Saturday, 9 January 2016

Understanding Arguments... and "Trolls"

In the autumn of 2013 I took an online Coursera course called "Think Again: How To Reason and Argue".

Many readers here would be familiar with a number of the concepts but the course was useful to me to help structure some concepts around statements and arguments, strategies in analysing them and eventually trying to understand the viewpoint of the person making the statements (arguments).

The course was good and something I'd recommend as an exercise in helping to understand and categorise ones own approach to argument analysis and deconstruction.

The course also gave online access to the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic, a comprehensive and useful reference book.

An Important Lesson

On element that was re-inforced and stood out early on in the course was to treat all arguments and statements sympathetically. This is like a safety valve when you see or hear a statement that might infuriate, irritate or wind up.

It's an approach to help one get to the root meaning of a statement and understand the motives of the person (or group).

I used this approach when first looking at the ISO 29119 documents and supporting material, ref [2] [3].

Challenges & Trolling

I often get challenged about my reasoning and thinking. I welcome this, it's usually very good feedback not just on my thinking but also the way I communicate an idea. So, I try to treat all challenges and criticism sympathetically.

But, when does it become "trolling"?

I saw a post this week from Mike Talks (@TestSheepNZ) - I liked the post - but I also recognised the source that triggered the post.


Well, when it comes to software development - and especially software testing (due to expert-itis, amongst other things - I need to update that post) - there might be some tells to help judge:

  1. Does the person claim to be an expert/authority in the field, but without evidence or catalogue of work? (this is a form of avoidance)
  2. Whether an expert or not, do they listen and engage in discussion - not just avoidance? (hat tip to James @jamesmarcusbach)
  3. Twitter - due to the 140 char limit - can make people appear to be buzzword, soundbite or even BS generators. Do they resort to soundbites or other indirect responses when questioned or challenged? (this is a form of avoidance)

Essentially, the keyword in the above is avoidance. If so, you might have a hopeless case on your hands.


You can google how to deal with internet trolls, but my approach:

  1. Start with sympathetic treatment. If this doesn't help you understand the statements, arguments or motives (and see the list above), then
  2. Detach, ignore, unfollow.
  3. Give yourself a retrospective. Was there a potential feedback element - can you communicate your message differently, is there some fundamental insight that you could use? (this is a topic for a different post). I.e. "trolls" can have their limited use even when their interpersonal skills let them down...
  4. Learn and move on. 
  5. I'm also a fan of humuorous treatments & critique. I'm reminded of The Not The Nine O'Clock news approach changing attitudes in World Darts (you can google it...) Sometimes these are forms of reductio ad absurdum.

If you have other perspectives on understanding arguments I'm all ears!

[1] Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic
[2] ISO 29119 Questions: Part 1
[3] ISO 29119 Questions: Part 2
[4] Internet Troll

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