“Who Gives a Crap About Precision?”

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m listening to a series of six lectures on critical reasoning by Marianne Talbot, another lecture series titled ‘Tools of Thinking’ by James Hall, and am also enjoying ‘The Believing Brain,’ by Michael Shermer, a signed copy, BTW — Thanks Mike — and from these and elsewhere I got a few really good ideas on the need to be precise and clear in our language to be precise and clear in our thinking.

I thought I would post them here.

“But shouldn’t we just say whatever we want to, when we want, however we want to, and things will be just dandy? Why be so clinically exact in our speech and writing? Isn’t precise language just for ivory-tower elitists, pedants, and posing pseudo-intellectuals like you?”

Well, not quite.

We should indeed be free to say what, when, and in what way, we want to, much of the time in our daily lives, but language in everyday use is often laden with implied meaning in the words and phrases we use, and thus often subject to confusion when what we say in an ordinary context is often subject to being taken the wrong way, even the opposite of what we intend to mean when we say it.

Language is rarely neutral, and many words have different usages and meanings that often conflict; there are consequences from using our linguistic tools too carelessly, too loosely.

There are good reasons why anyone interested in discussing certain topics or engaging in a reasoned argument needs to know and choose their words carefully, if for nothing else to avoid looking foolish, and secondly, to reduce the chances of what they say being misinterpreted, for straw-persons lie in wait to pounce on the unwary arguer.


An impoverished vocabulary and/or syntax in verbal language or maths leads to equally impoverished thought, since the languages we know define the scope and richness of what we think about and how we think about it.

Fuzzy and imprecise language leads to fuzzy thinking, and this leads to unreliable reasoning and questionable decision-making, in any area of life, not just academic circles.

I think we can all benefit from better use of our language, especially yours truly.

This is why so many fields of study use specialized terminology different and more exact in meaning and use than that used in everyday speech. In academia, success often depends on how clear we make ourselves, and how you say it is at least as important as what you say…

For instance, in philosophy, and matters of critical thinking, there are important distinctions to make between beliefs, statements of belief, facts, and what we can truly call knowledge.

These are commonly confused and do not at all mean the same things, not in a technical sense…


Beliefs are those expectations we hold about reality, both inside and outside of ourselves, those things we hold to be true, and these are sometimes also known as opinions, for after all, we don’t generally hold opinions that we don’t think to be true at the time they’re ours.

“But my beliefs are sacred, precious, because they’re meaningful to me! If I hold them to be true, then by the strength of my own conviction they must be! Leave them alone! When you attack my beliefs you attack the very foundation of my being!”


Well, belief may move mountains, but only when it motivates us to effective actions, those that have some possibility of success.

Belief does not literally make reality, since despite our fantasies and wishes, there really are things that are truly impossible, and the universe really does impose limits on us all, as our everyday experience plainly shows, with days and nights often full of unfulfilled desires, disappointed hopes and unsuccessful endeavors.

If these last are argued to be due to our beliefs directly controlling reality, they speak very poorly for the beneficence of that philosophy being true, and of the positive qualities and moral worth of those beliefs.

For my part, a universe where things don’t need us to think about them to be so is much more believable, and the default unconscious assumption behind all of our useful actions in the world, even when this is intellectually disputed by those so acting.


Even if everyone in the universe believed the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be necessarily real, the universe would still give the thumbs-down response and simply fail to make his Noodleness exist, despite any of our wants and needs, and our species’ clear tendencies for wishful thinking.

In order to be true, a belief or belief system must conform to some degree to how things really are, not to whatever comforts and pleases us.

Claims that do not are simply not supported by the way the world evidently appears to work, any resulting attempted actions doomed to failure.

My sincerest apologies on that…

And further, our beliefs at any one time are not really central to our being, core to our essences, despite assertions by believers. Over time, we don’t staunchly keep to our beliefs, but instead exchange them for others we pick up throughout our lives. I do not know of anyone, in my experience, who holds exactly the same views, holds true the exact same claims, and no others, as they did decades ago.

Peeps change, we grow over time. To never change one’s beliefs over the years, if it truly happened, would only indicate complete inability to cognitively interact with the world, to think, to absorb new information, and to learn throughout one’s life from birth to death.

Our views are malleable, not set in titanium. After all, literal and strict consistency among the living realistically doesn’t happen, despite what we often believe about what we believe. General reliability is more common by far, especially with the people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

Statements of Belief…

Statements of belief are simply assertions of our opinions, our positions, and these assertions, like the claims they express, may be true or otherwise. Arguments are made when these assertions are developed with reasons and defended by us, sometimes well, and at times not so well.

For my part, there’s plenty of room for improvement.


Facts in and of themselves can’t technically be true or false; facts either exist (which is not the same as being true) or they do not (which does not mean false).

Note that facts don’t depend on anyone believing or even knowing about them.

This is why I find websites that overuse the term “true facts” amusing, and sites that often refer to “real facts” guilty of redundant overstatement and of being defensive, full of it, or most often just full of themselves. For if a fact is real, why do you need to overstate it? If you claim that something is a fact, it’s already assumed to exist by implication.

“But isn’t it too dogmatic to call something a fact without being able to prove it is absolutely, to everyone’s satisfaction, with complete certainty, when it’s really debatable, and especially debatable if it disagrees with my views?”

Well, no.

Facts are facts, and the only thing that’s ever really debatable about them is not their existence once that’s demonstrated by a reliable body of evidence, but the establishment of the truth that they bear out, not the facts themselves which you can either accept or not, and which in and of themselves don’t really give a rat’s backside if they’re rejected.

The existence or nonexistence of a given fact or set of them, once found, noted, and/or recognized as such, is one of those few areas of life where there is no middle ground, no third option, no tertium quid.

Sometimes, establishing the truth or falsehood of a claim gets complicated.

When a claim asserts multiple facts, and some of these facts exist while others do not, or the existence of all of the individual facts has yet to be established, or there are multiple possible truth values involved, it can be a little harder to assess that truth.

In some systems of reasoning, the truth value of such assertions may not use a two-valued Aristotelian system of right or wrong, correct or incorrect, true or false, as finite, discrete things with absolute values.

Case in point: search Fuzzy Logic as an example of this, or look up the logic systems used in DNA & quantum computing. It’s also the case in informal reasoning, in which truth is based on probabilities, like in the sciences, rather than formal reasoning, as per the binary logic used in most current computer systems.


“Aren’t there ways of knowing just as valid as your personal favorite, science? Aren’t they all equally reliable, just as useful and effective? Isn’t it arrogant for science to say it knows it all?”

Well, science knows and admits it doesn’t have all the answers, and probably never will, not absolutely, or it would stop being science as a way of asking questions and finding answers, these leading to yet more questions, and would be nothing more than a body of static facts, which it most definitely is not.

For the record, there are indeed other ways of knowing besides just the sciences and mathematics…

A few examples present their way to my scrutiny as I type this in, and all of them involve some application of reason, observation, and other crucial tools of thinking, including but not limited to association, experimentation, hypothesis invention, and pattern discernment & recognition:

There is much of detective and police work, many areas of philosophy, the proceedings of trials or cases in courts of law, evidence-based medicine, engineering, journalism when it’s well-done, historical research, among others, all using fundamentally similar empirical research methods diverging in emphasis on the tools used according to the needs of the discipline.

All of them have consistently outperformed in reliability and usefulness such alleged ways of knowing as pure intuition, visions, transports, mystical revelation, extrasensory perception, and faith in the religious sense.

The reason for this is that those methods of inquiry using empirical methods have built-in means to distinguish the real ideas from fantasy, to tell the imaginative, truly innovative and useful ideas apart from those that are only imaginary.

They have built-in ways of telling themselves, “Dude, you really messed up. This just won’t work. Here’s where you went wrong, so let me suggest how to fix it…”

Also, we can have knowledge concerning objective facts about subjective states…

If you inform me that you thought or felt or perceived a certain thing, as opposed to some other thing, and I have reason to believe you’re being honest with me and yourself, then it is very likely an objective fact that you thought, felt or perceived that thing, even if no obvious external basis for the perception is apparent to me.

(You may have noticed something external I wasn’t paying attention to, or remembered a particularly vivid dream you’ve had).

No matter how much I may try to dispute it, your statement is NOT true for you but false for me, since you have exclusive, privileged access to the inner world of your own mind, and most of the time, similar access to the world of your own bodily perceptions.

Your report of your internal states is thus true no matter the views and claims of others, and likewise, any such reports I make on my sensations and thoughts, assuming again that I’m being honest and fully aware, reflect facts about you, and myself, that actually exist or have existed at some point as some sort of prior experience.

Our beliefs and the personal truths we draw from them are not by themselves knowledge, and knowledge is not just belief, much less merely unfounded opinion or conjecture.

A belief or opinion can count as knowledge only when its truth is born out by the facts at hand and a means of awareness of these facts is available through some sort of input, most often sensory or through second-hand data that we read or hear, and often they are mediated by the tools we create with our minds and hands, such as computers, instruments, our languages, and even simple pen and paper, all of these depending on us to exist and be used to more effectively carry out our reasoning.

Hopefully, I’ve managed to make my point without committing too much in the way of fallacies. That would truly be a Good Thing™, unlike pseudoscience, or course…

4 thoughts on ““Who Gives a Crap About Precision?”

  1. Great article! I have been pondering similar things and discussing with my partner over just such issues. she thinks poetic license should be granted, and I agree for the sake of aesthetics, but not at the cost of clouding up issues or facts.

    One thing I have been challenging myself to do lately is ask “What irrational beliefs do I have, and why do I have them.” As time goes on I find I have less and less things I can call irrational, and I now have real problems determining what I do irrationally believe, if anything.

    I am beginning to believe that my most irrational belief would have to be that “people, at the core are good”. I am beginning to think this is an irrational thought, and that people, at the core, are actually selfish, and learn to be good over time. Still up in the air over that one though.

    Interestingly enough, on ABC Australia’s Q&A last night, there was a woman on the panel who said (paraphrase) “I know there is a God, because I see the result of his actions in the good that others do.” which basically means “I know that god exists because I believe he does.” It’s a logical fallacy, and had it come from the mouth of a non religious person, I would have gone to town. Instead all i could do was facepalm my way to bed, because there’s no way to shift that kind of locked-in thinking.

    Sorry for rambling mate, and thanks for writing this. Will pass it on!


  2. (This is a really long post so I’ll just skip to the comments section because I probably agree with everything.)

    A long time ago I realised if you can’t state your idea clearly, then you don’t really understand it yourself.


  3. ” …
    This is why I find websites that overuse the term “true facts” amusing, and sites that often refer to “real facts” guilty of redundant overstatement and of being defensive, full of it, or most often just full of themselves. For if a fact is real, why do you need to overstate it? If you claim that something is a fact, it’s already assumed to exist by implication.

    ‘True Facts’ or ‘Real Facts’ may or may not be erroneous mis-use of words. This is one of those context based critters that will have some people pulling their hair out. Particularly inside the DC beltway, and otherwise in politics, ‘True Fact’ is information that is known to somebody in a position of “knowing” which differs from “Fact” as being what is currently the belief held by “The Man On The Street”. Likewise “Real Fact” is information that can be empirically proved by other non-corruptable means, regardless of what the “Fact”s or “True Fact”s say.
    A good example would be the current budget “crisis”. The “Fact” from the media and the President, if something isn’t done by August 2nd, the US will default and our “Full faith and Credit” will be damaged. “True Fact” Section 4 of the 14th Ammendment states that all US debts are valid and will be paid. So regardless of what the ‘debt ceiling’ is, US debt WILL be serviced, as “…voiding a US bond is beyond congressional powers.”. “Real Fact” August budgeted expenditures are something over 300 Billion. August revenues are around 225 Billion. August debt service is under 100 Billion. The debt service WILL be paid, and all entitlements and payrolls have already been printed/transmitted. This is covered by the existing revenues. Secondary expenditures like the NPS, HUD, Dept. of Education, military time payment contracts, etc. will suffer, but the government will go on regardless of what congress does or does not do….. All of these figures are available from the Dept. of the Treasury.
    This is why you always have to parse out political statements, and probably why so people throw up their hands in disgust…..including myself from time to time.


    • The verbal/semantic confusion that characterizes a lot of political discussions is one of my primary reasons for generally staying out of them.

      Very often, none of the parties involved have been particularly good at making their meaning clear, giving me the impression that even they don’t know what they’re talking about by their use of that very sort of language.

      …Which basically underscores the essential thesis of the post this discussion thread connects to, as well as the need for a means of truly imparting the competence needed to meaningfully participate in a functional society with an electoral system of government, regardless of what we prefer to call it — republic, democracy, post-industrial fascism…whatever.

      All too often, personal ideology muddies the waters, it obfuscates and misleads, which is why I prefer to deal more with science, which at least has methods to weed out such biases in spite of their occasional limits.

      Science isn’t perfect, but politics is worse by far.


Commenting below. No spam or trolling, or my cats will be angry.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s