Is Tom Brady the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT)? The recent Super Bowl has reignited the question, and there is more than enough disagreement to go around. For our purposes, let’s dismiss the detailed arguments that football coaches and some Monday morning quarterbacks might offer, and focus on premises that are accessible to the casual sports fan. Critical thinking skills can be employed to construct a sound argument that helps us understand and respond to the question. There may be more than one answer, but the process of what ThinkerAnalytix calls argument mapping will visually help us construct sound arguments.
If you ask teachers whether they teach critical thinking to their students, most will say they do. If you then ask them how they define critical thinking, you’re likely to get the same response as we heard from Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 Supreme Court case: “I know it when I see it.” It turns out that we could teach critical thinking in the context of contemporary events and questions by looking closely at the components of those arguments. Our friends at ThinkerAnalytix help us learn those components in order to navigate controversial political and social issues. They want us to use a visual technique called argument mapping to help people engage in constructive disagreements, rather than talking past each other. In short, they want us to pursue the source of the disagreement.
Regarding the question of whether Tom Brady is the GOAT, let’s suppose we have two football fans, one from Boston and one from Denver. The Boston fan argues that Brady is the greatest of all time because he has won seven Super Bowls (the image above predated the most recent game), more than any other player or team. Our Denver fan is not so sure. The fan remembers John Elway and Peyton Manning as amazing Denver Bronco quarterbacks and also recalls “Deflategate” in the papers a few years back (Patriots were accused of letting air out of the footballs to make them easier to throw when it was cold). Our Denver fan argues vigorously that there are other quarterbacks who might fit the bill and that part of Brady’s success may have been associated with cheating. Unfortunately, their disagreement is not resolvable because the premises of the original argument are not being addressed; in fact, they are being bypassed by each party because the Boston fan has not been explicit about their key premise.
Let’s now suppose that the Denver fan spends some time with the ThinkerAnalytix staff and discovers that the Boston fan kept his co-premise hidden and that it is the actual source of the disagreement. Our Boston fan has not stated but implied that the criterion for the GOAT is the number of Super Bowl rings. If one studies the argument map above, it becomes clear that for our Boston fan to have a sound argument, both premises (under the thick green bar) must be true. It is a fact that Tom Brady has won seven Super Bowls, but it is not a fact that Super Bowl victories are the sole criterion for GOAT status. One might believe that premise and it would be reasonable based on another fact, the Super Bowl is the crowning game of the season. It would also be legitimate to argue that other quarterbacks were GOAT for different reasons, the team that surrounds you has something to do with the success of the quarterback, and that alleged cheating could be a scar on the ultimate ranking.
One might conclude from this analysis that the argument is fruitless because there will likely be no winner or loser. That is a common mindset for those who engage in such an argument. What the argument map shows is that the path to consensus is agreement on whether the number of Super Bowls won is the criterion for GOAT status, and without that agreement, the argument is not resolved. However, what if the purpose of the argument was to better understand another point of view in a manner that avoids conflict and actually strengthens a personal and social bond as a result of that understanding? In short, the moral of the story is that critical thinking skills are not only important in order to analyze arguments, but also to build relationships between people who may not see eye to eye.
ThinkerAnalytix is a nonprofit working in partnership with Harvard’s Department of Philosophy to help students build logic and reasoning skills on a broad scale.