Monday, February 20, 2012

Ask a Silly Question

In high school I enjoyed a class on public speaking which covered such topics as how to stand, what to do with your hands, developing self confidence, and formal debates. I wish my long-ago lessons on debate techniques had covered the material I'm learning now with my current commuting lecture series, "Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning". This series began slowly with a history of debate theory and proof but things became interesting in chapter 5 with Resolutions and Topoi.

Professor Zarefsky asserts that there are only four kinds of claims:
1. Resolution of Facts - Bush (or Gore) really won the Florida election of 2000
2. Resolution of Definition requiring interpretation - Abortion is (or is not) murder
3. Resolution of Value requiring judgement - The current congress is ineffective
4. Resolution of Policy involving action - the Government should spend more (or not) to stimulate the economy

Most formal debates deal only with the fourth type - Policy issues, e.g. Proposed: we should do X.

Now the classification above is not that exciting but it allows for an analysis of Topoi (stock issues). For each type of resolution there are known issues that can always be raised against the claim:

A. Fact
1. What is the criterion for determining truth? 
(For the Florida election there were recounts, questions over how to count hanging chads, etc. Ground rules, themselves disputed, for how to count the votes.)
2. Has the criterion been met? 
 (The Associated Press did a recount and found that either man could be the winner depending on the criterion used for which votes got counted or disqualified)

B. Definition
1. Is the interpretation relevant?
(In the abortion debate, if a fetus is not a person then murder does not apply.)
2. Is it fair?
(is the comparison using words with a lot of bias behind them?)
3. How should we choose amongst competing interpretations?

C. Value
1. Is the value truly good or bad as alleged?
(Is ineffective government actually a bad thing?)
2. Which competing value is preferred?
(Is it better to have an effective government or ineffective one?)
3.  Has the value been properly applied to the specific situation?

D. Policy
1. Is there really a problem? Or is this much ado about nothing?
2. Where is the credit or blame due?(Is the problem solvable? Does anyone have the ability to do something?)
3. Will the proposal actually solve the problem?
4. Will the cost of the proposal exceed the benefits gained?

Bottom Line

The lecture sounded so much better than the notes in the course outline.  I found it fascinating that one need not reinvent the wheel with every proposal. There are existing lists of issues that should always be considered and addressed and resolved. If only our legislatures were taught this and thought about the consequences of new laws before ratifying them.

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