Counterfactuals and critical thinking

Most of us are aware of the flaming and intolerant contributions made to online comment boards. In light of this, I designed for a course on critical thinking an activity to explore how to foster learning from internet-hosted disputes. The preparatory steps, intended to be straightforward, took all the time and even then warrant deeper thinking. These steps involved identifying counterfactuals. Below is my draft revision of the rationale for these steps, followed by some examples. Scrutiny of knowledge claims—of the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning—is hard work, both in the sense of being careful and systematic and in the sense of our resistance to scrutinizing claims that underwrite actions or social arrangements we favor.

KAQ
The KAQ framework is described here and illustrated here and here asks us to examine the following:
K. What do I Know? (or claim to know)
(Q: How do I Know that?—What is the evidence, assumptions, and reasoning?)
Action: What actions could people pursue on the basis of accepting this knowledge?
(Q: Which people or group?)
Questions for inquiry: What more do I Need to know—in order to clarify what people could do (A) or to revise/refine/support the knowledge claim (K)

KAQ and counterfactuals
1. The “because” statement is a Knowledge claim, as are the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning that a person uses to support that K.
2. Often the reasoning supporting a because statement involves a counterfactual: If Y happened because of X, then if instead of X, there’d been Z, Y would not have happened. Spelling out the counterfactual reasoning often opens up a new set of assumptions, evidence, and reasoning that a person uses to support that K.
3. If the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning are not clear, then inQuiry can clarify (or refute, leading to an alternative K).
4. If the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning seem shaky, then inQuiry can seek to identify alternative Ks.
5. Knowledge claims or their supporting assumptions, evidence, and reasoning can be accepted by a person, that is, not subject to clarifying or alternative-identifying inQuiry, because of the Actions (or, more broadly, view of social Arrangements) that follow from that K.
6. In particular, the Z of a counterfactual (“if instead of X, there’d been Z”) might not seem realizable, if indeed Z were even conceivable.
7. If another person Questions the Knowledge claims or their supporting assumptions, evidence, and reasoning, they may be resisted because the person making the K senses that favored As are being challenged.

Example
G. W. Bush became U.S. President in January 2001 because almost all elections in the USA use voting systems in which to win a candidate has to have the most votes cast, but not necessarily a majority (>50%).
Evidence:
G. W. Bush received 48.847% of the vote in Florida, winning that state and all its electoral college votes, taking him over the majority of electoral college votes needed to win the Presidency.
Implied counterfactuals:
a. A state might use a preferential or instant runoff system, in which a candidate has to have the majority of votes to win (a system that Australia uses).
(Assumptions: Enough of the 97,488 Nader voters in Florida would have given 2nd preference to Gore so that Gore would have won Florida and thus the electoral college and Presidency.)
b. A state might not award all its electoral college votes to the winner of the state; instead they could be awarded proportionally (a system used for at least some of the seats in many countries).
(Reasoning: With Florida’s electoral college split 15 to 14, Gore would have won the electoral college. InQuiry: What would the electoral college counts have been if all states used a proportional system?)
c. A state might award all its electoral college votes to the candidate with the most votes nationally (as envisaged in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact).

Each counterfactual requires Actions, namely, to change the electoral laws of a state(s). c. seems most realizable—as of November 2015, the Compact had been joined by ten states and the District of Columbia—while b. needs every state to agree. (This makes inQuiry based on b. not interesting to me.) On a. Americans think preferential voting is complicated and (except in some places where runoff elections are held) do not worry that a winning candidate is not supported by the majority of voters. Because I grew up with the Australian system I do not see preferential voting as complicated and I worry about the undemocratic effect of having winning candidates not supported by the majority of voters. This makes me interested in inQuiry into how to make voting machines able to handle preferential voting (instant runoff), and so on. I suspect that many more Actions would be entailed to get the idea supported (e.g., overcoming the lobbying power of the current voting machine companies, or having to get Republicans accept a system that would have meant Bush would not have become President.)

Of course, c. might well run into resistance of its own, e.g., from swing states such as OH and FL that would lose the attention they currently get even as Presidential candidates would now campaign in solidly Red or solidly Blue states. InQuiry into how c. is playing out in relation to the prospects of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is called for. I could imagine that it might turn out to be less a matter of Actions I could get involved in, e.g., to argue why this is a more democratic system, and more a matter of counteracting well-funded PACs. Because the latter is a role that I personally am not well positioned to undertake, I might let my inQuiry lapse. Even in the role of arguing that this is a more democratic system, I could imagine Republicans resisting that Knowledge claim because it entails having to accept a system that would have meant Bush would not have become President. And that’s an Action they don’t favor.

Example 2.
G. W. Bush became U.S. President in January 2001 because he was protected from prosecution when caught under the influence of alcohol and cocaine
Evidence re: alcohol (found by googling something like the phrase after a. above)
from http://www.ontheissues.org/George_W__Bush_Drugs.htm
Evidence re: cocaine, http://www.salon.com/1999/10/18/cocaine/ (I find the evidence plausible because the community service at a minority youth center in 1972 doesn’t fit with the rest of his behavior in those years. Others might be more skeptical. InQuiry might be difficult, even dangerous.)
Implied Counterfactuals
a. If he hadn’t been protected, he would not be President because his alcohol and drug use would have led enough voters not to choose him.
Assumption: More voters disfavor someone with a record of past alcohol and drug use than favor the person as someone who has overcome that past by being “born again.”
Evidence for assumption: InQuiry needed.
b. If he hadn’t been protected on the cocaine charge, he would not be President because he would not have run because he would not be eligible to because he would have a felony on his record.
Evidence complicates idea that he’d have been ineligible to run, http://www.factcheck.org/2008/11/felons-in-office/ , http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2014/02/convicted-felons-when-and-where-they-can-run-for-office.html

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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