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?
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.
"There's no accounting for taste" is one that is often used to avoid analysis of art.
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.
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.
"It compiles", or "it doesn't break immediately anymore".
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.
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?".
"Should" in my experience means: "probably won't."
As in "This should work," which I no longer dare say.
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."
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.
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".
"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".
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)
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?
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?
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)