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Avoid inflationary use of terms

74 Post author: lsparrish 30 May 2012 08:31PM

Inflationary terms! You see them everywhere. And for those who actually know and care about the subject matter they can be very frustrating. These terms are notorious for being used in contexts where:

  1. They are only loosely applicable at best.
  2. There exists a better word that is more specific.
  3. The topic has a far bias.

Some examples:

  • Rational
  • Evolution
  • Singularity
  • Emergent
  • Nanotech
  • Cryogenics
  • Faith

The problem is not that these words are meaningless in their original form, nor that you shouldn't ever use them. The problem is that they often get used in stupid ways that make them much less meaningful. By that I mean, less useful for keeping a focus on the topic and understanding what the person is really talking about.

For example, terms like Nanotech (or worse, "Nanobot") do apply in a certain loose sense to several kinds of chemistry and biological innovations that are currently in vogue. Nonetheless, each time the term is used to refer to these things it makes it much harder to know if you are referring to Drexlerian Mechanosynthesis. Hint: If you get your grant money by convincing someone you are working on one thing whereas you are really working on something completely different, that's fraud.

Similarly, Cryogenics is the science of keeping things really cold. And of course Cryonics is a form of that. But saying "Cryogenics" when you really mean exactly Cryonics is an incredibly harmful practice which actual Cryonicists generally avoid. Most people who work in Cryogenics have nothing to do with Cryonics, and this kind of confusion in popular culture has apparently engendered animosity towards Cryonics among Cryogenics specialists.

Recently I fell prey to something like this with respect to the term "Rational". I wanted to know in general terms what the best programming language for a newbie would be and why. I wanted some in depth analysis, from a group I trust to do so. (And I wasn't disappointed -- we have some very knowledgeable programmers whose opinions were most helpful to me.) However the reaction of some lesswrongers to the title I initially chose for the post was distinctly negative. The title was "Most rational programming language?"

After thinking about it for a while I realized what the problem was: This way of using the term, despite being more or less valid, makes the term less meaningful in the long run. And I don't want to be the person who makes Rational a less meaningful word. Nobody here wants that to happen. Thus it would have been better to use a term such as "Best" or "Most optimal" instead.

Another example that comes to mind is when people (usually outsiders) refer to Transhumanism, Bayeseanism, the Singularity, or even skepticism, as a "Faith" or "Belief". Well yeah, trivially, if you are willing to stretch that word to its broadest possible meaning you can feel free to apply it to such as us. But... for crying out loud! What meaning does the word have if Faith is something absolutely everyone has? We're really referring to something like "Confidence" here.

Then there's Evolution. Is Transhumanism really about the next stage in human Evolution? Perhaps in a certain loose sense it is -- but let's not lose sight of the mutilation of the language (and consequent noise-to-signal increase) that occurs when you say such a thing. Human Evolution is an existing scientific specialty with absolutely zilch to do with cybernetic body modification or genetic engineering, and everything to do with the effects of natural selection and mutation on the development of humans in the past.

Co-opting terms isn't always bad. If you are brand-new to a topic, seeing an analogy to something with which you are already familiar may reduce the inferential distance and help you click the idea in your brain. But this gets more hazardous the closer the terms actually are in meaning. Distant terms are safer  -- when I say "Avoid inflationary use of terms" you can instantly see that I'm definitely not talking about money, nor rubber objects with compressed air inside of them, but about words and phrases.

On the other hand with such things as Rational versus Optimal, we're taking two surface-level-similar words and blurring them in such a way that one cannot meaningfully talk about either without accidentally importing baggage from the other. Rational is more suitable for use in contrast with clear examples of irrationality -- cognitive biases, for example, or drug addiction, and is a rather unabashedly idealistic term. Optimal on the other hand doesn't so much require specific contrast because pretty much everything is suboptimal by default to some degree or another -- optimizing is understood as an ongoing and very relativistic process.

To sum up: Avoid making words cheaper and less effective for their specialized tasks. Don't use them for things where a better and more appropriate term exists. As your brain gets used to an idea, be prepared to discard old terms you have co-opted from other domains that were really just useful placeholders to get you started. Specialized jargon exists for a reason!

Comments (90)

Comment author: [deleted] 28 May 2012 04:41:22PM 27 points [-]

You missed "exponential"

Comment author: orthonormal 28 May 2012 05:33:54PM 16 points [-]

I'm pleased and impressed that you used a mistake of your own to illustrate the point; that's an excellent way to disarm people's usual aversion to a critique of a common practice. Good post!

Comment author: zslastman 31 May 2012 08:53:44PM 11 points [-]

Biology is ridden with this right now - terms in immediate danger of inflating into their own universe include:

"sytems biology" "High throughput" "Integrative"

As well of course as the old favourites - "complexity" and "emergence". I'm reminded of Steven Pinkers "euphemistic treadmill". In both cases we have words losing their information content through use - losing meaning in terms of information, and in the latter sense at least gaining in in terms of emotional weight. Maybe there's a general tendency for words to melt out into smears across meaning-space because of the way we learn them by association? After all the process if unbounded should lead you to associate words with everything right?

Comment author: faul_sname 05 June 2012 08:57:53PM 1 point [-]

After all the process if unbounded should lead you to associate words with everything right?

Which is probably why we have words that don't add any real meaning, such as the word "that" earlier in this sentence.

Comment author: CasioTheSane 02 June 2012 06:40:55AM *  1 point [-]

I agree, those biology terms are really overused and no longer carry any useful meaning. I regret having used "high throughput" in things I wrote a few years ago...

For the most part "systems biology" is just a less overused euphemism for cybernetics, and we all know what happened to that (as I mentioned in another post in this thread).

Comment author: zslastman 05 June 2012 08:54:13PM 0 points [-]

I had a lecturer teaching genomics who didn't really believe there was such a thing. He told me about a conference he went to in the 90's where dozens of people told him they were "chaoticians".

Comment author: TheOtherDave 28 May 2012 04:40:28AM 25 points [-]

You see them everywhere.

Well, you see them in lots of places.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 May 2012 11:30:36PM 6 points [-]

Would using 'paranoid' for 'frightened' and 'depressed' for 'sad' count as inflationary?

Comment author: jsalvatier 31 May 2012 01:19:02AM 2 points [-]

I haven't heard the first one, but the second one is a good example.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:32:38PM 0 points [-]

I think that may be a different phenomenon, which arises from the serious difficulties involved in categorizing mental illness. After all, even clinical psychologists don't all agree on what constitutes "paranoia", so how should anyone else be expected to?

Comment author: lessdazed 31 May 2012 04:41:41AM 5 points [-]

However the reaction of some lesswrongers to the title I initially chose for the post was distinctly negative. The title was "Most rational programming language?"

Many people have chosen similar titles for their posts. Many. It is very unusual to respond to criticism by writing a good post like "Avoid Inflationary use of Terms."

How did you do it?

Perhaps you initially had a defensive reaction to criticism just as others have had, and in addition have a way of responding to criticism well. Alternatively, perhaps your only advantage over the others was not having as much of a defensive impulse, and those others aren't necessarily missing any positive feature that turns criticism into useful thought. The phrase "channeling criticism" seems to assume the later is the case.

Was there a feature of the criticism that made its indirect result your post? Perhaps it was convincing from its unanimity, or non-antagonism, or humor, or seeming objectivity, or other?

Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it.

Comment author: lsparrish 31 May 2012 02:56:53PM 3 points [-]

One data point is that lately I have been trying specifically to react positively to criticism lately.

(A month or so ago as part of a slightly woo-like exercise called EFT that I sometimes do to put myself to sleep or cope with stress, I replaced the words from the setup phrase "completely and deeply love, accept, and forgive myself" with a longer phrase "completely and deeply accept all valid criticism, and honestly and earnestly attempt to learn from, change, and use this information for personal development and self improvement" -- something like that. Followed by imagining tapping the various woo points, er "energy points" on my body. No telling what impact this has or even if it's relevant, but thought I'd mention it.)

Also I was able to change the title fairly quickly and thus de-escalate the situation and switch it to a slightly more academic context rather than taking a purely defensive posture because I happened to be logged into the IRC chatroom where Konkvistador was complaining about it. Since I didn't want to come across as a moron in front of my peers, I asked the channel politely for reasons to change it, then for suggestions as to what to change it to. I don't think anyone there actually said "inflationary use", that's a term I got from a comment by Eugen Leitl and is what my mind filled in the blanks with when searching for an explanation. Apart from the new title "What is the best programming language?" I'm not sure there was any actual information content apart from "some people agree with this", but interacting with the channel calmed me down a bit and put me in a better frame of mind for it.

In any case, I would say the non-antagonistic responses definitely helped. I'm not sure whether they would work on just anybody, one of my mind's specific deviations from the norm is that I am more patient and willing to look for validity in criticisms to begin with. (I'm obsessed with the excluded middle ground, so while I may try very hard to spot a problem in the criticism I rarely reject it whole cloth.) But I think a large proportion of lesswrongers fit the same general profile and/or it is a learnable tendency for people specifically trying to do it. Perhaps a rationality technique centered on pattern-matching one's responses to criticism and/or one's crisis cycle level would be of use.

Comment author: komponisto 28 May 2012 02:59:28AM 12 points [-]

To sum up: Avoid making words cheaper and less effective for their specialized tasks. Don't use them for things where a better and more appropriate term exists. As your brain gets used to an idea, be prepared to discard old terms you have co-opted from other domains that were really just useful placeholders to get you started. Specialized jargon exists for a reason!

Excellent point, and excellent post. I expect to link here in the future.

Comment author: moridinamael 28 May 2012 06:47:46AM 4 points [-]

Words as mental paintbrush handles nicely complements this post. Human communication consists of trying to paint pictures for each other using words, and we tend to apply words broadly and loosely because narrowness and precision requires effortful scrutiny.

Comment author: Xachariah 28 May 2012 08:39:36AM *  48 points [-]

Thank you! This is the most rational post on proper word usage I've read on this site. There's been an evolution in the usage of inflationary terms, where people use them instead of proper words. It wasn't intentional; it was more of an emergent process where people added exponentially more inflationary terms until we reached a linguistic singularity.

I was losing hope the course would reverse, but now that you've pointed it out I have faith we can stop it. We should cryogenically store this post in the LessWrong wiki so that others can link back to it. We could even impliment a filter that goes through each post and nano-scrapes them for offending words. It would be the rationalest thing to do to increase the utility of those who use the site. I'd definitely rather live in the Everett Branch where people communicate without so much memetically-drifted jargon.

Comment author: Lightwave 29 May 2012 06:49:43AM *  -1 points [-]

This is the most rational post on proper word usage

ಠ_ಠ

Comment author: Alicorn 29 May 2012 06:59:28AM 6 points [-]

Is this a metajoke or a misunderstanding?

Comment author: Lightwave 30 May 2012 07:51:40AM *  0 points [-]

It looks to me like the word 'rational' in this case is somewhat misused in the same way it's misused in titles and is and example of an inflationary use of the word, as per this post. Better to have said "the best post on proper word usage" or "a very good post on proper word usage".

Comment author: Gastogh 30 May 2012 08:31:43AM 5 points [-]

Yeah, sounds like a misunderstanding. If you read through Xachariah's post again I think you'll find it's not just the word "rational"; he pretty much does roll call on all the inflationary words used as examples in the OP.

Comment author: Lightwave 30 May 2012 10:50:17AM *  5 points [-]

Oops, you're right.

Edit: I've gained way too much karma from this exchange when it seems I should've instead lost some for not paying attention.

Comment author: Strange7 05 June 2012 08:05:41AM 1 point [-]

Graceful recovery is more impressive, and useful to the community as a whole, than not having slipped up in the first place.

Comment author: Multiheaded 05 June 2012 08:34:07AM 0 points [-]

Christians seem to agree. :D

Comment author: Jotto999 02 June 2012 05:26:32PM *  1 point [-]

Perhaps a loss due to not paying attention, but I think making a rapid correction based on criticism is worthy of some amount of karma, even on something trivial. I've misunderstood loads of things and felt stupid every single time, and I do believe it helps some amount to see someone else publicly brush the dirt off here and there. For me one of the hallmarks of lousy dialogue quality is that it seems like 100% of participants either believe they have 0% error rate or that they cannot brush it off publicly for emotional reasons.

Beware my opinion though, it is possible that seeing you do something against my views, then later retract and agree with my views makes me feel good. I am sorry to say that it is difficult for me to tell if that is playing a significant role or if I am some sort of dialogue connoisseur. Perhaps more likely is that it is some finicky combination. Or even more insidiously, I could be pointing this out to try and seem more aware than I am. Oh how bias is like a six-headed, head-regenerating dragon.

Comment author: Strange7 04 June 2012 10:35:25AM 1 point [-]

The classical Lernaean hydra had one unkillable head which was eventually pinned under a rock and forgotten about.

Comment author: MBlume 29 May 2012 06:58:20AM 1 point [-]

Alicorn and I regret that we have but two upvotes to give this comment.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 01:50:22PM 7 points [-]

I bet people could be convinced to sell you one for a reasonable fee.

Comment author: CarlShulman 23 July 2012 11:56:25AM *  4 points [-]

From the WSJ:

All this may be possible thanks to a "driverless" car that does a human driver's normal job and much more. The car is operated by a computer that obtains information 10 times per second from short-range transmitters on surrounding road conditions, including where other cars are and what they are doing. That's exponentially faster than the human mind can process the same information.

Ack!

Comment author: wedrifid 23 July 2012 12:12:43PM 1 point [-]

For a sufficiently small exponent, I guess.

Comment author: CasioTheSane 28 May 2012 05:54:10AM *  10 points [-]

Cybernetics is one of my favorite words (and fields of study) but it got so destroyed by misuse that even cyberneticists don't use it anymore and we have to use obnoxiously long winded phrases such as "the study of dynamic control systems which utilize feedback."

Comment author: Nisan 28 May 2012 09:37:00AM 6 points [-]

I try to do my part by referring to segways as "cybernetic devices".

Comment author: DanArmak 01 June 2012 12:17:57PM 1 point [-]

My mother was taught something about cybernetics in highschool (USSR 1960s). For the past fifteen years, she has remained completely mystified by the "cybernetics" and other "cyber-something" stories in TV news.

Comment author: CasioTheSane 02 June 2012 06:34:54AM *  0 points [-]

I'm kind-of mystified as well but I think it happened something like this:

cybernetic theory -> the concept of feedback controlled prosthetics -> the concept of cyborgs and cyberpunk -> the media's misuse of the word in sensationalist 1990s reporting on anything electronic

It was so overused in the 90s that there was a backlash and everyone stopped using it, so I'm hoping it can return to it's original meaning now that biocybernetics (aka feedback control in systems biology) is suddenly becoming a fruitful field of study.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 June 2012 10:17:37AM 1 point [-]

I wouldn't hold out hope. I have many friends in the Israeli software and network security business - penetration testing, secure development courses, that kind of thing - and just in the last year they've started talking about how the word "cyber" is becoming acknowledged among enterprise CxOs and govt. people as something that needs to be invested in. I trust these sources of mine - they're good at marketing and customer relations. And the Israeli market is very firmly connected to the bigger US and European markets. So no, "cybersecurity" is not about to die, I'm afraid.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 02 June 2012 07:58:28AM 0 points [-]

All control systems are dynamic and use feedback, and "the study of" is redundant, so you can just talk about "control systems" or "control theory".

Comment author: CasioTheSane 02 June 2012 04:34:16PM *  0 points [-]

That's not true, there are many "open loop" control systems, which do not use feedback. In the past much biology work looking at gene regulation has assumed direct cause and effect without feedback. I suspect that open loop control is less common in natural systems than generally believed, but that in many cases we simply missed the feedback mechanism. Good closed loop control system are usually robust enough to revert to closed loop backups when the feedback signal is lost or too noisy.

A great example of (mistaken) open loop control thinking is obesity, until leptin was discovered in 1994 people assumed that weight control was "open loop" and maintained somehow by food availability (which makes no sense). Now we know that hunger, and body weight have closed loop control, which has massive implications for the treatment and policy related to obesity, but all of the doctors and politicians are still stuck in the 1980s with their (now proven worthless) thinking and advice. The failure to stop the obesity epidemic isn't "laziness and a lack of willpower" as commonly repeated, but the direct result of incorrectly applying open loop control thinking to a closed loop system.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-loop_controller

Regulation of food intake, energy balance, and body fat mass: implications for the pathogenesis and treatment of obesity. Guyenet SJ, Schwartz MW J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Mar ; 97(3): 745-55

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:40:40PM 0 points [-]

Most likely we didn't see the closed loops because we didn't want to look for them, knowing that they are inherently more difficult to analyze. If all you have is a hammer...

Comment author: RichardKennaway 02 June 2012 09:12:14PM 0 points [-]

That's not true, there are many "open loop" control systems, which do not use feedback.

Well, that is perhaps a matter of terminology. I wouldn't call those (including everything mentioned in the Wikipedia article) control systems at all, and every textbook I've ever seen on control systems is exclusively about closed-loop systems. "Open-loop control" is practically a contradiction in terms.

I suspect that open loop control is less common in natural systems than generally believed

It should be the default assumption in the life sciences, that (closed loop) control systems are present everywhere you look.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 May 2012 02:48:00PM 9 points [-]

Similarly, Cryogenics is the science of keeping things really cold. And of course Cryonics is a form of that. But saying "Cryogenics" when you really mean exactly Cryonics is an incredibly harmful practice which actual Cryonicists generally avoid. Most people who work in Cryogenics have nothing to do with Cryonics, and this kind of confusion in popular culture has apparently engendered animosity towards Cryonics among Cryogenics specialists.

I wouldn't so much call that "inflationary". I'd usually call that a typographical error! ie. The speaker is usually intending to use the label of the corpsicle specific practice and just said it wrong.

Comment author: Swimmer963 29 May 2012 01:43:49AM 2 points [-]

Agreed. I didn't know there was a difference until I was 17-18 (possibly because a couple of novels in which I encountered it misused the term.)

Comment author: Grognor 28 May 2012 02:51:10AM *  18 points [-]

Upvoted. Edit: Since this was moved to Main, I've changed this to a downvote. I don't think it belongs there.

More words this is happening to:

  • Utility function
    • Utility
  • Pascal's Mugging/Wager
  • Everett branch
  • Random
  • Trolling
Comment author: wedrifid 28 May 2012 02:57:43PM *  8 points [-]

Everett branch

Can you give an example of the kind of usage of "Everett branch" that you consider to be inappropriately inflationary? I cannot think of an example. This either means that I have not cached the undesirable usages or that I disagree about when it is appropriate to use the phrase.

A possibility is that I actually think in terms of abstract decision theoretical concerns, Many Worlds and Big Worlds in general more than average. This would make me more likely to use the phrase as a literal description of thoughts about a scenario than as, say, just an attempt to make a preference sound a little bit cooler.

I would add "Prisoner's Dilemma" to the list. I've seen it used to describe basically any game theoretic scenario with payoffs rather than just one example of how (relative) payoffs could be set up in a symmetrical two person game.

Comment author: Nisan 29 May 2012 09:06:34AM 12 points [-]

I am loathe to point to a comment a user has actually made, but anything like "I decided to go to grad school because I'm better off in the Everett branch where I have a post-grad degree than the Everett branch in which I don't." No, Mr. Example, you are not going to turn into 1/sqrt(2)|grad student> + 1/sqrt(2)|not grad student>. To the extent to which you are able to choose at all, your decision algorithm is deterministic. What you really mean is "I'm better off in the counterfactual where I have a post-grad degree."

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 May 2012 03:39:08PM 4 points [-]

Do people around here say that? I think/hope I would've noticed that. There were a few comments like that during the QM sequence but they were corrected, I think.

Comment author: Nisan 30 May 2012 03:44:40AM 5 points [-]

Looking up the comments I remember, I can find two or three comments that are not quite as bad as the one I made up above, but still seem to confuse Everett branches with counterfactual choices. They're usually corrected by other users.

Comment author: shminux 29 May 2012 08:07:13PM *  1 point [-]

To the extent to which you are able to choose at all, your decision algorithm is deterministic.

How do you know that? Because of the illusion of free will? As EY mentioned once or twice in the last rerun, your decision algorithm runs "inside physics", which includes QM, chaos and other non- or barely deterministic phenomena. In which case your decision to go or not go to the grad school could ultimately be triggered by a quantum measurement splitting the world into two branches. ...If you subscribe to MWI, that is.

Comment author: Nisan 30 May 2012 03:50:59AM *  5 points [-]

Right. But if your decision whether or not to go to school really depends on a quantum event with 50% probability, then you're not choosing to go to school for reasons. (It would be incorrect, in that case, to say "I chose to go to grad school because I knew I'd be better off with a postgraduate degree.") Instead, one is choosing a mixed strategy. So to the extent that one's decision is not deterministic, one doesn't really choose. Similar things could be said for non-quantum chaos.

I believe there's a relevant article where Eliezer defends the view that determinism is required for (his conception of) free will. EDIT: Ah yes, this one. If you and I disagree, it's probably merely about the meaning of the word "choose". In any case, talking about Everett branches when you're describing the deliberations you go through in making an everyday choice like that is almost certainly mistaken.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:50:09PM -2 points [-]

Indeed, we can only hope that our deliberations do not trigger Everett branches, or otherwise everything we've ever considered doing, has actually been done by a part of ourselves in another universe. Everyone you've gotten angry at and thought about killing is actually dead somewhere... and then, the anthropic effects of that...

Comment author: Nisan 05 June 2012 08:55:17PM 0 points [-]

I disagree with that in a number of subtle ways.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:48:15PM 0 points [-]

All game-theoretic scenarios have payoffs... what would it mean not to have payoffs?

For me the Prisoner's Dilemma consists in three things: 1. Pareto-inefficient Nash equilibrium, the only Nash equilibrium 2. symmetry between players 3. complete but imperfect information

If you get more specific than that, you end up making a distinction between games that are all basically the same (this one has a payoff of 10 if you defect, this one only has a payoff of 2); you also make a big deal out of the fact that a Tragedy of the Commons has multiple players, even though it's otherwise isomorphic to a Prisoner's Dilemma.

So here you and I might disagree; maybe I would abstract the concept further than you would. I presume you're not limiting "Prisoner's Dilemma" to actual prisoners, because that seems tremendously silly. So how far would you limit it?

But are there really people who go around applying the term "Prisoner's Dilemma" to things like Stag Hunts or zero-sum games?

Comment author: wedrifid 06 June 2012 12:05:18PM 0 points [-]

So here you and I might disagree; maybe I would abstract the concept further than you would. I presume you're not limiting "Prisoner's Dilemma" to actual prisoners, because that seems tremendously silly. So how far would you limit it?

Approximately the same. I wouldn't use Prisoner's Dilemma to describe a Tragedy of the Commons myself but would be unlikely to correct it. In some such cases I'd prefer to just use "Newcomblike", which takes the abstraction a step further (removing the strict necessity for symmetry) but is also overtly an abstraction.

But are there really people who go around applying the term "Prisoner's Dilemma" to things like Stag Hunts or zero-sum games?

Yes.

Comment author: pnrjulius 07 June 2012 02:21:44AM 1 point [-]

If people are applying "Prisoner's Dilemma" to zero-sum games, I can see why you'd be annoyed. It clearly shows that they don't know anything about game theory.

Comment author: Grognor 31 May 2012 03:59:03AM 1 point [-]

I seriously wonder if being the first comment and having it start with the word "Upvoted" caused a massive information cascade that caused people to inflate this post's karma, and then when it was moved to main people didn't change their vote because it represented a commitment in their minds and now it's promoted because of its karma score, even though, at present, 94% of it was earned while it was a discussion post...

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:42:45PM 0 points [-]

I do wonder about the effect of publicly stated support. Does this lead to herd mentality as you suggest (obviously it would for most people), or are we all such weird iconoclasts at Less Wrong that the reactance effect is more important?

Comment author: lsparrish 01 June 2012 05:41:50AM -1 points [-]

Nah, people change their votes pretty quickly when they feel like it. Seems more probable that your preferences for articles in main are atypical. Also lots more people voted it up since then.

Comment author: jmmcd 02 June 2012 09:31:35AM 2 points [-]

For one data point, I never change my vote, because I rarely go back and reread articles. The internet is quite large these days so I don't have time to read it twice.

Comment author: lsparrish 01 June 2012 05:46:12AM 1 point [-]

I don't know why you think this belongs in discussion. It is a content post, written specifically with main in mind. The title, the fact that it has an attention-getting opening, summary at the end, multiple examples, specific point... I posted to discussion because I wanted feedback and I figured I could keep the karma accumulated (but not get it multiplied by 10, that was news to me -- my expectation was that the post would go back to 0 and people who liked it could upvote it again).

Comment author: Grognor 01 June 2012 01:42:00PM 2 points [-]

Same reason I thought On Saying the Obvious ought to stay in Discussion. It is a community advice post, doesn't teach anything but rather admonishes.

I also think this post is long-winded and could use a lot of trimming down, which is an okay flaw for a discussion post but something I'm not willing to tolerate in Main.

And yes it is also possible that my preferences for Main articles is atypical, but that doesn't mean I should let them be crushed under the majority-boot.

Comment author: lsparrish 01 June 2012 04:57:39PM *  1 point [-]

Thank you for the specific criticisms. Upon rereading the post, I notice it is longer than I thought it was when I was writing it. But I'm not confident that it needs editing or that trimming would make it better as opposed to worse. It does endeavor to teach how to spot inflationary term use, not just exhort to avoid doing so. That's the point of multiple diverse examples (and part of the reason it is so long).

Comment author: Benquo 31 May 2012 02:11:01PM *  3 points [-]

On the use of the word rational, I agree, but think you could go even farther. Even terms like "optimal" or "best" elide the fact that you have to optimize some particular goal.

In your example, if you don't know enough about programming languages to know exactly what you want to optimize, a more specific and answerable question might be, "What are the advantages and disadvantages of different programming languages? which ones are similar to which others? Which ones would help me learn others, and which ones would give me skills I can transfer into other parts of life?"

Comment author: Laoch 15 June 2012 06:11:43PM 2 points [-]

The use of the word Theory comes to mind.

Comment author: Maelin 24 June 2012 03:34:22AM 3 points [-]

Most people who work in Cryogenics have nothing to do with Cryonics, and this kind of confusion in popular culture has apparently engendered animosity towards Cryonics among Cryogenics specialists.

Sounds like some of these cryogenics specialists...

...need to chill out.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 30 May 2012 11:35:50PM 3 points [-]

This reminds me a little of Thomas Sowell's essay "Verbal Inflation" from his book "The Vision of the Anointed." He makes similar points about misused words becoming less meaningful, but does it in the context of politics. His primary focus, however, is inflationary terms as a means of dishonest rhetoric, rather than as a common mistake people innocently make.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:33:13PM -1 points [-]

You mean like "freedom" and "job creators"?

Comment author: Strange7 04 June 2012 10:31:01AM 0 points [-]

In some contexts the 'innocent mistake' is dishonest rhetoric in it's most pernicious, reflexive form.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:30:09PM 2 points [-]

This is also why I discourage people from overusing words like "awesome" and "magnificent"; I want to be able to say that about the Horsehead Nebula, but other people keep applying it to skateboard tricks. It really is very much like living in Zimbabwe and finding out your million dollars in the bank has just been turned into the price of a pack of gum.

It's also why the best way to defuse an offensive word is actually to use it a lot; the more often we say "fuck" the less "fuck" will seem to mean, until ultimately it doesn't bother anyone anymore. (Of course, we may invent some new swear word that is deemed taboo and repeat the cycle.)

Comment author: robertskmiles 11 June 2012 05:32:26PM 4 points [-]

I think the problem with over-use of "awesome" is not so much its use for less substantial things, but its use as a generic positive adjective. Awesome has a meaning - it means "inspiring awe". I've seen awesome skateboard tricks, they inspired in me a sense of awe at the skill and athletic ability of the skateboarder. Awesomeness of course is defined in terms of a person's reaction, so it's a subjective thing. I have no problem with people who have awe instilled in them by things I don't find awesome. But some people use 'awesome' to mean 'really good'. As in "I know an awesome mexican restaurant where we can have lunch". Here the speaker isn't talking about awe at all, and that is what dilutes the word.

Same thing with "incredible" and "unbelievable", with "fantastic" and "fabulous". These words don't just mean "really good", they carry specific meanings for why the thing they describe is good. Describing a scientific result as "incredible" means it's bad science, since the result cannot be believed. Describing a business plan as "fantastic" means it's terrible, since it's far removed from reality, a fantasy.

Comment author: Incorrect 05 June 2012 03:43:39PM 4 points [-]

I would guess that amateur astronomy is more exciting to you than skateboarding. Do you think this is true for everyone?

Comment author: Vaniver 16 July 2013 09:30:12PM 1 point [-]

This is also why I discourage people from overusing words like "awesome" and "magnificent"; I want to be able to say that about the Horsehead Nebula, but other people keep applying it to skateboard tricks.

Eddie Izzard on "awesome."

Comment author: [deleted] 06 June 2012 06:29:04PM 1 point [-]

What words should enthusiasts use to describe something they enjoy then? I use awesome and other similar words to describe skilled starcraft players, music, and other things which other people might not care about at all, until someone comes up with a comprehensive list or formula for determining what can be called awesome and what cannot it does not make much sense to tell someone that their usage is incorrect.

As for use of swear words- I will leave this grand task to you. The minor gain of purging the english language of one pointlessly agressive word is not strong enough to make the side effects worthwhile.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 02 June 2012 08:08:37AM 2 points [-]

"Bayesian evidence" has sometimes been inflated from "evidence as mathematically measured by Bayesian probability theory" to simply mean "evidence, but it sounds so much more sciencey and rational to call it 'Bayesian'", or further to mean "not just useful evidence, but useless evidence as well".

Just use the googlebox here for the phrase "is Bayesian evidence for" to see what I'm talking about. Or Google itself -- there are only 7 hits, three of them to LW.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 June 2012 08:36:18AM *  9 points [-]

(Agree, expanding.)

Just use the googlebox here for the phrase "is Bayesian evidence for" to see what I'm talking about. Or Google itself -- there are only 7 hits, three of them to LW.

That phrase makes sense when describing evidence that is not considered evidence according to other standards - such as science or traditional rationalism. For example "Absence of evidence is (Bayesian) evidence of absence".

Comment author: fubarobfusco 03 June 2012 02:49:40AM 2 points [-]

Yes. Alternately, "Bayesian evidence" suggests to me "evidence — but don't think I mean evidence that completely rules out other possibilities."

Comment author: thomblake 28 May 2012 07:18:31PM 2 points [-]

This post, or one like it, should be in Main and promoted.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 29 May 2012 01:09:16AM 2 points [-]

I think part of the problem is signaling. I get annoyed when I see people saying "X is true modulo Y", because that seems like an inflationary use of the word "modulo". But if somebody uses "modulo" that makes them sound smart, because they are using math jargon!

Anyway, I try to avoid using technical terms I don't feel I have a firm grasp on, and calibrate the fuzziness of my language to the fuzziness of my thinking.

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 May 2012 02:00:40PM 3 points [-]

I think that this use of "modulo" is close enough to the mathematical reason to allow.

Comment author: army1987 29 May 2012 11:11:21AM 0 points [-]

Likewise, “f(x) is O(g(x))” only means that f(x)/g(x) is bounded, not that the bound is small. In particular, O(3^^^3) means the same thing as O(1).

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:38:25PM -1 points [-]

I've always felt that this is actually a defect in big O notation. If we want to know how long a computation is going to take, it honestly doesn't help us at all to know that it's O(1), because as you point out it could be a constant time so mind-bendingly huge that it will never complete. The O(n) or even O(2^n) method might well be faster in realistic situations.

Seems like we actually should be measuring our computations some other way, perhaps in terms of the actual number of seconds (or if you want to be cross-platform, number of steps) involved. So you wouldn't say O(1), you'd say "1200 steps"; you wouldn't say O(n), you'd say "480n steps".

Comment author: Multiheaded 28 May 2012 07:54:35AM *  -1 points [-]

What meaning does the word have if Faith is something absolutely everyone has?

IMO all neurotypical people do have "Faith" in some form, because religion is an important part of human firmware, and necessarily follows from the workings of our brain in any environment where cultures emerge. (As proven by every relevant anthropological study since Durkheim.)

Comment author: CuSithBell 30 May 2012 11:19:44PM 3 points [-]

What do you mean by "Faith", and what do you mean by "neurotypical"? (I understand the latter is used mostly to mean "not autistic", sometimes to mean "normal" on some other cognitive metric or set of metrics.)

Comment author: khms 30 May 2012 10:54:49PM *  1 point [-]

Hmm. I wonder how many such studies looked at environments where the majority had a reasonable scientific education and there was no pre-existing religion?

(This just might be a trick question.)

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:51:55PM 0 points [-]

Have there been any such environments?

Comment author: selylindi 29 May 2012 06:44:00AM -1 points [-]

The capitalization also make a difference.
"faith" vs. "Faith" are roughly "belief of unproven things" vs. "system of religious belief"

Comment author: Multiheaded 29 May 2012 10:23:22AM *  1 point [-]

It might be in a dictionary somewhere, but there's no widespread consensus on how to use capitalization here.