Language


Wishing readers a Happy New Year and hopes that this year’s election season, no matter how fraught, can provide opportunities to better understand and communicate about the world.


Speaking of communication, every example of logic checking you have read so far, from simple to complex, has included a step in which normal human communication – written or spoken – had to be reduced to unambiguous language before being placed into the structure of an argument that could be analyzed for quality.


As it turns out, translation is one of the most important – and most challenging – aspects of the logic-checking process. Steps you have learned on how to structure an argument and test it for validity and soundness (or strength and weakness in the case of inductive arguments), while not intuitive, tend to become second nature once you go through the process a few times. But the diversity and complexity of language means mastering the translation process requires significant practice, given that it is as much an art as a science.


The next few postings will be dedicated to using the news to learn how this process is done accurately and charitably (two terms that will be defined in more depth in future posts). But for now, I’d like to illustrate some of the reasons this task can be so hard using the big news story of the day: America’s ongoing confrontation with Iran.


One of the reasons it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is false in discussions over foreign affairs is that understanding complex situations involving history, domestic politics of many nations, international relations between those nations, and military options and choices, requires significant understanding of all these subjects.


People working in the field of critical-thinking education stress how thinking critically cannot be divorced from what you are critically thinking about. If you don’t know the difference between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, for example (or between Persians and Arabs), then any argument you construct about current Middle East affairs – no matter how artful – is going to be built on uninformed (and thus weak) premises.


On top of that, the language people choose to deliver their arguments often include words specifically selected to get you to think in a certain way. In some cases, words are chosen in order to obscure or deceive, which makes it all the more important to be able to distill what people are saying into unambiguous statements where this lack of veracity can be exposed.


In other cases, words are selected not to manipulate, but to get you to accept certain points without providing a compelling argument for them. For example, was Qassem Soleimani (Major General of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard killed by the US in a drone attack) a Senior Foreign Military Official or a murderer? Was the US attack that killed him a military strike or an assassination? If you accept one set of language choices over another, you might be letting someone win you to their side without having made an argument justifying their positions.


Given that discussion and debate over important issues usually includes compelling, sometimes provocative, language, we need to know when that language is advancing a strong argument, rather masking a weak one. This can be done through skilled translation built on a commitment to a set of principles, starting with accuracy – the subject of the next post.

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