Archive for the ‘Argumentation’ 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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We knew things were pretty dire, but a new poll has put some numbers onto our fears.

The “Citizen’s Agenda” survey from the University of Melbourne has found that voters are “pretty appalled” at the standard of political debate, with 57% of voters saying things are getting noticeably worse. Not surprisingly, the overall level of interest in politics is sliding as well.

These numbers underscore the numerous criticisms made in recent years by people who’ve been in the political trenches. Diverse luminaries such as Barry Jones, Lindsay Tanner, and Malcolms Fraser and Turnbull have complained that public political debate has never been so bad.

What’s happening here? Why, when Australians are more educated and connected than ever before, is political discourse being degraded?

A natural instinct is to search for somebody or something to blame – some dark force degrading public discourse for its own greedy purposes. The news media and politicians are popular suspects; others point to campaign managers, advertisers and spin merchants; or to television, the internet, or mobile devices.

Alternatively, we can view the problem through the lens of a simple and familiar metaphor: that people are, increasingly, just not playing by the rules.

Consider chess – a game with a limited set of clear and accepted rules. Rule-governed play typically delivers a clear outcome, with everyone agreeing who won or lost.

If we think of public debate as a kind of game, then the rules are the laws and conventions of logic and disputation, as articulated by logicians and rhetoricians over the centuries.

Public debate is of course not a game. It is a deadly serious business, often literally so. But that just makes it all the more important that people respect the rules.

So what’s going wrong?

One problem is that people often don’t really know what the rules are. For the most part, they have never been educated in logic and disputation, and would be pressed to give any account of the rules. It’s hard to play correctly when you’re foggy about what’s OK and what’s not.

Second, there will always be incentives to cheat. This can be straightforwardly foul play, like a rugby player throwing a punch under cover of a maul. Witness climate change deniers who trot out the argument that temperature hasn’t increased since 1998, no matter how many times its flaws have been decisively exposed.

Worse than breaking the rules is subverting them. This amounts to changing the game, or even destroying the game entirely. This sounds extreme, but Paul Krugman and others have been accusing US Republicans of precisely this gambit – of “refusing to live in an evidence-based world.”

Third, there’s no effective umpire. There’s no authority or expert whose role is to judge what’s legitimate and whose calls are accepted by all the players.

Finally, we all suffer from the problem that our mental machinery is poorly designed for the task. Public debates can get complicated, and the brains bequeathed to us by evolution don’t have enough “RAM” to comprehend the evolving state of play. And we are all subject a wide range of cognitive biases which reliably lead us to make errors of logic and to violate norms of constructive debate.

Surveying these factors, the prospects for any substantial improvement seem remote. Three – the incentive to cheat, the lack of an independent umpire, and cognitive limitations – are deep features of what is sometimes called “the human condition.” Education can in principle help people know what the rules are, but is a slow and unreliable way to effect social change.

Fortunately there is another option.

Think of public debate as taking place in various arenas. The floor of parliament is one; commentary in the mainstream media is another. The internet has allowed the emergence of new online arenas such as the blog- and Twitter-spheres.

The subtle but critical point is that these various arenas promote or discourage playing by the rules in different ways. Twitter, for example, makes complex chains of reasoning almost impossible, and promotes follow-chambers in which contrary views are all too easily ignored or ridiculed. Another example is comment forums on news websites, which encourage trolling by having the discussion open to all, and allowing anonymity (via pseudonymity).

However the programmability of the internet makes possible a great variety of arenas, and new ones aimed at improving public debate, and democracy more broadly, are proliferating around the world. Oursay, a partner in the Citizen’s Agenda project, is just one example, increasingly prominent in Australia.

Some of these forums are being designed to gently guide participants towards higher quality participation in political debate. One way to do this is to scaffold “nudge” participants to stick to the rules more often, perhaps by giving greater prominence to those who do.

An example is the German “Faktencheck” (Fact Check) project, which works in collaboration with mainstream media entities such as Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung to host public debates on current political issues.

Our project, YourView, is another example.

Forums such as these will continue to evolve and play an increasingly large role in public political debate. Lindsay Tanner has spoken of a “revolt of the engaged”. This revolt can go beyond just online fundraising and petitioning; if the forums are designed correctly, it can start to halt or reverse the slide in the quality of public political debate.

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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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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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