"Thou shalt not strike terms from others' expressive vocabulary without suitable replacement." - me

Suppose your friend says: "I don't buy that brand of dip. It's full of chemicals."

Reasonable answer: "I'm skeptical that any of them are harmful in these quantities; we don't have much reason to believe that."

Reasonable answer: "Yellow 5? Are you allergic?"

Reasonable answer: "Okay, let's get the kind with four easily recognizable ingredients."

No: "Technically, everything is chemicals. Dihydrogen monoxide!"

Pedantry is seldom a way to make friends and influence people, but this example particularly gets my goat because there doesn't seem to actually exist a word in English for the thing you know perfectly well people mean when they say "chemicals". When I tried to find one on Twitter, the closest options were "toxins" and "additives". But neither is right. "Toxins" excludes yellow 5 - or, whether it does or not might be a point of contention; but it isn't the thing originally expressed with the word "chemicals". People may want to avoid - or otherwise discuss - "chemicals" for reasons other than thinking they're literally toxic; if I tell a maid I'm sensitive to chemical smells but vinegar is okay this is useful information. "Additives" includes, say, added sugar, which, while a plausible complaint, is a separate complaint.

Suppose your grandma says, "Okay, no technology at the dinner table."

Reasonable answer: "I'll put the laptop away to make room for the potatoes, but I need the phone because I get anxious without it."

Reasonable answer: "Sure, Grandma."

Reasonable answer: "We can try that until Uncle Bill starts making easily falsified claims about Flat Earth."

No: "Technically, the dinner table is a technology. And so are your glasses, Grandma."

In this case a more precise word exists - "electronics" ambiguously includes the chandelier but at least firmly sets aside the question of whether your grandma wants you to eat naked and with your bare hands. But refusing to know what she meant because she could have gotten closer to saying it, not even literally (she isn't being metaphorical), but technically, pedantically, definitionally? This is both a bad social move and a bad epistemic one; you're having the conversation on a level that is wholly about verbal wallpaper. Do you prefer to say "electronics" or dip into synechdoche with "screens" or spend nine syllables on "internet enabled devices"? Are you actually unsure if your grandmother wants you to set aside your smart watch, dumb phone, or electric blanket of intermediate intellect? Use your own words, ask your own questions, but don't enforce an inadequate prescriptivism with feigned incomprehension while your interlocutor only wants you to pass the peas.

Thou shalt not strike terms from others' expressive vocabulary without suitable replacement. It's a pet issue of mine; it's my pinned tweet. "Suitable replacement" means suitable across the board, Pareto improvement as seen by the user along every axis a word can have. I think people are within their rights to reject a proposed replacement for not meaning the right thing, sounding ugly, being one syllable longer, being hard to spell, not rhyming in a poem they're trying to write, and vague gut feeling that you're just trying to control them. I extend this as far as "gypsy" and "Eskimo", at least (and with slightly less fervor to a slur beyond that if you really don't have another term for Brazil nuts).

Suitable replacement is a very high standard. It has to be. If you take someone's words away - and refusing to understand them when the problem is not in fact in your understanding does that, since words are tools to communicate - they are very direly crippled. Many people think communicatively; while you might not be their only outlet for working through their ideas, social shame for imprecise language can do your work for you across the board if you hit someone vulnerable hard enough. If you offer them worse words instead of expecting them to guess, they might only be crippled to the degree of wearing uncomfortable shoes, but that's still too much. Don't set up shop a block farther away than you had to and dress code folks for wearing Crocs. Communication is already difficult.

Some things I am not saying:

  • you, yes you, have to talk to people who use words you can't stand or in ways you can't stand

Nah. Block people on every website you use over ship names and disown your sister for saying "moist" for all I care. You also have my blanket permission to use any sarcastic defense mechanism that works for you against your abusive parents if you have those, or whatever.

  • you should not offer people better words for whatever value of "better"

By all means offer. "I think the preferred term is 'transgender' this week." But if they can't abide the difference in shade of meaning or mouthfeel, maybe even if they overtly announce it's just because they want to call it like they see it and they see it in some horrid way, don't try to correct them by pretending to be missing that section of your dictionary when you really aren't.

  • Humpty Dumpty was right, words mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, all is descriptivist chaos, "literally irregardless"

No. My examples have in common that they point at things and you can tell what things they are by being a speaker of the language in the conversational context. If someone starts calling cardboard boxes "pants" for no reason they're just wrong and you don't have to learn their stupid code.

Edit 12/2019:

sirjackholland wrote a comment, now slightly buried, including this paragraph:

But I genuinely don't know what "natural" is supposed to (approximately) carve up, especially in the realm of foods. If you boil tea leaves, are the resulting compounds natural? If yes, then at what point do things become unnatural? If no, then is anything that's not raw and unprocessed unnatural, including e.g. cooked meat or boiled potatoes? There is clearly a spectrum between "raw and unprocessed" and "industrially engineered" but I don't see any reasonable place to draw the line. And this makes the word "natural" in the context of foods too vague to be useful - every time someone uses it, you have to ask a series of followup questions to figure out where they (arbitrarily) draw the line.

To which I replied:

I want to point out that there are lots of situations where English speakers fluently use words that don't have clear dividing lines between their applicability and their inapplicability - it depends on context and details. "The music is loud." What if I'm deaf or far away or like to be able to feel the bass line in my bones? That doesn't make the sentence impermissible or even hard to understand and I don't need the speaker to produce a decibel value. "If you go to high altitudes, the air is thinner and you might get dizzy." How high? If I'm dizzy in Denver and the speaker thinks you shouldn't need to adjust your behavior until there are Sherpas about and meanwhile Batman can breathe in space, that doesn't make the sentence false, let alone useless. "It's cold, bring a jacket." Oh you sweet summer child, I'm good in short sleeves, thanks, I just don't know what you meant by "cold" -
There are lots of conversational purposes for which you don't in fact have to know where someone draws the line. You don't even need to be able to agree on every point's ordering in the spectrum ("it's colder today" "that's just windchill"). The words gesture in a direction. I think "chemicals" does too, and you know what direction because you came up with "unprocessed" as a gloss on "low in chemicals". If someone doesn't buy that brand of dip because it's full of chemicals, in your innocent confusion I suggest you glance at the ingredients list for a guess at the threshold in question.

In the linguistic sense, a term's use can be "felicitous", without it having to be precise, literally accurate, etc. If you don't know what a word means but you know what spectrum it's on... that suggests that actually you know what the word means.

New Comment
75 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:02 PM
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

Pedantry is like American football. You have to be smart enough to play, but stupid enough to think it worth playing.

Or, pedantry is like bling. To poor people, bling makes you look rich, but to rich people, bling makes you look poor. Even so, to stupid people, pedantry makes you look smart, and to smart people, pedantry makes you look stupid.

Rule of thumb: your grandma is always smart enough to know when you're being stupid.

Thinking a bit more about the times when I nitpick a technicality rather than digging into a real disagreement:

Both of your examples are cases where there's a LOT of subtext (friend implying status and/or attempting to influence my purchase decisions, grandma asserting authority and enforcing her preferences by implying universality), and much of the time I won't want to risk the relationships by directly contradicting or correcting them, _NOR_ by walking away and never seeing them again. And yet, it grates on me to take the option you didn't call out: just meekly accept the underlying disagreement. I totally get that the initial-response mechanism of pointing out that they've used a word in a way that doesn't exactly match a dictionary does not further a rational discussion, but I'm not sure a rational discussion is what these examples are.

Pedantry like this _is_ a way to assert a little bit of independence/disagreement (or, less justifiably, dominance), and to open the concept of disagreement in a way that's deniable, and start a subtle, unacknowledged negotiation which can be de-escalated easily if either party decides it's not worth pursuing.

Pedantry like this _is_ a way to assert a little bit of independence/disagreement (or, less justifiably, dominance), and to open the concept of disagreement in a way that's deniable, and start a subtle, unacknowledged negotiation which can be de-escalated easily if either party decides it's not worth pursuing.

Great point! That is, provided you make this a conscious choice. But if you are not making it consciously. If you are just following a habit of nitpicking (for whatever deeper psychological reasons) then de-escalation will be harder because you don't know where the conflict comes from.

The technology example reminded me of Darcey Riley's discussion of shattered dichotomies: sometimes people think of things as being either X or Y, and then learn an argument for why this dichotomy doesn't make sense. As a result, they might reject the dichotomy entirely, keep it but conclude that "everything is X" or "everything is Y", or acknowledge the argument but find the dichotomy useful regardless.

For instance, back in high school philosophy class, I used to argue that “all people are selfish”. If you’re hurt, and I go to help you, it’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s because the sight of you in pain causes me to feel pain, and I, selfishly, want to relieve my own pain (or I want to avoid the guilt I’d feel for not helping). Similarly, if I give you a gift, it’s not because I’m altruistic; it’s because I selfishly want the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from gift-giving.
In high school, I thought this was a great argument. As an adult, I roll my eyes. It’s not that the argument is wrong, per se; based on the definition of “selfish”, it really is possible to classify all actions as selfish. I just don’t think it’s useful. Our folk concepts
... (read more)
8Lukas Finnveden6y
I think the example with selfishness is wrong even on technical grounds. It's pretty easy to construct examples where people will help even though they'll suffer from it, and while you can construe weird reasons why even this would be selfish (like insane hyperbolic discounting), Occam's razor says we should go with the simple explanation, i.e. people actually care about others. Nate's post about it is good: http://mindingourway.com/the-stamp-collector/
4Thomas K6y
Without really making a point here, I think it's possible to make the definition of "selfishness" broad enough that really everything (a rational agent does) is selfish. Like, you can also make the definition of "god" broad enough so that the probability of God existing gets arbitrarily close to 1 (for example, by allowing the gravitational force to be seen as a god). So, if we define "selfishness" as "maximizing your utility function" then every rational agent is selfish by the definition of "rational agent" (the utility function can value other people). Of course, as the text quoted above says, the word then has lost all its usefulness. I think even an extreme example like: "What about an agent who is forced to do something that decreases their utility by threat of death?" falls under that broad definition because a rational agent will only go along with this if they expect death to be worse under their utility function. Of course, humans are not really rational agents, so the original question of whether humans are always selfish is a bit harder to answer.
This reminds me of the Fallacy of Gray.
Dichotomy-removing arguments along the lines of 'there's no such thing as X' or 'everything is X' tend to be clever (and illuminating if properly understood) but wrong. What they show is that the thing isn't what you thought it was, or is commonly thought to be. Cf free will and determinism - suppose the world were deterministic, then all your decisions were pre-determined, so you don't have free will. But then we'd have to treat all previous uses of the phrase 'free will' as meaningless or false, which is highly inconvenient and not in practice what happens. (Cf you’re saying it's not useful to say that.) It shows instead that free will means something separate from pre-determination - e.g. the ability to get what you want, or want to want the things you want, or whatever. There are examples where 'there's no such thing as X' can be found to be true even though X was widely believed to exist - e.g. rain-gods, phlogiston. But it's more normal to say that X does exist but meant something else all along. E.g. atoms do exist, but can be split (ancient Greek philosophers said they were indivisible by definition.)
the thing you know perfectly well people mean when they say "chemicals"

I honestly don't understand what that thing is, actually.

To use an example from a Facebook post I saw this week:

Is P-Menthane-3,8-diol (PMD) a chemical? What about oil from the lemon eucalyptus tree? Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is typically refined until it's 70% PMD instead of 2%; does that turn it into a chemical? What if we were to refine it all the way to 100%? What if, now that we've got 100% PMD, we just start using PMD synthesized at a chemical plant instead?

I do like the idea from another comment here that

the motte is "technically, everything is a chemical," and the bailey is "No need to worry about the content of the food you buy."

But even that can be inverted. People buy "no nitrites added" bacon to try to avoid a dangerous chemical, and they end up getting the result of (all natural! organic!) celery-juice and celery-powder processes. At best, the nitrates in the celery still end up getting converted to nitrites during curing, except that now there's another loose variable in the production so a balance between "cardiac/cancer risk fr... (read more)

I honestly don't understand what that thing is, actually.

This was also my first response when reading the article, but on second glance I don't think that is entirely fair. The argument I want to convey with "Everything is chemicals!" is something along the lines of "The concept that you use the word chemicals for is ill-defined and possibly incoherent and I suspect that the negative connotations you associate with it are largely undeserved.", but that is not what I'm actually communicating.

Suppose I successfully convince people that everything is, in fact, chemicals, people start using the word chemicals in a strictly technical sense and use the word blorps for what is currently the common sense definition of chemicals. In this situation "Everything is chemicals!" stops being a valid counterargument, but blorps is still just as ill-defined and incoherent a concept as it was before. People correctly addressed the concern I raised, but not the concern I had, which suggest that I did not properly communicate my concern in the first place.

Perceived chemical-ness is a very rough heuristic for the degree of optimization a food has undergone for being sold in a modern economy (see http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/04/25/book-review-the-hungry-brain/ for why this might be something you want to avoid). Very, very rough--you could no doubt list examples of 'non-chemicals' that are more optimized than 'chemicals' all day, as well as optimizations that are almost certainly not harmful. And yet I'd wager the correlation is there.

It's actually an implicit two-place predicate. Part of what's meant by "chemical" is that it's suspicious, and whether something's suspicious or not depends on what you know about it. How things are labelled on food packages is related to their safety in such a way that treating "P-Menthane-3,8-diol" as more suspicious than "lemon eucalyptus extract" is actually correct.

What if the thing you're trying to say is "I think the categorization scheme implied by your use of <word> is wrong, and will cause you to make wrong predictions?" This was the first thing that came to mind when I read your example about "chemicals" -- I objected to my dad's use of "chemicals" a few years ago, and it led to us discussing how that term conflates "has a scary-sounding name" with "has any evidence of being harmful at all". My dad previously thought that willowbark extract might be healthier/less harmful than aspirin, despite them both having the same active ingredient (salicylic acid).

I agree that people don't always want to debate about whether they're making a category error; if someone says they want to avoid food with chemicals and I object to their categorization scheme and they say "I'm not interested in debating that, please respect my food preferences so we can finish this shopping trip", then I should definitely drop the issue. But are your preferences that I shouldn't even bring it up?

(I might be typical minding somewhat here; I've gotten a lot of mileage from various rationalist friends asking me to taboo certain words in discussion, which forces me to think more carefully and often causes me to notice distinctions that I was eliding. So I like the tool of striking words from my vocabulary!)

Re-reading your post, it looks like you're mostly objecting to people feigning ignorance when a word they don't like comes up, which I agree is an annoying thing to do. I'm curious about whether you also object to people saying things like:

  • "Incel is a horrible word; it conflates 'men who are sad about not having any sex' with 'misogynistic and violent men'. I worry that its popularity will influence people to be more hostile towards any man who complains about romantic loneliness."
  • "I dislike rationlists' usage of 'defect', it's seemed to have broadened to the point of meaning 'any behavior I dislike or think is wrong'. I wish we'd all just agree to taboo that word and specify exactly what we're objecting to instead."

I think those examples are fine in many possible contexts. You can make a blog post with either instance as content just fine. My objection would come up if someone said "incel" and you said it was a horrible word instead of responding to their statement about incels - make that suggestion at another time. You could, if genuinely puzzled, ask if they mean incels as in lonely or incels as in violent misogynists, but I think context will tend to make that clear. And where it doesn't they don't in fact mean one of those things - they mean the conflation, and the word communicated that!

What is the rubric that marks the difference between a good semantic argument/point/question, and a bad semantic argument/point/question.

I would say there must be some rubric that marks the difference between "seeking clarity and understanding" and "seeking ambiguity and confusion".

Sometimes it is the person saying "I would like to mention this other definition of the word" who is seeking clarity.

Sometimes it is the person saying "Oh, come on, you know what I mean." who is seeking clarity.

And sometimes it's not necessarily about facts... It's about who get's to decide what is proper, and what is not. In each of the examples, "chemicals in food", "technology at the dinner table." one can legitimately ask--what concerns you about the chemicals in the food? What concerns you about the technology at the dinner table?

For the chemicals in the food example, what is probably a concern that they must rely on their own knowledge to decide whether each of the ingredients in the package is safe, and a lack of trust in the systems government and business have worked out to assure that foods are safe. That's a... (read more)

This post is an eloquent defense of the skillful wielding of the power of language against the forces of blandness, pedantry, and cowardice that every day threaten to degrade our cognition and thereby consume us all.

When it comes to the issue of "chemicals" in food, it's a well-defined term in the EU. It also makes a lot of sense to legislate different substances differently.

It would be madness to say that everyone who sells an apple has to list the thousand of different proteins that are in the apple on the ingredients list in a way that it isn't to tell food produces to list added substances that normally aren't found in apples.

On the same token, there's an argument to be made for the EU policy of saying that when somebody decides to a... (read more)

Somewhat of the topic of accurate labels: This reminds me of Scott A's old posts on the Non-central Example Fallacy and Motte-and-Bailey: A statement starting with " Technically, ..." is designed to pick out a non-central example, like that from the post, the motte of, say, "Technically, MLK was a criminal," to justify the bailey of, say, "Shoplifing is no big deal, even though it is against the law." Or, in your example, the motte is "technically, everything is a chemical," and the bailey is "No need to w... (read more)

Gah, I keep finding myself in the unpleasant position that I agree in general, but every example I see is problematic. "shoplifting is no big deal even though it's against the law" is a weird thing to say unless in response to "shoplifting IS a big deal because it's against the law". And the latter _should_ be attacked by showing all the ways that the law is insufficient evidence of big-deal-ness. The motte-and-baily is on the other foot in this case (bailey being "shoplifting is illegal", motte being "shoplifting is a big deal").

I agree with this argument in general but not for slurs. I think it's appropriate to exert social pressure to prevent those.

Are those really an example of this pattern? Slurs typically combine a group signifier with an insult; it's normally pretty easy to replace that a non-slur group signifier and a separate insult. It's unlikely that someone using a slur will have difficulty coming up with different words that mean the same thing. They'll just... not want to use those words, because they're less deniable.
1) My model of people who use slurs as a significant part of their expressive vocabulary is that at least some of them use the slur to mean "member of group [X] I don't like", as explicitly opposed to "member of group [X] I feel indifferent-to-positive about". A neutral group signifier plus optional insult alone fails to encode this distinction, perhaps making it a less-than-suitable replacement. 2) I read: ...to be pretty clear about whether a more-verbose construction that requires the speaker to separate their personal insult can fail to be a suitable replacement. None of this means that the general principle can't or shouldn't have a carve-out for slurs; My only intended argument is that, as expressed above, it seems plausible to me that finding suitable replacements requires significant effort (and basically is never done in practice by people attempting to remove slurs from others' excessive vocabulary).
Some people are in fact responsive to "that's a slur; the preferred term is X", especially if X isn't a barbarous use of language, if they were using the slur to encompass the whole group and got caught by a euphemism treadmill or just pick up their vocabulary from sources unsympathetic to Xes. And you don't have to reject an offered word for being a syllable longer if you want to make that tradeoff. I think this is a case of Postel's law, or should be.
Hmmm. I would be responsive to "that's a slur," but the follow-on "the preferred term is X" raises my hackles. The former is merely a request to be polite; the latter feels like someone is trying to dictate vocabulary to me.
I think it's much better to offer a replacement than not.
Oh, I certainly didn't mean to imply that there weren't cases of suitable replacements for slurs (or that it wouldn't be valuable to find such); rather, I only meant to claim that there existed a case where it isn't obvious how to find a suitable replacement (contra jimrandomh above).
0[comment deleted]6y
0[comment deleted]6y
You should stop using the word "slur" because most of the time that people use it they are lying (see the examples in the OP). I don't have a replacement word.

I’d submit this post for curation if that feature was working, but since it’s not, I’m saying it in a comment. This is excellent.

The "nominate for the 2018 Review" feature works, though!

Considering the fact that 80% of people think that food containing DNA should be labeled maybe pedantry in cases similar to the first one is actually the correct response (depending on who you talk to of course).

5Said Achmiz6y
No; if someone thinks DNA is a chemical, they’re just wrong, and you can explain it to them easily enough. “This food contains DNA?! Ew! I don’t eat food with chemicals in it!” “No, no. ‘DNA’ is just a fancy term for something perfectly natural. There’s lots of DNA in your body! It’s part of blood and muscle and bone and everything.” “Oh, ok then.”
I feel like the example for "loading definitions" does, in fact, strike a word from my vocabulary without suitable replacement. I would like a word for "the aspects of masculinity that are bad"; in order to prevent the conversation turning into a bunch of complaints about my use of a particular term, I instead have to just say "masculinity." I do not want to use "masculinity" to mean "the aspects of masculinity that are bad." I would like to distinguish between those two things. (While I have no moderation power, I would personally really prefer that this conversation not turn into a conversation about the merits of that particular term.)
Yeah, I don't fully endorse the linked Tumblr post; in particular there's certainly ways to resolve these conflicts that aren't "abdicate the terminology yourself". But some of it is highly relevant and well said.
3Paperclip Minimizer6y
Argh ! NO. The kind of probability that matter when calculating expected utility and making decisions based on expected utility is the Bayesian kind. The math WOULDN'T be the same. There is no such thing as the frequency of rain tomorrow beyond 100% if it does rain and 0% if it doesn't, so you can't compute it before the event happened. Propensity is more complicated and possibly incoherent as a concept, but you can't compute it either.

Basic politeness rules, explained well for people who don't find them obvious, yay!

I don't know perfectly well what someone means when they say the dip is full of chemicals. I know roughly what they mean, but I can't figure out exactly what they mean, or even know if they have a consistent or thought out definition at all.

When telling them that the dip contains dihydrogen monoxide, I am not being pedantic; I am saying "the plain meaning of what you are saying doesn't make sense. And any not-plain meanings are beyond my ability to guess, so could you please tell me what you're really trying to say?"

You can solve this by adding scare quotes or the phrase "so to speak". E.g., "That brand of dip is full of 'chemicals', so to speak." That way, you're safe from pedants without intruding on the existing meaning of the word "chemicals".

I have to say that I'm guilty of such pedantry (playfully, in my mind. perhaps not to the recipient, and I'll examine more closely next time it comes up), especially to break the ice when I don't think the reasonable but non-compliant response will be well-received.

I do think that language and communication _is_ personal and idiosyncratic, and a demand that I provide a single word for a concept that can be used in other contexts is somewhere between onerous and just unlikely. Clarification using many words is often perfectly reasonable. ... (read more)

This post helped me understand why something was bothering me, then provided additional insight. Thank you!

I feel like this post is missing an important piece.

When people say "chemicals" or "technology" they are very often not talking about the term in question, but communicating an emotional fact about themselves. "I am disgusted by foods that feel artificially produced", "I want you not to be distracted by devices during dinner". Coming up with better and more precise terms won't help at all, since the thing is being communicated has little to do with the referent of the imprecise term.

You can notice this when the ... (read more)

This is now my go-to post to point to when people are rules lawyering words. Really useful resource.

I definitely agree with the general principle of this post and the "technology" example made the principle clear and useful to me, but something feels off about applying this principle to the "chemicals" example. I think it's because most of the time, when someone says that something has "chemicals", what they mean is that it contains ingredients that aren't "natural", which is a term I've always found very confusing. There are plenty of technically false dichotomies that are nevertheless useful approx... (read more)

I want to point out that there are lots of situations where English speakers fluently use words that don't have clear dividing lines between their applicability and their inapplicability - it depends on context and details. "The music is loud." What if I'm deaf or far away or like to be able to feel the bass line in my bones? That doesn't make the sentence impermissible or even hard to understand and I don't need the speaker to produce a decibel value. "If you go to high altitudes, the air is thinner and you might get dizzy." How high? If I'm dizzy in Denver and the speaker thinks you shouldn't need to adjust your behavior until there are Sherpas about and meanwhile Batman can breathe in space, that doesn't make the sentence false, let alone useless. "It's cold, bring a jacket." Oh you sweet summer child, I'm good in short sleeves, thanks, I just don't know what you meant by "cold" -

There are lots of conversational purposes for which you don't in fact have to know where someone draws the line. You don't even need to be able to agree on every point's ordering in the spec... (read more)

I suspect pointing out someone's confusion about the scope of the terms 'natural' and 'chemicals' is a proxy (not necessarily a bad one) for pointing out that their whole thinking on the topic is confused. It's a sign they assume incorrectly that natural (whatever they mean by it) is good and chemical (likewise) is bad, which is usually what they are implying. E.g. I heard someone on the radio talking about this re the term 'processed' food; he said people who disapprove of processed food might say it's much better to eat e.g. pasta with some parmesan and wine. Whereas in fact those are all highly processed foods too. So pointing this out is a more polite way of saying "your thinking is so muddled you haven't even thought through what counts as 'processed' (or 'natural' or 'chemical'), so you're not justified in assuming that that entails something is good or bad, which indeed it doesn't." Which seems a valid point.
Unfortunately, this is incredibly hard to do. It's much easier to notice patterns than identify the relevant property.

Noticing patterns is all that there is to do. There is no magic word that means exactly what you want to say. But some patterns are better at identifying the relevant properties than others. And I believe that pushing people to use more accurate words has some value.

Nearly all ecosystems have been heavily modified by human presence since 10 thousand years ago.

Yes, they have. And those modifications could be said to be unnatural. E.g. t... (read more)

I don't think the long term problems caused by natural ingredients are that well known. Nutrition is hard.

I'm all for less pedantry, but

there doesn't seem to actually exist a word in English for the thing you know perfectly well people mean when they say "chemicals".

Maybe that's because "chemicals" isn't a natural category? I don't really know what is meant by that word. It could be something about the manufacturing process. But possibly it just means "complicated words listed on the packaging" and nothing more.

I am not saying: you, yes you, have to talk to people who use words you can't stand or in
... (read more)

One polite way to respond to people using words you prefer they not use is "[Word] upsets me for [Reason], can you use [Replacement Word] instead?" If they can't (because they're not a native English speaker, or they have a linguistic disability, or they are chronically sleep deprived, to name just three of the reasons that word replacement can be impossible), then you have to judge how important not being around people who use Word is for you.

You could also consider asking what they mean if you don't know what they mean. My rough sense is something like "a cluster of chemicals the central examples of which require industrial manufacturing processes to create, did not exist before the 20th century, are not part of any culture's traditional way of doing things, could not be manufactured in a home kitchen, and bear little resemblance to petroleum, corn, or soybeans in spite of being derived from them."


Extensionally, "chemicals" is food coloring that doesn't come straight out of a whole food, disodium edta, ammonia, peroxide, acetone, sulfur dioxide, aspartame, sodium aluminosilicate, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, sodium sorbate, methylchloroisothiazolinone....

And not: apple juice, water, table salt, vodka, flour, sugar, milk...

A thing doesn't have to be a natural category for people to want to talk about it and have a legitimate interest in talking about it.

I disagree with your second point and think you're missing mine. If you don't want to talk to someone, don't talk to them. You don't have to be cruel, and your desire to be cruel doesn't make it reasonable.

"Cruel" might be a bit of a stretch. I could agree that your "No" replies are passive aggressive, which is frowned upon, but I don't think that being passive aggressive is an unreasonable strategy. Well, that's a long list. Doesn't explain very much though. How do you feel about carbonic acid, baking soda or pure alcohol? Also, what would happen if I took one item from you chemical list, and discovered that it is contained in and extractable from one of the items in your non-chemical list? Nobody can stop you from talking about whatever you want. But it doesn't help you reach correct conclusions.
I had a similar reaction: for the example of grandma saying "no technology", yes, I know what she means and pointing out the thing about tables and glasses would just be stupid. But for the thing with chemicals, until I read this post, I didn't feel like I had a good handle of what exactly their mental model was and how they defined this category. Now, in the process of writing this comment, I gave it some thought, and came to the conclusion that something like "synthesized vs. naturally-occuring" would probably be roughly what these people mean. But that was only after it was specifically suggested to me that they might have a sensible concept they're pointing at; when I read the example, my assumption was just that they didn't have a coherent model and weren't very familiar with chemistry, in which case "everything is chemicals" would have been fine as a response.

I guess this post is a bit of a typical mind-fallacy check for me, on the "not everyone has read In Defense of Food (or something similar)" front.

Defense of Food has a bit of the naturalistic fallacy going on, but I think it's core point is at least a hypothesis worth talking about and being able to make distinctions around.

Somewhere in the 20th century, people started getting a cluster of "Western diseases" (i.e obesity, heart disease) that seem to have something to do with diet (although non-diet lifestyle changes are another contender).

In general, the 20th century saw lots of industrialization that radically changed both diet and lifestyle. But in the diet front, there's a specific with worth noting:

Prior to mid-20th century, we did not have very fine control over what sorts of chemicals went into food. Food was made of chunks of organic matter with a lot of complex reactions going on. Mid-20th century, we started being able to break that down into parts and optimize it.

And this meant that suddenly, food became goodhartable in a way that it hadn't before. Industry could optimize it for tastiness/addictiveness, with a lot of incentives to do th... (read more)

3Said Achmiz6y
What’s this now…? A book, or what?
Yup, a book. Not sure whether it's super important to read in full (I think my comment here roughly covers the most important bit, but if it seemed interesting you may want to check it out) Also, I wrote a LW Post on it many years back (I think it's possible this was literally my first LW post, and if not was my second or third, so it has a bit of the "newbie introducing themselves" vibe.) Amazon link for the book is here.

I wish to clarify that I'm not asserting that everyone knows exactly what things are "chemicals" and what things are not. There's room for disagreement, for one thing, and the disagreements might turn on all kinds of little points about where a substance came from and even why it was added to the food. But I do think that given two lists of ingredients for different brands of, say, packaged guacamole, you could distinguish "few to no chemicals" from "lots of chemicals". That there isn't a strict, look-up-able boundary of necessary and sufficient conditions that fits in a "coherent model" doesn't mean it's not useful to gesture at for some purposes, sort of like music genres. I don't have a coherent model of music genres and I couldn't elaborate much on what I mean if I call a song "poppy" or "jazzy" but that doesn't mean it's not a statement I might reasonably utter.

It's a statement that's reasonable to utter, and a statement that a more music-savvy friend might want to understand by asking what you mean, getting some positive and negative examples, and suggesting more precise terminology (along with suggesting specific music, one hopes). Pointing out that your use of those words is likely to confuse people and search engines is something I'd expect you to encourage rather than invoking your peeve. Note that I recognize that this comment may be an example of the thing you oppose - I'm verbosely challenging a (possibly) non-central point. I'd be interested to hear whether you find this example to be exasperating or valuable.
Suggesting search engine terms might be helpful. I don't think I'd ever find "you're going to confuse people" helpful - either I already know that I'm not being very precisely expressive and these are all the words I have, or, if that's not the case, "could you elaborate/rephrase that" would be better. I didn't feel exasperated by this comment but might by a long chain of them on this branch.
(not sure why the parent is so downvoted - it's a bit abrasive, but on-topic and not terribly mean. ] I'm not sure I accept the concept "natural category". In context of food shopping, there is a colloquial use of the term "chemical' that is not precisely defined but used commonly enough to expect that one's friends know mostly what is meant, and in context the edge-cases are irrelevant. "complicated words listed on the packaging" is actually pretty close. I think many people forget that words don't mean anything. People mean things and use words to convey that meaning. The shared experiences and expectations of what a person might mean by a given set of words is a relationship between the people, not between the words. I'm fully behind your last point - both participants are free to leave. Both are free to ask the other to change, for that matter, and to complain on the internet.
I think the point was distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable replies to people you value communication with. All else being equal - in the event using such a word doesn't move them from out of the reasonable category for you - a preference is being given for not doing these things. (I still do similar things with people who value it, because I know people who enjoy talking about language, but otherwise I don't find it as time effective as 'Don't Feed The Trolls', though this tends to be easier said than done, and communicating with people who have poor epistemic/conversational, etc. standards can be difficult (due to inferential distance, or other priorities) - some people go on about today being a 'post-truth' era, because they've talked to too many people who just don't care about truth. There's a feeling you get when you walk away from a discussion knowing that neither of you got anything out of it, and communication didn't take place. Related links.) Following this post's policy can increase the utility of reasonable people you talk to, and I find that useful because I value reasonable discussion.
[+][comment deleted]3y20