On the other side of the mountain, there’s a blue elephant drinking by the lake.
So what just happened here?
I generated an obscure image in my mind, translated it into a specific combination of words, and ordered my fingers to type them up. Your eyes then absorbed different wavelengths of photons from your screen, upon which you drew meaning from these words, and then generated an image in your mind.
Now, imagine how much of a hard time our pre-language ancestors would have had explaining such a sight. It’d be like playing charades and pictionary, except even if the other person gets you, it’d be hard to tell if they really get you. Especially if what you’re describing is unusual.
Lucky we established this language thing a while back:
There’s ample popular literature that highlight the unequivocal role of language in Homo sapien’s success:
- Having more intricate vocal cords enabled more diverse sounds
- Having a larger brain relative to other animals (only ~3% of mass, but ~25% of energy usage at rest) allowed more information to be processed
- Better brains could handle language sophisticated enough to be able to articulate in a much more detailed way. A monkey might only be able to go “danger, run”, but a human could go “I think I can see 3 lions about 1 km away heading this way, so we should get going in the next few minutes.”
- Language allowed knowledge to be preserved and transferred to the next generation without requiring first-hand experience (you learn not to eat the bright red mushrooms, not because you’ve tried, but because an elder told you so)
- Written language took this learning transfer to another level. Then the printing press. Then digitised content… etc.
- Also, better brains and more sophisticated language meant that we could form shared cultures, beliefs, religions etc to cooperate in larger numbers. And large groups of smart homo sapiens collaborating dominates the world.
Yeah, language is pretty cool.
1. Linguistic ambiguity
As remarkable as language has been (and continues to be), let’s not forget that:
Language is merely an approximation of expression.
The paraverbals (how things are said) and non-verbals (body language and facial expressions) often convey more information than verbals (what was said). In a way, compensating for the limitations of language.
No wonder we bear the trouble of flying to different corners of the world just so important meetings can be held in-person.
If only I could physically connect my brain directly to yours, or be able to upload my brain into a computer, then allow someone else to download that content into their brain…
Hold that thought. Elon Musk’s latest venture, Neuralink, is getting started on this:
“The fundamental limitation is input/output. We’re already a cyborg. You have a digital version of yourself online in the form of your emails, social media … and you have superpowers with your computer, and your phone, and the applications that are there. You have more power than the president of the United States had 20 years ago. You can answer any question. You can video conference with anyone, anywhere. You can send a message to anyone instantly … But the constraint is input/output. So we’re I/O bound. Particularly, output bound. Your output level is so low, particularly on your phone, you’re twiddling with two thumbs… this is ridiculously slow. Our input is much better because we have a high-bandwidth visual interface to the brain. Our eyes take in a lot of data. … Effectively merging in a symbiotic way with digital intelligence revolves around eliminating the I/O constraint. It’d be some sort of direct cortical interface… A neural lace…” – Elon Musk at Recode 2016
Back to: On the other side of the mountain, there’s a blue elephant drinking by the lake.
One thing’s for sure. The exact image I had in my mind would be different to the one in yours.
What does your elephant look like? Tusked? African type or Asian type? Realistic or cartoon-like? What about the lake? A larger one that extends beyond the horizon, or more like a water hole? Is the water clear or murky?
And what about the blue? Was it closer to a lighter sky blue or a darker navy blue?
I guess there’s a possibility you interpreted blue as in the sad-depressed-moody emotion blue. Pushing this further, is it possible you pictured a sad elephant drinking as in drinking-an-alcoholic-beverage by the lake? I highly doubt it as the word ‘colour’ in title of the post set an unconscious contextual anchor to interepret ‘blue’. And ‘lake’ set an anchor to drinking from the lake.
2. When words don’t matter
2.1. You know what I mean
Whatever your elephant, lake, or shade of blue looked like, it doesn’t really matter. Because when speaking of blue elephants, the specificity of the colour is not the central point – the absurdly unnatural colour of the elephant is. So there are many times when words don’t really matter.
This means that a deviance from the exact dictionary definition of a word should often be forgiven. Especially if it is not part of the central point (see hierarchy of disagreement). This tends to happen more often when words/concepts are borrowed from other disciplines and applied metaphorically.
Example. A police officer says, “It took a while to kick the door open. It was one tough door.” Here, tough could be substituted with strong or hard and the essential message in the policeman’s statement won’t change. But to an engineer, strength, toughness and hardness are very different things.
– amount of stress (force applied over an area) needed to deform a material
– internal property of a material
– so material with the tallest grey part in chart above has the highest strength
– ability to resist breaking when stress is applied
– total energy absorbed before fracture
– internal property of material
– toughness is actually the area under the stress-strain curve, so mid-carbon steel has highest toughness in chart above
– ability to withstand surface scratches
– surface property of a material
– note: not related to stress or strain so not represented in chart above
– e.g. glass
Another example. An engineering student says, “...the components were all over the place… we assembled everything last minute and by some miracle, the device came to life. Just like Frankenstein. But all is well now, we’ve gotten over this hurdle.” What they really mean is Frankenstein’s monster (Frankenstein is the doctor that created the monster), but there’s no need to correct/clarify, since the central point is “we’ve gotten over this hurdle.”
Another example. The nirvana fallacy (aka. perfect solution fallacy) is an informal fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealised alternatives. For example, the statement: “seat belts are useless, people still die from car accidents.” But the seat belt never promised to prevent everything, it’s there to reduce fatalities and injuries. Someone once articulated this as the “seat belt fallacy“. “What’s that?” I asked. Then it didn’t take long for me to get what they were saying. The exact formal name didn’t matter.
You get the gist. You know what I mean.
2.1. Unnecessarily fancy words
So one of my favourite books is Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. It’s a fascinating read on complexity, lesser-known cognitive biases, packed with astute subtle observations on modernity. It connects most of the key ideas presented in all of his other books, so I’d recommend reading this first before deciding to read the others. I’ll do a summary some time soon.
Though, what’s most unfortunate about Taleb’s works is the unnecessarily academic way they were written. It alienates most readers. Most of my friends I’ve recommended the book to couldn’t finish it. Take this excerpt, for example:
“The Soviet-Harvard delusion (lecturing birds on flying and believing that the lecture is the cause of these wonderful skills) belongs to a class of causal illusions called epiphenomena. What are these illusions? When you spend time on the bridge of a ship or in the coxswain’s station with a large compass in front, you can easily develop the impression that the compass is directing the ship rather than merely reflecting its direction… In epiphenomenon, you don’t usually observe A without observing B with it, so you are likely to think that A causes B, or that B causes A, depending on the cultural framework or what seems plausible to the local journalist.”
So the entire paragraph is just saying ‘causation is not correlation.’
There’s no shortage of unnecessarily fancy words throughout the book:
- Inverse-iatrogenic effect: “conversion of selfish aims at the individual level into beneficial results for the collective”
But to make things even worse, many of these words/phrases are newly coined by Taleb:
- Soviet-Harvard delusion: naively structured view of the world that denies ‘good’ randomness, uncertainty, disorder, the unknown, serendipity etc.
- Mithridatization: “result of an exposure to a small dose of a substance that, over time, makes one immune to additional, larger quantities of it.”
- Touristification: “an aspect of modern life that treats humans as a washing machine, with simplified mechanical responses – and a detailed user’s manual.”
- Mediocristan: “having plenty of variations that might be scary but tend to cancel out in the aggregate”
And, to top that off even more, one needs to understand most of these newly introduced fancy words in order to understand even more fancy words introduced later in the book, and so on.
- Fragilista: “someone who falls for the Soviet-Harvard delusion, naively overestimating the reach of scientific knowledge.”
- Stiglitz Syndrome: “fragilista (with good intentions) + ex post cherry-picking”
Any time your audience needs to pause to think about a word, or use a dictionary, is an unproductive distraction. So I try my best to use the most simple and universally known words as possible with a specificity that is good enough. After all:
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
3. When words do matter
But there are so many other times when words do matter.
3.1. Make sure we’re talking about the same thing
Reductionism has a price. Every time I use a certain word, I’m assuming we share the same understanding of that word in the context of our conversation. Metaphorically speaking, I’m assuming we see the same colour, or close enough to the same colour.
For everyday conversations all is well. If I say “let’s get ice cream”, whichever one of the images below you picture, I don’t mind. Close enough. Good enough. We have a lingua franca.
But I repeat:
Language is merely an approximation of expression.
So it is important to be mindful of subjective variations in meanings for a given word.
3.2. Efficient communication
In contrast to my earlier point about avoiding fancy words, when applied properly, fancy words actually enables more efficient communication.
If one was restricted to words that only a 6-year old can understand, it’d take a really long time to explain certain things. Let’s take the title of my honours year thesis as an example. “A rectangular-ish plastic block with a hole in the middle that is inserted between two pieces of your backbone. The block is also well accepted by your body so your body helps grow bone around it. The block is also made so that it needs to be inserted from the front part of your backbone (on the side of your body where your face is, rather than where your back is). The block can also be made really quickly so that it’s size fits well with each sick person that needs it.” But it’s so much easier to just say: “A bioactive patient-specific anterior fusion device.”
This way, paragraphs turn into sentences, sentences turn into phrases, and phrases turn into words.
3.3. Learning retention
So before I spoke about nirvana fallacy being interchanged with seat belt fallacy. One could go further and just remember it as “it doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it’s an improvement.”
But I’ve personally found remembering the actual names of things useful, not just to be able to communicate more efficiently with others about the same thing, but also with learning retention.
For example, I credit being able to remember the term sunken cost fallacy (and other cognitive biases and heuristics for that matter) has reduced my own mistakes of falling for this fallacy.
More examples of more fancy words, I’ve actually found incredibly useful to better understand the world:
- Repatrimonialization: return to kin-based and exchange-of-favor-based governments (important concept for understanding political development of institutions throughout history)
- Anthropomorphism: attributing human characteristics to an animal or object
- Pre-frontal cortex (PFC): brain region responsible for our highest-level cognitive abilities (logic, reason, etc)
- Geodesic: shortest path between 2 points on a surface (important for conceptualising space-time)
- Synchronicity: meaningful coincidences (important concept in Jungian psychology)
- Deontologianism: idea that morality of action should be based on rules rather than the consequences of the action (since we can’t always know the consequences)
- Occam’s razor: a mental tool that suggests an explanation that relies on less assumptions is usually more likely to be correct
Maybe I find fancy words helpful because they provide a means to package broader ideas into a neat compact manner, making it easier for me to store it and unpack when needed.
Again; paragraphs turn into sentences, sentences turn into phrases, and phrases turn into words.
Going from “you know what I mean” to “I know what I mean“.
Example. Suppose my emotional vocabulary was limited to only the primary 5:
Not only would it be difficult to articulate how I’m feeling, I would also find it difficult to understand what exact emotions I’m experiencing. It’d be like an artist being limited to only using the 3 primary colours (red, green, blue), without being allowed to create intermediary mixtures.
So, the full wheel of emotions comes in handy. Although, the wheel should be interpreted more as a spectrum, rather than discrete, distinct emotions. After all, emotional experiences are complex, with multiple combinations occurring simultaneously, and even giving rise to emergent emotions not on the wheel.
Another example. A management consultant asks an executive, “What’s the main thing you’re aiming to achieve through this transformation program?” And they respond “Efficiency gains.” In most contexts substituting efficiency with productivity would not derail the central point. But in project management, these differ greatly and specifying which one they mean is important.
- Efficiency: achieving same with less (e.g. run the business with less staff)
- Productivity: achieving more with same (e.g. grow the business without directly linearly scaling the workforce)
Another example. An archery instructor tells their student: “It’s great that your shots are precise, so now it’s time to make it more accurate. Adjust your aim slightly to the left to account for the wind.” I guess you can see where this is going. There are times when distinguishing accuracy and precision is important.
- Precision: data is clustered closely together (low scatter)
- Accuracy: data is closer to ideal target (of course, it’s best to be both precise and accurate)
Specificity matters. A matter of words, perhaps, but words are important…
“If you cannot say what you mean, your majesty, you will never mean what you say, and a gentleman should always mean what he says.”
The Last Emperor (film), 1987
3.5. Language shapes thought and perception
There are branches of linguistic theory that pose question: can only perceive things that we can assign a word to. For example, can you see something if you don’t have a word for it?
Supposedly, there was no word for blue in numerous ancient languages. Even in The Odyssey, Homer, didn’t mention ‘blue’ to describe the colour of the sky or Aegean Sea, rather calling it ‘winedark‘.
On this, there was this experimental research experiment conducted on the Himba tribe in Namibia. Their language has lots of different words for green, but no word for blue. Then, researchers showed them a bunch of squares that were all green except for one blue one, and asked them to point out the outlier. Strangely enough, most couldn’t select the blue one or just chose the wrong square (a green one). But when they were shown a bunch of squares with differing shades of green, they were able to quickly find the outlier. Could it be that our language really shapes what we see?
It’s a fascinating idea, but I’m not entirely convinced. I mean, my colour vocabulary is limited, but from looking at the image below, I can tell the difference between cyan and cerulean….I think…
But then I had another thought on this. How often do you have thoughts that are so complex/original/abstract that you can’t describe it in words?
If your answer is “all the time”, either your vocabulary is subpar, or you’re a creative soul with lots of interesting thoughts. If you’re the latter, I’d love to hear more about your thoughts :). If your answer is “not very often” or “never”, as is the case for me, then I suspect we fall into the majority of the population. Does this then mean that we’re generally bad at conceptualising things we don’t know (or have) the word for? I guess so.
At this point, I could speak further about how words – or more broadly, language – is used and abused:
- Euphemised political language includes our “peace–keeping forces” in Iraq and the “detainment” of “queue jumpers” in “Immigration Reception and Processing Centres.”
- What management consultants say to clients when they’re wrong: “I might be missing something here but are we 100% sure that’s right?” instead of “that doesn’t look right“, or worse “you’re wrong.”
- Based on people’s personality types, asking “what should we get for lunch?” will most likely return a “I don’t know”, but asking “what do you feel like having for lunch?” may help draw out the answer. And vice versa.
But I think you get the point so will just leave you with this:
4. So what?
Linguistic ambiguity is here to stay. There are times when words don’t matter, so long as the central message is delivered. But there are many other times when words do matter, especially when additional specificity adds value.
You know what I mean?
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