[M08] Obscurity



Module: Meaning analysis


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We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side; one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach.

- Bertrand Russell


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Language can be used to mislead and confuse, or to make certain ideas seem more profound than they really are. One main task of critical thinking is to identify these linguistic pitfalls. Let us start with the first major pitfall - obscurity.

"Obscurity" here refers to unclear meaning. A concept or a linguistic expression can be unclear for various reasons. One reason is that it might be ambiguous, i.e. having more than one meaning. The other reason is that it might be vague. A term is said to be vague if there are borderline cases where it is indeterminate as to whether it applies or not. Finally, a term might also have an unclear meaning in that its meaning is incomplete. Let us look at these cases one by one.

§1. Ambiguity

There are actually different kinds of ambiguity:

Lexical ambiguity

This is a single word or term having more than one meaning in the language. For example, the word "deep" can mean profoundity ("What you have said is very deep."), or it can be used to describe physical depth ("This hole is very deep"). Similarly for words like "young" (inexperienced or young of age), "bank" (river bank or financial institution), etc.

Referential ambiguity

It is not clear which thing or group is being referred to. This often arises when the context does not make it clear what a pronoun or quantifier is referring to.

  • "Ally hit Georgia and then she started bleeding." Who is hurt? Ally or Georgia?
  • "Everybody is coming to the party." Certainly "everybody" does not refer to every human being in the whole world. But then which group of people are we talking about? Of course in normal situations the speaker usually has some specific group of people in mind.
  • Many people like to make very general statements, such as "All politicians are corrupt". Literally, this statement implies that there is no politician who is not corrupted. But of course we can think of many counterexamples to such a claim. So the person who makes the statement might say "I don't really mean each and every politician." But then who exactly are the people referred to?

Syntactic ambiguity

This means having more than one meaning because there is more than one way to interpret the grammatical structure. This can happen even when it is clear what the meanings of the individual words are.

  • "We shall be discussing violence on TV." - It might mean the discussion will be conducted during a television programme, or it might mean violence on TV is the topic to be discussed.
When dealing with ambiguous language the thing to do is of course to clarify the meaning of the expression, for example by listing out all the different possible interpretations. This process of removing ambiguity is call "disambiguation".

§2. Vagueness

An term is vague if it has an imprecise boundary. This means that there are cases where it is indeterminate whether the term applies or not. For example, a small but closed room with no windows or doors and no light inside is certainly dark. If we switch on a 100W lightbulb inside it will become bright. But we turn on the dimmer for the light and dim the light slowly until it goes out, then the room will gradually change from a bright room to a dark one. But there is no precise point at which the room suddenly ceases to be bright. Similarly, there is no precise point at which the room suddenly becomes dark. The terms "dark" and "bright" do not have clear boundaries of applications in this situation, and we say that these terms are vague.

The term "a tall person" is also vague in that there are certain cases where it is hard to say whether a person is tall or not, but this indecision is not due to lack of knowledge about that person's height. You might know exactly how tall that person is, but still you don't know whether he is tall or not. This is because the meaning of the term is not precise enough. Other examples of vague terms : "heavy", "dark", "mountain", "clever", "cheap".

Notice that we should make a distinction between vagueness and ambiguity. A word can be vague even though it is not ambiguous, and an ambiguous term having more than one meaning would not be said to be vague if the different meanings it has are very precise.

Vague terms can be useful in everyday life because often we do not have to be too precise. How precise we should be depends of course on the context.

Here is a form of bad argument about vagueness which we often encounter. The argument's conclusion is that there is really no difference between X and Y, and the reason is that there is no sharp difference between them.

  • Example : "There is really no such thing as objective truth or falsity. Whether something is true or false is often hard to say."

This is a bad argument because even though a distinction might have borderline cases, it does not follow that the distinction is not real. For example, it might sometimes be unclear whether a room is dark or bright. But (a) there is still a real distinction between dark and bright rooms, and (b) there can be clear cases where we have one but not the other.

Vagueness should be avoided when we want to speak precisely, as vagueness decreases the informational content of a claim. For example, compare these sentences :

  • He is quite old, actually exactly eighty years old.
  • He is quite old, actually about eighty years old.
  • He is quite old.

Many students often like to ask questions such as :

  • Is there going to be a lot of homework for this course?"
  • "Is the final exam going to be difficult?"

But of course words like "difficult" and "a lot" are vague.

Vague terms can make a claim vague and impossible to confirm or disprove.

  • Horoscope predictions for example : "Be prepared for a change of direction this week as something crops up." - SCMP Sunday Post Magazine.
  • "This piece of news is going to affect the market somewhat."

But of course one might try to use vagueness to one's advantage in order to be non-committal or imprecise.

  • "As a minister I agree that to some extent I am responsible."
  • "The government will deal with this problem in an appropriate manner when the right time comes."

§3. Incomplete Meaning

A term has an incomplete meaning if the property or relation it expresses depends on some further parameter to be specified by the context, either explicitly or implicitly. This includes terms such as "useful", "important", "similar" and "better". Practically all objects are useful and important only in some respects but not others. For example, is love more important than money? Well, it depends. If you are starving to death, then money is more important. But if you are trying to determine which of the two contributes more to a happy and fulfilling life, then the answer might be different.

So just saying that something is useful or important is empty unless it is made clear in what way it is so. This is also necessary if we want to evaluate whether what is said is true or not.

  • "The education director shall visit Scotland to study their educational system because it is similar to the one in Hong Kong."
  • "Will this year's final exam be similar to the one last year?"
  • "It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But . . . it is better to be good than to be ugly." Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
  • "Art never improves, but . . . the material of art is never quite the same." T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)

See if you can identify the ways in which these examples are ambiguous.

  1. For sale - an antique table suitable for lady with thick legs.
  2. For sale - ten puppies from an Australian terrier and a Boston terrier.
  3. He left the bomb fifty yards to the right of the car in front of the house.
  4. Mary loves Peter and Paul and Susan loves him too.
  5. It is not advisable to take aspirin and alcohol after a meal.
  6. I saw her duck.
  7. The teacher hit the student with a stick.
  8. Tiffany worries about annoying taxi drivers.
  9. The old men and women sat at the front of the hall.
  10. The CEO about his biggest fears, global warming and bitcoins.

How would you improve the precision or clarity of these claims?

  1. It's going to take a really long time to complete this project.
  2. We predict that a lot of people will come to the party.

§4. Bullshit

There is a lot of pseudo-aphorisms which seem to be profound, but close to being nonsensical. They have little content because of their obscurity, but are not quite nonsensical because they are grammatical and contain a lot of buzzwords. Here are some examples:

  • Intuition requires exploration. Intuition is the knowledge of life-force, and of us.
  • You can go to that ultimate ground of creation and introduce an intention, and just by introducing the intention, you activate the field of infinite correlation.
  • Synchronicity requires exploration.
  • Truth is the consciousness that wants to know.
  • This life is nothing short of a refining rebirth of holistic rejuvenation.
  • We are being called to explore the nexus itself as an interface between spacetime and self-actualization.

Some of these quotes were actually randomly generated by a computer (see http://sebpearce.com/bullshit/). Two are actual quotes from a popular new-age guru Deepak Chopra. Can you tell them apart?

Some scientists have found that people who are more receptive to this kind of statements are less analytical and reflective. See Pennycook et al. (2015) On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, pp. 549–563.

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