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comment by gjm · 2017-10-15T22:15:56.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, a few thoughts on the example of "theodicy", about which I'm afraid I feel roughly as Raemon does though not necessarily for the same reasons.

For me, "theodicy" already has a meaning firmly attached, and it does kinda map to part of what you're describing in your post with "theodicy" in the title. Unfortunately, that part -- so it seems to me -- already has a perfectly good name: "the principle of charity". PoC says to interpret what people say or do in the way that puts them in the best light, and that's exactly what you're describing.

The extra thing you're adding to that already-existing concept, the thing that (if I understand right) you want the name "theodicy" attached to, is a particular notion of what counts as putting someone in the best light: treat them as (in order of priority) good, smart, perceptive, currently-competent, and put all those ahead of assuming your observations were accurate and representative. And the only connection between this "hierarchy of innocuousness" and the concept usually known as "theodicy" is that there's this one post where you talk about being charitable to people and analogizes it to theodicy, and in that post you propose this specific hierarchy of innocuousness.

So I think this is the thing that bugs me: your post is about three different things: (1) the general idea of making benign assumptions about others, contra the fundamental attribution error; (2) the idea of doing so according to a "hierarchy of innocuousness"; (3) the specific hierarchy of innocuousness you proposed. Of these, the proposed name "theodicy" is a decent match for #1, but (a) we don't need a new name for #1 because we already have "principle of charity" and (b) you're trying to attach it to (I think) #1, #2 and #3 all together.

For me, (b) makes "theodicy" a positively bad name for the concept -- because there's another concept in the same vicinity that it wants to attach itself to. The term "wants" to match to just #1, at least in my head, and trying to use it for all three feels like you're trying to make your preferred form of being-charitable-about-people be correct by definition. As if I wrote a post called "Having good taste" and it turned out that I wanted to define "good taste" to mean liking Bach, dark chocolate and pizza more than Eraserhead, milk chocolate and caviar.

Now, if I'm drawing the right inferences from your response when Raemon suggested "Theodicy and the hierarchy of charity", what looks to me like a bug looks to you like a feature: you don't like Raemon's proposal because it separates these two things, and you want to keep them together. I think that's an error. They are conceptually separate because one can have either without the other; you could try to think well of people without having a prioritized list of kinds-of-merit, and you could (less plausibly) have a prioritized list of kinds-of-merit but hold that it's only rarely that there's any point trying to think well of people. (I guess you could use the list as a guide to how much any given person sucks, by finding the highest level at which you think they fail.) But in practice, saying "Conor's hierarchy of charity" (or whatever) will not only convey the idea of a prioritized list of kinds-of-merit and your particular suggestion for what that list should be, but also (via the term "charity", if nothing else) remind readers/listeners of the context for that list, namely as a thing to use when applying the principle of charity to avoid the fundamental attribution error.

comment by Unnamed · 2017-10-15T07:49:50.702Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Related thoughts on naming things:

Use unique, non-obvious terms for nuanced concepts by malcolmocean

Nonfiction Writing Advice by Scott Alexander (especially "9. Use strong concept handles")

comment by Zvi · 2017-10-15T23:14:38.552Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is funny about this is that Scott is great at naming concepts but his article names are often very bad. For example, he wrote a piece that outlined his view of morality and titled it "Contra Grant on Moral Offsets." Often I will google for the origin of a Scott-created concept and find that it's buried in an entirely unrelated piece with a title that no longer means anything to anyone.

comment by Raemon · 2017-10-15T20:05:06.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I also disagree with something about the Moloch comparison. Like, I agree that the distinction you draw is important. But, something something... feels like there just can't be too many Molochs? If that was a common way-of-naming, it'd quickly become too overwhelming.

comment by Zvi · 2017-10-15T23:11:15.397Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is definitely a sense in which a name like Moloch is 'expensive' because you can't reasonably be expected to re-derive its meaning from the term, or at least most people using the term didn't previously know about the original Moloch. Terms that sort of say what they are are a lot less expensive, since people can be reminded of them and even learn them from context, and someone who doesn't know the term is A Thing doesn't feel as lost.

Moloch is a good name because it is important. If it wasn't important, the name would be bad because, while good for referring to Moloch, it wouldn't be worth a Coined Unique Name Slot, or whatever.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2017-10-17T20:04:29.389Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree jargon is useful. And I think you missed one of the biggest reasons it is useful, which is to allow you to do more complicated mental operations now that your concepts take up less working memory. (I think cognitive psychologists refer to this as "chunking". Chunking is covered in this Coursera class.)

However, I think in some cases, people in the LW community may be too eager to create new jargon for stuff that can already be described using existing jargon. Using existing jargon leaves your conceptual map more compact and better connected. It's easier to see if two phenomena are two sides of the same coin, and it's easier to see if you are compartmentalizing/not propagating beliefs. (Example: I'd argue that Scott Alexander would benefit from uniting his thinking on "motte and bailey" and "dog whistles" in to a single conceptual handle. Or if not a single conceptual handle, an orthogonal basis for the subspace spanned by those two concepts.) And if the existing jargon is in common use, or the total jargon load is kept small, it becomes easier to make connections to insights outside the community/communicate with outsiders.

There's an analogy to computer programming here: it's not good to write new methods that do almost the same thing that existing methods do, or new, rarely-used methods which only consist of a few lines of code that call existing methods. It's not good to write your own method that duplicates functionality you could import via a library call. And of course you should give your new method a good name!

I would not go so far as to say that every new term that someone proposes should receive the same level of scrutiny that additional lines of code receive. I think in practice, people will probably not adopt new terms if they aren't actually useful. (Although they might do this as a way to do ingroup signalling--I'm still not clear on what "Ra" adds over existing concepts such as "status" and "prestige".) But anyway, my intent is more to encourage paying off the ontological equivalent of "technical debt" vs discourage greenfield ontologizing.

comment by Conor Moreton · 2017-10-17T20:22:42.137Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with basically all of this. I disagree with the claim that I missed that reason, though? But that's a not-very-useful disagreement outside of point-scoring, so whatev. =)

(considered deleting/not making this comment, but left it for people's models of my brain's process)

comment by Raemon · 2017-10-15T05:31:31.259Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Curious how long you spent attempting to name the thing?

You have (in the past) persuaded me that Jargon is sufficiently important that we should err more (or at least as much) on the side of having more.

But my current thought it something like "I do not know anyone in the rationalsphere who has made much deliberate study of how to name things well, and this probably means we could be much better at naming things than we are." Not sure how long you tried with the theodicy post, but for the average LW-writer-that-I-assume-probably-doesn't-think-enough about naming, I think:

  1. It's worth spending 5 minutes coming up with names for the pure value of "getting the best name in 5 minutes"

  2. It's even more worthwhile to spend extra time thinking of names so that you can improve at doing it so that it can take less time later.

FYI, this is what I output in about 3 minutes.

  • Theodicy and the Hierarchy of Charity

    (for blogposts, I think "Catchy-name plus short sentence-fragment" is a pretty good compromise. In conversation people can say "you're not doing theodicy" and when they go look it up, the post title will help remind them wtf that means. I think, at the very least, this'd have been strictly better)


    • Theodicy and the Hierarchy of Good Faith

    • Operationalizing Good Faith

    • Hierarchy of Good Faith

    • Hierarchy of Charity

  • Avoiding the "Bad Bucket"


    • Bad-Bucketing

    • Badsplaining

    • Sorting the "Bad Bucket"

    • Just-How-They-Are-ism

    • Theodicy, and Sorting the Bad Bucket (I think this is my favorite)

    • (For someone who hates the term "Bucket Errors" I apparently like it as the name for this thing")

Aside: I think "The Fundamental Attribution Error" is one of the worst named things that the LW-o-sphere has tried to popularize, and it could use some kind of better name.

The technical definition of Fundamental Attribution Error is subtly different from the implied definition of "don't just put people in the Bad Bucket", but I think it is easier to say/work-with. ("Just-how-they-are-ism" was an attempt to name the FAE in particular, as opposed to name the post)

comment by Conor Moreton · 2017-10-15T05:40:20.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I spent more than five minutes, and in general have spent a lot of time making deliberate study of how to name things. I'm not claiming that "Theodicy in Humans" was the best expression of that study, or that I brought my full optimizing power to bear in that specific case, but if your sense of the rationalsphere not attending to this is correct, then I would expect that I'm in the 95th percentile or higher for having put real attention and modeling power behind this domain.

I claim that Theodicy and the Hierarchy of Charity is not only not "strictly better" (which is a very strong phrase) but in practice noticeably worse, because it leaves ambiguous whether the concepts in the post should be stashed under "theodicy" or under "hierarchy of charity." Sort of like if the post from Scott had been "Meditations on Moloch and Multipolar Traps." You end up with double the burden of namespace tracking, and if half your audience resonates with one name and the other half with the other, you've just created a problem where there are two terms floating around for the same thing and newcomers don't know that it's a single conversation.

comment by Conor Moreton · 2017-10-15T05:42:43.251Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For reference: I've spent >10 hours of explicit study and modeling on each of the following (and sometimes >100h):

  • Baby names

  • Fantasy names (cities and creatures and individuals)

  • Organizational titles

  • Rationalist house names

  • Phonetics

  • Puns/word inversions/prefix and suffix switches/derived meanings

  • Names for skills and techniques

  • Unique semantic schema that unambiguously link phonemes to morphemes

comment by whales · 2017-10-15T17:58:52.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Woah! That sounds very unusual---it might be valuable for you talk about all that explicitly rather than write more like this post (which was presumably generated from your internalization of all that study, but which doesn't go out of its way to show it).

(Also, for what it's worth, I thought the title "Theodicy in Humans" was good---good enough for me to generate an approximation of the post before even reading it, although with slightly different context I'd have expected "theodicy" to be a derogatory analogy. And to bikeshed a bit, I might have used "theodicy for humans" [or maybe "of"], as you do in the text; it seems more accurate, and for your purposes it would make sense to use the title verbatim at least once.)

comment by Zvi · 2017-10-15T23:12:38.889Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I echo this. People don't think enough about naming things so unpacking your additional thoughts will be helpful. I too am being deliberate with my naming of things but there's a good chance you have good advice for how to do it better.

comment by gjm · 2017-10-15T22:17:26.317Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that "in humans" is wrong, but I don't like "for humans" either. "Theodicy in humans" means theodicy as practised by humans. "Theodicy for humans" means theodicy as it should be practised by humans. "Theodicy of humans" means theodicy applied to humans, and this is the one that matches Conor's intention. I don't think this is bikeshedding; the preposition Conor used is, for me at least, actively misleading.

comment by whales · 2017-10-16T00:13:11.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, my autocorrect guessed what he meant easily enough, but I'm convinced. I think I just needed to see someone else say this.

comment by Raemon · 2017-10-15T05:53:18.943Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You end up with double the burden of namespace tracking, and if half your audience resonates with one name and the other half with the other, you've just created a problem where there are two terms floating around for the same thing and newcomers don't know that it's a single conversation.

Yeah. Point conceded.

I would expect that I'm in the 95th percentile or higher for having put real attention and modeling power behind this domain.

Yeah, I did phrase the initial paragraph carefully because I expected you to be fairly attentive to this already.

I'm emphasizing this topic because I think post-names is the single biggest area in your sequence that would benefit from increased attention (and, however hard it is to make further progress, in at least a few cases, lack-of-it-being-better is the main obstacle from some of the posts being something I will proactively link people to all the time)

The world is full of unfair facts and I believe one of them is "even if naming things optimally is very hard, we need to get really good at it anyway. Especially if naming things turns out to be the dominant way we're providing value."

comment by Conor Moreton · 2017-10-15T06:10:36.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I will admit that I haven't been putting much strength behind naming the posts in this sequence, so your wish that it receives more attention is basically granted for the last nine posts.

comment by Raemon · 2017-10-15T06:28:36.774Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Also, hopefully goes without saying (but maybe even if it does, beneficial for *other* people to hear it said?) that the sequence has been generally great and full of valuable nuggets.

(I perceive Conor has having opted into a more direct [i.e. slightly harsher] style of feedback that I would not give to people who did not seem to have opted into that)

comment by Conor Moreton · 2017-10-15T05:06:10.521Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This model predicts that e.g. Zvi's current frontpage post "The Fish-Head Monk" is well-named if and only if there's no resonant, tropey analogy name for what he's trying to say, and also a longer, phrase-based or sentence-based title would be accurate but too slow to say and too unlikely to stick.