Do You Understand Lupine Ways of Knowing? The value of reductio ad absurdum in scientific debate.

This week I thought I would raise the rather contentious  issue of the reductio ad absurdum argument (also known as argumentum ad absurdum). This is the ancient form of logical argument that seeks to demonstrate that an argument or idea is nonsense by showing that a false, ludicrous, absurd result follows from its acceptance, or alternatively that  an argument is sound as a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its denial.

The nature of this argument has venerable roots and it is well documented as a form of logic in ancient Greece, used by such luminaries as Xenophranes, Socrates, and Plato . However, in modern academia there seem to be rather polarized views on it. 1) that it trivializes an argument and belittles the person taking a particular position or 2) that is is a valid and reasonable way of demonstrating that an idea is unsound. There also seems to be a cultural aspect in that I have found it used more frequently in Europe, whereas in North America it is somewhat frowned upon in many academic circles.

Naturally, as Rog and I are somewhat subversive and agitative academics (I use the term loosly) we are in full support of it, and to this end have just published a paper in Nursing Inquiry using exactly this form of argument to challenge the established wisdom of a specific postmodern argument for alternative ways of knowing. This paper was based on an earlier blogpost on this very blog site. Here, we use the ad absurdum argument to note that the principles used to support Carper’s  four ways of knowing can equally well be used to support a more creative typology (in this case including, arcane knowing, and lupine knowing).

Naturally, as with any form of intellectual rationale the argument is only as good as the fundamental data and facts it is based upon. Therefore, an ad absurdium argument can be misused, or poorly constructed. It is also often used erroneously as a Straw Man argument.

Considering what is absurd and what isn’t is a tricky thing for anyone, and particularly problematic in science.  For example, many Victorian scientists scoffed at the thought of powered flight, and even Einstein had issues with the notion of black-holes. Therefore, identifying absurdity is not something easily undertaken, as it may simply be the ideas presented are highly original or unconventional. The bacteria Helicobacter Pylori being suggested as a cause of gastric ulceration is a good example, as this theory was not readily accepted by the medical community for several years, despite good evidence.

Also, this is not the same as absurdity as used in common parlance. Commonly absurd positions are seen as ridiculous, or foolhardy, but an argument ad absurdum does not suggest the person making the argument should be ridiculed or lampooned. After all, we have all believed ridiculous things at one time or another; for western children the notion that Santa Clause brings all the children in the world toys on one night a year is a case in point! For the purpose of scientific thinking, for something to be demonstrated as absurd here we really need to see that there is inconsistency in the arguments presented. An absurd position may be considered one that is contrary to reason, irrational, or ludicrous to follow due to the practical implications of believing it. Unfortunately, several concepts now accepted and used in modern science arose in exactly this fashion: Quantum physics for example. However, repeated scientific observation and empirical data have proved quantum theory correct. So, paradigms change with time and we should be cautious about suggesting any position is ridiculous.

From a pragmatic position, I would argue an argument that can be demonstrated as fallacious by analysing its components, and demonstrating inconsistencies, or that you can demonstrate by accepting it you are also supporting associated positions that make no sense and have no practical value, then an ad absurdum position can be used effectively to demonstrate these weaknesses.

At the end of the day the sensitivities invoked by this form of argument are worth considering, and it is a form of rationale that is not easy to develop effectively. However, as long as the use of it involves demonstrating the nonsense an idea or position presents, rather than attacking the person making the argument, I would suggest it is a useful form of analysis. As a scientist if you are prepared to make any case, hypothesis or argument, you should be prepared to have it challenged and debated, and defend it. If the position is sound it will survive this critique, and win through. That is what good science is all about, but to make sound ad absurdum arguments you have to have a good working knowledge of the logical fallacies to start with.  They can also be a lot of fun too, and if this form was good enough for Socrates…



Carper B.A. (1978), “Fundamental Patterns of Knowing in Nursing”, Advances in Nursing Science 1(1), 13–24

Garrett B.M. & Cutting R.L. (2014) Ways of knowing: realism, non-realism, nominalism and a typology revisited with a counter perspective for nursing science. Nursing Inquiry. Retrieved 21 May 2014.

Rescher N. (2009) Reductio ad absurdumThe Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 21 May 2014.




Women in Science – the gender gap persists

This week’s post  subject was prompted by a recent BBC news item on the World Economic Forum report on the state of the gender gap globally, and a visit to the video/DVD store (yes they still exist here; but probably not for much longer given the rise of digital downloads). Let me explain:

Last week  I was sent out by the family to get a DVD to watch from our local store, and whilst browsing the shelves looking (rather disappointedly) at the latest implausible sci-fi offerings, my attention was caught by a young couple making their selection. I must admit I became rather transfixed, as it was like I was watching some bad comedy sketch or soap opera. They came in and immediately the guy reached for a copy of Bullet to the Head (the latest Sly Stalone macho nonsense) saying “this looks awesome” while the girl reached for The Big Wedding (a rom-com) saying “I hear this is good.” This went on for at least 10 minutes with the man choosing the most violent action titles out, and the woman choosing the latest crop of rom-coms and melodramas. What surprised me (despite wondering how compatible they might be as a couple) was the way they fell into an marketers dream of gender stereotypes.

I have lived in Canada for over 10 years now, and must admit I have found that gender cultural difference far more pronounced in North America than in the UK.  For example, male nurses (such as myself) are far less common here and people often assume I am gay when my profession comes to light. There seems to be far more separation of activities deemed suitable for boys and girls in primary and secondary schools, and cultural activities designed to segregate the sexes.

I must admit, my memories of growing up in 1970’s UK hardly represents a paragon of gender equity. However, I recall that on Friday nights a group of friends (both men and women) would end up down the pub to put the world to rights. We had a circle of mates, that included both sexes, and in most social activities at college both girls and boys were involved. Here I find women refer to going out with their “girl-friends,” as the norm, and pubs here are still mainly a male domain. We also have women’s hospitals, rather than womens departments in general hospitals. It seems that the whole of Canadian society is much more geared up to support gender separation.

I recall my (rather naive) hopes for the future of human civilization as a young man where for a world of better equality of economic development, gender and racial inequalities and the end of discriminatory and socially divisive practices. I  hoped that scientific progress could help in this, and that women and men would be equally represented in the scientific community. When  I looked at the latest gender-gap report and the excellent interactive maps on the BBC site I see we still have a way to go (although it would have been great if they had included a map exploring gender inequalities in the science and technology sector).

Feminism in science is well established, and social scientists love to point out that science is not culturally neutral, and operates within the established cultural norms of the time.  Feminist postmodernists argue female subordination has no single cause or single solution. Sex and gender are seen as social constructs but are not necessarily constructed in the same way in different people and cultures. Central to feminist postmodern ideas are the notions that human beings represent interconnected collections of psycho-social inventions forming a fragmented existence and sense of identity. As such, ideas of universals and the power of rational analysis become meaningless, and likewise assumptions of feminist progress (Harding, 1986). These views expounded by Harding, and others have also argued some quite extreme positions, including that Einstein’s theory of relativity is gender-biased, and equating Newton’s Principia to a “rape manual.” These arguments tend to rely highly on metaphorical interpretation, whose methods can also be argued as simply presenting another ideologically motivated perspective of science to fit a certain viewpoint.

In all, feminist interpretivist approaches to science are clearly grounded in the historical inequalities and subordination of women in society. These are indisputable, for example we only need to look at suffrage; it remains a travesty of justice that women were only allowed the vote in the UK and Canada in 1918, and in the USA in 1921. There are, of course other sub-groups in society that have been ill treated in society, and whose contributions to the development of science have been understated (e.g., the early Islamic scientists, and African-American scientists to name but two).

The central question of whether women actually think differently to men at a fundamental level remains a keen area of debate, and making such affirmations in terms of sex inevitably raises the old dyadic arguments about the nature of superior/inferior ways of thinking that dogged early feminist attempts for equality. Overall I wonder that postmodern feminism represents yet another descriptive analytical framework that offers no clear explanatory theory and therefore, provides no grounds for positive action to improve things. 

Even in the economically developed world women often find it harder to gain equivalent salaries and career prospects as men in science. In terms of education is was interesting to see in the report that North America ranked #1 in gender equality whilst overall dropped to 20th.  The reasons for this are unclear, but even though the situation in most of Europe and North America is far better than  in say, China, Asia, Russia and the middle east (I recently heard Saudi Arabia described as the worlds biggest women’s prison); we still have a way to move forward in gender equity in scientific professions.

My sense is this needs to start early on in life. If we don’t stop promoting sexually stereotyped roles and behaviors in primary and secondary education and wider society then little will change. Educational and recreational activities that are gender specific need to be better integrated, and children treated as individuals in school rather than prepared for stereotypical gender roles.

It is good to see there are still plenty of examples of great Canadian female scientists, such as Dr. Irene Uchida, who died recently, but it would be good to see this become an unremarkable event in terms of gender in the future, and a society where senior female scientists or male nurses are not seen as anything unusual. We would be interested in hearing the experiences and thoughts of our female readers here.



Harding, S. (1986). The science question in feminism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.



Any Colour You Like; defining the terms of modern science

This week a joint post from us!

Recently I have noticed an increasing trend towards generalization in much student work, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and have some concerns this represents a gradual shift in terms of the level of scholarship and academic discrimination. Overall this seems to have been more evident over the last 10 years of so with the advent of postmodern approaches in my discipline. In the worst instances initial proposals for thesis work basically take form of “This is a problem, so I am going to talk to a bunch of people to see what they think and find out some stuff.” The latest trend of this I seem to be seeing in student writing seems to be “To explain this I call upon …” and I have to admit I have struggled to resist the temptation to add “…the power of Grey Skull.”

I was always a Thundercat man myself! However, in a similar vein, one thing that is increasingly happening here is that students are ‘retrofitting’ their work to theory. They carry out their research and then come up with statements such as “Vygotsky agrees with this” to which I normally write something like “That’s a bit of luck then!” (we’re far  more brutal with our feedback comments here in the UK…)

This isn’t a fault on our students side as we seem to have got across the idea that different theoretical perspectives must be acknowledged and no perspective is value free, but then also the principle that they are all equally valid, and you can choose any one that suits you. Students have been indoctrinated to always identify a specific theoretical perspective. Indeed, faculty incessantly ask them, “yes but what theoretical perspective are you going to use?” However, students often write “I  am going to use the XYZ lens” but do so to satisfy their professor, and then proceed without any attempt to explain why this is a  useful approach, give any justification, or consideration of alternatives. It actually reminds me a bit of the old BBC Play School TV show of my childhood where the story teller would say “today, children,  we are going to look through the round window.” Now, I know many postmodern scholars would nod sagely, and say “yes, exactly so!” but I must admit from an epistemological stance find this somewhat exasperating. In taking this approach what we are effectively doing is dumbing down the nature of scientific enquiry into a generalized descriptive melange, rather than a consideration of competing explanations, and discriminating arguments.

Allied to this, particularly at doctoral level, I have noticed a trend for students to write biographical pieces about themselves so you can see ‘where they are coming from’. This may have some validity if it actually related to any adopted theoretical stance , e.g. “Growing up in a working class area of the inner city forged my radicalism etc” but it rarely ever seems to. I agree with Bernie, you can’t just put ideas out like vegetables on a market stall. Sometimes,  I get the distinct impression that we have made students afraid to nail their colours to the mast, either because they don’t feel sufficiently confident with their approach or that they actually feel that they don’t have the depth of understanding to defend it. Increasingly students fall to citing another study that used their selected  approach or that the results justified the means. ironically this is even harder to defend academically.

Now in the dark and distant past of our undergraduate studies in Portsmouth, Roger and I had rather an eccentric lecturer who used to wear academic dress to lecture in (most of us thought he had either been sent down from Oxford/Cambridge, or was a big Batman fan, as no one else in the institution did so).

Yes, I remember him describing some environmental issue on the Yellow River, but doing so in Cantonese as he felt the local concerns didn’t translate well into English! We all thought he was, well, a little more than eccentric Bern, but looking back perhaps he was just ahead of the curve – sorry I digress…

Anyhow, I recall once him reprimanding me when I asked a question saying “”Define your terms young man, define your terms!”  Well, he did have a point, as if we are not specific we run the risk of obfuscating our meaning. Lets take the specific example of the use of the terms concept, construct and variable. These are not really interchangeable terms, which we can choose at will to describe phenomena but have specific meanings in the process of theory development.

Concepts are mental representations of things that allow us to share experiences and draw conclusions about the world. Concepts are also sometimes construed as abstract entities. They are expressions of an abstract form derived from generalization from particulars. For example, the concept of pain can be inferred from the observation of specific instances and records using inductive and abductive reasoning. Pain is a good example, as it remains a highly active area of research today.

To develop our concept into a form that can be explored further we need to describe it in some terms that can be analysed in detail. This leads us to the development of a construct or representative framework to describe the phenomena in measurable terms.  In science a construct is really a concept that has been deliberately adopted for a special scientific purpose. It has identified elements that can be measured (as the theoretical element itself cannot be directly observed or measured). The neuromatrix theory of pain, or intelligence is both good examples of constructs.  The actual elements of the construct are defined in specific terms that can be measured and these elements are known as variables. E.g. nociceptor potentials, or intelligence quotient (IQ). Once we have a construct with variables our theory can be tested though hypothesis generation and deductive reasoning to develop a theory that is substantiated by evidence.

Indeed I would agree with that, certainly distinguishing the terms ‘concept’, ‘construct’ and ‘variable’ and that these lead to generating hypotheses and then to testing (in what ever way is deemed appropriate).

In this way we can see the focus of empirical scientific work is really to generate and establish theories that can explain phenomena, and be used to support predictions of future events, or do other useful things. If we don’t define our terms carefully, consider arguments for the best explanation or choose a theoretical framework that we find appealing or fashionable without considering alternatives or justification, my concern is we move away from doing anything practically useful and into the realms of intellectualization for its own sake.

I agree,  justifying your stance  and terms carefully supports systematic and rigorous interrogation of the collected data. Data is only as robust as the methods used to collect it and the conclusions to any work are only as strong as the analytical processes that are used. Every step in the chain of rationale should work. If we employ an “I’m going to talk to a few people and find stuff out approach” as Bernie called it earlier, we really throw out any justification for how we might practically use those data, and what meaningful conclusions can be drawn. Also, foraging through a mass of interview transcripts and pulling out quotes to support a preconceived particular view is not systematic analysis. I fear that students often opt for such methods, not for any deep allegiance to post-modernism, or to any specific qualitative approach,  but rather that its perceived by some as an easier option, primarily because they don’t consider the complexity of the analytical methods that this requires. When students come to me with such project ideas I always asked them “How are you going to analyse this?” and most times the response is a blank expression. Perhaps in future I’ll add “…by the power of Grey Skull?”

To be fair to our esteemed students the blame lies with us, as it is our fault if, as academics, if we have taught them this sort of thing is acceptable. We only have our selves to blame, after all we shape our students behaviours in our own practices. Define your terms (although preferably not in a foreign language)!

Bernie and Roger