When Truth Isn't Enough

This is a nice way of summing up something I do with my clients, teaching them to remove the negative connotations of belief statements. For example, a statement like "life has no meaning and everything I do is pointless" can be denotationally true, but that doesn't automatically make it a bad thing.

One easy way to expose connotations in your own thinking is to ask "So what?" or "What's bad about that?" or "What's good about that?".

(The latter's a lot less useful though, since the majority of motivated reasoning is negatively-motivated. "What's bad about that" is at least 10-20 times more likely to produce a useful answer, within the context of my work anyway.)

I actually think people who say "Life has no meaning and everything I do is pointless" are actually making a deeper mistake than confusing connotations with denotations... I think they're actually making a denotational error in missing that e.g. "purpose" or "pointfulness" typically denotes ternary relationships of the form "The purpose of X to Y is Z." In other words, one must ask or tacitly understand "purpose to whom?" and "meaning to whom" before the statement makes any sense.

My favorite conn... (read more)

When Truth Isn't Enough

by Scott Alexander 3 min read22nd Mar 200957 comments


Continuation of: The Power of Positivist Thinking

Consider this statement:

The ultra-rich, who control the majority of our planet's wealth, spend their time at cocktail parties and salons while millions of decent hard-working people starve.

A soft positivist would be quite happy with this proposition. If we define "the ultra-rich" as, say, the richest two percent of people, then a quick look at the economic data shows they do control the majority of our planet's wealth. Checking up on the guest lists for cocktail parties and customer data for salons, we find that these two activities are indeed disproportionately enjoyed by the rich, so that part of the statement also seems true enough. And as anyone who's been to India or Africa knows, millions of decent hard-working people do starve, and there's no particular reason to think this isn't happening at the same time as some of these rich people attend their cocktail parties. The positivist scribbles some quick calculations on the back of a napkin and certifies the statement as TRUE. She hands it the Official Positivist Seal of Approval and moves on to her next task.

But the truth isn't always enough. Whoever's making this statement has a much deeper agenda than a simple observation on the distribution of wealth and preferred recreational activities of the upper class, one that the reduction doesn't capture.

Philosophers like to speak of the denotation and the connotation of a word. Denotations (not to be confused with dennettations, which are much more fun) are simple and reducible. To capture the denotation of "old", we might reduce it to something testable like "over 65". Is Methusaleh old? He's over 65, so yes, he is. End of story.

Connotations0 are whatever's left of a word when you subtract the denotation. Is Methusaleh old? How dare you use that word! He's a "senior citizen!" He's "elderly!" He's "in his golden years." Each of these may share the same denotation as "old", but the connotation is quite different.

There is, oddly enough, a children's game about connotations and denotations1. It goes something like this:

I am intelligent. You are clever. He's an egghead.
I am proud. You are arrogant. He's full of himself.
I have perseverance. You are stubborn. He is pig-headed.
I am patriotic. You're a nationalist. He is jingoistic.

Politicians like this game too. Their version goes:

I care about the poor. You are pro-welfare. He's a bleeding-heart.
I'll protect national security. You'll expand the military. He's a warmonger.
I'll slash red tape. You'll decrease bureaucracy. He'll destroy safeguards.
I am eloquent. You're a good speaker. He's a demagogue.
I support free health care. You support national health care. He supports socialized health care.

All three statements in a sentence have the same denotation, but very different connotations. The Connotation Game would probably be good for after-hours parties at the Rationality Dojo2, playing on and on until all three statements in a trio have mentally collapsed together.

Let's return to our original statement: "The ultra-rich, who control the majority of our planet's wealth, spend their time at cocktail parties and salons while millions of decent hard-working people starve." The denotation is a certain (true) statement about distribution of wealth and social activities of the rich. The connotation is hard to say exactly, but it's something about how the rich are evil and capitalism is unjust.

There is a serious risk here, and that is to start using this statement to build your belief system. Yesterday, I suggested that saying "Islam is a religion of peace" is meaningless but affects you anyway. Place an overly large amount of importance on the "ultra-rich" statement, and it can play backup to any other communist beliefs you hear, even though it's trivially true and everyone from Milton Friedman on down agrees with it. The associated Defense Against The Dark Arts technique is to think like a positivist, so that this statement and its reduced version sound equivalent3.

...which works fine, until you get in an argument. Most capitalists I hear encounter this statement will flounder around a bit. Maybe they'll try to disprove it by saying something very questionable, like "If people in India are starving, then they're just not working hard enough!" or "All rich people deserve their wealth!4 "

Let us take a moment to feel some sympathy for them. The statement sounds like a devastating blow against capitalism, but the capitalists cannot shoot it down because it's technically correct. They are forced to either resort to peddling falsehoods of the type described above, or to sink to the same level with replies like "That sounds like the sort of thing Stalin would say!" - which is, of course, denotatively true.

What would I do in their position? I would stand tall and say "Your statement is technically true, but I disagree with the connotations. If you state them explicitly, I will explain why I think they are wrong."

YSITTBIDWTCIYSTEIWEWITTAW is a little long for an acronym, but ADBOC for "Agree Denotationally But Object Connotationally could work. [EDIT: Changed acronym to better suggestion by badger]


0: Anatoly Vorobey says in the comments that I'm using the word connotation too broadly. He suggests "subtext".

1: I feel like I might have seen this game on Overcoming Bias before, but I can't find it there. If I did, apologies to the original poster.

2: Comment with any other good ones you know.

3: Playing the Connotation Game a lot might also give you partial immunity to this.

4: This is a great example of a hotly-debated statement that is desperately in need of reduction.