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.
    3 responses
    One thing I found interesting here is that, especially towards the end, you weren't actually using the bullet points very differently than one would normally use periods. I think there's an inherent choppiness to sticking to one statement per line. Bullets are a pretty good way to make that feel natural. I've also noticed that I spend less time on wording when writing in statements. Like the difference between a complicated soup of combinators and more linear code that just does one thing after another. In the former case, I inevitably feel the urge to make it point free (, aka unreadable. In the latter, I sometimes even write comments.
    Oops, I was wrong, you did actually nest things - my rss reader just didn't format properly. It was still perfectly readable without the nesting, so I stand by my point re linear vs recursive structure though. Sometimes you need recursion. If you don't need it, it's often clearer not to have it.
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