Episode 9: Descriptive, Normative and Prescriptive Issues 2

In Episode 9 Nick and Dave proctor a monster quiz over the three kinds of issues.

SCRIPT:
Nick: You are back again with Critically Minded (Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners). The podcast for English learners who want to improve their critical thinking skills.
Dave: Or critical thinkers who want to improve their English. We’re your hosts David–
Nick: And I’m Nick. Now last week, listener, we began a discussion of descriptive, normative and prescriptive issues. You’ll also recall that each kind of issue is signaled by an indicator word. You might have been disappointed that there was no quiz last week so, this week we continue that discussion with a monster quiz!
Dave: Nick, I think that right now would be an excellent time for that quiz.
Nick: Yes, listener, so without any delay we’ll begin the quiz. Please listen to the following sentences. Are the issues descriptive, normative or prescriptive? #1 Although minimum wage increased fifteen cents last year, the income of the average American decreased by 7%. #2 Is marriage better than living together? #3 If I had AIDS, then the test would be positive. But the test was negative so I don’t have AIDS.
Dave: #4Which are better pets, goldfish or hamsters? #5 Which president is from a more conservative state, Bush or Obama? #6 You need to spend at least fifteen minutes in the sun every day for your body to produce enough Vitamin D.
Nick: #7 Which has more caffeine, a can of cola or a cup of coffee? #8 Drugs and prostitution should be legalized. They are legal in Amsterdam and they don’t have as many problems with gangsters as we do. #9 The question I am raising is: Why must we have speed limits on the expressway?
Dave: #10 Couples should be required to take a test and get a parents’ license before having children. #11 Many restaurants have No Smoking areas. I think we need No Children areas too! #12 Do the chances of birth defects and infants born with down syndrome rise dramatically in pregnant mothers over 35 years of age?
Nick: And there you go listeners. Are they descriptive, normative or prescriptive? If you want, go back and listen to this episode from the beginning. So are you ready? Right then, we’re going to roll up our sleeves and get straight to work.
Dave: I was born with my sleeves rolled up.
Nick: All right then. Let’s have that first question.
Dave: #1 Although minimum wage increased fifteen cents last year, the income of the average American decreased by 7%.
Nick: We asked our listeners to tell us whether the issue in question #1 is descriptive, normative or prescriptive. So #1 is . . .descriptive. There are no value related words, no normative issue indicators.
Dave: And no adjectives at all.
Nick: Right. Good point, David. Adjectives are not always normative, but if you have a normative issue you will probably find a lot of adjectives. All right . . .
Dave: #2 Is marriage better than living together? Well, there we have an adjective, the word “better.” Words like good, better, bad and worse are strong indicators that the issue may be normative or prescriptive. Since there are no comments in the sentence about what should be done in the future or what needs to be done or what ought to have been done, this is not prescriptive. It’s normative.
Nick: All right, #3 If I had AIDS, then the test would be positive. But the test was negative so I don’t have AIDS. Again, no value judgments. The simple cold hard facts. Descriptive. #4Which are better pets, goldfish or hamsters?
Dave: There’s that word again.
Nick: Right, so this issue is . . . normative. It’s not telling us that we should or shouldn’t keep one animal or the other, just that one animal is better than the other. #5 Which president is from a more conservative state, Bush or Obama? David, you’re the American here. How would you answer this one?
Dave: Well politics can become a very emotional subject, especially a discussion of conservative and liberal American politics. It’s difficult for most people to hear the words “conservative” or “liberal” without applying values. But asking whether Texas or Illinois are conservative or liberal is a matter of public record. There’s really no question that Texas is the more conservative of the two and if you want, you can check the past voting records in each state for the last ten years or more. It’s very simply a descriptive issue. #6 You need to spend at least fifteen minutes in the sun every day for your body to produce enough Vitamin D. It’s prescriptive. The phrase, need to (do) is usually a value-indicator. It also tells you what must be done in order to produce enough Vitamin D. #7 Which has more caffeine, a can of cola or a cup of coffee?
Nick: That’s another simple one. We can test a can of cola and a cup of coffee to give us the answer. We’re not interested in whether caffeine is good or bad. So, it’s descriptive. #8 Drugs and prostitution should be legalized. They are legal in Amsterdam and they don’t have as many problems with gangsters as we do. Should is a prescriptive issue indicator. #9 The question I am raising is: Why must we have speed limits on the expressway?
Dave: This is the first example that has included the word “why.”
Nick: But don’t let the word “why” distract you. The word “must” makes this a prescriptive issue. True it’s not giving an opinion, but it is asking a question about a subject that deals with what some people think must be done. #10 Couples should be required to take a test and get a parents’ license before having children. By now, listeners, this should be easy. The issue is prescriptive and the word should, should make that pretty easy.
Dave: #11 Many restaurants have No Smoking areas. I think we need No Children areas too! Again, the phrase need suggests that a change is necessary, that something ought to be done. So again, we have a prescriptive issue. Lastly, #12 Do the chances of birth defects and infants born with down syndrome rise dramatically in pregnant mothers over 35 years of age? There are no value indicators here. The writer is not telling people what they should or must do. What is being asked is whether or not the chances of these kinds of problems increase after a certain age. It’s a descriptive issue, plain and simple.
Nick: So listeners, how did you do? Remember even if you scored poorly, the important thing is that you understand why.
Dave: Let’s move on now to the second half of this monster episode. We want to talk about exceptions to the rule. We have said that words like must and need are most commonly indicators of prescriptive issues.
Nick: As in for example, “You must not come to work late” or “You need to set your alarm to an earlier time if you want to catch the 7:05 train.”
Dave: The problem is that in the case of the words must and need it is possible to find them used for both descriptive and prescriptive issues. For example: If you want to look inside the refrigerator, you must first open the refrigerator door.
Nick: This is a simple descriptive statement of fact. This next statement is using must in quite a different way:
Dave: You must not leave the refrigerator door open. As you listeners all surely know, this is a prescriptive issue. The speaker is making a value judgment, telling us that what, in their opinion, we have been doing is wrong. Most of us do not need to have it explained to us why leaving the refrigerator door open is not a good thing. It wastes electricity and it wastes money as you will understand when you receive your monthly electrical bill. The food inside will become warm and unsafe to eat! And if you live at home with your parents, your mother or father may scold you!
Nick: Therefore, You must not leave the refrigerator door open.
Dave: And here we have a prescriptive argument. The word need is also similar in that it may be used in both descriptive and prescriptive arguments. For example: You need two eggs to make an omelet. Is quite a different statement from: You need to spend less time watching television and more time studying. Once again, the first sentence is a simple statement of fact and the second contains an element of urgency.
Nick: We do not need to have it explained to us that there are only twenty-four hours in a day and that we must choose wisely how to spend those hours. We do not require an explanation that study leads to better grades.
Dave: But if it were explained, as Nick just has, you would then have a prescriptive argument. Well, as we’re finishing an important segment of this course, and since you just had a long quiz there will be no quiz this week.
Nick: But be ready for an especially interesting episode next week, as we enter into the topic of the fallacy of generalization.
Dave: We mentioned this kind of error, the fallacy of generalization, a couple of weeks ago when we discussed modus polens / modus tollens. We looked at a couple of short examples.
Nick: But next week we’re going to look at some real life examples, the kind of errors, both deliberate and accidental, that you see when you pick up a newspaper or hear talk at your workplace. So until next time–
Dave: You have been listening to Critically Minded (Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners).

 

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Date: Wednesday, 4. June 2014 1:00
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2 comments

  1. 1

    I did those quizzes…
    My score is almost correct.
    Thanks to this episode,I have understood the difference between Descriptive,Normative and Prescriptive argument.
    Little by little I can see what critical thinking is.

  2. 2

    That’s great to hear. I am also getting a clearer understanding myself! It’s a lifelong learning process, I think. There’s always more to learn.

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