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Patrick Stevens

Former mathematics student at the University of Cambridge; now a software engineer.

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In conversation with (say, for the purposes of propagating a sterotype) humanities students, I am often struck by how imprecisely language is used, and how much confusion arises therefrom. A case in point:

A: I think that froogles should be sprogged!

B: Sprogging froogles would make the bimmers go plog.

A: But I use froogles all the time - I don’t care about the bimmers! Why are you so caught up on the plogging of bimmers?

Here, we see Person A espousing a view, Person B contributing a fact, and Person A responding as if the fact were an attack. This happens all the time, and it’s not just that I’m incapable of sounding non-threatening, because Person A-style people seem to respond in the same way whoever’s acting as Person B. It may well be an excellent tactic during a competitive debate, because a Person A-style response makes you sound impassioned and commanding. However, when it comes to attempting to divine truth, it’s thoroughly detrimental. Person B has to spend the next few sentences saying that ey’s not attacking A 1 - and that’s time wasted which could have been spent discussing bimmer-plogging and its relevance.

As a mathematician, you quickly learn to be able to shift into a state of mind in which you mean exactly what you say, and no more. Without this skill, I suspect it is very hard to be a mathematician. Imagine I, as Person B, said “10 is not a multiple of 3”, and you (as person A) replied, “But 10 is a multiple of 2, and you didn’t mention that!” You would be laughed out of the room, because it is simply taken for granted that I didn’t mean to say anything beyond “10 is not a multiple of 3”.

Similarly, as a truth-finder (as opposed to debater), I should have the freedom to say “If the cinema were closed, it would very likely have little to no impact on your life” without my interlocutor assuming that I mean “The cinema should be closed” or “The cinema will be closed” or “You are a moron”.2 Fine, in a competitive debate, no holds are barred, but in real life we should be trying to find truth, and it’s much harder to do that if you have to keep clarifying every statement. “If the cinema were to be closed (and it might not be), then it would very likely have little to no impact on your life, but I’m not saying that its overall cultural value shouldn’t mean that the cinema ought to stay” is considerably less easy to read and write. I, as its author, have limited room in my memory to store all the little dangly bits of sentence that I intend to include. You, as its reader, have limited room in your memory, some of which is taken up in holding irrelevant points like “Patrick is not arguing with you”.

Once Person A responds in that way, it becomes much harder for Person B to maintain a calm fact-finding frame of mind. It flashes through B’s mind, “Person A has just attacked me! I must defend myself!”, even if ey is trying as hard as possible to be balanced and to think clearly. 3 It clouds the rest of the discussion.

Essentially, what I want is for everyone to receive training in meaning exactly what you say, and in understanding exactly what is said. I find that it adds greatly to pretty much every conversation if all parties are able to switch into this mode as necessary (to resolve some particular question of fact, for instance). I recognise that my causing offence to another person is always a failing on my part, but it is a lot of work to maintain the context of “I must de-offendify every factual statement”. If nothing else, it’s just one more thing I have to remember to do once I’ve realised what words are coming out of my mouth. Fine for normal conversation, since so much of that is based around appearing as un-offensive 4 as possible, but it is a great burden when you’re attempting to perform a distributed computation (namely, using two or more brains to discover whether a statement is true or false).

  1. See what I did there? “Ey, A”?

  2. This example comes from a discussion about a certain news story about anti-monopoly laws in Cambridge cinemas. In fact, in this example, the cinema will be sold on, not closed - another reason for clear mathematical thinking in distinguishing “if X then Y” from “X is true”.

  3. I am extrapolating from my own experience here - I am not yet well-enough practised at adopting the frame of mind that “the other person is only attacking me because ey doesn’t know better - it doesn’t really count”.

  4. Not inoffensive, which is something a little different.