Author Topic: What does "What does that mean?" mean?  (Read 399 times)

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Offline PsyStat

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What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« on: September 05, 2019, 12:26:30 PM »
TL;DR: Suppose Person A states a claim and Person B asks, "What does that mean?"  What type of info is B requesting, and how can they describe that to A?


ELABORATION: When I read, hear, or otherwise encounter a claim that seems to warrant skepticism, one useful heuristic I often try as a first pass is to contemplate two simple questions:

  • What does that mean? (WDTM)
  • How do we know? (HDWK)

Answering those requires (much) more work than asking them but usually leads to insight into the claim's (de)merits.  In this post I'll just focus on the first question, which seems vital to ensuring that both/all parties are discussing largely the same thing.*  Here are two aspects of WDTM I'd like to understand better:

  • What type of information about the claim does WDTM request?
  • How can WDTM's request be described succinctly to a "typical person" without getting bogged down in linguistic, philosophical, communication-theoretic, or other specialized concepts or terminology?

To help clarify those two questions about WDTM and stimulate discussion, I'll just list five example claims and mention initial thoughts about what WDTM may mean.  To be clear, I'm not particularly interested in these specific claims and could've used any of countless others here instead (e.g., many adages, aphorisms, etc. like Claim 4).

  • Claim 1: Religious people are judgmental.
  • Claim 2: Skeptics are closed-minded.
  • Claim 3: Many associates of the Clintons die mysteriously.
  • Claim 4: Better safe than sorry.
  • Claim 5: Science harms more than it helps.

When I ask WDTM about these or many other claims, I tend to think in terms of operational definitions: ways to express the claim more precisely and observably, such as we might if we intended to obtain relevant evidence to support or refute it -- perhaps in an ideal study with infinite resources; this seems related to falsifiability.**  For instance, regarding Claim 1 I'd want to know things like who qualifies as "religious" or "judgmental" (e.g., classification rules, measurable attributes), whether this tacitly refers to a comparison (e.g., religious vs. not, more vs. less judgemental), the focal population's spatial or temporal scope (e.g., global vs. geographically limited, current vs. historical), and more.  I'd want to know similar things about the other four claims and will just note that Claim 3 intrigues me in that simply trying to answer WDTM raises core problems with this conspiracy theory (i.e., Clinton body count).

Finally, although my operational-definition approach to WDTM often helps my own reflection on a claim, it seems inadequate for broader use in discussions with others, especially folks who aren't familiar or comfortable with scientific inquiry.  In particular, for casual conversations or brief interactions wherein someone makes a claim that seems worth questioning, explaining operational definitions seems overly cumbersome and is probably confusing or otherwise off-putting to many folks.  So I'd like to find better ways to express succinctly what WDTM means that would more likely further such conversations than derail or halt them, maybe in the spirit of a tool for one's Baloney Detection Kit.  Surely others have encountered this challenge and developed more effective strategies.

Does that make sense?  Thoughts?


*As topics related to this post we could examine HDWK more closely, consider other simple skeptical questions about claims (e.g., Why does it matter? What should we do?), or track down better skeptical heuristics -- I wouldn't be surprised to find writing/thinking about this from several decades or even centuries ago.

**My tendency is probably influenced by educational and professional training and experience in quantitative psychology, statistics, and research methodology.  It also relates to strategies in the problem-formulation stage of evidence-based approaches in various disciplines, such as PICO and its kin.  But other disciplines may offer better strategies for everyday discussions, such as the humanities or legal scholarship.

Offline John Albert

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #1 on: September 05, 2019, 01:17:42 PM »
WUT

Online arthwollipot

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #2 on: September 05, 2019, 08:49:47 PM »
Um... "What does that mean?" means "I don't understand something you have said - can you please explain further."

Hope that helps.
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Online The Latinist

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #3 on: September 05, 2019, 08:58:17 PM »
I would also recommend not using the phrase when someone has made a simple statement, whether you are skeptical of its truth or not.  They are likely to think that you are being deliberately obtuse and be offended by it.
I would like to propose...that...it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. — Bertrand Russell

Offline PsyStat

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #4 on: September 07, 2019, 02:36:54 PM »
I would also recommend not using the phrase when someone has made a simple statement, whether you are skeptical of its truth or not.  They are likely to think that you are being deliberately obtuse and be offended by it.

Well, I mostly agree but kinda don't in at least one respect.  Sure, there are great reasons to adapt one's skepticism to the communication context.  Often it's inappropriate -- or at least non- or counterproductive -- to ask someone to clarify a claim, especially if that claim's clearly not central to an interaction.  For instance, if a climbing guide were triple-checking my gear before we headed up a rock face and she remarked off-handedly, "Better safe than sorry," I'd probably nod along and skip any deeper analysis.  But that same remark in a lively debate about anti-X fearmongering (e.g., X = GMOs, vaccines, "toxins," guns, abortion), government regulation, preventive healthcare, survival prepping, etc. could be worth WDTM scrutiny to home in on risk-benefit tradeoffs or other key issues.

Depending on what you mean by "simple statements," I might disagree a bit: Simple statements may more likely prompt a WDTM analysis (vs. more elaborate statements), because they're more apt to omit critical info that would alter their meaning.  For instance, if someone in a conversation about skepticism told me, "Skeptics are closed-minded," I'd probably want quite a bit more explication (e.g., who qualifies as a skeptic, which skeptics are we talking about, what attributes does "closed-minded" represent) before accepting, rejecting, or further discussing that claim, to be fairly sure I knew what they meant so our interpretations of that claim were substantially similar.  Of course, that same simple claim might very well be stated without comment or confusion in other contexts, like among woo adherents commiserating about a recent skeptical threat to their cherished, shared belief.

Finally, your mention of potentially offending someone gets at one motivation behind my OP: I'd like to improve my WDTM queries in everyday conversation -- usually with folks who aren't self-identified skeptics -- so they more likely advance the discussion without pissing anyone off.  In my experience, just asking someone to clarify a claim's meaning puts them on the defensive more often than I'd expect; surely this is due partly to "individual differences" beyond my control (i.e., some folks react more defensively than others no matter who asks for clarification or how they ask), but I'm sure I could also find better ways to ask.


Online The Latinist

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #5 on: September 07, 2019, 03:04:04 PM »
But that’s exactly my point.  “Skeptics are closed minded” is a perfectly clear statement, and I would be very surprised if you were in any real doubt what the speaker was saying. To ask “what does that mean” when what you really want is for the speaker to examine his own biases and unstated premises is disingenuous, and it is entirely understandable, in my opinion, for people to become angry when you take that approach. Say what you mean (politely) and you’re much more likely to get a good response.

To be clear, if you want to use “what does that mean” as shorthand in your own head to remind you to examine your *own* arguments, by all means do so. Whatever helps you clarify your thinking.  I’m only arguing that it’s not a good idea to use it against others.
I would like to propose...that...it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. — Bertrand Russell

Offline John Albert

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #6 on: September 07, 2019, 03:36:23 PM »
"Better safe than sorry" is a common proverb, and not overly ambiguous in itself. I think most native English speakers will understand that they're expressing reservation about something potentially hazardous.

But context is key, right?

If somebody says "better safe than sorry" in the context of discussing anti-GMO fears, it's pretty obvious that they're expressing reservations about the safety of the food (or whatever). Hence it's better to skip the questioning of their choice of aphorism and go right for the meat of the issue: why do they fear that GMOs might be dangerous in the first place?

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #7 on: September 07, 2019, 04:12:29 PM »
But that’s exactly my point.  “Skeptics are closed minded” is a perfectly clear statement...


It's not clear at all, and if you think it is you are making unwarranted assumptions and may be misunderstanding the speaker's meaning.  If you gave that answer to a trained interviewer on a survey about attitudes toward skeptics, the interviewer would probe you to elaborate until your meaning really was clear.
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Online The Latinist

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #8 on: September 07, 2019, 04:32:04 PM »
But that’s exactly my point.  “Skeptics are closed minded” is a perfectly clear statement...

It's not clear at all, and if you think it is you are making unwarranted assumptions and may be misunderstanding the speaker's meaning.  If you gave that answer to a trained interviewer on a survey about attitudes toward skeptics, the interviewer would probe you to elaborate until your meaning really was clear.

We are not talking about an interview.  We are talking about everyday conversations.  If you treat someone you’re having a conversation with like you’re an interviewer and they’re your subject, then you’re being an asshole, and you should not be surprised if they get angry or defensive.
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Online jt512

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #9 on: September 07, 2019, 04:34:15 PM »
But that’s exactly my point.  “Skeptics are closed minded” is a perfectly clear statement...

It's not clear at all, and if you think it is you are making unwarranted assumptions and may be misunderstanding the speaker's meaning.  If you gave that answer to a trained interviewer on a survey about attitudes toward skeptics, the interviewer would probe you to elaborate until your meaning really was clear.

We are not talking about an interview.  We are talking about everyday conversations.  If you treat someone you’re having a conversation with like you’re an interviewer and they’re your subject, then you’re being an asshole, and you should not be surprised if they get angry or defensive.


We are not talking about treating them like you're an interviewer.
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Offline John Albert

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #10 on: September 08, 2019, 02:21:11 PM »
But that’s exactly my point.  “Skeptics are closed minded” is a perfectly clear statement...

It's not clear at all, and if you think it is you are making unwarranted assumptions and may be misunderstanding the speaker's meaning.  If you gave that answer to a trained interviewer on a survey about attitudes toward skeptics, the interviewer would probe you to elaborate until your meaning really was clear.

We are not talking about an interview.  We are talking about everyday conversations.

"Skeptics are closed minded" is a hasty generalization, regardless.

Offline PsyStat

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #11 on: September 10, 2019, 06:11:51 PM »
Two prefatory remarks about the OP: First, discussing this in the abstract is admittedly tricky, largely because what's most appropriate or effective may depend heavily on particulars of context (e.g., A and B's relationship, aims of their conversation, exchange preceding focal claim); that's a bit frustrating, granted, but I still think this fairly broad view of WDTM queries is interesting.

Second, let's not assume A and B's exchange is adversarial or confrontational, though it might be.  For instance, imagine they're having a friendly chat during which A floats the focal claim, and B would like to understand this claim better before responding politely to it while they continue conversing pleasantly.  Cordial as cordial can be.  A key aspect of the OP concerns how B can pose any WDTM queries to reduce misinterpretation without, say, putting A on the defensive or otherwise spoiling the discussion's tone.

But that’s exactly my point.  “Skeptics are closed minded” is a perfectly clear statement, and I would be very surprised if you were in any real doubt what the speaker was saying. To ask “what does that mean” when what you really want is for the speaker to examine his own biases and unstated premises is disingenuous, and it is entirely understandable, in my opinion, for people to become angry when you take that approach. Say what you mean (politely) and you’re much more likely to get a good response.

Let's assume, as I'd intended in the OP, that B is genuinely unsure about one or more apparently important aspects of A's claim, so that B's WDTM queries are not disingenuous.  That said, I do think well-posed WDTM queries can both reduce B's uncertainty about A's claim and incidentally encourage A and B to consider key elements of the claim.  (Of course one could pose WDTM queries solely as a devious rhetorical device, but that's outside of my primary interest.)

While not inclined to spend time/space here convincing anyone that such uncertainty or associated misinterpretation occurs in real-world interactions, I'll note that in countless conversations I've been A or B (or both), and I strongly suspect such miscommunication is rather common and often unacknowledged or unrecognized.  (I admit that's a weasel-worded assertion lacking substantiating evidence.)  Regarding the specific claim "Skeptics are closed-minded," I'm fairly certain diverse folks would offer several importantly different interpretations, such as if we asked each of 20 random people from some broad population to operationalize this claim carefully enough to collect data; I've been in, heard, and read exchanges about skepticism that turned heavily on the (ambiguous) meaning of "skeptic" (e.g., scientific skeptic, pseudo-skeptic, denialist, debunker, cynic) and "closed-minded" (e.g., with respect to hypotheses/propositions, their truth value, or relevant evidence or argument).

So, to circle back to the OP but with a somewhat specific example that's fictitious but I hope realistic, imagine you're having a pleasant chat about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) with a fairly close friend: He's intrigued by CAM's pervasiveness and ostensibly appealing qualities (e.g., "holistic" approaches, "natural" products), and you're pretty sure he's fairly intellectually curious and adept at critical thinking but is neither a healthcare provider, scientist, or scholar/academic of any kind nor familiar with scientific skepticism.  At some point he mentions being bothered by how closed-minded skeptics are about CAM; if you'd like to address his claim about skeptics but aren't sure what he means by it, what sort of things might you ask him to clarify so you're both on the same page and can continue the conversation sans animosity?

Offline gmalivuk

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #12 on: September 12, 2019, 12:56:47 PM »
But that’s exactly my point.  “Skeptics are closed minded” is a perfectly clear statement...

It's not clear at all, and if you think it is you are making unwarranted assumptions and may be misunderstanding the speaker's meaning.  If you gave that answer to a trained interviewer on a survey about attitudes toward skeptics, the interviewer would probe you to elaborate until your meaning really was clear.

We are not talking about an interview.  We are talking about everyday conversations.

"Skeptics are closed minded" is a hasty generalization, regardless.
Something can be false and/or fallacious without being unclear, though.

And for the purpose of everyday conversations, "clear" doesn't mean "able to be understood in every minute detail".

If I say, "I want pizza for lunch," that isn't unclear just because you don't know what kind of pizza I'm thinking about, nor is it unclear just because we may not agree on what precisely it means to "want".
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Offline gmalivuk

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #13 on: September 12, 2019, 01:04:54 PM »
if you'd like to address his claim about skeptics but aren't sure what he means by it, what sort of things might you ask him to clarify so you're both on the same page and can continue the conversation sans animosity?
"When you say that, what do you mean by _____?" is a fine way to get a more detailed explanation of his use of specific terms.

One problem with "What does that mean?" is that you haven't specified which "that" you're talking about or what level of explanation you're requesting for its meaning. (In other words, there is no general answer to your questions 1. and 2. about WDTM in the first post.)

This is not specific to skepticism or philosophy or to this question in particular. It's just a consequence of the fact that utterances don't happen in a vacuum and the context (as well as intonation and other things not conveyable through text) can change what an utterance means.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better...is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Offline PsyStat

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Re: What does "What does that mean?" mean?
« Reply #14 on: September 22, 2019, 12:28:48 PM »
(Apologies for my long lags between intermittent responses; for the sake of productivity, quality of life, and other reasons I intentionally curb my involvement in this and other fora and social media ... with occasional failures.)

"Better safe than sorry" is a common proverb, and not overly ambiguous in itself. I think most native English speakers will understand that they're expressing reservation about something potentially hazardous.

But context is key, right?

If somebody says "better safe than sorry" in the context of discussing anti-GMO fears, it's pretty obvious that they're expressing reservations about the safety of the food (or whatever). Hence it's better to skip the questioning of their choice of aphorism and go right for the meat of the issue: why do they fear that GMOs might be dangerous in the first place?

As I see it (with my personal biases), this proverb is a great example of how tactful, polite WDTM queries could improve a potentially confusing, frustrating, or contentious conversation by making it more clear, constructive, and congenial.  For instance, in a discussion of simply whether to X (= take some action) I suspect many folks interpret "better safe than sorry" roughly to mean (a) one could X or not, (b) Xing (vs. not) lowers some risk, and (c) lowering one's risk by Xing is preferable to not.

But in the case of X = "get vaccinated" and countless other examples (e.g., your mention of anti-GMO fears), the situation's less clear-cut: Often each of Xing and not entails benefit and cost that may be multifarious and uncertain (e.g., yet unknown, hard to ascertain or predict for an individual or group).  So it's unclear whether one would be safer (vs. sorrier) by Xing or not.

For example, imagine that early in a chat about whether to vaccinate someone Person A claims, "Better safe than sorry": Person B may be unsure whether A considers vaccination the safe or sorry option, which benefits or costs A's accounting for (e.g., illness, side-effects, peace of mind, money), or who A views as at risk of any cost/harm (e.g., potential vaccinee, herd, payers).  Depending on the context, as you say, a couple well-phrased WDTM queries by B and thoughtful responses by A could shed light on these issues, some of which are central to debates about vaccination.  I suppose I'm suggesting that sometimes unpacking A's claim via WDTM queries -- if they're posed well -- does get to the meat of the issue while also sticking with the claim itself.

 

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