In favour of terseness

by Sophronius 1 min read8th Mar 201458 comments


I like posts that are concise and to the point. Posts like that maximize my information/effort ratio. I would really like to see experienced rationalists simply post a list of things they believe on any given subject with a short explanation for why they believe each of those things. Then I could go ahead and adjust my beliefs based on those lists as necessary.

Sadly I don’t see any posts like this. Presumably this is because of the social convention where you’re expected to back up any public belief with arguments, so that other people can attempt to poke holes in them. I find this strange because the arguments people present rarely have anything to do with why they believe those things, which makes the whole exercise a giant distraction from the main point that the author is trying to bring across. In order to prevent this kind of derailment, posters tend to cover their arguments with endless qualifications so that their sentences read like this: “I personally believe that, in cases X Y Z and under circumstances B and C, ceteris paribus and barring obvious exceptions, it seems safe to say that murder is wrong, though of course I could be mistaken.” The problems with such excessive argumentation and qualification are threefold:

  1. The post becomes less readable: The information/effort ratio is lowered.
  2. It becomes much more difficult to tell what the author genuinely believes: Are they really unsure or just trying to appear humble? Is that their true objection, or just an argument?
  3. Despite everything, someone is STILL going to miss the point and reply that sometimes killing people is ok in certain situations, and then the next 100 comments will be about that.

By contrast, terseness makes posts more readable and makes it less likely that the main point is misunderstood. So if we as a community could just relax the demand for argumentation and qualification somewhat, and we all focussed on debating the main points of posts instead of getting sidetracked, then perhaps experienced rationalists here could write nice and concise posts that give clear and direct answers to complicated questions. Instead, some of the sequences are so long and involve so many arguments, counter-arguments and disclaimers that I feel the point is lost entirely.