January 03, 2006


Have you ever heard the theory that the language you speak shapes the way you think? I've heard arguments both for and against, and I'm undecided based on lack of evidence. However, everyone can agree that there are some ideas that almost everybody misinterprets. I'm starting a list of the misthoughts I think are important because they are common, cause nasty errors in reasoning, or (most interestingly) hard to talk about.

First, a common misthought that's easy to explain: money and wealth are not the same thing. Wealth is the stuff you want: food, a house, a car, good friends, a family, happyness. Money is a medium of exchange. You can be extremely wealthy, yet have no money, and you can have more money than you can spend, which makes the excess worthless. Yet people persist in talking about making money, meaning cash, when they should be talking about making wealth.

(I stole this misthought from Paul Graham's essay How to Make Wealth. Seeing the money vs. wealth distinction described there is what triggered this exercise. The other misthoughts described here are from personal experience.)

Sometimes people talk about rights: the right to healthcare, the right to a good education, etc. In fact, these are not rights. Rights are things that other people cannot prevent you from doing. Freedom of Speech means that noone can stop you from saying what you want to say, not that you're guaranteed to have something to say, or that what you have to say will be interesting or useful. Yet people persist in speaking of rights as though they were guarantees that force other people to provide something, e.g. a free, high quality education. A true right to education would only prevent other people from actively preventing you from educating yourself; it would not force you to get an education, nor make educational institutions widely available, inexpensive, or in any way easy. Whenever you read the phrase right to X, you should keep this in mind, since it is often a flag for poor reasoning.

Here's a misthought that's practically built into the English language: we talk about groups as if they were singular entities (singular in the grammatical sense). For example, I recently read an article titled "Why did the US invade Iraq?", which analysed various theories about the motivations the US expressed or could plausibly have had for invading Iraq. The underlying (false) assumption is that the US is an entity that has a single, self consistent set of motivations. In reality of course, the US government is composed of many, many individuals, each with their own motivations, many of them contradictory, and many of them unaware of each other. This pops up over and over again: people talk about the Red Sox being good this year, when it's really the individual players that are good this year, and when the Red Sox of 2005 are all different people from the Red Sox that failed to win the world series for so many decades. The only continuity, really, is the name, logo, and stadium. This one is hard to spot in real life, because you're so used to thinking about groups as single entities. It's all too easy to treat, say, a company, as though it were a single (hah!) person (HAH!), and attribute to it emotions and motivations better attributed to (some of) the individuals who work for the company.

I had another misthought I was going to describe here, but it was so slippery that I forgot what it was. This is the reason I'm writing these down: they're easy to forget.

"Misthought" is a good word, but a better one might be "fallacy". There are already good lists of fallacies out there, but the misthoughts I'm interested in aren't the generalized, widely applicable ones, rather, specific examples that particularly annoy you.


At January 04, 2006, Blogger Fraxas said...

Hm. I'm not sure I buy the idea that it's not worthwhile to think about collectives as having motivations -- it's certaily important to recognize that "the US", "the US government" or even "the office of the President" doesn't think anything, but rather is composed of people who think things. That said, groups are capable of coming to decisions their individual members aren't (mob mentality is one aspect of that). So I think it does make sense to analyze groups as groups, at least in some cases.

With respect to companies and sports teams, there's also the idea of 'culture' to think about -- I'm sure your time at various different labs has exposed you to the very different dominant aesthetic and communicative modes that different organizations have. Those modes outlast any particular individual's involvement. Of course powerful individuals can try to change organizational culture -- but even they have a really hard time with it.

All of that said -- I take your points. Here's my misthought:

English doesn't have separate words for logical OR and logical XOR. That is, "or" can mean "only one of the options" or "at least one of the following options". Not being specific about which one you mean can, in some circumstances at least (mostly having to do with technical topics), create confusion.

At March 02, 2006, Blogger JeremyHussell said...

From discussions on True AI: it's way too easy to talk about binary distinctions, and way too hard to talk about continuous scales, or worse, orthogonal systems.

For example, we talk about "life", "intelligence", and "consciousness" as though they were properties that things either possess or do not possess, while in the real world it seems that these ideas are, to one degree or another, scales, fading imperceptibly from not having the property to having it.

Indeed, intelligence is even more complicated. Even if you talk about I.Q., a scale, you're simplifying. In reality, people can be quite stupid in one area while quite intelligent in another. So what does I.Q. tell you in that case? The average? Even if it does that (which is doubtful), you've still lost a lot of information.

I'm reasonably certain this isn't a problem with language so much as it is with our fondness for simple models and reluctance to invest the time necessary to understand complexities.


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