Beautiful Posters and Complicated Concepts Don’t Always Work – But That’s OK.

I was recently reading Metafilter, a content aggregator, when I came upon a set of labels that came from the Information is Beautiful site and described a number of logical fallacies. Unfortunately, while these were quite nice to look at, the fallacy descriptions are at times inaccurate, and the diagrams don’t really convey the core idea sometimes. (There was an example of applying these labels to a speech and it was a bit of a stretch in many regards.) What disappointed me in the ensuing discussion on Metafilter was how overwhelmingly negative people were about this. There was a lot of “well, this is terrible logic” (and that statement was at times true) and “the application of labels simplistically leads to trouble” (which is also true) but let’s step back for a moment and look at the core idea.

Would it be helpful to use strong visual cues that students can attach to text for a subset of logical fallacies or rhetorical tricks to help in them marking up essays? How about the ability to click an ‘Ad Hominem’ button on Wikipedia when you’ve selected a box of text that contains an attack upon the person rather than their ideas?

While the original labels certainly need refinement and work, taking this as a starting point would have been both useful and constructive. Attacking it, deriding it and rejecting it because it isn’t perfect seems a wasted opportunity to me. It’s very easy to be dismissive but I’m not sure that there’s much long-term benefit in burning everything that’s not perfect. I much prefer a constructive approach – is there anything I can use from here? Can I take this and make it better? How can I achieve this and make it awesome? The Information is Beautiful site has lots of good stuff but there is the occasional miss, but you’re bound to learn something interesting anyway, or pick up a new way of seeing. Would I teach directly from it? No! Of course not. (Look at some of the labels, especially for Novelty and Design and tell me if this is all serious.)

I should note that Metafilter user asavage, who some of you will know from burning off his eyebrows on Mythbusters, also noted that the IIB link wasn’t great but suggested an excellent alternative – A Visual Guide to Cognitive Biases.

Four pictures depicting the different families of bias.

Yes, asavage¬†doesn’t much like what he read in the original links, and there’s good reason for it to be modified, but he provides a constructive suggestion. Now, fair warning, it’s a scribd link to get the slide pack, which is big and requires you to log in to the site or use a Facebook login, but if you teach any kind of logical thinking at all, it’s an essential resource. It’s the Cognitive Bias Wikipedia page with good graphics and it’s a great deal of fun.

Are either of these approaches the equivalent of a full lecture course on logic, reasoning and rhetoric? No. With thought, could you use elements from both in your teaching? I think the answer is a resounding yes and I hope that you have fun reading through them.

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