Argumentum ad Wikipediam

Easter took place this year on April 1, resulting in several fairly obvious jokes, and as likely happens every year, somone said it’s named after a “pagan goddess” (as if there were only one “pagan” religion). A Facebook friend replied that “this is often quoted, but wrong; Bede is the sole source and mistranslated something.” Finally, someone quoted the first few likes of a Wikipedia article to shut up the second poster. (I oversimplify). It occurred to me this is a perfect parable for one aspect of what University education is supposed to be doing for people.

It’s fraught to attribute motivations to anyone posting a couple of sentences on Facebook, but let’s pretend we can read the posters’ minds. Person 1 quoted a common belief; there’s nothing wrong with that. The second posted a contradictory belief; there’s nothing wrong with that either. But the third appears to have posted a famous logical fallacy: argumentum ad autoritatem, an appeal to a disputed authority. Poster #2 was challenging the conventional wisdom, disputing the usually cited source. This is a subtler kind of argument than one about who is “right” — it’s an argument about how we figure out who is right.

When the source of a statement is in dispute, it’s a fundamental intellectual mistake to merely quote the disputed authority. You have to investigate why that brief statement is correct. And if you keep reading the Wikipedia article, you find that it does exactly that: it explains the controversy over whether to trust a single source, a single fallible person’s very brief expression. It goes on to point out that the conventional wisdom acquired a second source in 1958, with a linguistic argument as to why what Bede said made sense. But that doesn’t necessarily end the argument; the linguistic one is itself a discussion, about which there was some dispute.

This kind of thing is very disturbing to a lot of people who think there can only be one right answer to any question, all other “answers” are wrong, and “the authorities” know the right answer. There are an awful lot of adults at that level of cognitive development; sometimes it seems to me that public discourse is made up almost entirely of people who think that way, shouting at each other and resorting to an even more popular fallacy, argumentum ad hominem: “my opponent is Evil; don’t listen to anything they say.”

It’s glossed over by the next level, where “there are no right answers; it’s all a matter of opinion, and everybody is entitled to their own.” There are an awful lot of bright people at that level of development, too, but it’s better than thinking your opponents are evil idiots.

The job of a minimal University education is to get people at least one level beyond that: there are multiple answers, but some are better than others. This isn’t just some philosophical whimsy; in my discipline, software engineering, it’s vital to problem solving, beyond the simple exercises we give to beginners, to be able to come up with alternatives, criteria for evaluating them, and, when there are multiple criteria, trading off some against others. This is one reason why our software design curriculum’s writing requirement suggests some philosophy classes: that’s where you really learn to study multiple sources and make a reasoned argument.

I tell my students they shouldn’t aspire just to read Wikipedia articles; they should develop the skills to be able to write them, and, better yet, to be able to do the kind of research that gets cited in good Wikipedia articles.

Ideally you get people to Perry’s 9th stage of cognitive development : believe in your own values, respect others, be ready to learn.In my more cynical moods, I despair of getting many people, including myself, to that level.

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