Sunday, December 21, 2008

Inference - #5 (Narrative) and #6 (Form)

This is the LAST INSTALLMENT on inference, which finishes the introduction to the basic elements of critical discussion. Next up - how to hold critical discussions (and other delicate conversations) and NOT having it end with hurt feelings.

Let’s recap once more what we have learned in the weekly installments for September 26 to present:
1 – How to identify the main topic of the discussion (the resolution)
2 – How to identify the 4 types of Claims used to support the resolution (fact, definition, quality, policy)
3 – How to develop questions (issues) to request evidence to support claims
4 – How to identify the 3 types of Evidence used to support a claim (Objective, Social, and Credibility)
5 – How to identify the 6 different Inferences used to connect the evidence to the claim (Example, Cause, Sign, Analogy, Narrative, and Form)

That is a lot of information and I congratulate all of you that have steadily read and learned from the information offered. As you learn to put these concepts together, you will find yourself quickly gaining ground in getting to the core of controversies in which you are involved. Let’s go over the last two inferences – Narrative and Form, starting with Narrative.

The inference from Narrative is the inference in which I connect my evidence to the claim by telling a narrative (story) that is intended to describe how a situation will play out. The warrant for an inference from narrative is that “if real life unfolds in the same way the story does, we can expect the same result”. Fables are generally written this way, with a final conclusion called a moral.

We’ve all heard the fable about the Ant and the Grasshopper, in which the grasshopper plays all day and stores no food while the industrious ant builds a nest and creates a store of food. The grasshopper makes fun of the ant, because the ant never has any fun and seems to waste his life while the grasshopper parties every day. When hard times come, though, the grasshopper is in big trouble but the ant is in good shape because of his hard work and dedication.

So this is even more abstract than an analogy. We are not assigning roles of saying “you are like the ant and I am like the grasshopper” and thus drawing literal comparisons. We are making a broader comment about forgoing instant gratification in favor of security; of accepting personal responsibility for one’s future. More directly, we are saying “if you fail to plan for the future, you are likely to have problems when the unexpected strikes”.

Let’s say my child received a bad grade on a test and I asked them if they felt they had studied for it. The child says they hadn’t; they had chosen to watch a movie instead. I might make a claim of quality that it is better to study and secure a good future than to enjoy a movie and get a bad grade. I would offer as evidence the bad grade and the confession about the movie. Rather than say the bad grade was CAUSED by watching the movie, I might use the NARRATIVE of the Ant and the Grasshopper. Why? Because I really am not sure that the movie caused the bad grade. I know there are tests that you can study for intensely and still fail. That would defeat a causal inference. The narrative, though, would say “this kind of behavior has been associated with these results, and the outcome can be devastating”.

So why have children believed this fable for so long (since ancient Rome)? Why do we readily accept its’ moral and make it one of our core values? Because it passes the tests for a good narrative! Whenever you plan to use a narrative (or hear one) you should base its value on these four tests:

1 – Is the narrative believable – plausible? Do we believe that ants are industrious and grasshoppers are not? Do we believe that failure to plan for the future can end up badly?
2 – Is the narrative coherent? Does one thing lead to the next in an expected way? Is it consistent?
3 – Are the characters consistent in their behavior? Is the ant sometimes lazy and sometimes not?
4 – Does the narrative resonate with us? Does is it seem that we could see this play out, or that it would never really happen? Does it “just seem true” at a basic level? Can you relate?

The Inference from Form is a thorny one. It is used all the time, and is rarely questioned. It is based on the (false) idea that statements that are expressed like formal logic (mathematical logic) are automatically useful in informal logic (topics cast in language rather than numbers). Almost all business discussions are best analyzed with informal logic, due to their uncertain nature.

In formal logic, there is a form called Disjunctive Logic that says “either a or b”. Then we analyze the truth of “a” and make a decision about “b”. As an example “2+2 is either equal to 6 or it is equal to 4; it is not equal to 6; therefore it is equal to 4.” If the premise is correct (2+2 is either equal to 6 or 4) and the analysis is correct (it is not equal to 6) then the conclusion (therefore it is equal to 4) MUST be correct. That is the glory of formal logic – the answers are CERTAIN to be correct IF the premises are true and the FORM is correct.

But look at this inference from Form “either we will watch a movie tonight or we will read; we will not watch a movie tonight, therefore we will read”. In the case of 2+2 above, the choices were mutually exclusive – both couldn’t be correct. But we COULD watch a movie, or read, or do both, or do something else entirely. There is no reason to think that the two choices given were the only two or that we had to do either one. So if I say “tonight we can either watch a movie or read, and I don’t want to watch a movie”, you might think “then I guess we have to read” but would that be true? Of course not.

Another formal logic form is Conditional (if-then) like “if 3 is greater than 2, then 2 is not greater than 3” is always right because it is deductive. What if we make a non-mathematical argument in that same way? “If companies ship late, then they lose customers”; is that true? Really? It is expressed using the conditional form, but it isn’t always true. I buy books from Amazon all the time – there are very few times that I care even within a week when it gets to me.

We will explore more later. Let me wish you all a happy holiday. Next we will explore how to get through these discussions while preserving (and hopefully improving) our relationships.

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