Critical Thinking at Work


Austhink is a critical thinking research, training and consulting group specializing in complex reasoning and argumentation. 

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Iraq Argument Maps

Iraq1 - Reason!Able PDF

Tariq Ali - Reason!Able PDF

Background to this Computer-Supported Argumentation approach

Reason!Able was created to help students practise analysing and evaluating arguments in the hope that this would improve their critical thinking skills.

Essentials of your CSA approach and where to read more about it

The software was intended to target very specific skills in informal reasoning and its greatest strengths lie in the fine-grained approach it takes to argument analysis.  It treats arguments as hierarchical tree structures of evidential relations between statements, and distinguishes those premises belonging to separate reasons (and objections) and those that belong to the same reason (or objection).  (For the latter, each reason or objection has to be viewed in ‘unfolded’ mode.)  The syntax is very strict, and apart from the statements making up the argument the only things that can be added to a map are a brief comment or a url associated with a statement.  See

Scope of the Experiment 1 analysis
Which aspects of the debate did you manage to analyse? It may well be that you only covered some of the source documents.  Some approaches may be broad brush, others extremely fine grained.

I took Michael Cohen’s analysis as a starting point and represented the debate as stemming from three different kinds of consideration: power, institutions and norms.  This was not the only possible way to organize the map, but it seemed a reasonable top-level categorization of arguments.  I represented the argument as a case for the war, with objections bearing on it.  I did not have time to read and map all the source documents, so some arguments are represented with a very broad brush since I relied on Michael Cohen’s summaries.  I did, however, in some cases identify hidden assumptions (unstated premises) and enter them on the map to clarify the reasoning and demonstrate the fine-grainedness of the approach.

There are three maps on this website:

Iraq 1 – maps the arguments summarized in Michael Cohen’s analysis, some in more detail than others.

Iraq 2 – is the same as Iraq 1 with the addition of Tariq Ali’s arguments from the source document (broad brush) in each of the categories.

Tariq Ali – is a fine-grained map of Ali’s arguments in the source document.  This is to illustrate the difference between the broad brush and fine-grained approaches to mapping.

In what ways does this CSA approach add value?
 * for the analysts?
     - what are the different kinds of insight that your CSA tool can
 provide to analysts?

  1. The method allows you to organize the debate along broader (‘higher level’) issues, such as the Power/Institutions/Norms categories Michael Cohen suggested.  This makes it easier both to understand the debate and to evaluate it.
  2. The analyst can get an overview of the whole case (the big picture) as well as focus on the details of each argument.  This is particularly useful in evaluation.
  3. The tool prompts you to identify hidden assumptions/premises crucial to understanding the reasoning and evaluating the arguments.

     - to what can any insights gained be attributed? Properties of the software environment? of the notation?    

  - to what extent is the analyst's expertise with the tool critical, or
 do you think that anyone could benefit from using it?

The first is due to the hierarchical way in which the tool organizes information – as a tree-branch diagram with an essentially pyramidal structure.  However, one can – to a certain extent – map cases using the software but fail to pick out and represent any broader issues/patterns among all the arguments/considerations.  So the benefits do depend on the skill of the analyst up to a point.

The second is, presumably, a feature of any mapping that allows for fine-grained analysis iteratively at all levels yet also for some kind of overview mode.  Anyone can benefit from the overview, but the extent to which they benefit from the ‘close up’ depends on their skill as a mapper or ability to evaluate arguments critically.

The third is due to the way reasons are represented as having internal structure.  If a reason/objection bears on a statement this particular software makes the user aware of hidden premises (in ‘unfolded’ mode).  If the inference isn’t clear the trained analyst is automatically inclined to identify hidden premises, but a certain amount of skill is normally required to do so.

Although many benefits depend on the skill of the analyst, the skill required is not so much in the use of the argument mapping technique or the software but in critical thinking and argumentation. 

 * for readers
 (benefits are presumably hypothesised, since you probably won't have had
 time to test it properly, but other players should be able to feed on this
 once you have published your results, since they will be external readers)
    - how does the tool guide readers through the debate's complexity?
      - visually?
      - through offering advanced searches?
      - other?...

 Visually, in a way that’s very easy to follow.

 What is your argument modelling process?
 * faced with a corpus of documents, what steps did you go through in
 bridging from the texts, to your structured representation? 

In this case the task was made easier by Michael Cohen’s analysis of the topic into three categories and listing of major proponents with brief summaries of their arguments.  Once I had the top structure of the tree (three reasons, about norms, power and institutions respectively) it was a matter of figuring out exactly how each of the arguments bore on each of those considerations. 

Had I not had Cohen’s analysis, I’d have waded through at least some of the source documents and probably started by mapping them as arguments bearing directly on the claim ‘We should have gone to war’ (or whatever similar claim could be seen as the focus of all the arguments).  In the course of doing so, I’d have noticed patterns and areas of overlap, so I would have re-organized the hierarchical (pyramidal) structure of the tree accordingly, showing the broader issues on which the arguments bore. 

 Limitations of this CSA:

 * what was hard to model in the debate?

There is no way to model the diachronic evolution of a debate using this method.  I had to settle on a claim, and it would have made a very different map if I had chosen ‘We should go to war in Iraq’ as opposed to ‘We should have gone to war in Iraq’.  The former would have been relevant to decision making at the time when the issue was in fact being debated most hotly.  The latter is relevant now, with hindsight (e.g. no WMDs being found, elections, continued and massively greater than anticipated military presence, loss of life etc). 

 * where did little value seem to be added?
 * what missing capabilities have you identified?

The following are limitations of this particular software, not of this approach in general:

  • No way to search the tree: If you’re looking for e.g. Walzer’s contribution, you have to go through the whole map manually to find it. 
  • Large, complex trees are difficult to navigate on screen and illegible when printed.  The status bar is invaluable in this regard, but it would be better to be also able to isolate lines of argument (branches of the tree), or levels of the pyramid, hiding everything else and gaining valuable screen space (for legibility).
  • No way to insert (e.g. cut and paste) trees or branches across different Reason!Able files.  It would be nice to be able to import trees or branches from different documents into a document.

 Synergies with other CSA approaches
 <after we have published and discussed results, you may want to tease out
 connections to other CSA approaches
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