It’s all in the name

Overcoming Bias’s new sister site, lesswrong, has a new post up that tries to make me feel better about going to school:

We are interested in developing practical techniques of rationality. One practical technique, used widely and successfully in science and technology is formalization … We will reason better about the correctness of the form if we hide the subjects of the argument … [so] renaming primitive notions to meaningless symbols is a reasonable first step in formalization.

I’m not sure that simply renaming things gets me any closer to a rational representation of the truth, unless I am biased with respect to the subject matter. Of course, having been taught a whole bunch of things at school, I may have preconceptions and prejudices about certain arguments and theories in economics. Maybe formalising the argument in symbols can help to overcome those biases, but I doubt it. Unless I am unaware of the meaning of the symbols I will probably incorporate my prejudices into the formal structure I create for my argument and the assumptions that underlie it.

Can a simple renaming of primitives into symbols really help to make me more rational? I’m willing to be convinced 🙂

2 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    “Can a simple renaming of primitives into symbols really help to make me more rational? I’m willing to be convinced”

    I would say that we need to take it a step further to state how it “increases rationality”.

    By giving primitives identifiable symbols then we can tell when we are actually talking about the same thing using different words.

    By formalising ideas in this way we gain a more tractable framework with which to apply our value judgments and get conclusions – and we are able to flush any logical inconsistencies, or arbitrarily circular logic, out of our framework.

  2. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    @Matt Nolan
    Thanks for the comment, Matt. I’m not sure that “if we don’t use symbols then we might get awfully confused” is enough to convince me. I think that most disciplines have a fairly standardised language for talking about concepts informally. I agree that there is a language/jargon barrier when talking to people outside the discipline about technical concepts, though.

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