I've observed my interlocutors—and sometimes myself—applying excessive nuance to irrelevant points during some discussions. This misplaced nuance results in the derailing of conversations towards rabbit holes and dead ends.
When I bring a new supporting but tangential idea into a discussion (e.g. mention a widely accepted scientific theory), my interlocutor applies excessive nuance to this new idea at the expense of the salient points in the discussion. This misplaced and excessive nuance takes the form of nitpicking or questioning the underlying framework underpinning that newly introduced idea.
This is rarely fruitful because almost always, none of the participants is at the cutting-edge of the relevant fields to add any new insights. I'm all for rational inquiry and open discourse, but nitpicking oftentimes comes across as pretentious and unconstructive.
The effect of this conversation style is the unchecked growth of the stack of topics. We often forget to go back down the stack to revisit the original points that instigated the discussion unless someone cares sufficiently to intentionally apply enough pressure to steer the conversation back down the stack. Such discussions usually quickly end up in rabbit holes, and no one gets anything out of them.
Suppose that you are having a conversation about "what it feels like when your worldview is shattered." Your interlocutor is a fellow rationalist and mentions that they read a book promoting climate denial and describes to you what it felt like to almost have their worldview shattered by a professional motivated-skeptic and evidence-cherrypicker. They explain how difficult it is for us mere mortals to notice this black magic being applied to our minds and how easy it is to be deceived by a professional charlatan.
To add to this discussion, you contribute the idea that this feeling is similar going the other way. For example, a profoundly religious person reading a science book on biological evolution will feel similar to how you—a rigorous rationalist—felt reading a book promoting climate denial, anti-vax, or some other pseudoscientific theory.
Both of you agree that evolution is a widely accepted theory with plenty of evidence going for it. Still, your interlocutor decides that they want to show you how much they know about the philosophy of science, so they say, "Playing devil's advocate, evolution is still just a theory." In the back of your mind, you would like to stay on topic, but rationalist verve takes over you, and you engage with all your heart in a fraught debate.
Now, suddenly, you find yourself debating the truth of biological evolution. You're both embroiled in the weeds of the philosophy of science, and other participants in the conversation are becoming visibly uninterested. You are no longer talking about "what it feels like when your worldview is shattered."
Conversation and Social Status
I read "The Elephant in the Brain" recently, and at some point, it talks about human conversation. Hanson and Simler explore why we humans are so eager to talk even when keeping information to ourselves gives us a competitive advantage.
We’re so eager to speak, in fact, that we have to curb our impulses via the norms of conversational etiquette. If speaking were an act of giving, we would consider it polite for people to “selflessly” monopolize conversations. But in fact, it’s just the opposite. To speak too much or “hog the mic” is considered rude, while the opposite behavior—inviting someone else to take the floor, or asking a dinner guest about one of her hobbies—is considered the epitome of good manners.
Improving conversational etiquette has a very high return on investment because we converse with others all the time. Giving others space to talk, listening when others speak, clearly articulating ourselves and avoiding nitpicking when inappropriate in context are all valuable skills. These skills develop naturally for some people but are subtle and difficult to cultivate for others. I have found that inviting friends to offer me constructive feedback on my conversational style has helped me improve these skills.
I find that there are three overarching types of conversationalists:
- High-status conversationalists:
- They invite others to speak.
- They check if others would like to switch topics, go back to a previous topic or end the conversation, so they don't miss their train.
- When they speak, they are precise and pertinent. They are OK with letting go and don't need to explain every point exhaustively.
- They often get invited by others to take centre-stage, and people are all ears when they speak.
- Low-status conversationalists:
- They make every point as if they are answering a test, going into excessive detail that is usually not relevant in context.
- They are excessively contrarian, even about minor or tangential points, thus being inimical to the progress of a conversation.
- They don't give other people space to talk and don't make an effort to include newcomers.
- They complain and forcefully change conversation topics at the expense of others when a particular subject doesn't suit their fancy.
- They don't like to converse.
A conversational stack overflow occurs when the stack gets so large and messy that everyone involved in a conversation forgets how we got here. I argue that in many situations, traversing back down the stack is an essential social skill because there is at least someone in the conversation who cares about some primary point that was made earlier in the discussion.
When Stack Overflow and Nuance are OK
There are specific conversations where allowing the conversation to meander and allowing the conversational stack to grow and blend are OK. For example, you are having beers next to a campfire, or when you explicitly ask other participants in the conversation if they would like to revisit an earlier point, switch topics or end the conversation, and they say they are happy to let the conversation flow.
Another context in which exploring many topics is desirable is when getting to know someone new. In this context, traversing a breadth of topics quickly and having flexibility in which topics to discuss will maximise the chances of finding a common interest.
Rigour is desirable in many contexts, such as writing an academic paper, reviewing academic work or explicitly engaging in a debate about a particular topic. Rigour is different from nitpicking. Nitpicking takes the form of applying excessive nuance in order to miss the point intentionally, or to show off how much you know about some irrelevant topic.
The constant shifting of conversation topics due to the application of excessive nuance to tangential points can be counterproductive in many contexts. There is a suitable place and time for nuance, and some discussions don't call for nuance about particular matters. Hogging the mic to make a point exhaustively is a poor social skill. Improving conversational social skills is a meta-skill that enhances all aspects of our lives, and it is worth intentionally cultivating.