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Archive for the ‘Argument Mapping’ Category

Q: Can argument mapping be used in strategic planning?

A: Of course! – because strategic planning involves complex arguments, and argument mapping can help whenever you have to deal with complex arguments.

However to move beyond that sort of trite proclamation, it is useful to have concrete examples of how argument mapping can enhance a strategic planning process.

Austhink recently providing mapping expertise for a major Australian organisation developing its strategic outlook for a nominated date of 2030. In order to do detailed planning, leading to major decisions such as investing many billions of dollars in human resources and equipment, it had to first develop a conception of what its “operating environment” would be in 2030 and how the organisation would be able to achieve competitive advantage in that environment. The team developing this conception had drafted a document laying it out, including seven hypotheses as to how the organisation would be able to achieve advantage, with arguments to support the hypotheses. Necessarily these hypotheses and arguments were quite abstract, intended as they were to cover a wide range of scenarios.

Parenthetically, it is worth emphasizing how difficult this task is. We all know how rapidly the world is changing in all sort of respects (technology, geopolitics, climate etc.), and how unpredictable that change is. The more you try to say anything reasonably definite and useful about the 2030s, the more they appear to be hidden in a dense fog of uncertainty. Yet this organisation – like so many others – can’t just throw up its hands. It has to make conceptual and predictive commitments with very high stakes, for the organisation itself and indeed far beyond it.

Having developed a draft strategic conception, the organisation is now putting it through a fairly elaborate process of “stress testing”. This raises the question – how do you “put to the test” sets of arguments relating to highly abstract and intrinsically speculative propositions? Their idea, in essence,was to

  1. Articulate the arguments with as much clarity and rigor as possible
  2. With the help of a broad selection of domain experts, in a series of workshops, identify strengths and weaknesses, including
    Gaps – places where key arguments are missing, or more substantiation is needed;
    Assumptions – especially “hidden” assumptions, i.e. ones you haven’t realized you’ve been making;
    Objections and challenges
  3. Use the findings to guide further development of the thinking

Developing good-quality argument maps in complex, murky territory is a challenging business. It involves getting sufficient clarity about what the issues are, and what arguments you have, and how they “hang together,” to be able to represent those issues and arguments in diagrams following the rules of argument mapping – which are really just fundamental principles of good logical thinking. It is inevitably an iterative process, with each draft resolving some matters but opening others for exploration.

In what follows, I’ll briefly recap this iterative process for just one of the seven argument maps we developed.  (Sorry that the illustrations are unreadable – this is deliberate to preserve confidentiality.)

As is typically the case, the arguments as we first encountered them were presented in standard prose:

I’ve discussed elsewhere how difficult it is to identify complex arguments in standard prose presentations, even when those arguments have been developed and written out by the sharpest of legal minds. In this case we were unsurprised to encounter the usual sorts of problems:

  • Arguments pertaining to a particular hypothesis were scattered in various places around the document and interspersed with other not-directly-related material.
  • The arguments were difficult to pin down, often because they were largely implicit.
  • The arguments were easy to misunderstand, if indeed one didn’t miss them altogether.
  • Consequently it was difficult to evaluate the arguments (i.e., judge with any confidence how effectively they supported the hypothesis).

In the first workshop with domain experts, we used real-time facilitated argument mapping with bCisive in an attempt to pin down and elaborate the main arguments, resulting in:

Many useful ideas had come out, but as you can see from the wide flat layout, were still struggling to find an appropriate overall structure. At this stage the map is poorly organised and missing a lot, but at least we could see more clearly what we had and how one thing supposedly relates to another.

We took the maps from the first workshop away and did some reworking, relying mostly on our generic argument mapping expertise (and only a little on commonsense and general knowledge of the domain). What emerged was a basic structure with more coherence, simplicity, and even elegance:

The overall structure is starting to emerge. Now we can distinguish between the higher level (more general, abstract) arguments and their lower-level supporting arguments. This “macro” is the structural “coat hanger” on which the rest can hang. This basic structure was now stable through the remaining iterations.

Aside: this was consistent with what I think of as one of the more profound insights I’ve derived from my years of experience with argument mapping: that complex arguments have a “true” form, a form which is (a) determined by the fundamental principles of good thinking meshing with the underlying reality of the issues, and (b) which uncoverable by patient reworking of the argument under the “rules” or guidelines of argument mapping.

During second workshop, a small number of valuable additions were made to the map:

But more importantly, participants used a “grouputer” system to jot down lots of additional ideas, which we took away and sorted and integrated into another reworked version of the map:

What we can now see emerging is a richer and more articulated sense of the case bearing on the hypothesis. We can clearly see both major lines of supporting argument. We know which claims have been supported and which have not. We can see key objections or warnings (little red blobs in the graphic above). We can see numerous places where unstated assumptions are lurking.

A map like this positions us well to make a provisional judgement as to how well the hypothesis (the main contention in the map) is supported. It also helps one see the numerous things one could do to further elaborate the thinking and develop greater confidence in that judgement. From the standpoint afforded by this map, it is clear that the arguments as originally presented simply couldn’t be properly evaluated. When you have only a very fuzzy sense of what the arguments are, you can have at best only a fuzzy sense of whether they are any good. You are then more likely to be guided by prejudice, bias, habit, instinct or “conventional wisdom”.

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I’ve recently noticed some interesting examples of “argument infographics” – graphics designed to convey complex arguments to wide audiences in accessible and attractive manner.  Here are two:

    

(Click the thumbnails to see full-size versions.)

The purist in me wants to say that these are argument infographics rather than argument maps, properly-so-called.    An argument map displays the logical (evidential, inferential) relationships among components in a complex argument, typically using box-and-arrow format.  The relationships displayed with boxes-and-arrows in these infographics are not always logical in this sense.

This is easiest to see in the Seven Good Reasons infographic (on the right, above), where arrows between boxes simply indicate order or progression (first this argument, then this one…).  There is no logical coherence in the linking of one argument to the next.

Still, if these argument infographics are effective in helping people understand the arguments, then they’re a good thing.  And if there is a trend towards the visual display of complex argument – even if in a “merely” infographical way – then that’s a good thing too.

Indeed it is possible that a well-crafted argument infographic may be a better way to communicate complex arguments than a true argument map, the virtues of which may not be apparent to the general reader.

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Fernando Leal and colleagues at the University of Guadalajara have released Introducción a la Teoría de la Argumentación, an integrated selection of pieces intended to assist students and their teachers to focus on argumentation when reading and writing academic texts.

The section Parte II: La téchnica de mapeo de argumentos (argument mapping) contains three pieces emerging from work at the University of Melbourne and Austhink:

  • A translation of my article Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science
  • A translation of Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments, by Paul Monk and me, a big-picture view of why complex arguments are cognitively challenging and how argument mapping can help.  It has been available as a manuscript since 2004 and been well-received so we are very happy to see it finally appear in print.
  • A new chapter  by Claudia María Álvarez Ortiz, ¿El estudio de le filosofia mejora las habilidades de pensamiento crítico? which extracts some core material from her MA thesis Does Philosophy Improve Reasoning Skills?.  This is the first proper publication of the very important meta-analysis of studies of gains in critical thinking at college.

Well-designed and attractively produced, the appearance of the volume is a significant development in critical thinking pedagogy and theory, particularly in the Spanish-speaking Americas.   Regrettably the language barrier will be a major hurdle to recognition and uptake in the Anglosphere.  Perhaps somebody should undertake a translation of the whole volume into English?

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Almost everyone agrees that critical thinking skills are important.  Almost everyone agrees that it is worth investing effort (in education, or in workplace training) to improve these skills.   And so it is rather surprising to find that there is, in the academic literature, little clarity, and even less consensus, about one of the most basic  questions you’d need answered if you wanted to generate any sort of gains in critical thinking skills (let alone generate those gains cost-effectively); viz., how are critical thinking skills acquired?

Theories on this matter come in five main kinds:

  • Formal Training. CT skills are simply the exercise of generic thinking power which can be strengthened by intensive training, much as general fitness can be enhanced by running, swimming or weightlifting.  This approach recommends working out in some formal ‘mental gym’ such as chess, mathematics or symbolic logic as the most convenient and effective way to build these mental muscles.
  • Theoretical Instruction. CT skills are acquired by learning the relevant theory (logic, statistics, scientific method, etc.).  This perspective assumes that mastering skills is a matter of gaining the relevant theory.  People with poor CT poor skills lack only a theoretical understanding; if they are taught the theory in sufficient detail, they will automatically be able to exhibit the skills, since exhibiting skills is just a matter of following explicit (or explicable) rules.
  • Situated Cognition. CT is deeply tied to particular domains and can only be acquired through properly “situated” activity in each domain.  Extreme versions deny outright that there are any generic CT skills (e.g. McPeck).  Moderate versions claim, more plausibly, that increasingly general skills are acquired through engaging in domain-specific CT activities.  According to the moderate version general CT skills emerge gradually in a process of consolidation and abstraction from particular, concrete deployments, much as general sporting skills (e.g., hand-eye coordination) are acquired by playing a variety of particular sports in which those general skills are exercised in ways peculiar to those sports.
  • Practice sees CT skills as acquired by directly practicing the general skills themselves, applying them to many particular problems within a wide selection of specific domains and contexts.  The Practice perspective differs from Formal Training in that it is general CT skills themselves which are being practiced rather than formal substitutes, and the practice takes place in non-formal domains.  It differs from Situated Cognition in that it is practice of general skills aimed at improving those general capacities, rather than embedded deployment of skills aimed at meeting some specific challenge within that domain.
  • Evolutionary Psychology views the mind as constituted by an idiosyncratic set of universal, innate, hard-wired cognitive capacities bequeathed by natural selection due to the advantages conferred by those capacities in the particular physical and social environments in which we evolved.  The mind does not possess and cannot attain general-purpose CT skills; rather, it can consolidate strengths in those particular forms or patterns of thinking for which evolution has provided dedicated apparatus.  Cultivating CT is a matter of identifying and nurturing those forms.

Formal training is the oldest and most thoroughly discredited of the perspectives.   It seems now so obvious that teaching latin, chess, music or even formal logic will have little or no impact on general critical thinking skills that it is hard to understand now how this idea could ever have been embraced.   And we also know why it fails: it founders on the rock of transfer.  Skills acquired in playing chess do not transfer to, say, evaluating political debates.  Period.

Theoretical Instruction has almost as old a philosophical pedigree as Formal Training.  It has been implemented in countless college critical thinking classes whose pedagogical modus operandi is to teach students “what they need to know” to be better critical thinkers, by lecturing at them and having them read slabs out of textbooks.   Token homework exercises are assigned primarily as a way of assessing whether they have acquired the relevant knowledge; if they can’t do the exercises, what they need is more rehearsing of theory.   As you can probably tell from the tone of this paragraph, I believe this approach is deeply misguided.  The in-depth explanation was provided by philosophers such as Ryle and Heidegger who established the primacy of knowledge-how over knowledge-that, of skills over theory.

Current educational practice subscribes overwhelmingly (and for the most part unwittingly) to the moderate version of Situated Cognition.  That is, we typically hope and expect that students’ general CT skills will emerge as a consequence of their engaging in learning and thinking as they proceed through secondary and especially tertiary education studying a range of particular subjects.  However, students generally do not reach levels of skill regarded as both desirable and achievable.  As Deanna Kuhn put it, “Seldom has there been such widespread agreement about a significant social issue as there is reflected in the view that education is failing in its most central mission—to teach students to think.”  In my view the weakness of students’ critical thinking skills, after 12 or even 16 years of schooling, is powerful evidence of the inadequacy of the Situated Cognition perspective.

There may be some truth to the Evolutionary Psychology perspective.  However in my view the best argument against it is the fact that another perspective – Practice – actually seems quite promising.   The basic idea behind it is very simple and plausible.   It is a truism that, in general, skills are acquired through practice.   The Practice perspective simply says that generic critical thinking skills are really just like most other skills (that is, most other skills that are acquired, like music or chess or trampolining, rather than skills that are innate and develop naturally, like suckling or walking).

In our work in the Reason Project at the University of Melbourne we refined the Practice perspective into what we called the Quality (or Deliberate) Practice Hypothesis.   This was based on the foundational work of Ericsson and others who have shown that skill acquisition in general depends on extensive quality practice.  We conjectured that this would also be true of critical thinking; i.e. critical thinking skills would be (best) acquired by doing lots and lots of good-quality practice on a wide range of real (or realistic) critical thinking problems.   To improve the quality of practice we developed a training program based around the use of argument mapping, resulting in what has been called the LAMP (Lots of Argument Mapping) approach.   In a series of rigorous (or rather, as-rigorous-as-possible-under-the-circumstances) studies involving pre-, post- and follow-up testing using a variety of tests, and setting our results in the context of a meta-analysis of hundreds of other studies of critical thinking gains, we were able to establish that critical thinking skills gains could be dramatically accelerated, with students reliably improving 7-8 times faster, over one semester, than they would otherwise have done just as university students.   (For some of the detail on the Quality Practice hypothesis and our studies, see this paper, and this chapter.)

So if I had to choose one theory out of the five on offer, I’d choose Practice.  Fortunately however we are not in a forced-choice situation. Practice is enhanced by carefully-placed Theoretical Instruction.  And Practice can be reinforced by Situated Cognition, i.e. by engaging in domain-specific critical thinking activities, even when not framed as deliberate practice of general CT skills.   As one of the greatest critical thinkers said in one of the greatest texts on critical thinking:

“Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.”

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Recently I’ve started to use “visual deliberation” as a catch-all term for the various mapping techniques and activities we use in our activities at Austhink (argument mapping, IBIS-based issue mapping, etc.).   Happily, the more I use it, the more apt it seems.  What we’re typically doing is helping people to deliberate more effectively, and we do this by making the thinking more visually accessible.

But is this the “right” way to use the term?  How do other people use it?  How should they use it? In short, what does “visual deliberation” mean?  Here’s an attempt at definition (semi-descriptive, semi-prescriptive).

In general, visual deliberation is the use of visual aids to support deliberative processes such as debate and decision making.   By “visual” I mean anything that can be, literally, seen, but not including text (words and sentences).

There are many kinds or “flavors” of visual deliberation depending on what sorts of visual aids are used, how they are deployed in the service of deliberation, and the extent to which they are used.

(1) The most familiar kinds involve the use of charts, graphics, diagrams, tables, and the like, sprinkled through the main verbal argumentation like glace cherries in a fruit cake.  For example, the famous movie An Inconvenient Truth includes various charts presenting information in a non-verbal (or largely non-verbal) manner, and the case being made depends on this information.   The deliberative activity is thus a kind of melange of textual and visual presentation.  Edward Tufte has of course written elegantly and at length about how such visualizations can aid deliberation and how to do this well (see e.g. his Beautiful Evidence).

Aside: not every use of visual aids in the context of deliberation is visual deliberation.   The graphics in An Inconvenient Truth include photos which, while thematically relevant, are incidental to the actual reasoning; if they weren’t there, nothing of any consequence would be lost from the case being made.  Such visuals may be playing a rhetorical or persuasive role, by e.g. activating emotional responses, but are not playing a logical role.  And sometimes of course visuals are pure eye-candy.

(2) A very different kind of visual deliberation is found in the “mapping” tradition which includes Wigmore’s charting method, Rittel’s IBIS, and Conklin’s Dialogue Mapping.   Here the focus is on identifying the core conceptual elements, such as questions, ideas, options, reasons, and objections, and displaying these elements and their relationships in diagrams intended to encompass or “map out” the thinking in all its complexity.  In this kind of visual deliberation, the visual elements are not just ingredients or components within a larger verbal superstructure.   Rather, the superstructure itself is given visual expression in box-and-arrow diagrams.

(3) In a recent book Noveck has identified a third, very different way in which visual ingredients can aid deliberation.  The basic idea here is that visual aspects or elements of a computer’s user interface can help shape deliberative activity: “I argue for what I term visual deliberation, namely, ways of using the computer screen to mirror the work of participating groups back to themselves so that they can organize and function as networked publics.” (p.22)

Sometimes multiple modes of visual deliberation are integrated into one complex, highly visual activity. For example Robert Horn’s argumentation maps, such as the well-known Can Computers Think series, embed graphics within maps.  Online collaborative argumentation systems such as Debategraph and bCisiveOnline, and Shum’s IBIS/Compendium-based design rationale, support the creation of maps within software interfaces providing visual clues guiding collective deliberative activity.

In practice, even traditional verbal deliberation usually involves at least some visual elements.  Speakers and debaters rely not only on their words but also on their gestures.  Argumentative texts such as reports or opinion pieces rely on font, paragraph and document formatting to help convey how verbally-expressed points hang together as argument.   There are deliberative activities involving no visual element at all (think of two people trying to resolve their differences over the telephone) but these are the end point of a spectrum, and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the pure or paradigm cases.

At the other end of the spectrum, deliberation cannot be  purely visual.  Deliberation essentially involves argumentation, which in turn essentially involves relationships among propositions (claims) which must be expressed verbally.   In each of the three modes identified above, textual expression plays a crucial role.

Now, having said all that, it is useful for me to narrow the focus a little.  My work these days is concerned primarily with the second or “mapping” kind of visual deliberation and its deployment in practical contexts.  So for me visual deliberation usually means, specifically, aiding deliberation through the use of diagrams displaying the structure of that deliberative activity.  As in, this sort of thing:

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The free online magazine The Reasoner has recently published an interview with me in their February 2010 issue.  Much of it is discussing argument mapping and its uses.  However the first third or so of the interview covers my earlier work in the foundations of cognitive science (distributed representation, dynamical systems and such topics).

Thanks to Kevin Korb for initiating and conducting the interview.

Excerpt:

KK: What are argument maps and why are they important?

TvG: Typically an argument map is a box-and-arrow or node-and-link diagram showing the relationships among propositions in some piece of informal reasoning or argumentation. Argument mapping is thus “semi- formal”, blending formal graph structure with natural language. You can think of argument mapping as addressing a design challenge: come up with a maximally transparent way of representing informal reasoning and argumentation for human thinkers, one that makes the reasoning as explicit, rigorous and yet easily comprehensible and communicable as possible.  From this point of view, the various forms of argument mapping around today—such as the one embodied in the Rationale software—as particular attempts to come up with that optimal format. No doubt improved schemes, supported by more sophisticated technologies, will arise in coming years.

KK: How does your understanding of their importance relate to what you know about human cognition?
TvG: The diagrammatic format of typical argument maps is useful for humans with cognitive machinery dominated by powerful visual systems. Diagrammatic argument maps complement the idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses of our evolutionarily-endowed cognitive equipment. For example, argument maps compensate for our limited short-term memory, providing a stable external representation of complex inferential webs. At the same time they facilitate access to this externally represented information by exploiting our powerful visual scanning capacities. In computer terms, our eyes constitute the high-capacity bus connecting the argument map, stored in external RAAM, to our brains as the CPU…

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  1. Martin Davies, a colleague of mine at the University of Melbourne and a energetic advocate of argument mapping in teaching critical thinking has published “Computer-assisted argument mapping: a rationale approach” in the journal Higher Education.  In the article Martin describes using argument mapping in an upper-level Economics subject, and discusses how the students themselves regarded the exercise as helping them improve their critical thinking skills.  This reinforces the conclusion from other studies using pre- and post-testing which have found that student skills do in fact improve.
  2. The most popular post on this blog by a significant margin has been “What is Argument Mapping?“.   When first posted, it was a draft of an entry submitted to a new “Encyclopedia of the Mind.”  I have now revised the entry in response to editors’ suggestions & requirements, and I’ve now put the probably-final version on the blog post in place of the old draft version.    Or you can download a print-friendly version.

 

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