The importance of specificity in language

When I write, I make it a point to be as specific as I can with my words and phrasings. I’m not perfect at it, but I think I do a pretty good job. However, this causes some of my sentences to be longer than absolutely necessary. I try to counter that by throwing in lines and syllables that will slow down a person’s reading. My hope is that doing so will bring about a little more concentration and thus a better chance at an accurate reading. If that fails, then I have to turn to bringing up past quotes and spelling things out. It can get tedious and no one likes it, but sometimes it has to be done. For example, let’s consider Thunderf00t and PZ Myers.

I don’t want to get into the details of the kerfuffle at ‘Freethought’ Blogs here, but I have been lightly following the videos that keep popping up. As of late there have been two of note: yet another from Thunderf00t and one from PZ. I hate transcribing stuff, so I’ll give a quick summary.

In PZ’s video, PZ says Thunderf00t polled YouTube commenters about this whole incident in order to settle the issue. He then says Thunderf00t claimed (on his blog, prior to getting the boot) that the poll was free from confirmation bias because he didn’t block or ban any of the said commenters. Thunderf00t responded by first pointing out that he never claimed to have settled anything. He then went after PZ’s accusation that he had said the poll was free from confirmation bias. Here is what Thunderf00t actually wrote:

The thunderfoot channel is essentially a 100% free speech zone, with no confirmational bias due to blocking/banning people.

Do you see the important part here? Thunderf00t said there was no bias due to blocking/banning people. He did not say there was no confirmation bias at all. He was making the specific point that his YouTube channel is essentially a 100% free speech zone – just like he said in his first clause. So not only was Thunderf00t very clear in his claim regarding confirmation bias, but the context of his sentence confirms his claim.

So why does this matter? In this case, PZ was attempting to make Thunderf00t look stupid and irrational by virtue of making what would be quite a fundamental mistake and misunderstanding of a basic scientific concept. The reality, however, is that Thunderf00t did no such thing. PZ simply was not careful in his reading. As Thunderf00t says in his video, it would be as if he said there are no broken windows in Manhattan due to meteor strikes, but then PZ turns around and tells people Thunderf00t thinks there are no broken windows in Manhattan at all.

This is one small example of what happens when people don’t pay attention to language. It’s okay to have misunderstandings and the occasional slip-up, but I find this to be an all-too-common occurrence on the Internet. A little more caution would go a long way.

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