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David Price

David co-founded Debategraph with the former Australian cabinet minister Peter Baldwin. Debategraph combines argument visualization with web-based collaborative editing to make the best arguments on all sides of any public debate freely available to all and continuously open to challenge and improvement by all. David also blogs at Open to Persuasion, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Mapping the legal status of the war on Iraq

Posted by David Price
  • Saturday, 28 March 2009 at 10:55 pm

On 26 February 2003 in the build up the Iraq war, a group of 43 Australian legal experts published an article in the Sydney Morning Herald Coalition of the Willing? Make that War Criminals, arguing that the war would be illegal and that George Bush, John Howard, and Tony Blair would be war criminals.

Greg Hunt, the Liberal MP for Flinders responded in The Age on 19 March 2003 with an article entitled Yes, This War is Legal.

Tim van Gelder, one the world's leading argument mappers, and a pioneer of computer-assisted argument visualization, has mapped both arguments with his students at the University of Melbourne – and you can see the maps reproduced below (using Tim's excellent bCisive mapping software).

As Tim blogged this week the articles are of particular interest from argument mapping perspective as the gravity of the issue and intense public interest at the time gave the authors strong incentives to present the best cases they could.

Yet, as you start to explore the maps it quickly becomes clear that both arguments are at best incomplete.

To some extent the weaknesses of the arguments reflect the limitations of the form in which they are presented; as the full complexities of the relevant arguments don't compress well into short opinion pieces (or, indeed, newspaper blog posts).

...but what is the right form of communication for addressing such critical and complex issues in, and as, a society, when our traditional forms of communication – from editorials, to radio phone-ins, to research papers, to Parliamentary debates, to dossiers (and including, some might say, legal opinions from the Attorney General) – exhibit the same intrinsic weaknesses to a greater or lesser degree?

A growing community of people, of which Tim and I are enthusiastic members, see collaborative visual mapping as one of the most promising developments in this area; as mapping provides a way to assemble all of the disparate perspectives into a coherent whole and to make this structure transparent to all and open to further challenge and refinement by all

There’s much still to be achieved in this emerging field; however, in Tim’s maps and the debate graph below (drawn from Tim's maps and the source articles) it is possible to see the glimmer of a different form of civic discourse across society at critical moments; one in which the first impulse is towards building an open, shared understanding of shape of the problem.

...and with this in mind, anyone who would like to join us in building a comprehensive, contemporary overview of the arguments around the legal status of the war in Iraq is welcome to begin to fill in the gaps and refine the arguments on the debate graph above or via Tim’s site.


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