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Personal examples of semantic stopsigns

44 Post author: Alexei 06 December 2013 02:12AM

I think most of us are familiar with the common semantic stopsigns like "God", "just because", and "it's a tradition." However, I've recently been noticing more interesting ones that I haven't really seen discussed on LW. (Or it's also likely that I missed those discussion.)

The first one is "humans are stupid." I notice this one very often, in particular in LW and other rationalist communities. The obvious problem here is that humans are not that stupid. Often what might seem like sheer stupidity was caused by a rather reasonable chain of actions and events. And even if a person or a group of people is being stupid, it's very interesting to chase down the cause. That's how you end up discovering biases from scratch or finding a great opportunity.

The second semantic stopsign is "should." Hat tip to Michael Vassar for bringing this one up. If you and I have a discussing about how I eat too much chocolate, and I say, "You are right, I should eat less chocolate," the conversation will basically end there. But 99 times out of a 100 nothing will actually come out of it. I try to taboo the word "should" from my vocabulary, so instead I will say something like, "You are right, I will not purchase any chocolate this month." This is a concrete actionable statement.

What other semantic stopsigns have you noticed in yourself and others?


Comments (68)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 06 December 2013 07:50:58AM 29 points [-]

This article lists should, just, soon, very, only, anything, all as "lullaby words", words that lull your mind into a false sense of security when negotiating with people. You hear one of them, and you think that things are being taken care of, when they probably aren't.


"Penny looked thoughtful. “I know another Lullaby Word that got us into trouble.”

“What’s that?” Jeff asked.

“You remember when we didn’t have the prices ready on February first, and you asked me when we would have them?”

“Sure, but I can’t remember what your answer was.”

“That’s because it was a Lullaby. I said, ‘Soon.’ And what that means is…” She looked at me, and I nodded.

“I think it meant, ‘I don’t know, but don’t keep bothering me.’”

“That’s usually a pretty good translation,” I confirmed.

Comment author: Cthulhoo 06 December 2013 11:02:36AM *  9 points [-]

You are right, I should eat less chocolate

In this particular case, I think the use of "should" is more an implicit dismissal than a semantic stopsign (but there may be an overlap between the two concepts). What I mean is that it's usually clear to both the participants of the conversation that you have acknowledged the problem but do not intend to implement a solution yet. More explicitely, the meaning of the phrase sounds like: "I know that I should eat less chocolate, but this is not a priority for me now.". It stops the conversation by stating your full position regarding the subjet, even if not explicitely.

Back on the main topic, one of the most powerful semantic stopsigns is probably "It's complicated". It's so powerful that even PUAs encourage to exploit it as a relationship weapon. I'm guilty of using it myself very often, even though I hate to hear those words uttered to me.

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 07 December 2013 10:05:55PM 2 points [-]

I'm torn on "it's complicated." Clearly, you're correct that it can function as a powerful semantic stopsign. But increasingly, I also find that it's actually an entirely appropriate and even useful response (or at least an initial response) to many questions, especially political/policy/legal/normative questions.

For example, imagine a poll asking American citizens the following question: "In one sentence, what would you say is the major problem with the American health care system?" Now imagine the people who respond with something like "It's complicated," and ask yourself whether these individuals might ultimately have something interesting and productive to say about health care (compared to the average responder).

Comment author: Alexei 07 December 2013 03:04:23AM 0 points [-]

Very good point. I think I am somewhat confusing the two different concepts in my mind.

"It's complicated" is a great example!

Comment author: lukeprog 06 December 2013 04:41:24AM 29 points [-]

Note: In the long run it can be confusing if you give your post the exact same title as a previous post.

Comment author: Alexei 07 December 2013 02:47:36AM 12 points [-]


Comment author: komponisto 06 December 2013 04:10:40AM 12 points [-]

"There's no accounting for taste" is one that is often used to avoid analysis of art.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 06 December 2013 08:57:24AM 6 points [-]

True, but it's probably worth it most of the time to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Comment author: komponisto 06 December 2013 03:34:29PM 10 points [-]

That is presumably the purpose of most of these "stopsigns", and indeed many other classic irrationalities (e.g. "non-overlapping magisteria").

Comment author: Stabilizer 06 December 2013 06:39:36AM 7 points [-]

I have noticed a common semantic stop-sign in physics: "But it doesn't predict anything."

This is often used whenever discussions of the foundations of a subject come up. I'm not saying that it's always bad to use this stop-sign; searching for predictive theories is definitely the most useful exercise in science.

But, thinking about the foundations of a subject can also be a very fruitful enterprise, even though you can't immediately see how it leads to predictive models. For example, Bell inequalities and quantum computing owe their origin, in part, to people debating the foundations of quantum mechanics. Also, the mathematical field of ergodic theory owes its origin to people thinking about the foundations of statistical mechanics.

Instead of saying "It doesn't predict anything" and then proceeding to ignore it, a more productive attitude would be to ask questions like: "So can we think of some kind of consequences that different foundational pictures point to?" or ask: "Can we build a nice mathematical framework in which we can talk about these questions?" or ask: "Do different pictures help me solve different kinds of problems?".

Comment author: DanArmak 07 December 2013 12:09:17PM 3 points [-]

Instead of saying "It doesn't predict anything" and then proceeding to ignore it, a more productive attitude would be to ask questions like: "So can we think of some kind of consequences that different foundational pictures point to?"

Reworded: instead of saying "it doesn't predict anything", [we should] ask "does it predict anything?"

In other words: don't say a theory doesn't predict anything unless you have an actual argument that shows that it doesn't predict anything.

Comment author: MixedNuts 06 December 2013 01:34:44PM 13 points [-]

Downvoted, not because the content of the post is bad, but because it encourages people to list polite ways to get out of annoying conversations, decide they don't count as polite anymore, and throw hissy fits when people won't discuss their pet topic.

Comment author: Cyan 06 December 2013 02:59:09PM *  14 points [-]

Upvoted, not for your downvote, but for raising the point that these expressions can serve as conversational signals of what LWers call tapping out. (Tangent: "tapping out" in the LW sense is a terrible appropriation of a term from a different context, because in the original context it explicitly and literally signals submission.)

Comment author: Error 06 December 2013 04:03:52PM 7 points [-]

I've used "stepping out" in contexts where the LW usage wouldn't be understood.

Comment author: Cyan 06 December 2013 04:59:48PM 1 point [-]


Comment author: kalium 09 December 2013 07:58:39AM 1 point [-]

"Safewording" is another term that would work.

Comment author: kalium 09 December 2013 08:01:45AM 3 points [-]

In other words, sometimes stopsigns are useful.

Comment author: David_Gerard 06 December 2013 06:10:23PM *  4 points [-]

Indeed. Most of the examples have a very clear conversational meaning: "that's nice, I'm not interested, but I'm trying not to be rude about it." Failure on the listener's part to understand this is not a failure of rationality on the speaker's part. I note the examples being raised are mostly clearly of this sort, rather than in a conversation that is anything to do with careful application of thought.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 06 December 2013 11:38:03AM 3 points [-]

"Problematic" is a word that sees a lot of action when referring to socially-questionable implications. Some of us may remember it from the discussions on (HP:MoR spoiler) Urezvbar'f 'Sevqtvat'. While it has a lot of legitimate function, it's also a very effective way of saying "I don't really like this, but don't want to examine why, just in case my dislike isn't as well-founded as I want it to be".

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 December 2013 03:20:34PM 4 points [-]

That's odd. I've generally seen 'problematic' followed by an elaborate discussion of exactly how and why, often in excruciating detail.

Comment author: philh 06 December 2013 03:03:20PM 4 points [-]

PG gives roughly the same interpretation of "inappropriate".

"Inappropriate" is the null criticism. It's merely the adjective form of "I don't like it."

(Though I think it sometimes means "other people don't like it".)

Comment author: Error 06 December 2013 04:01:58PM 5 points [-]

"Should" in my experience means: "probably won't."

As in "This should work," which I no longer dare say.

Comment author: shminux 06 December 2013 03:33:46PM *  6 points [-]

LW-specific: "probability epsilon" when one cannot or doesn't want to estimate more accurately, but wants to avoid using "zero", because "zero is not a probability".

Comment author: mwengler 10 December 2013 12:55:17AM *  12 points [-]

One of Feynman's stories is about trying to get a NASA manager to quantify the risk that the liquid-fueled shuttle rocket would explode during a launch. After initially claiming zero, he finally allowed it might be "epsilon." "Now we are getting somewhere" Feynman happily exclaimed. "What is epsilon equal to?"

Some of Feynman's best stories are about running through semantic stop signs.

Comment author: kalium 06 December 2013 09:20:52PM 4 points [-]

I don't see how this is worse than any other probability estimate when a simple calculation with good numbers isn't available. Do you consider "probably", "unlikely", or "almost certainly" to be semantic stopsigns as well? Would it be better to say "very unlikely" or "with extremely low probability"?

Comment author: shminux 06 December 2013 09:27:27PM *  1 point [-]

When people act as if the probability of a certain event were zero but try to pacify the reader by using a fake zero called epsilon instead ("Oh, epsilon is very small but non-zero, so I suppose it's OK"), they consciously or subconsciously throw a semantic stop sign ("I don't want to be called on this").

Comment author: buybuydandavis 07 December 2013 02:27:26AM 4 points [-]

I think they're saying they don't want to be nit picked with irrelevant objections. "Huh, you could be living in the Matrix. You can't rule that out. There's not zero probability of that, blah blah blah..."

Comment author: kalium 06 December 2013 09:41:34PM 3 points [-]

Ah, my social circle's idiom seems to use epsilon as anything that is tiny but not infinitesimal (for instance, children are called epsilons because they are small). If LW usage is closer to its roots and tries to sneak in the notion of an arbitrarily small quantity instead of a merely tiny one, that's different, but I'm not sure I'd notice the difference in practice.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 07 December 2013 02:24:52AM 2 points [-]

I'd say that's just good practice, as demonstrated by a recent thread by Phil Goetz, and generally advocated by ET Jaynes. Low probability events can be resurrected into consideration by evidence, while zero probability events can't.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 07 December 2013 03:26:49AM 2 points [-]

Something to consider:

"The probability of X is lower than the disjunction of the probabilities that I have misunderstood the question or you have misunderstood my response."

In other words, as far as I can usefully communicate to you, the probability is, well, epsilon.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 06 December 2013 10:21:09PM 2 points [-]

To expand on Kalium's comment. Sometimes it takes massive amounts of cognitive effort to estimate a small probability, and it just isn't worth it for the purposes of some discussion. For example, it is extremely unlikely that the Illuminati have been secretly running the world governments for the last 300 years. It is extremely unlikely that ZPP is not contained in P^R where R is an oracle for the finite ring isomorphism problem. It is extremely unlikely that RIPD is going to win any Oscars. I don't need to work out exact probabilities for any of these to recognize that they are very small, other than to note that the first one is probably less likely than the second, which is probably less likely than the third.

In that context, saying epsilon to mean a small but hard to precisely estimate probability is reasonable.

Comment author: komponisto 07 December 2013 03:19:39AM -1 points [-]

While I agree with the reasonability of such a shorthand, what bothers me about this choice of term is that in mathematical usage, 'epsilon' generally stands for a variable, i.e. is bound by a quantifier: "for every epsilon > 0...", etc. Thus, although one informally thinks of such an "epsilon" as "a small number", the real point is that it's a number that "moves", usually "hitting" every positive number in some open interval containing 0. This is quite different from standing for a fixed but unknown number.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 07 December 2013 03:40:15AM 1 point [-]

That seems like a not very persuasive complaint since even professional mathematicians will "epsilon" to mean a very small difference in an informal setting. To use a recent example from discussing a calculus midterm that we were going to make two versions, one of the professors said something like "the midterms will be within epsilon of each other" and no one batted an eye.

Comment author: komponisto 07 December 2013 05:05:13AM 3 points [-]

Because professional mathematicians understand and depend on the technical usage, there's little risk of the technical sense becoming diluted by such quasi-humorous, figurative allusions to the technical jargon, which can serve as a means of in-group bonding. When outsiders do it, hover, it's no longer clearly an allusion to something else, and risks being mistaken for a distinct technical usage in its own right, in addition to losing the slight humor/bonding value.

Another mathematical in-term that has been subject to similar abuse by outsiders is the word "isomorphic". When a mathematician speaks to a colleague of all the local cafeterias being isomorphic, this is clearly hyperbole -- but it's only clear if one understands the actual meaning and normal context of the word.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 07 December 2013 04:26:34PM 0 points [-]

Do you have evidence that people are actually misunderstanding what either of these terms mean?

Comment author: army1987 07 December 2013 04:54:29PM 1 point [-]

Would you be equally peeved by “negligible probability”?

Comment author: mwengler 10 December 2013 12:57:24AM 0 points [-]

You should be peeved by "negligible probability" unless in the context of the discussion you had previously established what quantity would be below which things were negligible. Negligible literally means "not worth considering," a value judgement, not a quantity.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 07 December 2013 06:48:56AM 0 points [-]

One question about semantic stopsigns is the degree to which a given topic is worth pursuing in more detail... just how many sig figs are we going to need on this probability estimate?

Comment author: Metus 06 December 2013 12:05:01PM 2 points [-]

In academic context, especially physics: "It is obvious" and "handwaving"

The first silences any dissent by implicitly marking anyone doubting the intuition as stupid. The second marks the argument as imprecise and thus implicitly worthless though the "handwaved" argument might be a nice idea with the need to be enhanced.

Comment author: DaFranker 06 December 2013 12:42:21PM 2 points [-]

I feel like the first one is at least partially unfair. It seems more like a noisy signal, since there are many appropriate uses of the phrase, such as: "It is obvious that the trajectory of this projectile as it passes through the atmosphere of Earth can be calculated with sufficient precision to predict its landing zone and evacuate persons in the area, therefore we will not elaborate on this. We will instead concentrate our efforts on methods of early detection and measurement of such dangerous objects."

The alleged "obvious" statement draws from established and relatively confirmed experience, and may be assumed to be a fact that every physicist / astrophysicist / relevant expert already knows.

Comment author: Metus 06 December 2013 01:21:03PM 0 points [-]

The same goes for most semantic stop signs. "If you want to reduce caloric intake, you should drink less soda." Another way to state what you just said is "In the past we calculated similar trajectories, so we can be sure to calculate the trajectory of this object now." The use as semantic stop sign comes from the fact that if something is obvious it does not need to be stated. The only people surprised and intimidated by stating that something is obvious are the exact people who do not think a point is obvious.

Comment author: Nornagest 06 December 2013 09:59:39PM *  5 points [-]

The use as semantic stop sign comes from the fact that if something is obvious it does not need to be stated.

There are times when it's useful to state things that everyone present already knows. Most of the uses of "it's obvious" fall out of these cases.

For example, the rules of formal argument in an academic context might normally require each step to be given in full; but for pedagogical purposes it's not always useful to do that. The phrase there means you're temporarily lowering the level of rigor to make the argument clearer or to save time, and that's a useful thing to have in your toolbox.

Alternately, if you're making a complex argument with a lot of moving parts, salience issues often come into play; your audience might need to be periodically reminded of certain simple facts, but stating them without qualification might be viewed as condescending. "It's obvious that..." in this case serves as a social lubricant, a way of saying "I know you know this".

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 December 2013 03:18:20PM 2 points [-]

It is rarely useful to say that something is obvious.

Comment author: tgb 08 December 2013 04:03:47PM 4 points [-]

I don't know. I read and writ a lot of math (where "obvious" is probably most likely to be overused) and I do try to double-think every time I write it down. But when reading, it means to me "this statement SHOULD be obvious, if it's not, then you're missing something and you should probably reread what just happened." If it doesn't say that and just states the result I am less likely to give it a second thought, perhaps ironically. If they don't say "obvious" then maybe they're quoting some theorem I don't know and that often isn't very relevant unless I need to know every detail of this. If they do say "obvious" then they've at least judged that theorem (or definition or whatever) to be sufficiently basic as to be worth my while learning. Not only that, but if I think something seems obvious and the author thought it was sufficiently obvious to call it obvious, then I'm probably not missing anything subtle!

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 December 2013 05:32:49PM 2 points [-]

I agree. Obvious is a two-place word-- obvious to whom?-- and that fact isn't obvious;.

Comment author: lmm 06 December 2013 05:52:19PM 1 point [-]

It makes it explicit that you're skipping some steps.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 07 December 2013 03:29:52AM 1 point [-]

An explicit, but polite, way to say that you're skipping some steps: "I'm skipping some steps here."

Saying that something "is obvious" can come across as insulting the competence of anyone in the audience who doesn't take it as obvious.

Comment author: mwengler 10 December 2013 01:07:13AM 1 point [-]

We used to deliberately switch "it is trivially obvious to the most casual observer that ..." to "it is casually obvious to the most trivial observer" in order to remind ourselves that "obvious" doesn't always mean what it means.

I once saw a heated argument between two bell labs scientists where A was shouting at B "you are wrong, you are just wrong" and after 1/2 hour of loud discussion in A's office the door opened again at which point I heard A now shouting at B "your point is just trivially obvious." I thought that was pretty good, moving a PhD Princeton Astronomer from "wrong" to "trivially obvious" in less than one hour. Agile minds!

Comment author: kalium 06 December 2013 09:29:46PM 1 point [-]

I don't usually see "handwaving" used quite that way. It marks the argument as imprecise, yes, but not worthless. Physics lecturers who say "and I'm waving my hands a bit, but here's the basic concept, and you'll work through the algebra in the homework and see for yourselves that it comes out as you'd expect" aren't saying you shouldn't listen to them; they're saying that there are steps being left out and you shouldn't 100% trust the conclusion until you've checked all the steps.

Obviously I agree with you on "it is obvious", though.

Comment author: solipsist 06 December 2013 04:39:21AM 5 points [-]

"It compiles", or "it doesn't break immediately anymore".

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 December 2013 03:17:01PM 1 point [-]

That is a good place to shift gears at least, if not stop altogether.

Comment author: Michaelos 06 December 2013 04:46:30PM 3 points [-]


As an example, used in this type of context:

Me: gazing at my wife.

Wife: What's up?

Me: Oh, you were being cute tucked under the covers.

Wife: Why I am cute when I'm tucked under the covers?

Me: Um, I guess because I can only see your head.

Wife: Why I am cute when you can only see my head?

Me: Uhhh... Heart?

Wife: Heart Back.

Alternatively, it can go the other way around, and I can attempt to continue coming up with more explanations until my Wife thinks they are getting kind of silly, and she's the one that says "Heart."

Comment author: Stabilizer 06 December 2013 11:48:29PM 5 points [-]

I don't get why this is here.

Comment author: Michaelos 09 December 2013 02:25:23PM 2 points [-]

Well, my thoughts when I posted it were that my wife and I appear to use the word "heart" as a personal example of a semantic stop sign to avoid having mushy spousal conversations go too meta, and it seems to fit the criteria of most of the other examples. Is there something that I'm not seeing that makes it different?

Comment author: Stabilizer 10 December 2013 01:30:27AM 1 point [-]

I guess I was implicitly looking for detrimental semantic stop signs. I was confused at seeing a useful one.

Comment author: Alexei 07 December 2013 03:05:42AM 4 points [-]

Oh, this is pretty interesting. It's a very personal warm way to end a discussion. In this case it actually seems like a good thing.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 07 December 2013 01:45:22PM 2 points [-]

Sometimes legitimate, oftentimes not: "coincidence", "good/bad", "fair/unfair", "value", "intrinsic value", "prior", "Occam's razor". Seeing "universal prior" used as a semantic stop sign makes me especially disgusted. "Disgust".

Comment author: Raiden 11 December 2013 02:16:07PM 1 point [-]

Ones I've noticed are "lazy" or "stupid" or other words that are used to describe people. Sure, it can be good to have such models so that one can predict the behavior of a person, like "This person isn't likely to do his work." or "She might have trouble understanding that." The thing is, these are often treated as fundamental properties of an ontologically fundamental thing, which the human mind is not.

Why is this person lazy? Do they fall victim to hyperbolic discounting? Is there an ugh field related to their work? Do they not know what to do? Maybe they simply don't have good reason to work? Why is this person "stupid?" Do they lack the prerequisite knowledge to understand what you're saying? Are they interested in learning it? Do they have any experience with it?

Comment author: Lumifer 11 December 2013 04:45:16PM 0 points [-]

The thing is, these are often treated as fundamental properties

Being stupid is a fundamental property ("stupid" understood as having low g and not an inability to understand some particular issue).

Comment author: Curiouskid 12 December 2013 01:16:36AM 0 points [-]

Another reason to taboo the word "should" -- sometimes if there are a bunch of things you think you "should do", it will stress you out. In these situations, I try to taboo "should" and perhaps replace it with "want to".

I want to taboo the word "should" more often.

Comment author: mwengler 10 December 2013 01:02:33AM 0 points [-]

Downvoting without leaving any comments. Or are we only supposed to be listing unintentional semantic stop signs?

Comment author: byrnema 06 December 2013 04:52:43PM 0 points [-]

If you and I have a discussing about how I eat too much chocolate, and I say, "You are right, I should eat less chocolate," the conversation will basically end there. But 99 times out of a 100 nothing will actually come out of it. I try to taboo the word "should" from my vocabulary, so instead I will say something like, "You are right, I will not purchase any chocolate this month." This is a concrete actionable statement.

I expected you would suggest listing a reason why you shouldn't eat chocolate (one step before doing something about it). I was just surprised. Is there a specific reason you went with the actionable statement?

Comment author: Thomas 06 December 2013 01:56:48PM 0 points [-]

Beside the stop signs, the detour signs are also very popular and widely used.

Maybe even more.

A: I hear, supernovae are not extreme enough environment to produce gold. Neutron stars collisions are required.

B: What's the recent gold price? Is it going up or down?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 06 December 2013 02:20:40PM *  4 points [-]

That's not really a rationality issue. That's people implicitly saying "I don't know anything about this subject or find it boring. Here's something else I'd rather talk about."

Comment author: DanArmak 07 December 2013 12:04:52PM 0 points [-]

I read that response as saying: gold price is affected by how much gold is out there. If we thought gold was only produced by extremely rare events like neutron star collisions, we couldn't explain the amount of gold apparently present on Earth; and we would conclude there's less gold than we thought (perhaps people are passing something else as gold). The price of "true" gold should go up if this new physical theory is confirmed. If it's going down, people disbelieve the theory.

Alternatively you could read that as saying: the price of gold isn't astronomical, because it's not astronomically rare; that is strong evidence against your new theory that gold is only produced by astronomically rare events.

That seems a legitimately related subject, not "here's something else I'd rather talk about."