This evening  I was fortunate* to meet Greg Hunt, Federal Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water.  I mentioned how in 2003 I had used an opinion piece he had written in an exercise for undergraduate students.  The exercise involved creating a map of his argument.  He was, naturally, curious to see what such a map would look like.

* Update in 2013 – I’m now a bit embarrassed to have written that.  Greg Hunt has turned out to be (if indeed he wasn’t all along) the worst kind of politician, using lies and spin to defend the morally indefensible in craven pursuit of political power.

Background: In the leadup to the (second) Iraq war, one of the hot topics of debate was whether the proposed invasion was legal in international law.  In February 2003, a group of 43 Australian legal heavyweights published Coalition of the Willing? Make that War Criminals, arguing bluntly that the war would be illegal and that its architects (Bush, Howard, Major) would be war criminals.   One of the ringleaders in this piece was Hilary Charlesworth, who had been one of Greg Hunt’s teachers at the University of Melbourne Law School.

Greg Hunt took on the task of responding publicly.  In March 2003 he published Yes, This War is Legal.

At the time I was teaching critical thinking in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, using the method that we developed there, which was heavily based on argument mapping and required lots of practice mapping “real world” arguments.  I could think of no topic more timely, contentious and important than the legality of the upcoming war – and conveniently we had 800 word presentations of the arguments on each side.  So it made an ideal exercise in which these “best and brightest” young students could try out their emerging argument mapping skills.

For the record, I found that these students, among the most elite in the Australian educational system, were, for the most part, unable to ascertain the actual structure of the arguments presented on either side, even after having had many weeks of argument mapping training.  They could get a rough sense of the arguments, but discerning the precise logical shape demanded considerably more expertise than they had at that time.  Consequently, they were unable to properly evaluate the arguments; most ended up siding with the position they already favoured at an emotional or ideological level.  This is just an illustration of a quite general phenomenon; on matters of any complexity, the actual arguments are simply not comprehendable by most people.  And this of course is in large part because our standard means of presenting those arguments (e.g., in 800 word written opinion pieces in the newspaper) pose immense interpretative challenges.  The problem is not so much that people are stupid, but that the task given to them is far too difficult.

Anyway, here, in bCisive 2 format, is my own rendition, in argument map, of Greg Hunt’s case:


[click on image to view full-size version]

I’m not endorsing this argument.  What the map does is lay it out transparently, which lays the foundation for careful critique.  You can see at a glance such basic features as how many lines of argument there are; which points have been supported, and which merely asserted; where key assumptions lurk, waiting to be exposed; and so on.