Against naming things, and so on

Recent discussion on naming concepts mostly focuses on arguments in favor, noting only a few caveats, as LW user Conor Moreton in Why and How to Name Things:

What you lose by the proliferation of jargon is ease-of-entry and cross-cultural intelligibility and hard-drive space in the brains of people trying to track all of it.

I think you lose more than that, so I'll try to name [sic] a few more reasons your caution might run deeper.

1. The nomothetic fallacy

Diagnosis isn't a cure, but it can bring a sense of relief untethered from prognosis. You might still have the same symptoms that still need the same treatment, but it feels like a large part of the problem has been solved. This is, I'd argue, a decent chunk of why knowing about biases can hurt you. Don't get complacent just because you have a name for something.

2. Weaponized rationality

Another big chunk of "knowing about biases can hurt you" comes from wielding concepts not in introspection but against others. (Like many of the considerations below, taking this as compelling is a general argument against much of the rationality project. But proliferating jargon, to my eye, makes most of the problems here relatively worse for external use as compared to internal use.)

3. Being wrong

Sometimes your analysis of the thing you're trying to crystallize just isn't very good. Your analogy doesn't play out the way you think, the pattern doesn't actually exist, you're not carving reality at the joints, your framing could be better, it's an inappropriate level of abstraction anywhere you'd actually want to use it. But, hey, the name stuck, so you can communicate all that in just a word!

4. Lossy compression

Maybe you got it right this time, but the name doesn't capture everything. In practice, nobody's going to remember your entire blog post every time someone utters the title. I hope you didn't need that nuance. But at least this one went viral!

5. Thinking on the page

From Conor's post:

When you define a concept rigorously and clearly, you almost always learn new things from playing around with their edges and trying to get them to interface with other rigorous, clear concepts.

And if you don't define it rigorously and clearly—as is the case for pretty much everything happening here—if you play directly with the compressed concepts and string them together that way, oops, you just proved that 2+2=5. You lost track of the actual stuff the name referred to, the rules for manipulating it while preserving truth. You thought you were post-rigor when there isn't even a rigorous stage. You were thinking on the page. [Oh, look, links to named chunked concepts. What are they doing here, of all places?]

Combining frameworks and making analogies between your concepts is a good way of generating new ideas, but it's far from rigorous and if anything encourages sloppiness if you're not careful to recognize that it's less formal reasoning and more another way of pointing to where the new things to learn might be.

6. Illusion of transparency

People will assume they know what you mean. You'll assume you know what they mean in reply—that is, what a coincidence, that they know what you mean. They don't.

7. Lifting the pot by one handle

The trouble with rationalist skills is that the opposite of every rationalist skill is also a rationalist skill.

komponisto

In the comments to Epistemic Learned Helplessness (now there's a name, eh?), komponisto writes:

We have the Inside View, and the Outside View. Overconfidence is a problem, but so is underconfidence. You're supposed to listen to the tiniest note of mental discord, yet sometimes it's necessary to shut loud mental voices out. And while knowing the standard catalog of biases is obviously crucial for the aspiring rationalist, it can also hurt you. Et cetera, et cetera.

Is it lotus eating or self-care? Should you reverse any advice you hear or not? Remembering a blogpost title isn't going to tell you which situation you're in; it's at best a handle for noticing you're in a situation where you might want to course correct following deeper analysis. But implicit in the assignment of handles is a claim that you ought to adjust more than you do in a certain direction. And you don't want achieving a balance of opposite mistakes to depend on the relative catchiness of named concepts. When you lift the pot by one handle, the soup spills out.

(This isn't, on its own, an argument against giving your ideas catchy names, so much as an argument for spending plenty of time discussing trade-offs and how to do the necessary deeper analysis. But recall that it's still mostly the handle that gets remembered.)

8. Reification

You'll tend to treat your named ideas as more concrete than they are, as meaning one particular thing to everyone, as having agency or causal powers, as unchanging and non-reframeable, as universal and context-independent, as territory, as binary, as objective.

(I wonder if this is related to a lot of our apparent confusion about double crux—people (including me) questioning its status as The Technique, while Duncan keeps trying to clarify how it's not about executing an algorithm, it's about internalizing what generates the algorithm; it's not designed for use in earnest, it's a pedagogical tool for practicing mental habits; it's not about Double Crux, it's about double-cruxiness.)

9. Rounding error

Conor again:

[What you gain by the proliferation of jargon includes] being embedded in a culture where people are diligently seeking out and popularizing such distinctions makes a given individual far more likely to pay attention to subtle distinctions themselves, accelerating the process of cultural accumulation of nuance and detail.

Or, well, the opposite of that, where you round everything off to ingroup-approved jargon.

***

You can't stop titling your blog posts, but don't force it, or you'll end up with virality tracking the wrong things (more so than usual, anyway). In particular, maybe don't optimize so much towards things like catchiness, metaphorical weight, uniqueness, and communicability—even for the sake of rapid, rigorous, distinction-rich, high-level discussion (or perhaps especially for that sake, since this kind of chunking is either unnecessary or destructive for all of these but speed)—over choosing words that prepare people to read and understand what you say.

(And even as far as speed of communication, what's weird is that the rationalist writing stereotype is absurdly prolix—it feels like the compression isn't happening where it matters, just where it feels powerful for hiding complex abstraction in a minimally intelligible way.)

You shouldn't stop trying to draw more distinctions, but maybe you can do that without encouraging one particular way of pointing to your distinction to reify and metastasize.

You won't stop sloppily compressing and combining complex ideas, but maybe worry more about unpacking things, giving examples, checking understanding, and asking questions.

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Edit: The below still feels insufficiently charitable, to me, but I wasn't able to pin it down and zero it out just yet, and will probably only be able to do so several hours from now, after mulling things over. Curious whether, in future similar situations, people would prefer the comment disappear until that time, or stay and then be clarified in follow-ups, or whether it doesn't even come across as rude enough to worry about, or what.

I feel that your claim is undermined by the very fact that you used a bunch of useful-to-have named concepts in your argument. I do not think this is a cheap shot/social trick—I think it is actually a defeater for the thing you're arguing, particularly given that you didn't even seem to address the irony except with an offhand mention in section 5.

I do agree that many of your specific caveats are genuine problems to worry about and pump against. For instance, I suspect that many people have taken the word "akrasia" as a license to just ... lean into their doing-things deficit, and similarly people who identify themselves as having some specific character trait (like introversion) often go too far with the label.

But I don't think anything in this post serves as an actual argument against naming things, in the sense that it creates a clear causal model of "why this is a cost that outweighs the benefit" or "here's how the benefit could be gotten some entirely other way." They strike me as reasons to be careful as you go about creating handles for finer and finer distinctions, not reasons to stop doing so.

I'm generally in favor of pro-thing posts being responded to with anti-thing posts, or the other way around. But I don't think this counts as pivoting from my initial statement into a genuine dialogue. I think the way I'd want such dialogues to begin is with the other person making at least a token attempt to demonstrate that they understood the goods the other person was bidding for (which in jargon is "passing my ideological Turing test"). This seemed ... non-rigorous? Too social status-y? Lacking in clear answerability? e.g. in the paragraph beginning "You can't stop titling," it said not to optimize for several things that I definitely wasn't advocating in my own post.

I grant that my post was non-rigorous and so forth, too. But I wasn't trying to argue against someone else's specifically made bid.

(I don't consider this rude at all, and will welcome your post-mulling thoughts should you choose to add them. I can also say more about where I'm coming from when I get the chance.)

Thanks. That reduced my anxiety by a meaningful amount.

I think the main thing I want to say [besides my response to Oliver below] is that this post was not framed in my head as starting a conversation in response to your post, but as gesturing in the direction of some under-emphasized considerations as one contribution in a long-running conversation about rationalist jargon. Of course, I ended up opening with and only taking quotes from you, and now it looks the way it does, i.e. targeting your "bid" but somewhat askew. So that was a mistake, for which I apologize.

Also, I know I basically asked for your "actually a defeater" response, but I really was non-rhetorically hoping people would think about what I was leaning upon and accomplishing (or not) by using the Names that I chose throughout that might not align with their prior ideas about what the Names are for.

In a somewhat ironic turn of events, I completely failed to understand your point Nr. 1 in my first reading, since I did not know the word "nomothetic". I glanced over it on my first read, noticed my lack of understanding in my second reading, and then looked it up.

I think that the correct way of dealing with at least some of these problems is to create names that are very clearly temporary names, and are marked to be replaced with something better (or to be discarded when they turn out to be wrong).

Making complicated arguments without defining new variables and giving them names is extremely hard. But while you are not sure that the distinctions you've drawn are the correct ones, you can label your variables/concepts as temporary. Eliezer's suggested solution to this was to give temporary or tentative explanation a name that clearly hints at them still being mysterious (e.g. prepending "magical").

I am not a huge fan of the analytic philosopher's solution to this, which is giving things one letter variable names, such as "Proposition D", which I think is too much on the site of non-descriptive.

On the site of bad, put maybe interesting solutions: If we are willing to throw writing convention completely out of the window, we could totally try to explicitly define concepts in monospace font and name them vaguely after what we think the concept should represent, and generally following programming variable declaration conventions, which I think gets a lot of this right. This would probably go horribly wrong, but maybe it wouldn't, so I would definitely like to see someone try.

Pretty much agreed. I might go beyond "provisional" to "disposable". I really do take maintaining fluidity and not fooling yourself to be more important/possible than creating common vocabulary or high-level unitary concepts or introspective handles [though I don't introspect verbally, so maybe I would say that]; I really do think the way the community treats words is a good lever for that.

(Of course, this is all very abstract, isn't a full elaboration of what I believe, and certainly has no force of argument. At best, I'm pointing towards a few considerations I could readily abstract out of the sum of my observations, in the hopes that people can recontextualize some of their reading with concerns along these lines.)

I'd also like to see someone try your last suggestion. (If nothing else, I might use it in a fiction project.)

I'm reminded of the Oblique Strategies playing cards. Obviously the cards don't provide any sort of rigor. But having them around might be useful for thinking creatively. Might the same apply for Less Wrong jargon?