Odd coincidence

Sam Butchart wrote an entry on Critical Thinking for the Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand.  I was pleased to be among three philosophers Sam discussed in a little detail, the others being Charles Hamblin and Michael Scriven.

It turns out that all three were educated at the Geelong Grammar School and then at the University Melbourne.  Go figure.

(See A salute to Charles Hamblin and List of Old Geelong Grammarians.)


In an excellent post Ben Rattray, founder of change.org,  suggest that technology can help improve democracy by addressing  what he calls three core needs:

  1. Mass Civic Participation: Citizens need effective outlets for expressing their voice on the issues that matter to them more often than every 2–4 years, and at the local as well as the national level.
  2. Responsive Government: Elected officials need to be responsive to citizen concerns and directly engage with them in a way that ensures they feel authentically heard.
  3. Trusted Information: We need a new channel of distribution for political information that elevates trusted sources to guide citizens as they take civic action — a trust graph for politics.

Later in the post he elaborates  the idea of a trust graph for politics:

This isn’t something we’ve yet developed, but since we believe it will be a crucial component of any successful democratic system and an important part of our future, I’ll outline our current thinking here.

The foundation of this trust graph for politics is based on asking each citizen to follow the people and organizations whose political perspective they most trust — whether they’re friends, public intellectuals, business leaders, former elected officials, or public interest groups.

We would use this data to create a trust ranking index, similar to Google PageRank. The measure of how trusted a source is would not be based simply on their total number of followers, but on the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, whose trustworthiness would be measured by the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, and so on. The result would be to surface the people and organizations of all political perspectives who are highly trusted both by the trusted members of that community and by trusted people with different perspectives.

There is a striking similarity between this concept of a trust  graph and the notion of “credibility” we implemented in the YourView platform.  

The challenge we tried to address with YourView was that of identifying public wisdom on major public issues. Our idea was to create an online forum  which would encourage large-scale participation in high quality public deliberation, and to divine from that deliberation a collective viewpoint  which gave more weight to those participants who had more credibility which we defined as a demonstrated capacity to effectively engage in public deliberation.  Credibility was calculated automatically by algorithms embedded in the platform.  These had a pagerank-like quality in that  one of the key factors in building a strong credibility score was contributing in a way that met the approval  of high credibility people, particularly those who disagree with you. YourView thus encouraged participants to engage productively with people of the opposite persuasion rather than just preaching to the converted. 

Now, with major funding from the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency we are embarking on a project to build a platform for crowdsourcing intelligence analysis.  our plan is that the new platform will use YourView -like mechanisms, though in much more sophisticated ways, to identify the best analysts and to take advantage of that information in various ways to improve the quality of the results.

My hope is that what we  develop and build in this project will be of sufficient generality that it will also be able to be used  to address problems of democracy in broadly the manner  described  by Ben Rattray  and in our writings on the YourView project.

John Stuart Mill, in his classic On Liberty, said

three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it.

In this spirit, the second lesson of our free email course, Argument Mapping: Make Your Case Clear and Compelling covers the importance of anticipating and responding to objections to your position, and shows how you can use argument mapping to organise these arguments.

A participant, Chantal, asked: “My question would be about how to produce objections. You are saying we can train for that. Sometimes I try and no interesting idea will arise :( What type of question should I be asking myself to create this other point of view?”

This is an excellent question.  How might one actually go about identifying the strongest objections to one’s own position?

Here are some things you can try.  Of course not all of these may be feasible in your situation.

1. Ask Opponents, or Bystanders

Perhaps the most obvious strategy is just to ask one or more people who strongly disagree with your position.  Such people are likely to be quite happy to help, and are likely to know the best objections.

If you can’t ask somebody who strongly disagrees, you can try asking somebody who is neutral on the topic.  Having no emotional involvement in the matter, they may find it easier than you do to see the problems with your position.

2. Research the Topic

If your position is on an issue that many people may have considered, a little digital sleuthing will often quickly uncover the main arguments on the other side.  For public issues, it should be easy to find op-eds or magazine articles, government reports, and so on.  For more technical or academic issues, scholar.google.com is a great resource.

3. Adapt Objections to Similar Positions

The best arguments against your position might just be adaptations of the best arguments against similar positions.  For example, if you are proposing that there should be a new freeway to the airport, you could look at proposals for freeways elsewhere to quickly get an idea of the kind of objections you are likely to encounter.

4. Use Standard Form Objections

This is a closely related suggestion.  There are many standard types of objections to positions of various kinds.  For example, any position which involves restricting people’s behavior – e.g., a proposal to ban vaping in public places – will encounter objections from based on individual rights and liberties.  (See the rest of Mill’s On Liberty).  If your position is that your group or team should pursue a certain course of action, there will be objections based on risk, particularly worst-case possible outcomes.  And so on.

5. Construct Objections from Interests

Consider what interests are threatened by your position.  Objections might be direct or indirect expressions of those interests.  For example, if your position is that our future energy needs should be met by large nuclear fusion plants, your position will threaten anyone with an interest (commercial, ideological, or any other type) in standard renewable energy industries such as wind or solar.  Those interests will lead to objections such as the impact on jobs in regional areas.

6. Identify and Challenge Assumptions

Any position will depend on a range of assumptions.  You can identify objections by ferreting out all or most of your assumptions and challenging those yourself.  One way to do that is covered in the email course, Lessons 4 and 5.  This is using principles of logic to expose the hidden assumptions in your own arguments supporting your position.

In 1985, Robert Brandom gave a graduate course in Metaphysics and Epistemology in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.

I was in my first year as a graduate student, and attended the course along with most graduate students from my year group and many from the previous intake.

Pittsburgh’s philosophy department at the time was rated as one of the very best in the U.S., indeed the world, and it had many top notch faculty, including eminences such as Carl Hempel. However Brandom’s M&E course had a reputation as the premier event in the postgraduate coursework program.  It was deemed – and for many it was – a transformational experience.

Although Brandom was a relatively young philosopher who hadn’t yet attained his exalted status in the profession, we graduate students regarded him with awe and reverence.  We felt that being able to participate in Brandom’s seminar made us something of a special breed.

The lectures were three hours each, held once a week for a semester, in the seminar room on the tenth floor of the Cathedral of Learning.  We sat around a long boardroom-type table, with Brandom standing to deliver his lengthy, dense presentations.

Many of us took copious notes.  In most seminars you would try to understand the lecturer’s main points and succinctly distil them into your own words.  With Brandom, it seemed every sentence was expressed with such eloquence and insight it needed to be captured verbatim. I particularly remember his habit of expressing a point three times in a row, in three consecutive sentences, each with different shades and nuances.

After each lecture, I would go home and immediately start transcribing our notes on my new Macintosh (original 1984 model; 128k RAM, 400k floppy, no hard drive, 9″ screen). I vaguely recall relying on three sets of handwritten notes: mine, and probably those made by Sonia Sedivy and Irad Kimhi; though I possibly also used notes by Alisa Carse and Bill Blattner.  The notes, and my fresh memories of what was said, were merged into what ended up being fairly complete transcriptions.

These were then printed out on my original Mac dot matrix printer. Sometime after the end of the semester, I bound all the lecture transcriptions into a green plastic folder.

I also made detailed notes on many of the course readings, and these were included.img_1847

I kept that folder to this day, though I’ve rarely opened it, and certainly never read or studied its contents.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the only benefit I would get was from the act of synthesis, not from the result.

In 1994, Brandom published Making It Explicit, which covered much of the same territory and a great deal more, and rendered the lecture notes obsolete.

This year, I’ve been slowly discarding a lot of the “baggage” I’ve accumulated over the years, including lots of books and papers I know I’ll never read again.

Its time for the Brandom notes to go.

It is a bit hard to part with these yellowing, dot-matrix pages which represent such hard work and earnest enthusiasm.

So, I ran the notes through the scanner.

Here they are: Brandom M&E Lectures 1985 (30mb, pdf).

I can’t really imagine that anyone will ever want to read them. There might be a few people, perhaps some Pitt students from the 80s, who’d be interested to glance at them.

Here’s a sample page:


YourView Links

[This post is in response to a request from a colleague for “the best thing to introduce someone to YourView”.]

The goal of the YourView project was to develop a platform for identifying collective wisdom, focusing on major public issues, aiming to remedy some of the defects of democracy.  The platform was a deliberative aggregator, i.e. it supported large-scale deliberation and its aggregated outputs reflected that deliberation.  The project was active from around 2011 to 2014, with its moment of glory being when the platform was used as part of Fairfax Media’s coverage of the 2013 Federal Election.

The YourView platform is still alive and can be explored, though there has been no real activity on the site since 2014.  There is a collection of pages and links about the YourView project.

The best theoretical overview is Cultivating Deliberation for Democracy, particularly the second half.  The “The Zone” interview by Fairfax’s Michael Short is a good read.

Note: this is a draft section of a larger guide.  Comments welcome. 

What is reasoning? Everyone has an intuitive sense, though many would struggle if asked to define it.

A dictionary is usually a good starting point. Merriam-Webster defines reasoning as the process of thinking about something in a logical way in order to form a conclusion or judgment.  

This is OK as far as it goes, but we need to expand and sharpen it quite a bit.  To do this, let’s look at some simple examples.   

Reasoning as a mental activity

Suppose Daniel, someone you know and trust, tells you that a person he knows, Marie, is married.  You now know Marie is in fact married.  Put differently, you are now confident that the claim Marie is married is true.  

Now Daniel asks: does Marie have a husband? Think about that before reading on.


If you’re like most people, you would have quickly thought something like Of course Marie has a husband – she’s married! But then you may well have reflected a bit more.  Why would Daniel ask about this, if the answer is so obvious?  What’s the trick?  

The “trick,” of course, is that Marie could be married to a woman, and so have a wife.  Marie might be lesbian and live in a state allowing same-sex marriage.  Or Marie might in fact be a straight man.  Marie’s being married doesn’t prove she has a husband – though she probably does.    

Your thinking here involved considering various ideas – Marie’s being married, Marie’s being a lesbian, Marie’s being a man, and perhaps others – and arriving at a judgement about Marie’s having a husband.  This is reasoning in the Merriam-Webster sense.

In slightly technical terminology, we say that you considered various claims, and also your confidence in the truth of these claims:

Claims Your confidence in their truth
Marie is married. Certain
Marie is a lesbian, married to a woman. Remote possibility.  
Marie is a man, married to a woman. Remote possibility.

and, given the logical relationships among these claims, you arrived at a level of confidence in another claim:

Claim Your confidence in its truth
Marie has a husband. Probable

So in this sense, reasoning is a mental activity; it is:

  • Understanding the logical relationships, if any, among claims; and  
  • Adjusting your confidence in those claims accordingly.  

However this is not the full story.

Reasoning is also the network of claims

Sometimes the word “reasoning” is used to refer not to the mental activity but to the claims themselves.

For example here are the various claims in the above example, with a few extra words (but, and, so) used to indicate logical relationships among them:

Marie reasoning

This is the sense of “reasoning” we are using when we say things like Show me your reasoning! or The reasoning in the article is flawed.  

Reasoning in this sense is like a social network, except claims replace people, and logical relationships replace personal relationships.  Note that just as some people in a social network have no relationship with to each other, some of the claims in the reasoning might not be logically related at all.

Thus, “reasoning” has two different meanings: the mental activity, and the network of claims.  These are of course closely connected; the network is what the mental activity is about.  

Reasoning can be presented in prose, or in a diagram

A network of logically related claims is an abstract thing.  We always need some way to show or present the network, so that our minds can see and follow it.

The standard way to do this is to express the claims in prose (writing or speech).  Examples abound; just look at the opinion page of any newspaper.  Here’s an example of some reasoning expressed in standard prose:

Religion Reasoning.png

It’s not set out rigidly as in the list for the Marie example above, but it is still expressing logically related claims, aimed at getting you to agree that not all religions deserve equal respect.  (Plus, it’s more fun to read.)

Representing reasoning in text is so common, and so normal, that most people hardly even realise that that is what they are doing.  There is however an alternative.  We can represent a network of claims diagrammatically.  

Here’s a diagram for the religion example:

Religion diagram.png

Note that arrows are used instead of the words like but, and and so in the Marie example; and the claims are arranged left to right in a logical order, though one quite different to the order in which they appeared in the original text.

There are lots of different ways to diagram reasoning, depending on what conventions you choose to adopt.  The diagram above is very minimalist.  In this course, we’ll be using a few different types of diagramming.  

To understand somebody’s reasoning, we must model it.

As mentioned, people almost always present reasoning in ordinary prose.  Consequently, we (the readers) have to interpret the prose in order to understand what their reasoning is.  Sometimes this is simple and effortless.  Other times, it is very difficult.  Often it is not at all obvious exactly what the reasoning is, and we have to make our best guess.  

In this course, such “guesses” or interpretations are called models of reasoning.  The diagram above presents a model of the reasoning in the religion text.

Coming up with this model required:

  • Figuring out what claims were being made as part of the reasoning.  For example, the sentence “Jedi knights, for example?” was interpreted as making the claim It is appropriate to ridicule Jedi Knights.
  • Figuring out what logical relationships, if any, these claims are supposed have to each other.  The arrows show these logical relationships.   Notice that nothing in the original text explicitly specified these particular relationships.  They are a matter of interpretation.  

Now, you may not agree with the model expressed in the diagram.  You may think that the author’s reasoning was different.  You might be right; but that would just highlight that you are coming up with your own model of the reasoning, and that coming up with such models is what we always have to do when we read or listen to prose presentations.  

Religion Model.png

An argument map displays a model of reasoning

In practice, a reasoning model is usually displayed diagrammatically.  In the graphic above, the middle representation, the list of claims and their relationships, was included for a couple of reasons.  First, it emphasises the point that reasoning (in one sense) is a set of claims with logical relationships.  Second, it makes visually clear that the same reasoning can be expressed in prose or displayed in a diagram.  

A diagram displaying a model of reasoning in some text can be thought as a kind of map.   A good analogy here is the classic subway map.  The subway map does not show the subway system exactly as it is in reality.  Rather, it portrays certain aspects of the subway system.  Similarly, a diagram of the reasoning expressed in a piece of prose cannot display the reasoning itself; it can only ever show a model of the reasoning.  

A diagram displaying a model of the reasoning expressed in a text is called an argument map.  

Religion Map.png


We’ve just covered a fair bit of theory, so here is a brief recap.  We defined reasoning as

  1. In one sense, a mental activity, in which we understand the logical relationships among claims, and adjust our confidence in the truth of those claims accordingly.  
  2. In another sense, a network of claims defined by logical relationships.    

Reasoning in the second sense must always be expressed or displayed in some way so that we can see what it is and apply our reasoning capacities to it.  Almost always, reasoning is laid out in prose (speech or writing).  However it is also possible to present reasoning diagrammatically.  A diagram will usually be much better than prose in specifying exactly what the reasoning is.  

Often, it is not easy to identify the reasoning somebody has expressed in prose.  We need to make our best guess as to what that reasoning is; in other words, we need to come up with a model of the reasoning. An argument map is a diagram displaying such a model.






Many people who are new to argument mapping look for a convenient software tool.  Similarly, instructors in critical thinking or informal logic would often like to point their beginner students to a suitable tool for basic argument diagramming.  Ideally that tool would:

  • Be easy to use
  • Be good enough for simple maps
  • Not require installation
  • Not require a specific operating system (Windows, Mac) or browser
  • Not require creating an account on (yet another) website
  • Integrate seamlessly with other tools already being used
  • Be free

After much searching around over the years, my current view is that the tool best meeting these conditions is Microsoft SmartArt.  Nearly everyone already has, or has access to, Word and PowerPoint, and many use them almost everyday.  Most would be surprised to know that they have built in a passable facility for quickly creating simple argument maps.

Of course I’d known about SmartArt, and the possibility of using it for argument mapping, for years.  However for most of that time I’d written it off as being superficially attractive but too limited and frustrating to use.  Recently I’ve changed my tune.  As described below, if you pick the right template and persevere a little bit, you’ll find that SmartArt can do a reasonable job.  It is certainly not ideal, but it may be the best – or rather, the least bad – option currently available.

If you’re not familiar with SmartArt there are introductory videos on Youtube, such as this one.

In what follows I’ll assume that argument maps are (basically; see below) hierarchies or tree structures.  This is convenient because all SmartArt templates are based on hierarchies, represented in editing mode as indented lists.  Some of the SmartArt templates are explicitly classified as “Hierarchy”:


The templates I find work best are Labeled Hierarchy and Table Hierarchy.  (Tip: don’t bother with the one called Hierachy.)

Here’s a very simple argument map in Labeled Hierarchy format:

simple trump map

This is using the default colour scheme.  A little adjusting using the usual formatting commands results in a map with a more standard colouring:

simple trump map colour

This template has a few drawbacks.  For example, the lines joining the arguments to the contention really should be separate arrows.  Overall, however, it is a pretty classy diagram, and it only takes a minute or two to create.

A neat feature of SmartArt is you can easily change the template while keeping the content the same.  Here’s the same map (minus the labels) in Table Hierarchy format:


I’ve included in this image the editing panel at left.  This is only visible when the SmartArt graphic is selected.

As you’d expect, arguments can be nested indefinitely deeply:


The SmartArt algorithm is “space filling” so that no matter how many nodes there are in the argument, the map will fit into whatever space you specify for the SmartArt graphic.  The SmartArt graphic can be resized by simple dragging operations.  If you want to create a really complex map, you can set a large custom size for your Word page or your PowerPoint slide, and add as many boxes as you like.

Any experienced argument mapper reading this will no doubt be thinking something like:

Fine, but what about multi-premise arguments (a.k.a. linked arguments)?

The reality is that hierarchical argument maps are not actually simple tree structures.  The technical name for the kind of structure that argument maps have is hi-tree; see this paper for explanation, and a description of layout algorithms for hi-trees.  SmartArt is based on simple tree structures, and so in principle cannot properly represent reasoning. However the Table Hierarchy format allows a pretty good approximation:


Note the nested linked arguments.

To create the bar which binds premises into a linked argument, you just create an empty node in the hierarchy, and resize and recolour it appropriately.

In theory, there’s no limit to how complex Table Hierarchy maps could get.  In practice, the map above is towards the upper limit for SmartArt argument maps.  The biggest problem you start to encounter is that modifying the map structure starts to become a challenging exercise in hierarchical puzzle-solving.  You can’t just drag and drop objects to add to, or modify, a map; all editing of structure is done in the left hand panel (see graphic above) as operations on an indented list.  This is easy in simple cases but becomes frustrating and time-consuming in more complex maps.

Even in simple cases, using SmartArt to create argument diagrams takes a certain amount of familiarity with SmartArt manipulation and Word formatting more generally.  I haven’t tried to cover these topics in this post.  If you’re an instructor recommending SmartArt as a diagramming tool, you’d probably want to have/get that familiarity yourself and then give your students some guidance.  Guidelines might include:

  • Use the right template (NOT the one called “Hierarchy”)
  • Specify font size across the whole graphic to specific size rather than allowing the algorithm to set font sizes
  • When needed, resize the whole graphic so text fits nicely in boxes

These are very simple operations to carry out when you’re familiar with them.

Also you probably should provide students with semi-prepared graphics for them to use as starting points.

For more advanced users…

For anyone who wants to get more serious about argument mapping, but still wants

  1. To stay within the Word environment; and
  2. Something free

there is the CASE-mapping Word Add-in we created to support a specific variety of argument mapping:


It comes with an instruction manual, but the support material that is currently publicly available is quite limited, so you need to have a pretty good idea what you’re doing to find this useful.