Live Well, Do Good

How Can We Learn to Think and Argue Better?

Brandon Sun, August 20, 2018 – David McConkey

Is religion a force for good? Is global warming a real threat, which justify carbon taxes? Should we criticize Saudi Arabia and lose business and Canadian jobs? Is an urban reserve good for Brandon? Should we legalize all drugs? Should Canada take in more immigrants and asylum seekers?

Controversial issues anyone? You have come to the right place! Controversial issues are central to this column. And central to the editorials, letters to the editor and other features that appear on this page. And don’t forget the editorial cartoons!

Lately I have been wondering more about how we can better deal with controversial issues. Serious concerns have been raised about our separation into hostile “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers.” This division was especially noted during the U.S. 2016 presidential election. But the problem may be getting worse and more widespread.

Here is the central challenge: how can all of us think, discuss and even argue about issues with more intelligence and more civility? Presumably, we are all interested in coming to the best possible understandings about the world. And we know that conversations are important. Despite all the closed-mindedness around, we have seen how conversations among citizens help change society for the better. We are more accepting of, for example, women’s and LGBT rights. This has come about by our learning about and reflecting on new perspectives, and then talking with one another.

I have already mentioned in this space the new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. The author, Steven Pinker, is a psychologist who is rightly concerned about how we can think more reasonably, more scientifically and more ethically.

Here are seven questions to prompt better thinking about and discussing controversial issues. Consider these suggestions like Robert’s Rules of Order, but for everyday conversations. Even for everyday arguments.


Our time has been called a “post-truth” era, relying simply on emotion. But we don’t have to dispense with the facts. Is your thinking and discussing based on facts, rather than based on emotion?


Can you re-state the other person’s position – to their satisfaction? This step in itself is a good thing, and gets everyone on the same page. (This is good advice for marital arguments, but these are on a whole different level requiring a whole different set of ground rules!)


Are you making common thinking errors? These have been described by psychologists like Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. We humans have evolved thinking shortcuts that unfortunately hamper our ability to assess complex issues. For example, we tend to focus on the last or the most dramatic thing that comes to mind, while ignoring the most statistically relevant.


When you learn new information, do you evaluate it carefully, or do you simply shove it into your existing framework? In other words, do you confirm your existing bias? Don’t be afraid to admit to this: we all do it!


Are you keeping in mind the latest science? We likely are not experts ourselves, but we can defer to appropriate authorities. For example, Pinker lambastes environmentalists who readily accept the scientific consensus on global warming, but who then reject the science of the safety of GMOs and of nuclear power.


Are you on the lookout for solutions that might incorporate elements of both – or even several – sides of an issue? For example, there are approaches that could unite both the pro-life and the pro-choice sides of the abortion debate. We know what reduces unwanted pregnancies, like empowering women and implementing better sex education. Those steps would reduce abortions, which both sides should applaud and support.


Right now, we tend to disparage politicians and others who “flip-flop” on issues. But shouldn’t we celebrate those who absorb new facts and new perspectives to arrive at better understandings? Are you open to changing your mind?

To end on an optimistic note, Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now summarizes the great progress of humanity over the last 250 years. Indeed, the author concludes that we are thinking more reasonably, scientifically and ethically.

So take a look at how you can become better at thinking. And better at arguing.

* * * 

See also:

More Than Ever, Words and Ideas Matter

Deepening Our Thinking in the Internet Age: Ten Tips

Enlightenment Values Are Needed Now More Than Ever

The Medium is the Message?

Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story

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