critical thinking

“Bad Arguments” (a book by Ali Almossawi)

I received a new book today as a present[i]: “(An illustrated book of) Bad Arguments” (Ali Almossawi 2013) [ii]. I wish I’d had it for the critical thinking class I just completed! Here’s the illustration it gives for “hasty generalization”.

hasty 001

The author allows it to be accessed here, I just discovered.

But it’s not just a clever book of cartoons: it does a better job than most texts in its conception of bad inductive arguments. Recall my post, “A critical Look at Critical Thinking”–prior to the start of my class–in which I explained why critical thinking is actually a sophisticated affair that philosophers have never fully sorted out. (We may teach it before “baby (symbolic) logic”, but it’s really very grown-up.) I gave my recommendation there as to where probability ought to enter in understanding bad (inductive) arguments, and Almossawi’s conception is in sync with mine[iii]. The inductive qualification is on the mode of inferring, rather than on the conclusion (or inferential claim H) itself*. The difference might seem subtle, but I swear it’s at the heart of many contemporary controversies about statistical inference, and the most serious among them.

[i] From Aris Spanos—thanks Aris.

[ii] Ali Almossawi, whom I never heard of before, has masters degrees in engineering/CS from MIT and CMU, and is a data visualization designer. The illustrator is: Alejandro Giraldo
[iii] I haven’t read all of it, but I doubt I’ll find any howlers.

*About the mode of inferring: What’s its capability to have avoided (alerted us to) the ways it would be wrong to infer H (from the data).


Categories: critical thinking, Statistics | 1 Comment

Will the Real Junk Science Please Stand Up? (critical thinking)

Equivocations about “junk science” came up in today’s “critical thinking” class; if anything, the current situation is worse than 2 years ago when I posted this.

Have you ever noticed in wranglings over evidence-based policy that it’s always one side that’s politicizing the evidence—the side whose policy one doesn’t like? The evidence on the near side, or your side, however, is solid science. Let’s call those who first coined the term “junk science” Group 1. For Group 1, junk science is bad science that is used to defend pro-regulatory stances, whereas sound science would identify errors in reports of potential risk. For the challengers—let’s call them Group 2—junk science is bad science that is used to defend the anti-regulatory stance, whereas sound science would identify potential risks, advocate precautionary stances, and recognize errors where risk is denied. Both groups agree that politicizing science is very, very bad—but it’s only the other group that does it!

A given print exposé exploring the distortions of fact on one side or the other routinely showers wild praise on their side’s—their science’s and their policy’s—objectivity, their adherence to the facts, just the facts. How impressed might we be with the text or the group that admitted to its own biases?

Take, say, global warming, genetically modified crops, electric-power lines, medical diagnostic testing. Group 1 alleges that those who point up the risks (actual or potential) have a vested interest in construing the evidence that exists (and the gaps in the evidence) accordingly, which may bias the relevant science and pressure scientists to be politically correct. Group 2 alleges the reverse, pointing to industry biases in the analysis or reanalysis of data and pressures on scientists doing industry-funded work to go along to get along.

When the battle between the two groups is joined, issues of evidence—what counts as bad/good evidence for a given claim—and issues of regulation and policy—what are “acceptable” standards of risk/benefit—may become so entangled that no one recognizes how much of the disagreement stems from divergent assumptions about how models are produced and used, as well as from contrary stands on the foundations of uncertain knowledge and statistical inference. The core disagreement is mistakenly attributed to divergent policy values, at least for the most part. Continue reading

Categories: critical thinking, junk science, Objectivity | Tags: , , , , | 16 Comments

A critical look at “critical thinking”: deduction and induction

images-1I’m cleaning away some cobwebs around my old course notes, as I return to teaching after 2 years off (since I began this blog). The change of technology alone over a mere 2 years (at least here at Super Tech U) might be enough to earn me techno-dinosaur status: I knew “Blackboard” but now it’s “Scholar” of which I know zilch. The course I’m teaching is supposed to be my way of bringing “big data” into introductory critical thinking in philosophy! No one can be free of the “sexed up term for statistics,” Nate Silver told us (here and here), and apparently all the college Deans & Provosts have followed suit. Of course I’m (mostly) joking; and it was my choice.

Anyway, the course is a nostalgic trip back to critical thinking. Stepping back from the grown-up metalogic and advanced logic I usually teach, hop-skipping over baby logic, whizzing past toddler and infant logic…. and arriving at something akin to what R.A. Fisher dubbed “the study of the embryology of knowledge” (1935, 39) (a kind of ‘fetal logic’?) which, in its very primitiveness, actually demands a highly sophisticated analysis. In short, it’s turning out to be the same course I taught nearly a decade ago! (but with a new book and new twists). But my real point is that the hodge-podge known as “critical thinking,” were it seriously considered, requires getting to grips with some very basic problems that we philosophers, with all our supposed conceptual capabilities, have left unsolved. (I am alluding to Gandenberger‘s remark). I don’t even think philosophers are working on the problem (these days). (Are they?)

I refer, of course, to our inadequate understanding of how to relate deductive and inductive inference, assuming the latter to exist (which I do)—whether or not one chooses to call its study a “logic”[i]. [That is, even if one agrees with the Popperians that the only logic is deductive logic, there may still be such a thing as a critical scrutiny of the approximate truth of premises, without which no inference is ever detached even from a deductive argument. This is also required for Popperian corroboration or well-testedness.]

We (and our textbooks) muddle along with vague attempts to see inductive arguments as more or less parallel to deductive ones, only with probabilities someplace or other. I’m not saying I have easy answers, I’m saying I need to invent a couple of new definitions in the next few days that can at least survive the course. Maybe readers can help.


I view ‘critical thinking’ as developing methods for critically evaluating the (approximate) truth or adequacy of the premises which may figure in deductive arguments. These methods would themselves include both deductive and inductive or “ampliative” arguments. Deductive validity is a matter of form alone, and so philosophers are stuck on the idea that inductive logic would have a formal rendering as well. But this simply is not the case. Typical attempts are arguments with premises that take overly simple forms:

If all (or most) J’s were observed to be K’s, then the next J will be a K, at least with a probability p.

To evaluate such a claim (essentially the rule of enumerative induction) requires context-dependent information (about the nature and selection of the K and J properties, their variability, the “next” trial, and so on). Besides, most interesting ampliative inferences are to generalizations and causal claims, not mere predictions to the next J. The problem isn’t that an algorithm couldn’t evaluate such claims, but that the evaluation requires context-dependent information as to how the ampliative leap can go wrong. Yet our most basic texts speak as if potentially warranted inductive arguments are like potentially sound deductive arguments, more or less. But it’s not easy to get the “more or less” right, for any given example, while still managing to say anything systematic and general. That is essentially the problem…..

The age-old definition of argument that we all learned from Irving Copi still serves: a group of statements, one of which (the conclusion) is claimed to follow from one or more others (the premises) which are regarded as supplying evidence for the truth of that one. This is written:

P1, P2,…Pn/ ∴ C.

In a deductively valid argument, if the premises are all true then, necessarily, the conclusion is true. To use the “⊨” (double turnstile) symbol:

 P1, P2,…Pn ⊨  C.

Does this mean:

 P1, P2,…Pn/ ∴ necessarily C?

No, because we do not detach “necessarily C”, which would suggest C was a necessary claim (i.e., true in all possible worlds). “Necessarily” qualifies “⊨”, the very relationship between premises and conclusion:

It’s logically impossible to have all true premises and a false conclusion, on pain of logical contradiction.

We should see it (i.e., deductive validity) as qualifying the process of “inferring,” as opposed to the “inference” that is detached–the statement  placed to the right of “⊨”. A valid argument is a procedure of inferring that is 100% reliable, in the sense that if the premises are all true, then 100% of the time the conclusion is true.

Deductively Valid Argument: Three equivalent expressions:

(D-i) If the premises are all true, then necessarily, the conclusion is true.
(I.e., if the conclusion is false, then (necessarily) one of premises is false.)

(D-ii) It’s (logically) impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.
(I.e., to have the conclusion false with the premises true leads to a logical contradiction, A & ~A.)

(D-iii) The argument maps true premises into a true conclusion with 100% reliability.
(I.e., if the premises are all true, then 100% of the time the conclusion is true).

(Deductively) Sound argument:  deductively valid + premises are true/approximately true.

All of this is baby logic; but with so-called inductive arguments, terms are not so clear-cut. (“Embryonic logic” demands, at times, more sophistication than grown-up logic.) But maybe the above points can help…


With an inductive argument, the conclusion goes beyond the premises. So it’s logically possible for all the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

Notice that if one had characterized deductive validity as

(a)  P1, P2,…Pn ⊨ necessarily C,

then it would be an easy slide to seeing inductively inferring as:

(b)  P1, P2,…Pnprobably C.

But (b) is wrongheaded, I say, for the same reason (a) is. Nevertheless, (b) (or something similar) is found in many texts. We (philosophers) should stop foisting ampliative inference into the deductive mould. So, here I go trying out some decent parallels:

In all of the following, “true” will mean “true or approximately true”.

An inductive argument (to inference C) is strong or potentially severe only if any of the following (equivalent claims) hold [iii]

(I-i) If the conclusion is false, then very probably at least one of the premises is false.

(I-ii) It’s improbable that the premises are all true while the conclusion false.

(I-iii) The argument leads from true premises to a true conclusion with high reliability (i.e., if the premises are all true then (1-a)% of the time, the conclusion is true).

To get the probabilities to work, the premises and conclusion must refer to “generic” claims of the type, but this is the case for deductive arguments as well (else their truth values wouldn’t be altering). However, the basis for the [I-i through I-iii] requirement, in any of its forms, will not be formal; it will demand a contingent or empirical ground. Even after these are grounded, the approximate truth of the premises will be required. Otherwise, it’s only potentially severe. (This is parallel to viewing a valid deductive argument as potentially sound.)

We get the following additional parallel:

Deductively unsound argument:

Denial of D-(i), (D-ii), or (D-iii): it’s logically possible for all its premises to be true and the conclusion false.
One or more of its premises are false.

Inductively weak inference: insevere grounds for C

Denial of I-(i), (ii), or (iii): Premises would be fairly probable even if C is false.
Its premises are false (not true to a sufficient approximation)

There’s still some “winking” going on, and I’m sure I’ll have to tweak this. What do you think?

Fully aware of how the fuzziness surrounding inductive inference has non-trivially (adversely) influenced the entire research program in philosophy of induction, I’ll want to rethink some elements from scratch, this time around….


So I’m back in my Thebian palace high atop the mountains in Blacksburg, Virginia. The move from looking out at the Empire state building to staring at endless mountain ranges is… calming.[iv]


[i] I do, following Peirce, but it’s an informal not a formal logic (using the terms strictly).

[ii]The double turnstile denotes the “semantic consequence” relationship; the single turnstyle, the syntatic (deducibility) relationship. But some students are not so familiar with “turnstiles”.

[iii]I intend these to function equivalently.

[iv] Someone asked me “what’s the biggest difference I find in coming to the rural mountains from living in NYC?” I think the biggest contrast is the amount of space. Not just that I live in a large palace, there’s the tremendous width of grocery aisles: 3 carts wide rather than 1.5 carts wide. I hate banging up against carts in NYC, but this feels like a major highway!

Copi, I.  (1956). Introduction to Logic. New York: Macmillan.

Fisher, R.A.  (1935). The Design of Experiments.  Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.



Categories: critical thinking, Severity, Statistics | 28 Comments

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