Think Again (and again and again) MOOC

Course: Think Again: How to Reason and Argue
School: Duke via Coursera
Instructors: Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Dr. Ram Neta

Over the 12 weeks of Think Again, you will learn how to analyze and evaluate arguments and how to avoid common mistakes in reasoning. These important skills will be useful to you in deciding what to believe and what to do in all areas of your life. We will also have plenty of fun.

[addendum: Coursera has converted this course to their new platform; content may have changed (it’s a series of four courses now), and the experience may be very different]

I’ll say this for them: they did indeed have a lot of fun, as evidenced by that screen shot from the final video of the course. These guys take logic so seriously, that when a student in a prior run of the course made a convincing argument that Walter should shave his head, he had no choice but to comply (and added in Ram shaving his beard as well; I’m not sure where painting his face blue came in, but in for a penny, in for a pound). There was also an argument convincing us to always carry sausages (to fend off wild dogs, of course), probability questions using pig dice (where boxcars and snakeyes were replaced by snouters and leaning jowlers), a great deal of friendly back and forth jibing (the two instructors work at different schools), impromptu video celebrations at the close of the week, and a real-life Ghost in the Machine mystery on the forums that turned out to be some kind of technical glitch.

And it’s a good thing, because as I’ve said before, at some point all logic classes turn into someone droning on about if p then not q and r or if q then p and r implies p or q. That wasn’t the case here, since propositional logic was only a small portion of the course, but then there was probability, Bayesian equations, dozens of fallacies, Venn diagrams, and speech acts. Because of the breadth of the material, the depth was minimal, but I think the idea was to give an overview of different ways of approaching reasoning and arguments.

The course was divided into four segments of three weeks each, with Walter and Ram teaching alternating quarters. Most lectures included a set of ungraded exercises, anywhere from two to ten questions. Each three-week segment concluded with a graded quiz. The format of the quizzes were a little unusual: four quizzes for each segment were available, each a bit different (it seemed to me they got harder but that might’ve been fatigue), with only the best grade counting for that segment. It’s a variation of the multiple-attempts-with-a-pool-of-questions; I preferred it for some reason.

Not surprisingly, I found the segments I was most familiar with – propositional logic and probability – to be the easiest, and the rest to be more difficult. What makes this interesting is that the “easier” sections were more mathematical, while the more difficult argument construction and fallacy analysis were more about analyzing text. I may have to stop claiming to be a words person. In fact, I found close analysis of an argument – finding markers, reconstructing the argument – to be the most difficult part of the course. I still don’t know that I ever “got” it. In fact – and I feel bad saying this, since these two profs seem like incredibly nice guys who really enjoy teaching – I wish some of the effort put into hijinks had been put into figuring a better way of teaching close analysis and fallacies.

The forums were uneven. I started off very active, but backed off pretty quickly when it seemed there were some students who took the whole “argument” theme to heart and wanted to argue every minor point. I came back with vengeance in the propositional logic and probability sections, since I felt a little more secure there. While there were no CTAs and the instructors rarely posted, it seems they did keep an eye on things; after giving an explanation to another student, I made an offhand comment to the effect that I wish he could get an explanation from the instructor, since I wasn’t sure I was making sense, at which point Walter appeared to reassure me that my explanation was “right on target. Thanks, Walter, I needed that.

This was quite the course to take during the current Presidential primary season. I discovered Donald Trump uses assurance – all three varieties, authoritative, reflexive, and abusive – more than anything else, including facts or policy. And by the way, I’ve realized how much I rely on guarding – all the little hedge words like “probably” and “most”. But that’s the way the world often is; very few things are definite.

I signed up for this course because somewhere along the line, someone recommended it highly. As much as I like these guys, I can’t be that enthusiastic about it; I think the Melbourne logic courses did a far better job on propositional logic (the problem being, they’re no longer available), and AOPS does everything that can be done with probability and expected value. Those are specialty classes, however, and this was a broader overview, so the purpose is different. If you’re looking for a smorgasbord of approaches to logic – including some that are more real-life than technical – this might work great for you. And it is a lot of fun.

One response to “Think Again (and again and again) MOOC

  1. Pingback: Falling MOOCs | A Just Recompense

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