how do people actually reason in public?

Considering the vast literature on public deliberation and deliberative democracy, there’s surprisingly little research on how people actually reason when they meet in groups to discuss public issues. I was delighted, therefore, to read Brian E. Adams’ paper “Conversational Dynamics in Deliberative Forums: The Use of Evidence and Logic.”

Adams coded and analyzed transcripts of National Issues Forums. (For full disclosure, I sit on the board of the Kettering Foundation, which created and supports the NIF.) Participants voluntarily met for moderated discussions of immigration or energy policy. They tilted somewhat toward the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum but they were diverse.

Adams doesn’t assess the quality of their reasons, seeing such judgments as too subjective, but he does ask whether participants made proposals and supported them with clear and relevant reasons. He codes just 10% of the statements as “free-floating” conclusions or definitions, without any reasons. But he thinks that the “deliberators were unable to articulate their arguments clearly and develop logically sound reasoning.”

Sometimes, I think, Addams is too stringent in his judgments. For instance, this is supposed to be an example of a person who was “unable to articulate” both evidence and a conclusion:

Yesterday the headlines in the newspaper were “Al Qaeda finds that the best way to get into the country now is the Mexican border.” And we talked earlier a little bit about removing the border guards to some extent. That simply is not going to fly in this country in this day and age. Your point about the illegal trafficking, hey, that’s how they’re going to come in. And so … [trails off] (George, Cedar Rapids)

This is not a highly articulate remark, but I don’t think that George actually had to state that because terrorists could cross the Southern border, we need to make security tight. He has left some premises unstated, but that is an appropriate way to talk when others share your premises. Arguments with implicit but understood premises are “enthymemes,” and they are OK.  Of course, whether terrorists really come across the Southern border–and whether they can be efficiently stopped–are different questions, but George potentially contributes that that discussion.

I also think it’s fine that many remarks are simply questions. For example, someone says, “One of the things that we typically don’t address is what are realistic expectations for healthcare?” Adams first analyzes this remark as “avoidance of reasoned argumentation” because it lacks a conclusion or proposal, but I would read it more as a “springboard to further discussion” (a point that Adams concedes a bit later on).

Overall, I’d say that a certain style of public rhetoric (with explicit premises leading to policy conclusions) is desirable, and we ought to teach it because it doesn’t come naturally. But it is not the only kind of rhetoric that contributes to public reasoning. Throwing in a fact, asking a question, expressing a doubt, telling a personal anecdote, offering moral support–these are also helpful forms of discourse.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.