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Wind comments on The Virtue of Narrowness - Less Wrong

56 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 August 2007 05:57PM

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Comment author: Wind 11 June 2016 01:06:58PM *  0 points [-]

I totally, I agree that it is often better to study narrow and deep.

But this word policing is not net helpful, all things coincided.

Yudkovsky does not like when people call the invention of LSD a Singularity. Ok, I can see why. But I don't like Yudkovsky use of the word singularity, because that is absolutely not what the word means in physics or math. I used to be quite upset over the fact that AI people had generalized the word "singularity" to mean "exponential or super exponential growth". On the other hand, what ever. It is really not that big of a deal. I will have to say "mathematical singularity" some times, to specify what I mean, when ever it is not clear from the context. I can live with that compromise.

Different fields use the same word to mean different things. This some times leads to misunderstanding, which is bad. But the alternative would be for every field to make up their own strings of syllables for every technical word, which is just too unpractical.

Also, I happen to know, that when astrophysicists talk about the evolution of stars, they are not borrowing the word "evolution" from the biological use. They are using "evolution" in the more original meaning, which is "how something change over time", from the word "evolve". The evolution of a star is the process of how the star change over time, from creation to end. No one in the field thinks that they should borrow ideas from biology on the ground that biologists use the same word. Nether can I imagine anyone in evolutionary biology deciding to draw conclusions from theories of the evolution of starts, just because of the common word "evolution".

I can totally imagine someone how knows close to nothing about both stars and biology, being confused by this word "evolution" being used in different settings. Confusing the uneducated public is generally bad. More specifically it is uncooperative, since in most field, you yourself is part of the uneducated public. But there is also a trade-off. How much effort should we put on this? Avoiding otherwise useful use of words is a high cost.

The Singularity, Quantum Cromodynamics, Neural networks, Tree (in graph theory), Imaginary numbers, Magic (as placeholder for the un-explained), Energy, etc.

The use of metaphors and other types of borrowed words in technical language is widespread, because it is so damned practical. Sometimes we use metaphors the same way as good poet, to lend the preciseness from one concept to another. But sometimes one just needs a label and reusing an old word is less effort than coming up with, and remember, an actual new sound.

Back to the trade-off. How much would it help if different topics never borrowed language of each other? Would the general public be significantly less confused? For this tactic to work, everyone, not just scientists, has to stop borrowing words of each other. And we have to the restrict usage of hundreds (maybe thousands) of words that are already in use.

But maybe there is a third way? Instead of teaching everyone not to borrow words, we could teach everyone that words can have different meanings in different context. This is also a huge project, but considerably smaller for several reasons.

  1. It is an easier lesson to learn. At least for me, and generalizing from one example.
  2. It is more aligned with how natural language actually work.
  3. It is a lesson that can be tough one person a the time. We don't have to change all at once, for it to work.

My model of Yudkowsky (which is created solely from reading many of his LessWrong posts) now complains that my suggestion will not work, because of how the brain work. Using the same words causes our brain to use the same mental bucket, or something like that.

But I know that my suggestion works, at least it works for me. My brain have different mental settings for different topics and situations, where words can have different meaning in different settings. It does not mean that I have conflicting mental models of the world, just that I keep conflicting definitions of words. It is very much like switching to a different language. The word "bard" means shed in English, but it means child in my native language, Swedish, and this is not a problem. I would never even have connected the English::barn and Swedish::barn, if it was not pointed out to me in a totally unrelated discussion.

Unfortunately I don't know how my brain ended up like this, so I can't show you the way. I can only testify that the destination exists. But if I where to guess, I would say that, I just gradually built up different sets of technical vocabulary, which sometimes had overlapping sounds. Maybe being bi-lingual helps? Not overly thinking in words probably helps too.

Sometimes when a conversation is sliding from one topic to an other, maybe a physics conversation take a turn in to pure math, I will notice that my brain have switched language setting, because the sentence I remember just saying, does not make sense to me anymore.