Archive for the ‘Argument’ Category

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.

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Well-known anti-theist Sam Harris has posted an interesting challenge on his blog.  He writes:

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000,* and I will publicly recant my view. 

In the previous post on this blog, Seven Habits of Highly Critical Thinkers, habit #3 was Chase Challenges.  If nothing else, Harris’ post is a remarkable illustration of this habit.

The quality of his case is of course quite another matter.

I missed the deadline for submission, and I haven’t read the book, and don’t intend to, though it seems interesting enough. So I will just make a quick observation about the quality of Harris’ argument as formulated.

In a nutshell, simple application of argument mapping techniques quickly and easily show that Harris’ argument, as stated by Harris himself on the challenge blog page, is a gross non-sequitur, requiring, at a minimum, multiple additional premises to bridge the gap between his premises and his conclusions.  In that sense, his argument as stated is easily shown to be seriously flawed.

Here is how Harris presents his argument:

1. You have said that these essays must attack the “central argument” of your book. What do you consider that to be?
Here it is: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

This formulation is short and clear enough that creating a first-pass argument map in Rationale is scarcely more than drag and drop:


Now, as explained in the second of the argument mapping tutorials, there are some basic, semi-formal constraints on the adequacy of an argument as presented in an argument map.

First, the “Rabbit Rule” decrees that any significant word or phrase appearing in the contention of an argument must also appear in at least one of the premises of that argument.  Any significant word or phrase appearing in the contention but not appearing in one of the premises has suddenly appeared out of thin air, like the proverbial magician’s rabbit, and so is informally called a rabbit.  Any argument with rabbits is said to commit rabbit violations.

Second, the Rabbit Rule’s sister, the “Holding Hands Rule,” decrees that any significant word or phrase appearing in one of the premises must appear either in the contention, or in another premise.

These rules are aimed at ensuring that the premises and contention of an argument are tightly connected with each other.  The Rabbit Rule tries to ensure that every aspect of what is claimed in the contention is “covered” in the premises.  If the Rabbit Rule is not satisfied, the contention is saying something which hasn’t been even discussed in the premises as stated.  (Not to go into it here, but this is quite different from the sense in which, in an inductive argument, the contention “goes beyond” the premises.) The Holding Hands Rule tries to ensure that any concept appearing in the premises is doing relevant and useful work.

Consider then the basic argument consisting of Contention 1 and the premises beneath it.   It is obvious on casual inspection that much – indeed most – of what appears in Contention 1 does not appear in the premises.  Consider for example the word “purview”, or the phrase “falls within the purview of science”.  These do not appear in the premises as stated. What does appear in Premise 2 is “natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe”.  But as would be obvious to any philosopher, there’s a big conceptual difference between these.

What Harris’ argument needs, at a very minimum, is another premise.  My guess is that it is something like “Anything fully constrained by the laws of the universe falls within the purview of science.”   But two points.  First, this suggested premise obviously needs (a) explication, and (b) substantiation.  In other words, Harris would need to argue for it, not assume it. Second, it may not be the Harris’ preferred way of filling gaps (one of them, at least) between his premises and his conclusion.  Maybe he’d come up with a different formulation of the bridging premise.  Maybe he addresses this in his book.

It would be tedious to list and discuss the numerous Rabbit and Holding Hands violations present in the two basic arguments making up Harris’ two-step “proof”.   Suffice to say, that if both Rabbit Rule and Holding Hands Rule violations are called “rabbits” (we also use the term “danglers”), then his argument looks a lot like the famous photo of a rabbit plague in the Australian outback:


Broadly speaking, fixing these problems would require quite a bit of work:

  • refining the claims he has provided
  • adding suitable additional premises
  • perhaps breaking the overall argument into more steps.

Pointing this out doesn’t prove that his main contentions are false.  (For what little it is worth, I am quite attracted to them.)  Nor does it establish that there is not a solid argument somewhere in the vicinity of what Harris gave us. It doesn’t show that Harris’ case (whatever it is) for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken.  What it does show is that his own “flagship” succinct presentation of his argument (a) is sloppily formulated, and (b) as stated, clearly doesn’t establish its contentions.   In short, as stated, it fails.  Argument mapping reveals this very quickly.

Perhaps this is why, in part, there is so much argy bargy about Harris’ argument.

Final comment: normally I would not be so picky about how somebody formulated what may be an important argument.  However in this case the author was pleading for criticism.

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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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An interesting case of what I would call visual deliberation, in the broad sense of “the use of visual aids to support deliberative processes”:

Joe Heller | Green Bay Press Gazette

The carton obviously presents four distinct arguments, using a mix of verbal, pictorial and spatial elements or mechanisms.

However the main argument made by the cartoon is that the arguments against wind power are weak as compared with the arguments against nuclear, oil and coal.   This argument is not explicitly given, whether verbally or pictorially; it is a kind of “conversational implicature” of the presenting of the four arguments.

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In Arguing is pointless Peter Bregman, argues (note: argues)  that arguing is pointless, on the grounds that arguing can be counterproductive or ineffective.  Indeed it can.  His recommended alternative is to just listen.  But of course if everyone just listened, then nobody would be making any useful contribution to the resolution of important issues through rational dialogue.   The sensible point in the vicinity of Bregman’s muddleheaded musings is that arguing, if it is to be productive, must be done tactfully.  A point of view expressed more eloquently and profoundly by Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago:

There was another Bookish Lad in the Town, John Collins by Name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of Argument, & very desirous of confuting one another. Which disputatious Turn, by the way, is apt to because a very bad Habit, making People often extremely disagreeable in Company, by the Contradiction that is necessary to bring it into Practice, & thence, besides souring & spoiling the Conversation, is productive of Disgusts and perhaps Enmities where you may have occasion for Friendship. I had caught it by reading my Father’s Books of Dispute about Religion. Persons of good Sense, I have since observ’d, seldom fall into it, except Lawyers, University Men, and Men of all Sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh. . . .

While I was intent on improving my Language, I met with an English Grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the End of which there were two little Sketches of the Arts ofRhetoric and Logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic Method. And soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many Instances of the same Method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt Contradiction and positive Argumentation, and put on the humble Enquirer & Doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury & Collins, become a real Doubter in many Points of our Religious Doctrine, I found this Method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it. Therefore I took a Delight in it, practis’d it continually & grew very artful and expert in drawing People even of superior Knowledge into Concessions the Consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in Difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining Victories that neither my self nor my Cause always deserved.–

I continu’d this Method some few Years, but gradually left it, retaining only the Habit of expressing my self in Terms of modest Diffidence, never using when I advance anything that may possibly be disputed, the Words Certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the Air of Positiveness to an Opinion; but rather say, I conceive, or I apprehend a Thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such & such Reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken. –This Habit I believe has been of great Advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions & persuade Men into Measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting.-

And as the chief Ends of Conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning sensible men would not lessen their Power of doing Good by a Positive assuming Manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create Opposition, and to defeat every one of those Purposes for which Speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving Information or Pleasure: For If you would inform, a positive dogmatical Manner in advancing your Sentiments, may provoke Contradiction & prevent a candid Attention. If you wish Information and Improvement from the Knowledge of others and yet at the same time express your self as firmly fix’d in your present Opinions, modest sensible Men, who do not love Disputation, will probably leave you undisturb’d in the Possession of your Error; and by such a Manner you can seldom hope to recommend your self in pleasing your Hearers, or to persuade those whose Concurrence you desire.

From Part One of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1793; from The Library of America edition of Benjamin Franklin: Writings, 1987

[Hat tip to Garry Pearson for pointing me to the Bregman piece and giving me a great opportunity to post one of my favourite quotations on the art of deliberation.]


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In a murder trial, to prove that a defendant was guilty the prosecution must establish that:

  • The victim was killed;
  • The defendant unlawfully caused the death of the victim; and
  • The defendant did so with “malice aforethought.”

These are known as the elements of the crime.   Elements have been defined for many legal actions.  They are the major things which all must be proved in order to establish the prosecution’s (or plaintiff’s) case.

We can by analogy think of the elements of a major business decision.   In a board context, where typically management will recommend an option for the board to approve or reject,  these are the major things that management must establish to the board’s satisfaction.  The recommended option must be:

  1. Strategically sound;
  2. Financially sound;
  3. Operationally sound;
  4. Prudentially sound (i.e., acceptable from a risk perspective)
  5. Ethically sound; and
  6. Legally sound.

These are the minimal conditions; a decision satisfying these conditions would be reasonable or defensible.  It may not be the best decision.  For that, an additional element point must be established:

  • The option is on balance better than any other relevant option across elements 1-6.

These elements are often not independent matters.  For example, what counts as financially sound will depend on the organisation’s strategy (and ultimately of course on its purpose).

Each element must in turn be established by argumentation, governed by standard principles of clarity and rigor.

Associated with each element are a series of critical questions. Addressing the critical questions generates supporting arguments or objections.   For example, critical questions for strategic soundness might include:

  • Is there a wider corporate strategy pertaining to this type of decision?
  • If so does the proposed option align with that strategy?
  • If there is no wider strategy, or no alignment, is this option nevertheless strategically defensible?

The elements listed above are generic, suiting a typical major business decision.  However, just as different crimes have their distinctive sets of elements, so particular categories of business decision would have tailored sets of elements.

The “elements of the case” approach can be used in a variety of ways.  It can for example guide the development and structure of the board paper and presentation in which the recommendation is advanced.  Or, it might be used within the board meeting to structure attention and discussion.

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Two recent articles in the business press underscore the importance of unearthing and challenging the assumptions which are shoring up your inferences.  They also provide fascinating insights more generally into organisational decision, a topic which always becomes more interesting when things go badly wrong.

The first, Potash: The deal that didn’t have to die appeared in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in the aftermath of the failed attempt by mining behemoth BHP Billiton to acquire Potash Corp.   Potash Corp makes a lot of money digging up – you guessed it – potash in Sasketchewan and selling it around the world.  Potash Corp is part of a cartel, the existence of which helps keep the Saskatchewan state coffers replenished.

As authors McNish, Bouw and Reguly state, in the lead-up to the bid,

[BHPB CEO] Mr. Kloppers had every reason to believe that the takeover odds were on his side. Potash prices were still climbing out of the cyclical basement, and few other companies in the world could match BHP’s financial heft to top the bid. A government-backed company from China probably could, but no Chinese entity has ever tried to make such a large acquisition in a developed, democratic country. Even better, the widely held Saskatchewan company had no blocking shareholders. The Canadian government had never rejected a foreign takeover of a major resource company, and just three years ago allowed Rio Tinto PLC to take over Alcan Inc. of Montreal in a deal of similar size.

Focusing on one aspect of this, it appears that BHPB were reasoning that if the Canadian government had never rejected a foreign takeover of a major resource company, then they’d be unlikely to disapprove the takeover by BHPB of Potash Corp.   Which seems a perfectly reasonable argument.

Of course there is an unstated premise in this argument, viz., that Potash Corp is a major resource company.  This seems so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning – and ipso facto hardly worth challenging.  But often the critical weakness in a case can be disguised as a truism even after we take away the cloak of invisibility.   Sometimes the highest level of critical scrutiny is not challenging the dubious but daring to question the obvious.

The real force of the assumption “Potash Corp is a major resource company” was the idea that Potash Corp was just another major resource company, just like all the previous ones that had been taken over.  That, in other words, there was nothing special about Potash Corp, in Canada in 2010, that would prevent it being taken over just like others before it.

But that assumption was wrong.  Potash Corp was in fact, at the time, quite special due to the close connection with Saskatchewan state funding, and the special connection of Saskatchewan politicians to the Canadian federal government.

As Andrew Mackenzie, a key BHPB executive, conceded after the failure of the takeover bid: “We didn’t grasp how significant potash is to Saskatchewan.”

If the authors are correct, this “failure to grasp” – a kind of unchallenged assumption – was the critical error leading to a failed bid.  Some of the consequences: immediate waste of some $350 million dollars, loss of potential billions in future profits from selling Canadian potash, embarrassment for BHPB, and a major headache: what now should it do with the mountains of money it is making due the resource boom?

The second article appeared in today’s edition of the Melbourne paper The Age.  In AXA deal could bring $2.6bn headache David Symons recounts how some financial sharks spotted a design weakness in superannuation giant AXA’s offerings and tricked AXA into granting them the right to exploit that weakness mercifully for decades to come – hence the $2.6 billion dollar lawsuit.  The details are of course somewhat complex but on Symons’ account AXA management – apparently lurching from one feat of incompetence to another – repeatedly made assumptions which turned out false.  For example:

“anxious to resurrect a faltering product, AXA ignored the embedded option risk. AXA management had referred the special terms to the legal department and the board product committee, but not to the chief actuary. The three-day option was considered a tweak that didn’t require costing. Nothing could have been further from the truth. AXA had effectively written a multibillion dollar series of puts over the equity index.”

Quite a different domain, but the same basic point: sometimes an unquestioned assumption comes back to bite you in a very costly way.

Of course in both these cases we have the wonderful benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  It is relatively easy to spot a false assumption after its falsity has caused a calamity.  It is much harder to expose all the assumptions one is making at the time of decision, and to know which of those many assumptions need to given especially rigorous scrutiny.

One of the great benefits of argument mapping, rigorously applied, is its utility in the former challenge, i.e. exposing hidden assumptions.

Before closing it is worth noting another kind of assumption in play in the AXA case.  The aforementioned sharks clearly devoted much of their exquisite intellectual power to figuring out how to exploit the financial system so as to attract to themselves vast amounts of money of unearned and undeserved money.  Rather than doing anything productive, anything that might generate tangible value for society, these knaves are prepared to follow their greed to the point where they might even ruin an enormous institution (cf Equitable Life), with presumably masses of shareholders and policy holders and perhaps even taxpayers to take the hurt.   They are assuming that this is reasonable, legitimate conduct.   That assumption may not come back to bite them in this particular case.  But when large parts of society unconsciously and unconscionably adopt that assumption, it can be disastrous for almost everyone – as Ireland’s current problems illustrate.

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