I've been watching waaayyy too many documentaries lately. Anything from why some country does this and that, why trains or why not trains, or mathematics this and physics that.
Here I will argue in three acts that arguments in documentaries should be better. First, I show a concrete example where a documentary tries to explain why Switzerland is so rich. Second, I will argue that they only provide plausible but unverified claims, no real argumentation. Third, I argue that such incomplete arguments train the viewer to be uncritical and to accept terrible arguments too easily.
For a concrete example, let's take a documentary on why Switzerland is so rich. I am not picking on this one in particular, most others do the same mistake.
So why is Switzerland so rich? The number here is that the Swiss have a mean wealth of $700,000 per person. The median is at $168,000.
The US has a mean of $580,000 per person and a median of $93,000. Germany is at a mean of $257,000 and a median of $60,600.
So the Swiss are quite rich. Why?
The documentary argues that a significant part of that is due to its political stability. Remember the world wars? Me neither, but we all learned about them, and they destroyed a lot all over Europe. It could be one reason why Germany is significantly poorer.
There are other reasons why the Swiss are so rich. According to the documentary, these include education and their global commodities trade, and probably some more things I am forgetting.
The arguments make sense. The documentary is probably correct.
However, to show that the wars are indeed an important reason for Switzerland's riches compared to Germany's, one would want to see the median wealth per person as a function of time. That graph should include the period of the world wars. The expectation is to see a significant reduction in Germany's wealth, and maybe only a little reduction for the Swiss and Americans.
Why is the documentary not showing such a graph? What is it that makes the narrator say so confidently that the world wars are a reason (not the only reason) for Swiss relative wealth? Did they see such a graph? If they did, why don't they show it? Is it hard to make such a graph? Did Piketty & Co. not collect such data?
So here is my gripe: The documentary fails to present a convincing argument why the arguments presented are the actual reasons for Swiss wealth. We as the viewers are left out of the full argumentation. An argument needs more than to be internally consistent and plausible. We need to hear the reasoning that leads us to believe these are the actual processes that lead to Swiss riches.
As it stands, the documentary provides little more than plausible claims of what could be the cause.
What is the effect on the viewer?
In the best case, the viewer will have more ideas on what could be plausible reasons for Swiss wealth.
In the worst case, the viewer will never learn what a good argument looks like. In fact, I stipulate that the viewer gets trained to make such incomplete arguments themselves.
Do I have proof? No. Do I have data to show this? No. All I can say is that the argumentation in the documentary is incomplete, and to take this as a reminder that we need to be significantly critical of documentaries, not just of fake news.
These documentaries throw away a perfectly good opportunity to educate people on how to argue. Do better!