"In this podcast I’m going to teach you what I know about logic and argumentation and ideals of rationality, and I’m going to teach you what I know about the psychology of persuasion and influence. And along the way I’m going to try to uncover some techniques and principles for integrating these two bodies of knowledge, to make something more powerful, more effective, and more worthy of our human capacities, than either is separately."
Hi everyone and welcome to the Argument Ninja podcast. My name is Kevin deLaplante, and this show is dedicated to the art and science and ethics of rational persuasion.
It’s going to take a couple of episodes to explain the significance of this title, the Argument Ninja, but I want you to know up front that didn’t choose it just to be cool or trendy.
I chose it because I think we need a new model of what it means to be a critical thinker, and at the heart of this new model is a theory of rational persuasion that will draw on themes from the martial arts, and martial arts philosophy.
So, “argument ninja” isn’t just a buzzword, it’s going to mean something.
Now, I’m not a fan of long-winded biographical introductions, but because this is the first episode of this show, for many of you this is your first introduction to me, so I should start with a little about who I am, and talk a little more about what I want to accomplish with this podcast.
I was a professional academic philosopher for almost 20 years. I’m a philosopher of science by training, and I’ve taught a lot of different courses over the years, but most of my teaching was in logic and scientific reasoning, critical thinking, the history and philosophy of science, and ethics.
I quit my tenured academic job in 2015 to pursue a second career as an independent educator online. This podcast is part of this new online career.
My online business involves, for the most part, creating and selling video courses on topics related to critical thinking and writing.
I also do some speaking and consulting, but most of my time is spent creating videos and video courses, which you can find at my home site, the Critical Thinker Academy, which is at criticalthinkeracademy.com.
My goal with the Academy is to provide a resource for educating people about what scientists and philosophers have learned, over the past 2500 years, about human rationality and what it means to reason well.
I’ve been creating videos for several years, and at this point I have about 20 hours worth of video on that site, spread over about 15 courses.
There are courses there on basic principles of logic and argumentation, formal and informal fallacies, argumentative essay writing, probability theory and fallacies of probabilistic reasoning, and the psychology of cognitive biases and the errors that we’re prone to because of them.
The Critical Thinker Academy site runs on the Teachable platform, which is designed for hosting your own video courses, but it isn’t the best for running a blog or posting show notes to podcast episodes.
Wordpress is clearly the best for that, so for this show I’ve got a dedicated URL, which is at argumentninja.com. So you can visit there for show notes and to offer comments and feedback on the shows.
Now, what do I hope to accomplish with this podcast? To start to answer this, I’m going to talk about two sources of motivation.
The first has to do with disturbing trends I’m seeing in the quality of our public discourse, and how people are talking about the role of reason and argumentation in our public conversations, and in human behavior generally.
And the second has to do with my approach to critical thinking education, and the skill set that I think is essential for truly effective critical thinking.
So, about these disturbing trends.
This first episode is launching in the summer of 2016, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are still just the presumptive nominees for the Republic and Democratic Presidential candidates.
Everywhere I’m reading stories about how reason and facts don’t seem to matter to voters, especially Trump voters.
This is obviously frustrating to those of us who are trying to educate people about the importance of forming beliefs and making decisions based on reason and evidence.
But the more disconcerting thing is that I’m reading stories from political commentators who see themselves as political realists, and who seem to be skeptical about reason and rationality itself.
And what I mean by this is that they believe that human behavior is driven almost entirely by intuitive emotional judgments, and that conscious, deliberative reasoning plays at best a rationalizing, after-the-fact role in explaining human behavior, it’s never the reason why people act and behave in the way they do.
And this view, that people act on the basis of emotional or intuitive judgements, rather than reasons, is supposed to help explain the otherwise surprising success and popularity of Trump’s campaign.
I’ve been following Scott Adam’s blog for the past year or so, and this is his spin on Trump. Scott Adams is better known as the cartoonist behind Dilbert, but he’s always been an interesting and idiosyncratic thinker, and though I rarely agree with him on political matters, I’m interested in his take on things, and over the past year or so he’s been writing about Donald Trump and the Trump campaign.
Adams likes to bring up his training as a hypnotist and his deep understanding of the psychology of persuasion, and from his standpoint, Donald Trump is an instinctive genius at the tools of persuasion, the best he’s ever seen. What people don’t appreciate about Trump is that he’s operating at such a high level that they don’t recognize the genius — we see bombast and childish insults and self-aggrandizement and dismiss him as crude and unsophisticated, but in reality he’s a master persuader — he’s playing three-dimensional chess while the rest of us are playing checkers.
Now, what’s most disconcerting to me, is that I think Adams is on to something important, but there’s also something here that I’m very much bothered by.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years immersed in the literature on cognitive biases and the psychology of persuasion and influence. I’ve taught courses on the topic, I give talks to businesses on this topic.
There is something paradigm-shifting about the implications of this research for our understanding of human nature, and the actual causes of our behavior.
And it does shed light on what’s going on this election cycle. Maybe Trump’s success shouldn’t be so surprising, given what we now know about how human psychology actually operates.
But I believe there’s a danger in the pessimistic and frankly cynical conclusions that Scott Adams draws, and that some others have drawn, about the role of reasons and rationality in human life.
Yes, reason may not play the role we naively think it does in motivating and explaining human behavior. Maybe we’re collectively in the grip of an illusion, the illusion that our actions are determined by our consciously held beliefs and reasons.
But even if this is true in some sense, does it follow that it is naive, or inappropriate, to hold people to standards of good reasoning, and to challenge people when they fail to live up to those standards?
Does it follow that if someone contradicts themselves, or offers arguments that are logically weak on their face, or is happy to indulge in distortions and exaggerations and even outright lies, that we shouldn’t condemn these as failures of some kind?
If politicians behave this way, how should we respond?
I don’t know for sure what Scott Adams thinks about this, but my sense is that he thinks there’s just no point in condemning someone for these kinds of failures, because he believes that people are never really persuaded by logic and argumentation anyway; they’re persuaded by other, non-rational psychological factors.
I’m pretty sure this conclusion doesn’t follow, but this question points to issues that I think really need to be talked about more than they are.
Because this isn’t just about Trump and this election. This is about what we, as a society, as a culture, think about the value of reason and rationality, and the value of critical thinking in our personal lives and in public life.
And it pushes me, as a critical thinking advocate and educator, to think harder about these questions.
Is it hopelessly naive of me to think that we can improve the quality of our reasoning, individually and collectively as a society, by teaching critical thinking skills to more people, if as Scott Adams says, “human beings are mindless robots influenced by design, habit, emotion, food, and words”, who can be easily manipulated once you understand these basic psychologic facts?
These are some of the questions that have pushed me to create this podcast. I want to work out a satisfactory answer for myself, by exploring these questions with you.
But just to anticipate what’s to come — I’m not a skeptic about reason and rationality, but I grant that anyone with training in the psychological literature on cognitive biases and persuasion will see this much truth in Adams’ description, that human behavior is strongly influenced by design, habit, emotion, food and words, and people are easily manipulated by those who understand how this works.
The question for me is, how do we integrate these facts about human psychology, which on the surface, seem to rob us of rational agency and autonomy, with our intuitive view of ourselves as rational agents who can form beliefs and make judgments on the basis of reasons and evidence?
If you’re a skeptic about reason, then you think they can’t be integrated, we just need to accept that this intuitive view of ourselves is false, an illusion of some kind. Like the way some people think of free will as an illusion.
Well, I’m not a skeptic about reason, so it follows that I should be able to offer some account of how these different aspects of human nature can be integrated.
That’s partly what I want to do with this podcast — to give myself a platform for working through these issues, teasing apart what’s defensible and what’s not, and over time, develop a conception of human rationality that does justice to what we’ve learned about the causal processes that actually generate human behavior, while in some sense vindicating our intuitive conception of ourselves as rational agents, capable of being moved by reasons and acting on the basis of reasons.
So, that’s one reason why I’m doing this podcast. It might seem a little abstract, a little heady, but you’ll have to trust me that these issues have real practical consequences for how we view ourselves, and how we conduct ourselves, individually and as a society.
Now, the second motivation for doing this podcast that I want to talk about today, has to do with the approach to critical thinking that I’ve been developing over the years working on video courses at the Critical Thinker Academy.
And it points to the need for an integrated theory of reason and persuasion that I just talked about — a theory of rational persuasion.
In my work I talk about six different pillars or components of critical thinking, which you can think of as skill sets, or areas of competence, that we may need to draw upon when we want to think critically about an issue or a situation.
These six components include logic, argumentation, rhetoric, background knowledge, character and creativity.
I’ll talk more about each of these in upcoming episodes, but the upshot is that when critical thinking is really effective, it’s because these different components are working together, mutually supporting each other, in the right way.
The topic of cognitive biases and the psychology of persuasion fits within the broad category of general background knowledge that is important for critical thinking.
Now, if I wanted to simplify this six-dimensional model of critical thinking even further, to get at the core of what I think is essential for critical thinking, I would emphasize two components of this model.
The first component is rational argumentation. This involves knowing what it means to have good reasons to believe or do something, and knowing how to recognize bad arguments and construct good arguments of your own. This is what most logic-based courses in critical thinking focus on, starting with simple two-line arguments and developing the concepts of valid and invalid arguments, strong and weak arguments, and so on.
The second component that I think is absolutely essential for critical thinking, is the one we’ve been talking about — understanding the unconscious cognitive biases that influence how we actually form beliefs and make decisions, and understanding debiasing, which is about the various strategies that we can adopt that are effective at minimizing or neutralizing the negative effects of these cognitive biases. I have a course at the Critical Thinker Academy, called “Upgrade Your Mindware”, which is all about these topics.
Critical thinking needs both of these components.
Logic and argumentation tells us how we ought to reason -- it provides normative standards for defining what it means to reason well. It tells us what we should be aiming for, in terms of rational belief formation, and rational decision making.
But cognitive bias research give us insight into how we in fact reason, and specifically how our reasoning can often deviate from norms of good reasoning. It can tell us how far off course we’re drifting, and it can give us some tools for minimizing common errors and bringing us into back into closer alignment with these norms.
This is why at the Critical Thinker Academy I have courses on both of these topics.
Now, I believe that a program of critical thinking instruction that included both of these topics, on an equal footing, would be an enormous step up from what is currently passing for critical thinking instruction in most classrooms and in most textbooks dedicated to this subject.
Because for the most part, you don’t see both of these topics taught in the same textbooks, in the same classes.
Critical thinking textbooks lean heavily on the logic and argumentation part, but they rarely say anything substantive about the actual psychology of human reasoning.
To get that, you need to take a psychology class, or read a separate book on the subject, but in these sources you get almost no instruction in logic and argumentation.
I want you to see how much of a disaster this is for critical thinking education, if you don’t have both of these elements in play, in the same classroom, or the same textbook.
Think about what it means to teach any complex skill that requires time and practice to learn.
Think about swimming — how would you teach someone the back stroke if they’ve never done it before?
First, you’d show them what a good back stroke looks like, so students can see what they’re aiming for.
Then, when you start practicing, because you’ve got lots of experience with the kinds of mistakes that people tend to make when they start learning the stroke, you help them by anticipating problems and offering tips and strategies that will correct their form and help them move closer to that ideal stroke that you showed them.
Notice how this pulls from two different types of knowledge. You’re combining your knowledge of what a good backstroke looks like — your knowledge of what constitutes excellence in swimming — with your knowledge of how people’s bodies actually move in the water, and what mistakes they tend to make, or challenges they face, when trying to learn the stroke.
To put it another way, you’re integrating your prescriptive knowledge — your knowledge of how things OUGHT to be — with your descriptive knowledge — your knowledge of how things ARE, in reality — to create a program of instruction that can move someone from where they are, to where they ought to be.
So, I think it’s obvious that if you’re missing either of these components, you’re handicapped as a teacher.
And frankly, this is my view of what passes for critical thinking education 90% of the time. It’s fundamentally handicapped.
So, the model that I’ve been developing over the past several years, which puts the descriptive components of critical thinking on the same footing as the prescriptive components, I view as a major improvement, and I will defend it over any approach that focuses on only one of these components at the expense of the other.
However, this two-part, prescriptive - descriptive model, still has problems. I’m going to talk about those problems more in the next episode, but for now, let’s just say that it’s still doesn’t provide a truly integrated theory of rational persuasion.
It’s like having a philosopher on your team, and a street fighter on your team. Handy to have both, because one can do things that the other can’t.
You have the thinker, who can tell you what you should believe and why, and you have the fighter, the persuader, who is willing to get their hands dirty, who is effective at getting other people to say and do what you want.
But you don’t have a single person who embodies both sets of skills in an integrated way.
The thinker who fights. The fighter who thinks.
A person whose powers of persuasion are guided by higher ideals and principles, of how we ought to think, how we ought to reason; and whose persuasion is powerful because they’re guided by those ideals.
You see where I’m going with this.
I think it’s worth asking ourselves, what would rational argumentation, rational persuasion, look like, if we thought of it as a martial art?
Yes, you can study martial arts just to win fights.
Yes, you can study persuasion techniques just to win arguments.
But all of the traditional martial arts embody a philosophy, a way of life, that resists this. They have an ethic that is driven by a commitment to values that transcend the goal of winning a fight or beating an opponent.
Someone trained in rational persuasion knows how to persuade — but persuasion isn’t their ultimate goal. Their goal is persuasion for the right reasons. That’s what makes it rational persuasion.
I’m interested in exploring this conception of rational persuasion as a martial art, and seeing where it takes us.
In this podcast I’m going to teach you what I know about logic and argumentation and ideals of rationality, and I’m going to teach you what I know about the psychology of persuasion and influence.
And along the way I’m going to try to uncover some techniques and principles for integrating these two bodies of knowledge, to make something more powerful, more effective, and more worthy of our human capacities, than either is separately.
What is an argument ninja? It’s a symbol, the embodiment of what I’m looking for as we explore this terrain.
Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll join me next episode.