Sunday, December 18, 2011

Answering Questions about Claims

In recent newsletters, we have covered the four types of claims and the questions that one asks in order to clarify and gain a better understanding of what is meant by the claim. With this newsletter, we will cover what we should expect (and what we should accept) as a response to those questions. I will lay this out in a model called the SPIRAL model.

Imagine that there is something, perhaps a piece of sculpture, sitting on a pedestal. There are several people standing around it in a circle, all viewing it from a distance and from different angles. If asked what they see, it is unlikely that all of them will report seeing the same thing because they all have a different view of it. If they are allowed to move around it, approach it and study it from ALL of the available angles it becomes much more likely that they will begin to reach consensus about what they are looking at because they all have the same information. This is the advantage of SPIRALLING in on a topic in a discussion; we get to exchange viewpoints and “see other sides”.

The other reason I call it the SPIRAL model is to help remember the sequence of actions that allow us to evaluate a topic:

1. Someone makes a Statement (a claim). If there is no problem with the claim (that is if we understand and accept as spoken) we move to the next claim.

2. If there IS a Problem with the claim, then we raise an Issue (a question) based on the type of the claim.

3. When we raise an issue, the party that made the claim needs to provide a Response.

4. Once the response is provided, we Analyze the Logic of the response. That is, we determine if the response supports the claim.

Statement. Problem? Issue! Response. Analyze Logic…….SPIRAL

Graphically stated…

We have spent some time covering the types of claims AND the stock issues related to each type of claim. So let’s talk about those responses.

Formally, the response is called “evidence” and that is one way to look at it, but the word implies a certain kind of courtroom methodology that we really don’t mean here. Think of the response as just that – a response to a question about a claim.

For instance, your friend comes in and says “Make sure your windows are rolled up. It’s going to rain.” The Statement here is that it going to rain. This is the first you’ve heard of it, and maybe you saw no sign of rain, so in your mind there is a Problem with the claim and you want to take Issue (question) as to whether the claim is true, so you ask “What makes you say it’s going to rain?” Your friend’s response could be many things:

1. My joints always ache just before a rain, and they are aching right now.

2. Everybody knows it rains this time of year.

3. It was raining 10 miles up the road when I came in to work, and the clouds were moving this way.

4. It is Tuesday. It has rained the last 4 Tuesdays in a row.

5. The weather report said so.

These are all responses meant to answer your question, but how would we sort through them or compare them? It seems like you can answer an Issue with anything!

Just like there are only four types of claims that we have to deal with, there are only three categories of evidence, each with their own evaluation schemes that will be important to us when we begin the “Analyze Logic” step of SPIRAL model. The categories are:

1- Objective Evidence: Something we can examine or test. Example - an object (a wet car or a cloudy sky for response 3 above) or testimony (a weather report for response 5 above). Objective evidence is something that we can look up or review or somehow further examine independently. It doesn’t mean that, for instance, that the item being examined is objective (that is, unbiased). It means that the item being examined is an object, as opposed to the other two forms of evidence (below). Testing objective evidence is done by examining it using the same two questions we would use for testing a claim of fact. That is, we would ask “How would we know if the weather report was credible?” and “Does it meet that test for credibility?” for response 5 above.

2- Social Consensus: These are those things that we decide to agree on generally. For instance, if someone were to claim that “democracy is better than tyranny”, we might ask what they mean by better, but we wouldn’t generally disagree in principle. There are many times when we believe things are generally accepted only to find out they are not. For instance, you may believe that it is common knowledge that people don’t wear white after Labor Day. I would contest that saying that it may be true in some circles, I don’t think it is GENERALLY true at all. When reasons are offered because “everybody knows…” (like response 2 above), that is using Social Consensus as evidence. Testing Social Consensus is done by asking explicitly

3- Credibility: The speaker’s credibility can play a role as evidence as well. Are they knowledgeable in the subject being discussed (training, education, background)? Are they trustworthy (biased or untruthful)? Do they have access to the information they are talking about (the activities going on in private or ‘secret meetings’)?

So there are the three categories of response that are given to back up a claim. When you ask a question, you should try to view the answer in light of one of these categories and, if necessary, ask further questions to clarify the claim.
In the last few newsletters, we have discussed all of the elements in the SPIRAL Model EXCEPT the last one – that is, how do we Analyze the Logic to decide if the statement is cogent and logical? We will cover that next time.

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