Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments

Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments
By Paul Monk and Tim van Gelder
This paper was presented by Paul Monk as a plenary
address to the 2004 Fenner Conference on the Environment, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, 24 May 2004


What argument mapping is used for:
  • To structure, communicate, and correct arguments of any degree of complexity
  • To govern deliberation, keeping it on task, target use of evidence, specify disagreements, and make the process more efficient

Verbiage tends to make people miss what is being said and asked and encourages people to grasp tightly to their own thoughts. Monk and van Gelder posit that the use of only language, writing processes, and mental cues are too primitive to completely understand the complex arguments that people are now faced with. They continue by stating, “We conduct complex arguments as if a combination of holistic apprehension, intuitive judgment and natural language were sufficient for handling them [arguments]. None of us, I think, would consciously make that claim. We do what we do by tradition and by default, not because we have thought through why we do it, how it works and whether it serves us well.”

Playing the game of tic-tac-toe (on a 4x4 grid or larger) without using actual gridlines is used to illustrate the point that our working memory struggles without the presence of a visual aid (the grid). Cognitive blind spots and biases, the methods used to record and communicate arguments, and separation of disciplines due to different idiolects all accentuate the problem of our limited working memory.

Just as maps and charts allow us to navigate land and sea with more ease than an oral explanation, a map can help us visualize and navigate through problems and arguments. To map an argument, you must start with a proposition, or chief contention – this contention is entered into a white box and placed at the top of an argument map. Supporting claims are color-coded green, while objections are coded red. Claims are organized in a pyramidal hierarchy to maximize the appearance of evidential and logical relationships. The first set of claims (top level) begs the question “what are the distinct arguments provided for the main point (the chief contention)?” Subsequent levels are asked, “Do they support all of these primary arguments with further evidence? [and] Do they countenance any objections to their argument and rebut them?

The authors use the article Coalition of the Willing? Make That War Criminals, which discusses whether or not a preemptive strike on Iraq would constitute a crime against humanity, to demonstrate how argument mapping is useful. (See Image Below)

Advantages of argument mapping over prose:
  1. It makes explicit logical relationships that the linearity and abstractness of prose cannot help but obscure.
  2. The map offers an instant and effortless scan-ability of the overall structure of the argument, which you simply cannot derive from prose.
  3. There is an ease of movement from the detail to the overview that is far more difficult in the case of prose.
  4. There are unambiguous visual clues as to the significance that particular details have, due to the hierarchical ordering of the structure, the color-coding of the individual boxes and the inferential relations between boxes.
  5. A map offers a visual clarity as to the limits of a debate, whereas prose obscures these limits or labors to spell them out.
  6. The cognitive burden imposed on us by the task of analyzing a piece of prose is drastically reduced in the case of a map, for the same reasons that it is reduced in moving from a prose description of London to a map.
  7. For any given proposition, all claims are integrated into a single structure, instead of consisting of various component parts, which then have to be assembled by whoever happens to be trying to comprehend the argument in question.

*Author’s Note: Tim van Gelder has done extensive research in the field of argument mapping and is the leading mind behind Reason!Able, a computer program designed for argument mapping. Reason!Able has now evolved into Rationale. See Video Below.

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