Think Again – How to Reason and Argue, looks at where we are currently going wrong with arguing and how we can get back on track.
Get the book here: Think Again – How to Reason and Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Where we are currently
Terrorism, poverty, inequality – and if you’re reading in 2020, Coronavirus – are all gigantic crises in scope and scale that cannot be solved without widespread cooperation. If you’re naïve like me, you might be thinking “Why don’t we just get on with each other, work together and solve these pressing issues; after all, we have the remarkable science and technology to help solve them!”
Unfortunately, our lack of action usually stems from one source: an absence of mutual understanding with one another. This is especially true in politics where political opponents try to divide and polarize rather than bring everyone together for the common good.
But, with a bit of hope, we can get out of this rut and start working together for good. The main thing we need to do is communicate and start arguing better. We need to assert less and understand more; we need to lecture less and be willing to learn more.
Let’s start by being more diverse
Think about your friendship group: How many of your friends hold opposing views to yours? For many, it’s very little. There is a tendency to speak to others like us, we don’t want to hear views that we disagree with and when we do hear them, there is never a mutual effort to speak about them at length to understand why we do have opposing views; it instead turns into a flurry of emotional appeals, abuse or ostracism.
Polarization – One of the biggest problems we face
This is a term that holds many different meanings: It can mean opposites; it can mean civility on both sides; it can mean no compromises, but the most devastating outcome is gridlock whereby nobody can agree on anything so nothing gets done.
Now, one might say “We’ve always been disagreeing with each other that’s nothing new” but the issue begins to become apparent when we look at the changes in polarization over the past few years. Since the 1990’s this problem has exacerbated and is getting worse according to the author, whilst people in the 1990s had disagreements, they could still come to a mutual understanding, whereas nowadays we are approaching the problem where we cannot agree on anything. If we want to get anywhere, we need to reverse how polarized we have become.
What is an argument?
To put it simply: It is a connected series of statements intended to present a reason for a proposition. The statements that present a reason are called premises. The proposition the premises are supporting is called the conclusion.
Think of this example:
Comparative advantage makes everyone else better off, everyone plays to their strengths and as a result of that, the overall costs for everyone decreases. We should encourage countries to produce what they produce best!
Here, the premise is that comparative advantage enables countries to perform tasks they are best at and as a result, make everyone else better off. The conclusion is that we should encourage it to enable everyone to benefit.
Now you have an idea of what an argument is, let’s take a look at what we can get out of it. There are many more benefits than you might think!
What we get out of arguing
When done correctly, arguing can be an enriching experience. Let’s take a look at a few positives from arguing with each other.
Learning – We can a lot from hearing other views. We gain new evidence, new arguments and understand positions in a better light than before. Although we don’t have to admit defeat right away, even if the opposing party has clearly stronger points than ours; in the end, the person who learns the most is the winner.
Respect – One of the best ways to show respect is to listen to another person. Whilst you may disagree, you still owe the opposing party the respect they deserve. Whilst you may be unlikely to completely sway somebody, you might develop friendships that will enrich your life going forwards – after all, this is much more important than dinner table politics anyway!
Humility – An inflated ego is never a good look. When you surround yourself with others who confirm that you are always right, you’re probably more likely than ever to be wrong. Arguing your points enables you to ask questions and make yourself realize the world is more complicated than you could ever comprehend.
Compromise – We will never always agree 100%, but if we can compromise we can still achieve what we want and work towards making the world that little bit better.
Making simple arguments
After that long introduction, you must be desperate to learn how to make arguments! Well, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that this summary and the book doesn’t really go into detail on how to make a cracking argument, but the good news is it tells you how not to make an argument!
But, for the purposes of understanding how to make simple arguments: Take a look at the example from the book below.
Marco Polo opened a trade route from Europe to China.
Countries that trade with each other effect each other.
What happened in China affected Europe.
What we can see above is 3 sentences, linking the key ideas together. To make an argument out of this it’s surprisingly simple: Just use a few linking words like “I think” and “So”!
Marco Polo opened a trade route from Europe to China. I think countries that trade with each other effect each other. So, what happened in China affected Europe.
That wasn’t too hard! Now let’s look more in-depth at how not to make an argument and then how to counter and refute arguments.
Various debating fallacies to avoid
Good arguments can be valuable; however, bad arguments can be devastating. Arguments are made of language, and as we’ve seen above, premises and conclusions are propositions expressed by declarative sentences. When this language breaks down; arguments fall apart.
Here are some fallacies (mistaken beliefs) to avoid when arguing…
The Fallacy of Division
Argument: North Korea is an aggressive country, you’re from North Korea so you must be aggressive!
Counter: That’s like arguing North is in the mountains and you’re from North Korea, so you must be a mountain!
Lesson: What holds for the whole might not hold for parts
Argument: You are either with us or against us, and you are not yet fully committed to our cause, so you must be our enemy.
Counter: That’s like arguing that you are either with Fiji or against Fiji, and you are not yet fully committed to Fiji, so you must be an enemy of Fiji.
Lesson: People can be neutral—neither for nor against.
Argument: There is some argument for adopting this policy, but there is also some argument against it and in favour of an alternative, so both sides are reasonable, and it is unreasonable to favour one over the other.
Counter: That’s like arguing that there is some argument for jumping off this building (how thrilling!), and there is also some argument against jumping off (how deadly!), so both choices are reasonable, and it is unreasonable to favour one over the other.
Lesson: Not all arguments and reasons are equivalent. Some are better than others. (The same point holds when there are experts on both sides.)
Appeal to ignorance
Argument: You can’t prove that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so there must have been none.
Counter: That’s like arguing that you can’t prove that there are tiny spiders in this room, so there must not be any tiny spiders in this room.
Lesson: There might have been lots that we did not see, because they are hard to find, even when they are there.False Cause (or post hoc ergo propter hoc)
Argument: Our economy improved right after he became president, so he helped our country a lot.
Counter: That’s like arguing that our economy improved right after my daughter was born, so she helped our country a lot.
Lesson: The timing might be a coincidence. More generally, correlation does not imply causation.
When you’re entitled to criticize others
So we’ve made a good argument but it’s highly likely the other person will come back with something. How do we ensure we’re being fair and actually entitled to counter our opponent’s views?
A great excerpt from the book comes from Anatol Rapoport – the great mathematical psychologist – who was famous for his insights into social interactions. He details 4 simple steps to follow before criticizing others arguments.
- Attempt to express your position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target thinks they wish they had put it that way.
- List any points of agreement (this is especially important if the issue is one where there is no general agreement amongst anything).
- Mention what you have learnt from their arguments
- Only then, you are permitted to rebut or criticize the target.
If you’ve followed the rules above, let’s now look at some ways you can refute somebody’s arguments…
How to refute arguments
This section looks at how to refute and counter-arguments made. It’s important to note: don’t take on arguments for the sake of it, whilst playing devil’s advocate can be useful in some scenarios, doing it all the time will just annoy people. The below tips are some quick guides to casting doubt over an argument.
Is it an exception to the rule?
This looks at casting doubt over the premises of the argument. Suppose one argument takes the form of “high taxes reduce employment, therefore we need to keep taxes low”. The most effective way to combat a point like this is to find a time when taxes went up and unemployment did not go up. This method follows the classic idea from Karl Popper whereby many experiments showing something to be true does not prove it to be true, however, one experiment showing it to be false is enough to falsify it.
Put it into a different context
This looks at casting doubt over the argument conclusions. If you can show the conclusion is false, then you can show there is something wrong with the argument. The strongest method here is “reduction ad absurdum” or reducing the conclusion to absurdities.
Here you should construct a parallel argument that mirrors the form of the argument being assessed but has true premises but false conclusions. Martin Luther King Jr brilliantly showcased this method in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
He had been marching in favour of racial equality and civil rights. His jailors argued that he shouldn’t have marched because the protest would inspire his opponents to attack him and other marchers. King replied to this along the lines of “How can you make that assertion, isn’t it like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”
Martin Luther King Jr’s example is a powerful example of this method being used, but remember, use it carefully – this method can reduce the discourse and lead arguments down a negative path if used incorrectly.
How to approach arguing
We cannot be expected to remember all of the above points when in the heat of debate, or even living life in general. The author has put together some simple to follow but important heuristics you can use to help you approach debating and life effectively.
Rule 1: Admit your limits
Don’t imagine you know it all, nobody does. Always be open-minded and willing to change your mind.
Rule 2: Learn more
There is so much to learn but so little time to learn it. The author signposts a few topics which are of importance though. We need to learn how to communicate effectively; we need to learn and understand science (including psychology, economics and mathematics) and we need to learn philosophy.
Rule 3: Keep practising
The only effective way to learn how to identify, analyze and evaluate arguments is to practice. Respectfully debate others with who you disagree – it won’t only improve your knowledge of the topic, it will improve your communication skills too!
Rule 4: Teach others
The skills we all learn and have may not be widely available to others, so share what you know!
Hope this book summary helps! Make sure to check out the full version of the book below, and as always – Keep learning!
Get the book here: Think Again – How to Reason and Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong