As mentioned a few posts ago, I’ve been resisting the temptation to write in this space, due to an academic paper demanding completion.

The paper is about Rationale, for a legal journal; here is the “table of contents”:

Rationale: A Generic Argument Mapping Tool
1. Rationale Overview
2. Making Humans Smarter.
2.1 Educational
2.2 Professional
3. Why Does It Work?
3.1 Usability
3.2 Complementarity
3.3 Semi-Formality
4. Conclusion: Rationale and Legal Reasoning

Here is the current draft of a section. Comments welcome.

3. Why does it work?

Assuming that Rationale really does (or at least can) make humans smarter, it is interesting to ask why this is so. What is it about the Rationale, or argument mapping software more generally, which helps us reason more effectively? Because argument mapping is a new phenomenon, there has so far been little serious research in this area. We are only gradually developing an understanding of the relevant issues. At least three main themes are emerging: usability, complementarity, and semi-formality. These are not three independent explanations; they are better thought of as overlapping “takes” on how or why Rationale achieves its intended effect.

3.1 Usability

In a nutshell, the first claim is this: a tool like Rationale improves reasoning because it is highly usable for reasoning activities, or at least more usable than relevant alternatives. This is not simply the assertion that the software is “user friendly,” which usually means that the software is attractive to, and easily used by, naive users. Rather, the technical notion of usability concerns the degree to which a tool or system enables standard users to conduct their activities or achieve their goals effectively and efficiently, and perhaps also with some measure of pleasure or satisfaction. A usable tool may not be very user-friendly to naive users. A good analogy here is windsurfing. There are basically two kinds of windsurfing boards. Beginner boards are large, stable, and float with a person standing on it even when not moving. They are very “friendly” to windsurfing naifs. Regular or advanced boards are smaller, less stable and more nimble; they are very difficult for beginners to use but support a far better windsurfing experience for those who are competent. The assertion that Rationale is highly usable means primarily that, like the advanced windsurfing board, it enables people who are competent in the use of the tool to engage in reasoning activities more effectively, efficiently and satisfyingly.

The claim that Rationale improves reasoning because it is highly usable plays out differently in each of the two main contexts of use. In the educational context, Rationale’s usability for reasoning helps improve reasoning skills by enabling a student to do more practice, and practice of a better kind, than they can do using traditional techniques. Just as you can become a much more skilful windsurfer through lots of practice on an advanced board, so you can a better reasoner through lots of use of a tool like Rationale, even if it takes some training to get “up to speed.” There is an important disanalogy however. In windsurfing, the skill you acquire can only be deployed on a suitable board; whereas in reasoning, the skills you acquire a more generic and transferable, and can be deployed even without the software tool which enabled the development of those skills.

In the professional context, the claim that Rationale improves reasoning performance because it is highly usable is a tautology, since to be usable is, by definition, to enable better performance. However invoking the notion of usability still helps because it points in a certain direction. Exploring the issue from a usability perspective can help us better understand why and how a software package like Rationale improves performance.

When we claim that a tool like Rationale is highly usable, we are not measuring Rationale’s usability on some independent, objective scale. Rather, we are saying that it is significantly more usable than relevant alternatives. Thus to make sense of the claim, we need some understanding of what the relevant alternatives are. What tool or tools do we standardly use to help us engage in informal reasoning or argumentation? If engaged in a complex debate over, say, carbon trading, or the war in Iraq, what do we use to help us organise and evaluate the arguments?

The answer is that, overwhelmingly, we use prose. By this I mean that we articulate our arguments using sentences organised sequentially on a page or pages, and using various strategies such as indicator words (“therefore” etc.), paragraphs, indentation and dot points to help illuminate how the parts of the arguments hang together. We use prose as a tool to help us develop arguments, as when we figure out what our argument is through producing and editing drafts; and to present arguments to others and even ourselves.

Argumentative prose can be considered a very generic or abstract kind of tool. Our use of prose is supported in turn by various more concrete technologies. For example we can use pen and paper, or we can use a word processor running on standard personal computing hardware. The support technologies have changed substantially over time but the way we use those technologies to support reasoning and argumentation has remained essentially constant from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers through to the present day, which is why works of Plato and Aristotle can still be part of the standard canon studied even by undergraduate philosophy students.

A tool can be very widely used even if it is not particularly usable. There are innumerable examples; thus, not so long ago, fountain pens were widely used for writing on paper, but they are less usable than ball-point pens, even if the result is sometimes more aesthetically pleasing. In the case of prose, people are generally so accustomed to using this tool, so ignorant of any alternative, and so blind even to the idea that prose is the tool they are using, that they fail to realise what its usability problems are or even that it has usability problems. Any deficiencies in a person’s reasoning, or presentation of reasoning, are attributed to deficiencies in their education or their intellectual capacities rather than being traced, at least in part, to inadequacies in the tools.

An “argument processor” such as Rationale, based not around prose but around custom diagrams, is an alternative to prose. Importantly, it is an alternative that was developed with the deliberate goal of being more usable than prose, so it would not be that suprising if it turned out in fact to be more usable. The interesting part is how it manages to be so.

First, any contemporary software tool is able to take advantage of the wisdom accumulated in decades of research into how interactive tools should be designed so as to best support our activities, particularly our cognitive activities. The lessons learned from this research are increasingly encapsulated in authoritative sources (textbooks, etc.) and embedded into the tools and conventions used to develop contemporary applications. They concern diverse issues in the design of a tool meant to maximize performance and an experience of “flow”: when and how to use (or avoid) “modes” or dialog boxes, how to use size and colour; how to align behavior with user’s mental models; etc. Rationale is in the fortunate position of being able to exploit this accumulated general wisdom and apply it, almost “off the shelf,” to the case of a tool to support reasoning activities.

Second, a tool like Rationale is adapted or tuned to the unique demands of reasoning and argumentation activities. Prose, and supporting technologies such as word-processors, are generic; they can be used for reasoning but are not designed specifically for such use. A purpose-built tool provides distinctive ways of representing reasoning structures and “affords” appropriate kinds of operations on those representations. Its design is constrained by the nature of reasoning activities, and at the same time not distorted or diluted by the need to support activities other than reasoning.
Third, an argument mapping package can take advantage of a wider range of basic representational resources. Consider some typical argumentative prose – for example, an opinion piece in a major newspaper. What means does the author use to help convey to you, the reader, how the various key claims hang together as an argument? Most obviously, the author might use explicit verbal indicators – phrases such as “This is because…” and “Hence…”. Other tactics include word and sentence ordering; paragraph breaks; and subtle cues based in the meaning of terms and the context in which the piece is written. That’s it. Upon reflection this is a remarkably meagre set; it almost wilfully ignores a range of other resources available not just to the contemporary computer user but even to a child with just a pad and a bag of coloured pencils. These resources include:
symbolic argument structure markers, such as the philosophers’ standard “P1, P2, … C”
colour; for example, using colour to represent the “polarity” of one proposition in relation to another, i.e., whether it supporting or opposing;
lines or arrows
position in space
If your goal is to produce displays of reasoning which maximise comprehension, manipulation, evaluation and communication, why wouldn’t you take advantage of such cheap but powerful visual aids? If we can break the shackles of convention and habit, we are free to exploit any resources which in practice can aid the process of reasoning. Argument mapping software helps itself to these resources, thereby gaining an “unfair” advantage over traditional argumentative prose.

Current packages such as Rationale are just stages in an ongoing process of redesign, the ultimate goal of which is a tool so usable that it becomes like an invisible extension of our cognitive apparatus. Just as we are not aware of our own brains when we are thinking, but are aware of what our brains are helping us think about, so an ideal argument mapping package would be like the blind man’s cane, something “through which” our minds engage in complex deliberation, conscious only of the reasoning itself, not of any issue or difficulty in dealing with the tool. No package has reached that goal yet, and perhaps no package ever will; but the best of the current generation are at least, by design, getting significantly closer to that goal.