be useful to explain an idea in an unfamiliar context. However, all too often the metaphors are bad and inappropriate, glossing over important details, making them inapplicable in the context.
But of all the incorrect arguments, my favourite is when people identify the cause to an effect without proving the link between the two, but by correlation. Causality is the relationship between cause and effect. Correlation is just when you consistently observe two events happening together. But as is often preached in introductory statistics courses, ‘correlation does not imply causation.’ An oft made mistake is to equate these two, betraying a lack of understanding of the issues. Two events A and B that occur together may either have a common, unknown cause C, or may be purely coincidental.
If you are unconvinced, there is a fantastic blog post called “Spurious Correlations” (https://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations) that became somewhat famous a while back. It lists examples of independent events that happen to exhibit strong correlation. For example, the divorce rate in the US state of Maine is highly correlated with the per capita consumption of margarine! Another fun one is the high correlation of the per capita consumption of mozzarella cheese with the number of doctorate degrees awarded in civil engineering!
These weaknesses are not limited to our political class and talking heads only, but apply equally to much of our population. Turn to any popular social media platform where people are busy in political bickering (e.g., Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter, where most political arguments happen), and you will find mostly bad arguments. For many, these platforms are the first and only places they actually do any original writing, because as we well know, unfortunately, the only writing that happens in public schools is of the kind of “write an application for ABC to XYZ”, which involves little more than memorisation and reproduction.
There is a wider point I would like to make here about poor writing and arguing skills. At no stage in their education are students taught how to put together a coherent argument, or spot logical fallacies in a presented argument. Putting thoughts down in black and white often reveals logical inconsistencies in our thinking and ideas and forces us to resolve them.
Recently, I was re-reading Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments. It is a nifty little reference book of around a 100 pages that comes in very handy during writing. It lists a handful of basic deductive arguments and another handful derived from those basic ones. Also covered in Weston’s book are a number of common fallacies, some of which I already mentioned. Altogether, the material could be taught to middle or high schoolers in a matter of weeks, followed up by repeated application in writing assignments in language courses, i.e., English, Urdu, etc.
Unfortunately, as far as I have seen, there is no place in our public school curriculum in which students are allowed even a passing familiarity, not to speak of practicing these. IGCSE / O-level students are required to learn critical reading and writing skills particularly in English Literature, and fare better in this regard. Outside of that, however, the only sure programme that will expose students to these concepts are philosophy programmes.
Surprisingly, when I talked to faculty members of computer science departments I learned that these concepts are taught as a staple in computer science and mathematics programmes, but in a technical context. However, the vast majority that attends public schools and does not opt for CS, mathematics or philosophy remain deprived of, what I consider, this basic life skill.
The result? For the majority the most convincing speaker in a debate is the loudest, most wildly gesticulating person. Validity of his argument be damned. Welcome to populist politics in Pakistan and around the world in 2019!