The Argument Ninja training program that I’m developing is inspired by martial arts training principles. The curriculum is spread over nine belt ranks (white belt, yellow belt, orange belt, etc. )
In this episode I give an overview of the learning modules that make up the white belt curriculum, and dive deep into the second module, an introduction to Argument Analysis.
In This Episode:
- Overview of the White Belt Modules (2:20)
- Module 1: What is an Argument Ninja? (4:20)
- The Goals of Critical Thinking (4:56)
- We Have a Problem (5:41)
- Solution: The Argument Ninja Academy (6:47)
- Module 2: Argument Analysis (I) (8:35
- Worry: No One Talks Like This (9:00)
- It’s About Learning the Principles (10:22)
- Wax-on, Wax-off (11:38)
- Definition of an Argument (14:35)
- Demanding Clarity (20:30)
- Vagueness and Ambiguity (22:00)
- Example: Is Trump a Conservative? (23:55)
- Argument Analysis Skills (26:30)
- Comment: Argumentation vs Persuasion (28:00)
- Example: “Make America Great Again” (29:13)
- Wrapping Up (31:11)
“The Argument Ninja curriculum is unique in that it places equal emphasis on classical principles of logic and argumentation, and modern psychological understanding of how human beings actually reason and make decisions. We teach students how to reason well, but we also teach them the persuasion principles that are used in the influence industry, and how to use those principles.
Rational argumentation is fundamental to critical thinking. If you want to improve the quality of your thinking and learn to truly think for yourself, you have to learn this.
But if all you know is rational argumentation, and you think that equips you to engage with people effectively in the real world, you’re in for a rude awakening. The world will make no sense to you. It will chew you up and spit you out.
This is why at the Argument Ninja Academy we teach both skill sets, the Light Arts and the Dark Arts.”
References and Links
- My Patreon support page
- The Critical Thinker Academy
- Wax-on, Wax-off (The Karate Kid) (video clip)
- Street Epistemology
- Peter Boghossian
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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 016.
Hello everyone. Welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante.
On this podcast I’ve tried to argue that we desperately need a new approach to critical thinking education, one that combines classical principles of logic and good argumentation with a modern understanding of how human psychology actually works, what factors actually determine what we feel, what we believe and how we behave. When you bring these together you have a unique and powerful foundation for critical thinking which I call “rational persuasion”, the fusion of rational argumentation and the psychology of persuasion.
As regular listeners know, I view rational persuasion as a martial art. That can mean a lot of things, but first and foremost it means that I view rational persuasion not primarily as a body of knowledge, but rather as a skill set that requires training and practice to develop. Yes, there are concepts and theories to learn, but fundamentally, rational persuasion is something that you do, that you express through intelligent, skilled action.
The Argument Ninja training program that I’ve been talking about over the past few episodes is intended to teach the art and science of rational persuasion, with a focus on skill development rather than rote learning.
The goal that my team and I are pursuing is to implement this program in an online learning environment, a virtual Argument Ninja Academy, that is inspired by martial arts training principles.
The curriculum that I’ve laid out breaks the training down into a number of levels, or belt ranks, like you’d see in a traditional martial arts program. Moving forward for the next few episodes of the podcast, the plan is to systematically unpack and explore this curriculum, at least for the first couple of belt ranks.
Last episode I gave a conceptual overview of the white belt experience and how martial arts programs approach the teaching and learning of complex skills.
What I want to do now is get specific and talk about each of the modules and skill elements that we’ll be teaching students at the white belt level.
Overview of the Modules
With the current version of the curriculum, each belt rank has four learning modules. That may change in the future, but for now there are four.
(1) What is an Argument Ninja?
The first white belt module is called “What is an Argument Ninja?”. This is intended to orient new students to the program. It covers basic ground on what critical thinking is and why it’s important, the motivations for the Argument Ninja approach to critical thinking, and why the martial arts model is a useful one for what we’re trying to do.
(2) Argument Analysis (I)
The second module is called “Argument Analysis (I)”. Argument literacy is central to the curriculum, and this is the first in a sequence of modules on principles of good argumentation that are distributed across the belt ranks. So in yellow belt there’s “Argument Analysis (II)”, orange belt there’s “Argument Analysis (III)”, and so on.
(3) Socratic Questioning
The third module is called “Socratic Questioning”. This introduces students to the ideas and motivations behind the Socratic method of inquiry, which was made famous by Plato in his dialogues featuring the character of his teacher, Socrates. The method shows how to use questions to investigate beliefs and arguments and to engage a person’s higher-order thinking skills.
(4) Street Epistemology
The fourth module is called “Street Epistemology”, and it’s closely related to Socratic questioning. You can think of it as applied Socratic questioning in the service of persuasion. The term “street epistemology” was coined by philosopher Peter Boghossian, and it’s intended as a non-threatening, non-confrontational technique for engaging with other people and persuading them to critically reflect on their beliefs.
Okay, that’s a quick overview of the four modules that make up the white belt curriculum. On this episode of the podcast I’m going to briefly expand on the first module, and then go deep on the second module, on Argument Analysis. That’ll use up our time. On the next episode of the podcast I’ll cover modules three and four, on Socratic Questioning and it’s application in “street epistemology”.
Module One: What is an Argument Ninja?
Module one is where new students get an orientation to the Argument Ninja Academy, and get a sense of the bigger picture that motivates the Argument Ninja philosophy.
It does this by way of introducing key concepts in critical thinking, and showing why traditional approaches to critical thinking education fall short.
I’m not going to elaborate on this at length here because this has basically been the theme of this whole podcast, so if you’ve been following along you should be familiar with the story.
But for those who may be jumping in for the first time with this episode, here’s the short version.
The Goals of Critical Thinking
Critical thinking has two important goals that everyone values:
- To improve the quality of our reasoning and decision-making.
- To learn to think for ourselves.
If we lack in either of these, we suffer for it. Poor reasoning and bad decisions can lead to disaster, personally and professionally. And if we are unable or unwilling to think for ourselves, we become vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
Also, an informed populace capable of independent reasoning is essential to the health of democratic societies, where the public has to take responsibility for the actions of its elected leaders. So critical thinking is important for democratic citizenship.
We Have a Problem
However, with respect to critical thinking skills in the general population, and critical thinking education, we have a serious problem.
Decades of scientific studies on human rationality show that most of us are much poorer critical thinkers than we believe ourselves to be.
And the public education system has not been effective in teaching critical thinking skills. Most graduating high school seniors can’t pass a test of argument literacy. This isn’t surprising, given that even basic concepts of argument analysis aren’t taught anywhere in the public school curriculum.
In addition, the persuasive messaging of advertisers, marketers, politicians, activists, and the media has an enormous influence on what we believe, what we value and how we behave. Yet for the most part we’re not consciously aware of the influence of this “persuasion matrix” on our thinking and behavior, or the harm that we suffer because of it.
In short, we as individuals, and collectively as a society, suffer in a myriad of ways from a lack of awareness and a lack of critical thinking skills.
Solution: The Argument Ninja Academy
The Argument Ninja Academy was designed as a solution to this problem, by providing an online platform where anyone with the interest and motivation can learn the thinking and persuasion skills that are necessary to survive and thrive in the 21st century,
The Argument Ninja curriculum is unique in that it places equal emphasis on classical principles of logic and argumentation, and modern psychological understanding of how human beings actually reason and make decisions. We teach students how to reason well, but we also teach them the persuasion principles that are used in the influence industry, and how to use those principles.
In other words, when it comes to argumentation and persuasion, we teach both the Light Arts and the Dark Arts. A graduate of this program, an Argument Ninja, is proficient in both.
This combination of skills is essential if our goal is to be able to recognize and resist the influence of the “persuasion matrix” on our thinking, and to think critically and independently for ourselves. At the same time, learning these skills means that we also know how to assert our will through the persuasion matrix, because we understand how it operates, in a way that few others do.
That’s the basic story. In this first module in the Argument Ninja curriculum, we elaborate on this story, give examples to illustrate the ideas, and so on.
In terms of skill elements for this module, we’ll use some basic quizzing tools to ensure that students are following along. You can’t get too detailed here because students won’t appreciate the details until they’re farther along in the program.
Module Two: Argument Analysis (I)
Okay, that gives you some idea of what’s in module 1. Let’s move on to module 2, which is the first in a series of modules on argument analysis.
Argument analysis is one of the pillars of the Argument Ninja program, but it’s easy to misunderstand why it’s so important. And from our perspective, where we’re focusing more on practical skill development that actually makes a difference to how we reason and communicate, one might wonder why it is so important, since argument analysis can seem quite formal and artificial, and one might worry that it’s not all that useful in real-world communication because no one actually talks the way that arguments are represented in symbolic logic or formal argumentation theory.
1. A Worry: No One Talks Like This
Let me give you an example. Here’s a simple three-line argument:
1. All whales are mammals.
2. All mammals breathe air.
Therefore, all whales breathe air.
I’ve presented this argument in what’s called “standard form”, meaning that it’s written in a standard way for purposes of argument analysis. You write each premise on a separate line, you might put a number in front of them so it’s easy to refer to them, and then you write the conclusion at the end and flag it with a word like “therefore”. So the argument is presented as a list of statements, with the conclusion at the end, and all the other statements function as the premises of the argument. Premise 1, “all whales are mammals”; premise 2, “all mammals breathe air”, therefore, conclusion, “all whales breathe air”.
These kinds of simple arguments show up all over the place in logic and critical thinking textbooks. And one of the first things you notice is how formalized all of this is, and how no one talks like this.
“Gee mom, do whales breathe air? Well son, consider the following. One, all whales are mammals. Two, all mammals breathe air. Therefore, it follows that that all whales breathe air. Brilliant! Thanks mom!”
No one talks like this. So why spend time thinking about simple three-line arguments in this formalized way?
2. It’s About the Principles
Well, the answer is that what we’re trying to do when we study arguments like these is learn basic foundational principles of logic and argumentation, and the easiest way to illustrate these principles is to use simple arguments like these.
The principles themselves are not simple; they have subtleties, and they connect to philosophical issues that can be quite deep. So we use very simple arguments to make it as easy as possible to recognize and talk about the principles in action, so that we’re not distracted by the complexities of natural language.
Now, you can use formal methods to represent more complex arguments, and capture more of the way that human beings actually talk. But that’s not the reason why we study argumentation theory, from a critical thinking standpoint, and it’s not the skill set that we’re aiming for in these modules.
Our goal is to acquire a good understanding of the basic principles, understand why they are what they are, and then internalize these basic principles, to the point where we can recognize them, and apply them, to ordinary speech and to our own thinking.
That’s how this works. Through the study of arguments, and learning principles for distinguishing good and bad arguments, you’re learning a conceptual framework that develops and informs your ordinary thinking and communication skills.
If you’ve watched the original The Karate Kid movie, it’s like Daniel learning “wax on”, “wax off”. Daniel thinks he’s just doing boring chores, waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car. He doesn’t see the connection to his karate training. When he gets frustrated, Miyagi reveals that Daniel has been learning defensive blocks, internalized into muscle memory, through the circular waxing motions.
When a beginning chess player studies simple chess tactics, like forks and pins and skewers, it’s the same thing. Through repetition, you internalize the patterns, so that you can anticipate and exploit these patterns in a real match.
So, even with our simple three-line argument there are lots of logical principles that one can highlight and talk about.
For example, this argument that we just gave has the property that, if all the premise are true, the conclusion has to be true, it’s impossible for it to be false. If all whales are mammals, and if all mammals breathe air, then it follows as a matter of sheer logic that all whales must breathe air. If whales are a subset of mammals, and mammals are a subset of things that breathe air, then whales must be a subset of things that breathe air. You can draw the circles, there’s no escaping it.
This kind of argument, where the conclusion follows with necessity from the premises, is called a “valid” argument. In logic, this term, “valid”, has a very precise meaning that picks out a very precise property of arguments. This is the standard terminology used in logic and argument analysis, and students in the Argument Ninja Academy are going to learn and use this terminology.
Now, we can also note that this argument is an instance of a general argument pattern that has the following form: All A are B, All B are C, therefore, All A are C.
So our argument has exactly the same logical structure as “All New Yorkers live in the United States”; “All people who live in the United States live in North America”, therefore, “all New Yorkers live in North America”.
This argument is also valid. And we can see, by thinking about examples like these, that what makes these arguments valid isn’t the specific content of the premises, but rather certain structural features of the argument, the form of the argument that is captured by that argument pattern: all A are B, all B are C, therefore all A are C. Any argument of that form will be valid, regardless of what you put in for the As, Bs and Cs, as long as the substitutions are consistent.
From reflecting on simple examples like this, we’re introduced to the distinction between valid and invalid arguments, which is an extremely important logical principle. It’s an important part of argument literacy. This is the jumping off point for the next important logical concept, which is the distinction between strong and weak arguments, which helps us talk about the kind of reasoning we do in the natural sciences, and so on.
So, to summarize: we use simple arguments so we can learn and talk about broader principles of logic and argumentation that aren’t so simple.
3. The Definition of an Argument
Now, another reason why it’s important to start with simple arguments is because the concept of an argument is actually fairly complex, and it does a lot of work for us. This concept, expressed in the basic definition of an argument, assumes, or implies, a number of important critical thinking concepts. When you learn the definition of an argument, you’re also being introduced to these critical thinking concepts.
I’ll give you an example, but let’s start with the definition of an argument. What is it that makes a collection of statements an argument, rather than just a collection of statements?
The answer is that it’s a function of the interpretation we give it. An argument is a kind of “speech act”, something we do with language. The key thing is that we’re to imagine that some of the statements are being treated as premises, and these premises are being offered as reasons to accept another statement, the conclusion.
We can unpack this a bit more. In standard logic and argument analysis, the premises and the conclusion are assumed to be statements that can be either true or false, but not both. And we’re to imagine that in offering these premises, the reason why we should accept the conclusion is that the premises are true.
In other words, we’re saying that if the premises were true, they would give us good reason to believe the truth of the conclusion; and if in addition we believe that the premises are in fact true, then it follows that we have good reason to believe the conclusion is also true.
Actually, if we’re making all of our assumptions explicit, we also need to clarify who the “we” is. We need to assume that there’s an arguer and an arguee — someone is offering these premises as reasons to accept the conclusion, to some audience. The audience could be oneself — we can use arguments to convince ourselves to accept a conclusion. But more often an argument is directed toward an audience that is different from the arguer, and the intent is to persuade the audience to accept the conclusion of the argument, based on the reasons given.
So, right away, with this basic definition, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about the nature of this speech act. When I introduce this definition to students we always have a discussion about how it compares to our ordinary intuitive understanding of what an argument is.
It certainly doesn’t capture all of the associations we have with the term “argument”. In ordinary language we often use the term to imply that there’s some kind of emotional disagreement or confrontation, like when my daughter comes home and she’s upset and we ask why and she says she had an argument with her boyfriend. Our definition doesn’t carry any of these associations about conflict or confrontation. But it’s designed that way on purpose, to force us to focus on the quality of the reasoning rather than the emotional state of the parties involved.
The definition also includes elements that not everyone would think to include.
For example, there’s a long tradition in rhetoric of interpreting arguments as a form of persuasive speech where reasons are given, but the focus is on what makes this kind of persuasion effective, rather than whether the persuasion is justified, in the sense that the reasons given really are good reasons.
Argumentation in classical rhetoric isn’t primarily concerned with the question of justification, it’s concerned with the question of effectiveness. How can I increase the likelihood that my reasons will be interpreted as persuasive reasons, by my audience?
Our definition, on the other hand, forces us to elaborate on the concept of what it means to actually have good reasons to accept a conclusion, independent of whether the argument is successful at persuading its audience.
Again, this is by design. When we add this, we’re stipulating that this is what a theory of argumentation is about — it’s about the distinction between good and bad reasons for belief.
We here at the Argument Ninja Academy also care very much about what factors actually make an argument persuasive to an audience, and we teach these principles too. But that’s to study argumentation as a mode of persuasion. Don’t confuse that with argumentation as a theory of good reasoning. We need to remember that these are two different things.
In the Argument Analysis modules in our curriculum, we’re focusing on the distinction between good and bad reasons for belief, and teaching students how to identify bad arguments and how to construct good arguments of their own. We focus on the psychology of persuasion in other parts of the curriculum.
Now, another interesting question that often comes up when we talk about the definition of an argument is whether we really need to include the notion of “truth” in the definition.
Premises and conclusions are defined as statements that can be either true or false, but not both. Why do we need to say this? The truth of the premises is offered as reasons to accept the truth of the conclusion. Why do we need this? Why can’t we just say that accepting or believing the premises is reason to accept or believe the conclusion? What do we add by saying “accept as true” or “believe as true”? And does this impose a restriction what we can argue about? If I don’t believe that moral beliefs can be true or false, for example, does that mean that it’s impossible to argue about them?
These are all good questions. A decent theory of argumentation, as it relates to critical thinking, needs to answer them. And as you can see, these questions can easily push us into philosophical territory. At the very least they force us to clarify our assumptions about what we’re doing.
The Argument Analysis modules in the Argument Ninja curriculum address these issues, but you can see how it would be easy to get lost in philosophical tangents. In the curriculum I tend to stay away from philosophical discussions that aren’t directly relevant to the goals of critical thinking, or that don’t make any difference to the actual reasoning and communication skills that we want our students to develop.
4. Demanding Clarity
Now, I said that the definition of an argument assumes, or expresses, some valuable critical thinking concepts. Here’s an example.
The requirement that premises and conclusions be expressed in the form of statements that can be true or false, does impose a high standard on what we can and cannot argue about.
But this restrictiveness is actually a powerful critical thinking tool, and it can be a powerful persuasion tool, because it forces us to clarify what’s at issue in a debate and what all parties are actually saying about the issue. And it can reveal vagueness and ambiguity in our thinking, and in the thinking of other people.
Let’s back up and talk about this standard. We’re saying that premises and conclusions have to be statements that make an assertion of some kind, an assertion that can be either true or false.
What this means in practice is that for a sentence to function as a premise or a conclusion in an argument, both the person giving the argument and the intended audience of the argument, must have a shared understanding of the meaning of that sentence.
In this context, what it means to understand the meaning of a sentence is to understand what it would mean for the sentence to be true or false. That is, it involves being able to recognize and distinguish in your mind the state of affairs in which the assertion being made is true from the state of affairs in which it’s false.
Consequently, if the sentence is too vague or its meaning is ambiguous, then it can’t function as a premise or a conclusion in an argument, because in this case we don’t know what it means for it to be true or false. We literally don’t know what we’re talking about.
5. Vagueness and Ambiguity
Let me say a word about vagueness and ambiguity. There is a difference. If I ask my daughter when she’ll be back from visiting friends and she says “Later”, that’s a VAGUE answer. It’s not specific enough to be useful.
On the other hand, if I ask her which friend she’ll be visiting, and she says “Hannah”, and she has three friends named Hannah, then that’s an AMBIGUOUS answer, since I don’t know which Hannah she’s talking about. The problem isn’t one of specificity, it’s about identifying which of a set of well-specified meanings is the one that was intended.
Now, it’s important to realize that all natural language suffers from vagueness to some degree. If I say that the grass is looking very green after last week’s rain, one could always ask which shade of green I’m referring to. But it would be silly to think that you don’t understand what I’m saying just because I haven’t specified the shade of green. “Green” is vague, but in this context, it’s not a barrier to meaningful communication.
So, for purposes of determining whether a sentence can function as a premise in an argument, the question to ask isn’t “Is this sentence vague?”, but rather, “Is this sentence TOO vague, given the context?”.
If all I’m doing is trying to determine whether the grass needs watering or not, the specific shade of green probably doesn’t matter. But if I’ve been sent to the paint store to pick out a can of green paint that my wife wants to paint a room in our house, then specifying the shade of green really does matter.
Now, from an argumentation standpoint, what this does is force us to be clear about what’s at issue and what’s being said before we can even begin to assess arguments for and against a position. We need to make sure that there’s a shared agreement on what the position is actually asserting.
If we discover that there is no shared agreement then we shouldn’t be thinking about evaluating arguments yet. The first thing we need to do is ask for clarification.
6. Example: Is Trump a Conservative?
Let me give you an example. Suppose the issue is whether Donald Trump is a conservative or not. Is Donald Trump a conservative?
Well, if you survey people you’ll find that the majority of people say yes, he’s a conservative. A significant minority say no, he’s not really a conservative. And another minority will say they’re not sure, if given the option.
So it looks like we have a difference of opinion about this claim, and it’s tempting to go ahead and start looking at the arguments that people give to support their position.
But this would be a mistake.
If I were to ask a mixed group of people whether they think Donald Trump is a conservative, but first ask them had to write down what they mean by the term “conservative”, or what they think it means, what you’ll discover, if you survey those definitions, is that there is no shared agreement among this group about what it means to be a conservative.
If you’re not a political junky, you might just associate conservatives with being Republican, and since Trump was the Republican nominee, he must be conservative.
Or you might associate conservatism with checks and balances on the power of government, and reducing the size of the federal government.
Or you might associate conservatism with religious values, or with a certain kind of foreign policy, or a certain kind of economic policy, or a certain position on immigration.
Or, as you’ll discover if you survey people, you may not have a clear idea of what conservatism means at all.
The result is that when one person answers the question “yes”, and another answers “no”, they might be responding to two different questions. But you won’t know this unless you ask people to clarify what they mean. Without this step you’re setting up a situation where people are really arguing past each other, rather than against each other. They may actually agree with each other more than they realize, and not know it.
I’ve done this exercise in the classroom many times, not with Trump but with the other political figures or government administrations. It’s very illuminating when you actually read out the various definitions of “conservative” that students are using to base their judgment, to the rest of the class. People are genuinely surprised to learn that other people are using a definition that was not even on their radar.
And its also illuminating to see how many students are willing to answer “yes” or “no” to the question, and are quite confident in their choice, but when you push them to clarify the basis of their judgment, they admit that they don’t have a clear idea of what conservatism means. From a critical thinking standpoint, this isn’t ideal, of course. From a persuasion standpoint, this puts them a very vulnerable position.
We elaborate on this issue of vulnerability to persuasion in the other white belt modules, the modules on Socratic questioning and so-called “street epistemology”. I’ll come back to this on the next podcast.
7. Argument Analysis Skills
Okay, let’s talk briefly about the skills that students will be expected to learn and demonstrate in this argument analysis module.
In terms of content, the focus is on the definition of an argument; the nature of statements, or propositions; the parts of an argument; the role that truth and falsity plays in the definition; and the issues we talked about here concerning truth and meaning and the need for clarity.
We also talk about how arguments in natural language can differ from arguments presented in standard form, how to identify premises and conclusions in natural language arguments, and how to tell whether a sample of text actually contains an argument or not.
We don’t get into criteria for evaluating arguments until the next module in the Argument Analysis sequence, which is at the yellow belt level. So we don’t talk about valid versus invalid, or strong vs weak arguments, until later on.
In terms of skills, students will be drilled on the key concepts using a lot of simple examples. Given an argument in natural language, can you identify the premises and the conclusion? Can you distinguish a piece of language that contains an argument from one that doesn’t? Given a sentence, can you tell if the meaning is clear enough to function as a premise or a conclusion in an argument? What’s the difference between a vague sentence and an ambiguous sentence? How can we use definitions, or stipulations, to clarify the meaning of sentences?
You can use simple text or audio or even video samples to drill these skills.
One thing you learn when you become sensitive to the presence of absence of arguments, is how common it is for even long pieces of published writing, or long sections of a speech, to contains plenty of assertions but no actual arguments — no reasons are offered to accept the assertions.
8. A Comment: Argumentation vs Persuasion
To wrap up, I want to come back to a point that I made earlier, about argumentation versus persuasion.
There’s a difference between learning how to reason well and learning how to be persuasive in the eyes of an audience. Skill in one doesn’t automatically translate into skill in the other.
In the Argument Ninja program, we’re going for both. But we have to treat these skills separately, at least at the beginning. The Argument Analysis modules are about good reasoning. It would confuse things terribly to get serious about persuasion when we’re still just trying to figure out the difference between a good reason a bad reason.
And when I say confuse things terribly, I mean it.
When you switch your focus from good argumentation to effective persuasion, the world turns upside down. Up is down, black is white. What’s good is bad and what’s bad is good. It’s the upside down from Stranger Things.
Let me give you an example. When it comes to good argumentation, clarity is a virtue and vagueness is a vice. If the statements you’re making aren’t clear enough, you can’t argue with them or about them.
But when it comes to persuasion, it’s the opposite — vagueness is a virtue, and clarity is, or can be, a vice.
Take Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again”.
From an argumentation standpoint, this slogan too vague to have any precise meaning. When was America great? In virtue of what was America great? What would it mean for America to not be great? None of this is specified, so it’s impossible to argue about. Without further clarification, there’s no way to evaluate, for example, whether America is more or less great after one year of Trump’s presidency.
From a persuasion standpoint, however, the vagueness of this slogan is a virtue, not a vice. The vagueness invites people to project their own conception of greatness onto the slogan, to have it mean whatever they intuitively want it to mean.
The vagueness makes it possible to rally a diverse coalition of voters, with different backgrounds and different concerns, around the same slogan.
From this perspective, it’s a brilliant piece of persuasion.
You see many, many examples like this, when you’re a student of good argumentation and persuasion. Methods of reasoning that are treated as fallacies, from an argumentation standpoint, are often highly effective from a persuasion standpoint, and widely use for this reason.
In political campaigning and in advertising, for example, constant repetition of simple, emotionally resonant but cognitively meaningless slogans, is a very effective persuasion technique, and there are psychological and physiological reasons why it is.
9. Take-Away Message
So, here’s the take-away message. Rational argumentation is fundamental to critical thinking. If you want to improve the quality of your thinking and learn to truly think for yourself, you have to learn this.
But if all you know is rational argumentation, and you think that equips you to engage with people effectively in the real world, you’re in for a rude awakening. The world will make no sense to you. It will chew you up and spit you out.
This is why at the Argument Ninja Academy we teach both skill sets, the Light Arts and the Dark Arts.
Okay, that about covers what I wanted to talk about on this episode. We’ve looked at two of the four white belt modules in the Argument Ninja program. Next episode I’m going to talk about the remaining two modules, on Socratic Questioning and “street epistemology”. And I’ll say more about the principles I use for deciding what modules go together in a given belt rank. It’s not random, there are reasons why the white belt curriculum starts here rather than somewhere else.
You can find a complete transcript and show notes for this podcast over at argumentninja.com.
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