Open thread: Language

by Chris_Leong1 min read8th Apr 20209 comments


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I believe that the discussion of language is currently an underrated component of rationality. The language we use constantly biases us and restricts the way that we see the world. At the same time, many of these influences are so small that they aren't worth writing a separate post about. So what are some examples you've seen recently of where language is misleading? Try to keep it to one example or one set of related examples per top-level post.

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See and for some pointers to the long-hypothesized interaction between language and thought.

It's difficult to dispute that repetition (especially from multiple sources) of ideas can give them more weight than Ol' Tommy Bayes would recommend, nor that language co-evolves with the most-communicated ideas in a community. By those mechanisms, there is going to be a strong correlation between language and long-term beliefs.

I'd argue that causality goes in both directions for that correlation, in a sort of feedback loop (along with other forces, such as actual experienced truth and intellectual propagation of ideas that language has yet to catch up with). What you talk about gets more belief-weight, and what you believe gets talked about more.

Personally, I'm in the "influence" rather than "determine" camp - novel and disbelieved ideas are very often discussed, just using more words and more intellectual effort than the routine, unexamined beliefs that underlie more common utterances.

Could you contextualize your view that disbelieved ideas get plenty of play? My knee-jerk is disagreement there. Isn't the vogue of public discourse to immediately halt the the development of unpopular/disbelieved ideas through shaming, ostracization, and gatekeeping?

I see moreso repetition of the accepted ideas (which really are prescriptions with concomitant proscriptions, impliedly or otherwise) increasing as social controls grow stronger. I'm assuming the people that post here are very smart so likely your experiences of discourse are very exceptional. But what about the masses?

Coronavirus seems to have a lot of these: "airborne", "CFR", "not statistically significant", and "number of cases" all have apparently simple clear meanings whose (mis)interpretations are biased towards inaction/complacency.

What do we mean when we use the word "we"?


The language we use constantly biases us and restricts the way that we see the world.


Yeah, "we" is often a word that is highly ambiguous.

Because some things are easier to express than others and humans don't have unlimited energy.

Nice example! Ambiguity in who is biased by what language constructs is fairly deep in humans' normal communication mechanisms, and will take a lot of words to be explicit about, in order to avoid biases related to distinctions between beliefs, aliefs, and statements to different audiences.

I was asking for an example of language causing bias (as opposed to reflecting a bias). I've heard the (abstract) theory that language affects the way we think, but I haven't heard (concrete) examples outside of "people with these language act this way, people with other languages act this way".

One example I saw recent is the concept of cutting corners. Generally, if someone is asks, "So you want us to cut corners?" we'd expect them to have a negative evaluation of the timesaving procedure. However, this article was different in that it used this term and actually argued in favour of it given the extreme situation. But in a more normal case, it's very hard to say, "Yes, we want to cut corners".

In principle, I think the idea of language being misleading is tightly intertwined with the the tension between expectations that people have in their experience with a given application of language (i.e. reading a written work or having a conversation with another person), and their actual experience of the language application.

I also think that the concept of learning is also important here. Over time, people learn to better understand or use applications of language, so what may be misleading at one point in time for a particular person may not be later on.