Everyone who is reading this has, at some point, taken apart something, examined the pieces, then put them together again—sometimes in a different way. For some, it might have been some old computer or furniture. For many others, it may have been toys such as legos. Yet, even if you somehow have never done this with physical objects, you have inevitably done so with abstract concepts such as language.
The world is full of identifiable pieces and patterns, whether they are physical (e.g. parts, threads, elements) or non-physical (e.g. ideas, concepts, trends). Thankfully, we don’t need to constantly ponder all of the molecules we eat or what defines the action of “eating” in order to operate; we use “shorthand” or “fast thinking,” as Anna recently wrote about, to summarize everyday things and processes in the world around us. Yet, that same practice of shorthand can very often lead us to misunderstand or mischaracterize reality, especially when we begin to get into the more-complicated, more-controversial topics we regularly encounter in debate. In many areas, some people do not always try to look deeply enough to examine and evaluate the “pieces” that underpin our ideas or beliefs. Instead, we can tend to oversimplify, mix up the pieces, or otherwise conduct faulty analysis; we occasionally rely on heuristics or fall prey to cognitive biases. Furthermore, many people’s means of communicating certain ideas often seem to have similar flaws, in terms of efficiency and accuracy. In short, the situationally-proper balance between shorthand and structured/analytical (“slow”) thinking and communication ought to be struck, but it isn’t always. The problem is multifaceted, and I certainly can’t fully address it in this one article, but I can and will examine the issue of insufficient structure in thinking and communication. More specifically, I will 1) further explain and illustrate the distinction, 2) provide a general justification and exhortation for greater structure in certain situations, and 3) provide specific examples tools/methods we could use more often.
Structured vs. simple: outlining and illustrating the distinction
If I were blindly adhering to “structure and all its glory,” I would try to come up with some rigorous, complicated definition/distinction for what I mean. However, I recognize that wouldn’t really be helpful; it would probably be boring and/or needlessly confusing. So instead, I’ll try to paint the general idea.
Basically, it is thinking/communicating in a way such that someone (including you) can more clearly identify the “ingredients” to your thought process, so as to even separate them if necessary; it is the idea of not mixing ideas together and judging based off of an “impression” or “instinct.” More broadly, it also involves the patterns by which you communicate or think. As just one example of such patterns, imagine if this article were not written with any sections or even paragraphs. Of course, we generally recognize the value in basic paragraphs; the issue at hand is where we don’t think about possible “next steps” in structured analysis/communication. The following subsections will cover two more examples to illustrate what I mean.
Communicating (and thinking) in pieces: Kialo
Consider the difference between Kialo and IDebate, or Kialo and this Washington Post article. In both cases, the style of analysis/communication offered by Kialo is far more structured and allows more depth and breadth. This is especially the case when one examines the Washington Post article: professor Hurwitz is a more-knowledgeable writer, and he writes in a more-familiar essay style. Yet, his depth, breadth, and visible structure are rather “weak” compared to Kialo; Hurwitz only uses a single level of headers (the “three main points”), and on multiple occasions just asserts important ideas without exploring them. This is not to say that Hurwitz’s review is necessarily “inferior”; one must consider the purpose and context of the communication: Hurwitz is mainly trying to simplify the issue and give his own opinion/conclusions on the topic, whereas the Kialo discussion is trying to unpack the complexity in order to accurately determine truth, regardless of whether most of the audience cares to review the matter in its entirety. Kialo could be even more structured, but as I’ll explain in the next section, that isn’t necessary; the point I’m trying to make here is that Kialo’s argument-block structure is a great example of a way that we could more logically and structurally approach questions.
Thinking (and communicating) in pieces: “Pros and Cons” vs. the Stock Issues
Even many non-debaters understand the idea of “making a list of pros and cons” for a decision. On the one side, you list out the pros of a decision, and on the other side you list out the cons. Simple, right? Sometimes, yes, but policy debaters (generally) know that this doesn’t always work. Instead, they go beyond this, by using the stock issues to break down the idea of a “pro” into smaller pieces, such as inherency, significance, and solvency. Policy debaters also (generally) understand the basic parts to a “con” (disadvantage): including uniqueness, link, and impact.
In short, theories like the stock issues are useful in breaking down ideas like “benefits” into its logical components. As probably many policy debaters will attest to, this process is crucial for complex questions of government policy, for reasons discussed in the next section.
When and Why: Structure vs. Freedom
Both the Bible and a famous tree professor agree: there is a time and place for everything. However, I do not recommend that people emphasize structure to the point of confusion or inefficiency. Ultimately, one’s goal should not be to fulfill structure for structure’s sake; the purpose of using structure in thinking/communication is to think/communicate more effectively—to be more accurate and understood. Thus, I generally would just suggest “nudging the boundaries” when appropriate: you can go beyond outlines, and use thought process diagrams; ask yourself probing questions to pick apart an assumption or question; use more section—and sub-section—headers rather than conforming to repetitive-paragraph-formats in papers/essays (if your teacher is okay with it!); etc.
I’ve already mentioned some of the reasons for this, but I’ll more directly state them here. Some of the main justifications include:
- Better catch/avoid mistakes in your reasoning. Breaking a question into its components can sometimes be more time consuming, but it can also reveal important problems or gaps in ones’ reasoning. Additionally, if you were wrong on something, it can help you diagnose your errors and adjust for the future.
- More efficiently analyze issues. Breaking a question into its components can sometimes be less time consuming, if you know what kind of pattern to follow. For example, we already do this somewhat with the 5-paragraph essay structure.
- Clearer and/or more-efficient communication. Earlier, I mentioned a fairly clear example of this: using charts and graphs to present data instead of using sentences/paragraphs to do so. Even less-familiar argument structures such as Kialo or thesis diagrams for long and complex academic articles can also be helpful to this end.
Ultimately, structure and intuition/free-thinking need to balance, and the balance depends on the situation. However, to address complex problems or questions, we shouldn’t rely on dubious, unclear foundations of thought, and we shouldn’t use amorphous or ambiguous communication.
Tools/Methods for Structure: Historically
Imagine never learning to flow in an organized way. Imagine never learning the stock issues in policy debate, or value theory in value debate. More broadly speaking, imagine never learning the 5-paragraph structure for essays. Imagine if nobody ever used timelines. Imagine if nobody ever thought to use graphs or charts. In fact, imagine if nobody ever thought to use grammar in written communication. Without these tools, teachings, etc. it would be rather difficult to communicate or critically examine information. Yet, these things haven’t existed for all of civilization. In fact, just centuries ago, some of them (e.g. graphs/charts) were not even invented. Perhaps some of these ideas might have been rejected as being “too complicated” or “not useful.” In the 21st century, we might look back with upturned noses, but perhaps we should look in the mirror. Imagine someone living in the year 2400 AD: what makes us think that they won’t look back much in the same way we currently look back on a world without bar charts, timelines, the periodic table, and the stock issues in policy debate? What might we be missing now?
A few available—but under-appreciated—tools for structure
We are moving into an era where there are vast quantities of information available, and the tools at our disposal are also rapidly expanding in line with the expansion of the computer and internet. Yet, it doesn’t seem like many people are really reaching out to even explore the potential. Just a few examples of such tools and methods include:
- Analysis of competing hypotheses;
- Standardized “Words of Estimative Probability”;
- Argument mapping, thought diagrams, thesis diagrams, and/or structured debate;
- (Advanced) spreadsheets that utilize functions and/or break issues up into characteristics (such as my still-poorly-named BPAS);
- Key assumptions checks and other contrarian techniques (e.g. red teaming);
- The stock issues not just for policy debate, as well as claim-support-impact argument structure outside of debate;
- Bayesian reasoning;
- Social network analysis tools (such as Gephi, Cytoscape, and ORA);
- All kinds of different lists and charts (especially interactive/customizable ones), such as Isaiah’s debate skills list;
- Section and sub-section headers;
And more! If you are trying to understand or explain something complicated, don’t be afraid to ask “might there be something out there that can help with this?” or “is there a general pattern I can apply to these questions?” (e.g. the stock issues).
It’s not just that there is a world of tools/methods out there to enhance or support our analytical abilities and the communication of our thoughts; we seem to be shying away from or flatly ignoring structured reasoning tools/etc. simply because they seem “unimportant” or “too complicated.” We should remember that not too long ago, people were doing the same thing to basic critical thinking methods and information presentation tools. No doubt, not every single tool/etc. will be valuable for every person in everything they do. However, people should strive to strike the proper balance, because without solid foundations, it’s difficult to address bigger problems. There are a plethora of tools out there, but it seems people too often get stuck on simplistic approaches like the 5-paragraph essay. Whether it is in communication or thinking, consider looking beyond the simplifications that shorthand/fast thinking has created: it may not be “easy,” but it can be crucial in being more clear and less wrong.