6 min read

Critical conversations about causal maps

Critical conversations about causal maps
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko / Unsplash

The creation of an interdisciplinary causal map is a sustained activity. New information or going through the four main types of explanations will extend the map, conversations will reorganize the map and specific choices (e.g. choosing a research question or a focus area) will prune the map. These changes will reflect the team's changing understanding and research interests.

Causal maps as tools for interdisciplinary integration
If you think teaching critical thinking is hard, try interdisciplinarity. It’s easy to talk about how combining disciplines leads to more than the sum of its parts, and it’s possible to talk about quality interdisciplinarity as you know it when you see it, but neither is enough to
Types of explanation
Science deals in explanations. I know this statement makes some philosophers of science uneasy. Science cannot generate complete certainty about explanations, but can only generate models of the world that can predict future measurements. So the product of science is predictions, not explanations, r…
The quest for explanations
Previously, I showed how several monodisciplinary causal maps can be combined and integrated to form an interdisciplinary causal map. This meant skipping over a key question: how do you turn knowledge from literature or experiments into (hypothesized) causal mechanisms? Causal maps as tools for int…

At any time during this process, it can be worthwhile to prompt students to critically analyse the understanding that they have. Once they have reached an interdisciplinary causal map that they are happy with, they should definitely do a critical analysis.

Critical conversations

One way to go about that is to have critical conversations. In this approach, two people are having a conversation, in which one person is trying to elucidate the reasoning of another person by asking questions according to a structured format. Although ‘critical’ in daily parlance is often taken to mean counter-arguing or refuting a claim, the critical dialogue in this particular method is not adversarial. Instead it is an honest attempt to hear what someone else thinks, any why.

What? How? Really?

A good structure to use for critical conversations is the what-how-really (WHR) structure. This structure is predicated on the idea that critical analysis of a claim requires three things:

  1. Precisely defining the claim
  2. Providing reasons for believing the claim
  3. Considering alternatives to the claim and the reasoning process

The WHR structure divides a conversation in three rounds (usually of 10 - 15 minutes each), with each round corresponding to one specific question. The first round is the what-round (to improve precision), the second round is the how-round (to gather substantiation) and the third round is the really-round (to reflect on the claim and its underlying reasoning).

Usually, three people participate in a WHR-structured conversation. One person makes a claim, a second person asks questions to get the first person to elaborate on the claim and a third person makes notes of the substance of the conversation.

Critical talking about causal maps

In the case of causal maps, it might not be immediately clear what the claim is. The claim could be the idea that a team's explanandum can be described by the causal relations shown in the map. If a team already has a research question, it could be a summarized version of their answer to the research question. Whatever it is, it is important that the conversation takes place with the causal map visible to all three participants in the critical conversation.

Round 1: What?

The interviewer starts by asking their interviewee to make the claim. They can then proceed to ask clarifying questions about the claim, or by selecting specific components on the map and asking clarifying question about what these components mean.

Even if the meaning seems obvious, there are always ways to dig deeper. For a component 'fear response', one might ask what operationalization was considered. For a component 'adaptive hippocampus', one might ask what 'adaptive' means in this case. Some answers will lead to new questions. For example, 'adaptive' might mean  ‘that it changes its structure if inputs change’, which then begs the question what is meant exactly by ‘inputs’.

The role of the interviewer is only to get the interviewee to elucidate her thoughts, not to give advice or argue for a different view. In natural conversation, there are many different questions that will pop up to this end. Usually, this process shows that we often use imprecise words, or that different people interpret identical words differently — this is especially true in a multidisciplinary context.

For the note-keeper, the important task in this round is to write down the specific definitions that the interviewee gives. After the critical analysis, it is important for a team to agree on definitions and operationalizations (something interdisciplinarians like to call common ground).

Round 2: How?

The second round of the critical dialogue method consists of so-called how-questions. These can be questions about how some connection between components on the causal map is supposed to work, or how it has been established that a specific relationship holds. That is, the round is about reasons and substantiation.

The interviewer should be digging for reasons, and think about which questions would help to find them. This process might cause the interviewee to realize assumptions they’re making or it might alter their confidence in the validity of their map. It’s important that the note-taker writes down such assumptions and deliberations!

Round 3: Really?

This round builds on the previous rounds and exists to check whether causal relationships in the map really hold and whether there could be alternative relations that should be considered. This round is basically a counter-measure against confirmation bias, as it explicitly asks the interviewee to think differently about the topic:

  • Is it really true that semantic memory improves if there is more plasticity in cortex? Could it turn out that this relation does not hold?
  • Are these really all the factors that are important? Are there potential biases in your thinking?

Questions like these press the interviewee to think about alternatives. It might be that such thinking reinforces their beliefs, but it might also be that it adds nuances or new open questions to their understanding of the topic. Again, it’s important that the note-taker writes down all these considerations, as both interviewer and interviewee are bound to forget some details.

Using dialogues for analysing an interdisciplinary causal map

A multidisciplinary team could use this critical dialogues method to discuss their causal map with each other. This helps everyone in the team to get to a full understanding of the map, regardless of their expertise. In practice, it can be a bit tiring to go through the above process for each and every node and edge of the map. This is why it is good for an interviewer to just select those relations that they don’t fully grasp yet.

To avoid groupthink, it can also be useful to get an outside view. By bringing in someone else to play the role of interviewer (e.g. a fellow student or a supervisor), the odds of a fresh perspective are higher. Note that for interdisciplinary maps, questioning causal relations that exist at the interface of disciplinary submaps can be especially fruitful.

Once the team has gone through the critical dialogue process, it will be left with notes about the assumptions they’ve been making, possible alternative explanations or even gaps that remain. It is up to them to decide what to do with those. The notes might prompt additional exploration of the literature, might help formulate a research question or they might just be ingredients for the discussion section in a report. Whatever the outcome, the critical dialogue method is geared towards thinking about what is known.

When to use critical conversations

A teacher in interdisciplinary skills can use critical conversation at different stages of a project. It can be useful to do it after an exploratory phase, so that students can focus on a specific, controversial portion of their causal map. It can also be done at the tail end of a project, helping students to develop a critical discussion section for their final report. As long as the students are at the stage where they are equipped to have a meaningful talk about the topic, the critical dialogue method can be of use.