Some problems with the systematic assessment of planning arguments.

(Ref. e.g. the article ‘The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments’ (Informal Logic, Dec. 2010, also slightly revised, in

In an effort to explore phenomena, identifying shortcomings and errors, that can be seen as arguments against the too ready acceptance of the argumentative model of planning, I ran into a well-intentioned article full of claims and arguments that did not fit the simple clean basic model of the planning argument, and would cause some problems in their analysis and plausibility assessment. Briefly, there are three aspects of concern.

The first is the liberal use of verbs denoting the relationship between concepts that — in the basic planning argument — would be seen as plan features that cause outcomes or consequences. Reminder: the argumentative view shares the focus on cause-effect relationships with much of the systems modeling perspective: the ‘loops’ of systems networks are generated by changes in components / variables causing positive or negative changes in other variables. So the relationship constituting the ‘factual-instrumental’ premise of planning arguments is mostly seen as a cause-effect relationship.

Now the survey of arguments in the article mentioned above (not identified to protect the author until proven guilty, and because the practice is actually quite common) hardly ever actually uses the terms ’cause’ and ‘effect’ or their equivalent in arguments that clearly advocate certain policies and actions. Instead, one finds terms such as ‘reflects’, ‘advance’ (an adaptive response); ‘reinforce’, ‘seeks to.. ‘, ‘codifies’, ‘is wired to..’. ‘erodes’, ‘come to terms with…’. ‘speaks to…’, ‘retreats into…’,’crystallizes…’, ‘promotes’. ‘cross-fertilizes…, ’embraces’, ‘ ‘cuts across’, ‘rooted in…’, ‘deeply embedded ‘, ‘leverages’,
‘co-create’ and ‘co-design’, ‘highlight ‘, ‘re-ignite’. (Once the extent of such claims was realized in that article that was trying to make a case for ‘disrupting’ the old system and its propaganda, it became clear that the article itself was heavily engaged in the art of propaganda… slightly saddening the reader who was initially tending towards sympathetic endorsement of that case…)

This wealth of relationship descriptions is apt to throw the blind faith promoter of the simple planning argument pattern into serious self-recrimination: What is the point of thorough analysis of these kinds of argument, if they never appear in their pristine form in actual discourse? (The basic ‘standard planning argument’ pattern is the following: “Proposed plan X ought to be adopted because X will produce consequence Y given conditions C), and consequence Y ought to be pursued, (and conditions C are or will be given.)” True, it was always pointed out that there were other kinds of relationships than ‘will produce’; or ’causes’, at work in that basic pattern: ‘part-whole’, for example, or ‘association’, ‘acting as catalyst’, ‘being identical’ or synonymous with’, for example. But those were never seen as serious obstacles to their evaluation by the proposed process of argument assessment, as the above examples appear to be. How can they be evaluated with the same blunt tool as the arguments with plain cause-effect premises?

Secondly, the problems they cause for assessment are exacerbated by the fact that often, these verbs are qualified with expressions like ‘probably’; ‘likely to’, ‘may be seen as’ and other means of retreating from complete certainty regarding the underlying claims. The effect of these qualification moves is that the entire claim ‘probably x’ or ‘x is likely to advance y’ can now be evaluated as a fully plausible claim, and given a pl-value of +1 (‘completely plausible, virtually certain’) by a listener — since the premise obviously, honestly, does not claim complete certainty. This obscures the actual underlying suggestion that ‘x (actually) will advance y’ is far from completely plausible, and thus will lend more plausibility and weight to the argument of which it is a premise.

A third problem is that, upon closer inspection, many of the relationship claims are not just honest, innocent expressions of factual or functional relationships between real entities or forces. They are often themselves ‘laden’ with deontic content — subjective expressions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’: ‘x threatens y’, or ‘relativizes’, or ‘manipulates’ are valuing relationship descriptions: judgments about ‘ought-aspects that the proposed method reserved for the clearly deontic premises of planning arguments: the purported outcomes or consequences of plans.

What are the implications of these considerations for the proposal of systematic argument assessment in the planning discourse? (Other than the necessary acknowledgement that this very comment is itself a piece of propaganda…)

Apart from the option of giving up on the entire enterprise and leaving the subjective judgments by discourse participants unexamined, one response would be to devise ways of ‘separating’ the qualifying terms from the basic claims in the evaluation work sheets given to participants. They would be asked to assess the probability or plausibility of the basic premise claim, perhaps using the qualifying statements as a ‘guide’ to their plausibility judgment (like any other supporting evidence). This seems possible with some additional refinement and simplification of the proposed process.

It is less clear how the value-contamination of relationship descriptors could be dealt with. Changing the representation of arguments to the condensed form of the basic ‘standard planning argument’ pattern is already a controversial suggestion requiring considerable ‘intelligent’ assessment of arguments’ ‘core’ from their ‘verbatim’ version, both to get it ‘right’ and to avoid turning it into a partisan interpretation. The ‘intelligent computation’ needed to add the suggested separation of value from relationship terms to the already severely manipulated argument representation will require some more research — but doing that may be asking too much?

And it is not clear how these considerations can help participants deal with insidious argument patterns such as the recent beauty alleging media coverup of terrorist incidents in Sweden, and then using the objection that there was no evidence of such an incident, as a ‘clinching’ argument for the coverup: ‘see how clever they are covering it up?’


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