What Tricky Things Are Words

On the excellent rationality blog Less Wrong, there is a post today discussing the worst argument in the world.

Yvain’s essay is characteristic of what I like about Less Wrong.  Everybody knows, and is willing to point out, that words are difficult to use and frequently misused.  I’ve personally been in hour long debates that could’ve been resolved in ten minutes if we’d gotten our terms straight in advance.  And once or twice I’ve been guilty of exploiting ambiguous language to save face when I new I was losing an argument.

But not very many people dig into the whys and hows of word misuse, or think seriously about possible solutions.  At Less Wrong, there is an entire sequence of essays devoted to that topic.

This paragraph jumped out at me:

And what’s going on should be no mystery to anyone who has read through the excellent Less Wrong Sequence On Words. Words are hidden inferences, which form a leaky generalization over a set of cases that cluster along certain dimensions but may vary widely in their other characteristics. Because people feel like words are a single monolithic whole, arguments about the world tend to devolve into arguments about definitions of words (like “murder”), as if those definitions determined reality. To escape such arguments, the participants need to taboo that particular word and replace the symbol with the substance, which often means dissolving a term into its component inferences and reasoning about each one individually.

It’s well-hyperlinked to a number of other relevant essays.

Rationality is a big interest of mine, and one to which I’ll return again.  I like what Luke Muehlhauser did at Common Sense atheism, blogging his way through everything Eleizer Yudkowky had written.  Such a project is one I’m considering taking up myself.

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