Personal examples of semantic stopsigns

by Alexei1 min read6th Dec 201371 comments


Truth, Semantics, & MeaningRationality

I think most of us are familiar with the common semantic stopsigns like "God", "just because", and "it's a tradition." However, I've recently been noticing more interesting ones that I haven't really seen discussed on LW. (Or it's also likely that I missed those discussion.)

The first one is "humans are stupid." I notice this one very often, in particular in LW and other rationalist communities. The obvious problem here is that humans are not that stupid. Often what might seem like sheer stupidity was caused by a rather reasonable chain of actions and events. And even if a person or a group of people is being stupid, it's very interesting to chase down the cause. That's how you end up discovering biases from scratch or finding a great opportunity.

The second semantic stopsign is "should." Hat tip to Michael Vassar for bringing this one up. If you and I have a discussing about how I eat too much chocolate, and I say, "You are right, I should eat less chocolate," the conversation will basically end there. But 99 times out of a 100 nothing will actually come out of it. I try to taboo the word "should" from my vocabulary, so instead I will say something like, "You are right, I will not purchase any chocolate this month." This is a concrete actionable statement.

What other semantic stopsigns have you noticed in yourself and others?


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Note: In the long run it can be confusing if you give your post the exact same title as a previous post.

This article lists should, just, soon, very, only, anything, all as "lullaby words", words that lull your mind into a false sense of security when negotiating with people. You hear one of them, and you think that things are being taken care of, when they probably aren't.


"Penny looked thoughtful. “I know another Lullaby Word that got us into trouble.”

“What’s that?” Jeff asked.

“You remember when we didn’t have the prices ready on February first, and you asked me when we would have them?”

“Sure, but I can’t remember what your answer was.”

“That’s because it was a Lullaby. I said, ‘Soon.’ And what that means is…” She looked at me, and I nodded.

“I think it meant, ‘I don’t know, but don’t keep bothering me.’”

“That’s usually a pretty good translation,” I confirmed.

"There's no accounting for taste" is one that is often used to avoid analysis of art.

7ShardPhoenix7yTrue, but it's probably worth it most of the time to avoid unnecessary conflict.

That is presumably the purpose of most of these "stopsigns", and indeed many other classic irrationalities (e.g. "non-overlapping magisteria").

Downvoted, not because the content of the post is bad, but because it encourages people to list polite ways to get out of annoying conversations, decide they don't count as polite anymore, and throw hissy fits when people won't discuss their pet topic.

Upvoted, not for your downvote, but for raising the point that these expressions can serve as conversational signals of what LWers call tapping out. (Tangent: "tapping out" in the LW sense is a terrible appropriation of a term from a different context, because in the original context it explicitly and literally signals submission.)

I've used "stepping out" in contexts where the LW usage wouldn't be understood.

2kalium7y"Safewording" is another term that would work.
8David_Gerard7yIndeed. Most of the examples have a very clear conversational meaning: "that's nice, I'm not interested, but I'm trying not to be rude about it." Failure on the listener's part to understand this is not a failure of rationality on the speaker's part. I note the examples being raised are mostly clearly of this sort, rather than in a conversation that is anything to do with careful application of thought.
3kalium7yIn other words, sometimes stopsigns are useful.

You are right, I should eat less chocolate

In this particular case, I think the use of "should" is more an implicit dismissal than a semantic stopsign (but there may be an overlap between the two concepts). What I mean is that it's usually clear to both the participants of the conversation that you have acknowledged the problem but do not intend to implement a solution yet. More explicitely, the meaning of the phrase sounds like: "I know that I should eat less chocolate, but this is not a priority for me now.". It stops the conversation by stating your full position regarding the subjet, even if not explicitely.

Back on the main topic, one of the most powerful semantic stopsigns is probably "It's complicated". It's so powerful that even PUAs encourage to exploit it as a relationship weapon. I'm guilty of using it myself very often, even though I hate to hear those words uttered to me.

3Jay_Schweikert7yI'm torn on "it's complicated." Clearly, you're correct that it can function as a powerful semantic stopsign. But increasingly, I also find that it's actually an entirely appropriate and even useful response (or at least an initial response) to many questions, especially political/policy/legal/normative questions. For example, imagine a poll asking American citizens the following question: "In one sentence, what would you say is the major problem with the American health care system?" Now imagine the people who respond with something like "It's complicated," and ask yourself whether these individuals might ultimately have something interesting and productive to say about health care (compared to the average responder).
0Alexei7yVery good point. I think I am somewhat confusing the two different concepts in my mind. "It's complicated" is a great example!

"It compiles", or "it doesn't break immediately anymore".

2Luke_A_Somers7yThat is a good place to shift gears at least, if not stop altogether.

LW-specific: "probability epsilon" when one cannot or doesn't want to estimate more accurately, but wants to avoid using "zero", because "zero is not a probability".

One of Feynman's stories is about trying to get a NASA manager to quantify the risk that the liquid-fueled shuttle rocket would explode during a launch. After initially claiming zero, he finally allowed it might be "epsilon." "Now we are getting somewhere" Feynman happily exclaimed. "What is epsilon equal to?"

Some of Feynman's best stories are about running through semantic stop signs.

7kalium7yI don't see how this is worse than any other probability estimate when a simple calculation with good numbers isn't available. Do you consider "probably", "unlikely", or "almost certainly" to be semantic stopsigns as well? Would it be better to say "very unlikely" or "with extremely low probability"?
0shminux7yWhen people act as if the probability of a certain event were zero but try to pacify the reader by using a fake zero called epsilon instead ("Oh, epsilon is very small but non-zero, so I suppose it's OK"), they consciously or subconsciously throw a semantic stop sign ("I don't want to be called on this").
6buybuydandavis7yI think they're saying they don't want to be nit picked with irrelevant objections. "Huh, you could be living in the Matrix. You can't rule that out. There's not zero probability of that, blah blah blah..."
5kalium7yAh, my social circle's idiom seems to use epsilon as anything that is tiny but not infinitesimal (for instance, children are called epsilons because they are small). If LW usage is closer to its roots and tries to sneak in the notion of an arbitrarily small quantity instead of a merely tiny one, that's different, but I'm not sure I'd notice the difference in practice.
3buybuydandavis7yI'd say that's just good practice, as demonstrated by a recent thread by Phil Goetz, and generally advocated by ET Jaynes. Low probability events can be resurrected into consideration by evidence, while zero probability events can't.
6fubarobfusco7ySomething to consider: "The probability of X is lower than the disjunction of the probabilities that I have misunderstood the question or you have misunderstood my response." In other words, as far as I can usefully communicate to you, the probability is, well, epsilon.
3JoshuaZ7yTo expand on Kalium's comment. Sometimes it takes massive amounts of cognitive effort to estimate a small probability, and it just isn't worth it for the purposes of some discussion. For example, it is extremely unlikely that the Illuminati have been secretly running the world governments for the last 300 years. It is extremely unlikely that ZPP is not contained in P^R where R is an oracle for the finite ring isomorphism problem. It is extremely unlikely that RIPD is going to win any Oscars. I don't need to work out exact probabilities for any of these to recognize that they are very small, other than to note that the first one is probably less likely than the second, which is probably less likely than the third. In that context, saying epsilon to mean a small but hard to precisely estimate probability is reasonable.
-1komponisto7yWhile I agree with the reasonability of such a shorthand, what bothers me about this choice of term is that in mathematical usage, 'epsilon' generally stands for a variable, i.e. is bound by a quantifier: "for every epsilon > 0...", etc. Thus, although one informally thinks of such an "epsilon" as "a small number", the real point is that it's a number that "moves", usually "hitting" every positive number in some open interval containing 0. This is quite different from standing for a fixed but unknown number.
1JoshuaZ7yThat seems like a not very persuasive complaint since even professional mathematicians will "epsilon" to mean a very small difference in an informal setting. To use a recent example from discussing a calculus midterm that we were going to make two versions, one of the professors said something like "the midterms will be within epsilon of each other" and no one batted an eye.
7komponisto7yBecause professional mathematicians understand and depend on the technical usage, there's little risk of the technical sense becoming diluted by such quasi-humorous, figurative allusions to the technical jargon, which can serve as a means of in-group bonding. When outsiders do it, hover, it's no longer clearly an allusion to something else, and risks being mistaken for a distinct technical usage in its own right, in addition to losing the slight humor/bonding value. Another mathematical in-term that has been subject to similar abuse by outsiders is the word "isomorphic". When a mathematician speaks to a colleague of all the local cafeterias being isomorphic, this is clearly hyperbole -- but it's only clear if one understands the actual meaning and normal context of the word.
0VAuroch6yFrom what I've seen of cafeterias on large college campuses, it isn't actually hyperbole to say that "all the local cafeterias are isomorphic". They're technically distinct, but under a transformation that preserves all relevant properties, they can all be mapped to each other; they are the same up to isomorphism.
-1JoshuaZ7yDo you have evidence that people are actually misunderstanding what either of these terms mean?
2[anonymous]7yWould you be equally peeved by “negligible probability”?
0mwengler7yYou should be peeved by "negligible probability" unless in the context of the discussion you had previously established what quantity would be below which things were negligible. Negligible literally means "not worth considering," a value judgement, not a quantity.
0John_Maxwell7yOne question about semantic stopsigns is the degree to which a given topic is worth pursuing in more detail... just how many sig figs are we going to need on this probability estimate?

I have noticed a common semantic stop-sign in physics: "But it doesn't predict anything."

This is often used whenever discussions of the foundations of a subject come up. I'm not saying that it's always bad to use this stop-sign; searching for predictive theories is definitely the most useful exercise in science.

But, thinking about the foundations of a subject can also be a very fruitful enterprise, even though you can't immediately see how it leads to predictive models. For example, Bell inequalities and quantum computing owe their origin, in part, to people debating the foundations of quantum mechanics. Also, the mathematical field of ergodic theory owes its origin to people thinking about the foundations of statistical mechanics.

Instead of saying "It doesn't predict anything" and then proceeding to ignore it, a more productive attitude would be to ask questions like: "So can we think of some kind of consequences that different foundational pictures point to?" or ask: "Can we build a nice mathematical framework in which we can talk about these questions?" or ask: "Do different pictures help me solve different kinds of problems?".

6DanArmak7yReworded: instead of saying "it doesn't predict anything", [we should] ask "does it predict anything?" In other words: don't say a theory doesn't predict anything unless you have an actual argument that shows that it doesn't predict anything.

"Should" in my experience means: "probably won't."

As in "This should work," which I no longer dare say.

[-][anonymous]7y 5


As an example, used in this type of context:

Me: gazing at my wife.

Wife: What's up?

Me: Oh, you were being cute tucked under the covers.

Wife: Why I am cute when I'm tucked under the covers?

Me: Um, I guess because I can only see your head.

Wife: Why I am cute when you can only see my head?

Me: Uhhh... Heart?

Wife: Heart Back.

Alternatively, it can go the other way around, and I can attempt to continue coming up with more explanations until my Wife thinks they are getting kind of silly, and she's the one that says "Heart."

8Stabilizer7yI don't get why this is here.
2[anonymous]7yWell, my thoughts when I posted it were that my wife and I appear to use the word "heart" as a personal example of a semantic stop sign to avoid having mushy spousal conversations go too meta, and it seems to fit the criteria of most of the other examples. Is there something that I'm not seeing that makes it different?
1Stabilizer7yI guess I was implicitly looking for detrimental semantic stop signs. I was confused at seeing a useful one.
6Alexei7yOh, this is pretty interesting. It's a very personal warm way to end a discussion. In this case it actually seems like a good thing.

Sometimes legitimate, oftentimes not: "coincidence", "good/bad", "fair/unfair", "value", "intrinsic value", "prior", "Occam's razor". Seeing "universal prior" used as a semantic stop sign makes me especially disgusted. "Disgust".

In academic context, especially physics: "It is obvious" and "handwaving"

The first silences any dissent by implicitly marking anyone doubting the intuition as stupid. The second marks the argument as imprecise and thus implicitly worthless though the "handwaved" argument might be a nice idea with the need to be enhanced.

5DaFranker7yI feel like the first one is at least partially unfair. It seems more like a noisy signal, since there are many appropriate uses of the phrase, such as: "It is obvious that the trajectory of this projectile as it passes through the atmosphere of Earth can be calculated with sufficient precision to predict its landing zone and evacuate persons in the area, therefore we will not elaborate on this. We will instead concentrate our efforts on methods of early detection and measurement of such dangerous objects." The alleged "obvious" statement draws from established and relatively confirmed experience, and may be assumed to be a fact that every physicist / astrophysicist / relevant expert already knows.
1Metus7yThe same goes for most semantic stop signs. "If you want to reduce caloric intake, you should drink less soda." Another way to state what you just said is "In the past we calculated similar trajectories, so we can be sure to calculate the trajectory of this object now." The use as semantic stop sign comes from the fact that if something is obvious it does not need to be stated. The only people surprised and intimidated by stating that something is obvious are the exact people who do not think a point is obvious.

The use as semantic stop sign comes from the fact that if something is obvious it does not need to be stated.

There are times when it's useful to state things that everyone present already knows. Most of the uses of "it's obvious" fall out of these cases.

For example, the rules of formal argument in an academic context might normally require each step to be given in full; but for pedagogical purposes it's not always useful to do that. The phrase there means you're temporarily lowering the level of rigor to make the argument clearer or to save time, and that's a useful thing to have in your toolbox.

Alternately, if you're making a complex argument with a lot of moving parts, salience issues often come into play; your audience might need to be periodically reminded of certain simple facts, but stating them without qualification might be viewed as condescending. "It's obvious that..." in this case serves as a social lubricant, a way of saying "I know you know this".

3Luke_A_Somers7yIt is rarely useful to say that something is obvious.
6tgb7yI don't know. I read and writ a lot of math (where "obvious" is probably most likely to be overused) and I do try to double-think every time I write it down. But when reading, it means to me "this statement SHOULD be obvious, if it's not, then you're missing something and you should probably reread what just happened." If it doesn't say that and just states the result I am less likely to give it a second thought, perhaps ironically. If they don't say "obvious" then maybe they're quoting some theorem I don't know and that often isn't very relevant unless I need to know every detail of this. If they do say "obvious" then they've at least judged that theorem (or definition or whatever) to be sufficiently basic as to be worth my while learning. Not only that, but if I think something seems obvious and the author thought it was sufficiently obvious to call it obvious, then I'm probably not missing anything subtle!
5NancyLebovitz7yI agree. Obvious is a two-place word-- obvious to whom?-- and that fact isn't obvious;.
1lmm7yIt makes it explicit that you're skipping some steps.
6fubarobfusco7yAn explicit, but polite, way to say that you're skipping some steps: "I'm skipping some steps here." Saying that something "is obvious" can come across as insulting the competence of anyone in the audience who doesn't take it as obvious.
0[anonymous]7yIt safeguards against people thinking you're stupid or signals that changing your mind requires strong evidence. It could also warn other people you might consider them stupid if they speak against your claim without evidence. Also what lmm said.
2kalium7yI don't usually see "handwaving" used quite that way. It marks the argument as imprecise, yes, but not worthless. Physics lecturers who say "and I'm waving my hands a bit, but here's the basic concept, and you'll work through the algebra in the homework and see for yourselves that it comes out as you'd expect" aren't saying you shouldn't listen to them; they're saying that there are steps being left out and you shouldn't 100% trust the conclusion until you've checked all the steps. Obviously I agree with you on "it is obvious", though.
1mwengler7yWe used to deliberately switch "it is trivially obvious to the most casual observer that ..." to "it is casually obvious to the most trivial observer" in order to remind ourselves that "obvious" doesn't always mean what it means. I once saw a heated argument between two bell labs scientists where A was shouting at B "you are wrong, you are just wrong" and after 1/2 hour of loud discussion in A's office the door opened again at which point I heard A now shouting at B "your point is just trivially obvious." I thought that was pretty good, moving a PhD Princeton Astronomer from "wrong" to "trivially obvious" in less than one hour. Agile minds!

"Problematic" is a word that sees a lot of action when referring to socially-questionable implications. Some of us may remember it from the discussions on (HP:MoR spoiler) Urezvbar'f 'Sevqtvat'. While it has a lot of legitimate function, it's also a very effective way of saying "I don't really like this, but don't want to examine why, just in case my dislike isn't as well-founded as I want it to be".

7Luke_A_Somers7yThat's odd. I've generally seen 'problematic' followed by an elaborate discussion of exactly how and why, often in excruciating detail.
7philh7yPG gives [] roughly the same interpretation of "inappropriate". (Though I think it sometimes means "other people don't like it".)

Ones I've noticed are "lazy" or "stupid" or other words that are used to describe people. Sure, it can be good to have such models so that one can predict the behavior of a person, like "This person isn't likely to do his work." or "She might have trouble understanding that." The thing is, these are often treated as fundamental properties of an ontologically fundamental thing, which the human mind is not.

Why is this person lazy? Do they fall victim to hyperbolic discounting? Is there an ugh field related to their wo... (read more)

-1Lumifer7yBeing stupid is a fundamental property ("stupid" understood as having low g and not an inability to understand some particular issue).

Another reason to taboo the word "should" -- sometimes if there are a bunch of things you think you "should do", it will stress you out. In these situations, I try to taboo "should" and perhaps replace it with "want to".

I want to taboo the word "should" more often.

Downvoting without leaving any comments. Or are we only supposed to be listing unintentional semantic stop signs?

If you and I have a discussing about how I eat too much chocolate, and I say, "You are right, I should eat less chocolate," the conversation will basically end there. But 99 times out of a 100 nothing will actually come out of it. I try to taboo the word "should" from my vocabulary, so instead I will say something like, "You are right, I will not purchase any chocolate this month." This is a concrete actionable statement.

I expected you would suggest listing a reason why you shouldn't eat chocolate (one step before doing something about it). I was just surprised. Is there a specific reason you went with the actionable statement?

Beside the stop signs, the detour signs are also very popular and widely used.

Maybe even more.

A: I hear, supernovae are not extreme enough environment to produce gold. Neutron stars collisions are required.

B: What's the recent gold price? Is it going up or down?

6JoshuaZ7yThat's not really a rationality issue. That's people implicitly saying "I don't know anything about this subject or find it boring. Here's something else I'd rather talk about."
0DanArmak7yI read that response as saying: gold price is affected by how much gold is out there. If we thought gold was only produced by extremely rare events like neutron star collisions, we couldn't explain the amount of gold apparently present on Earth; and we would conclude there's less gold than we thought (perhaps people are passing something else as gold). The price of "true" gold should go up if this new physical theory is confirmed. If it's going down, people disbelieve the theory. Alternatively you could read that as saying: the price of gold isn't astronomical, because it's not astronomically rare; that is strong evidence against your new theory that gold is only produced by astronomically rare events. That seems a legitimately related subject, not "here's something else I'd rather talk about."
[-][anonymous]7y 0

When an event happens and someone begins trying to explain its occurrence, someone else may say that that event doesn't need to be explained, or doesn't merit further attention. I'm not sure these fit under the label of semantic stop signs, because they can be useful, but they deter further inquiry similarly.

Words the second person might use include "luck, chance, coincidence, quirk, circumstance, miracle", and for excusing bad performance "fluke, accident, slip, glitch, error, mistake".

"It was just a chance. Don't read into it. ... (read more)

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