Reasons to be sceptical: five, seven, ten

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Not everything can be explained in bullet points



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14 December 2018 | 0

Billy MacInnesLists. We’re living in a world of lists and bullet points.

Everywhere you look, there’s a headline with a list: five key takeaways from event X, five reasons why you should do this, five reasons why you shouldn’t do it, 10 things to look out for when X happens, five new features we want to see in the latest release of product Y, three reasons why you should consider switching from product A to product Z.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a world of lists where everything can be distilled down into three, five, seven or ten points? Lists enable us to reduce complexity and make things as simple as possible. Who could argue with the objective of trying to “keep it simple”?

But it’s worth pointing out that if we live in a world of lists that means we’re also living in a world of summaries. And while a summary is great for what it does, it is axiomatic that what it doesn’t do is give us the detail and substance of the thing it is summarising.

Does it matter? Maybe not always, but it can matter for two very specific reasons.

The first is that, without detail, substance and nuance, the summary or list does not give us the proper insight to make an informed decision or take a considered view on something.

The second reason is that the list or summary might not accurately reflect the substance of the issue because it has been refracted by the bias of the person making it. For example, if I’m making a list of the reasons why you should switch from product A to product Z, it’s more than likely I’m making that case because I have a stake in you making that change. As a consequence, I’m going to leave out the inconvenient factors that might persuade you not to make that move.

Even if it’s far more innocent than that and I’m just dispassionately making a list of things I’ve learned from reading something or going to an event, it’s still filtered through the things that I noticed or was particularly interested in. This is why four journalists can go to a press conference or an interview and come back with four different perspectives on what happened. Our internal confirmation bias leads us to believe one journalist’s report over the others even though we never admit to that bias. Instead, if we were called upon to justify why we chose one journalist’s report over another, we’d probably say something like “he or she got it right while the others didn’t”.

So, the point is that a list, in whatever context, is not definitive. It’s not a basis for making a decision but the starting point for further research. The problem, however, is that too many of us are tempted to skip over everything before it, or pay only passing attention to it, knowing that the list of key points will tell us what it was all about.

But then why bother writing all the stuff before the list in the first place or ploughing through the presentation? Why not just write the list?

Wouldn’t it be fun if, every now and then, the person writing the article, blog post or white paper or making the presentation, produced a list at the end that had nothing whatsoever to do with what had gone before it or that was diametrically opposed to it? Just to see if anyone had been paying attention.

Of course, you could argue, with some justification, that the article, blog post, white paper or presentation isn’t likely to be fair-minded, balanced or dispassionate either, but if you have to read it all or sit through it, you’re more likely to notice the gaps, falsehood or obfuscations, particularly if you have read other articles or sat through different presentations because you’ll be working from knowledge that you have gained. That might not be the case if you’re trying to compare bullet points or takeaways.

Don’t get me wrong, I think key points and lists can be useful for summarising something but only if you’ve read what they’re summarising or sat through it. Otherwise, how can you know how useful they are?

Key takeaways:

1. Lists are not definitive
2. Lists are not impartial
3. Key points are not always key
4. Things included in lists are sometimes not as important as those that are left out
5. Five things is enough for any list
6. Unless it’s a top 10

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