Using Bullet Points to Improve Arguments

Bullet points may not be elegant prose style, but I think they're helpful for making disagreements productive.  I learned this technique from Paul Christiano and I hope it catches on further.

Conversational back-and-forth is a terrible format for resolving disagreements in good faith. 

  • A conversation is single-threaded. Alice says something; Bob replies to Alice's last statement; Alice replies to Bob's last statement; and so on.
    • Sometimes a single conversational "turn" is not long enough to express the whole idea Alice was trying to get across. Bob interjects at what feels like a natural "stopping point", but Alice wasn't done, and now she has to either grab the conversation back (which feels rude) or give up on making her point.
    • Structured arguments are not single-threaded; they are branched. Each claim has supporting evidence.  If I believe A because B, C, and D, and after an hour you finally convince me that B is false, we might "feel" like you've "won" the argument, and not notice that you haven't convinced me that A is false.

  • Verbal conversations are often limited by one or both parties' mental energy or sense of social appropriateness.
    • Bob may agree with Alice not because he's convinced but because he's tired of arguing or worried that continued argument will damage their relationship.
    • The structure of the argument may become unclear when the discussion partners are overcome with strong emotion.
    • Alice may ask Bob for clarification once or twice, but will feel like it's rude to keep saying "no, I still don't understand" three times in a row, even if she really doesn't understand.
    • Detailed, nested arguments may never actually get across because it feels rude to ask busy people to read walls of text or have hours-long conversations.
    Bullet points solve some of these problems:
    • They clearly identify which statements are supporting examples for which main points.
    • They de-emphasize rhetoric and foreground the structure of the claim.
    • They make it easier to point out which statements you agree or disagree with.
      • this reminds people that it's okay to partially agree; it promotes nuance.
    • They reduce length, so busy people can see the argument structure at a glance.
    • Because they're written rather than spoken, they allow people to take breaks from the discussion and pick up where they left off.

    Apps with infinite nesting capabilities, like Workflowy, are especially good for this, but plain old text is fine.

    Possible objections:

    • "Most arguments aren't really about a structure of claims and supporting evidence! Usually what people say they're arguing about isn't the thing they really care about deep down!"
      • True, but "arguing about one thing when the real issue motivating you is something else" is  pretty much the definition of "arguing in bad faith". Sometimes people are arguing in good faith!
      • Bad faith arguments often don't make sense structurally, and structuring arguments explicitly can help make that clear.
        • e.g. if Bob feels sure Alice is wrong about something important, but doesn't know what, so he argues against one of her points at random, Bob's specific argument is likely not to hold water, even if his feeling of disquiet is justified.
        • Bullet points and other structural aids can make it easier to understand that Bob's specific claim is wrong.
        • Alice and Bob also need to have the emotional maturity to realize that Bob may be seeing a problem he can't quite articulate, and cooperate to figure out what it is. Bullet points can't automagically give you that.
    • "Bullet points aren't flexible enough! To really formalize arguments you'd need logical operators or something!"
      • Yeah, "or something." Fully formalizing human speech is a hard problem. This is a very minimal stab at making some speech a little more structured.
    • "Bullet points are ugly/corporate/boring/not how my English teacher taught me!"
      • In my experience, it is hard enough to simply be clear that it's often worth sacrificing style to make sure people understand.
      • You can always go back and turn your bullet points into essays.

    How to Make A Memex

    Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay "As We May Think" prefigured the invention of hypertext and the Internet.

    He imagined a "memex", a desk equipped with a microfilm apparatus, "in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." 

    The memex allows its owner to link to sources and comment on them. This way, he can record, for his own recollection, what he was reading and how it was relevant to questions he was thinking about. He can create "trails" of research questions, which contain links and excerpts to various sources he finds along the way. And these personal trails can be copied and shared with others, to put into their own personal memexes.

    Arguably the Internet forms one big memex today. Bush was right in his prediction that "wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear", that "The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents," and "The physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics." 

    But Bush imagined the memex as a private (though shareable) record, not a communal one. Each person should have their own memex.

    This matters because people need complex private thought.

    Nicholas Carr, concerned about the effect of the Internet on human cognition, argues that a "complex personality" is actually the result of forming one's own interpretations of what one reads, forming a private "cathedral-like" structure, a "personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West."

    Educated men and women of the 19th century worked at constructing inner lives through text. They kept diaries. They wrote letters.  They kept files so they could remember what they were writing at different points in their lives.

    Today, educated people also read and write a lot, but in an ephemeral and exposed fashion.  Social media has a short memory. The defaults don't permit you to organize your own space. Moreover, the demands of immediate sharing with everyone mean that you're constantly modeling what other people will think of your writing. Not only are you incentivized away from writing controversial things, but also of writing anything that might be confusing or involve a large inferential distance from the audience. Long and nested chains of reasoning are hard to convey to all readers. Private concepts that you've invented are too "jargony" and people may criticize you for "needlessly" inventing terms. If you do all your thinking in public, in venues where you always have to start from a presumption of zero familiarity with your other thought, you can't create complex thoughts at all.

    The "intimacy" Bush wrote about is lost. You get dumber if your thoughts are limited to the bandwidth that you can successfully communicate in a few minutes to arbitrarily many strangers.

    The solution is to create a personal memex. A record of your thoughts and associations, which you will only share parts of with others.

    I use Roam for this.

    (I know the founders but I'm not paid to promote Roam; I just genuinely love the tool.)

    Roam has two main features that make it better than a simple notebook or text document: links and indents.

    Links, of course, allow you to make associations between pages. Infinitely threaded indents allow you to impose hierarchical structures of arbitrary depth.

    This allows you to make and visualize a graph of all your notes:

    Roam also has one important feature that nothing else I've used does -- very low friction to making and linking new pages.  A memex is only as good as your willingness to use it. If it's clunky to take notes, you won't. So, Roam has keyboard shortcuts for links and indents and other applications (like LaTeX markup!) It also has very rapid loading times, so it's less irritating to use than a word processor or Google Docs. You can add and link pages as fast as you can type.

    Mainly, I use my memex as a personal record of my thoughts. I make pages for concepts of interest, including references to people. ("Memex" has its own page.)  On each day's "daily notes", I add links to things I read, my reactions to conversations or things I've read, worries on my mind, drafts of arguments (diagrammed out with heavy use of indents; supporting arguments are threaded beneath the claims they justify) etc. When I mention a concept, I tag the word so it links to the corresponding concept page.

    I've noticed this allows me to think in a more nuanced way. When I don't have to compress an idea to make it easier to communicate with others, I can allow it to have dependencies, exceptions, conditionals...all the sub-clauses that make it hard to fit in a tweet.

    It also allows me to gain more temporal consistency -- more sense of the commonalities between me-of-last-week and me-of-this-week, to remember when I keep coming back to the same thoughts, etc.

    And it has the usual advantages of diaries -- helps me process my emotions, helps me make sense of my thoughts, helps me keep track of my life.

    Ultimately, I think it could be a replacement for a documents folder or Google Drive, though I'm not sure I'm quite ready to switch my whole text-based life into Roam.  It's certainly an upgrade from either a diary or a blog. I hope more people try it!