Thinking of Argumentful as a tool for creating argument maps may suggest it is disconnected from day-to-day life and only suitable for the academic world. While it is a great tool for students and academics, it also helps boost critical thinking in scenarios as diverse as reading the news, making informed decisions in a company, or understanding complex topics like a healthy nutrition or climate change.
One of our core values as a company is transparency and the argument maps help achieve it or make its absence clearer.
It may seem trivial but providing the sources of information is not so common even in the quality press, let alone on social media where people rarely feel the need to provide justification for any statements. Additionally, a common type of bias visible in newspapers is preferential reporting of initial research with controversial findings and forgetting to subsequently report on follow-up studies or research with null results, as covered in the following study. If newspapers take such an approach, their readers may understand that various foods can both prevent or cause cancer, creating confusion.
Similarly, managers in companies tend to make decisions without relying on data or by making dubious interpretations of the data. This study discussed risks of top management relying on intuition (or “gut feeling”) as opposed to data and an article from the reputable Harvard Business Review which, funnily enough, cites a study from 2002 without offering a link, mentions a worrying figure of 45% corporate executives who rely more on instinct than data for running their business.
Another recurrent problem in companies is the use of acronyms and of jargon that is not well defined, assuming everyone has a common understanding of definitions when, actually, it’s more likely the case that a notion has a slightly different meaning to different team members. Clearly stating the definition of important notions used in arguments is made available out of the box in Argumentful.
Taking it one step further, in the rare cases when sources are provided, not everyone is aware about the various types of sources, the confidence one should put in each type and the types of conclusions allowed. We have covered in several posts already the topic of observational studies and causal links.
Then there are the things we take for granted, that need no proof, which can be used in Argumentful as backing nodes linking to axioms. Most argumentation will end up postulating something that everyone needs to agree on but it’s not always evident what these stements are. In a company, the core values or goals (e.g. treating employees equally regardless of gender, ethnicity and religion) can be considered axioms and any solid argument would be traced back from these generic aims.
On the topic of taking things for granted, we’ve found this study, which shows that people on social media rank their trust in news outlets similarly to professional fact-checkers. In other words, that crowdsourcing the evaluation of trustworthiness of news sources, which, granted, is a lot cheaper that human fact-checking, should be a valid option for the future. The authors acknowledge the limitations of their study, noting that trust in news sources varies based on political orientation and also, more subtly, that people trust things they’ve heard about, which gives an unfair advantage to mainstream media. We’re trying to discourage that in Argumentful not only because of the dystopian future this approach envisions but because validity of information doesn’t depend on source. Experts opinion that doesn’t present evidence won’t rank too high. Newspaper articles that don’t show video footage, images or official documents also score very low. Maybe the only benefit that remains with mainstream media is that they don’t yet show deepfakes or computer-generated misleading information although that may also change.
Even if all sources are provided and all the conclusions follow logically, there’s still a risk that an argumentation is so complicated and very few people will be able to graps the whole justification without a visual representation showing how all the statements are link and work together towards the key conclusion. Think of classical philosophy books such as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which make undoubtedly solid arguments, but they make them over several hundreds of pages. Obviously, argumentations that are hard to follow are not only a problem for the readers, since the authors themselves risk getting lost in the various branches of their subconclusions and miss covering some important counterarguments.
This study from the World Literacy Foundation addresses many causes for the so-called “functional illiteracy”, or the inability of understand the meaning of pieces of text. This phenomenon seems depressingly prevalent even in the western countries, 15% of adults in England (that’s over 5 Million people!) falling in that category. Most of these causes seem to stem from financial deprivation and broken families and it’s absolutely imperative that these factors are addressed first before argument maps come into the picture. Yet, we believe it’s very likely that having a visual representation of the links between various parts of a text will be a great tool for almost anyone trying to understand content such as newspaper articles and expose fake news or misleading information.
Creativity and rigour
Observing so many rules when building an argumentation can be seen as a hindrance to creativity. Of course, for activities such as writing fictional literature, argument maps are not the best choice. But when writing anything that requires some rigour like a newspaper article, a technical book or even important emails, argument maps can be of great help to make sure our creative ideas are built on solid grounds. This study makes the case for various ways in which rigour can help creativity in theory building as well as modelling processes inside organisations.
Thus, at the risk of not following our very own advice around false analogies, think of Argumentful as a Computer-aided design (CAD) piece of software that helps you find novel insights based on solid data in the same way CAD software for architecture helps you design beautiful buildings that also stand upright and don’t collapse during earthquakes.