Reality Testing: Validity, or do you actually know what you are talking about?

There is a simple fact about logic that most people ignore: a logical argument only needs to make connections from one point to another to seem logical. It need not actually reflect the real world in any way, you just have to see how one conclusion leads to another. When arguments are logical, but not a reflection of the real world, there is a good chance that you can seem foolish, but when those arguments have real world applications, they can also make you dangerous.

It is possible to have an argument that is entirely rule based and logical without having it reflect reality. For instance:

1. An elephant is a grey mammal with ears that are large in proportion to its head.

2. Mice are grey mammals with ears larger in proportion to their heads

3. Mice can fit in teacups

Therefor an elephant can fit in a teacup

This is a very logical series of statements. It also, in no way reflects reality. It’s failure lies in its incomplete definition of “elephant.” Even though it is true that an elephant does have ears that are large in proportion to its head, is a mammal, and is grey, this definition is not specific enough and creates too generalized a category for “elephant.” As a result, “mouse” technically fits into the “elephant” category as it was defined, even though in reality, they are two different creatures.

This is a very important concept called “construct validity.” This concept asks that you check to make sure the “constructs,” or the definitions of the subjects of your investigation, are properly defined to make sure they are “valid,” or accurately reflect those same subjects in reality.

So how do you ensure construct validity?

The simple answer is to look at reality itself. You can do this yourself by actively researching and working with the subject yourself. This gives you first hand information, and enough time, an expertise in the field. However, it is not possible to gain expertise in everything (I know, I’ve tried). Because of that, it may become necessary to look to an expert for information, gathering it from an informed second hand source.

There are a few obstacles to overcome when looking for expert information. The first is that you actually have to verify that your source has the expertise that will give you a good reflection of reality. Kirk Cameron and Stephen Jay Gould both have a lot to say about the theory of evolution, for instance, but the experience and the knowledge base of the latter makes him a better choice for any investigation on the topic, because his understanding of evolution is more likely to be valid.

The second obstacle is that of filtering fact from opinion. Facts represent verifiable data. Facts are concrete, observable by others, and measurable, and though they can be in error from time to time, facts cannot be disputed through mere argument, but require a conflict in observation to be called into question. Opinion is an interpretation of that data. As such two different people can look at the same information and form two different opinions due to their difference in interpretive styles. Opinions are easier to challenge because so long as you can account for the data at hand, you can easily create competing opinions to argue. This may seem like an elementary concept to point out, but when you look at the arguments that appear in popular media today, it’s filled with people who will force an opinion on you like it is a fact, or refuse to acknowledge collected facts when they conflict with opinion.

Lack of construct validity does not just produce poor arguments, it can, and has, produced a lot of dangerous arguments. The essence of every argument of prejudice, oppression, and genocide has been based off of the ideas that a particular group can be defined as inferior, and in some way, not quite “human.” The construction of “intelligence” has had a particularly rough time because of problems of construct validity, as its history of definition and method of measurement have been so problematic over the centuries, that many groups have been wrongly marginalized for due to incorrectly being labeled for lacking it (The Mismeasure of Man, by the aforementioned Stephen Jay Gould, is a good source for a discussion on this)

So how can you endure construct validity?

1) Make sure you properly and fully define your terms and do that first. If someone questions your construct, do not proceed until you can show that your construct reflects reality.

2) If you need to show your construct reflects reality, cite a reference showing facts. The difference between a real challenge to construct validity and semantic nitpicking is that the construct validity challenge is made by offering conflicting facts, while semantic nitpicking is the offering of alternate opinions.

3) Draw from reliable sources of information. Don’t just quote random references from the internet or famous people because they support your view. Use sources that are dedicate to serious scholarship, including peer reviewed journals, books and university publications. When evaluating experts, look at their years in the field, their certifications, their publication histories or renown in the field, and the criticisms levied against them.

The dedication to Construct Validity may seem trivial, but without it, no argument you make, no matter how logical, is reflective of reality. And without it, at best, you may look like a fool, but at worst, you can really hurt people.

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