LessWrong Diaspora Jargon Survey


Jar­gon is un­der­rated in its im­por­tance to the frame­work of sci­ence. Luis Reyes-Gal­indo points out that jar­gon quite of­ten ends up liter­ally de­ter­min­ing the bound­aries of a field[0]. Given the dis­par­ity be­tween how much at­ten­tion is paid to jar­gon as a sub­ject and its schol­arly im­port, I de­cided to test the hy­poth­e­sis that LessWrongers prac­tice weak schol­ar­ship in re­gards to jar­gon. In par­tic­u­lar, that for many im­por­tant terms the true source of knowl­edge has not been trans­mit­ted to com­mu­nity mem­bers. Rather than a pedan­tic is­sue, this would im­ply deep is­sues with the way that LWers han­dle knowl­edge. Without a con­nec­tion back to origi­nal sources, liter­a­ture re­view on the part of com­mu­nity mem­bers could be severely sup­pressed.


I started with a weak hy­poth­e­sis and a strong hy­poth­e­sis.

Weak Hy­poth­e­sis: There will be at least one term in this list which re­spon­dents misi­den­tify in ori­gin over­whelm­ingly. In spe­cific, at least 80% of re­spon­dents on at least one term or phrase will choose the wrong re­sponse.

Strong Hy­poth­e­sis: There will be at least one term in this list which re­spon­dents misi­den­tify in ori­gin over­whelm­ingly. In ad­di­tion, at least one third (4) of the words or phrases will have 50% or more of re­spon­dents in­cor­rectly iden­tify its ori­gin.

Th­ese hy­poth­e­sis were cho­sen in ad­vance largely based on my gut in­tu­ition about the sever­ity of the prob­lem, and what would con­si­tute ‘suffi­cient ev­i­dence’ to me that a prob­lem ex­isted.


The method­ol­ogy for this sur­vey was pre­reg­istered here.

A list of search terms I used on Google Scholar for lit re­view be­fore writ­ing this ar­ti­cle can be found here.

A sur­vey was ad­ministered to 53 LWers on var­i­ous cha­t­rooms as well as my per­sonal friends list. This sur­vey con­tained twelve terms or phrases I felt were es­pe­cially am­bigu­ous as to their ori­gin. (i.e, they were lack­ing ob­vi­ous ‘tells’ of LW or aca­demic ori­gin)

Terms Used

  1. Alief

  2. In­side View/​Out­side View

  3. Epistemic Learned Hel­pless­ness

  4. Chi­nese Rob­ber Fal­lacy

  5. Anti-In­duc­tive

  6. Motte and Bailey

  7. Map and Ter­ri­tory

  8. Ob­server Effect

  9. Ter­mi­nal vs In­stru­men­tal Values/​Goals

  10. Ugh-Field

  11. Illu­sion of Trans­parency

  12. Op­ti­miser’s Curse

At least one term was cho­sen to sound es­pe­cially aca­demic and one term cho­sen to sound es­pe­cially ‘LessWrong Di­as­pora’ to provide a baseline. Th­ese terms are HtuSvryq and BofreireRss­rpg re­spec­tively (rot13). All terms or phrases were taken from the Jar­gon Dic­tionary hosted by my­self. When I chose these terms I my­self did not know the ori­gin of sev­eral, which was en­tirely okay be­cause that could be as­cer­tained at anal­y­sis time.

Cha­t­rooms surveyed

The cha­t­rooms I pul­led par­ti­ci­pants from are:

  • Brier: An in­vite only Dis­cord server run by my­self.

  • #less­wrong: Freen­ode LessWrong IRC chan­nel.

  • SlateS­tarCodex Dis­cord: The ‘offi­cial’ Dis­cord server of Scott Alexan­der’s blog.

  • LessWrong Dis­cord: The un­offi­cial Dis­cord server of the com­mu­nity blog of the same name.

  • Ex­e­ge­sis: Tum­blr Di­as­pora Com­mu­nity server.

  • LessWrongers Slack: A Slack server run by Elo.

For each term users were asked whether it origi­nated from LessWrong, academia, or nei­ther. (While it is the­o­ret­i­cally pos­si­ble for a term to origi­nate from both at the same time, I’m not aware of this ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing so I did not con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity in my sur­vey.) To de­ter­mine the re­sults I use a sim­ple plu­ral­ity of re­sponses against a ‘cor­rect’ an­swer as­signed for each term. Whichever an­swer re­ceived the most re­sponses is the one users are de­ter­mined to have ‘chose’ in ag­gre­gate.


In the fol­low­ing table, green means an an­swer is what I marked ‘cor­rect’. Red means that the amount wrong ex­ceeded the 50% thresh­old in my weak hy­poth­e­sis.

Re­sults Table

(Ci­ta­tions on an­swers can be found at this page)


Both my weak hy­poth­e­sis and strong hy­poth­e­sis were val­i­dated. In the case of map and ter­ri­tory, I will ig­nore the re­sults be­cause of am­bi­guity. It is quite pos­si­ble to clas­sify Alfred Korzyb­ski in ei­ther the aca­demic or non-aca­demic camps. How­ever, on the Chi­nese Rob­ber’s fal­lacy 77% of re­spon­dents misi­den­ti­fied the ori­gin. While this is not quite 80%, it is close enough for me to con­sider the weak hy­poth­e­sis es­sen­tially val­i­dated. My strong hy­poth­e­sis was also val­i­dated, given that 4 terms (ex­clud­ing Map/​Ter­ri­tory) were sig­nifi­cantly over the 50% thresh­old to count as de­cided wrong.


My origi­nal pur­pose for this re­search was to see if there would be any value in adding an et­y­mol­ogy sec­tion to the jar­gon dic­tio­nary. I think that the out­come of this sur­vey im­plies the an­swer is yes. One po­ten­tial goal of the jar­gon dic­tio­nary is to act as a Rosetta stone be­tween LessWrong Di­as­pora jar­gon and aca­demic ter­minol­ogy. The pur­pose of this would be to make liter­a­ture re­view eas­ier for peo­ple try­ing to ‘dig deep’ on ra­tio­nal­ity con­cepts for their re­search.

Beyond that, these re­sults im­ply a po­ten­tially sig­nifi­cant aliena­tion of LessWrongers from the origi­na­tors of con­cepts. As Samo Burja points out, the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ples that gen­er­ated an idea are of in­cred­ible im­por­tance[1]. In failing to trans­mit the sources of knowl­edge it’s quite pos­si­ble we’re re­tard­ing progress by mak­ing it non-ob­vi­ous where to go for more. Worse still the prob­lem is not nec­es­sar­ily easy to fix. Motte & Bailey for ex­am­ple, which Scott prop­erly cites in his post on the sub­ject[2], got a 64% in­cor­rect re­sponse rate. Here I feel it is only ap­pro­pri­ate to draw at­ten­tion to the prob­lem, but wel­come po­ten­tial solu­tions in the com­ments.


[0]: Reyes-Gal­indo, Lewis. (2016). Au­tomat­ing the Ho­rae: Boundary-work in the age of com­put­ers. arXiv:1603.03824 [physics.soc-ph]

[1]: Burja, Samo. (2018, March 8). On the Loss and Preser­va­tion of Knowl­edge. Retrieved from https://​​www.lesser­wrong.com/​​posts/​​nnNdz7XQrd5bWT­goP/​​on-the-loss-and-preser­va­tion-of-knowledge

[2]: Alexan­der, Scott. (2014, Novem­ber 3). All in all, an­other brick in the motte. Retrieved from http://​​slat­estar­codex.com/​​2014/​​11/​​03/​​all-in-all-an­other-brick-in-the-motte/​​

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