Posts Tagged 'issue and argument mapping'

About Dr. Keating’s $10,000 challenge to prove that man-made climate change is not occurring

I foolishly accepted a chore that turned out to be more work than anticipated: to follow a discussion about Dr. Keating’s $10,000 Challenge and to put together an IBIS as well as a few Issue and Argument maps about it. Physicist Dr. Keating has offered $10,000 to anyone who can produce, via scientific method, a proof that man-made climate change is not occurring. He invited such submissions to be entered on a blog, and to offer his reasons as to whether and why he would accept or reject a submission. There were some such submissions, some of which were quickly rejected, others still awaiting judgment, but a flood of posts offering a variety of opinions — about the challenge and about submitted entries.

Taking a break from slogging through this material to ferret out essential information for the IBIS and maps, some thoughts occurred to me that I just have to write about, ‘to get them out of my system’.

These thoughts amount to not only raising some questions about the challenge as it was presented, but also about the nature of many of the responses offered. Many have to do with the concept of ‘proof’ Dr. Keating invited. He defends the choice of terms by referring to claims by ‘deniers’ of man-made climate change that such proof exists and is easy to provide. Perhaps his certainty in offering the reward stems form the knowledge that ‘proof’ is not appropriate term for evidence in favor of scientific hypotheses, especially for issues involving matters of degrees of several different sources contributions to an effect. The argument of offering evidence in support of a hypothesis is an inductive kind, not a deductively valid one that deserves the label of ‘proof’.

So while the ‘deniers’ should perhaps not have used the term (he did not cite any such claim specifically), in the larger interest of the controversy his use of the word ‘proof’ in his challenge is not really helpful either. Not because, as some of the posts claim, ‘it is not possible to prove a negative’. Isn’t it the scientific way to disprove a hypothesis by showing, by valid ‘scientific means (experiments, observations verified by repeatability, measurement etc.) that a piece of evidence that constitutes a necessary consequence of the hypothesis is NOT true, is indeed a deductively valid one (known as ‘modus tollens’) that can be accepted as proof? But because if the issue is one involving matters of degrees, acceptance or rejection of a hypothesis hinges on the degree of certainty — for example, of the probability that the ‘null hypothesis’ (the negation of the hypothesis) could have occurred under the conditions of the evidence data or arguments provided is too small to be believable. So this would have required specification of that level of confidence.

The choice of ‘weight of evidence’ or ‘argument’ instead of ‘proof’ may have been avoided for several reasons: the difficulty of ‘weighing’ the evidence, or because ‘argument’ is perceived as something unduly (unscientifically?) adversarial. like a brawl, with win-lose outcomes not necessarily based on the merit of the arguments. The significance of the overall issue (at least as seen by Dr. Keating and his laudable effort to get it ‘settled’) should suggest that such a win-lose outcome is not in the best interest of humanity.

It is no wonder that many posts therefore tried to represent the challenge as ‘meaningless’. But they also did not acknowledge the elephant in the room: the question of what should be done about the problem — if it is indeed a problem serious enough to worry about, and if ‘we’ (humanity) actually can do something about it. Getting ‘the right thing’ done is NOT the likely result of a win/lose brawl.

Getting the right thing done would require re-framing the understanding of ‘argument’ as the mutual attempt to
a) identify and acknowledge the ‘real’ underlying issue;
b) identify possible solutions (‘what should be done’)
c) reaching into each others’ minds to show how one’s proposed ‘solution (conclusion to the argument) really follows plausibly from beliefs the other already holds, or that the other would accept as plausible upon being shown the arguments or evidence (validated ‘scientifically?) for it;
d) changing the proposed solution to the point that it becomes acceptable to the other — ideally of course ‘better’, but at the very least ‘not worse’ than before, or if nothing is done.

So the question becomes one of determining what is ‘acceptable’. That includes not only the plausibility of the scientific data presented as evidence in the pro and con arguments — which of course are important, — but also the consequences of whatever action or inaction is chosen as a result of the allegedly ‘basic’ issue, in this case whether and to what degree man-made climate change is occurring. Specifically: does ‘acceptability’ include such aspects as whether some parties will lose income, property, security, property, respect, ‘face’?

As long as proponents on either side of the issue feel that they can legitimately suggest that the other side is not entirely without ‘hidden agenda’ interests (funding, reputation, payments from certain industry segments, political entities etc…?) in order to influence public assessment of the purity of the scientific arguments offered, would it be appropriate and helpful is all such could be brought up and discussed? For example: re-framing the challenge to explore what actions ‘we’ ought to take depending on the various outcomes of the ‘scientific issue: what if MMCC IS occurring? what if it is NOT occurring? and what if it does occur, but to some degree (to be estimated..) — such that the respective actions will have ‘acceptable’ outcomes for all affected parties even if the resolution of the scientific issue were NOT as expected?

As long as these issues are kept off the discussion table, I am afraid it will not only prevent a proposed ‘proof’ or hesitancy of people to present it to Dr. Keating’s exclusive judgment, from ‘settling’ the issue and allow humanity to proceed towards working out feasible and acceptable action solutions; it will poison the entire discourse in a way that not even the most complete and representative argument maps of its contributions will be able to clarify let alone remedy.

Updated Planning Discourse Positions

Re-examining various efforts and proposals on discourse support over time, I have tried to identify and address some key issues or problems that require attention and rethinking. Briefly, the list of issues includes the following (in no particular order of importance):

•        The question of the appropriate Conceptual Framework for the discourse support system;

•      The preparation and use of discourse, issue and argument maps,  ncluding the choice of map ‘elements’ (questions, issues, arguments, concepts or topics…);

•      The design of the organizational framework:  the ‘platform’;

•      The Software problem: Specifications for discourse support software;

•      Questions of appropriate process;

•        The role and design of discourse mapping;

•       The aspect of distributed information;

•      The problem of complexity of information  (complexity of linear verbal or written discussion, complex reports, systems model information);

•       The role of experts;

•      Negative associations with the term ‘argument’;

•      The problem of ‘framing’ the discourse;

•      Inappropriate focus on insignificant issues;

•       The role of media;

•      Appropriate Discussion representation;

•      Incentives / motivation for participation (‘Voter apathy’)

•      The ‘familiar’ (comfortable?) linear format of discussions versus the need (?) for structuring discourse contributions;

•      The need for overview of the number of issues / aspects of the problem and their relationships;

•      The effect of ‘last word’ contributions (e.g. speeches) on collective decisions; or mere ‘rhetorical brilliance’;

•      Linking discussion merit / argument merit with eventual decisions;

•      The issue of maps ‘taking sides’;

•      The problem of evaluation: of proposals, arguments, discussion contributions;

•      The role of ‘systems models’ information in common (verbal, linear, including ‘argumentative’) discourse

•      The question of argument reconstruction.

•      The appropriate formalization or condensation needed for concise map representation;

•      Differences between requirements for e.g. ‘argument maps’ as used in e.g. law or science versus planning;

•      The deliberate or inadvertent ‘authoritative’ effect of e.g. argument representation as ‘valid’; (i.e. the extent of evaluative content of maps);

•      The question of appropriate sequence of map generation and updating;

•    The question of representation of qualifiers in evaluation forms.


In previous work on the structure and evaluation of ‘planning arguments’ within the overall framework of the ‘Argumentative Model of Planning’ (as proposed by Rittel), I have been making various assumptions with regard to these questions — assumptions differing from those made in other studies and proposed discourse support tools. Such assumptions, for example regarding the conceptual framework, as manifested in the choice of vocabulary, — adopted as a mostly unquestioned matter of course in my proposals as well as in other’s work, — have significant implications on the development of such discourse support tools. They therefore should be raised as explicit issues for discussion and re-examination.

A first step in such a re-examination might begin with an attempt to explicitly state my current position, for discussion. This position is the result, to date, of experience with my own ideas as well as the study of others’ proposals. Not all of the issues listed above will be addressed in the following. Some position items still are, in my mind, more ‘questions’ than firm convictions, but I will try to state them as ‘provocatively’ as possible, for discussion and questioning.

1       The development of a global support framework for the discussion of global planning and policy agreements, based on wide participation and assessment of concerns, is a matter of increasingly critical concern; it should be pursued with high priority.

While no such system can be expected to achieve definitive universal validity and acceptance, and therefore many different efforts for further development of alternative approaches should be encouraged, there is a clear need for some global agreements and decisions that must be based on wide participation as well as thorough evaluation of concerns and information (evidence).

The design of a global framework will not be structurally different from the design of such systems for smaller entities, e.g. local governments. The differences would be mainly ones of scale. Therefore, experimental systems can be developed and tested at smaller scales to gain sufficient experience before engaging in the investments that will be needed for a global framework. By the same token, global systems for initially very narrow topics would serve the same purpose of incremental development and implementation.

2      The design of such a framework must be based on — and accommodate — currently familiar and comfortable habits and practices of collective discussion.

While there are analytical techniques and tools with plausible claims of greater effectiveness, ability to deal with the amount and complexity of data etc., the use of these tools in discourse situations with wide participation of people of different educational achievement levels would either be prohibitive of wide participation, or require implausibly massive information/education programs for which precisely the needed tools for reaching agreement on the selection of method / approach (among the many competing candidates) are currently not available.

3      Even with the growing use of new information technology tools, the currently most familiar and comfortable discourse pattern seems to be that of the traditional ‘linear discussion’ (sequential exchange of questions and answers or arguments) — the pattern that has been developed in e.g. the parliamentary tradition, the agreement of giving all parties a chance to speak, air their concerns, their pros and cons to proposed collective actions, before making a decision.

This form of discourse, originally based on the sequential exchange of verbal contributions, is of course complemented and represented by written documents, reports, books, and communications.

4      A first significant attempt to enhance the ‘parliamentary’ tradition with systematic information system, procedural and technology support was Rittel’s ‘Argumentative Model of Planning’. It is still a main candidate for the common framework.

Rittel’s main argument for the general acceptance of this model was the insight that its basic, general conceptual framework of ‘questions’, ‘issues’ (controversial questions), ‘answers’, and ‘arguments’ could in principle accommodate the content of any other framework or approach, and thus become a bridge or common forum for planning at all levels. This still seems to be a valid claim not matched by any other theoretical approach.

5      However, there are sufficiently worrisome ‘negative associations’ with the term ‘argument’ of Rittel’s model to suggest at least a different label and selection of more neutral key concepts and terms for the general framework

            The main options are to only refer to ‘questions’ and ‘responses’ and ‘claims’, and to avoid ‘argument’ as well as the concepts of ‘pro’s and ‘cons’ — arguments in favor and opposed to plan proposals or other propositions.

Argumentation can be seen as the mutually cooperative (positive) effort of discussion participants to point out premises that support their positions, but that also are already believed to true or plausible by the ‘opponent‘, (or will be accepted by the opponent upon presentation of evidence or further arguments). But the more common, apparently persistent view is that of argumentation as a ‘nasty’, adversarial, combative ‘win-lose’ endeavor. While undoubtedly discourse by ay other label will produce arguments, pros and cons etc., the question is whether these should be represented as such in support tools, or in a more neutral vocabulary.

Experiments should be carried out with representations of discourse contributions — in overview maps and evaluation forms — as ‘questions’ and ‘answers’.

6      Any re-formatting, reconstruction, condensing of discussion contributions carries the danger of changing the meaning of an entry as intended by its author.

Regardless of the choice of such formatting — which should be the subject of discussion — the framework must preserve all original entries in their ‘verbatim’ form for reference and clarification as needed. Ideally, any reformatting of an entry should be checked with its author to ensure that it represents its intended meaning. (Unfortunately, this is not possible for entries whose authors cannot be reached, e.g. because they are dead.)

7      The framework should provide for translation services not only for translation between natural languages, but also from specialized discipline ‘jargon’ entries to natural language.

8      While researchers in several disciplines are carrying out significant and useful efforts  towards the development of discourse support tools, and some of these efforts seem to claim to produce universally applicable tools, such claims are overly optimistic.

The requirements for different disciplines are different, and lead to different solutions that cannot comfortably be transferred to other realms. Specifically, the differences between scientific, legal, and planning reasoning are calling for quite different approaches. and discourse support systems. However, they are not independent: the planning discourse contains premises from all these realms that must be supported with the tools pertinent to those differences.  The diagram suggests how different discourse and argument systems are related to planning:

(Sorry, diagram will be added later)

9      Analysis and problem-solving approaches can be distinguished according to the criteria they recommend as the warrant for solution decisions:

–         Voting results (government, management decision systems, supported by experts);

–             ‘Backwards-looking’ criteria:  ‘Root cause’ (Root cause analysis, ‘Necessary conditions, contributing factors (‘Systematic Doubt’ analysis), historical data (Systems models);

–        ‘Process/Approach’ criteria (“the ‘right’ approach guarantees the solution”);

solutions legitimized by participation vote or authority position; or argument merit;

–        ‘Forward-looking’ criteria:  Expected result performance, Benefit-Cost Ratio, simulated performance of selected variables over time, or stability of the system, etc.

It should be clear that the framework must accommodate all these approaches, or preferably, be based on an approach that could integrate all these perspectives, as applicable to context and characteristics of the problem. There is, to my knowledge, currently no approach matching this expectation, though some are claiming to do so   (e.g. ‘Multi-level Systems Analysis’, which however is looking at only approaches deemed to fit within the realm of ‘Systems Thinking).

10        While the basic components of the overall framework should be as few, general, and simple as possible, — for example ‘topic’,  ‘question’ and ‘claim’ or ‘response’, — actual contributions in real discussions can be lengthy and complex, and must be accommodated as such (in ‘verbatim’ reference files). However, for the purposes of overview by means of visual relationship mapping, or systematic evaluation, some form of condensed formatting or formalization will be necessary.

The needed provisions for overview mapping and evaluation are slightly different, but should be as similar as possible for the sake of simplicity.

11      Provisions for mapping:

a.   Different detail levels of discourse maps should be distinguished:  ‘Topic maps’, ‘Issue maps’ (or ‘question maps’), and ‘argument maps’ or ‘reasoning maps’.

–      Topic maps merely show the general topics or concepts and their relationship as linked by discussion entries.  Topics are conceptually linked (simple line) if they are connected by a relationship claim in a discussion entry.

–      Issue or question maps show the relationships between specific questions raised about topics. Questions can be identified by type: e.g. factual, deontic, explanatory, instrumental questions. There are two main kinds of relationships: one is the ‘topic family’ relation (all questions raised about a specific topic); the other is the relationship of a question (a ‘successor’ question) having been raised as a result of challenging or query for clarification of an element (premise) of another (‘predecessor‘) question.

–       Argument or reasoning maps show the individual claims (premises) making up an answer or argument about an issue (question), and the questions or issues having been raised as a result of questioning any such element (e.g. challenging or clarifying, calling for additional support for an argument premise.

b.  Reasoning maps (argument maps) should show all the claims making up an argument, including claims left not expressed in the original ‘verbatim’ entry as assumed to be ‘taken for granted’ and understood by the audience.

Reasoning maps aiming at encouraging critical examination and thinking about a controversial subject might show ‘potential’ questions (for example the entire ‘family of issues for a topic) that could or should be raised about an answer or argument. These might be shown in gray or faint shades, or a different color from actually raised questions.

c.   Reasoning maps should not identify answers or arguments as ‘pro’ and ‘con’ a proposal or position (unless it is made very clear that these are only the author’s intended function.)

The reason is that other participants might disagree with one or several of the premises of an intended ‘pro’ argument, in which case the set of premises (not with the respective participant’s negation) can constitute a ‘con’ argument — but the map showing it as ‘pro’ would in fact be ‘taking sides’ in the assessment. This would violate the principle of the map serving as a neutral, ‘impartial’ support tool.

d.  For the same reason, reasoning maps should not attempt to identify and state the reasoning pattern (e.g. ‘modus ponens’ or modus tollens’ etc.) of the argument. Nor should they ‘reconstruct’ arguments into such (presumably more ‘logical’, even ‘deductively valid’) forms.

Again, if in a participant’s opinion, one of the premises of such an argument should be negated, the pattern (reasoning rule) of the set of claims will become a different one. Showing the pattern as the originally intended one by the author, (however justified by its inherent nature and validity of premises it may seem to map preparers), the map would inadvertently or deliberately be ‘taking sides’ in the assessment of the argument.

e.   Topic, issue and reasoning maps should link to the respective elements in the verbatim and any formalized records of the discussion, including to source documents, and illustrations (pictures, diagrams, tables).

d.      The ‘rich image’ fashion (fad?) of adding icons and symbols (thumbs up or down, plus or minus signs) or other decorative features to the maps — moving bubbles, background imagery, etc. serve as distracting elements more than as well-intended user-friendly devices, and should be avoided.

12      Current discourse-based decision approaches exhibit a significant shortcoming in that there is no clear, transparent, visible link between the ‘merit’ of discussion contributions and the decision.

Voting blatantly permits disregarding discussion results entirely. Other approaches (e.g. Benefit-Cost Analysis, or systems modeling) claim to address all concerns voiced e.g. in preparatory surveys, but disregard any differences of opinion about the assumptions entering the analysis. (For example: some entities in society would consider the ‘cost’ of government project expenditures as ‘benefits’ if they lead to profits for those entities (e.g. industries) from government contracts).

The proposed expansion of the Argumentative Model with Argument Evaluation (TM 2010) provides an explicit link between the merit of arguments (as evaluated by discourse participants) and the decision, in the form of measures of plan proposal plausibility. This approach should be integrated into an approach dropping the ‘argumentative‘ label, even though it requires explicit or implicit evaluation of argument premises.

13      Provisions for evaluation.

In discussion-based planning processes, three main evaluation tasks should be distinguished: the comparative assessment of the merit of alternative plan proposals (if more than one); the evaluation of one plan proposal or proposition, as a function of the merit of arguments; and the evaluation of the merit of single contributions, (item of information, arguments) to the discussion.

For all three, the basic principle is that evaluation judgments must be understood as subjective judgments, by individual participants, about the quality, plausibility, goodness, validity desirability etc. While traditional assessments e.g. of truth of argument premises and conclusions were aiming at absolute, objective truth, the practical working assumption here is that while we all strive for such knowledge, we must acknowledge that we do not have any more than (utterly subjective) estimate judgments of it, and it is on the strength of those estimates we have to make our decisions. The discussion is a collective effort to share and hopefully improve the basis of those judgments.

The first task above is often approached by means of a ‘formal evaluation’ procedure developing ‘goodness’ or performance judgments about the quality of the plan alternatives, resulting on an overall judgment score as a function of partial judgments about the plans’ performance with respect to various aspects. sub-aspects etc. Such procedures are well documented; the discourse may be the source of the aspects, but more often, the aspects are assembled (by experts) by a different procedure.

The following suggestions are exploring the approach of developing a plausibility score for a plan proposal based on the plausibility and weight assessments of the (pro and con) arguments and argument premises. (following TM 2010 with some adaptations).

a.  Judgment criterion: Plausibility.

All elements to be ‘evaluated’ are assessed with the common criterion of ‘plausibility’, on an agreed-upon scale of +n  (‘completely plausible’) to -n (‘completely implausible’), the midpoint score of zero meaning ‘don’t know’ or ‘neither plausible nor implausible’.

While many argument assessment approaches aim at establishing the (binary) truth or falsity of claims, ‘truth’, (not even ‘degree of certainty’ or probability about the truth of a claim), does not properly apply to deontic (ought-) claims and desirability of goals etc. The plausibility criterion or judgment type applies to all types of claims, factual, deontic, explanatory etc.

b.   Weights of relative importance

Deontic claims (goals, objectives) are not equally important to people. To express these differences in importance, individuals assign ‘weight of relative importance) judgments to deontics in the arguments, on an agreed upon scale of zero to 1 such that all weights relative to an overall judgment add up to 1.

c.       All premises of an argument are assigned premise plausibility judgments ppl; the deontic premises are also assigned their weight of relative importance pw.

d.       The argument plausibility argpl of an argument is a function of the plausibility values of all its premises.

e.       Argument weight argw is a function of argument plausibility argpl and the weight ppw of its deontic premise.

f.      Individual Plan or Proposal plausibility PLANpl is a function of all argument weights.

g.  ‘Group’ assessments or indicators of plan plausibility GPLANpl can be expressed as some function of all individual PLANpl scores.

However, ‘group scores’ should only be used as a decision guide, together with added consideration of degrees of disagreement (range, variance), not as a direct decision criterion. The decision may have to be taken by traditional means e.g. voting. But the  correspondence or difference between deliberated plausibility scores and the final vote adds an ‘accountability’ provision: a participant having assigned a deliberated positive plausbility score for a plan but voting against it will face strong demands for explanation.

h.   A potential ‘by-product’ of such an evaluation component of a collective deliberation process is the possibility of rewarding participants for discussion contributions not only with reward points for making contributions — and making such contributions speedily, (since only the ‘first’ argument making the same point will be included in the evaluation) — but modifying these contribution points with the collective assessments of their plausibility. Thus, participants will have an incentive — and be rewarded for — making plausible and meritorious contributions.

14      The process for deliberative planning discourse with evaluation of arguments and other discourse contributions will be somewhat different from current forms of participatory planning, especially if much or all of it is to be carried out online.

            The main provisions for the design of the process pose no great problems, and small experimental projects can be carried out with current tools ‘by hand’ with human facilitators and support staff using currently available software packages.  But for larger applications adequate integrated software tools will first have to be developed.

15      The development of  ‘civic merit accounts’ based on the evaluated contributions to public deliberation projects may help the problem of citizen reluctance (often referred to as the problem of ‘voter apathy’) to participate in such discourse.

However, such rewards will only be effective incentives if they can become a fungible ‘currency’ for other exchanges in society.  One possibility is to use the built-up account of such ‘civic merit points’ as one part of qualification for public office — positions of power to make decisions that do not need or cannot wait for lengthy public deliberation. At the same time, the legitimization for power decisions must be ‘paid for’ with appropriate sums of credit points — a much-needed additional form of control of power.

16      An important, yet unresolved ‘open question’ is the role of complex ‘systems modeling’ information in any form of argumentative planning discourse with the kind of evaluation sketched above.

Just as disagreement and argumentation about model assumptions are currently not adequately accommodated in systems models, the information of complex systems models and e.g. simulation results is difficult to present in coherent form in traditional arguments, and almost impossible to represent in argument maps and evaluation tools. Since systems models arguably are currently the most important available tools for detailed and systematic analysis and understanding of problems and system behavior, the integration of these tools in the discourse framework for wide public participation must be seen as a task of urgent and high priority.

17      Another unresolved question regarding argument evaluation (and perhaps also mapping) is the role of statement qualifiers. 

Whether arguments that are stated with qualifiers (‘possibly’, ‘perhaps’; ‘tend to’ etc.) in the original ‘verbatim’ version should show such qualifiers in the statements (premises) to be evaluated. Arguably, qualifiers can be seen as statements about how an unqualified, categorical claim should be evaluated; the proponent of a claim qualified with a ‘possible’ does not ask for a complete 100% plausibility score. This means that the qualifier belongs to a separate argument about how the main categorical claim should be assessed, and thus should not be included in the ‘first-level’ argument to be evaluated.  The problem is that the qualified claim can be evaluated — as qualified — as quite, even 100% plausible — but that plausibility can (in the aggregation function) be counted as 100% for the unqualified claim. Unless the author can be persuaded to add an actual suggested plausibility value in lieu of the verbal qualifier, one that other evaluators can view and perhaps modify according to their own judgment (unlikely and probably impractical), it would seem better to just enter unqualified claims in the evaluation forms, even though this may be seen as misrepresenting the author’s real intended meaning.

18       Examples of topic, issue, and argument maps according to the preceding suggestions.

a.  A ‘topic map’ of the main topics addressed in this article:

Topic map

Map of topics discussed

b.  An issue map for one of the topics:

Mapping issues

Argument mapping issues

c.  A map of the ‘first level’ arguments in a planning discourse: the overall plan plausibility as a function of plausibility and weight assessments of the planning arguments (pro and con) that were raised about the plan.Plan plausibility

The overall hierarchy of plan plausibility judgments

      d.  The preceding diagram with ‘successor’ issues and respective arguments added.Successor issues

Hierarchy map of argument evaluation judgments, with successor issues

e. An example of a map of first level arguments for a selected mapping issuesArgument map

Argument map for mapping issue ‘Should argument map show ‘pro’ and ‘con’ labels?


Mann, T.       (2010)  “The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments”  Informal Logic, Dec. 2010.

Rittel, H.             (1972)  “On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and Second Generations’.” BedriftsØkonomen. #8, 1972.

–      (1977) “Structure and Usefulness of Planning Information Systems”, Working Paper  S-77-8, Institut für Grundlagen der Planung, Universität Stuttgart.

–      (1980) “APIS: A Concept for an Argumentative Planning Information System’. Working Paper No. 324. Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.

–      (1989)  “Issue-Based Information Systems for Design”. Working Paper No. 492. Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.


A curious discussion about legalizing illicit drugs

(Overheard in the (mythical) Fog Island Tavern… My apologies for the incomplete account of the statements, which is not doing them justice; I simply try to focus on the aspects that raised the concerns.)

Hey Abbé Boulah, I’m glad to see you here — I have  a question for you.

And a good evening to you too, Bog-Hubert. What’s such an urgent question that won’t even let you order a drink to start with?

Ah, Vodçek knows what I need.  Well, I ran into that candidate for the Senate I told you about,  who is thinking about running on a platform of legalizing illicit drugs, so we had a little exchange about that over at the dock.  And then I remembered you’d talked about this group in Australia that held a big discussion on the internet about that same question —  whether the country should legalize drugs. Asked people on the internet to vote on it, based on the arguments they posted. So what’s you opinion about that issue?

Ahh — which issue — legalizing drugs  or that discussion? 

That sly question itself tells me you don’t want to come clean on the legalizing problem. Is that because you don’t agree with the other policies of this Senate candidate? Okay, So what’s your take on that Aussie discussion?

You know me too well, Bogmeister. But the drug problem is really an issue I haven’t made up my mind about. I haven’t really thought about it that much lately — and that discussion didn’t do much to sway my opinion either way.

Why is that? You seemed quite excited about the piece the other day?

Yes, but that was because of the curious way they stated their arguments, not so much about the content.  Let me explain.  This is a group that  puts up some interesting controversial issues for online discussion, presents  a ‘pro’ and a ‘con’ statement — a video with transcription — invites followers to join the discussion and to vote on it.  So far, I’ve only read the transcript; you know I get impatient with all those videos. And it gave me some interesting insight into how many people argue such cases, especially in view of our old problem of how one should go about carefully and systematically evaluating such arguments before deciding. And mapping the discussion to give people a better overview.

Cripes, now it’s getting theoretical.

Can’t be helped.  Cheers. Well, the first guy, the proponent of legalization begins  by stating that drugs should be legalized because the ‘war on drugs’ has been a failure. And he cites the opinion of community leaders who acknowledge this. 

Okay. Does he mention specifics of that failure?

Oh yes;  he lists a whole lot of them:  Aims of the ‘war on drugs’ that have not been achieved.

And does he provide any good evidence for that?

That’s the interesting part. No, he just states the claims. He even started out by saying those failures are ‘self-evident’ . Which means: no evidence needed?

But  wait:  those aren’t really arguments for legalization, but against — what — the war on drugs,  continued prohibition?

Good point:  you are making progress in this business. They are all arguments against the alternative proposal, the status quo — that hasn’t been stated.  But of course it’s there, implicitly, as the current ‘solution’  that should be replaced. And the interesting part is that  listing those failures of the status quo they are making some implicit claims.  Claims that maybe should have been made explicit. 

What claims? Other than that the war on drugs is a flop?

One implied claim is that there is a drug problem that should be tackled somehow; — that probably isn’t controversial, so it doesn’t have to be mentioned because  it’s assumed everybody agrees on it. But  he characterizes that problem differently:  he says it’s a health and social problem, not a criminal one. Which therefore calls for a different approach to deal with it. And even more interestingly:  doesn’t he make the implied claim that there are only two possible solutions to it —  prohibition and legalization? There’s no mention of any other possibility. And if so, the arguments against the war on drugs do become arguments for legalization (in a listener’s mind) — even though he doesn’t explicitly state those arguments. What he says, without saying it, is that legalization would in fact achieve all those aims of the war on drugs.

So what you are saying is that in order to make a thorough evaluation of all the pros and cons, these arguments should be made explicit, and listed in the evaluation worksheet  for that purpose — where you list all the premises and give them scores for plausibility and weight etc.

Right.  That bothers me. The arguments have been slipped into the audience’s mind. But they haven’t been stated openly.

Why does that bother you? If they aren’t stated, they can’t be evaluated.

True. But they are sticking in the mind. So they will subtly or not so subtly influence any vote, won’t they? They also can’t easily be shown on a map of the discourse, at least if we stick to the rule that the maps shows issues that have been raised. And if they aren’t stated and shown, they can’t be questioned and scrutinized, as some of them should be. 


Well, look at some of the so-called ‘aims’ of the war on drugs:  while some are easy to agree on, others are puzzling: for example, the ‘aim’ that drug quality — purity — should be reduced.  This helps to make drugs less appealing because more dangerous —  but is this also an aim of  a n y  overall effort to deal with the drug problem?  One that legalization would achieve more successfully? I don’t know, it looks like one that should at least be discussed, no?  But since it’s not stated,  it’s just part of a long list of arguments against the alternative of prohibition that now works just because of its length. Interesting, huh? 

Well, I’m sure that doesn’t make too much of a difference among all the other arguments for and against.  What were the other pro-legalization arguments?

There weren’t any in the proponent’s statement. Or only very few, really. 

You’re kidding me. Even I can come up with some good arguments about that.  So what was he talking about, then?

He was providing information about a very plausible question — one that any undecided person would be likely, even prudent to ask: the details of the legalization proposal. He talked about — as I mentioned — treating the problem as a health and social issue calling for health and social intervention measures, about shifting funding from law enforcement to such programs, about moving slowly and incrementally,  about taxing cannabis, about  licenses for production, sale, distribution of drugs, about establishing supervised needle  and injection centers as well as other treatment facilities. 

Sounds reasonable.  People should know enough about the details of such projects before voting on them.

I can’t argue with that. The problem is: how should such descriptions be dealt with in the argument evaluation?

Why would they? They are just descriptions of the proposal — he didn’t make them out to be ‘pro’ arguments, did he?

Not explicitly, no. But devoting a considerable part of the presentation on these details, aren’t they meant to be part of the ‘pro’ case?  So the description of all these niceties stick in the mind as favorable features — but since they are not stated as arguments, they also will not be examined, questioned for their validity, plausibility, importance in view of the  yes/no decision. For the usual practice of asking people to make a decision — vote yes or no — on the basis of such a rhetorical presentation, they will do the intended job, quite nicely. But for a systematic evaluation, prompting questions for supporting evidence or other supporting arguments,  this practice poses some tough questions.  Should such points be included as explicit arguments?  And whose responsibility is it to do that? 

Whose responsibility? You mean the proponent or the opponent?  Or some other person or component of the system?  By the way, talking about the opponent, wouldn’t he bring these issues up if he thought they would make a difference? What did he say?

Glad you remind me. The opponent’s statement was just as interesting in its own way.  He started out by flatly characterizing legalization as ‘not a viable solution’  that would not solve but rather exacerbate the drug problem. Again, no real argument for that claim was offered, but some ‘authority’ support referring to UN Drug Conventions recognizing that “drugs are an enormous social and health problem and that the trade adversely affects the global economy.”

Hey, wasn’t that just what the legalization proponent said?  That it’s a health and social problem, not a criminal one? And he used that as an argument for continued prohibition, that is, criminalization?

Curiously, yes.  But the case is made mainly by straight-out negation of the claims of ‘war on drugs’  failure (but he does not use the term ‘war on drugs’ ). He contradicts the proponent’s claims — the UN controls  a r e  working, the problem would have been much worse without them, and so on. Most of the claims of ‘failed aims’  are denied — but just like those, without offering additional evidence or support.  There are some statistics thrown in, but they are not compared with any corresponding data for the proposed legalization, so they just give more of an impression of evidence than constituting a real substantial data-based argument.  The remainder of the case is based on a number of claims of aims that legalization will not achieve, only some of which match the items in the proponent’s list of aims not achieved by the war on drugs. And most if not all of those statements are aimed at claims  and arguments the proponent did not state:  they are ‘presumed’ claims of the pro-legalization side.

They could have been claims that had been made in other documents and media statements:  things the opponent had heard before, that are common knowledge?

True. But some of them could also fall into the class of ‘straw man’ arguments — strange arguments attributed to the other side that are easy  to demolish, and thereby giving the impression that the entire case of the other side is as shaky.  But there wasn’t even much demolishing — with additional evidence — just denying those presumed claims.

So you are saying that those denied claims should be added to the proponent’s arguments before doing a detailed evaluation, is that it? All that would add some considerable complications to our evaluation process, wouldn’t it?

Very true. And to the mapping task. 

Why the mapping?

Because the picture of each sides’ issues and arguments now looks very different from the proponent’s and the opponent’s side.  Should the map show only the issues and arguments each side has actually stated?  Or the implied ones the other side is attacking? Maybe it will be necessary to make up different maps for each side.

Yeah, that will cause some additional quarreling:  which map is the ‘real’ one? Wasn’t the idea that such maps would show a kind of ‘objective’ picture of what’s being discussed?  And now you are suggesting that the maps too become partisan?  I say, that item did raise some troublesome issues about such discussions and how the framework should support them.

Indeed they did. More than it helped me make up my mind about the drug legalization issue.  Based on the arguments proposed in that experiment, I am not  ready to cast a meaningful vote on whether drugs should be legalized. But wouldn’t you also say that those very problems make more systematic evaluation that much more important? While that was probably not their intention, we should be grateful for such groups to raise the issue of how such decisions should be made and argued.  And the example might help us design a better argument evaluation  approach.

I can’t argue with that. Get to work. Cheers.