Discussions for information

Information and ideas percolate through society in many forms: via research papers, media publications, schools, advocacy campaigns, and perhaps most ubiquitously, private conversations.

Private conversations fulfill purposes other than information processing and transfer, so they cannot be expected to perfectly fulfill such roles, or even to fulfil them particularly well. They convey implicit information about the speakers and their qualities, they manifest social maneuvering, they embody humor and other good feelings, and they make a good circumstance for enjoying company more generally.

The information related roles that conversation can play most obviously include straightforwardly communicating information, and – in a more argumentative fashion – collaboratively figuring out what is true. Even if conversations are usually for other things as well, given that they are a major part of the social information  and dispersal system, one might wonder if they could do these jobs better when those roles are important. For instance, if you partake in ‘work’ conversations with the intention of productively progressing toward specific goals, should you be doing anything other than following your natural conversation instincts?

If you wanted to fulfill these information roles with conversations, here are some ways they seem to fall short in general:

  1. They are rarely recorded or shared usefully. Which is bad because it means they must be repeated anew by many different groups of people, not to mention exactly the same people.
  2. Relatedly, conversations seem to hardly build on one another over time. If I think of a good counterargument to your point, this won’t be available to any of the gazillion others having the same argument in the near future, because neither of us will do anything that makes it so, and both of us will probably forget all but the gist of the discussion by tomorrow. I posit that it is very hard to have a counterargument to a counterargument to a counterargument to an argument widely known, even when the argument and the counterargument are often repeated. Except when participants have a history or perhaps a shared subculture, each discussion basically starts the topic anew. A given discussion rarely gets through many considerations, and doesn’t leave the considerations it gets through in a state to be built upon by other conversations.
  3. Discussions are often structured poorly for analysis, though perhaps ok for information transfer. It is natural for a discussion to take a fairly linear form, because only one sentence can be said at a time. But topics being discussed often don’t fit well in this form. A given statement has many potential counterarguments, and lots of possible pieces of supporting evidence, or vantage points from which to analyze it. The same is true of each of those arguments or supports. So a person may make a statement, then another person may offer a  criticism, and so on for a few levels, at which point one of the people will ‘lose the argument’ because he has no retort. But that corner of the tree was not necessarily critically important to the truth of the initial claim. If at the first level a different argument had been pursued, or different evidence had been offered, a largely unrelated path would have been taken, and someone else may have had the final say. If the parties do not remember the rest of the structure of their discussion, it is hard to go back to to a sensible juncture and hash out a different supporting claim. Usually they will just move on to something else that the last bit reminded them of, and in the future vaguely remember who won the argument, without further value being created. 
  4. Relatedly, it is often unclear to the participants in a discussion what the overall structure of a discussion is, or how the parts relate to one another on even a small scale. For instance, which parts are important to carrying the point, and which parts are watertight. I find that when I write out an argument at length, in a structured way, I notice gaps that weren’t salient informally. And structured arguments look as if they help students reason more clearly.
  5. Disagreement interacts badly with the social signaling purposes of conversation, as it tends to be taken as an aggressive move except when done skillfully. It’s not clear to me whether this is a fundamental problem with collaboratively critiquing ideas or a accident of the social norms we have, both for critique and for attacking people.
  6. Similarly, allocating time in conversations tends to interact badly with social signaling. The person with the best point to listen to next is unlikely to always be the one who should talk next according to fairness, kindness, status, or volume. There have been some attempts to improve this.

This is not near exhaustive. Feel free to suggest more.

I am told that people have often tried to improve conversational norms, but I only know of a few such efforts. These are innovations such as randomized alarms while talking, hand gestures during seminars, argument mapping, and anonymous text conversation while everyone is in the room. I’d like to see a better survey of such attempts, but so far have not. Hopefully I just haven’t guessed the right keywords. Pointers would be appreciated.

For figuring out what is true, it seems many of these problems are resolved by writing a more permanent, public, well structured, outline of a topic of debate, then adding to it as you find new arguments. I think various people are in favor of such a thing, but I haven’t seen it done much (again, pointers appreciated). I have tried this a bit, with Paul Christiano, with the hope that it will either help somewhat, or allow us to figure out the problems with it.

Here are a few examples in progress:

  1. The case for Cool Earth (linked before from my climate research)
  2. US open borders advocacy
  3. Animal activism

So far we don’t seem to have found any irrecoverable problems. However I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the merits of such interventions. Especially if you think this sort of thing is a terrible aid to discussion for the purpose of figuring things out.

7 responses to “Discussions for information

  1. Canonizer.com was an attempt to provide a structured discussion environment. It didn’t work very well for me, but I think the right kind of active supportive community could have made it work. I think the proponent of the idea may have chosen an initial set of topics that couldn’t grab a lively enough community.

    The site seems to be down, so I’ll give the wayback link:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20120220055413/http://canonizer.com/topic.asp/10

  2. I like the general approach, though I find the resulting Workflowy outlines difficult to read, because compared to a prose article or book, much less effort went into clear exposition, citation of supporting material, clarification, setting the context, etc.

    If most interested people have a similar reaction, then it might be worth the cost to use the outline to produce some kind of “living prose article” that looks more like a review article for the debate, with a new edition of the review article released each year (if the conversations remain active). This would only be done for the most valuable and well-developed structured conversations, though.

    Then again, maybe not. Maybe a prose version of these articles would balloon to 100+ pages each, requiring enormous effort to write, and non-trivial time and attention to read.

    • I agree: I find it very difficult to navigate and understand the Workflowys, let alone contribute. I wonder how much this is because, as you say, effort hasn’t been focussed on making it a clear exposition, versus because I did not participate in the initial discussion or creation process, which I imagine gives people a mental space for the ideas that isn’t immediately reconstructed from the end-product.

      I like the idea of a living prose article a lot.
      This could even be done on Workflowy, at a faster time-scale than you suggest.
      Other models include the way by which the HoTT book was written (http://math.andrej.com/2013/06/20/the-hott-book/), or PolyMath (http://polymathprojects.org/).

      How does a collaborative blog like LessWrong fail to fill this need for information-seeking discussion?

  3. I noticed this a year ago, when I realized that conversations with college friends were hitting the same subjects again and again, and the results were not being saved.

    In an attempt to fix this for one small group of conversational topics, I started a Facebook group called “Yale Ideas” (I’m an undergraduate at Yale), where people could discuss complaints/ideas related to college policy in a structured fashion where all voices could be heard and information wouldn’t be lost.

    The group has been growing steadily, and has been great for turning individual thoughts/knowledge into collective consensus–or at least a coherent list of reasonable positions. But the most important thing about Yale Ideas, in my view, is that it deals with issues that can very quickly be resolved: emails are sent to the right administrator, feedback is received, changes happen or are found to be impossible. I doubt that the “Facebook solution” would work for something like open-borders advocacy. Probably some kind of idea-web, updated with any new pieces of evidence/information that come out, would be best. Some blogs that interlink a lot are starting to approach that structure, but we’re far from any kind of optimal position now. Heck, even most policy books don’t bother to provide a single web or flowchart that sums the arguments up on one page. Does anyone know of books that have done this?

  4. > I’d like to see a better survey of such attempts, but so far have not.

    How about ‘brainstorming’ and related topics in industrial psychology? The research on brainstorming and meetings in general seem like the sort of tack one would take in trying to improve problem-solving-related conversations.

  5. All of the institutions available us will fail badly when compared to ideal of a perfect institution. So the most interesting question is to choose between several imperfect institutions. It isn’t obvious that informal conversation fails there.

    • I agree, though it seems a good way to compare it to other imperfect institutions is to ask where it seems to fail and see if there is a slightly different institution in the direction of fixing that error.

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