Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Frauds, Hoaxes and Pseudoscience: A Course in Argumentation

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Frauds, Hoaxes and Pseudoscience: A Course in Argumentation

Article excerpt


Lowar-division science students may have a naive view of science and a limited understanding of the role of argumentation in science. To make scientific arguments more visible, Patton designed a course, Frauds, Hoaxes and Pseudoscience, that required students to read "bad" scientific arguments, to critique those "bad" arguments, and to write their own "good" arguments. To assist students in their analysis of argumentation, Patton provided several models of argumentation and practical reasoning, including those of Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perelman, which consider not only the reasons and evidence supporting a claim but also the warrants, backing, qualifiers, and reservations. Patton identifies antecedents for the course in classical and modern rhetoric, describes the course and its relevance to the modern college curriculum, and concludes that, while it is only one way of approaching argumentation, it might provide ideas for faculty in the humanities and social sciences as well as in the sciences.

Introduction: Making disciplinary arguments visible

While most undergraduates are challenged by the need to write good arguments, science students are especially challenged, particularly lower-division science students who may still think about science in terms of right/wrong, black/white, the-textbook-said-it-so-it's-true. Such dualistic thinkers may not yet understand that most of what we accept as scientific truth is the product of probabilistic, evidence-based arguments. Such dualistic thinkers may not yet understand that scientists typically narrow their claims to match the degree of probable truth permitted by the evidence and attending theories. For such thinkers, scientific arguments may be largely invisible. To make scientific arguments more visible and to offer several models for analyzing and producing arguments, I designed the course that will be described below, Frauds, Hoaxes, and Pseudoscience.

I offered this course as a topics course in English, but I have since become aware of similar courses designed by philosophers, biologists, and physicists. Our common premise is that students better understand the elements of a sound argument if they are first exposed to some blatantly flawed arguments. By offering this course, I hoped to practice what I preach: to offer a writing-intensive course that promotes critical thinking through revision of written assignments, something that my colleagues and I advocate in our writing-in-the-disciplines workshops at the University of Missouri. I wanted to offer a course in argumentation that might appeal to majors outside of English, including science majors, as well as design a course that might provide sample argument-based assignments for science faculty at a loss for ideas. Although I had the unique needs of science faculty in mind, the idea behind Frauds, Hoaxes and Pseudoscience could be applied by social science and humanities faculty as well: first make disciplinary arguments visible (through bad examples), then critique them, and then improve upon them.

Antecedents of the Course in Classical and Modern Rhetoric

To clarify what I mean by "argument," I would like to distinguish the arguments of formal logic from those of informal logic. The arguments of formal logic, based on the syllogism, are absolute and unqualified, and are best suited to ideal, symbolic, or abstract disciplines, such as mathematics. The arguments of formal logic are usually ill-suited to complex, real-world problems, which are usually time- and situation-dependent. But just because "real-world" problems tend to be time- and situation-dependent does not mean that we must give up reasoning about them to find, if not the "correct" answer, the "best possible conclusion," given the available evidence. For real-world problems with uncertain premises, we need a system of informal logic.

Today we witness the use of informal logic in the courtroom, in the senate, in grant reviews, and in virtually every aspect of policy making. …

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