Unsound logic and the parenting industry

from digital trends

Once again, another pretentious parenting expert bounds onto Internet sanctimoniously proclaiming those activities that constitute good forms of parenting and those that don’t.

It’s the same worn story (brace positions, prepare for impact): parents are to breast feed and use lots of different words and have lots of bookshelves filled with lots of books and march their children off to cello practice and inculcate somehow a desire for delayed gratification and not watch tv and not eat foods with pesticides and send their children to preschool and themselves finish graduate school and teach their children how to juggle and not themselves be on welfare and get them to study French and not be fat and not allow them to play video games and not themselves use cocaine. Deep breath.

Bummer about that last one. Cause it’s tiring raising tiny Platonic Ideas. Don’t parents deserve a break?

Well, to be fair to our society’s behavioral guardians, they’re only discouraging the use of cocaine while pregnant. They don’t want to tell you not to use the old “Bolivian marching powder” after pregnancy because, well, that might be the only way you can stay awake long enough to keep track of all these prescriptions and proscriptions.

So what’s the problem here? Surely reading, learning other languages and going to preschool are good things. And I’m not about to argue against them. In fact, I agree with most of the things on this list.

What I will argue against is that practically every indicator the author of this particular article uses to gauge the effectiveness of various activities is the test-score indicator. This activity has been shown to raise or lower a child’s SAT or IQ score; therefore, this activity is good or bad accordingly.

As I see it, there are a few problems with this kind of reasoning. Firstly, I admit that I would have to read all the studies cited, but there is a fairly solid chance that the author is mistaking correlation with causation. For example, it’s likely not the number of books in the house that lead to academic success as much as the books imply that the parents are intellectually curious and will thus likely pass that trait on to their kin. But intelletual curiosity need not only be externalized through walls lined with books.

Another problem with the author’s reasoning is that it falls into the valid but not sound category. The reasoning is as follows (and logically valid): Activities that lead to higher test scores are good. This activity leads to higher test scores. Therefore, this activity is good. Fine, but for purposes of soundness I would need to be convinced that activities that lead to higher test scores are good. I can think of lots of activities that while leading to higher test scores might also lead to anti-social (like psychotic) behavior or higher suicide rates, or whatever.

Then the author goes on to invert this syllogistic structure and affirm the negative of the subject of the first premise. We have this argument: Activities that lead to lower test scores are bad. Computer games lead to lower test scores – you see where this is going.

This argument is so messed-up and wrought with notions of nostalgia – when there were fireplaces, hardcover books and playing meant going outside and climbing trees – that it’s almost not even worth spending time on. But I’ll give it a few minutes anyway.

Like the earlier syllogism, this too relies on a premise that is questionable at best and downright stupid at worst. While it may be the case that playing computer games doesn’t improve test scores in tests unrelated to computer games, it’s hard to argue that the activity wouldn’t improve test scores related to computers, or hand-eye coordination, or quick thinking, or, well, etc.

Furthermore, you can’t invert an argument like this and consider the reasoning equally reasonable. Take this example of the same form but with different content: Activities that require exercise are good. This activity requires exercise. Therefore…

But when we make the first premise negative and argue from there, we’re left arguing that activities that don’t require exercise are bad. And that is a ridiculous platform to stand on.

Even if X really is good, you cannot say that not-X is bad. It’s called a logical fallacy and thinking in such terms is probably the result of not playing enough computer games.

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