Idea Trees Links

Tree diagrams are an intellectual tool for organizing ideas. My main article explaining them is Discussion Trees. I also made a tree about making idea trees and wrote Tracking Discussions.

Organizing ideas is important to Paths Forward. Potential critics need to be able to understand what your claims are and how your ideas fit together. You also need an organized way to present the counter-arguments that you’ve already addressed and what your answers are.

Trees are a flexible tool with many uses. You can outline a topic, organize your thoughts, brainstorm, mind map, do textual analysis, or diagram a discussion. Trees can also represent debates (including a specific debate between two people or for the overall situation in a field).

Debate trees provide a better way to judge expertise. What people generally do is look at social status, proxies for social status (without realizing that they’re judging by social status), or agreement (the expert says what you want to hear). Those approaches are biased, not truth-seeking. I explain more in Judging Experts by the Objective State of the Debate.

I’ve made some trees for the objective state of the debate in a field: Austrian Economics, Critical Rationalism, Objectivism and Animal Rights. I sought out comments about animal rights and made a second tree addressing some arguments people gave. The goal of these trees is not perfection, nor to comprehensively document every argument anyone ever made. They’re opinionated trees that cover important issues (as I see them) in an organized way and thereby enable someone to learn from me and/or critically engage with my position. I try to cover main ideas and give reasoning that would address most objections. I could never answer every obscure objection individually, so I focus key issues and general principles/concepts/reasoning (and if someone figures out an objection that isn’t covered by any reasoning I already know, then it’d be worth thinking about). The trees make it easy to see what arguments I regard as answered (there is a reply node) or unanswered (the tree ends there), which lets people learn how some of their ideas are already answered and gives them an easy way to productively challenge me (share an answer to one of the nodes that I show as unanswered).

I also gathered dozens of example trees made by me and by others interested in idea trees. You can browse the examples with this download link (zip file).

I advise people to try having discussions where they make a tree as they go along. But don’t include every message in the tree. You can discuss something a bit, ask some clarifying questions, get initial responses to ideas you’re considering, and then decide what you want to add to the tree. That way, the tree is a shortened, organized version of the discussion with just the important points. When someone wants to add to the tree, they should specify the text they want to add and which parent node they want to put it under. This clarifies which idea each argument is meant to answer (which people are often vague about) and keeps track of which arguments have been answered or not.