017 White Belt Curriculum Part 2

017 – White Belt Curriculum (Part 2): The Tao of Socrates

In episode 017 I give an update on new content at the Argument Ninja website (http://argumentninja.com), and I finish reviewing the white belt curriculum for the Argument Ninja Academy program.

The third and fourth learning modules in the white belt curriculum are titled “Socratic Knowledge” and “Socratic Persuasion“.

In this episode I also have an extended case study of a challenging persuasion case over the following issue: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

In This Episode:

  • Preparing for an upcoming talk on cognitive biases and causal reasoning (2:47)
  • The Feynman Technique (5:10)
  • Why the Argument Ninja podcast is like a novel, and the Argument Ninja Academy is like the movie based on the novel (7:00)
  • I wrote 14 new articles for the Argument Ninja website (10:10)
  • A working draft of the Argument Ninja Academy curriculum (10:45)
  • All my recurring supporters on the Wall of Thanks (11:29)
  • My steering committee (12:10)
  • Relationship of the Argument Ninja program to themes often discussed in other podcasts — martial arts for the mind (Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Bryan Callen and Hunter Maats, Sam Harris, Jocko Willink) (12:57)
  • Mixed Mental Arts (15:30)
  • Socratic methods (18:30)
  • A typical Socratic dialogue (18:53)
  • Socrates as the first moral epistemologist (22:00)
  • Why Socratic knowledge is valuable (22:30)
  • Socratic knowledge as knowledge of argument structure; Socratic questioning as a tool for building this structure (27:00)
  • Socratic knowledge is compatible with saying “I don’t know” (29:00)
  • Socratic knowledge and training within the dojo (31:40)
  • Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion (33:20)
  • Simple mental models to help us think about persuasion strategy (35:10)
  • Hard styles versus soft styles in martial arts and persuasion (36:00)
  • Socratic questioning as a soft style (37:30)
  • The core belief network model (38:52)
  • Persuasion strategy based on the core belief network model (40:53)
  • Socratic questioning as a tool for mapping the core belief network (42:30)
  • The bank heist model (44:30)
  • The Indian Jones swap model (45:35)
  • Case study: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” (47:00)
  • Why the best tool for guiding a Socratic conversation is Socratic knowledge — i.e. knowing what you’re talking about (50:33)
  • Arguments against the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (51:25)
  • Arguments for the claim that Christians and Muslisms worship the same God (52:50)
  • Thinking about the “emotional resonance” of these arguments (57:45)
  • An example of an “Indiana Jones swap” (59:27)
  • Why I initially titled this module “Street Epistemology”, and why I changed it (1:01:40)
  • Origins of the Street Epistemology movement (1:02:34)
  • Why the Argument Ninja Academy is non-partisan with respect to ethical, political and religious beliefs (1:05:37)
  • Thanks to new monthly supporters on Patreon! (1:07:32)


“The kind of understanding that Socrates is trying to acquire, and that he’s testing with his questions, isn’t just knowledge of the facts, even if they’re true facts. He wants some understanding of why they’re true, what grounds them, why we’re justified in believing they’re true.”

“The Socratic method of asking questions in an open, non-confrontational way is just one persuasion tool among many, but it’s a particularly useful tool for this kind of challenge, because it’s a soft technique. It’s designed to slip past the guards and avoid triggering defenses.”

“I’m committed to creating a learning environment that isn’t partisan in any obvious way. Just like in a martial arts class. You line up at the start of class in your uniforms, you start working on your exercises and techniques, and the focus is on the program, not what race or gender or nationality you are, or what political or religious group you may belong to. That’s the environment that I want to create.”


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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 017.

Hello everyone. Welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante.

I got an email from a fan of the show earlier this week. His name is Darrell. He says “I can’t keep silent any longer. I must have another Argument Ninja fix. When’s the next episode?”.

And then I checked and saw that it’s been over a month since the last episode. So Darryll, before I start in with the second part of my overview of the white belt curriculum, let me try to exonerate myself a bit, because I actually have been pretty busy. Along with a bunch of other things, this episode has taken more time than I had expected to come together. But I’m happy with the end result, I hope you will be too.

Let me tell you what’s on the agenda. The episode has three sections. The first section is dedicated to news and updates. The second and third sections cover the remaining two modules in the white belt curriculum.

In news and updates, first I’m going to talk about a speaking gig I have coming up in Toronto. Second, I’m going to talk about the connection that this show has to some other podcasts that you may be familiar with — Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Bryan Callen and Hunter Maats, Sam Harris, Jocko Willink,  — and a recent Skype chat I had with Hunter Maats about the “mixed mental arts” movement that he’s spearheading. And third, I’m going to share some major updates I’ve made to the Argument Ninja website, at argumentninja.com.

Then we move on to the white belt curriculum and third and fourth learning modules. The third module is on Socratic Knowledge, and the fourth is on Socratic Persuasion. I’m subtitling this episode “the tao of Socrates” because this is the first illustration of the yin-yang complementarity of argumentation and persuasion, which is a recurring theme of mine and it’s an important theme in the Argument Ninja program.

This episode will introduce a bunch of very simple mental models to help us start thinking about the challenge of persuading someone to reconsider or change a belief that may be closely connected to their identity.  And for the sake of an example we’re going to look at attitudes and arguments surrounding this question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

And then at the very end I’m going to talk about the relationship between what I’m calling Socratic Persuasion and the Street Epistemology movement, which is closely related.

Prepping for a Talk

Okay, let’s get into news and updates since last episode.

There are a few things that have occupied my time the past few weeks.

The first is that I had to develop a keynote talk for a conference coming up in early April, in Toronto. It’s an annual professional meeting for legislative and performance auditors in Canada. This is a group whose job involves investigating and assessing the performance of public bodies, like government departments and programs. I gave a talk to this same conference last year on the subject of cognitive biases and critical thinking, and that went over pretty well so they invited me back this year.

This year there’s a panel on the subject of causal reasoning and identifying the root causes of a fault or a problem. There’s a whole literature on what’s known as Root Cause Analysis, that has developed in fields like quality control in manufacturing, accident analysis in occupational health and safety, failure analysis in engineering, risk management in business, and so on.

I was tasked with doing a presentation on cognitive biases and debiasing in Root Cause Analysis, and reasoning about cause and effect more generally. What sorts of biases can influence our judgment about when A is the cause of B, and so on? What can we do to avoid or reduce the errors that we’re prone to in this area?

So this month I had to research and prepare this presentation, which resulted in a slide deck with about 75 slides in it. And I had to submit these materials well in advance because this is a bilingual conference, so as I’m giving the talk in English there are two slide presentations running simultaneously, a version in English and a version where all the text is translated into French, for the benefit of the French speaking attendees. The organizers need enough lead time to translate the slides and make sure everything’s formatted properly.

This was a lot of work. But as always, I use teaching as a tool for learning.

I spent a number of intense days immersed in this literature, from a variety of different fields, including the philosophical literature on the logic of causal reasoning, and tried to synthesize a story to tell to a body of 250 people, most of whom would have no prior exposure to these ideas, and make the story engaging and relevant to their practical interests. And I had to tell this story without using any technical jargon.

I bring this up because it’s an excuse for me to mention an important technique for learning and testing your understanding of a concept. Some people call this the “Feynman technique”, named after the physicist Richard Feynman. It’s a thing, you can google it.

It basically involves taking a concept and writing down an explanation of the concept in plain English, without any jargon, as though you were teaching it so someone else, a student who is new to all of this.

If you get stuck doing this, that indicates that you don’t understand the concept properly yet. When someone understands a concept deeply, that usually translates into an ability to explain it to someone else in simple language. If you find yourself resorting to technical terms or confusing language or leaps in reasoning, that’s a sign that there’s a problem with your understanding. You need to go back, review the source material, pin-point your problem and work it out. And then come back and try to give that explanation again. Iterate this process until you’ve got it down, and test it on a real person who doesn’t know the subject already.

That’s the Feynman method for learning, and you can apply it to just about anything.

What many students don’t realize is that this is how their teachers really developed their understanding of the subjects they teach. They learned through having to explain it to new batches of students every year.

This is one of the reasons why I love to give talks, and why I love producing videos, and why I love creating these podcasts. They’re a way for me to keep learning new things. It’s the Feynman technique repeated over and over.

Anyway, that’s the first thing that was occupying my time this past month.

Adding Content to the Argument Ninja Site

The second thing has to do with the Argument Ninja project itself, and advancing awareness of what we’re trying to do here.

I want to remind listeners that my goal with this project isn’t just to keep producing podcasts in the privacy of my home. It’s to actually make something. Something big, something that makes an impact. Something with the potential to transform people’s lives.

My vision for the Argument Ninja Academy is going to require a team of people to invest their time and talent, over an extended period of time, to make it a reality.

And to do this, it’s going to take more than just a few more monthly supporters on Patreon. Even if I had a huge audience and was making Sam Harris money on Patreon, that wouldn’t be enough. Because what I want to build requires expertise and resources that I don’t have.

In producing these podcasts, and writing articles for the Argument Ninja site, I sometimes think of myself like a writer, a novelist, who is writing a story that he hopes will one day get turned into a movie. I can write the novel all by myself, that’s no problem. In this space, I’m the boss. I’m the creator of this world, I have the vision, I know what I’m doing.

But what I’m proposing for the Argument Ninja Academy is more like the movie adaptation based on this novel. It’s that story, translated into a very different medium. And movies are fundamentally a collaborative medium. If it’s a big  a big project you need a producer, a director, a cinematographer, art director, actors … a whole team.

And when you turn a book into a movie, the author of the book may not be even be the best person to write the screenplay for the movie. The vocabulary of the medium puts constraints on how the story should be told. Screenplays need to be adapted by people who understand these constraints.

For the Argument Ninja Academy, I’m envisioning an online platform where people log in and are lead through a series of learning experiences that, over the course of days and weeks and months, are designed to develop rather sophisticated skills in critical thinking, argumentation, communication, persuasion, and more, in an environment that is fun and engaging and demanding enough to keep people motivated to stay in the program and continue to learn and benefit from it.

The platform that I envision is going to have game-like elements, it’s going to have social and collaborative learning elements, and it’s going to reproduce, to the extent that this is possible, the look and feel of training in a martial art.

The team that is going to build this platform isn’t going to come from academic philosophy or psychology or education. It’s going to come from elearning professionals and instructional designers and gamification experts and web developers and graphic designers and web-based project managers.

So, part of my job at this stage is to try to generate interest in this kind of project, to eventually recruit people with the right expertise and resources to help make this happen.

Now, for a while the Argument Ninja website was only hosting these podcast episodes. There wasn’t really anything else there. As a web resource it wasn’t a great recruiting vehicle.

So what I’ve done over the past month is add content to the site that can better serve as an information resource for people who might be interested in this project.

First, I wrote a bunch of articles for the Argument Ninja site, that are intended to get readers up to speed on my vision of what critical thinking is all about and what this project is all about.

In total I assembled 14 articles, and you can see them all right now over at argumentninja.com.

The first group is about the goals and benefits and importance of critical thinking.

There’s another pair of articles that talk about what I think is wrong with traditional approaches to critical thinking education, and that sets up the next set of articles, which are about what critical thinking education looks like when you think of it as a martial art. There’s an article on mixed martial arts and critical thinking, there’s an article on sparring and critical thinking, and so on.

Another thing I did since the last episode was work on a version of the curriculum for the Argument Ninja Academy, in terms of sequences of learning modules.

So I have a page on the website — it’s called “curriculum” on the main menu — that shows nine belt ranks, from white belt to black belt, with four learning modules associated with each belt rank.

This is just a working document and it’s very early in the process, so this is obviously going to evolve over time. But there is a logic to the progression, which I’ll be talking about on the podcast. Mostly I just want people to be able to see something that makes it easier to imagine what this program might look like.

I also added an updated “wall of thanks” in the sidebar on the Support page that lists all of my supporters who have committed some amount of dollars per month to help support this work. I’m happy to say that at the time of this recording there are over 360 names on that list — which is great in itself, thank you so much to everyone — but the list also serves as a signal to visitors, that all these people have judged that this is something worth supporting, and in that sense it’s also a marketing tool — it helps to legitimize this project in the eyes of people coming to it for the first time.

So, I’ve been trying to set things up so that my team and I have something to work with as we plan our next moves.

I know I’ve been making vague references to my “team” for a while now, which I’m now calling my “steering committee”, since that’s basically the task that’s been occupying us for a while — clarifying the audience for this project, clarifying the vision, building a plan for recruiting the right kind of talent, and so on.

I haven’t mentioned any names or been more specific because we still need to work out some things and make sure all our ducks are lined up in a row. But that’ll change in the near future, and I’ll let you know when that happens.

Mixed Mental Arts and Chatting With Hunter Maats

Okay, there’s one more thing I wanted to mention before we get on with our review of the white belt curriculum.

As many fans of this show and the whole Argument Ninja theme have noticed, there’s a small but growing movement afoot that is taking this metaphor of martial arts for the mind seriously, and a lot of this is driven by people who have grown an audience in the podcast world.

On this list I would include people like Joe Rogan, Tim Ferries, Bryan Callen, Hunter Maats, Jocko Willink, Sam Harris, and others. I know I’m leaving people out. Politically and ideologically they cover a wide range of views, but all of these people have an interest in mental culture and its relationship to physical culture, and in analogies between training your mind and training your body.

Now, I had a Skype chat with Hunter Maats a couple weeks ago, and I want to talk about why this is significant, so let me back up a bit.

Many of you are familiar with Joe Rogan. He’s a standup comic and an actor. Some of you may know him as host of the reality show Fear Factor. He’s also a martial artist and a commentator for MMA.  And for quite a while he’s been hosting a very popular podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, on audio and on YouTube.

Joe’s podcast guests include entertainers and athletes but also authors and academics. He’s very intellectually curious, very culturally curious, and he uses the podcast to indulge his curiosity and to give a platform for views that he finds interesting and important.

Now, Joe’s show has attracted a lot of like-minded people, with his particular combination of interests — intellectual interests, cultural interests, but also an enthusiasm for athletics, physical training and combat sports.

Another public entertainer who is cut from the same mold is Bryan Callen. He and Joe are good friends. Bryan is a standup comic and an actor as well — he was one of the original cast members of Mad TV when it aired back in the mid 90s. And he’s a boxer, and he’s also been hosting his own podcast for a number of years, the Bryan Callen Show.

Bryan’s show has a smaller footprint than Joe’s, but it covers a lot of similar themes and they often share guests.

Now, for quite a while, Bryan has had a co-host on the show, Hunter Maats. Hunter and Bryan go back a long way. Their fathers were both in the international banking industry, and they both did a lot of overseas traveling when they were younger. Hunter did a degree in biochemistry from Harvard and he worked as a tutor and co-wrote a book a few years ago on the science of learning and achievement aimed at high school and college students, called The Straight-A Conspiracy.

So in recent years, Hunter has been pushing the Bryan Callen Show in a direction where it features more academics and authors talking about science and politics and education and critical thinking and cultural literacy.

And more recently, Hunter has helped to coin a term, “mixed mental arts”, that has become the new title of their podcast. There’s a new website, mixedmentalarts.co — that’s “c-o”, not “c-o-m” — where you can see podcast episodes and blog posts. And what’s really cool is that they’re making this very much a fan-based, user-driven platform.

The guiding idea behind mixed mental arts, as they define it, has a lot of overlap with the themes that I’ve been pushing about problems with our education system, the need to take seriously what psychology is telling us about how human beings actually think and form beliefs and make judgments, and the need to promote various kinds of literacy in the public — critical thinking literacy, cultural literacy, media literacy, and so on.

So, fans of their show noticed affinities with my show and what I’m trying to do, and invited Hunter and me to talk to each other, and that’s what we did. Shout-out to Nicole Lee for that.

We had a great chat, not surprising, and the upshot is that we’re looking at opportunities to support each other’s projects and collaborate on some new projects.

Mixed mental arts, as Hunter and Bryan envision it, is a very big tent that can include many different kinds of initiatives.The Argument Ninja Academy is just one such initiative.

I’m super-impressed with the enthusiasm of the mixed mental arts fans and supporters. I can certainly learn a lot from you about how to mobilize a fan-base.

Anyway, that’s my shout-out to Hunter and Bryan and the fans of their show, if they’re listening — you guys are awesome.

White Belt Curriculum (Part 2)

Okay, I’m going to transition now to the main topic for this episode, which as advertised is a continuation of our overview of the learning modules in the white belt curriculum that we started last episode. So if you need to pause and get yourself a snack to re-orient yourself, you’re welcome to do that.

Ready? Okay.

The white belt curriculum that I’ve outlined has four modules. There’s an introductory module called “What is an Argument Ninja?”, there’s a module that introduces the Argument Analysis sequence, and there are two modules that are organized around the concepts and skills associated with Socratic reasoning and Socratic questioning.

We talked about the first two modules in the last episode. So now I’m going to talk about these last two modules.

I’ve recently updated the names for these two modules. Same content, just different names. As of this podcast I’m calling the third module “Socratic Knowledge”, and the fourth module “Socratic Persuasion”.

Socratic Knowledge

So, let’s start with “Socratic knowledge”.

Most of us are familiar with the term “the Socratic method”. In education it’s associated very broadly with using questions and dialogue as a tool for teaching and learning.

But of course the term goes back to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who lived in the 4th century BC, and it’s also associated more narrowly with his particular style of doing philosophy, which has had a big impact on how Western philosophy defines itself.

We don’t have any writings by Socrates himself. We get our information from secondary sources, the most important of which is Plato, who was a student of Socrates. Plato wrote a number of famous dialogues, and he cast Socrates as the central character in most of these dialogues.

So a typical encounter between Socrates and another character would go something like this. Socrates is looking to educate himself about a particular concept, like beauty, or courage, or justice. So he visits a person who claims to be an expert of some kind on these concepts — What is beauty? What is courage? What is justice? The person offers a first answer, and then Socrates raises a question about the answer — maybe he identifies an obvious counter-example, or an ambiguity — and in response the person modifies their answer, or offers a new one, and this process of questioning and revising answers continues.

And the usual result is that at some point the person that Socrates is talking to is unable to answer a question that seems essential to the concept, and they’re stuck. They reveal that they didn’t really know what they claimed to know.

For example, if the issue is “what is courage?”, a person might be able to identify a range of acts that we would recognize as courageous, but be unable to say what it is that all these acts have in common that makes them courageous. They can’t say what courage is in general, what the essence of courage is, because Socrates has shown that all of the proposed answers that the person has given lead to contradictions or are too broad or too narrow or are unsatisfactory in some other important way.

Now, this may not seem like a very positive result. It shows that people can be confident about their understanding of a topic, but under questioning they reveal that their understanding is flawed or incomplete, and that their confidence may be misplaced. And in a typical dialogue, Socrates doesn’t offer any positive answers of his own. So what have we gained at the end of the day?

Well, in the tradition of Western philosophy, where Socrates is regarded as kind of a hero, there are two features of this kind of exchange that illustrate something important and valuable.

The first is that it highlights a certain kind of understanding as a goal of knowledge.

The kind of understanding that Socrates is trying to acquire, and that he’s testing with his questions, isn’t just knowledge of the facts, even if they’re true facts. He wants some understanding of why they’re true, what grounds them, why we’re justified in believing they’re true.

This focus on grounding and justification is the core of the classical definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”. You can’t know that a certain claim is true if it’s not true. You can’t know it if you don’t actually believe it. And even if you believe it’s true, and it turns out to be true, that doesn’t mean that you know it’s true. To know it’s true is to have some story to tell about why you’re justified in believing it. Why you’re entitled to believe it.

This search for the ultimate ground of our knowledge is what defines the branch of philosophy called “epistemology”. Epistemology is the study of the nature and origins and justification of knowledge.

So one way of thinking about what Socrates is doing is that he’s trying to figure out the ground, the justification for, our ethical and political beliefs. And for this reason, Socrates is regarded as the first important moral philosopher in the Western philosophical tradition. He’s the first moral epistemologist.

Now, it may be tempting to think that the lesson to draw from these dialogues is that we should be skeptics about moral knowledge, since Socrates himself doesn’t claim to have the answers. But that’s the wrong lesson to draw.

First of all, if you have reason to believe that a certain philosophical claim is wrong, that IS a valuable form knowledge. When an experiment falsifies a scientific theory, we’ve learned something important. It means we can move on, we can look for answers elsewhere.

Second, the fact that so many of these dialogues end in doubt and uncertainty is partly a function of the fact that these are deep philosophical questions that by their nature resist easy answers. What is justice? What is virtue? What is courage? These are hard questions! We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that our first stabs leave something to be desired.

Socrates is not a skeptic about knowledge. He’s just interested in a certain kind of knowledge, in a certain domain, that happens to be very difficult to acquire.

So let’s focus on the kind of knowledge that he’s interested in, and put aside for now the difficulties with the particular questions he’s asking.

Let’s grant that we can know things. But there are different ways of knowing, different ways our opinions can be grounded, and not all of them express a deep understanding. Socrates is after this deeper understanding.

And what we’re talking about doesn’t have to be esoteric or abstract. I’ll give an example.

Let’s say we’re on the outskirts of a city, and I ask you what’s the best way to get to City Hall, which is downtown. And you give me a good answer.

There are lots of different ways that could happen.You might look at the map application on your phone, and just show me the route directions. Or you might recall how you got to City Hall last year, which is the last time you made the trip, and you describe to me the route that you took.

Or, you could do both of these things, but also a third thing: you explain why certain routes that look good on the map are actually slower because of road construction projects that are going on right now.

All three of these ways of grounding your opinion might count as knowing how to get to City Hall. But the nature of the grounding, the justification, is different in each case.

In the first case, your knowledge is grounded in a reliable source, the map application on your phone. You trust the information it’s giving you. In the second case, your knowledge is grounded in your first-hand experience, the fact that you’ve been there yourself.

And in the third case, your knowledge may include the other two, but you also have a grasp of the bigger picture that makes your opinion even more valuable. You understand the broader context of what’s going on, you’re aware of relevant facts that aren’t obvious to everyone, and you’re bringing all of this to bear on the recommendation you give, which ends up being more useful and of greater value because of it.

It’s this third kind of knowledge that Socrates is going for when he’s pushing us to justify our opinions in deeper ways.

This is the kind of understanding that we expect of our most creative experts. It’s what you have when you’re not only responsive to the evidence, but you also have insight into how that evidence hangs together, into the explanation of the facts, not just the facts themselves.

In everyday life, all these different ways of knowing are important and valuable. I’m not going to give up using the map on my smartphone, it’s very convenient. I’m not going to give up relying on my personal experience. But for many important tasks, we really do need a deeper level of understanding.

If there’s a tricky operation that needs to be performed, and you’ve got a choice between the surgeon who’s done this procedure once and a surgeon who’s done it a thousand times, under a variety of conditions and different kinds of patients, who are you going to choose? The more experienced surgeon, of course, precisely because they have a better understanding of how to perform the procedure successfully under a wider range of conditions. This kind of understanding is a superior guide to action. This is the kind of understanding that grounds genuine expertise.

Now, I want to make a connection between this kind of understanding, and ideas that I’ve talked about elsewhere on the podcast.

Remember from episodes 9 and 10, we talked about “argument matrices”, and what it means to really know what you’re talking about. In those episodes I tried to show that the kind of knowledge that supports genuine critical thinking and genuine understanding is knowledge of argument structure, which I generalized with the term “argument matrix”.

Take a claim, and start asking for reasons why we should believe that the claim is true. Those reasons take the form of arguments — if such and such is true, this gives us to reason to believe that this claim is also true. Socratic questioning pushes us to make explicit, or maybe even consider for the first time, the argument structure that supports our beliefs.

When Socrates pushes someone to justify the assumptions of their argument, that’s increasing what I called “argumentative depth”. When he forces us to consider a completely different set of reasons to believe or not believe something, that’s widening the scope of our understanding — I called that “argumentative breadth”. When you starting thinking about all of these arguments are related to one another, including both the supporting arguments and objections and replies along different branches, that’s what I called the “argument matrix” for that particular claim in question.

So we can think of Socratic questioning as a method for constructing the argument matrix associated with a particular claim, to the best of our ability. And as I said in those earlier podcasts, these are always going to be partial and incomplete.  My argument matrix will be different from your argument matrix. Mine might be deeper in some areas than yours, and yours may be broader in some areas than mine.

And they’ll be limited. They’ll have a finite number of branches, and every branch is going to terminate somewhere. Justification doesn’t go on forever. You’ll eventually hit premises that you’ll just take as given, you can’t see how you’d give a deeper justification for them. I may not be happy with where you stop, I might believe I can push it farther. Those kinds of disputes are normal.

But through the process of Socratic dialogue, where we push each other to broaden and deepen our understanding of a topic or an issue, we’re building out this argument matrix, like a crystal structure that grows and becomes more articulated over time.

Now, it’s very important to realize that this concept of Socratic knowledge doesn’t have to result in a single, firm conviction about the issue. One could have such a conviction, and on matters where evidence is strong you might expect it. But this kind of knowledge is perfectly consistent with saying, at the end of the day, “I don’t know”. I don’t know if there’s a God or not. I don’t know what courage is, in general. I don’t know what form the ideal state should take. I don’t know whether artificial intelligence is going to be good or bad for humanity.

But when a person says “I don’t know” after having built an argument matrix surrounding the issue that is both broad and deep, that’s a fundamentally different thing than a person saying “I don’t know” who hasn’t given any serious thought to it all. The former is an expression of a deep understanding of the issue, from a position of knowledge. The latter is an admission of ignorance.

One of the things you learn about Socrates when you study Greek philosophy is this famous story of Socrates visiting the Oracle at Delphi, and the Oracle tells him that he, Socrates, is the wisest man in Athens. Socrates is deeply puzzled by this because he says that he doesn’t know anything; he’s just a seeker of the truth, he doesn’t claim to have the truth.

But then after questioning all these so-called experts he realizes the Oracle might be right after all. Socrates is the wisest man in Athens because he alone is prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he does not.

The lesson that we’re supposed to take from this is that admitting your ignorance, or more generally, being honest about the limits and fallibility of your own knowledge, is itself a form of wisdom that we should value and try to cultivate. And this is absolutely true.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Socrates really does have a great deal of knowledge, and not just knowledge — understanding. Through his conversations with these experts, he has nurtured the growth of the argument matrices that embody his understanding of these deep philosophical issues. When he says “I don’t know”, at the end of the day, after all this critical analysis, it’s not an expression of ignorance, it’s an expression of wisdom.

So, this is the picture of Socratic knowledge that I want you to think about. This is the conception of knowledge that I’m introducing to students in this learning module.

I’m going to say one more thing before we move to Socratic Persuasion. Let’s bring back the martial arts metaphor for a second.

This whole discussion we’ve had here, about the role of Socratic dialogue in constructing arguments and argument matrices, and deepening our understanding of an issue, and cultivating the right kind of epistemic humility that is borne of this understanding — this is all dojo stuff.

This is part of critical thinking education that is learned in the dojo. It’s like learning the five tenets of taekwondo, or the deeper goals of any traditional martial art. As you train in the martial art, you’re asked to learn these principles, and over time, your understanding of them, and your appreciation for them, will grow. It changes who you are, as a person. In martial arts, it’s part of the process that turns you into a martial artist. In critical thinking, it’s part of the process that turns you into a critical thinker.

But even though you’ve changed as a person, and you now carry these principles with you outside the dojo, it would be foolish to expect other people outside the dojo to follow these principles too, or respond to them in the same way that you do.

Plato’s dialogues are dramatic recreations that are designed to highlight the philosophical principles that he finds valuable and important. They’re not portraits of realistic exchanges that you would expect to encounter on the street. They’re meant as a resource for training in the dojo.

If you want to apply these principles outside the dojo, to real communication with real people, you need to reorient your mindset. You need to switch to “persuasion” mode.

And that leads us to our next topic, “Socratic Persuasion”.

Socratic Persuasion

This is the name of the fourth module in the white belt curriculum.

In both the third module and the fourth modules we’re talking about the Socratic method of inquiry. But in the third module the focus is on using Socratic methods as a tool for acquiring a certain kind of knowledge that is essential to critical thinking. In the fourth module, the focus is on Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion, to influence what people think and believe.

This is a subject that you almost never see discussed by philosophers (with some notable exceptions, which I’ll get to). They don’t think of it as an issue for philosophy, and to be honest, it makes them feel a little impure. They tend to see this as an exercise in rhetoric, persuasion for its own sake, and as such they see it as a contaminating influence, a corrupting influence, on the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

But let me highlight that we’re not talking about persuasion for its own sake. I don’t even know what that would mean. We’re talking about persuasion in the service of whatever goals we may have. We can and should be critical of the goals, but it makes no sense to criticize persuasion as such. That would be like criticizing the use of physical force, period. What could that even mean? What matters is how physical force is used, and to what ends. If I use physical force to control and intimidate my partner, or rob people, or violate the rights of others, that’s bad. If I use physical force to lift a fallen tree branch off the middle of the road, or to protect myself or innocent people from harm, that’s good.

There are a lot of opportunities to talk about the ethics of persuasion in greater depth in the Argument Ninja curriculum. In this module, at this early stage, my goals are much more limited. I want to talk about Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion, but because this is the first module in the curriculum to actually talk about persuasion “outside the dojo”, I also want to use it to introduce this whole broader topic, of the psychological realities that we need to anticipate when we interact with people in the real world.

Mental Models for Thinking About Persuasion

To do this, I find it helpful to think in terms of simple mental models that capture an important concept in a way that’s easy to visualize.

We’ve seen a few of these already. The whole picture of critical thinking as a martial art is a useful mental model, because it forces us to think about critical thinking in terms of learned skill development and performance. The dojo is a mental model, because it makes us think about the ritualized spaces that we construct that support this kind of skill development. Argument matrices are a mental model. They help us understand the structure of knowledge that supports genuine understanding.

There are lots of mental models that can help us to think about the persuasion skills that we’re trying to develop.

For example, here’s another mental model imported from martial arts.

Hard versus Soft Techniques

In martial arts we often talk about hard styles versus soft styles, or hard techniques versus soft techniques. We can take this concept, this model, and apply it to persuasion techniques.

Hardness involves meeting force with force. So a kickboxing low kick aimed to break the attacker’s leg is a hard technique. A karate block aimed to break or halt the attacker’s arm is a hard technique.

Softness involves a minimal use of force to achieve a particular goal. So, redirecting an opponent’s momentum so that they lose balance and make themselves vulnerable is a soft technique. Joint locks that require relatively little force but that can immobilize an opponent can be thought of as soft techniques.

So, extending the analogy to persuasion, if someone is giving an argument and you raise a devastating counter-argument that is intended to stop it cold, that’s a hard technique.

Socratic persuasion methods tends to fall under the soft category, for an obvious reason. If I’m asking you for your opinion on a topic, and I’m responding to what you say with more questions, then I’m less likely to be perceived as trying to impose an opinion on you, because I haven’t given you my opinion. The whole exchange is less likely to trigger a hard defensive reaction. But the hardness or softness of the exchange is really a function of a whole bunch of factors that include the context, the tone you set, the word choices you use, and so on.

In general, if you’re on the receiving end of a persuasive technique, and it feels like compulsion, like you’re being forced to say something or admit something that you don’t want to say or admit, that’s a hard technique. If it doesn’t feel like compulsion, if it feels like you’re saying something that you agree with, or doesn’t feel like it’s imposed on you, that’s a soft technique.

There are contexts where hard techniques make sense and do work. Interrogations and cross-examinations are hard. Honest peer review is often hard. But in general, Socratic methods lend themselves to a softer style of persuasion. And used in this way, they can be extraordinarily effective in exposing deeper layers of a person’s psychology. They are a true “ninja” technique.

But for Socratic methods to be effective the focus has to be on controlling the psychology of the encounter, without raising alarm bells or triggering a defensive posture.

The Core Belief Network Model

Now, this language I’m using, of raising alarm bells and triggering defenses, suggests another set of mental models. And you’ll notice, as models of the psychology of belief, these are all cartoonishly simple and unrealistic. But that’s exactly why they’re valuable. The each capture an important idea that we can use to help think about persuasion strategy.

Here’s an example. I call it the “core belief network” model.

You can think of the structure of our beliefs as an interconnected network. But some beliefs in this network are more central to our identity than others. These are basic stances on who we are, what our goals are, what our place is in the grand scheme of things, how we should live, what grounds our self-worth, and so on.They’re connected in such a way that if we’re challenged on these beliefs, we tend to experience that as a threat to our identity, so we naturally want to resist such challenges.

So let’s imagine that these beliefs are literally at the center of this belief network, because they’re central to our identity.  And we can think of the core of this network as surrounded by defensive mechanisms that function to protect and preserve these beliefs.

Then as we move outward in our network, we encounter beliefs that are less and less central to our identity. We’re more open to revising these beliefs without feeling existentially threatened, but we still care about them.

For example, I believe that climate change is a serious problem, but it’s not central to my identity. I’m happy to consider arguments that climate change is not a serious problem. But I’m going to hold those arguments to a pretty high standard, because I think there’s a lot at stake if we’re wrong. I’m not going to change them on a whim.

Now, as we move to the periphery of our network we find beliefs that we really could could care less about. I believe that the actress Anna Paquin was born in Canada, my wife says she was born in New Zealand. Do I care one way or the other? Not really. I can Google it and be happy with whatever Wikipedia says.

So the mental model is of a network of beliefs that is hierarchically organized so that beliefs that are more resistant to change are closer to the center and beliefs that are less resistant to change are closer to the periphery.

Right away, we have a simple framework that helps us think about persuasion strategy. If you want to change someone’s belief, the first question to ask is, where is it located in this network? If you’re targeting beliefs closer to the core, that’s going to require a different strategy than if you’re targeting beliefs farther from the core.

And how do you know where the belief is located in this hierarchy? It may be obvious for some beliefs, but it’s easy to misjudge these things.

I know an older gentlemen who has been a practicing Catholic his whole life, and it’s always been clear that being Catholic is important to his identity. But what is it about his Catholicism that really matters to him? It turns out that it’s not Catholic doctrine per se, or even Christian doctrine. When you push him on this, he seems genuinely agnostic about most Catholic doctrines, including doctrines as basic to Christianity as the divinity of Jesus.

What actually matters to him, it turns out, is identification with the cultural tradition, the rituals of the church service, and the mere fact of being a member of a religious tribe that has a long history. The thought of belonging to no tribe is much more disturbing to him than the thought that his tribe may not have the correct answers to deep theological questions. He cares very little about theological questions.

Now that would likely come as a surprise to anyone who didn’t know him well. There’s a general lesson here. When thinking about a persuasion strategy, we inevitably make assumptions about what beliefs are more central than others, but it’s easy for these assumptions to be wrong. So it’s better to treat these as hypotheses that are open to testing and revision.

And getting back to Socratic methods, one of the very best ways of testing these hypotheses is through Socratic conversation that is open, respectful, curious, non-confrontational and non-judgmental. People are happy to disclose what they really care about when they feel it’s safe to do so. This information is extremely valuable, if your eventual goal is to try to influence what a person believes about a particular topic. You can think of these kinds of conversations as helping you to develop an internal model of a person’s belief network, based on real data, and not just guessing.

The Questions-as-Network-Mapping-Tools Model

Here’s another mental model that I like that lets me vividly imagine this kind of information-gathering activity. If you’ve ever seen the movie Prometheus, the prequel to the Alien movies, there’s a scene where the crew is exploring this alien structure, and they need to map the area. So they release a bunch of these floating robotic drones that travel through all the open spaces of the structure and use lasers to map their surroundings. And all this data is sent back to a central computer that uses it to build a map of interior of the alien structure. Which they eventually discover is the interior of a crashed spaceship.

Socratic conservation is a powerful tool for mapping out the structure of a person’s belief network, and in particular, identifying how central or peripheral a given belief is to a person’s identity. I like this Prometheus example because its easy for me to imagine, but if you’ve ever had a medical procedure that uses radioactive tracers to study how your internal physiology is working, it’s a similar idea.

As part of a persuasion strategy you can think of this as reconnaissance — the information-gathering stage of the  mission.

The Bank Heist Model

Now, with this hierarchical belief network model in our head, we can imagine other analogies that are useful when thinking about persuasion strategy, especially when we’re targeting beliefs closer to the core.

One that I like is the model of a safecracker planning a bank heist. The goal is to break into a high security bank vault and steel something, like a brick of gold. The vault is surrounded by layers of defenses that become increasingly tough to bypass the closer you get to the central vault. The closer you get the more sensitive these defenses are, so that if you make a wrong move, alarms going off, lasers shoot at you, bombs explode, you name it.

So, we can think of the persuasion task, under this mental model, like an Ocean’s 11 heist, or a Mission Impossible assignment. Can you get inside the bank vault and steel the brick without triggering any alarms? Or more aptly, can you get inside the bank vault, and alter, or swap out, one of the bricks, without triggering any alarms? We don’t necessarily want to remove a belief — more often what I want is to alter it, change it, revise it.

The Indian Jones Swap Model

I’m going to add one more detail to this bank heist model. If you’ve seen the movie Raiders of the Last Ark, there’s the opening scene, where Indiana Jones is trying to steal a golden idol that is sitting on an alter at the end of a room. It’s protected by booby traps. Step on the wrong stone and an arrow shoots out of the wall at you.

He manages to get close to the idol, but he anticipates a final trap. If he lifts the idol off its base, it might be wired to detect the release of pressure and trigger a defense. So Indiana Jones pulls out a bag of sand that weighs roughly the same as the idol, and as he removes the ideal, he immediately substitutes the bag of sand on the altar.

This was a good idea, but in the movie it turns out it wasn’t exactly the right match, or it picked up the change in some other way, because a volley of defenses are triggered and Indian Jones has to run for his life to escape them.

What I like about this model is this idea that to make a change without triggering a defensive reaction, you may need to substitute it with something that plays the same role, or a similar role. In my head I literally think of it as the Indiana Jones Swap Model, but I know this is saying more about my pop culture upbringing and fondness for genre movies than anything else.

When we’re talking about beliefs, the central idea of the core network model is that beliefs are connected to one another, so that changes in one belief can propagate through the network and impact other beliefs. That makes them hard to isolate, and it’s one of the challenges of belief revision. It’s very hard to change just one belief without disturbing other beliefs in the network. When you get to beliefs near the core, it gets even harder, because the beliefs connect to very deep attitudes.

Consider again my belief that Anna Paquin was born in Canada. Yes, that belief is connected to other beliefs, so if I found out that I was wrong, that would have some impact elsewhere. But not to anything that really matters to me.

But let’s imagine I’m an evangelical Christian and I’m asked to consider a belief that really does matter to me. I’m asked to consider whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Most evangelical Christians will say no, Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. Muslims generally think the opposite; they believe that they worship the same God as Jews and Christians.

Now, in principle one could treat this as an academic question for theologians and try to look at the arguments in an even-handed way. But it practice it would be very hard for an evangelical Christian to consider these arguments without also considering the impact this issue would have on other beliefs that are central to their identity. Like the belief that the only path to salvation is faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement for our sins.

A belief like this is like the Golden Idol. Under normal conditions, you can’t change it without triggering a defensive reaction, because it’s so connected to other beliefs that really matter to a person.

However, the Indian Jones swap does suggest a persuasion strategy. If you can find a way to swap out that belief with another one that plays roughly the same role within the ecosystem of beliefs that matter to one’s personal identity, that’s a strategy. That’s a way of getting in, making a change, and getting out, without setting off the alarms.

I’ll come back to this example in a minute.

Socratic Knowledge and Socratic Persuasion

Okay, so we’ve looked at a bunch of mental models that can help us visualize and think about the strategic challenge of trying to change someone’s beliefs, especially beliefs that for various reasons are resistant to change.

The Socratic method of asking questions in an open, non-confrontational way is just one persuasion tool among many, but it’s a particularly useful tool for this kind of challenge, because it’s a soft technique. It’s designed to slip past the guards and avoid triggering defenses.

But how do you guide the conservation in the direction you want it to go, if all you’re doing is asking more questions in response to the answers that someone is giving you? It seems like the conversation could end up anywhere.

Well in principle that’s right. It could end up anywhere. That’s actually one of the strengths of the technique, especially if you don’t know much about the person you’re talking to.

But in general you do want to guide the conversation in the direction of the target belief, the one we want to change. And then when you get close to the target, you want a strategy for making the other person think about the belief in a new way.

So let’s imagine I’m talking to myevangelical Christian friend, and I want them to reconsider their belief that Christians and Muslim’s don’t worship the same God.

You may have all sorts of persuasion tools in your toolkit, but I’ll tell you the tool that is far and away the most useful one here, when we’re trying to get someone to consider an issue discursively, using their reasoning faculties.

Are you ready? Here it is. It’s knowing what you’re talking about.

And I mean this in this sense of Socratic knowing — knowing the structure of the argument matrix that surrounds this issue. Knowing what the most common arguments are, and the most common objections to those arguments. Knowing where the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments lie.

Because if you’re familiar with the structure of argumentation and debate around an issue, it’s much easier to guide a conversation in the direction you want.

But that means you have to make an effort and do a little research.

Let’s consider this question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The standard arguments against this view come from conservative Christians, and are based on basic differences in the conception of God that they see as central to Christianity.

This is the belief that the Christian God is a triune God — three persons in one: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God the Son; he is the physical incarnation of God on earth, at the same time fully human and fully divine. And Jesus is central to the story of salvation in Christianity, because his death on the cross served as a sacrifice that atoned for the sins of all of humanity, granting us access to an eternal life in Heaven that we do not deserve and can never deserve, through our own efforts.

Muslims don’t hold this view of God or Jesus. Standard doctrine says that Jesus was a divinely inspired prophet who was born of a virgin and who revealed the will of God through his life and teachings. But he was not divine himself, he was not God incarnated in human form. And his death did not atone for the sins of humankind. Muslims believe that it still falls upon each of us to atone for our sins, if we are to be granted salvation. On this view, God is not a trinity, God is one, a unity.

So from here it seems to follow that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.

However, there is also a long tradition of scholarship that argues that this conclusion does not follow, even granted these differences in how God is conceived.  The argument turns on a distinction: in some case, two different descriptions can refer to two different things; but in other cases, they can refer to the same thing.

Let’s say you and I were both at a party, and the next day I tell you that I had this great conservation with a guy who I thought was the smartest guy at that party. And you tell me about this guy who you thought was the best looking guy at the party. We could be referring to two different people, but we could also be referring to the same person, under two different descriptions.

So for those who say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, what they want to say is that Christians and Muslims may disagree on the attributes of this being they call God, but when Christians talk about worshipping the Lord God, and Muslims talking about worshipping Allah, those terms can still refer to the same being. In which case one can say that they do indeed worship the same God.

Now, there are a number of lines of reasoning that can support this conclusion, but I’m going to focus on one in particular, and I’ll explain why later.

The natural urge of conservative Christians is to contrast Christianity and Islam, to emphasize the differences between the faiths rather than the similarities. But these very same theological differences also characterize the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. Yet for Jews and Christians, even granting the history of Christian anti-semitism, there is a much stronger willingness to emphasize the similarities and the continuity between the two faiths, rather than the differences, in spite of the fact that it shares those very differences with Islam.

According to standard doctrine, Jews reject the divinity of Jesus as well. They don’t believe that Jesus was God incarnate or that his death atoned for our sins. Judaism, in this regard, has more in common with Islam than it does with Christianity.

Now, here’s a line of reasoning that you could use to get a conservative Christian to rethink how they view God in Christianity and Islam.

One can ask, when Christians talk about the God of the Jewish Old Testament, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, do they not think they’re talking about the same God that they themselves worship? Yes, Christians and Jews may not agree on all of the attributes of God, but they don’t think of themselves as talking about two different Gods. They think of themselves as talking about the same God.

And Jesus himself was a Jew. Is it not clear in the New Testament that Jesus thinks of God the Father, his father in Heaven, that he prays to, as the very God that his fellow Jews have historically worshipped?

When framed in this way, our intuitions say “yes”, and these intuitions are pretty widespread. They’re precisely why Christians are happy to use the inclusive label, “the Judao-Christian tradition”, to describe the shared theological space that these faiths occupy.

This line of reasoning is even more compelling when you focus on the person of Jesus himself. Jews and Muslims and Christians may disagree about the nature of Jesus. But no one feels compelled to say that Jews and Muslims are talking about two different people. No Jewish or Muslim or Christian scholar says that the Jesus referred to in the Koran is a different Jesus than the one referred to in the New Testament gospels. They’re not referring to two different people; they’re referring to the same person, who happens to be conceived differently in these different theological traditions.

Now, what I’ve done here is sketch out some of the branches of the argument matrix that surrounds this question of whether Christianity and Islam worship the same God.

And I think it’s clear that knowing this background puts one in a better position to have a productive conversation with a conservative Christian on this topic.

What you do not want to do is rush in all excited and throw all of this at them, and expect them to respond the way you want them to. That’s the rookie mistake. Remember, we’re operating very close to the core here. Doing that could very likely trigger alarm bells and a defensive posture.

That’s why the Socratic method, and maintaining an open, non-confrontational tone, and letting the other person lead the discussion, is such a valuable tool. If you’re disciplined about it, it will save you from 90% of the mistakes that most people make when they enter into conversations like this.

But the method is even more powerful when it’s informed by a good understanding of the psychology of belief in general, and the psychological significance of the issues in question. This is a topic we cover later in the program, but listeners to this show know that even a good argument is unlikely to be perceived as good if it doesn’t have the right emotional resonance for the audience.

In this case, the current cultural rhetoric around the relationship of Christianity to Islam is a rhetoric of conflict. The emotional resonance is negative. It emphasizes differences, it connects to fears of radical Islam, it and reinforces an us-versus-them mentality.

But the cultural rhetoric around Christianity and Judaism is largely a rhetoric of solidarity, at least among conservative Christians in North America. The emotional resonance is positive. Christians and Jews are viewed as their own cultural group with its own shared tribal loyalties, distinct from Islam.

This is why it can be a challenge to get a conservative Christian to accept that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Because they are likely to see this as a petition for solidarity with Islam, and that threatens to betray this shared Judeo-Christian identity.

But this is exactly why the argument strategy I outlined has a better than average chance of being considered. It takes this contentious proposition, which is initially viewed with suspicion, and associates it with something positive, namely, the good will and solidarity that Christians feel toward Jews. You’re showing them that the very same reasoning that underwrites this widely held view that Christians and Jews worship the same God, also applies to Christians and Muslims. And because that reasoning has a positive, non-threatening association in the former case, it’s more likely to carry this positive, non-threatening association over to the latter case.

For me, this is an example of an Indiana Jones Swap. We’re not swapping out beliefs per se; what we’re swapping out are negative emotional associations attached to a belief, with positive associations, so that the belief will be considered in a more positive light and won’t trigger a defensive reaction.

That’s the idea, at least. I’ve had this conversation with several conservative Christians myself, and raising the issue of the relationship of Christianity to Judaism always gives them pause, because they can see the implication of rejecting the reasoning. If you reject it in order to exclude Muslims, it seems to imply that you should exclude Jews as well, and conclude that Jews and Christians don’t worship the same God either. They can always bite that bullet, but it’s a conclusion that most would prefer to avoid if they could, and that’s exactly the emotional resonance that you’re leveraging with this argument.

Summing Up

So, I hope you’re getting a sense of the topics that I want to cover in this unit on Socratic persuasion. This is the first introduction to the psychology of persuasion in the curriculum. We haven’t done anything on cognitive biases or dual-process theories of the mind yet, but we can still get the ball rolling with a number of simple mental models. Soft versus hard persuasion techniques. The core belief network model. Using questions as tools for mapping the belief network. The bank heist model. The Indiana Jones swap.

Simple models like these allow us to start building a vocabulary for talking and thinking about persuasion strategies.

As we learn more psychology later in the program we can start using more sophisticated models that you actually see in the literature. Like Jonathan Haidt’s Rider and Elephant model, Daniel Kahneman’s fast versus slow thinking model, Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition model, and so on.

Now, on the topic of Socratic methods per se, I actually haven’t said very much about technique, because that’s a hard topic to cover in a short space. But there are some great resources available on this, which I’ll make available in this module. I want to mention one here specifically.

A Word About Street Epistemology

In my first draft of the Argument Ninja curriculum, I didn’t call this unit Socratic Persuasion. I called it Street Epistemology.  I used that term because it’s already associated with a movement to apply Socratic methods to critical thinking in real world contexts.

But I switched the name to Socratic Persuasion for two reasons. One, “street epistemology” uses a bit of philosophical jargon that my advisors noticed, and we agreed that we didn’t want to use technical terms like “epistemology” in our public-facing documents in a way that might confuse people.

And two, “street epistemology”, is used to refer to the use of Socratic methods in a very specific context. My usage is broader and my goals are different.

The term “Street Epistemology” was coined by philosopher Peter Boghossian, and Peter’s agenda is clear. He doesn’t want people to believe anything on faith alone.  This is part of a larger goal of promoting atheism and skepticism about pseudoscience and the supernatural.

The book in which he coins this term is called A Manuel For Creating Atheists, so the title gives you a good sense of where he’s coming from. The idea is to train people in a method of Socratic conversation that can be used anywhere, but preferably face-to-face, and where the goal is to get people to rethink the epistemological foundations of their religious or supernatural beliefs. The target here isn’t the beliefs themselves — it’s not a manual for convincing people that there is no God. The target is the underlying view that such beliefs can be justified on faith. It’s a manual for getting people to realize that faith is an unreliable method of forming true beliefs.

Peter’s book has inspired the Street Epistemology movement, which promotes these goals and the Socratic conversation techniques that are taught in the book. You can visit their home website at streetepistemology.com. The person who is most associated with the Street Epistemology movement today is Anthony Magnabosco. He does a lot of speaking, writes many of the blog posts on the website, maintains Facebook pages, a YouTube channel, and so on. But it is a community driven movement.

Peter’s book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, is polarizing for sure. If you’re not sympathetic to the mission, if you’re a religious person yourself, you’ll find the rhetoric hard to swallow. But the book has one great virtue that is important for our purposes. It has the very best discussion in the literature of Socratic conversational technique that is strategically designed to get you close the center of a person’s belief network without triggering alarms.

It’s called Street Epistemology because it’s intended to serve as a practical guide to having productive and persuasive conversations on sensitive topics, with people on the street, outside the dojo. It emphasizes skill development, and that makes it a valuable resource for the Argument Ninja program.

There’s a great summary summary document on the Street Epistemology website that runs through the main principles and techniques, and I’ll link to it in the show notes. They also have a number of YouTube videos that show actual conversations where the techniques are being applied, and those are valuable to watch well.

They’ve also developed an app for mobile devices, called Atheos, that is basically the pocket version of the Street Epistemology guide. Development of the app was supported by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. I’ll link to it in the show notes.

Now, let me say a few words about how I would situate myself and the goals of the Argument Ninja program with respect to the goals of the Street Epistemology movement. Because there are some important differences.

The official position of the Argument Ninja program is that I don’t care what you believe when you join this program. My focus is on teaching people how to think, not telling you what to think.

However, learning how to think will inevitably have an impact on what you think. You can’t develop a rich background in logic and argumentation and moral reasoning and scientific reasoning and the psychology and sociology of belief and persuasion and NOT be changed that experience. I guarantee that it will change you.

But how any individual person will respond to this curriculum is unpredictable, and I don’t have an agenda about where it should lead. My goal is to help people become independent critical thinkers, that’s it.

So I’m committed to creating a learning environment that isn’t partisan in any obvious way. Just like in a martial arts class. You line up at the start of class in your uniforms, you start working on your exercises and techniques, and the focus is on the program, not what race or gender or nationality you are, or what political or religious group you may belong to. That’s the environment that I want to create.

But to implement that goal, I’ll end up using resources that are developed by people with more specific agendas, just because they’re really good resources. The Street Epistemology approach to Socratic conversation is an example.

Wrapping Up

Well, I think that about wraps it up for this episode. We covered a lot of ground, but the beauty of podcasts is that you can listen to them over again whenever you want. And I’ll remind you that there’s a full transcript of this podcast below the show notes over at argumentninja.com, so if you’re a reader that’s an option for you. I’ve got links to all the people and the sites I’ve mentioned.

I want to thank my new monthly supporters over at Patreon. I’ve added about 40 new Patrons over the past month, which I very much appreciate. I’m just under $1000 dollars a month on Patreon, and when I hit this goal I’ve promised to convert one of my paid courses at the Critical Thinker Academy into a free course, so please know that you’re helping to make these resources available to people who might otherwise not be able to afford access.

As well, anyone who pledges at a level of $3 per month or higher gets complete access to all of the video courses at the Critical Thinker Academy, AND your pledge reserves you a spot in the Argument Ninja Academy when it is finally launched.

So, if you’re not already a Patron, I hope you’ll take advantage of this opportunity.

Thanks again for listening, I hope you have a great week, and I’ll talk to you again soon.


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016 – White Belt Curriculum (Part 1)

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.”

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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:

  1. To improve the quality of our reasoning and decision-making.
  2. 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.

Wrapping Up

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.

This podcast does need support. I’m the only one on my team that doesn’t have a separate, full-time job. This is what I’m doing full-time, and until this program starts generating money, I’m relying on the support of listeners like you.

You can support the podcast, and the creation of the Argument Ninja Academy, and earn yourself a reserved seat in this program, by pledging a small monthly amount and becoming patron.  You can do this through Patreon, at patreon.com/kevindelaplaante. Or you can visit the support page at argumentninja.com. Oh, and if you become a monthly s support, you also get access to the entire video course library over at the the Critical Thinker Academy, at criticalthinkeracademy.com. That’s a huge deal.

You can also help to spread the word by leaving a rating and a review on iTunes, and by sharing links to podcast episodes, or the Critical Thinker Academy website, on your social media channels. If you’re on Facebook you can follow discussions at facebook.com/criticalthinkeracademy. I share links to the podcast episodes there as well.

Thanks for listening, I hope your week goes well, and I’ll see you next time.

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Episode 15 - The White Belt Experience

015 – The White Belt Experience

In this episode I explore learning and teaching techniques in the martial arts, from the perspective of the beginning student and from the perspective of the experienced instructor. I extract a number of important training principles from this exercise that I hope to incorporate in the Argument Ninja training program.

In This Episode:

  • Review: What is “Rational Persuasion”? (2:30)

  • Reminder: Our Children Are Watching (7:20)

  • The White Belt Experience (10:00)

  • Training for Skill Development: Analysis, Synthesis, Repetition, and Internalization (13:00)

  • Training for Combat: Objectives, Strategy and Tactics (17:30)

  • Training Through Time: Cumulative, Incremental Progress (25:15)

  • Training with Inspiration: “Beginner’s Mind” (30:30)

  • Summing Up (37:45)

  • The Instructional Design Challenge (39:00)

  • How Classroom Teachers Solve It (42:10)

  • The Value of a Belt Level System (44:00)

  • How You Can Support the Podcast and the Argument Ninja Program (46:25)

  • Book Me For a Speaking Gig (48:30)


“What’s it going to look like when we’ve raised an entire generation who has been taught that political citizenship isn’t about critically engaging with political ideas, but rather about finding a tribe that gives you a sense of belonging and identity, and adopting the officially sanctioned beliefs of that tribe? What’s it going to look like if our children have no appreciation of how propaganda and the influence industry have shaped their thinking, because they’ve never been shown how the psychology of influence works, or how it can undermine critical judgment, or even what critical judgment is supposed to look like?”

” There is a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the broader concept. It’s the master plan that creates the conditions for engagement and how the objective is to be realized. But the fight is ultimately won through a set of tactical moves that progressively lead you to your goal. Tactics are the means by which you implement a strategy.”

“[Rational persuasion is] not something you should expect to learn out of a book, even though books may be helpful. You can’t learn it out of a book for the very same reason that you can’t learn martial arts out of a book, or how to drive a car out of a book, or how to be a good teacher, or a good scientist, out of a book. These are things we do, we perform, and they require time and practice to learn.”

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 015.

Hello everyone. I am Kevin deLaplante and this is the first episode of the new year for the Argument Ninja podcast.

On this episode I’m going to return to the Argument Ninja training program that we’ve been talking about, on and off, over the course of the podcast.  I don’t know if I’ve emphasized this enough, but this is a big project, and it will require a team of people, with different areas of expertise, to make it a reality.

But a team needs direction and a plan to follow. So, in episodes like this one, what I’m trying to do is articulate a vision for how this thing should function, based on my understanding of what’s lacking in critical thinking education, and of what’s possible to achieve, if we put our mind to it and take advantage of the technologies we have available to us.

So, in this episode I’m going to start at the beginning, the white belt level, and talk about the challenges of learning and teaching a complex skill set like rational persuasion. If our goal is to learn the art and science of rational persuasion, what does it mean to begin this process? What are our goals at this early stage in the training, for the student and for the instructor? And how will these goals influence how the learning environment that I want to create should be built?

Our martial arts model is extremely helpful here, because even though we’re not talking about physical training for physical combat, in many ways the psychology is similar, and the objectives are similar. There’s a pedagogy, a philosophy of learning and teaching, that is built in to martial arts training, that I believe we can learn from, and take advantage of, in building the Argument Ninja training program.

So in this episode we’re going to talk about the white belt experience in martial arts, what teaching and learning principles we can extract from reflecting on this experience, and the challenge of teaching not just techniques, but also strategies for using those techniques in different contexts. And we’re going to talk about an important feature of the mindset of the best teachers and performers, the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind”, and how it relates to the study of rational persuasion and the ideals of critical thinking.

There’s lots to cover, I hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.

Review: What is “Rational Persuasion”?

First off, to help frame the discussion, let me take a moment to review exactly what it is that I’m trying to build here, and why I think it’s important.

The Argument Ninja program is, or will be, a unique approach to developing critical thinking, communication and persuasion skills.

What makes it unique is, as I’ve said, a focus on the art and science of what I’m calling “rational persuasion”.

Rational persuasion brings together what is usually treated as two distinct skill sets: rational argumentation, on the one hand, and persuasion, on the other.

Rational argumentation is about the principles of logic and good reasoning that provide a foundation for making judgments about the quality of arguments — is this argument good or bad, strong or weak? Does it succeed at providing good reasons to accept the conclusion? It includes basic argument literacy, and an understanding of what counts as good reasoning in different areas, like reasoning about generalizations, reasoning about causes, reasoning associated with confirming and falsifying hypotheses, and so on.

This discipline, rational argumentation, has roots going back 2500 years, and some of the smartest minds in history have dedicated time and attention to these questions. There is now a large body of material that has been distilled in a way that it can easily be taught to middle school students.  And yet, almost no one is every taught any of it in school. Outside of philosophy departments and certain branches of mathematics, computer science, linguistics and psychology, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

Persuasion, on the other hand, deals directly with human psychology, and the factors that influence how we form beliefs and make decisions. Persuasion science studies these factors within a range of scientific disciplines, mostly social psychology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. There’s also a long tradition of persuasion practice, which is encoded in disciplines like rhetoric, and in the practical experience of people who are in the “persuasion business”, for lack of a better term: salespeople, advertisers, marketers, lobbyists, politicians, social skills experts, magicians, con-artists, and so on.

Persuasion and rational argumentation have traditionally been seen as opposing forces, in many respects. Even though one of the goals of rational argumentation is persuasion, the focus is on persuasion for the right reasons, for genuinely good reasons, and not just persuasion for its own sake. And rational argumentation is fundamentally a conscious, deliberate activity. Conscious, deliberate reasoning plays a role in persuasion, but we now understand that most of the factors that determine how we actually form beliefs and make decisions, and how we respond to arguments and evidence, are unconscious factors — factors that operate below the surface of conscious awareness, and largely outside the scope of our conscious control.

What I’m calling “rational persuasion” is an approach that brings these two theoretical perspectives together, close enough for each side to influence and support the other.

They need each other because rational argumentation, on its own, is often ineffective at persuading people in real-world contexts. But persuasion, on its own, is indiscriminate in its goals, and has no moral compass. If your only goal is persuasion, then mind control methods that bypass conscious agency and treat other people as mere means to someone else’s ends, are just as good as persuasion techniques that respect the rational agency of other people.

When I talk about rational persuasion, I’m talking about persuasion that never loses sight of the goals of critical thinking, which are not about persuasion for its own sake. The goals of critical thinking are to improve the quality of our judgment and our reasoning, and to learn to think independently for ourselves, to claim greater ownership and responsibility for our beliefs and our decisions. Rational persuasion is persuasion that continues to aspire to these goals, even as it deploys methods that exploit what we know about the science and practice of persuasion. So, rational persuasion remains connected to the goals of critical thinking, and it has an ethical dimension, that ordinary persuasion lacks.

If you’ve been following the podcast, none of this will be new to you. But we need to remind ourselves of this bigger picture to understand why the training program that I’ll be outlining is built the way it is.

Reminder: Our Children Are Watching

Let’s not forget that we’re entering what could be the most politically turbulent period in modern history. We have a lot to lose if things go badly. And yet the quality of our public discourse is worse now than I’ve seen it in my lifetime.

The kinds of rhetorical moves that rational debate has historically treated as fallacies, examples of bad reasoning — attacking the person rather than the argument; knowingly misrepresenting the opposing position; changing the subject and avoiding the topic at hand; jumping to conclusions; making contradictory assertions; indulging in stereotyping and insults — these are now being treated as the new normal for political discourse. We’re becoming cynical about even the possibility of respectful, reasoned discussion across political lines.

And it’s worth reminding ourselves that our children are watching all of this, absorbing all of this. What are they learning?

What’s it going to look like when we’ve raised an entire generation who has been taught that political citizenship isn’t about critically engaging with political ideas, but rather about finding a tribe that gives you a sense of belonging and identity, and adopting the officially sanctioned beliefs of that tribe?

What’s it going to look like if our children have no appreciation of how propaganda and the influence industry have shaped their thinking, because they’ve never been shown how the psychology of influence works, or how it can undermine critical judgment, or even what critical judgment is supposed to look like?

People talk about education as a solution to these problems, but public education was never designed to address the kind of breakdown of public discourse that we’re witnessing. That is not the way forward.

My proposal is that we take this issue into our hands, and work to create institutions and learning resources that are designed to address this problem, that can be scaled and made available to the masses, not just economic elites.

What I’m trying to do here, on this podcast, is outline a proposal for such an institution. An online learning environment that is designed to teach the background knowledge and the skills that enable independent critical thought, and the ability to engage constructively and persuasively with real people in the real world.

Anyway, this is all just a reminder of what this project is about. My martial arts model is just that, a model, one of many that could be used to organize and structure a learning environment.

But I think it’s a powerful model, and in the rest of this episode I’m going to try to explain a little further why I think it’s a powerful model.

The White Belt Experience

Let’s start with this idea of the “white belt” experience and white belt training.

Before I talk about white belt training in the Argument Ninja program, l want to talk about white belt training in the martial arts, and see what we can learn about how one can approach the teaching of a complex skill.

White belt training in the martial arts differs from style to style, of course. Judo is different from jiu-jitsu, jiu-jitsu is different from taekwondo, taekwondo is different from muay thai, and so on. But there’s also a lot of commonality in the beginner’s experience, and in the approach to training.

The first thing you learn, for example, is that the training hall is a special place, and there are expectations about how you behave in that space.  In an earlier podcast I called this a “ritualized” space. You learn to respect the dojo and how to show respect to your instructors and your fellow students.

In a class there’s always some kind of structured warmup routine. This is to help prepare the body for physical activity, but it’s also used to focus attention on the training to come, so that by the end of the warmup, your mind is on the task at hand rather than the text message you received before starting.

When the class begins, you usually start with reviewing and practicing basic techniques. In taekwondo you might start with horse stance/ middle-punch, and then work through your basic blocks and strikes and kicks.

In jiu-jitsu you might start with break falls, forward rolls, backward rolls, stand-to-base, sprawling, shrimping, and then practice some basic techniques with a partner: bridging, hip escapes, side control escapes, scissor sweeps, and so on. My son tells me that in his jiu-jitsu class they tend to move right into drills with a partner, but I know some programs that always start with basic skills, like doing scales in a music class.

After the warmup and practice review is over, the instructor usually has some plan for the remainder of the class, either to introduce a new technique or focus on a particular skill set.

In taekwondo we would usually alternate between days where we worked on techniques and days where we worked on forms, or katas, as they’re called in the Japanese traditions. Some days we’d focus on stylized sparring. Some days we’d do free sparring with protective gear.

In jiu-jitsu the instructor might demonstrate a new technique and then you’d break off and practice it. Sometimes this takes the form of controlled grappling, where you alternate roles with your partner. And some days you might do true free sparring, but when this is introduced to white belts varies widely across jiu-jitsu schools.

So, that’s what a basic martial arts class looks like. And of course it’ll look different if you’re training in a traditional martial art or training in a system that puts more emphasis on real-world self-defense techniques.

Now I want to talk about some of the thinking that goes into planning a class, or a sequence of classes, from the instructor’s perspective, someone who has a longer perspective on where the instruction is leading and what they’re trying to achieve, beyond the white belt.

Training for Skill Development: Analysis, Synthesis, Repetition, and Internalization

For example, a very common instructor technique is to move back and forth between analysis of a technique —  breaking it down into simpler steps or components — and synthesis — showing how the components come together to form one fluid movement.

So, for a basic front snap kick, for example, you get into a particular stance, like a fighting stance (step one), and then you raise the knee and chamber the leg (step two), you extend the lower leg, and present the right striking area on the foot (step three), then you retract the lower leg with the knee still up (step four), and then recover into an appropriate stance (step five).

That’s analysis, breaking the movement down into component parts. If you’re just starting out, you need to think about each of these parts of the movement, and you might do drills where you focus on the execution of each of the parts. You might do it in slow motion, or on a beat, so each of the parts gets some attention.

And then you work on speeding it up, and thinking about the transitions between each stage of the movement, so that the resulting movement has speed and focus and power. That’s synthesis, bringing the parts together to form a unified whole.

I want to highlight that this is a basic teaching technique — repeating cycles of analysis and synthesis. Break a movement down into its component parts, understand the parts, and then understand how the parts interact to create the desired movement.

And then you repeat this process.

Repetition is important because what you ultimately want is for the student to internalize the movement as a whole, as a kind of body memory, so they don’t have to think about the component parts, they just execute the movement.

So, analysis, synthesis, and repetition. This is a technique for learning any complex skill, not just martial arts.

This is how you learn how to swing a tennis racket, drive a golf ball, kick a field goal or swim the front crawl.

And this technique doesn’t just apply to learning basic movements. It scales.

For example, the first form you learn in taekwondo is called kicho il bo. It’s a sequence of 20 steps, performed in an I-shaped pattern, that includes all the techniques of walking, turning, blocking and punching that white belts need to know.

To learn this form, it’s the same process: analysis, synthesis, and repetition. With enough repetition you can do the form without consciously thinking about the individual steps. It becomes internalized, the same way that your fingers know where to go when you’re typing on a keyboard. When I type a sentence I don’t have to think about where the letters are, my fingers just know where to go.

When you’re free sparring, the goal is more challenging, but the process is similar. You want to get to a point where you can assemble sequences of moves that advance your position, that are responsive to the combat situation and what your opponent is doing, without consciously thinking about them.

It can take a lot of time and practice to get there, but the training process is similar. Your instructor will help you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a position, identify your best options from that position, and give you opportunities to practice executing those options. Do this enough times, and you start to see how the sequence of moves will go even before it begins, and your body will learn how to execute those moves without thinking about each individual step in the sequence.

This last part, the part about internalizing the skill set, is easy to overlook, but it’s very important, because it’s what we’re ultimately going for if we’re thinking in terms of skill development, and not just knowledge transfer.

That’s why I think of this training method in terms of four components: analysis, synthesis, repetition, and internalization. We’re not practicing just for the sake of practicing; we’re practicing to learn a skill that will eventually become an extension of our will, how we engage with the world in a real-time basis.

If I have to consciously think through every movement in advance I’ll never win a sparring match, and I’ll never be able to defend myself in a real world situation.

If a tennis player has to think through every stroke she’ll never win a tennis match.

What we’re going for isn’t just theoretical knowledge — we’re trying to develop a capacity for intelligent, skilled action.

This is a model of teaching and learning that I think we need to apply more often to teaching skills that have a conceptual component, like argumentation and persuasion.

Training for Combat: Objectives, Strategy and Tactics

Now, another set of skills that you need to learn in martial arts is strategy and tactics, and it’s another reason why martial arts is a useful model for rational persuasion. Strategy and tactics are a fundamental part of rational persuasion, but they rarely get any attention when you’re learning this material in a strictly academic context.

Strategy and tactics are defined in relation to the objectives you’re aiming for. These objectives are stipulated in ritualized combat or ritualized game play. Both sides are trying to win and avoid losing, and both sides understand how that occurs. In a sport martial arts tournament there’s a point system associated with successful moves and techniques. In a sport like football there’s a scoring system. In chess there’s the draw and there’s checkmate.

In real self-defense situations, or in real world combat situations, the objectives aren’t always so clear, because actions don’t unfold in a ritualized space according to rules that everyone agrees to follow. When injury and death are a real possibility, you need to choose your objectives carefully. We’re going to come back to this when we talk about strategy in rational persuasion.

When your objective is clear, then you can think about a strategy for realizing that objective.

Now, there is a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the broader concept. It’s the master plan that creates the conditions for engagement and how the objective is to be realized. But the fight is ultimately won through a set of tactical moves that progressively lead you to your goal. Tactics are the means by which you implement a strategy.

So, if we’re talking about a taekwondo tournament, the objective is clear — you want to win your match. Strategy is something you can plan ahead of time, based on your knowledge of your own skill set and the skills of your opponent, if you know them. If you know that your opponent prefers kicks to hand techniques, and if he tends to kick high, you can use that information to plan a strategy against him. He may be vulnerable to a move that closes the distance quickly after a kick. There may be more than one way to take advantage of a weakness. Your choice of technique, how you actually exploit the weakness, is a matter of tactics, not of strategy.

If you’re rolling in jiu-jitsu, strategy and tactics are everything. For example, just like in chess, where the pieces have point values and different positions on the board have different degrees of advantage, in jiu-jitsu there’s a hierarchy of positions that you can rank order in terms of most advantageous to least advantageous.

When your opponent is rear mounted on you with hooks in and you are face down on the ground, that’s about the worst position you can possibly be in. All of your weapons and defence are pointed away from your opponent, you can’t see what she is doing and her weight is on you. That’s her most advantageous position.

Next best, for her, is if she’s in mount and you’re facing up. After that, next best is knee on your belly, then side control, then half mount, and so on.

So, one element of strategic awareness that a beginning jiu-jitsu student needs to learn is this positional hierarchy, why a particular position is more or less advantageous than another, and that you can improve your position in the match by moving upwards to the next favorable position in the hierarchy.

At any point during a match we should be able to freeze the action and the white belt, should be able to identify which position the combatants are currently in AND see where each must move in order to attain a more favorable position.

With that understanding, you now have a strategy to not only survive but also to escape, advance your position and attempt to gain a dominant position over your opponent step by step. Now, how you go about doing this is a matter of tactics and technique, but the basic idea of moving up the ladder to improve your position is part of strategy.

I’ll give another example to illustrate the difference between objectives, strategy and tactics. Consider a serious, life or death self-defense situation where a weapon is involved. Your objective may be to survive the encounter unharmed, and running might be an effective strategy to do that. But if you’re with a partner or your children, that might not be an option for you because you’re not going to leave them at risk.

So, if you’re in imminent danger and you can’t avoid hands on, here’s a possible strategy. First priority, neutralize the threat, in this case the opponent’s weapon hand. Second, attack a vital target, like the eyes, the throat or the groin. Third, ensure the opponent can’t continue fighting by taking his foundation. I’m not saying this is the best strategy, since context is everything, it’s just an example of a strategy.

Now, note that nothing has been specified about how you’re going to neutralize the threat, attack a vital target, or take the foundation. These are elements of tactics, and there may be more than one technique that will do the job, so it leaves open options to choose from.

So for example, you might trap the opponents’ weapon hand, strike his eyes with your fingers, and dislocate his knee with a kick, in that order. Those are tactics you might use to execute this strategy.

And notice how you need both strategy and tactics in order to succeed. A fighter who develops good strategy but can’t execute it tactically isn’t likely to succeed. And good tactics won’t save you if your strategy is ill-conceived.

So, just to sum up, training in the martial arts involves not just learning how to execute techniques. It also involves thinking about your objectives, how to devise a strategy for realizing your objectives, and how to deploy tactics for implementing your strategy.

These concepts form another hierarchy: objectives, strategy, tactics.

I think this is also a very useful model for training in the art of rational persuasion. It’s not just about techniques. You also need to think carefully about what your objectives are, when you’re going to engage with someone. What are you really trying to achieve? Once you’re clear on that, then you can think about a strategy for achieving those objectives, and tactics for implementing the strategy.

In martial arts training, you start learning these elements from the very beginning, because it frames the whole context of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

In my rational persuasion program, I would want these elements to be introduced from the very beginning as well. Especially this part about getting clear on your objectives, because a great deal of failure in this area, a great deal of unsuccessful persuasion, stems from a combination of confusion about your own objectives, and ignorance about what objectives are realistic to pursue, in the context at hand.

For example, if my objective is to get someone to admit they’re wrong about a position that is important to them, over the course of a single coffee conversation, that may not be a realistic objective, given some very basic facts of human psychology.

But if my objective is to plant the seed of an idea, that might grow over time, and eventually result in a change in their position, that might be a more realistic objective. And my strategy for how I approach the conversation will be very different if this is my objective, rather than trying to force a change of heart in a single meeting.

That’s all I’m going to say about strategy right now, but just a heads up — next episode of the podcast will be devoted to this question of objectives, strategy and tactics in rational persuasion, so keep an eye out for that.

Training Through Time: Cumulative, Incremental Progress

Another training principle I want to talk about has to do with the role that cumulative, incremental progress plays in the education of a martial artist, and in the learning of any complex skill set.

Training in martial arts is cumulative in that the skills and concepts that are introduced at one stage continue to be relevant and used at later stages. Your white belt skills are used in yellow belt training, your yellow belt skills are used in orange belt training, and so on, all the way up. At no point are you allowed to forget how to do a move that you’ve learned. And you’re required to regularly practice and review every skill that you’ve acquired.

This practice of cumulative training makes it possible to learn very complex concepts and skills that can be expressed in intelligent action, in performance. It’s very different from the training one might receive, for example, at a one-day seminar, or a workshop, where you’re given a lot of information and maybe some opportunity for group discussion and exercises, but it’s not enough to convert any of it to a skill. Seminars and workshops can open your eyes to new ideas and new possibilities, and they can set you on a path that might eventually result in real learning, but they’re not a substitute for the kind of learning that results in new skills.

Another feature of cumulative training is that it allows complex skills to be learned in an incremental fashion, one component at a time. You break down the skill into component parts, learn the first component, practice the first component, then learn the second component, learn how it relates to the first component, and so on. Then at some point you learn a skill that combines these components, and that becomes its own skill, a modular unit. And as the process continues, you create other modular skill units, and then you learn to assemble those into more complex skills, and so on.

This is the process of analysis and synthesis that I talked about, but extended over time.

The secret of cumulative, incremental training like this is that you can distribute the learning process for a high-level skill over months, and even years.

Imagine a complex skill like a slinky, all coiled up. That’s the final skill, and each of the coils is a skill component that contributes to it. Now you can extend the slinky, hold it by one end and let it uncoil to the ground. The final skill requires all of these components working together, but it’s way too complex to learn all at once.

So what you do is extend the slinky along the ground, horizontally. And imagine that the slinky is extended over time. The learning process begins at one end, with your white belt skill elements, and as you learn new skill components, you’re moving along the spiral, engaging in repeated cycles of analysis, synthesis, repetition, and internalization.

What beginners often don’t realize is that the training they’re doing, even though it has short-term goals, like learning the basic white belt techniques, is also laying the foundation for learning more complex techniques that they will only come to fruition much further down the line.

This is obscure to the beginner, because they’re not yet in a position to see exactly where the training is headed, or the rationale for the ordering of the steps. But they can see how more advanced students perform, so they don’t have to take the wisdom of the training process purely on faith, they can see the results. That’s very helpful.

And like I said, this isn’t particular to martial arts training. This is how most complex skill sets are learned, especially if there is a performance element to it, where the skill is expressed in controlled action, intelligent behavior.

All of this is very obvious if you’re in the business of teaching and learning these kinds of skills. Martial arts, dance, music, sports, painting, acting … these all involve complex skills that are expressed in behavior, in performance, and that take a great deal of repetition and practice to master.

The suggestion that I want to put forward, and that I’m going to explore further, is that we should think of rational persuasion as a complex skill set that is expressed in performance, like martial arts, and like these other examples … and that therefore requires the same kind of cumulative, incremental training to properly develop.

It’s not something you should expect to learn out of a book, even though books may be helpful. You can’t learn it out of a book for the very same reason that you can’t learn martial arts out of a book, or how to drive a car out of a book, or how to be a good teacher, or a good scientist, out of a book. These are things we do, we perform, and they require time and practice to learn.

Training with Inspiration: “Beginner’s Mind”

There’s one more concept that I want to talk about that is very important when we’re considering what the early stages of training is like, and one of the biggest challenges of the beginner’s experience.

It’s about establishing the right mindset for success in this kind of environment, where the learning curve is long and requires discipline to sustain. It can take a long time to get from one end of the slinky to the other.

I’ve talked about this in other episodes, but one of the biggest obstacles to advancing in the martial arts is fear that is attached to the ego and one’s self-image. If you have an image of yourself as strong and tough and able to handle yourself (maybe you’ve been studying some other martial art for many years) and you start a discipline like jiu-jitsu, you’re going to quickly learn that all your strength and toughness won’t prevent a smaller and weaker person from submitting you, over and over again, and you will be powerless to stop it.

To carry on and advance, you need to come to terms with your status as a beginner, as someone who still has a lot to learn, and who wants to continue to learn.

Now, as a beginning while belt it’s fairly easy to come to terms with this, because it’s all so new.

The challenge is that as you get better, as you advance in the discipline, the temptation to view yourself as skilled and accomplished, as no longer a beginner, becomes much stronger. If you can dominate lower ranked students in grappling, that can feed your ego, make you feel skilled and powerful.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about your abilities, but if your ego is in the driver’s seat too much, it almost always becomes an obstacle. It can make it much harder to progress beyond a certain point.

I’ve seen this many times with students in academia, usually smart undergraduate students who are better writers and better arguers than their classmates, so that it’s obvious to everyone that they’re among the best students.

Among this group of smart students, there are always a few who are extraordinarily confident about a particular set of views that they’ve brought with them to the class. And that confidence can end up being an obstacle for them, because they struggle when they’re exposed to material that requires them to think in a new way about these issues.

In the Buddhist traditions, and the martial arts that have been influenced by Buddhism, there’s this concept of “shoshin”, or “beginner’s mind”. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

This phrase is used in the title of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who says the following about the correct approach to Zen practice: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.

In my experience, the best teachers, and the most accomplished performers, have this quality of beginner’s mind. No matter how advanced they are, they always have this feeling of being a beginner, because their vision of what is possible always remains far ahead of their actual ability, so they continue to see new ways of doing things that haven’t been explored yet.

I remember watching the Academy awards when I was younger and Akira Kurowasa, the great Japanese filmmaker, was receiving a lifetime achievement award, and he said something in his speech that struck me.

So I looked it up on YouTube to refresh my memory. It was 1990. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came out and did the introduction together. Spielberg called Kurosawa “our greatest living filmmaker” and “one of the few true visionaries ever to work in our medium”.

So 80 year Kurosawa walks up to the podium, and he says this, through a translator:

I am very deeply honored to receive such a wonderful prize. But I have to ask whether I really deserve it. I’m a little worried. Because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvelous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very very difficult. What I promise you is that from now on I will work as hard as I can at making movies, and maybe by following this path I will achieve an understanding of the true essence of cinema.

I remember watching this and admiring the attitude that Kurosawa displayed here. Profound humility in the midst of praise. Now I see that this kind of humility isn’t an accidental feature of his greatness, it’s a key to understanding his greatness, and the greatness of so many others who are true pioneers in their fields.

Notice what it is Kurosawa says he’s pursuing. Not to make popular films or critically praised films. He wants to understand the essence of cinema, as an art form. It’s an abstraction, almost a philosophical ideal.

Ask Einstein or Stephen Hawking what it is that they were pursuing when they were working days and nights for years, doing their original work in physics. Not recognition from their colleagues, not a Nobel Prize. They wanted to understand, as they might say, the mind of God. Not the personal God of theism, neither of them are theists — they’re talking about the intelligible order of the universe, the principles upon which the laws of the nature are founded. And every great physicist, from Newton and Einstein to Hawking and beyond, has expressed this feeling of humility in the face of this goal, of having only scratched the surface of the kind of understanding that they’re actually seeking.

In martial arts you often see this same attitude in the founders and leaders of schools, and I’ve given some examples of this in past episodes.

Part of this attitude is a belief in an ideal that is intrinsically motivating, that drives one to pursue it, yet is unattainable. You may strive for perfection in a certain area, but you’re never going to be perfect, and you know that — but you pursue it anyway.

Within any practice there’s room for different kinds of ideals. Kurosawa’s vision of the essence of cinema may be different from Martin Scorsese’s. But these visions play a similar role in their practice. It helps them to maintain a state of openness, a beginner’s mind, and it compels them to keep making better and better movies.

The practice of rational persuasion, as I envision it, has a set of philosophical and ethical ideals at its core, that can play a similar role for those who resonate with them.

For me, these ideals are centered on the concept of what it means for human beings  — with our biology and our psychology and our social nature — to also be independent critical thinkers with a capacity for reason and reflection.

It’s this complementary duality that makes us unique on this planet, a species capable of great dreams and great accomplishments, able to unlock nature’s secrets from this tiny corner of the universe — but also capable of profound cruelty and evil.

The struggle to understand this duality, and to find ways to nurture and empower our positive capacities, is what drives me, and what can bring me back to a state of “beginner’s mind” if I just dwell on it a bit.

For you it might be something different, some other ideal that motivates you. That’s okay.

That’s the thing that will push you all the way down the slinky.

Summing Up

Let me sum up the key points from this discussion so far.

What we’ve really been looking at is a model for how complex skills sets can be taught and learned.

The first principle we looked at is a learning principle that can be applied to just about any complex skill. It’s the four-step sequence that I called “analysis”, “synthesis”, “repetition” and “internalization”.

The second principle applies to skill sets that have a strategy component. Define your objectives, develop a strategy for achieving those objectives, and then choose a set of tactics for implementing your strategy. You need to teach these performance elements as well, not just techniques.

The third principle is about the value of cumulative, incremental learning. You need this when you’re dealing with skill development of any real difficulty. If knowledge transfer is your primary goal, you can achieve this fairly quickly. If expressing that knowledge through a skilled activity is your goal, that always takes longer to learn.

The fourth principle is about the importance of having core values or ideals that motivate the learning process, and that can keep you open and looking for new ideas and new ways of thinking, no matter how advanced or skilled you are. That’s the idea of “beginner’s mind”, which is something I see in the best teachers, and the top performers, in many fields.

The Instructional Design Challenge

So the question for me, in designing the Argument Ninja training program, is how do I develop a learning environment that incorporates these principles? Thinking about how martial arts programs have solved this problem is, I think, a useful heuristic, but the skill set that I want to teach, rational persuasion, is it’s own thing; it has similarities to traditional martial arts but it also has important differences.

One big difference is that there’s a significant knowledge component in rational persuasion that doesn’t have any obvious counterpart in martial arts.

At some point, for example, students needs to be introduced to dual process theories of reasoning, which are sometimes called system 1 vs system 2 reasoning, or type 1 vs type 2, or “fast” vs “slow” thinking. And there are superficial versions of this that you can teach, and there are deeper and more realistic versions you can teach, and for some purposes you may want to go a little deeper to really understand why, for example, a persuasion technique works in some situations but not in others.

And that’s just an example. There are lots of knowledge components like this that don’t have any counterpart in a physically oriented skill-based discipline like martial arts.

Another difference (well, it’s not really a difference …) is that, as I’ve argued in an earlier episode, what’s required for skill in rational persuasion is something closer to mixed martial arts. This is because there are different approaches to persuasion and argumentation that may be useful in some contexts but not in others, just as there are styles of martial arts that are more useful in some contexts than in others. So you need to train in different styles to become a good all-around fighter, or a good all-around persuader.

And, for each of these approaches to rational persuasion, there’s a knowledge component, or a conceptual component, that goes along with it. If I’m going to teach you how to use Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence, we need to go through them first, and the student needs to put in some effort to understand them.

If I’m going to teach you how to use Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations theory to make your moral arguments more persuasive, you need to be introduced to moral foundations theory.

If I’m going to teach you how to use Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion, you need to learn about Socratic methods.

If I’m going to teach you how to construct good counter-examples to an argument, you need to understand the basics of argument analysis first.

So the challenge is how to handle all these learning and skill components so that they don’t multiply out of control and it all becomes a confusing mess. How do you keep the learning experience organized and under control, so the student, at any given time, has just enough information to be useful without being overwhelming, and just enough manageable tasks to complete and skills to practice and review, so that the experience is challenging, but the student is also getting positive feedback and has a feeling of accomplishment and mastery?

That is the instructional design challenge, not just for me, but for any teaching situation that involves a lot of content and a lot of skill requirements.

How Classroom Teachers Solve It

Classroom teachers solve this problem in a very hands-on way, because they’ve got a curriculum to cover, classroom time to break the content down into manageable chunks that are delivered several times a week over a span of several months, and they have assignments and tests, which they can administer along the way at any time of their choosing.

But I don’t have this option. What we’re imagining for the Argument Ninja program is an online environment that could be managing thousands of students, tens of thousands of students, at once. The instructional design problem has to be solved in the organization of the online experience, and the constraints that are imposed on that experience.

Classroom teachers also have another tool for managing long-term skill development — the grade level system. From primary school to high school, grade levels are tied to the student’s age, but their main advantage is that they let you manage the teaching of complex skill sets over an extended period of time. They let you stretch the slinky across years, not just weeks or months.

In adult education the grade levels are no longer tied to age groups, so in college and university you can have 18 year olds and 80 year olds in your freshman psychology class. But sorting students into grade levels serves the same function. It’s a tool for controlling the flow of information and the pace of skill development to a rate that makes it manageable to teach large numbers of students at the same time. At any given time, the people in your learning community — the peers in your class, or your grade level — are roughly at the same level.

I say “roughly” of course because there will always be more advanced and less advanced students in the same grade level. Students come to these classes with a wide range of aptitudes and background knowledge.

But you won’t have first year students in the same class as advanced graduate students. It keeps the variation within bounds.

The Value of a Belt Level System

Now, this way of managing complex skill development also applies to martial arts. Belt ranks in martial arts are roughly equivalent to grade levels. But the students aren’t as isolated by belt rank as they are by grade levels in school. If a martial arts school is small the classes can look like the old single-room schoolhouses where you’d have one row of desks for each grade level, and the teacher would assign different work for each row. But in those old school houses you would also see older students helping younger students with their work, and this is one of the nice things you see in martial arts studios too — higher belt ranks helping lower belt ranks. Which is really great when you see it.

However, if a martial arts school gets really big, and you’ve got 50 white and yellow belts showing up, they usually split the classes into lower belt and upper belt classes. You need to do this to ensure that everyone gets enough of the right kind of attention. If you’ve got 50 white and yellow belts and five blue belts, the blue belts are going to get the short end of the stick.

So a certain degree of grouping makes sense. And the belt levels themselves make sense, with the requirement that you need to demonstrate a certain level of familiarity and competency within your belt level requirements before moving on to new skills.

Some kind of level system makes even more sense, I believe, in the online learning environment that we’re talking about, for the Argument Ninja program. It’s a tool that can be used to organize a curriculum and manage the instructional design challenge.

Consulting Instructional Design Experts

But at this point I would want to consult with online learning and instructional design experts, to get their feedback, because it’s not like this is a new problem. There are people who job it is to solve these kinds of problems for organizations. Experts on gamification in online learning, for example, will certainly have advice to give. So the mechanics of how all this should go is still very much an open question for me.

Okay, well I think that about covers the topics I wanted to cover on this episode.

Next episode, like I said, will be devoted to persuasion methods and strategies. I want to show you some examples of how theory and practice intersect, and why it’s important for strategic purposes to have multiple models of persuasion in your mental repertoire.

How You Can Support the Podcast and the Argument Ninja Program

I’d like to remind listeners that I’m pursuing this without the support of a salaried job. I quit my salaried job to work on projects like this full time. I earn some money from the Critical Thinker Academy and from patrons who have pledged a small monthly amount to help support the work, but this is a project that needs more support to become a reality.

So I ask you, if you’re not already a patron:  Are you concerned about the quality of the public discussions that we’re having right now? Would you take advantage of a resource like the Argument Ninja program, if it was available? Would you want your kids to take advantage of it?

If your answer is yes, then pledging as little as $3 a month on Patreon, or at any of my support pages, is an easy thing that you can do to ensure that this project becomes a reality.

I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to continue to develop and share these ideas. But I can’t make them a reality without your help. With enough support, from people like you, we can create something special, something unique, that might have a chance of making a real difference.

If you’re familiar with Patreon, you can find my Patreon support page at patreon.com/kevindelaplante.

You can also visit the support page at argumentninja.com/support.

At both places you’ll find options to pledge as low as $3 dollars a month, or as high as $25, $50 dollars, or even $100 dollars a month. And yes, I do have patrons who pledge at these higher levels.

At any pledge level of $3 or above you get access to all of the 20+ hours of video content over at the Critical Thinker Academy, but if you’re a person of financial means, and you care about these issues and want to make a real difference with your contribution, I can tell you that these higher pledges are very significant, they make a real difference. They open up possibilities, they accelerate development, and they inspire other people to pledge at higher levels as well.

Final Note: I’m Booking My Speaking Schedule

Before I go, I want to make another pitch. There are people who listen to this podcast who see the importance of these issues, and who have connections to business and government entities.

Just this past week I was approached by a representative of the National Conference of State Legislatures to see if I would be willing to run a one hour session on critical thinking at the next Legislative Summit meeting in Boston this coming summer. This is an annual four-day meeting where United States legislators and legislative staff come together to work on the nation’s pressing issues, share experiences and influence federal policy.

Last year the summit had over 20 speakers, which included a number of high profile business and media leaders, including Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation, and Ted Koppel, the former anchor and managing editor of Nightline on ABC.

Obviously I said yes. This is a big opportunity to share these ideas with an influential audience. And six months into the Trump Presidency I’m sure there’ll be a renewed interest in some of these topics.

But my pitch is to those of you listening who may be looking for speakers for events at your business or organization. I’ll just raise my hand and say that I’m available, and I’m booking my speaking schedule for the next twelve months. I’ve spoken in the past to a number of organizations about cognitive biases and critical thinking, but I’m happy to talk about critical thinking more broadly, or specifically about the art and science of persuasion.

So think about it, and if you’d like to chat about a speaking opportunity you can reach me by email at kevin @ criticalthinkeracademy.com.

Read More

Curiosity and Critical Thinking

014 – Why CURIOSITY is a Valuable Resource for Critical Thinking

On this episode I talk about the various ways that curiosity is an undervalued resource for critical thinking.

I explain how curiosity plays an important role in generating the kind of background knowledge that supports critical thinking, and why it has important and underrated debiasing properties, meaning that it can reduce many of the harmful effects of cognitive biases on our thinking.

I’m also going to talk about my personal relationship to curiosity, and how it has influenced many of the decisions I’ve made in my career.

In This Episode:

  • Knowledge is not compartmentalized (3:40)
  • Curiosity is a resource for generating relevant and lasting background knowledge that supports critical thinking (5:30)
  • “Situational” curiosity vs “trait” curiosity (9:30)
  • Some people are naturally more curious than others, but curiosity can be cultivated (11:25)
  • “Partisan interest” vs genuine curiosity (14:50)
  • Genuine curiosity is a debiasing agent (16:40)
  • High partisan interest, low curiosity (18:15)
  • My personal relationship to curiosity (20:15)
  • Why I was never a “true” Academic (23:00)
  • Low partisan interest, high curiosity (26:15)
  • My reaction to Trump’s win (27:30)
  • Why I have no ideological or political agenda (29:30)
  • The one agenda I do have (31:40)
  • What is possible with crowdfunding (34:30)


“Our capacity for understanding and insight is a direct function of the structure of the interconnected web of knowledge that we carry around with us, and our ability to access and navigate and manipulate the information contained in this web.”

“Curiosity isn’t just a resource for acquiring knowledge that supports critical thinking. It also has powerful debiasing effects, and in that respect it’s a tool for overcoming the distorting effects of many cognitive biases.”

“A friend of mine once told me that, for someone who is as interested in politics as much as I am, it’s surprising how little I care about politics. I think this is an apt description, and with the distinction we’ve just drawn [between “partisan interest” and genuine curiosity] I think I understand it better.”

References and Links

  • The Support page for the Argument Ninja podcast (where you can become a Sustaining Member and lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
  • My Patreon support page (where you can lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
  • The Critical Thinker Academy
  • Julia Galef’s TED talk on “soldier” vs “scout” mindsets is a variant on the distinction I draw in the podcast on inquiry driven by partisan interest vs inquiry driven by curiosity. Worth a watch:

Subscribe to the Podcast

Play or download the mp3 file for this episode


This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 014.

Hi everyone. I am Kevin deLaplante, and I’m recording this on Monday, Dec 19, 2016. Six days before Christmas. It’s bitterly cold outside, here in Ottawa, Canada. But it’s cozy here at home. One of the benefits of working from home, you don’t have to brave the cold weather and traffic to get to work.

On this episode I’m going talk about the various ways that curiosity — genuine curiosity — is an undervalued resource for critical thinking. I’ll try to explain how curiosity plays an important role in generating the kind of background knowledge that supports critical thinking, and why it has important and underrated debiasing properties, meaning that it can reduce many of the harmful effects of cognitive biases on our thinking.

I’m also going to talk about my personal relationship to curiosity, and how it has influenced many of the decisions I’ve made in my career.

Now, if you’re just coming off of episode 013, this isn’t exactly the topic I advertised. These things change. Sometimes I go with what I’m currently thinking about, and right now, seeing how polarized the political climate is, I’ve been thinking about how different things would be if more people were, not just interest, but genuinely curious about how the other side thinks.

And I said I would give a business update too, but that’s not going to happen either, I’m going to save that for the next episode. The business situation is in so much flux right now, I don’t want to announce anything that won’t still be true a week after the episode airs, so please bear with me on that.

If this is your first time catching this show, you should know that I run a video tutorial site called the Critical Thinker Academy, which you can find at criticalthinkeracademy.com. It has over 20 hours of video content on a wide range of content related to critical thinking, logic and argumentation, fallacies, cognitive biases, and more.

I’ve been running this site for a number of years, under a number of different business models, but my goal for the past while is to attract what I’m calling Sustaining Members.

Sustaining Members are fans of my work who are willing to pledge a small amount of money on a recurring monthly basis to help me pay my bills and turn what I’m doing into a sustainable business that will let me devote all of my energies to creating new content and develop new projects, like the Argument Ninja Academy program that I’ve been talking about over the past few episodes.

If you’re familiar with Patreon, a Sustaining Membership is like becoming a Patron, and I do have a Patreon page where you can sign up if that’s your preference. It’s at patreon.com/kevindelaplante.

What I’ve been offering for the past couple of months is a deal where, if you pledge as little as $3 a month, either through the signup forms at the Academy, or on Patreon, you get full access to all of the content at the Critical Thinker Academy, including any new video courses I make, for as long as you maintain your subscription. On top of that, I’m offering an early reserved seat in the Argument Ninja training program, locked-in at the same monthly rate.

If you’re interested in that, you can visit criticalthinkeracademy.com or argumentninja.com to learn more.

The Importance of Background Knowledge

Okay, let’s get to our main topic for this episode.

We know that critical thinking depends crucially on background knowledge. You have to know something about your subject matter to make good critical judgments about that subject.

But knowledge, relevant knowledge, is not compartmentalized in the way that it may seem when you’re in school, and you’re forced to study science separate from math and separate from history and separate from social studies.

There may be good reasons to separate subjects like this for teaching purposes, especially teaching large numbers of students all at once.

But applied knowledge, the kind you need to think clearly and effectively about complex problems or new situations, doesn’t respect these boundaries. And you shouldn’t either.

Knowledge doesn’t come in the form of unconnected facts. It comes in the form of interconnected links. It’s a network that grows and evolves and becomes more structured and articulated over time.

In episodes 9 and 10 I talked about argument matrices as a model for knowledge, a certain kind of knowledge that is important for critical thinking. But the broader concept is this more generic notion of a web or matrix of connections.

Our capacity for understanding and insight is a direct function of the structure of the interconnected web of knowledge that we carry around with us, and our ability to access and navigate and manipulate the information contained in this web, and have it inform our judgments and decisions.

Some of this can be externalized. Google is very good for this. Books can be very good for this. But the limiting factor in your ability to apply knowledge in effective and creative ways is always going to be you and the structure of your personal knowledge web.

So you need to find ways of developing and expanding this web.

Curiosity and Background Knowledge

I don’t know of any way to force this process. The only mechanism I know that reliably works to build a knowledge web that is structured to support critical thinking, is curiosity and self-directed learning that is aimed at satisfying curiosity.

This process, of tapping into what you’re really curious about, what really interests you, and initiating some kind of investigation that is motivated, at least in part, by curiosity, and that gradually starts to satisfy your curiosity —  this is, for me, one of the most intrinsically satisfying experiences that human beings are capable of.

And if you allow yourself to branch off and follow digressions, because you’re curious about them, that’s good. That’s how connections are made, that’s how you grow the web.

The key here is that this web of knowledge, when it’s constructed this way, is both more highly articulated and much more accessible to you, when a situation presents itself and you need to call upon it. When you are the author of the links in this web, they’re more deeply internalized, they become a part of your representational system. They persist long after other facts you’ve been forced to learn have faded from memory.

There’s a famous study that bears on this, though I can’t remember the source unfortunately. It shows how unstable rote learning can be.

Students are taking a high school English class and they have an upcoming test on a Friday. They do a review in class, the normal test prep, students study for the test, and they take the test on Friday.

The tests are graded and recorded.

Unbeknownst to the students, when they arrive in class on Monday, they’re given the exact same test to take again.

How do you think the scores compared?

The test scores on Monday, for the exact same test, taken just three days earlier, were 30% lower, on average. Much of that information, packed into short term memory, timed just right to retrieve it on Friday, gets purged almost immediately afterward.

You can test students on the content they studied in a class one month, six months and five years after completing the class.

The amount of knowledge that is retained decays very quickly. For some students, it doesn’t take long for them to effectively return to their pre-class state — it’s like they never took the class. For many, the amount that is retained you could summarize on one sheet of paper.

The exceptions are students who continue to work and study in areas directly related to the class content, where the concepts are used and reinforced. That’s not surprising.

The other exception is students who were really invested in learning the material and found much of it intrinsically interesting. They retain more, and they retain more for longer.

Again, not surprising. We can all relate to this. We’re all nerdy experts in something, and this is exactly how nerdy expertise grows.

The lesson we should draw from this, as people who want to improve our critical thinking skills, is that we should think of this natural way of learning as a resource for critical thinking.

So, my critical thinking tip is two-fold. One, we need to find ways of cultivating curiosity about the subjects that we want to think critically about, that we think are important to understand. That’s an interesting challenge, if we aren’t naturally curious about it from the start.

And two, we need to find ways of satisfying our curiosity through self-directed learning.

The second part is much easier than the first part.

If you’re genuinely curious, it’s not hard to find ways to learn more about the subject.  That’s just the way curiosity works.

But if you’re not naturally curious about a subject, or you have a preconception that the subject is boring or dry or too technical for you, that’s a harder situation to fix.

Two Kinds of Curiosity

Is there anything we can do to make ourselves more curious?

Well, here’s a useful distinction to keep in mind. There are at least two distinct forms that curiosity takes.

One is the curiosity evoked by an event that you don’t understand, that prompts you to explore and learn about it. Like hearing sounds coming from outside your house, or seeing a flash of light in the nighttime sky, or getting a gift from your secret Santa at work and wondering who it’s from, or seeing a surprising demonstration of a scientific phenomenon on television. You feel drawn to investigate these events.

In the literature this is called “state” curiosity, or “task” curiosity, or “situational” curiosity. It’s a temporary state that is evoked by an ongoing internal or external activity.

Every normally functioning person experiences this kind of curiosity, but it’s episodic — it’s triggered by events, and it eventually fades.

The other kind of curiosity is the kind you associate with people, as a character trait, a disposition that they always have. Curious George, the monkey, is naturally curious about everything. Scientists often talk about wanting to go into science to satisfy their natural curiosity about the world. We all know people who we think of as more or less curious than others.

It’s not completely indiscriminate, of course. Most people are more curious about some aspects of the world and less curious about others. My mother was intensely curious about religion and spiritual topics, and read voraciously on these topics, but not curious at all about science or the scientific view of the world.

This kind of curiosity that we’re talking about is called “trait” curiosity, or “individual” curiosity, or “dispositional” curiosity. It’s a persisting feature of a person’s mental attitude and how they engage with the world.

From a learning standpoint, it’s this latter form of curiosity that plays the bigger role in predicting whether a person will pursue an investigation over an extended period time that results in lasting knowledge.

This kind of curiosity does vary across populations, like most traits.

I would bet a thousand dollars that most of you listening to this podcast are at the higher end of the curiosity distribution; you are not a random sample.

So you and I have both had that experience of being frustrated by the lack of curiosity that your friends or members of your family seem to display in the face of something that you find utterly fascinating.

And you know that powerful feeling of connection when you find someone who matches your level of curiosity and and interest in a subject that matters to you.

Being curious, and finding ways to satisfy your curiosity, is a pleasurable experience. But even more pleasurable is sharing that experience with other people who feel the same way.

Trait curiosity can be a hard thing to change. There’s evidence for a genetic component, but early developmental conditions are a big factor too. Kids learn to express curiosity and take pleasure from curiosity, or suppress their curiosity, from parents and from peers, and from their learning environment.

So the good news is that environment can play a big role, and there’s lots of room for modeling and positive reinforcement to have an impact on the degree to which one ends up being “naturally” curious.

Another bit of good news is that curiosity is contagious in a group. If you want to learn more about politics or history or economics or philosophy, and you’re not naturally curious about these subjects, one strategy is to find a group of friends who are naturally curious and plunk yourself in the middle of them. You’ll find yourself mirroring their curiosity and their interest without even trying.

And then, you may suddenly find yourself reading long wikipedia entries on fascism or Watergate or the efficient market hypothesis or the problem of induction, not because you have to, but because you find that you’ve become genuinely interested.

Curiosity as a Debiasing Agent

I want to transition to another topic relating to curiosity. And this one is very important.

Curiosity isn’t just a resource for acquiring knowledge that supports critical thinking. It also has powerful debiasing effects, and in that respect it’s a tool for overcoming the distorting effects of many cognitive biases.

For example, there’s a whole family of biases involving group identity and how people are perceived within groups and outside of groups. Out-group homogeneity bias, for example, involves viewing people outside your group as more similar to one another, more homogeneous, than are people within your own group. And this can dispose us to stereotyping and failing to see the diversity that actually exists within those groups.

There’s also in-group favoritism bias, and out-group negativity bias. We tend to value people and traits associated with our in-group more than people and traits associated with out-groups, and we’re more willing to punish or place burdens on people in out-groups than people within our own group.

We’re all vulnerable to social biases like these. In an intensely polarized political environment like the one we’re seeing right now in the United States, and in many other places around the world where tribal thinking is being reinforced, the distorting effects of these biases are even stronger.

Now, in an environment like this, people become very interested in these different group identities. They may become obsessed with them. But interest can be motivated in all sorts of ways that aren’t conducive to critical thinking.

If I see myself as a partisan member of one of these groups — a card-carrying progressive liberal, a staunch feminist, a committed “Make America Great Again” Trump supporter, a white nationalist, a Black Lives Matter activist  — then my interest can be partisan as well, motivated by a desire to take a stand, advocate for and defend my side, “understand the enemy”, and so on.

This kind of partisan interest, if it dominates our psychology, is almost always an obstacle to critical thinking, because it feeds into two important cognitive biases — confirmation bias and motivated reasoning — that make us even more prone to error, that amplify the distortion rather than reducing it.

This is not to say that partisan interest doesn’t serve a useful function, it does. But it’s primarily a defensive function, a conservative function … a mechanism for maintaining a stable, coherent identity in the face of forces that threaten to destabilize it. In this respect it’s related to the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, and our natural instinct to reduce internal stress by reinterpreting our experience in ways that remove contradictions in our thinking and between our thinking and our behavior.

Now think of how different our psychology is when our interest is driven by curiosity — genuine curiosity, which is rooted in vulnerability, a willingness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and an openness to surprise, to having our expectations overturned. Genuine curiosity takes delight in the prospect of learning something new, something unexpected.

This is how genuine curiosity can be a powerful debiasing agent. It pushes us to see through group boundaries and to take an interest in individuals as individuals, in all their complexity and particularity.

This is the opposite of partisan interest. Genuine curiosity opens us up to novelty and to expanding the boundaries of what is known, and what is possible. But it does so at the cost of making us vulnerable to new ways of thinking that can be stressful and destabilizing.

Partisan interest is driven to minimize this vulnerability by looking for ways of reinforcing the contours of our psychological and social identities, the ones we’ve worked so hard to build.

Now, at any given time each of us is driven by some mixture of different kinds of interests. None of us are motivated solely by curiosity; that’s not realistic, and it wouldn’t be ideal from a critical thinking perspective either. Our conservative impulses are valuable to. They provide the glue that binds our identity into a cohesive whole, without which we can’t function properly.

But, with that said, I do believe that in many cases we can improve our critical thinking by cultivating and engaging our capacity for genuine curiosity.

Just it give a cartoonish example, imagine that our motivation structure is a product of two sources, partisan interest and interest driven by genuine curiosity, and that you could adjust the magnitude of these two sources of interest by adjusting knobs or sliders.

For a given person, on a given topic, there are default settings. I have a relative who has become very concerned with the threat of Muslim culture infiltrating Canada, the spread of Sharia law, and so on. She reads the same online blog sites over and over, that repeat the same threatening messages. She’ll admit that she’s afraid of Muslims, as a group — she sees them as a threat. And she gets very agitated by the topic, it brings up a lot of emotion. When you’re around her you quickly learn that it’s not a safe subject for conversation.

For this relative of mine, her partisan interest dial is jacked way high. It dominates her motivational psychology. But you wouldn’t describe her as curious about Muslim culture and Islam and Sharia law. She couldn’t tell you the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims, or distinguish between Islam, Islamism, and Jihadism. She doesn’t go out of her way to educate herself about these topics. Her genuine curiosity dial is set really low.

Now, if I could somehow reach into her head and adjust these proportions to something like 50-50, so that she would be equally motivated by genuine curiosity as by partisan interest, that alone would make a huge difference to her capacity to think critically about this topic. It would drive her to expand her background knowledge in relevant areas, get a sense of how different sides argue their case, and open her up to new ways of thinking about the issue.

That’s another way of thinking of curiosity as a resource for critical thinking. If I can find ways of cultivating, not just concern, not just interest, but a genuine curiosity about a topic, that mindset will, over time, make me a better critical thinker on that topic.

My Personal Relationship to Curiosity

I was going to wrap up here. But this topic is actually quite personal for me. It speaks to my identity more than anything else I can think of.

I want back and forth on whether it would be helpful to talk about my own relationship to curiosity, but obviously I’ve decided to.  So here goes.

In every class I’ve ever taught, I’ve recognized students who are smarter than me. Regardless of their age. In my professional career as an academic, I was surrounded by people who I recognized as smarter, more intelligent than me. More intelligent in the sense of fluid intelligence, the kind of intelligence that IQ tests are good at measuring.

Now, I recognize that I’m a reasonably intelligent guy. Intelligent to earn an honors degree in physics. Intelligent enough to get through graduate school in philosophy, a field that prides itself on cleverness. Intelligent enough to write and publish academic papers, enough to get tenure at a top research university. Enough to earn the respect of my much smarter colleagues.

But intelligence was never a thing that set me apart from my peers or my colleagues.

What I believe has set me apart, from a very young age, is an unusually high degree of curiosity, that can be activated, it seems, by almost anything.

Curiosity manifests itself in focus and attention. When I was a kid it wasn’t hard or unusual for me to spend hours reading and thinking about a subject. I’d stay on one topic for a while, read as much I could until my curiosity was satisfied, or I’d hit a saturation point, and then I’d move on to something else.

There was no effort involved, it was a deeply pleasurable thing for me to spend time doing.

And I’d jump from topic to topic as the mood hit me. I’d start reading about scuba diving and undersea exploration, and then jump to learning about submersibles, and then about the physics and chemistry of air pressure and why people get “the bends” when they surface from underwater too quickly, and then I’d jump over to sharks, and the evolution of sharks and rays, and then to the evolution of life on earth, and so on.

All this stuck with me longer than it would have if I was forced to learn it for school, because of the way the linkages in this knowledge web were driven by curiosity. Recall the discussion we had earlier in this episode.

I chose physics as my undergraduate major not because I was especially good at math, or especially good at solving physics problems, but because the subject itself spoke to my natural curiosity, which pushed me to ask more and more foundational questions. I eventually went on to philosophy for the same reasons, not because I was especially deep or clever or good at logic, but because it was a field where I knew I could indulge my curiosity across the widest range of subjects, from the very applied to the very abstract.

In grad school, and in my academic career, I had a reputation as someone who had serious interests in a lot of different areas, and who knew a lot about a lot of different areas. I didn’t have a master plan for how to put all of this together, I was just curious about a lot of things.

This indiscriminate curiosity helped me as a teacher, and as a colleague, but it probably didn’t help my career as a researcher.

Academic publishing really demands a singular focus on a particular subject, working on problems of a particular sort. Almost all of the writing you do is aimed at convincing a small audience of academic peers that you’ve made a valuable contribution to our understanding of these problems. A true Academic, with a capital A, is someone who enjoys this process, and is dedicated to getting better at it.

I was never a “true Academic” in this sense. I was only ever interested in studying a topic, or writing about a topic, until I had satisfied my curiosity about it, at least temporarily; and then I wanted to move on to the next topic. Like when I was a kid.

But you can’t do that and have a career in academia. You can’t flit from topic to topic like a bee moving from flower to flower. You have to stick with one flower, or one variety of flower, and keep visiting it over and over. That’s how you build a professional reputation as an expert in your field.

It’s the same with teaching. As a professor you get slotted into teaching a certain small number of classes, which you are destined to teach over and over. There are many courses that you will never be allowed to teach, even if you’re interested and qualified to teach them, either because your program doesn’t offer them, or because someone else in your department already has a claim on those courses.

These are some of the reasons why I ended up leaving academia, and why I’m doing what I’m doing now. Working independently, creating courses for the Academy, and for Udemy, I can indulge my curiosity more than I ever could as a university professor.

Now, do I enjoy making the courses themselves? Absolutely. And there are two reasons. One, they’re how I get to learn what I want to learn, what I don’t fully understand yet. They’re the vehicle through which I satisfy my curiosity.

And second, remember when I talked about the pleasure of finding other people who share your curiosity? When I’m creating a video, I’m imagining some person on the other side, watching it, and either becoming interested in the same things that I’m interested, or feeling like they’ve learned something new that helps them to satisfy their own curiosity.

So the work feels like I’m sharing something valuable. I want to create opportunities for other people to experience the same pleasure that I do, when I’ve learned something new that makes me think about the world in a different way. And even though we may not be in the same room, sharing the same space, I love the idea that you and I may now be sharing a common thought, about something that you may never have thought of before, or thought of in quite this way.

In the end, I’m not interested in providing answers to questions so much as in sharing the sense of delight and wonder that I feel at the opportunity to contemplate these questions.

So, you can see how my relationship to curiosity is a big deal of me. It’s been a driver for a lot of my big life decisions.

Earlier I described a motivational psychology that has inputs from two sources, what I called “partisan interest”, and genuine curiosity. The family relative that I mentioned, the one who was very concerned about Muslims but not curious about Islam — her default dial setting was high on partisan interest and low on curiosity, at least with respect to this issue.

If I were to use this model on myself, to diagnose my own motivational psychology, I would say that I’m pretty much the opposite of this. My curiosity dial is set high, and my partisan interest dial is set low. Those seem to be my default settings, on many topics.

This isn’t necessarily an ideal motivational psychology. For critical thinking purposes, and teaching purposes, it’s pretty good, but for other purposes maybe not so much.

A friend of mine once told me that, for someone who is as interested in politics as much as I am, it’s surprising how little I care about politics. I think this is an apt description, and with the distinction we’ve just drawn, I think I understand it better.

What high curiosity and low partisan interest means is that it’s easy for me to become interested in a topic and want to study and learn more about it, but it’s harder for me to care too much about it, in the sense of being invested in which side of a debate is correct, or which outcome is preferred.

When Trump won the election, for example, my reaction wasn’t the sea of pain that my liberal friends were sharing on social media. I didn’t grieve for the Democrats’ loss, and I didn’t celebrate Trump’s win.

I had a lot of feelings, but mixed in were feelings of excitement and gratitude. Gratitude for what? Gratitude that now I get to see how this timeline turns out. I was never curious how the future would go if Hilary won, that’s the status quo timeline. I was intensely curious how the future would go if Trump won, since the future beyond this point is genuinely obscure. I felt grateful that I get to be a witness to an historical event of this size.

Now, I’m not entirely comfortable admitting this, because when there’s this much at stake, there something off-putting about taking pleasure in chaos and uncertainty.  And there are political issues that really do deserve attention and concern, and we should feel strongly about outcomes, because these outcomes have real consequences for real people.

So if I feel a certain detachment from these outcomes, that’s probably good for my psychological health, because I don’t get stressed over them; and it’s good from a critical thinking standpoint, because my perception isn’t as clouded by partisan bias. But it may not be so good from an ethical standpoint, or a democratic citizenship standpoint, because sometimes the situation demands that we stand up, take a side and fight for what we think is really important.

In cases like this, I actually think it would be better, overall, if my partisan interest settings were tuned a little higher.

My Secret Ideological Agenda

I want to mention one last thing before I wrap up.

One of the reasons why I wanted to talk about curiosity, and my relationship to curiosity, is that I want you, my audience, to better understand where I’m coming from with respect to the topics that I discuss, and what broader agendas I may or may not have.

I feel a need to do this because, as my inbox will show, my work tends to attract people who have strong partisan interests, and who see me, or want to see me, as an ally, someone who might share their ideological or political mission. Or who are bothered by an agenda that they perceive in the topics that I cover, that they disapprove of.

According to some of my emails, I’m an atheist selling elitist liberal propaganda. And I’m a religious apologist and Trump supporter.

And since I’ve talked about hypnosis and seduction, I must also be sympathetic to the men’s rights movement and the anti-feminist, anti-pc, “red pill” worldview.

And, because I talk a lot about learning to think for yourself, and the value of freedom, I must be a libertarian and a critic of government regulation.

And, because I’ve talked about conspiracies and propaganda and mind control methods, I must be sympathetic to some kind of grand conspiracy theory.

I’m not surprised by this. People who make these assumptions aren’t used to hearing someone talk about these topics who isn’t also a partisan supporter of some kind.

But let me just say up front: I don’t identify with any of these labels or these agendas.

And maybe now you can see why. What I am is curious about these topics; I want to understand them, and I think it’s useful that more people understand them. But I don’t particularly care about them. My motivations are driven mainly by curiosity, not by partisan interest.

When I say that I don’t particularly care about them, I mean that there are lots of things I care about just as much. I’m just as curious about black holes and the origin of the universe as I am about persuasion techniques and cognitive biases.  I’m just as curious about how I’m able to voluntarily bend my finger right now, just by thinking about it, as I am about which political philosophy is the correct one. I’m just as curious about the nature of language as I am about whether 9-11 was an inside job. I’m just as curious about how artists create their art as I am about whether there is or isn’t a God.

That’s not the psychology of a person with an ideological agenda.

The one agenda that I do have, the one partisan interest that I do strongly identify with, is this: I wish more people had the opportunity to live self-directed lives that are worthy of the rational, creative beings we are.

It really distresses me when I see people trapped in jobs they hate, or in unhappy relationships, who feel powerless before forces that seem to dictate the direction of their life. That gets me worked up, I react quite viscerally to this.

So if the content I teach can be a resource to empower people to gain more freedom and control of their lives, I’ll be happy with that.

Summing Up

Let me summarize the points I’ve tried to make about the ways that curiosity can be a resource for critical thinking.

First, knowledge that is acquired through self-directed learning that is motivated by curiosity is more lasting and more accessible than knowledge acquired through rote learning. So if we can find ways of cultivating genuine curiosity about a topic, that’s good for critical thinking.

Second, we can distinguish interest motivated by genuine curiosity, which opens us up to new experiences and new was of looking at the world; and what I called partisan interest, which is concerned with reinforcing the boundaries that form our identity.

We’re all some mix of different motivations, no one’s interests are purely partisan, or purely driven by curiosity. But some people’s default settings may lean more heavily to one or the other.

When partisan interest dominates our motivational psychology, it has a distorting effect on our reasoning. It feeds confirmation bias.

Genuine curiosity, by contrast, has a positive role in creating relevant background knowledge, and it has a debiasing effect, by urging us to see individuals as individuals, in all their complexity and particularity. So that’s good for critical thinking.

The caveat here is that if curiosity dominates one’s motivational psychology, and partisan interest is low, as it tends to be for me, then in my experience, this can have a detaching effect. This might be good for one’s psychological health — ask a Buddhist or a Stoic about the value of detachment — and it’s good for critical thinking, but it may not always be desirable, all things considered. Some issues are worth getting worked up about, and some causes do need defending.

What is Possible with Crowdfunding

I’ll close with a reminder that if only 5% of you listening to the podcast were to become Sustaining Members, or Patreon supporters, my financial worries would go away. I wouldn’t be rich, but I could do this work sustainably. If you want to see the Argument Ninja program become a reality, please consider becoming a supporter.

It is remarkable how the numbers from small pledges can add up. Some of you follow Sam Harris’s podcast. I’m a Patron myself, I look forward to those episodes. Do you know how much he makes from his Patreon supporters, for each episode that he publishes? About 11,000 dollars. This is from a base of around 4400 supporters, whose average pledge is less than $3 a month. 11,000 dollars per episode. Recently he’s been publishing almost weekly, eight episodes over the past two months. You do the math, he’s not hurting. I don’t begrudge him his success at all, he works hard and he’s got a big audience. For me, it’s inspiring to see how effective fan support and crowdfunding can be.

So, if you’d like to become a Sustaining Member and help support this podcast and my work, including the development of the Argument Ninja Academy program that I’ve been talking about on the podcast, you can visit the support page at

Argumentninja.com or CriticalThinkerAcademy.com — there’s menu link called “Support” for both of these.

A sustaining membership can start as low as $3 per month, which will get you access to the whole catalogue at the Critical Thinker Academy, and reserve a spot for you in the Argument Ninja Academy, locked in at the same low monthly rate.

Thank you for listening, have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

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013 - Avatars for Critical Thinking

013 – Avatars for Critical Thinking (Brainstorming the Argument Ninja Academy)

In this episode I talk about how the program I’m developing for the Argument Ninja Academy will differ from the Critical Thinker Academy, and outline my instructional design goals for the new program.

I also describe the kinds of personality types, or “avatars”, that are most strongly attracted to this kind of material.

I’ve named these avatars the Scientist, the Philosopher, the Persuader, the Analyst, and the Butterfly. Do you see yourself in any of these descriptions? Let me know!

In This Episode:

  • The difference between what I’m currently offering at the Critical Thinker Academy and what I plan to offer at the Argument Ninja Academy
  • Brainstorming the design of an online teaching and learning experience
  • My objectives for the Argument Ninja program
    • solving the central problem that plagues critical thinking education today
    • providing a resource for critical thinking educators
    • support for professional training as well as independent consumer training
    • adaptive learning
    • gamification and progression feeatures modeled on martial arts progression
  • Five personality types — “avatars” — that are attracted to the material at the Critical Thinker Academy, and who I will serve in the new Argument Ninja Academy
    • (1) the Scientist
    • (2) the Philosopher
    • (3) the Persuader
    • (4) the Analyst
    • (5) the Butterfly


” When I’m designing this Argument Ninja Academy program, I need to keep in mind the transformation that users will be looking to get out of it. No one will sign up just to learn the definition of a valid argument, or just to learn about cognitive biases and the science of persuasion. What people will sign up for are the benefits and the transformation that learning this will enable for them.”

“In the martial arts, belt rankings and belt testing are more than just motivational tools. They’re also a means of maintaining the identity of the school, the martial arts tradition of that school, whether it be WTF taekwondo or IJF judo or Gracie jiu-jitsu, or Shotokan karate, because the belt requirements encode the techniques and the philosophy that are particular to that school.

This kind of encoding is important for me too, because there is a core curriculum that I want to implement, and that curriculum is essential to the identity of the Argument Ninja Academy program. It’s what will distinguish it from other critical thinking and persuasion programs.”

References and Links

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 013.

Hi everyone. This is Kevin deLaplante. I’m the host of this podcast, and the creator of the Critical Thinker Academy, which is an educational website that hosts about 20 hours of video courses on a wide range of topics related to critical thinking. You can go to criticalthinkeracademy.com right now and click on the Support tab in the navigation menu to learn how you can become a Sustaining Member and get access to all of this content for as little as $3 a month.

Now, about these courses that I host at the Critical Thinker Academy. The feedback that I receive about these courses is almost uniformly positive. They’re well organized, they’re well taught, they make clear what can often be confusing …. That’s what people tell me, and I think that’s all true.

However, it’s one thing to make this kind of content accessible and available to a wide audience. It’s quite another thing to present it in an environment where people are actually expected to learn and master a set of skills that applies this content.

That’s always been the component that’s missing in the Critical Thinker Academy. And it’s not because I’m not interested in this.

As a teacher I know very well the difference between the curriculum of a course, which is about the sequence of topics that is going to be taught in the course; and the goals and learning objectives of a course — what skills I want students to be able to demonstrate after having completed the course.

You have to think about teaching differently if learning and skill development are your objectives, rather than just explaining concepts.

The problem is that if you’re like me, just one person working alone, online, with limited time and resources, it’s much harder to set up an environment that really supports learning and skill development.

And when I started creating tutorial videos I wasn’t thinking along these lines at all. I was still a university classroom teacher. I was seeing students face-to-face two or three times a week. I thought of the videos as lecture content that my students could access outside of class time, so that we could focus more time in the classroom on discussion and learning activities. I never intended the video lectures to substitute for a real learning environment, or a real teaching experience.

And for all these reasons, I still don’t describe what I’m currently offering at the Critical Thinker Academy as “teaching”.

What I’m offering there, essentially, is access to a multimedia textbook — a resource for self-directed learning.

When a visitor — let’s call her Mary — signs up at the Academy, what she’s paying for is access to this multimedia textbook.

I know it’s a unique resource, it’s a valuable resource. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else on the web.

But it would be a mistake to think that, just because Mary now has access to this resource that I’ve created, Mary has become my student.

I could buy Richard Dawkins’ latest book on evolutionary theory on Amazon, and I could learn a lot from it. But just doing that wouldn’t make me his student, would it? And it wouldn’t make Richard Dawkins my teacher.

I could buy the DVD set of the Cosmos miniseries, hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, and watch all the episodes. But I wouldn’t tell people, “oh yeah, I’m studying with Neil Degrasse Tyson. He’s my teacher”.

That’s not what a teacher-student relationship looks like.

In a teacher-student relationship, the teacher is committing to actively helping the student progress toward and achieve certain learning outcomes. That implies some degree of interaction and feedback between the teacher and the student.

And ideally, the student also feels a commitment to respect this relationship, and put in the time and effort needed to achieve their goals.

In a real teaching environment, like a university course, I wouldn’t just lecture. I would facilitate discussion, answer questions, assign homework and exercises, work with students on larger projects, and evaluate and give feedback on their performance over the duration of the course.

When I taught swimming in my teens and twenties, it was the same thing, but instead I was helping students learn how to swim, how to perform different strokes, how to be safe in the water, how to help people who are drowning or in trouble, and so on. Lots of feedback, lots of evaluation, lots of opportunity to practice.

If you take music lessons from a guitar teacher or a piano teacher, it’s same thing.

If you study martial arts at a martial arts studio, it’s the same thing.

That’s teaching.

What it means to be a student is to be a participant in that kind of teaching.

And that’s clearly not what I’m offering at the Critical Thinker Academy, right now. Not yet, at least.

Now, how does this relate to the Argument Ninja training program that I’ve been talking about over the last few episodes?

In a nutshell, what I want to do with the Argument Ninja Academy program, or whatever it ends up being called, is transition to something that is closer to a genuine teaching and learning environment.

In this episode I want to take a few more steps down the path to making this a reality, by sharing my thoughts on how I’m thinking about this program, how I would like to see the program organized, and how that feeds into the process of instructional design, how you actually design the environment that will support the learning objectives of the program.

So, in this first half of the episode I’m going to talk about my goals for the Argument Ninja Academy and the kind of user experience that I’m aiming for, and this will help to define a set of features that I want the platform to have.

In the second half I’m going to talk about the kinds of personal transformations that I would like the Argument Ninja Academy to enable or facilitate. And this will also feed back into how I structure the curriculum.

When I talk about personal transformations, I’m thinking about different types of ideal users, and what those users hope and expect to get out of the program. I call these ideal users “avatars”, which is a usage that I’m borrowing from business and marketing.

In this episode I’m going to run through five different avatars that I know from personal experience have a strong resonance with the concepts and the skills and the objectives the Critical Thinker Academy, and this podcast, and the Argument Ninja program that I’ll be developing.

I call these the Scientist, the Philosopher, the Persuader, the Analyst, and the Butterfly.  I guarantee that most of you, listening to this, will resonate with one or more of these avatar descriptions. They will speak to you. If they do, you’ll know that you’re a good candidate for the Argument Ninja Academy.

Instructional Design Goals

But before we get to that, let’s talk about instructional design for critical thinking.

In any kind of design, you need to have an idea of what you want the design to achieve.

In instructional design, where you’re designing a learning environment and an educational experience, you need to be clear on what your ultimate objectives are, what the transformation is that you want your students to experience as they move through the program.

Once that’s clear, then you can start to work backwards and think about what conditions need to be met for this transformation to occur, what resources are required to enable these conditions, and so on. A first draft of the architecture of the program will emerge as you work backwards in this way.

Solving the Central Problem that Plagues Critical Thinking Education

Let’s start with my goals for this program.

My first goal is to create a critical thinking program that actually addresses, together, in one place, the two most important components of critical thinking.

The first component is principles of logic and argumentation that are the foundation of genuinely good reasoning.

The second component is principles of influence and persuasion that are grounded in our human nature, the very same human nature that makes us systematically prone to errors in how we form beliefs and make decisions.

The basic problem with the way critical thinking is taught in college and university courses — the ones that I used to teach as a philosophy professor —  is that the textbooks and the teachers spend most of their time on the first component and very little if any time on the second component.

Consequently, students can finish a critical thinking course and still be oblivious to the many cognitive biases that undermine the quality of their thinking, and still be completely unprepared for how to critically engage with conversations going on in the world outside the classroom, where most people are, to put it mildly, not naturally disposed to respect the rules of rational argumentation.

On the other hand, the problem with programs that focus exclusively on persuasion and the psychology of influence is that you can finish such a program and still have no clue what the difference is between a good argument and a bad argument; and worse, you may come to believe that the difference is irrelevant — good reasoning doesn’t matter, truth and falsity don’t matter, because when it comes to persuasion, all that matters is how effective you are at getting people to believe what you want them to believe and do what you want them to do.

But that’s not critical thinking. That doesn’t help you improve the quality of your own reasoning. That doesn’t help you make up your own mind on real issues that matter to people.

Critical thinking needs both of these components. We need to understand BOTH how we ought to reason, AND how we in fact reason, so we can recognize errors when they occur, and have some strategy in place for reducing or mitigating these errors.

So, my first goal is to create a program where these two components form the core of the curriculum and are taught side-by-side.

Think of them as the trunks of two trees that are pressed together, that wrap around each other as they grow together. Higher up the tree you’ll see these intertwined trunks branch off in different directions — these are applications, or special topics, in critical thinking and persuasion. But you need to work through the core concepts first before you can really appreciate what’s going in these higher branches.

Yin and Yang

When I think about the relationship between these two components, the two trunks of this entwined tree, I’m drawn to another symbol from Chinese philosophy: the yin-yang symbol. You know the symbol. It’s a circle with a diameter that is drawn as an S-curve that separates a light side from a dark side. Yin is the dark side, the shady side. Yang is the light side, the sunny side. But inside the light side there’s a dark circle, and inside the dark side there’s a light circle. Light interpenetrates the dark; dark interpenetrates the light.

The symbol is used to represent how, in the natural world, seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent.  How in fact they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.

This is how I think of the relationship between reason and argumentation as tools for persuasion and influence — the dark side; and reason and argumentation as tools for inquiry, the search for truth and wisdom — the light side.

On the surface they appear to be in conflict. There are so many ways that persuasion can be used to undermine reason. This is in many respects the dominant view in Western science and philosophy, that for reason to be a guide to truth and wisdom it needs to be purified, purged of the corrupting influence of rhetoric and persuasion.

This is the view that I’m pushing back on, but I acknowledge the concern and I honor the sentiment behind it.

The alternative view, the one that I’m describing as a yin-yang view, is hard to describe, analytically. I’m sure that as a philosophical project I’ll be working on this for years. But for purposes of teaching, the yin-yang metaphor will do just fine.

My belief is that as you work your way up the tree, with one foot on each stalk, you’ll come to see it this way too. It’ll be obvious to you, that there’s no way to craft a rational argument without simultaneously making choices about rhetorical form and persuasive strategy. And there’s no way to engage in ethical persuasion, at least, without engaging your rational faculties.

So, just to sum up: one of my objectives is to create a critical thinking program that is organized around this complementary duality between reason and persuasion.This fixes a problem that plagues critical thinking education right now, and it provides a foundation for a very wide range of applications.

Training the Trainers

Let’s move on to a second objective that I have with this program.

One of the reasons I’m interested in a program like this is that it would serve as a good training resource for people who are themselves critical thinking educators, or want to serve in this capacity in some way.

I got an email a short while ago from a gentleman in Florida who works with a number of humanist and rationalist organizations in the region, and he asked if I had any plans to teach a course on how to teach critical thinking, something aimed at people like him who are committed to critical thinking and science-based education and have assumed a leadership role in organizing events and meet-ups in their communities.

And I said yes, I certainly have thought about this. But I don’t really know how to design such a course without presenting the foundations of critical thinking as I see it, so my answer is I would like the program that we’re talking about here, the Argument Ninja Academy program, to serve as such a foundation.

And again, I have a martial arts analogy in mind. Yes, anyone can put up a shingle and offer martial arts classes, but in most cases what you expect is that anyone in a leadership position in a martial arts studio has already worked through the program and demonstrated a certain level of proficiency in the skills and concepts themselves.

So you expect to see black belts teaching most of the classes, and senior black belts teaching the black belt classes.

I would say, if you want to be a critical thinking educator, and you’re attracted to the way that I present things, the first step would be to become a student in the program and work your way through it.

In fact, this is how I expect to find people to help me administer and expand the program. Initially I’m sure I’ll need to hit up people from outside who I know would be good, but eventually there’ll be a cohort of students who have reached a certain level in the program, and who have an interest and an aptitude for teaching or mentoring, that will be in a position to take on leadership roles, like moderating forums, or helping me design new exercises for training modules. Or become instructors who develop their own special topic branches for the program.

Like, for example, let’s say there’s a physicist out there, or a philosopher of physics, who wants to produce a module on critical thinking about quantum mechanics, which would focus on ways that quantum theory is used and abused by charlatans and pseudoscientists.

Or there’s an expert on statistics who wants to develop a module on critical thinking about statistics, and how statistics can be used and misused as a tool of persuasion.

Or, maybe there’s someone who is trained in social psychology and wants to develop a module on cognitive biases. I’ll cover some of this in the core program, but there are hundreds of biases that one could talk about it, and no end to the applications one could discuss.

For example, you could do a whole module on cognitive biases as they relate to financial decision-making, or sales and marketing, or scientific reasoning,  or personal judgments about what does and doesn’t make make human beings happy. There’s a big literature on all of this, and the key ideas could be distilled and presented as a special module in the program.

Or, you could do a whole module on how to craft a persuasive speech. There’s really no end to the branches that could be spring off from the core program.

And, for those who are interested in leadership and critical thinking education, you could have a whole discussion forum just for people who teach critical thinking or have some kind of role in an educational or public organization.

Looking down the road, these are all options that I would love to see explored and developed. But ideally, as a general rule, anyone who takes on a position like this within the Argument Ninja Academy should also be a student who has worked their way through the core material, and who understands the overall vision.

Use Scenarios and the Learning Experience

I have another set of objectives for the program that I’m going to talk about it, that are related to different use scenarios and the user experience. These are important because they have a big impact on how the training is going to be delivered and the infrastructure that is needed to deliver it.

First, I would like the program to be suitable for both professional training and independent consumer training.

By independent consumer training I mean the sort of training that teaching platforms like Udemy offer, and that the Critical Thinker Academy now offers. Anyone can sign up and start watching videos, there’s no requirement that the training meet any special organizational guidelines, and there’s no requirement to track user completion or performance.

By professional training, I mean the sort of training where some or all of these things are required. If a law firm or a business or a government agency wants to pay for its staff to work through the program, they’re going to need to track completion rates at the very least. And if it’s a work or government agency that is subject to federal laws, on disability access, for example, then the training needs to be compliant with accessibility regulations, so it doesn’t put up barriers to people with disabilities.

That’s not a trivial requirement. But if you can get your course to be compliant with these standards, that makes the content available to a large audience of government and professional workers who may not have to pay for the training themselves, because their employers have human resource or professional development budgets that can be used for this. That would open up the training to a lot of people, and a lot of people who could really benefit and make use of it.

The second item on this list, relating to learning outcomes and the user experience, is that I would like the program to offer individualized training that adapts to how a student performs on exercises and assessments.

Just to give a simple example, if you take a quiz and get two of the five questions wrong, the system might send you back to a section of the course where those concepts were covered, let you review it again, and then jump back to the quiz and do those questions over.

There are other ways that a learning platform can offer a customized experience to the students. Some of these can show up in how progression is handled, and in gamification features, but those really are separate topics. So let’s talk about these.

The third item in this category has to do with how progression works in the program.

I’m imagining a system where a new student starts at a beginner rank, like a white belt, and then over time works their way up the ranks. But how does a student move from white belt to yellow belt, or yellow belt to orange belt, and so on?

Well, my model, as always, is inspired by martial arts training. Training sessions cover a range of skills and techniques, but there’s a certain set of these that are associated with a given belt ranking. You don’t get to test for your yellow belt until you’ve demonstrated a certain level of understanding and performance at the white level skill elements. When you test for your belt, and pass, and move up to yellow, you’re introduced to new concepts and new techniques, and you can’t move to a new belt rank until you’ve mastered those, and so on.

In this context, new concepts and new techniques would correspond to new learning modules within the core program, and maybe new ways of practicing and getting feedback on your understanding and your performance. Leveling-up might also open up new optional learning modules, like elective courses in a degree program.

I also think it’s essential to include some kind of social learning component in this program. I’m still thinking about this, but the goal is for students to feel like they’re part of a learning community, and be able to interact with each other, and where there’s an element of unpredictability in the interactions.

This is a whole big topic of its own, and I’ll come back to it again in later podcast episodes, because it’s so important. But if I’m serious about the martial arts inspiration, then this program needs to offer some equivalent of sparring. It’s one thing to practice a technique against an imaginary opponent, it’s quite another to practice with a real person.

How to implement this is another question. That’ll take some creativity and thinking. A lot depends on the technology that’s available, and how flexible that technology is. Moderated discussion forums, that follow specific sets of rules, can function in this way, but I know there are others.

This leads to the fourth item on my list — gamification.

This is a bit of a buzzword now in business and marketing circles, but the concept is important and increasingly important.

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.

Gamification taps into basic desires and impulses which revolve around ideas of status, achievement, competition, and community collaboration.

In the early days of arcade games, it was a big deal when game designers started tracking players and scores, so that everyone could see the leaderboard and the rankings of the top players. It offered an incentive for players to keep playing and get better at the game, with the hope of cracking the top ranks and maybe seeing your name at the top of that list.

Today, just about every game implements a level system of some kind, where you complete certain tasks and you earn points, and when you hit certain benchmarks or complete a certain number of tasks, you earn rewards. These can be anything — experience points, spells, badges, new ways to interact with the game, and maybe the most cherished reward, “leveling-up”. Leveling-up is valued not just because it’s a sign of achievement, but because, very often, it’s an achievement that you can publicly share, or that is publicly accessible in the game. In other words, it’s a sign of status.

In martial arts, belt rankings are like game levels, and the belt is a public sign of your level status. In some martial arts traditions, you can earn stripes on your belt to indicate that you’ve demonstrated a certain level of achievement on your way to the next belt level, an intermediate step toward the next rank. Recreational martial arts, and sport martial arts, are highly gamified. And that certainly is part of the explanation for their popularity.

Whatever you think about public displays of status, what’s clear is that gamification is an extremely powerful way of engaging and motivating people. I’ve never once had to force my son to sit down and play Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed.

Now in the martial arts, belt rankings and belt testing are more than just motivational tools. They’re also a means of maintaining the identity of the school, the martial arts tradition of that school, whether it be WTF taekwondo or IJF judo or Gracie jiu-jitsu, or Shotokan karate, because the belt requirements encode the techniques and the philosophy that are particular to that school.

This kind of encoding is important for me too, because there is a core curriculum that I want to implement, and that curriculum is essential to the identity of the Argument Ninja Academy program. It’s what will distinguish it from other critical thinking and persuasion programs.

So, given the nature of what I’m trying to do here, gamification is going to play an important role in how the platform is designed, and how progress through the program is implemented.

So, those are four different goals or objectives for the program, having to do with different use scenarios and the user experience.

These goals and objectives suggest a list of features. The upshot of all this is that the platform I use to develop this program has to have the resources to support these features — it has to be able to collect information about student activities on the platform, use that information to customize the learning experience, provide an incentive structure for engaging with the content and unlocking different levels of the platform, provide for social learning experiences, and all of the content on the site has to be universally accessible.

You can see now why this isn’t the sort of thing I can throw together all by myself!

That’s why, right now, I’m in talks with various companies that provide end-to-end elearning solutions, to find the right platform that I can partner with, and with whom I can work and develop this program into something that is really special.

As these talks progress I’ll make sure to keep you guys updated on the podcast.

Benefits and Transformations

I’m going to shift gears here and say a few words about the kinds of personal transformations that I want the Argument Ninja Academy to facilitate, to be a resource for.

This is another approach to thinking through the instructional design process, but you can use this when you’re brainstorming any product or service.

The key is to remember that in most cases, people don’t buy a product just for the sake of owning the product. What they’re paying for is the benefit, or the transformation, that owning the product will facilitate.

I won’t buy a new webcam just to own a webcam. I’ll buy a new webcam because I think it will help me make better videos.

Similarly, people don’t sign up for martial arts classes just for the sake of learning the moves. People sign up for martial arts classes because of the transformation that they hope such classes will enable, which can vary from person to person: increased self-confidence, ability to defend yourself, better fitness and flexibility, the feeling of movement and getting in touch with your body, participating in an activity that my friends are doing, emulating the martial arts action heroes I watch in movies, the enjoyment that comes with challenge, improvement and mastery; and so on.

Let me just repeat that, because it’s surprising how often this is forgotten in marketing and business. Even for those who are keen on learning martial arts techniques, no one signs up to learn the techniques. No one signs up for taekwondo classes to learn middle punch in horse stance. No one signs up for jiu-jitsu classes to learn how to pass the guard. You sign up because you value the benefits, the transformation, that you believe that learning these techniques will enable.

So, when I’m designing this Argument Ninja Academy program, I need to keep in mind the transformation that users will be looking to get out of it. No one will sign up just to learn the definition of a valid argument, or just to learn about cognitive biases and the science of persuasion.  What people will sign up for are the benefits and the transformation that learning this will enable for them.

So I need to be clear on what those benefits are, and what transformations people are looking for.

Avatars for Critical Thinking

In business, this thought process is sometimes described in terms of identifying your “ideal client” or “ideal customer”. And sometimes they use the language of constructing an “avatar”, a representation of the ideal customer — where they live, what industries they work in, what socio-economic level they belong to, what education they have, what challenges they’re experiencing in their daily life or in their work, what unfulfilled aspirations they have, and so on.

This exercise is helpful because it’s tempting when coming up with a business idea to define your market too broadly. People who want to lose weight is way too broad a demographic to fashion a product around. Mothers who are trying to lose the last 15 lbs of their baby weight while caring for infants and toddlers — that’s a demographic that you can actually develop a product for.

Of course you can have more than one ideal customer. Lots of different kinds of people eat at McDonald’s or shop at Walmart. The one thing they may have in common is that they’re motivated by convenience and lower prices.

And lots of different kinds of people take martial arts classes. But anyone who teaches martial arts knows that there’s really only a handful of different “avatars”. If you go around the room and ask the students why they’re there, you’ll get the same set of answers over and over, and almost everyone who joins is some permutation of this set.

So the question for me is, who are the people who would be keen to sign up for the Argument Ninja Academy? It won’t surprise you to learn that they come from all walks of life, but in terms of motivation, there really is just a handful of distinct motivations, and almost everyone who joins is going to be some permutation of these.

I like to think of these in terms of avatars, idealized types. Most people will share some combination of these underlying motivations, but some will be more dominant than others.

I said a handful, so I’m going to describe five distinct types, or avatars, who would be attracted to what I’ll be offering at the Argument Ninja Academy.

As I go through these, ask yourself whether these descriptions resonate with you, and which resonate most strongly. I’d love to get some feedback on this, actually.

The Scientist

I’m going to start with an avatar I call “The Scientist”, with a capital S.

The Scientist isn’t necessarily someone who works in the sciences or who has a formal background in science.

The Scientist seeks after knowledge, but is more concerned with the methods we use to acquire knowledge than the resulting beliefs.

To use a bit of philosophical jargon, the Scientist is more preoccupied with epistemology than with metaphysics.

The Scientist looks to empirical evidence, wherever possible, to resolve disputes between competing theories or interpretations of the world.

The Scientist seeks after the truth, but wants to proportion their degree of belief to the evidence. If the evidence isn’t strong, the Scientist modulates their degree of belief accordingly.

The Scientist finds it honorable to admit uncertainty and doubt, because that is a precondition for discovering error and improving our knowledge.

The Scientist wants to learn about the many ways that human beings are prone to error, because that, again, is a precondition for improving our knowledge.

The greatest sin, for the Scientist, is dogmatism — unshakeable faith in one’s convictions that will not bend to reason or evidence. To indulge in dogmatism is to abandon our human capacity for rational thought, and to abdicate our responsibility to think and make decisions for ourselves. Dogmatism is the root of many of the evils that afflict humanity.

Okay, that’s my first “avatar”. Anyone who identifies with this description is going to be attracted to the motto of the Critical Thinker Academy — “learn how to think, not what to think” — and they’re going to be attracted to the content I’ll be developing for the Argument Ninja Academy, because it will only reinforce these themes of uncovering sources of error, and exploring the limits and fallibility of our knowledge, all in the service of bringing us closer to the truth.

The Philosopher

Okay, let’s move on.

The second avatar I call “The Philosopher”.

Again, you don’t need any formal training in philosopher to fit the description I’m going to give.

The Philosopher is someone whose mind is naturally attracted to deeper, more foundational questions, that aren’t easily answered by standard empirical methods.

For example, you and I may agree that human beings have a right to life. The Philosopher may agree as well, but is also interested in the deeper question, what is a right? And pushes ahead: Where do rights come from? What grounds them? What’s the difference, if any, between having rights, and society treating you as though you had rights? Can non-humans have rights? We talk about animal rights, but if animals have rights, do they have them in the same sense that human beings do? If we ever encounter intelligent aliens, would they have rights like ours? Could robots have rights?

Or let’s jump to politics. You and I might agree that freedom is an important moral and political value. But why is it valuable, exactly? Is it good in and of itself, or is it good because it enables other things that are good in themselves? When is it okay to limit another person’s freedom? Is freedom the only political value worth caring about, or are there other values that are important too, that may come into conflict with freedom under certain circumstances?

The Philosopher is naturally attracted to these sorts of foundational questions, and is interested in coming up with reasons to support or reject different positions on these questions.

There’s almost always something of the Scientist in the Philosopher. That’s one way of defining Western-style philosophy — it’s the pursuit of answers to deep questions like these, by means of rational argumentation in a public, social setting.

This sort of Philosopher is attracted to the Critical Thinker Academy because it teaches principles of logic and argumentation and critical reasoning that have been part of the toolset of western philosophy for over 2500 years.

The person who fits this description will be interested in the Argument Ninja program for all the same reasons, and because the program will go deep on a handful of philosophical issues that are important to the core mission.

These include the nature of reason and rationality; how the human mind and brain works, and how it generates behaviors; how human beings make moral judgments and reason about moral issues; and the ethical issues surrounding the use of persuasion techniques.

The Persuader

The third avatar that I want to talk about is an obvious one for us — “the Persuader”.

The Persuader wants to assert their will upon the world.

I don’t mean this in a negative sense. I’m talking about the natural drive to be an agent of change for yourself and for others, in a world that naturally puts up barriers against this.

The Persuader isn’t comfortable being a passive object, pushed and pulled in different directions, a pawn in games being played by other people, or institutions.

The Persuader wants to take charge of their own life, decide for themselves what they care about and how they want to live, and push back against the forces that would otherwise undermine our autonomy and our agency.

The Persuader doesn’t just want to push back against these forces. The Persuader wants to become one of these forces — a force that can transform the landscape of our shared experience, that can “shape the Matrix”, so to speak.

That’s what all Persuaders have in common. They differ in the scope and range of the influence they want to have, in the methods they’re willing to use to achieve this influence, and in the ultimate ends that drive them.

Dictators and cult leaders are very effective Persuaders. Politicians are required to be Persuaders, though some are obviously more effective than others. Advertisers and marketers are Persuaders.

But we all aspire to be Persuaders in some form or another.

Anyone who runs a business needs to be a Persuader, or their business will die.

Anyone who wants to promote progressive social change, or any form of advocacy, needs to be a Persuader.

Anyone who aspires to a position of leadership in any organization, needs to be a Persuader.

Every parent needs to be a Persuader.

Every child and every teenager, as they grow up and become more independent, needs to become a Persuader.

Every one of us, at any given time, is both a subject and an object of influence and persuasion.

What makes a person a ‘capital p’ Persuader is the choice they’ve made to embrace this role in a self-conscious way, and to make a commitment to becoming more effective in that role.

I’ve talked a lot about persuasion on the podcast, and you know that persuasion methods are part of the core curriculum of the Argument Ninja program. This is certainly one of the reasons why many people are anticipating this program and why many have pledged support for it, because they want to see it become a reality.

The Analyst

Let’s move on. Here’s a fourth avatar. I call it “The Analyst”.

The Analyst is, well, someone who performs analysis. What is analysis? It’s the process of breaking a complex phenomenon or topic into smaller parts in order to gain a better understanding of it, to help understand its nature, how it came about, how it functions, and so on.

The kind of analysis I’m thinking of, for this avatar, is analysis of human behavior and human social phenomena. There are physical science analysts, but that’s not the avatar I’m thinking of.

Think of the Trump election, and the current flurry of blog posts and newspaper articles. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of analysis have been written, trying to get a handle on how it occurred, why his campaign was successful, how a Trump presidency might play out, why he’s chosen the people he has in his cabinet, what effect they’ll have on domestic and foreign affairs, and so on.

This is people trying to do analysis.

There are hundreds of professions where conducting analysis is part of the job. There are accounting analysts, business analysts, financial analysts, marketing analysts, news analysts, public policy analysts, political analysts, internet analysts, military analysts, and on and on.

What I’m calling the Analyst, with a capital A, is the kind of person who is naturally interested in understanding, interpreting, explaining and predicting human behavior and human social phenomena.

The Analyst is interested in models and conceptual frameworks that can be used to improve their understanding of the subject they’re investigating.

Why would such a person be interested in the Argument Ninja Academy program? Because a central aim of the program is present a variety of different models for understanding and predicting human behavior.

Think of Scott Adams’ analysis of the Trump campaign. Scott made a number of bold predictions which were subsequently confirmed. He chalks up this success to the analytic framework that he applied, what he called the “master persuader filter”.

If you’re trained in cognitive biases, you can explain and predict a great deal of consumer choice behavior.

If you’re trained in social biases, you can gain insight into how people behave differently in groups than when they’re alone.

You get the idea.

Now, the Argument Ninja program is going to focus on models of cognition and behavior that are relevant to understanding how we form beliefs and make decisions, and how these bear on the phenomena of persuasion and influence, but many of these models are so fundamental, and so general, that the range of potential applications is enormous.

And when you combine that with the clarity and rigour that comes from some exposure to logic and argumentation, then you’ve got a powerful set of tools, not just for analysis, but for communicating your understanding in a way that is clear and effective.

So there’s a lot here that will be attractive to the Analyst.

The Butterfly

I’ve got one more avatar to share with you.

This is one that I’ve come to appreciate through many discussions with fans of the Critical Thinker Academy and the podcast.

I’m calling it The Butterfly. It’ll become clear why in a minute.

I talk to a lot of people who come out of backgrounds that are  authoritarian and repressive in some way. People born and raised in strongly religious communities, or cult-like environments, or political environments where dissent isn’t allowed. Places where educational opportunities are limited, ideological conformity is the rule, and deviations from family beliefs, or community norms, or the party line, are punished.

In these environments, if a person does have doubts, or wants to learn about the world beyond what is socially sanctioned and taught, you can’t be open about it. Even within your own family. You keep it to yourself. You read things online, if you have access. You struggle with your own conflicted beliefs, and you feel torn between the people and the community you love and your desire for freedom. Freedom to associate with others like you, freedom to think for yourself, and freedom to create an identity that expresses who you truly are, and who you want to be.

A significant number of people who are registered with the Critical Thinker Academy have stories like this.

In their former life, they were like a larva or caterpillar trapped in a cocoon.  Then something happens. They have an awakening. They’re introduced to a book or a video or a website or a person that speaks to their doubts and shakes them up. Maybe they choose to leave their community. Maybe they’re ostracized from it.

You know who you are.

You’re like a butterfly, newly emerged from your cocoon. Your legs are shaky. It’s disorienting.

You suddenly find yourself in a new world where you’re free to create a new identity as a free thinker.

And it can be a painful process, full of self-doubt and anxiety. Because no one creates a new identity overnight. It takes time to discover who you are, what you believe, and what communities you want to belong to.

What I’m calling “the Butterfly” is a person who has experienced this transition, or is still experiencing it, or who wants to experience it.

I would like to think that the videos I’ve shared on YouTube and the courses at the Critical Thinker Academy have been a valuable resource for the Butterfly.

What I do know is that Butterflies are the most passionate advocates for critical thinking I have ever met.

They also tend to be more militant in their critical thinking advocacy. They’re more likely to think of themselves as soldiers in an ongoing war between the forces of science and reason and the forces of dogma and irrationality.

The Butterflies will value the Argument Ninja Academy program because it will give them new resources for shaping the identity that they’re continuing to build for themselves.

The more militant Butterflies will value the Argument Ninja program because it will give them new tools for “engaging the enemy”, so to speak.

Ironically, of course, there are also quite a few religious apologists within the membership of the Critical Thinker Academy who feel exactly the same way, that their study of argumentation and persuasion is preparing them for battle against the forces of secularism.

The Upshot for Instructional Design

So, those are descriptions of five “avatars”, five idealized types who have found something of value in the material I’ve produced over the years, and who I believe will find more to value in the new material I’ll be producing for the Argument Ninja program.

Getting back to instructional design issues, the value of this exercise for me is that it helps me to keep in mind what each of these different types of student is looking to get out of any new training program that I produce. What benefits they can expect to enjoy from the tools I’m offering, what transformation do they want to experience?

Let’s review:

The Scientist wants to uncover error and progress toward the truth.

The Philosopher wants to investigate and think critically about deeper, more foundational questions.

The Persuader wants to assert their will upon the world, to “shape the Matrix”, to be an agent of change for themselves and the causes they care about.

The Analyst wants to understand, interpret and predict human behavior and human social phenomena.

The Butterfly wants to create a new identity as a free thinker, and to advocate for freedom from indoctrination and authoritarian control of our minds.

When I design the curriculum and the assessment tools and the progression mechanics for the Argument Ninja program, I need to ask myself, is the learning experience helping to facilitate these goals? Are the students getting what they want and value from the experience?

Some Comments

Now, of course there are some obvious comments that need to be made here about this avatar business.

First, I could go on creating different avatars, based on my experiences with different kinds of students. The five I’ve chosen are important for me, but that number is arbitrary.

There’s a whole group of people who use the Academy materials who are teachers, for example. There’s a Teacher avatar I could have done.

There’s a group of you who are interested in using these persuasion and communication tools for team management, conflict resolution, negotiation, collaboration, peace-making. I could have done an avatar on that.

There are professional persuaders who you might think of as Fighters. Courtroom lawyers, lobbyists, political spokespersons, stock traders, high pressure salespeople … people whose job involves strategic persuasion in a fundamental way. I could have done an avatar called “the Fighter”.

But I didn’t, because you have to stop somewhere. And because at some point you just start repeating yourself.

I’m happy with these five avatars.

The second obvious point to make is the one that most of you have been thinking to yourself the whole time you’ve been listening to this.

Most of us are some combination of these avatars.

Speaking for myself, I resonate strongly with each of the first four: the Scientist, the Philosopher, the Persuader and the Analyst.

I don’t think of myself as a Butterfly.

I had a very open childhood. I was encouraged to learn what I wanted, how I wanted, and I felt no pressure to conform ideologically. I felt like a scientist, and a philosopher, from a relatively early age. I also felt like an artist, and I spent a lot of time imagining a future in which I created art for a living.

I went straight from high school to studying science and philosophy in university, and continued on that track through graduate school and into my academic career.

So, I never had the butterfly transformation experience myself.

I’ve learned how common this experience is from being a member of different critical thinking communities over the years, seeing the kind of people who join and take leadership roles in those communities, and interacting with my own students.

I’ve never been militant on ideological issues. I’ve always been more of an observer, an analyst, and a teacher — not a foot solder.

But the rest of it, if you take those first four avatars and toss them in a salad, and sprinkle in a nerdy obsession with movies, comics, science fiction and fantasy, horror, and stand-up comedy — that’s me. That’s who I am.

So, I guess you could also say that, in creating the Critical Thinker Academy, and the Argument Ninja program, I’m creating these resources with a single avatar in mind — the younger version of myself who would felt he’d died and gone to heaven if he’d stumbled upon this twenty years ago.

I’m happy to accept that, guilty as charged. Why else would I spend thousands of hours creating content, on my own time, if it didn’t reflect who I am and what I care about?

Wrapping Up

Now, as a closing assignment for you, I’d love to get your feedback on this episode.

Do you see yourself in any of these avatar descriptions? If you had to describe yourself in terms like these, how would you do that?

Does the Butterfly story resonate with you? I’d love to hear more stories from listeners about how you came to care about critical thinking issues as much as you do.

Why do you think they matter to you, more than it does for many of the people around you?

What’s the difference between you and the people who don’t seem to care as much about these things?

You can leave comments on YouTube if you’re watching this there, or over at our Facebook page at Facebook.com/criticalthinkeracademy, or in the comments section for this episode at Argumentninja.com, or just email me at kevin@criticalthinkeracademy.com.

Next episode I’ll update you on how my Sustaining Members campaign is going.

If you’d like to become a Sustaining Member and help support this podcast and my work, including the development of the Argument Ninja Academy program that I’ve been talking about here, you can visit the support page at Argumentninja.com or Critical Thinker Academy.com — there’s menu link called “Support” for both of these.

Just to remind you, a sustaining membership, starting as low as $3 per month, will get you access to the whole catalogue at the Critical Thinker Academy, and reserve at spot for you in the Argument Ninja Academy, locked in at the same low monthly rate.

I do need to increase my sustaining memberships if I’m going to have the resources to create this thing, so you’re not just reserving a seat for yourself, you’re making it possible to create it in the first place.

Also, if you’re enjoying this podcast and want to help spread the word, it would really help if you left a starred review on iTunes.

I’ve only got, like, 8 reviews on iTunes at the moment, and that’s just way too few to get any traction on the New and Noteworthy section, so if you like the show, please, you’ll be doing me and the show a solid by adding a rating and a review note.

Also, next episode I’m going to walk you through some of the Core Curriculum material for the Argument Ninja program, and I’m going to show you an example of a persuasion technique that integrates argumentation and persuasion.

It’ll be really exciting, I guarantee it.

Thank you for listening, take care, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

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