October 27, 2007

From confectionary to connected reasoning

Occasionally, I have students or colleagues who provide a stream of oddly (and sometimes randomly) connected chunks of material as if the stream is sufficient to carry an argument or thought. In the past I've had little trouble understanding why such streams are illogical but great trouble understanding why the author of the stream thinks it makes sense. It is not stream-of-consciousness material; the modules of the argument are stuck together with some conscious glue, from what I can tell, not just following in a sequence of associational steps.

I'm slowly coming around the conclusion that under stress, people tend to operate with the type of conjoint causal reasoning that David Hume asserted a few centuries ago: stick things together, and they must be connected. Hume's argument doesn't work with more rigorous reasoning, but it sometimes appears to hold with the panicking or too-quickly-talking person in front of me. There is nothing inherently wrong with sticking things together and seeing if a combination of ideas work: that's the art of speculation or brute-force brainstorming (a term that is not an oxymoron, though the explanation requires its own separate entry).

Perhaps we can borrow a concept from Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations, a book that has a chapter on confections, or visual representations of complex processes through multiple (and varying) uses of images. The premature expression of speculations often appears as a conceptual confection, layers material whose connections are self-evident to the author or speaker, if not to me as listener or audience member.

The sticky part is reducing the confection to a more easily consumed finished piece. In many cases, the original confection and the reduction process are fascinating, comprising a type of mental candy; my favorite blogs often serve up experimental fare that is quite tasty. As a teacher, my job includes helping students with their own confectionary reasoning, encouraging them to boil ideas down to their essences, and discouraging final papers with half-baked ideas.

But since guiding that process is part of my job, I am not sure why I have such distaste for other intellectual confections, mixes that I want to hold at bay so I don't have to smell them too closely, let alone taste them. In those cases, the raw meat and processing of ideas are closer to the production of sausage (or legislation): don't show me all the steps, just the final stuff I can choose to consume (or not). Is the distinction a matter of aesthetics, the random tastes of my intellectual palate, or is there something more substantive in the distinction between the speculations I want to examine more closely and those which I would rather just go away until they're presented on a plate?

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Posted in Random comments on October 27, 2007 8:29 AM |