Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

PhilGoetz comments on 37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong - Less Wrong

73 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 March 2008 05:09AM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (74)

Sort By: Old

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 December 2017 04:28:54PM *  1 point [-]

Yep, nice list. One I didn't see: Defining a word in a way that is less useful (that conveys less information) and rejecting a definition that is more useful (that conveys more information). Always choose the definition that conveys more information; eliminate words that convey zero information. It's common for people to define words that convey zero information. But if everything has the Buddha nature, nothing empirical can be said about what it means and it conveys no information.

Along similar lines, always define words so that no other word conveys too much mutual information about them. For instance, many people have argued with me that I should use the word "totalitarian" to mean "the fascist nations of the 20th century". Well, we already have a word for that, which is "fascist", so to define "totalitarian" as a synonym makes it a useless word.

The word "fascist" raises the question of when to use extensional vs. intensional definitions. It's conventionally defined extensionally, to mean the Axis powers in World War 2. This is not a useful definition, as we already have a label for that. Worse, people define it extensionally but pretend they've defined it intensionally. They call people today "fascist", conveying connotations in a way that can't be easily disputed, because there is no intensional definition to evaluate the claim.

Sometimes you want to switch back and forth between extensional and intensional definitions. In art history, we have a term for each period or "movement", like "neo-classical" and "Romantic". The exemplars of the category are defined both intensionally and extensionally, as those artworks having certain properties and produced in certain geographic locations during a certain time period. It is appropriate to use the intensional definition alone if describing a contemporary work of art (you can call it "Romantic" if it looks Romantic), but inappropriate to use examples that fit the intension but not the extension as exemplars, or to deduce things about the category from them. This keeps the categories stable.

A little ways back I talked about defining the phrase "Buddha nature". Phrases also have definitions--words are not atoms of meaning. Analyzing a phrase as if our theories of grammar worked, ignoring knowledge about idioms, is an error rationalists sometimes commit.

Pretending words don't have connotations is another error rationalists commit regularly--often in sneaky ways, deliberately using the connotations, while pretending they're being objective. Marxist literary criticism, for instance, loads a lot into the word "bourgeois".

Another category missing here is gostoks and doshes. This is when a word's connotations and tribal affiliation-signalling displace its semantic content entirely, and no one notices it has no meaning. Extremely common in Marxism and in "theory"; "capitalism" and "bourgeois" being the most-common examples. "Bourgeoisie" originally meant people like Rockefeller and the Borges, but as soon as artists began using the word, they used it to mean "people who don't like my scribbles," and now it has no meaning at all, but demonic connotations. "Capitalism" has no meaning that can single out post-feudal societies in the way Marxists pretend it does; any definition of it that I've seen includes things that Marxists don't want it to, like the Soviet Union, absolute monarchies, or even hunter-gatherer tribes. It should be called simply "free markets", which is what they really object to and much more accurate at identifying the economic systems that they oppose, but they don't want to admit that the essence of their ideology is opposition to freedom.

Avoid words with connotations that you haven't justified. Don't say "cheap" if you mean "inexpensive" or "shoddy". Especially avoid words which have a synonym with the opposite connotation: "frugal" and "miserly". Be aware of your etymological payloads: "awesome" and "awful" (full of awe), "incredible" (not credible), "wonderful" (thought-provoking).

Another category is when 2 subcultures have different sets of definitions for the same words, and don't realize it. For instance, in the humanities, "rational" literally means ratio-based reasoning, which rejects the use of real numbers, continuous equations, empirical measurements, or continuous changes over time. This is the basis of the Romantic/Modernist hatred of "science" (by which they mean Aristotelian rationality), and of many post-modern arguments that rationality doesn't work. Many people in the humanities are genuinely unaware that science is different than it was 2400 years ago, and most were 100% ignorant of science until perhaps the mid-20th century. A "classical education" excludes all empiricism.

Another problem is meaning drift. When you use writings from different centuries, you need to be aware of how the meanings of words and phrases have changed over time. For instance, the official academic line nowadays is that alchemy and astrology are legitimate sciences; this is justified in part by using the word "science" as if it meant the same as the Latin "scientia".

A problem in translation is decollapsing definitions. Medieval Latin conflated some important concepts because their neo-Platonist metaphysics said that all good things sort of went together. So for instance they had a single word, "pulchrum", which meant "beautiful", "sexy", "appropriate to its purpose", "good", and "noble". Translators will translate that into English based on the context, but that's not conveying the original mindset. This comes up most frequently when ancient writers made puns, like Plato's puns in the Crito, or "Jesus'" (Greek) puns in the opening chapters of John, which are destroyed in translation, leaving the reader with a false impression of the speaker's intent.

I disagree that saying "X is Y by definition" Is usually wrong, but I should probably leave my comment on that post instead of here.