[Note: Venting with occasional rantiness.]
A few weeks ago I read Style Guide: Not Sounding Like An Evil Robot by Scott Alexander. He advises against using technical terms when talking about people and social phenomena unless you really mean them technically because using unfamiliar, atypical vocabulary puts people off. In his words:
The saying goes: “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance”. This is the same idea as “weirdness points”: you can only bother people a certain amount before they go away. So if you have something important to bother them about, don’t also bother them in random ways that don’t matter.
In writing about science or rationality, you already risk sounding too nerdy or out-of-touch with real life. This doesn’t matter much if you’re writing about black holes or something. But if you’re writing about social signaling, or game theory, or anything else where the failure mode is sounding like an evil robot trying to reduce all of life to numbers, you should avoid anything that makes you sound even more like that evil robot.
It’s good advice. You shouldn’t pretend to a level of objectivity and exactitude you can’t deliver, you shouldn’t dress up basic observations in fancy words to make them seem more profound, and (the main reason here) you should be weary of using jargon that marks you as a member of a particular social group if you want to appeal to people outside that group.
I don’t always live up to that. I use jargon, perhaps more than I should. I do try to avoid it unless I believe the reader knows it, or it’s necessary to make the right point, or so useful that I think a reader ought to know it if they don’t already. And on occasion, I admit, I just like to put together an impressive sounding sentence. But generally I aim to write in a relaxed, friendly and straightforward manner.
So why did this rub me the wrong way, just a little?
Here’s the piece of advice I found myself bothered by the most:
Humans -> people. This will instantly make you sound 20% less like an evil robot. Use “humans” only when specifically contrasting with another animal:
Wrong: “I’ve been wondering why humans celebrate holidays.”
Right: “I’ve been wondering why people celebrate holidays.”
It’s suggested that they mean the same thing. They do if you only count, you know, what the word refers to. However, they imply different points of view. A question like: “Why do people celebrate holidays?” invite answers that take for granted all the things that normal people tend to take for granted. You might say that “it’s fun”, “it brings the community together”, “it makes you feel connected to your ancestors”, or “it’s an opportunity to blow off steam” etc. They don’t tend to assume that concepts like “fun”, “community”, the importance of ancestry/identity or the need to “blow off steam” need to be explained.
“Why do humans celebrate holidays?” on the other hand, implies way fewer things to take for granted. It invites us to step outside the context of people talking to each other and consider ourselves from the outside.
Yes! That’s precisely what you should avoid! You know, sounding like an evil robot that doesn’t just understand what normal humans just understand.
Well if you put it that way…
…it still rubs me the wrong way. Possibly even worse than before. It does because it shows that this isn’t a mistake or superficial disagreement. It’s a fundamental rejection of a perspective I consider valuable. When we look at ourselves with a scientific sensibility we recognize that much of what seems intuitively obvious are in fact complex, opaque, and in need of explanation. Sometimes it’s even wrong or misleading.
There’s a comment down the page that elaborates on the problem:
A lot of these can be described as passive or distancing language. Scientific language uses distancing in order to try and remove as much subjective judgment as possible from descriptive language, to remove bias.
Humans -> people. Males -> men, females -> women. Status -> popularity, respect.
I think these in particular portray an outside view of a situation that carries otherizing connotations. The benefit of the scientific language to appear non-judgmental and impersonal is working against you if your intent is to be personable, polite and communal. That’s what makes it awkward. You *want* to appear biased here. You *want* people to feel comfortable. You *want* to be relatable.
I guess the advice “don’t adopt distancing language when trying to win people over” bothers me when part of the actual point you often want to get across is that we, in general, ought to adopt much more of a distanced perspective than we do.
It’s humbling and we need that because of how philosophically narcissistic we have a habit of being. We need to appreciate that looking at the world, and at ourselves, specfically from inside a human consciousness is going to yield a grossly distorted picture. We need to compensate for that by carefully examining and fencing off our assumptions and intuitions, and looking suspiciously at the building blocks of our own mental architecture.
Some concepts play major roles in our minds and cultures: love and hate, good and evil, us and them, beauty and truth, heroism, revenge, virtue, corruption, hope, faith, betrayal, redemption, perfection, purity, degeneracy, loyalty, sacrifice, crime, punishment and reward, destiny, choice, mind, thought, will, desire and purpose. We tirelessly explore them thorough our art, literature and philosophy. They make so much sense to us that we don’t quite realize that they aren’t fundamental parts of reality or central to existence, anywhere but exactly inside our heads.
It needs to be explained how very particularly organized chunks of meat create these structures, live inside them and build elaborate but deluded cosmologies to justify their felt monumental significance as reflecting something outside themselves; something greater, more fundamental and eternal, something transcendent.
Religion is the archetypal example, of course, but you also get philosophy that projects artifacts of the mind like identity, categories, purposes and goals onto the world. That has problems because it confuses useful heuristics for making sense of reality’s surface features for its deeper nature. From that you can derive a sliding scale from more inside view to more outside view, culminating in a fully mechanistic account of everything.
There’s a lot to explain
It’s beyond the scope of a short blog post to defend my materialism/physicalism/naturalism/whatever-you-wanna-call-it but as I see it the world is not at all like we feel it to be. The whole religious impulse is exactly wrong, 180 degrees.
At the same time I also have a mind and I know what that feels like (I promise). I’m fascinated with how to bring the two perspectives together, how to approach an understanding of how one relates to the other. That means philosophy of mind, neuroscience etc. for understanding how a brain gives rise to experiences that, from the inside, feel like fundamental to reality but aren’t. It also means history, economics and most of all evolutionary psychology for understanding why the mind is the way it is and not some other way.
I suspect the to me obvious general correctness of the evolutionary (which is outside-viewish) approach to psychology is much less obvious to many others than it is to me partly because many don’t appreciate that our mental features need to be explained at all. We tend to take the architecture of the mind for granted as the only possible way a mind can work. Why do we love our children? Why do we feel sexual attraction? Fear of death? Disgust? Why do we enjoy sweet foods, praise and popularity?
The answers feel obvious but that’s only from the inside, only when we’re allowed to just assume all the intuitive knowledge that all normal people have. But that intuitive knowledge is not knowledge in a strict sense. It doesn’t actually “bottom out” at something basic even though we feel it does. We don’t know how we work, we just feel like we do because of our ability to work effectively with ourselves. It’s like confusing the ability to drive a car with understanding how a car works.
We often don’t make that distinction in everyday life. “Do you know how the printer works?” means “Are you able to operate the printer?” and not what it literally says. Similarly, in understanding the nature of something like love we could go the literary path and explore and describe it in experiential terms. We could make the reader feel they understand love: what it’s like to be in love, how it affects you, what experiences constitute it and what role it plays in your life. Or we could go the scientific route and account for how, in neurological terms, these powerful experiences can come about — or (more interestingly to me) describe the evolutionary process and pressures that bootstrapped the whole system into existence.
There’s a lot to explain here. Massively and highly specifically complex and organized systems and processes aren’t the obvious, inevitable result of a featureless substance called “mind” interacting with the world. That’s absurd. But it makes sense, which is our problem. If you don’t see all the explaining we have to do you aren’t thinking hard enough.
We can tie this back to our bad philosophical habit of reifying artifacts of mental mapping (like objects, their properties and behavior, identity and mind). It’s long interested me how examples in sci-fi and fantasy fiction demonstrate that we find it basic and easy to understand without explanation, things that in reality would be unbelievably complex or flat out impossible because they’re completely incompatible with how the physcial world actually works. For example: separating minds from bodies, shrinking or enlarging objects and creatures with no change in function, making people invisible or magically turning a thing into another thing but still having it be the “same” in the sense that it can be turned back into itself again, are all basic plot points in stories, easily understood even by children, but the opposite of simple and basic in reality. And ever since I noticed the issue it really bothers me how common it is to have laws of nature with a sense of macroscopic object identity. I don’t say all this to nitpick but to point out that what does or doesn’t require an explanation in fiction have very little to do with what is or isn’t difficult/impossible to do or explain from a scientific standpoint.
To put it all into one sentence: our intuitive sense of when we understand something and what kind of explanations actually explain things is seriously unreliable. We need the outside view to reality check our intuitions. Being open with that might put people off but that doesn’t make it wrong.
It’s a corrective
If we don’t realize that first-person, subjective sense of understanding is not at all the same as third-person, all-the-way down objective understanding — despite sharing the same word — then we’re going to be living in a tiny little universe and not even realize it.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the inside view. I love that too, and I love art, music and fiction with a powerful streak of just the kind of romanticism that involves projecting feelings onto the world and then consume them in an act of communion with the creator. I adore dramatic and emotionally evocative design, architecture and ritual and I think we’ve got far too little romanticism going on in those areas today.
What is clearly wrong, in my opinion, (and I am aware this is my own sense of social standing talking), is to act all superior in staying inside the anthropocentric bubble and act as if this gives you all understanding worth having. I’m of course talking about the type of literary intellectual described by C.P. Snow in his classic The Two Cultures: somebody who considers even basic understanding of science, math or technology irrelevant to being a generally educated person, but literary history is essential.
In that vein, one of my pet peeves is the popular idea that scientists and engineers need to study the humanities to become well-rounded. I don’t disagree, and I’m myself the result of just such an initiative, but I dislike the one-sidedness of it. When the virtues of STEM are held up it tends to be because of usefulness, not importance for intellectual development. Well, for what it’s worth, it’s been tremendously important for mine (as have the humanities). The approaches are complementary, and you just do not get very far with only one oar.
To rant: I’m especially bothered by an air of smug superiority from those who seem to consider taking the outside view a mark of intellectual poverty and lack of cultural sophistication. It’s even often called philosophically naive(!) to subscribe to reductionist materialism. That’s a longer discussion but to cut it short: one side here has a view more childlike and it ain’t mine; believing in magic or magic-like things doesn’t require sophistication at all. Virtually every illiterate premodern in history was able to do so without much difficulty. It’s simple as shit, because it sweeps under the carpet exactly the issues our minds aren’t well equipped to deal with.
I suspect this backwards snobbery exists mostly for social reasons. Outside views are considered less philosophically sophisticated because people likely to hold them tend to be less socially sophisticated. The connection isn’t an accident, I bet. Strong implicit intuitive understanding of other people makes you more socially adept and less aware of how incomplete this understanding really is. The better you are at doing something without thinking about it the less aware you become that there’s something there that requires thinking to really get to the bottom of.
To come full circle, there’s a comment on SA’s article that makes the point:
It’s not inherently incorrect grammatically [to use male/female for men/women] but it instantly has subconscious signaling that the speaker doesn’t actually interact with other people or understand gender relationships and social roles implicitly the way most people do: it implies an approach to gender and social cues derived from an outside analytical scientific study as opposed to participation and intuition. E.g. (“when seeking a mate, the males of the tribe undulate in order to display their proficiency at intercourse”).
This in turn implies a lack of “normal” social skills, a lack of confidence in ones place in social situations, and a subconscious perspective as an outsider to these rituals, all of which signal inexperience and awkwardness at best, otherness and danger at worst.
Right. Those who adopt the outside view often does do so to compensate being relatively bad at the inside view and this leads people, I believe, to also consider such philosophies and ideas to be less sophisticated. And, importantly, more threatening, which is touched upon at the end of the quote: analytical people are seen — probably correctly — as less moved by involuntary emotions of loyalty and in-the-moment empathy and therefore not as reliable as friends and allies (as discussed in Facing the Elephant). That also contributes to impopularity. Pejoratives like “cold”, “bloodless” and “clinical” is used for outside perspective views when criticized from that angle.
So even among adult intellectuals there’s a lot of high-school cliquery going on, and ideas are evaluated not just on their theoretical strengths but for reasons of fashion and popularity. Sure, you can say that’s obvious and everybody knows it, but in my book trying to stop when you notice yourself doing that is part of being a grown-up.
So, I’m apprehensive about the implications of the advice. It feels like telling people to give up, to acquiesce. Should you tell a missionary to not mention God or Jesus or sin or anything like that when trying to convert people (“don’t say anything to suggest you’re a Christian, people are put off by Christians“) and instead just tell them to, you know, be good? Turn the other cheek, be chaste and give to the poor? That might be nice. It might do some good. But it’s not exactly satisfying if your aim is to spread the word of God.
Nor would these moral proscriptions carry as much power by themselves as they do when presented as integral parts of a complete belief system. That’s important. The substitutions in the original post are supposed to not matter substantively and I agree that when it’s just style, you should use a plain word. But often I think it does matter because the whole package supports the individual point you want to communicate. Ideas are stronger, more convincing and more meaningful in their proper context. They get watered down and become irrelevant when not hooked up to the networks of power in the mind. They need to fit in with the movers and shakers already there, or they need to smuggle some friends through with them to boost their chances of getting a foothold somewhere.
Typing this out and thinking about it over a few weeks has made me more sympathetic towards political radicals (who I in general do not like). I think I’ve hit upon something they often feel: “We don’t want to make our points in a way the squares can accept from their perspective! We want everyone else to adopt our perspective! It’s better! It’s correct!”
Is what I’m saying here any different? Or is it just that I disagree with political radicals and don’t want to adopt their perspective but I do want everyone else to adopt mine? Yes, fine. Guilty. Now, I do think politics is more subjective than philosophy and science of mind and behavior, so the “it really is like this!” argument is less compelling coming from them. But it rings a little hollow when I think about it more. It’s not enough to dismiss the similarities.
My “defense” in the end is this: I’m not saying we should adopt the outside, analytical view in place of the inside, intuitive view. But we should understand that it brings insights that can’t be had from the inside and solves problems we can’t even see. And we should do the same with politically radical ideologies: not adopt them wholesale, but recognize that they form valuable complements to the status quo and can help us see things otherwise invisible.
As it is, in public life, the scientific, outside view of ourselves and our societies is underappreciated. That ought to change. Most importantly of course by granting higher social status to those who hold them… 🙂
• • •
Or whatever word you prefer. “Mechanistic” has some baggage I don’t like but so does “materialist”, “physicalist” and “naturalist”.
I think back to the “love speech” from Interstellar and shudder. It’d be funny as parody but I’m not sure it’s meant to be.
I get the impression the scientific worldview is considered narrow while the humanistic one is not, even though the second is much more parochial, particularist and insular than the first (if you don’t automatically equate human affairs with the entirety of existence). That schism goes back pretty far, I guess, to a disagreement about what is meant by “the world” or “reality”. More on that in this post.
It could be because these subjects are not taught very well. If you’re just doing rote memorization of formulas and dreary chemical naming conventions etc. it won’t be particularly mind-expanding. It might have been for me because I was educated in math and engineering while also reading a lot of popular science, which is heavy on the conceptual stuff and lighter on formulas.
It is of course true that there are unsophisticated versions too. “It’s all just atoms maaaaaaan” isn’t any more profound than the version with “spirit” in it if just parroted without appreciation for the consequences or awareness of the objections. But trying to properly explain human beings and our place in the cosmos in scientific terms is a task of much greater complexity and in need of so much greater sophistication that doing so in humanistic terms that merely feel convincing from within a human mind (but you can’t escape the human mind!!! Blah blah yes I’m aware) — as the history of religions and myths demonstrates.
The “naive” label can also be because materialist and reductionist philosophy per se can easily be confused for the kind of unexamined scientific realism that philosophically uninterested scientists and science enthusiasts easily acquire. But they are not the same.
I will readily admit that it’s annoying when people you don’t share a worldview with attempt to impose theirs by using their own terminology. It’s a pickle and I wish we had better ways to navigate these disagreements. This post is more an excuse to vent some frustrations than it is rhetorical advice.