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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.)


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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.


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The question of who actually wrote the works attributed to “William Shakespeare” is a genuine conundrum.  In fact it may be the greatest “whodunnit” of all time.

Although mainstream scholars tend to haughtily dismiss the issue, there are very serious problems with the hypothesis that the author was William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon. However all other candidates also have serious problems.  For example Edward de Vere died in 1604, but plays kept appearing for another decade or so.  Hence the conundrum.

Recently however this conundrum may have been resolved.  A small group of scholars (James, Rubinstein, Casson) have been arguing the case for Henry Neville.  A new book, Sir Henry Neville Was Shakespeare, presents an “avalanche” of evidence supporting Neville.  Nothing comparable has been available for any other candidate.

Suppose Rubinstein et al are right.  How can the relevant experts, and interested parties more generally, reach rational consensus on this?  How could the matter be decisively established?  How can the process of collective rational resolution be expedited?

A workshop later this month in Melbourne will address this issue.  The first half will involve traditional presentations and discussion, including Rubinstein making the case for Neville.

The second half will be attempting something quite novel.  We will introduce a kind of website – an “arguwiki” where the arguments and evidence can be laid out, discussed and evaluated not as a debate, in any of the standard formats, but as a collaborative project.  The workshop will be a low-key launch of the Shakespeare Authorship Arguwiki; and later, all going well, it will be opened up to the world at large.  Our grand ambition is that the site, or something like it, may prove instrumental in resolving the greatest whodunnit of all time, and more generally be a model for collective rational resolution of difficult issues.

The workshop is open to any interested persons, but there are only a small number of places left.

Register now.  There is no charge for attending.


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Missing Pieces – The Skill of Noticing Events that Didn’t Happen
Spotting the Gaps – What Does it Take to Notice the Missing Pieces?


This pair of  short pieces were published a week apart by distinguished decision theorist Gary Klein. Their very-similar titles promise insight into how critical thinkers can be better at noticing absent evidence – things which are not present, or didn’t happen, but which might be just as “telling” for or against various hypotheses as their more salient “present” counterparts.   The advice he provides boils down to two points.  (1) Be experienced.  Experience sets up (often unconscious) expectations, whose violations might capture our attention, or at least create an uneasiness which prompts us to wonder what we’re missing.  (2) Have an active, curious mindset.  This “goes behind what we can see and hear, and starts puzzling when an expected event fails to materialize.”


I have plenty of respect for Klein, but these are disappointing pieces.  They mainly just rehash anecdotes from his earlier work.  He says very little about how experience or an active mindset actually work to help us notice what’s missing, or how to achieve either of these things.  In fact “an active curious mindset” seems to be little more than a redescription of the ability to notice things – barely more satisfying than saying “pay attention!” or “look around for what’s missing!”.  In studying these pieces, I engaged an active curious mindset.  I noticed what was missing: anything of any great insight or use.  Which I know from experience is unusual in Klein’s case.

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All Wikipedia Roads Lead to Philosophy is a brief discussion of the initially surprising fact that if you click the first link in any Wikipedia article, you’ll eventually arrive on the page for Philosophy.  It is worth trying yourself to experience why this happens: most first sentences on Wikipedia pages relate the page topic to some larger topic, e.g. “Geranium argenteum (silvery crane’s bill) is an ornamental plant…”.   This is a very cute way of revealing something important about how knowledge is organised, and how we explain things to each other.

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Not just Moneyball

The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is a great story about a minor league baseball team being taken over by two sabermetricians. It addresses one of the big questions of our time: to what extent can statistics and data science replace intuitive human judgement?  This is obviously Moneyball territory, but if it was just a repeat of that great book and movie, it wouldn’t be all that interesting. I won’t spoil the story, but there’s an important lesson here, and its more about communication than it is about analytics. For the quick version, see the author’s article in the New York Times, What Happens When Baseball-Stats Nerds Run a Pro Team?

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