Argument is an essential piece of critical thinking and as a profession grounded in science, it is unambiguously necessary for the advancement of physical therapy. This is because science is moved forward by critique and from this critique comes refinement and progression. With this in mind, it is distressing to see so many of my colleagues claim that we need to “stop arguing” — Part of the issue might come from semantics surrounding the word “argument”, but I think the bigger issue is something a bit deeper than that.
To clarify, a scientific argument is a statement designed to convince an individual of a claim by providing some sort of supporting evidence or reasoning. An example would be “Throwing a kitchen sink at someone’s arm is an effective treatment for elbow pain because the blunt force trauma it causes kickstarts the healing process of tissues in disrepair.” — Hopefully, if I were to tweet this out or create a continuing education empire out of Kitchen Sink Therapy, my colleagues would be comfortable providing a counterargument — a statement designed to rebut my original claim — which shows that the reasoning behind my Kitchen Sink Therapy is actually not so good. These types of interactions are paramount to developing sound reasoning and provide an invaluable form of checks and balances. If we were to stop arguing, premises like Kitchen Sink Therapy would largely go unchecked. This is a bad thing — Kitchen Sink Therapy might grow to be quite popular because of clever marketing and grandiose claims, all of which would go unchecked and face no scrutiny. A lot of people might take the course and Kitchen Sink Therapy could very well become pervasive in clinical practice despite it largely making no sense at all. This would be great for my bank account, but not so great for our profession and our patients. We need argument to vet and refine our claims and premises.
The use of argument in every day language likely generates confusion, as the word is often attached to an unintelligible shouting match with little thought to reason and nuance. Certainly there is no room for these types of interactions in professional debate and discussion, but this is absolutely not what we as a profession should think of as argument. We are fortunate to have unparalleled access to debate and discussion via blogs, social media and other venues. There is no reason why we should not leverage these venues to broadcast our arguments, have them be countered by peers all over the world and hopefully develop a more sound stance because of such interaction.
A deeper issue is that we as a profession are simply not that good at arguing. Scientific argument is something that is not emphasized much in our entry level education, we do not encourage argument and subsequently do not argue enough. Due to these things, we do not have a healthy culture of debate and argument in our profession and our ability to deliver and accept critique is subpar at best. You do not have to look too far on Twitter or on Facebook discussion groups to find examples of this — People are attacked instead of their claims, well balanced critiques of ideas are read as personal insults and the discussion inevitably devolves into pointless quarreling. Our interactions move further away from those of a scientific community and more resembles the bickering of children.
This devolution into bickering is not inherent to scientific argument and is certainly not reason to “stop arguing” — but it is every bit an indication that we need to improve our ability to deliver and accept critique, agree to disagree the less wrong way and develop well reasoned, good intentioned arguments. In doing so we can foster a culture of argument and debate in physical therapy that serves only to advance our profession.
Photo courtesy of the Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb