July 23, 2017
Expression through language - written or spoken - provides not only the factual information of the message but also an insight into the mind of the communicator. This is almost as real as physical (bodily) expression, which always reflects the mind's state. While it is possible to fake an accent or rehearse a speech, it is very difficult to think in a pattern different from one's own. Thoughts are phrased in language for communication and recording, and so the clarity, style, and progression of spoken or written works (including conversations) is a direct indication of the way a person thinks, a mark of that person's individuality. Changing the way one's mind thinks, which is in essence changing one's personality and self, is not possible at will but happens continuously and automatically through exposure to a particular environment. A student who spends many hours playing video games will find reduced interest in school work and increased ability in the game - a change of the mind's operation and a change of self. A student who reads books by a particular author will find his writings taking on the tone of the author - and from the above connection between writings and thoughts it is seen that his thought patterns are also changing. This sort of adaptation, or change of thinking, happens in response to the environment whether the environment is consciously chosen or not. The conclusion is that it is possible to shape one's own thinking and behavior, not by willing it to happen, but by cleverly adjusting specific external parameters that will eventually lead to a corresponding personality change.
Why concern ourselves with the notion of 'precise language'? Precision means that the idea expressed in language is clear, both to the sender and receiver. For the sender there is a benefit that forming precise language forces the mind to think logically, which is generally seen as beneficial since many aspects of the world can be treated more effectively by a logical/rational approach than by an opportunistic approach. For the receiver there is an added benefit of certainty in the information they have received, that something has not been 'lost in translation'. Precise language is not a panacea - it is dry and humorless, and it stifles creativity by being so specific in its descriptions that little room for imagination or productive alternative interpretation is left. My interest in precise language is that it extends beyond terms and phrases to entire thought patterns, such as how much one can really claim to know and how likely one is to believe others' speculation. Practicing precise language also involves recognizing and mentally correcting logical and conceptual fallacies that can arise from imprecise or manipulative thinking. It is my hope in this article to show why some common expressions and ideas lead to flawed thinking and how one can seek out more insightful communication.
Examples of Imprecise Language
The following examples illustrate imprecise language, all being something that one might plausibly encounter on a daily basis yet from a logical standpoint being nonsensical and even harmful to precise thought. Note that even the language I use to describe the examples below will often be imprecise - much of language is useful because of its generality rather than its precision, and I don't claim that precise language is the ideal for which one should strive. I just hope that some of the worst offenders can be safely removed to promote logical thinking. In the examples, 'sender' will refer to someone who says/writes the statement in consideration, and 'receiver' will refer to someone who hears/reads the statement and reacts to it. The list is illustrative and not intended to be exhaustive.
- "this is the best ____ ever!"
- The statement does not describe why 'this is the best', nor in what category or by what metrics it is best. The fallacy is when the receiver assumes both categories or simply trusts the salesman/ad (automatically/subconsciously) and does not put more thought into analyzing the statement, accepting it as truth.
- "50% more vitamins!"
- 'more' is a comparison but no reference point is given; '50%' without a reference is meaningless but having a specific number makes the statement seem authentic (the lack of reference is more obvious in "more vitamins" without the '50%'). The fallacy is when the receiver assumes a reference point (there is a subconscious feeling of favor towards the product because it is claimed to be better than what one's own idea of the product was, without any absolute metrics or objective comparison).
- "house in a prime location"
- What constitutes a 'prime location'? It is not known whether this is in the center of a city, far away from the city, near a train station, or other specifics. However, 'prime' implies the idea of good and coveted. The fallacy is when the receiver substitutes (subconsciously) a meaning for 'prime' coincident with their own beliefs of what a prime location is - thus valuing this house over one with a more plain listing without any real evidence for doing so.
- "this product uses a low friction material"
- What is the reference point for 'low friction' - as slippery as ice or slightly better than soft rubber? It is impossible to tell from this statement. The fallacy is when the receiver assumes a context (even a logical context, like similar products or classes of materials - in the absence of evidence no context is to be preferred) in which 'low friction' has a specific meaning. This assumption happens on a subconscious level if not specifically opposed.
- "the measurement should be extremely precise"
- What is the reference point for 'extremely precise'? Once again the fallacy is when the receiver assumes the context, which is very tempting especially in case of familiarity (or assumed familiarity) with the measurement. Subconsciously, the receiver will recall the feeling corresponding with the word 'extremely' from other unrelated contexts, leading to an intuition about the measurement which is not based on real parameters. Despite the difficulty of quantifying measurement precision, when acting as sender one should avoid such phrases - if you don't know how precise the measurement is in absolute terms, on what basis can you say that it is 'extremely precise'?
- "we're buying a compact pump"
- The word 'compact' implies a certain set of attributes (small size, lightweight, low power use) but without any reference point - perhaps a compact pump is one that weighs 500 kg? As before, the fallacy is when the receiver assumes a context (even a logical context, like similar types of pumps) and subconsciously has an idea of the correct set of multiple attributes to describe the pump, based only on the one word 'compact'.
- "they are the bad guys"
- The word 'bad' is the culprit (as would be 'good'), since it implies something one does not like. Different people will like and dislike different things, but all will dislike things they individually consider 'bad' - everyone will agree they don't want to be 'bad guys' so this statement actually means different things to different receivers (both sides in a conflict can say this about the other side). The fallacy is when the receiver uncritically accepts the statement and then views the 'guys' in terms of the receiver's idea of what is 'bad'. Worse, it is difficult to find a context for 'bad' so clarifying this statement (just how bad are they?) is impractical. This statement is logically useless but emotionally convincing.
- "it is chilly today"
- The 'it' is unclear (societal context suggests a reference to weather, but maybe something else is the topic?), and 'chilly' is a vague enough term that it does not lend itself to easy measurement or definite confirmation. The fallacy is if the receiver mentally accepts this statement (either agreeing or disagreeing) since at that point he is engaging in conversation about a concept (of how chilly it is) that cannot be defended or justified. Accepting this statement may also lead to subsequent confirmation bias of judging the temperature as chilly, even if without hearing this statement the receiver may have found it to not be chilly (whatever 'chilly' means).
- "be very careful"
- What does it mean to be 'very careful', and how does that compare to just 'careful'? This statement conveys little information, as most of the apparent meaning of the statement has to be created by the receiver based on past experiences with the notion of 'careful'. The fallacy is if the receiver accepts this statement without clarification, assuming he 'knows' what the sender means - this may lead to conflict later on.
- "that's a fast car"
- The word 'fast' conveys the idea of speed but no specificity - how fast is it? the fallacy is when the receiver assumes a context for the phrase in accordance with his own beliefs (perhaps an average car speed from his experience). Learning specific information, such as the car's top speed, may come as a surprise to the receiver if it conflicts with his idea of what a 'fast car' is, thus the statement is imprecise.
- "cost was the most important consideration in this project"
- What other considerations were there and what exactly constitutes 'importance' for consideration? The word 'most' implies a comparison - how was this comparison done? The fallacy is when the receiver accepts the statement under his own criteria of when to call something 'most important', which will most likely be different from the sender's criteria and lead to disagreements later on.
- "it only takes a little time"
- What is 'little' with respect to time? In the absence of a reference, the receiver will try to provide one. The fallacy is if the receiver accepts this statement since his reference for 'a little time' will understandably be in accord with an expectation of something quick, spurred on by the word 'only'. In the case that 'it' takes longer than the receiver's idea of 'a little time' (which was never the sender's idea of 'a little time', since the actual amount of time was not communicated) communication conflicts will arise.
- "we will replace the AC with a more powerful one"
- How much more powerful will the 'more powerful' one be? The fallacy here is when the receiver assumes an idea for how much more powerful it will be, which may not coincide with what the sender is thinking. Combined with a vague notion of 'powerful' and a convincing sender this may lead to a type of placebo effect, where the receiver believes the AC is more powerful even when the actual improvement was only marginal.
- "when you go up a little bit in complexity, the cost rises exponentially"
- First, what is 'a little bit' in terms of complexity? Second, 'exponentially' has a precise mathematical meaning - does it really apply here? The fallacy is if the receiver attempts to find a basis for 'little bit' and 'exponentially', where likely the latter will be considered a more impressive amount without justification. Subsequently the receiver may remember this as a general trend, but the underlying idea of relative amounts of change will be vague - as will the tenuous comparison across unrelated dimensions (cost and complexity). The vagueness itself is what makes this statement seemingly applicable to many cases and thus in accord with observations, furthering the illusion of a deeper truth or even of wisdom. Cases where increased complexity leads to decreased cost would be unjustifiably dismissed/not considered by a receiver who believed this statement.
- "if you drink this tea for a week, you will feel much better"
- How much is 'much better'? For a statement making a precise prediction about the future, it is necessary to specify objectively measurable values for a future parameter so the validity of the statement can be evaluated later on. One could, for instance, tell if a weather forecast was accurate or not because a predicted temperature can be compared to actual temperature at the future time. There is no such capability for verifying the 'much better', nor is there a precise definition of 'better' in this statement (fully recovering from an illness? showing slightly fewer symptoms? getting a surprise gift?). The fallacy is if the receiver accepts this statement, or tries to find evidence in support of it later on, since the statement is so vague that almost any evidence will support it. Real measurements of the accuracy of medical predictions (or of the efficacy of medical products) are extremely challenging, requiring at least a simultaneous control measurement (what would happen if you don't drink the tea?). Psychologically, the receiver who believes the above statement may proclaim they are feeling better at the end of the week even if objective measures of their health don't change - the working of the placebo effect. Worse, with plenty of room for error in the description of steps the receiver has to take (drink tea for exactly a week or maybe longer/shorter? once every day or all the time? does it have to be made in an exacting 'special' way?) the statement becomes infallible - perceived absolute truth - because evidence against it can be dismissed ("you didn't drink the tea every day of the week, so of course you're not feeling better") while evidence for it is sought out even when it doesn't exist ("now you're feeling better - see how the tea helped!" even though the improvement in health was from automatic function of the immune system and effects like getting more rest during the week, all unrelated to the tea). Insidious statements like this have guided human affairs since earliest recorded history (religious and superstitious beliefs), and are no less effective today.
- "it's never a good idea to skip a meal"
- The word 'never' implies an absolute, but unless a statement is about a fundamental physical law the use of absolutes is unjustified. For something as involved as skipping a meal, multiple reasons may exist which make it a good idea. The fallacy is when the receiver accepts the statement, either (mentally) diluting the idea of 'never' into 'usually not' thus losing its precision and clarity, or carrying a logical contradiction leading to cognitive strain (guilt or feeling of anxiety when skipping a meal).
- "this line has to be perfectly straight"
- "the hole should be drilled at this exact point"
- Physically, there are no straight lines or exact points. whether the line is off by a few millimeters or a few atomic spacings, it is still not perfect. the fallacy is when the receiver accepts this unphysical statement and believes they have an understanding of the sender's intent (what they have, instead, is an intuitive rendition based on concepts that the idea of 'perfectly straight' evokes for them - which is not necessarily what it evokes for the sender). An estimation and verification of the tolerances of products is a difficult and costly process that is normally overlooked when the product is "close enough". nonetheless, it is irresponsible for scientists and engineers to act as senders of statements like this (since doing so is a sign of imprecise thinking).
- "early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise"
- Just because the statement rhymes and is memorable does not make it true. No argument is offered as to why and how 'early' leads to health/wealth/wisdom. The fallacy is when the receiver, moved by the robust rhyme, takes an aspect of the pronunciation of the statement as an indication of its truth - the statement is accepted without further proof because of its rhythmic sound when spoken aloud. The receiver may even try to invent a context in which the statement is true ("before electric lights people were up early") so they don't have to dismiss the appeal of the rhyme.
- "it was a dark night, and he was in a dark mood"
- The word 'dark' in this statement has two meanings, one relating to visibility and the other to emotion. Combining them in this way provides repetition and makes the statement more convincing and memorable. The fallacy is when the receiver associates the independent parts of the statement (one about the night and one about the mood) together and sees the night as causing the mood (or in a supernatural way, vice versa, subconsciously) - even when no such relation is implied or logically justified.
- "wise men have long beards"
- Beyond the lack of support for the claim and no reference point for 'wise' or 'long', this statement sets up (without stating it) a causal image of amount of wisdom as related to beard length. The fallacy is if the receiver accepts (implicitly) that beard length should have anything to do with wisdom, and naturally that a longer beard implies a larger amount of wisdom (the latter was never claimed by the statement! "wise men have long beards" turned into "wiser men have longer beards" in the receiver's mind). A receiver who believed this might not see the issue in estimating the wisdom of a man by the length of his beard (though the statement never claimed the converse that men with long beards are wise). The convincing mental imagery of wise men with beards helps establish this nonsensical comparison of different parameters.
- "you learn stuff in school, but you don't really learn it until you experience it"
- The gist of this statement seems easy to understand and perhaps even recalls real-life examples in the receiver, but the statement is almost meaningless. The main flaw is the implicit comparison between 'learn' and 'really learn' - how is one to know the difference? The fallacy is when the receiver automatically has an intuitive feeling that 'really learn' is somehow more serious or a deeper commitment than 'learn', but only because those two terms are seen in the same phrase and thus compared directly. The meaning of the 'really' is wholly emotional and cannot be made precise, once again leading to a vague interpretation favoring the applicability of this phrase to many life events, which in turns leads to its subconsciously perceived truth or wisdom. A similar vagueness leading to wide applicability perpetuates the messages of fortune cookies, horoscopes, and palm readers.
- "don't judge a book by its cover"
- Why not? This statement throws out an argument but makes no attempt to support it. The fallacy is when the receiver (especially under peer pressure) accepts the statement by inventing reasons to support the argument ("people value book contents over book covers"), but these reasons may not be the same as what the sender intended so the receiver ends up justifying (to himself, fully accepting it as true) an argument that he may have found false if evidence was initially provided.
- "children in elementary school are too young for video games"
- Not only is there no support for why they are too young, this dangerous statement automatically implies (with no support) that there is a minimum age for video games. The fallacy is when the receiver accepts (voluntarily or not) the idea of being too young for video games - this acceptance occurs even in refuting the statement ("they are not too young!"). To avoid this trap the receiver must ask the underlying question of why age is relevant to video games. There are additional fallacies (what type of video games? playing or buying or watching others play? why the arbitrary category of elementary school and not an actual age?) which are described above.
- "this is the way we've always done it"
- While a history of carrying out a task in a specific way may point to merits of the long-standing approach, the length of time something has been done does not justify why it is better than something else. For a convincing argument the underlying merits of the approach should be given, not just its longevity. The fallacy is when the receiver accepts the statement, leading to no real understanding for why the task is done in a particular way (with an associated feeling of uncertainty/doubt) along with stifled communication due to a reduced tendency to ask further questions or point out alternatives.
- "wind turbines are efficient, eco-friendly, non-polluting, etc."
- "we modified the product's design, appearance, colors, and so on"
- "they have rockets and tanks and stuff"
- These statements are very common and very dangerous, as they imply a continuation of a list without giving specific details of how the list is to be continued (only the sender knows that, and he has given up attempts at communication by using 'etc'/'and so on'). What exactly is meant by the 'etc' of the wind turbines? The 'so on' of the product? The 'stuff' that 'they have'? Humans are good at finding patterns, and it is very tempting to mentally complete the lists, but such completions are unjustified and will likely be incorrect. The fallacy is when the receiver accepts such statements and believes that he understands the author's intent even though the intent is not made explicit (even the assumption of a logical context for the 'etc' does not remove the fallacy). Worse, the vagueness of such statements may lead both sender and receiver to believe that they have more evidence in support of a point than they really do (often the 'etc' is mentally skipped over, and remembered as a plethora of evidence - too much and too obvious to list out (but in reality nonexistent)). I think such statements are a sign of lazy writing (and thinking), and suggest that authors avoid them at all costs - list everything necessary, and list specific categories if there are too many individual items.
- "this is the right thing to do, and you know it"
- This damaging statement asks the receiver to mentally convince himself of the truth of an argument the sender tossed out and failed to support. It is emotionally difficult to claim not knowing the right thing, and the alternative is to act as if one knows. The fallacy is when the receiver (especially under peer pressure) accepts the statement, which may even lead to a rapid finding of knowledge in support of why 'this is the right thing' and the subsequent belief by the sender that this knowledge was the reason for accepting the argument (when in reality the knowledge was found after the argument had been implicitly/subconsciously accepted through peer/societal pressure).
- "I know what you're going to say"
- "I know what you mean"
- The answer to both is no. The fallacy is when the receiver accepts a statement of this kind as an indication that the sender is able to recreate their train of thought, which puts the receiver at an unjustified ease to not continue explaining a concept in more detail or assume that the sender realizes the same things the receiver realizes, leading to poor communication and misunderstandings later on (the blame for which will most likely be on the receiver for not describing something more clearly).
- "I knew you would say that"
- While possible, the more likely psychological alternative is that upon hearing something familiar the sender recognizes it as appropriate in the situation leading to the false belief of 'I knew' - if asked beforehand what the other person would say next the sender would have been at a loss. The fallacy is when the receiver believes this statement (even subconsciously, since technically it cannot be refuted) leading to reverence for implied but never displayed intelligence/foresight of the sender. In addition to providing a tendency for the receiver to unjustifiably assume the sender knows what the receiver knows or thinks, this statement is emotionally damaging and off-putting, leading to ineffective communication.
Hopefully considering the above examples has provided a better idea of the ubiquity of imprecise language and its potentially damaging consequences. Imprecise language cannot be avoided. One of the powers of language is that it can convey very complex ideas in only a few words, the accompanying vagueness being a tradeoff of the brevity (if each word and phrase had to be explained to utmost precision, one would need to write whole books to say the simplest things - even this phrase could serve as an exemplar of the above section). However in many cases, especially relating to measurable parameters, rational and effective communication requires that concepts be made precise. Doing so takes mental discipline and effort since one may find that the items to be made precise are actually not well known - uncovering gaps in knowledge of the subject which are uncomfortable to face or expose. It has been my experience that acknowledging and then fixing such gaps leads to the rewarding experience of more precise thinking and more precise communication.