Use unique, non-obvious terms for nuanced concepts

Naming things! Naming things is hard. It’s been claimed that it’s one of the hardest parts of computer science. Now, this might sound surprising, but one of my favoritely named concepts is Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2.

I want you to pause for a few seconds and consider what comes to mind when you read just the bolded phrase above.

Got it?

If you’re familiar with the concepts of S1 and S2, then you probably have a pretty rich sense of what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you have a partial notion: “I think it was about…” or something. If you’ve never been exposed to the concept, then you probably have no idea.

Now, Kahneman could have reasonably named these systems lots of other things, like “emotional cognition” and “rational cognition”… or “fast, automatic thinking” and “slow, deliberate thinking”. But now imagine that it had been “emotional and rational cognition” that Kahneman had written about, and the effect on the earlier paragraph.

It would be about the same for those who had studied it in depth, but now those who had heard about it briefly (or maybe at one point knew about the concepts) would be reminded of that one particular contrast between S1 and S2 (emotion/reason) and be primed to think that was the main one, forgetting about all of the other parameters that that distinction seeks to describe. Those who had never heard of Kahneman’s research might assume that they basically knew what the terms were about, because they already have a sense of what emotion and reason are.

This is related to a concept known as overshadowing, when a verbal description of a scene can cause eyewitnesses to misremember the details of the scene. Words can disrupt lots of other things too, including our ability to think clearly about concepts.

An example of this in action is Ask and Guess Culture model (and later Tell, and Reveal). People who are trying to use the models become hugely distracted by the particular names of the entities in the model, which only have a rough bearing on the nuanced elements of these cultures. Even after thinking about this a ton myself, I still found myself accidentally assuming that questions are mostly an Ask Culture thing.

So “System 1” and “System 2” have several advantages:

  • they don’t immediately and easily seem like you already understand them if you haven’t been exposed to that particular source
  • they don’t overshadow people who do know them into assuming that the names contain the most important features

Another example that I think is decent (though not as clean as S1/S2) is Scott Alexander’s use of Red Tribe and Blue Tribe to refer to culture clusters that roughly correspond to right and left political leanings in the USA. (For readers in most other countries: the US has their colors backwards… blue is left wing and red is right wing.) The colors make it reasonably easy to associate and remember, but unless you’ve read the post (or talked with someone who has) you won’t necessarily know the jargon.

Jargon vs in-jokes

All of the examples I’ve listed above are essentially jargon—terminology that isn’t available to the general public. I’m generally in favour of jargon! If you want to precisely and concisely convey a concept that doesn’t already have its own word, then you have two options.

“Coining new jargon words (neologisms) is an alternative to formulating unusually precise meanings of commonly-heard words when one needs to convey a specific meaning.” — fubarobfusco on a LW thread

Doing the latter is often safe when you’re in a technical context. “Energy” is a colloquial term, but it also has a precise technical meaning. Since in technical contexts, people will usually either know the technical meaning or assume there is one even if they don’t know it, there is little risk of confusion here. Usually.

I’m going to make a case that it’s worth treating nuanced concepts like in-jokes: don’t make the meaning feel like it’s in the term. Now, I’m not sold that this is a good idea all the time, but it seems to have some merit to it. I’m interested in where it works and where it doesn’t; don’t take this article to suggest I think it’s unilaterally good. Let’s jam on where it’s good.

Communication is built on shared understanding. Much of this comes from the commons: almost all of words you’re reading in this blog posts are not words that you and I had to guarantee we both understood with each other, before I could write the post. Sometimes, blog posts (or books, lectures, etc) will contain definitions, or will try to triangulate a concept with examples. The author hopes that the reader will indeed have a similar handle on the word they’re using after reading the definition. (The reader may not, of course. Also they they might think they do. Or be confused.)

When you have the chance to interact with someone in real-time, 1-on-1, you can often gauge their understanding because they’ll try to paraphrase the thing, and you can usually tell if the thing that they say is the kind of thing someone who understood would say. This is great, because then you can feel confident that you can use that concept as a building block in explaining further concepts.

One common failure mode of communication is when people assume that they’re using the same building blocks as each other, when in fact, they’re using importantly different concepts. The is the issue that rationalist taboo is designed to combat: forbid use of a confounding word and force the conversationalists to build the concept up from component parts again.

Another way to reduce the occurrence of this sort of thing is to use jargon and in-jokes, because then the person is going to draw a blank if they don’t already have the shared understanding. Since you had to be there, and if you weren’t, something key is obviously missing.

I once had a long conversation with someone, and we ended up using a lot of the objects we had with us as props when explaining certain concepts. This had the curious effect that if we wanted to reference our shared understanding of the earlier concept, we could refer to the object and it became really clear that it was our shared understanding we were referencing, not some more general thing. So I could say “the banana thing” to refer to him having explored the notion that evilness is a property of the map, not the territory, by remarking that a banana can’t be evil but that we can think it evil.

The important thing here is that it felt like it was easier to point clearly at that topic by saying “the banana thing”, because we both knew what that was and didn’t need to accidentally overshadow it, by saying “the objects aren’t evil thing” which might eventually get turned into a catchphrase that seems to contain meaning but never actually contained the critical insight.

This prompted me to think that it might be valuable to buy a bunch of toys from a thrift store, and to keep them at hand when hanging out with a particular person or small group. When you have a concept to explore, you’d grab an unused toy that seemed to suit it decently well, and then you’d gesture with it while explaining the concept. Then later you could refer to “the sparkly pink ball thing” or simply “this thing” while gesturing at the ball. Possibly, the other person wouldn’t remember, or not immediately. But if they did, you could be much more confident that you were on the same page. It’s a kind of shared mnemonic handle.

a pink sparkly ball

In some ways, this is already a natural part of human communication: I recall years ago talking to a friend and saying “oh, it’s like the thing we talked about on my porch last summer” and she immediately knew what I meant. I’m basically proposing to take it further, by using props or by inventing new words.

Unfortunately, terms often end up losing their nuance, for various reasons. Sometimes this happens because the small concept they were trying to point at happens to be surrounded by a vacuum, so it expands. Other times because of shibboleths and people wanting to use in-group words. Or the words are used playfully and poetically, for humor purposes, which then makes it less clear that they once had a precise meaning.

This suggests there might be a kind of terminological inflation thing going on. And to the extent that signalling by using jargon is anti-inductive, that’ll dilute things too.

I think if you’re trying to think complex thoughts, it’s worth developing specialized language, not just with groups of people, but even in 1-on-1 contexts. Of course, pay attention so you don’t use terms with people who totally don’t know them.

And this, this developing of shared language beyond what’s strictly necessary but still worthwhile… this, perhaps, we might call the sparkly pink ball thing.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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3 Comments

クリス » 24 Feb 2016 » Reply

First of all, I am writing this comment because I noticed today that your blog is seriously undercommented, not because I found this *particular* post especially valuable. I hereby give you 1 unit of positive feedback, and promise to comment on future posts.

About this *particular* post, I only have some small remarks:

– the title of this very post could use your advice, unless it’s meta-sarcasm of course,

– I first learned about S1 and S2 when I read the pithy pseudo-definition that was given in the introduction to “From AI to Zombies”, and it was in retrospect one of the most harmful things I’ve ever read; I swallowed it without pausing and then it took me ages to notice I did *not* actually know much about what S1 and S2 are!
(which quite recently resulted in this video that shows my stupid face talking about some common problems I noticed with understanding S1 and S2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TV8sabfHelQ [insert excuse why I have a terrible English accent])

Anyway nice to meet you, and please keep turning your ideas into posts!

I have infinitely more units of feedback available, so I can give you *exponentially* more positive feedback for each post from now on! Now that should keep you motivated! 🙂

    Malcolm » 25 Feb 2016 » Reply

    Thanks so much!

    I guess I kind of buried the lede with the title, and should have just called the post “the pink purple ball thing” then?

      クリス » 25 Feb 2016 » Reply

      No problem!

      I guess it would make sense that when you are introducing a verbal concept handle (and especially so when doing it publicly on your blog), it’s more important to make the phrase catchy than to be faithful to any physical objects. So it would be better to go in the direction of “the dancing banana thing” etc.

      However further still, I guess when the phrase is supposed to be transferred in verbal form, it’s much better to make it somehow related to the concept (but not too directly, to avoid harmful guessing by people who don’t already know). One good way to do this would be by embedding a powerful mnemonic image that makes perfect sense but only after you hear the explanation.

      But at this point we are back at the “naming things is hard”, and also “no free lunch” (btw, this one is quite good!). Grabbing some physical objects and associating them with meanings makes perfect sense in the context of a conversation. But if you use the same technique for blog post titles, well…

      Let me just write a positive sentence at the end to leave a subconscious impression that I’m a very positive person! It never mattered what the content is, as long as I put a smile here: 🙂

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