A framework to test opinions and win arguments (Part 1)December 18, 2021 2023-01-04 18:58
A framework to test opinions and win arguments (Part 1)
A framework to test opinions and win arguments (Part 1)
How badly do you want to win arguments at the workplace? With friends? At home?
Ok, that was clickbait-y. Instead let me ask – how badly do you want to know the truth, the real truth, about what you’re debating?
I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s back up and start with how we form opinions worth arguing about.
We form opinions all the time: Which political party to support? What should the government do about the farm laws? Should there be a super-rich tax? How much should we spend on education?
The questions need not be at a national level. These could be decisions that need to be taken:
– At home – Which house should I buy/rent? Which stock to invest in? Which school to choose?
– Or at work – Which SaaS provider to go with? Where to hold the annual retreat? Which sector to focus our sales efforts in?
For most of these, we go through the following process.
– Start with an initial hypothesis
– Collect data
– Analyse the data and reflect
– Formulate our final opinion
We then share the opinion with others, hoping to convince them.
Of course, others are also doing this with us all the time.
But how do you actually prove an opinion right or wrong?
You might say, “I’ll use data”. But what kind of data should you look for? How do you arrive at a common understanding of the data required, with your counterpart?
In this post, I’ll explore a technique that will answer that question.
It’s a technique that will help you reason better, argue better and form better opinions. But most of all it’s a technique that will make you (or the counterpart you are arguing with) more humble.
And that’s not a bad outcome.
You aren’t as logical as you think
I’ve written in the past about Aristotle’s Ethos-Pathos-Logos framework. Many ‘left-brain’ folks would assume that they are naturally adept at logos. They’d think – “No one can accuse me of relying too little on logic and too much on emotion. If at all, it’s the other way around.”
That might be the case – most of us struggle with understanding and communicating emotion. But here’s the worse news. We aren’t as strong at logical thinking as we think.
A lot of this, of course, has to do with the cognitive biases that affect all of us. But there’s another issue.
We have never been formally taught how to think logically. Which is a shame. Because the Greeks (Aristotle and gang) had thought about this problem just about, oh, twenty-three-hundred years ago… and created simple techniques for logical reasoning.
(Disclaimer: Logical Reasoning is a vast topic of its own and I am no expert. This is my very introductory take on the same. But it is something I wish I knew earlier… If you know of any further resources on the topic, please let me know and I’ll share the same).
A fundamental logical reasoning framework
When you pick up the ‘Pyramid Principle‘ by Barbara Minto (always grateful to Sriram Subramianian for introducing me to it!), you’d expect to get tips on writing and presentations. Except the book is really about thinking.
And when it comes to thinking clearly, there are two most fundamental approaches we use to reason from our facts and observations:
– Deductive reasoning
– Inductive reasoning
(There’s also ‘abductive reasoning’ but it is derived from ‘deductive reasoning’; so we can stick to the two above)
Some of you may have come across these concepts, but let me give a quick overview.
The most sure-fire way of testing your logic is through Deductive reasoning. Here’s how it works:
– You have a Major Premise.
This is an irrefutable fact, which everyone agrees on. Something which goes on the lines of ‘All Xs are Ys‘.
– You then have a Minor Premise.
This is a fact that can be easily confirmed. Something like ‘A is an X‘.
– Finally there is a Conclusion
An opinion or decision that necessarily follows from the Major and Minor premise. In this case it would be – ‘A is a Y‘.
An example will clear things out. I’ll start with a cliched, but simple example:
– Major Premise: All men are mortal
– Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
– Conclusion: Socrates is mortal
Let’s take another example:
– Major Premise: All students who are bright and study hard will pass the exam
– Minor Premise: Ria is a bright student who has studied hard
– Conclusion: Ria will pass the exam
In this example, you might be thinking – hang on… are those the only two factors? What if Ria loses concentration on the day of the exam? What if she has a nervous breakdown?
Good work! You are already stress-testing the Major Premise. This will help in the next section when we consider more examples.
You use this framework ALL the time
When I first came across deductive reasoning, I thought – hm, that sounds cute. But I don’t face these CAT-problem like situations at my work. Who talks about Socrates and mortality in a client presentation?
Oh, but we do. We do use deductive reasoning all the time. Let’s take the following statements:
- We must invest in Project X
- You should choose Firm A for the assignment
- We must ban Comedian K from performing at public events to maintain peace and order
Where would these statements fit in the Deductive logic template? They are all Conclusions – telling the audience what needs to be done.
If we want to test their logical strength, all we need to do is to work backwards and derive their Major and Minor Premise.
Here’s the Minor Premise for each of these conclusions
- Project X has good revenue potential, profitability and is doable by us. (Conclusion: We must invest in Project X)
- Firm A has a great team, relevant experience & strong client references. (Conclusion: You should choose Firm A)
- Comedian X makes fun of the government. (Conclusion: we must ban Comedian K…)
Hm, that sounds logical enough. You might be tempted to respond: “Sounds great, these conclusions have enough backing (especially that third one!). I’m sold”
Hang on though, we still need to derive the Major Premise for each of these. The Major Premise is the ‘irrefutable truth-like’ assumption that drives the other elements. Here goes:
- Major Premise: All projects with good revenue, profitability and do-ability should be invested in. (Minor Premise: Project X has good revenue, etc. etc. Conclusion: We must invest in Project X)
- Major Premise: Only firms with a great team, relevant experience and strong client references should be chosen. (Minor Premise: Firm A has a great team, etc. etc. Conclusion: We should choose Firm A).
- Major Premise: Any instances of comedians making fun of the government will result in disruption to peace and order and must be banned. (Minor Premise: Comedian X makes fun of the government. Conclusion: We must ban him …)
Note the certainty in the Major Premise. That is the nature of these assertions. They claim to be the unequivocal, irrefutable truth.
Major Premises are the unsaid assumptions that drive our opinions. On very rare occasions, they are spelt out aloud. But mostly, they lurk unexpressed in the deep recesses of our mind.
And here’s the key trick. We need to articulate these Major Premises. We need to put them out clearly on paper. Unless we do that, we aren’t able to reason logically. We are not able to ask the crucial question: Is this Major Premise true?
And guess what, it may not be. You may suddenly realise:
- When evaluating projects, (apart from good revenue potential, profitability and do-ability) we also need to look at initial capex requirement and fitment with our vision-mission-values
- When choosing a consulting firm, (apart from a great team, relevant experience & strong client references) we also need to consider cost and values
- In almost no instance (surprise, surprise), comedians making fun of the government leads to disruption in peace and order
What have we done here? We are stress-testing the Major premise for a crucial property: MECE evidence. We are asking whether the Major Premise is true in all possible situations.
MECE, or Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive is a construct credited to (who else) Barbara Minto, who then further credits it to (who else) Aristotle. I’ve written earlier about how MECE is a crucial part of any research. Being MECE means you have considered all possibilities in a comprehensive and non-muddled way when deriving the Major premise. Nothing has been left out.
Which brings me to an important question – how is a Major Premise actually derived? It seems to be a statement which is taken as a gospel truth. Surely we should know its antecedents.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to introduce ‘Inductive Reasoning‘.
Many observations of the same pattern = Major Premise
We form Major Premises by carefully observing the world around us and discerning patterns. This evidence-based exercise is called ‘Inductive reasoning’ .
Let’s see how inductive reasoning works by separately considering the two most common forms of Major Premises:
1. If you are an X, you must be a Y (e.g. if you are a man, you are mortal)
In this case, the premise is formed by countless observations – where people have seen all Xs being Ys. These are usually definitive in the natural world (e.g. “if you throw an object from a height, it will fall down”). But even there, there are exceptions. E.g. “If you are a bird, you must be able to fly” sounds like a pretty solid Major premise for a third-century BC thinker. But we all know of flightless birds.
We make such ‘All Xs are Ys’ generalisations all the time. For instance, we may think – ‘All people of X community/ geography/ background exhibit Y characteristic’.
In doing so, we need to be careful not to fall into the stereotyping trap. To refute this kind of Major Premise, we need to find contradictory examples – of Xs which are not Ys (which is usually not too difficult to do).
2. If you want to get Y, you must do X (e.g. to pass, you need to be bright and study hard; or to have a successful project it must have sales, profitability, do-ability, etc.)
Now there are two sub-variants of this. The first one exhibits lesser conviction
a. If you want to get Y, you must do X as a necessary condition
If you want the project to succeed you must pick a partner firm which has vast experience in the topic. Now that sounds pretty logical. But even here, you may be able to find contradictory exceptions. Perhaps a colleague recollects of an instance in 2016, when you went with a rookie team for a consulting project and they delivered exceptional results. That’s a rebuttal of your Major Premise.
b. (The stronger statement) If you want to get Y, all you must do is X (as a sufficient) condition
This one is trickier to prove right? You might think, ‘If you want to pass, you must be bright and study hard’ is pretty sufficient, but then other factors may also play a part as we discussed earlier.
Again to pick holes in a Major Premise like this, all you need to do is to find, ahem, sufficient instances where it is not true.
The hidden ingredient and the source of humility
Some of you may be thinking, “Hang on, you’ll never find something which is 100% true. There will always be contradictory evidence to any point you make.”
I agree. Now it’s time to introduce the secret, unstated ingredient that powers most of these logical statements.
When we say, “If you are bright and study hard, you will pass the exam”, what we mean is “If you are bright and study hard, there are very high odds that you will pass the exam”.
I’ve written earlier about our troubles with Probability. We struggle to incorporate it in our opinions, but probability is the only certainty in an uncertain world. We have to be comfortable with thinking of statements in probabilistic terms rather than unequivocal terms. And we have to be open to seeking and finding contradictory evidence that may change our mind.
In other words, we have to learn to be humble and curious when making and defending our opinions.
Mr. Strong-Opinion-made-of-rock, beware of the Deductive-Logic Humility Hammer.
Alright, here’s what have we learnt so far:
- When we state an opinion or recommendation it is really a Conclusion, based on some (unexpressed) Minor Premise and Major Premise
- In order to test the soundness of our opinion, we should put down our thoughts in the Deductive Reasoning template
- We should then carefully look for evidence that contradicts the Major Premise and Minor Premise
- If we do end up finding contradictory evidence, but we still believe in our Conclusion, we should share the finding with our audience and give them a sense of the probability of our conclusion being right (i.e. show humility).
- Finally, the goal is not to find the 100% certain answer, but to keep improving the odds of success.
This sounds good – but is it used in the real world?
You bet. Next week, in Part 2 of this post, I’ll dive into a couple of examples from reputed opinion-columnists of how to apply of this template.