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.

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