Tuesday, May 08, 2007

James Fallows in Atlantic on Tim van Gelder's Rationale

Computer-assisted critical thinking has become the soup du jour -- and, one hopes, the flavor of the year -- in the (some) mass media. See James Fallows, What Was I Thinking?, in The Atlantic pp. 131-133 (June 2007):
This leads to the newest ambitious entry: Rationale, an “argument processor” from a start-up company in Melbourne, Australia, called Austhink. The firm’s CEO, Tim van Gelder, is a former academic philosopher whose specialty was teaching critical thinking—that is, preparing students to examine the premises of any argument, another person’s or their own. He had a discouraging experience in the 1990s when teaching such classes at universities in the United States. “Despite my best efforts, and maybe theirs, it just wasn’t working,” he told me in a Skype conversation, he in Melbourne and I in Shanghai. He was gracious enough not to attribute this failure to the defects of America’s K-12 school system. Instead, he concluded that people in general needed better training in assessing arguments. After returning to Australia, he raised money to start a company and create a program that could be used by schools for teaching logic.

In operation, the Rationale program is quite simple. You state a main contention you are trying to test—I should buy a new house, we should invade Iran—and then systematically list each of the supporting claims for it. Then you list the objections to each claim, and the rebuttals to those objections, and so on until you’re down to first principles—all of which are shown as connected boxes on a map. “To the extent you are perfectly clear about your thoughts, this should be a trivial process,” van Gelder told me. But in reality, he said, people find it more challenging than they expect, and this visual representation of the claims and counterclaims generally provokes a new perspective on the ideas at stake.

The more factors there are to weigh in making a decision—and, especially, the more views there are to reconcile when more than one person is involved in a choice—the more helpful this logic map can be. For example, a “tree” view in Rationale can show the full chain of assumptions that lead to a particular conclusion, which in turn helps identify exactly where people with different views disagree. “Everyone knows that complex structure is generally more easily understood and conveyed in visual or diagrammatic form,” van Gelder wrote in an academic paper. “That is why, for example, we have street maps rather than verbal descriptions of the layout of cities.” The same principle applies in complex debates, he told me, because in all but the simplest discussions people have a hard time remembering all the relevant considerations.

Van Gelder’s initial sales target was schools and universities, but he increasingly sells to consulting firms, govern‑ ment agencies, and other groups wrestling with decisions, as well as to individuals. The strongest interest has come from U.S. intelligence agencies, which are using the software to train analysts to think critically about intelligence claims. I was gracious enough not to ask van Gelder why he didn’t finish the program a few years earlier.

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