Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Making the World Better for Me

Talking with Mark and Katya last night, Mark thanked me for laying out argument and forms of fallacy in such a clear and concise manner, "Now that I see it laid our so clearly, it will be easy for me to effectively construct illogical and fallacy-laden arguments with a near zero rate of anything that makes sense!"

A Better World through Argument

Sigh... I guess that argument is like any other powerful tool; it can be used and it can be misused. But, nonetheless, I was thinking that (despite anything my dad might tell you) I would love to be surrounded by people who's skill at argument far surpassed my own. Why?
  1. In order to argue well, you must think clearly and speak from understanding. I've mentioned before that when people say something is so complex that it's difficult to explain, it's not because the subject is complex; it's just that the person speaking doesn't fully understand the subject. If you're not only explaining, but arguing, then understanding is no longer optional.
  2. Because argument exposes places where we don't fully understand what we say we understand, it creates new opportunities for growth and learning. People who actively and successfully argue their perspectives and beliefs know their stuff.
  3. For me, people who really know their stuff and are open to arguing and learning are much more interesting and enjoyable to be around. Alternatively, spending time with people who lack strong argumentative skills feels like playing basket ball on sand or pool on a warped table; they're either unresponsive to new ideas and musings or they take them down nonsensical pathways to irrelevant destinations . It's not that you can't have fun in either activity, it's just not my preference.
So, I selfishly want people to become great arguers because, people who are great arguers aren't boring. Of course, there are other good reasons for having people argue well like ending war, poverty and hunger. But, for now, I'll settle for people becoming more interesting.

As I've received feedback on For the Sake of Argument and Fallacy, a common thread has been the recognition of places where people routinely experience poorly constructed argument or the use of fallacy.

One friend said, "Wow, I had a boss who would constantly use Appeal to Authority, Appeal to the People, Ad Hominem and Genetic Fallacy. I always knew that there was something wrong with his arguments, but could never put my finger on it."

Another said, "I've never seen argument as a way to build consensus and agreement. I always thought it was about getting what you want and winning!"

And yet another said, "After reading your articles, I've been hearing what people say completely differently. I was listening to a commentator on the news and realized that he was using all sorts of fallacy as the basis for his conclusions."

So, if you'd like to join me in my quest to make my world more interesting to me, here are some steps that you can begin taking today.

Step One: Listen Critically
One of the things that you might want to do is start to listen to what you hear (on the radio, at the coffee shop, at work, in meetings) with a more critical ear regarding the construction of argument and the use of valid propositions. You don't need to respond or argue, just listen and see if you can map various statements to valid or invalid proposition. If the proposition is valid, ask yourself why it is valid. If it's invalid, why?

Step Two: Practice
Step two can be conducted alone using a recorder or better yet, with a partner also interested in honing their skills. The basic idea is to take an opinion that you hold that may be a bit controversial and argue it, presenting what you believe in a logical manner without fallacy.

Start by proposing premises that you and the person who is hearing your argument agree to. From there, draw inferences and slowly build towards your conclusion (your opinion). The role of your partner is to either accept or decline each proposition. If your partner declines, then it's your job to re-frame, change or discard your proposition.

Of course, in all likelihood the process will not move from premises through inferences to conclusion, but instead will bounce back and forth starting with your conclusion and determining what propositions are required to support it, then the propositions required to support those propositions, and then finally moving forward from the base premises.

Step Three: Perform
Step three is my favorite part. At dinner or in a meeting or at a party or anywhere that you find yourself in a discussion where two clearly independent perspectives are being expressed (yours being one of them), invite everyone to join in formal argument between yourself and the proponent of the other perspective. Quickly explain the rules of engagement (building one brick at a time) and the concept of fallacy (you might even have a little sheet that lists various forms of fallacy). You could treat the whole thing like playing pictionary or charades.

Each of you can then present your arguments to the other whose only job is to accept or decline. The other participants serve as the adjudicators validating whether or not you've stuck to the format and whether or not your propositions are valid.

This might be a great exercise for corporate team building or even conflict resolution. Collect a group of interested parties, present them with a sheet that provides the rules on the front and the list of fallacies on the back, and then have at it.

Setting Out
My interests aside, seeing as we all experience argument on a daily basis, we might as well become good at it.

So, spend this week listening with a critical ear and making note of the various forms of fallacy you hear. You might even write down your own version of the rules of engagement and the definition of various fallacies. If you feel inspired, share your observations with others and ask them to join you.

I'd love to hear the insights you garner. I might even begin working on a completely non-trademarked and open to anyone, Argument, the board game.

Carry on,

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