When I taught Logic for the first time years back I was tempted to spend very little time on the section in Patrick Hurley’s Introduction to Logic that deals with distinguishing argumentative from non-argumentative texts. In this chapter, students learn the ability to distinguish texts that contain inferences from texts that lack them. Examples of the latter include
- Illustrations: "Great presidents are made not born. So, Roosevelt became the great leader he was only after much development.
- Statements of belief: "The most difficult problem facing this country, I believe, is economic inequality."
- Report: Median wages in real dollars have remained stagnant over the last twenty years, while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased. This is an increase in economic inequality.
- Explanations: Economic inequality has increased because median wages have remained stagnant while the proportion of income earned by the top 5% of households has increased.
Students tend to find this section hard, I think. It requires a great deal of interpretive ability to precisely define many passages and the distinctions between them are sometimes hard to identify in practice. The same "content" can be expressed in both argumentative and non-argumentative forms. The difference is one of intention and connection between statements. I have come to see that time spent on these distinctions is extremely important for learning logical analysis. (A great exercise is to have the students express the same content in as many of the various categories as possible. For those without a copy of Hurley handy, the section distinguishes between: warnings, advice,statement of belief, loosely associated groups of statements, reports, expository passages, illustrations, explanations, and conditionals.) I bring this up to elaborate on J.’s comments here explaining some of the reasons that we tend to "pick on" certain columnists more than others. J. points out that these columnists argue for their claims, but often do so badly. This morning I gave the op-ed pages at WaPo and NYT a quick read and found that there was nothing to comment on. No arguments to analyze and no fallacies to uncover. And I thought it might be useful to explain this. Today, our friend George Will reports the argument of Thomas B. Edsall in a book titled Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. Reporting another’s argument is a non-inferential "speech act." If we found a fallacy in Edsall’s argument we might explain it, but Will is safe from our analysis today. John Tierney follows suit with an exposition of the capitalist philanthropy a la Google and Whole Foods. Tierney doesn’t merely report another’s views and arguments as Will did. Instead he couples this reporting with statements of his own belief: >"It’s smart of Google’s founders to try using capitalist tools to save the planet; the market’s discipline should keep their philanthropy from backing too many lost causes. Still, whatever Google.org accomplishes, I’d bet that it will pale next to the social good accomplished by Google.com." I don’t know whether I agree with anything that is said there, but the crucial point is that there is no inferential content. Just a series of assertions of Tierney’s beliefs. Finally we cometo Maureen Dowd. In two years of scrutinzing the op-ed pages of the NYT we have never (I think) raked Dowd over the coals. Today’s column can illustrate why this is so. Once again, it is the lack of inference and argument. Dowd’s columns are generally combinations of statements of her beliefs and reporting with a few witticisms thrown in. >He has changed American culture, for sure. Bustling under Bill Clinton, the nation is now insecure about its moral force and military force. The president should take responsibility for the hash he’s made, instead of insisting every decision was correct, and come up with more astute cultural and military analyses. The “awakening” should be W.’s. Once again, I don’t know how much of her three claims here I agree with, but there sure isn’t an inference in sight.