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Jiro comments on Taboo Your Words - Less Wrong

71 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 February 2008 10:53PM

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Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 07:09:26PM 0 points [-]

Replacing a word with a long definition is, in a way, like programming a computer and writing code inline instead of using a subroutine.

Do it too much and your program becomes impossible to understand.

If I were to say "I'll be out of work tomorrow because I'm going to an artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions", people will look at me as though I'm nuts. And not just because people don't talk like that--but because there's a reason why people don't talk like that. For one thing, to understand that sentence someone must understand the subclause and then discard some of the information--the fact that baseball has four safe positions has nothing to do with why I'm mentioning it. For another, human beings have a small stack size. We can't easily comprehend sentences with many nested subclauses.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 07:29:09PM 2 points [-]

True, but irrelevant to this essay. In case of disagreements, one frequent source is implicit implications pulled in with specific words. Making those implications explicit is the rational way to resolve the disagreement (repeating talking points is the archetypical irrational way to resolved them).

In short, this is applying the lesson of Applause Lights to explicit disagreement.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 08:47:45PM *  0 points [-]

It's hard to convince someone of something if you are forced to explain it in a way that is impossible to understand. And saying "Taboo this word" can sometimes mean "phrase your argument in a way that is impossible to understand." Which makes "taboo this word" a tool that can be abused.

The essay describes legitimate uses, but let's not pretend that legitimate uses are all there is.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:12:38PM *  0 points [-]

I don't think that is an on-point critique of this essay. If defining your terms makes your message incomprehensible, that's a problem with the medium you've chosen or the message itself.

"US Copyright law is bad" is a pithy summary of Lawrence Lessig's book, but the sentence fails to persuade or even communicate effectively - which is why Lessig wrote a book.

And if your message is simply too long to be comprehensible, it doesn't become comprehensible simply because you choose to use words idiosyncratically to shorten character length of the message.

In the hands of a hostile audience, "Taboo Your Words" can be a very effective way to derail the discussion. But if you are not communicating effectively with a good-faith listener, it is a powerful tool to discover the root of the mis-communication.

And if you are communicating effectively, why are you tabooing your words? The article doesn't suggest using more words for its own sake.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 10:16:59PM *  0 points [-]

If defining your terms makes your message incomprehensible, that's a problem with the medium you've chosen or the message itself.

Defining terms inline can make things hard to understand simply because human beings don't have a large stack size for the purpose of understanding sentences containing many inline clauses. I suppose that's a problem with the medium--if the medium is "speech by human beings".

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:18:13PM 0 points [-]

The essay isn't about speech, it's about communication. Outside the scope of this essay, but sometime speech is the wrong medium.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 December 2014 09:32:34PM *  0 points [-]

Replacing a word with a long definition is, in a way, like programming a computer and writing code inline instead of using a subroutine.

When the definition's short enough to be used inline or there's a connotationally neutral synonym available, sure. Otherwise, it's more like rewriting a function instead of using a library call -- which takes time, and can lead to bugs or minor loss of functionality, but which is essential when you need to compile on a system that doesn't have access to that library, or when you suspect the library function might be sneaking in side effects that you don't want.

To use your metaphor, there's nothing incompatible with the Taboo Your Words game if you say something like "for the purposes of this discussion, let's define 'sportsball' to mean an artificial group conflict et cetera", and then proceed to use "sportsball" whenever you'd otherwise use "baseball". Almost as compact as any text you'd want to bother with tabooing (in which category I wouldn't place "I'm going to be late to work tomorrow"), and it still does the job of laying out assumptions and stripping connotational loading.

We're not the first people to have invented this. There's a famous anthropology paper that describes the elaborate daily purity rituals of the remote Nacirema tribe, involving dousing with a stream of hot water, rubbing the limbs with a semi-solid paste made from fats and wood ashes, et cetera, and without which the Nacirema quaintly believe that their friends would desert them and their lovers reject them.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 09:48:50PM *  0 points [-]

The way the joke works in the Nacirema paper is that because the usual words for such things are not used, and instead are replaced by descriptions, the reader won't understand what they are really referring to (at least not immediately).

Which supports my point that tabooing words can make something harder to understand.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 December 2014 09:57:45PM *  1 point [-]

The point isn't to make a joke, it's to put some cognitive distance between readers and the culture it's describing, the better to apply ethnographic conventions. That does make it harder to understand in a certain sense (though not in the same way as cluttering a function with inlined logic does), but there's a point to that: by using a placeholder without the rich connotations of a word like "American", aspects of American life (and of anthropology) are revealed which would otherwise have remained hidden. If you don't expect the exercise to reveal anything new or at least help you skirt certain conversational pitfalls, you don't do it.

No one is suggesting that you expand random words into long-winded synonyms for no good reason, as if you were the nerdy kid in the worse sort of children's TV show.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 10:10:56PM 0 points [-]

No one is suggesting that you expand random words into long-winded synonyms for no good reason, as if you were the nerdy kid in the worse sort of children's TV show.

But people are glossing over the fact that there's a downside to expanding words. "Taboo X" can be abused by dishonest arguers who want to make it harder for you to speak comprehensibly. "Taboo X" can also be used by well-meaning arguers who are nevertheless giving you bad advice because tabooing X helps one kind of understanding but hurts another.

You should not just automatically accede to all requests to taboo something.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:16:06PM 0 points [-]

If your target audience is not listening in good faith, there's no trick to get them to listen fairly. Either understand that your communication is only useful for silent bystanders, or stop interacting with the bad faith audience.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 10:21:12PM 0 points [-]

They can be dishonest, but they can also be well-meaning but mistaken.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:49:11PM 0 points [-]

If the listener is not acting in bad faith and the medium of communication is appropriate, why the resistance to taboo-ing? Or what Nornagest said

Comment author: Jiro 18 December 2014 12:28:11AM *  0 points [-]

Because there are downsides to it as well as upsides, and in a particular case the downsides might predominate. Just because someone is not acting in bad faith when they make the request doesn't mean that the request will do more good than harm.

Comment author: TimS 18 December 2014 01:39:44PM 1 point [-]

Can you be specific? I'm having trouble thinking if situation where trying to communicate was worth the cost, but tabooing words if asked was not.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 December 2014 10:26:29PM *  2 points [-]

If someone says "Taboo X", they might be saying "I think you're confused about X", or "I think we have different definitions of X", or "I think you're using X to sneak in connotations" -- all of which can be effectively addressed by, yes, tabooing X. That is going to take time, but so is continuing the conversation in any form; and debates over mismatched definitions in particular can be way more frustrating and time-consuming than any explanation of terms.

If you don't think any of the above apply, or if you think there's a more compact way to address the problem, then it's reasonable to ask why X needs to be tabooed -- but most of the time you're better off just tabooing the damn word. Worrying about possible ulterior motives, meanwhile, strikes me as uncharitable except in the face of overwhelming evidence. There are lots of derailing and obfuscating tactics out there, many of them better than this one.