Terminology is important

by casebash2 min read30th Nov 20169 comments


Personal Blog

As rationalists, we like to focus on substance over style. This is a good habit; unfortunately, most of the public will swallow extremely poor reasoning if it is expressed sufficiently confidently and fluently. However, style is also important when it comes to popularising an idea, even if it is within our own community.

In order for terminology to be useful, a few conditions need to be met:

  • Firstly, the term needs to either be more nuanced or more concise than explaining the same concept in ordinary language. I tend to see it as a bad thing when terms are created just to signal that a person is a member of the in-group.

  • Secondly, the speaker needs to remember the term. If a term is hard to pronounce or it has a complex name, then the speaker may be unable to use it, even if they would like to be able to.

  • Lastly, the person who is hearing the term for the first time should be able to connect it its the meaning. If they are constantly having to pause to remember what the term means, then it will be harder for them to figure out your meaning as a whole. In the best case, a person can guess what the term means before it is even explained to them.

I believe that a lot of the value that Less Wrong or the rationalist community has provided is not just new concepts, but the language that allows us to describe them. The better a term scores on each of the above factors, the more the term will be used and the more we can rely on other speakers within the community also adopting the term. This is a key part of what draws people to the rationalist community, being able to have a conversation from a certain baseline that doesn’t end up getting dragged down in the way that would be typical outside of the community. Instead of getting trapped in an argument at the level of the base assumptions, it allows a conversation to go deeper and become more nuanced.


Given all of this, I believe that further developing terminology is a key part of what our project should be. I will begin by writing a series of articles on debating terms which I wish were a part of our common vocabulary. I would like to encourage people to reread old Less Wrong articles and consider whether the concepts have been given a clear and memorable name and if not, to write a new article arguing in favour of this new term. We need to figure out ways of producing more content and a believe that a reasonable number of quality articles could be produced this way. Failing this, if you have a concept that needs a new, I would suggest writing a post arguing why the concept is important, providing examples of when it might be useful and then other people may feel compelled to try to think of a term. My first effort in this direction will be to steal some concepts from debating. Here is my first article - What is the comparative?


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As rationalists, we like to focus on style over substance.

Are you sure this is what you meant to write?

Reminds me of the general tone of Nate Soares' Simplifience stuff.

I am one of those annoying people who would rather use another word than 'rational'. I prefer 'sensible', 'fit', or 'optimal', to dodge any confusion from the name collision with so called Hollywood rationality, or with naive expected value calculation algorithms.

But I understand this term is widely adopted and will not vanish overnight.

I find the terms System 1 and System 2 difficult to memorize. Are there existing synonyms for these?

"Intuition" and "explicit reasoning".

System 1 came first, in evolutionary terms.

Great mnemonic

The Elephant and the Rider.