Things which annoy me, #7243

Introspection week continues today, sorry…

I was browsing stack exchange and I was reading a question on the front page; here’s a quote (I apologise to the asker of the question in advance, I’m not trying to persecute them in particular):

Can I reject the premise of a question in an interview?

This actually came as a practice (not marked) question in a video interview for an internship at a bank, where I was asked to name my “favorite movie” and explain why.

My actual response to the question (in my head) was “I’m not sure what the word favorite means — I don’t know of an operationalisation of favoriteness in a linearly ordered set with an injective function from the set of movies — but here’s a movie I like: _____ …”

Instead, I simply gave an expected answer.

Now I don’t care about the question per se (well, I cared enough to read it) – but I do want to briefly talk about this quote because it is a good example of something which really annoys me, and isn’t the New Year just the time for hating things.

In case you haven’t spotted it, or in case you don’t know me so you don’t know how annoying I find this, it is this gratuitous usage of basic mathematical and/or scientific terminology. I have no idea why people do it; here’s another vague example from the TV show that I could probably write another blog post on if I cared (in fact, I know there are better examples of this phenomenon in that show, but my brain is already in pain from finding that one – broadly speaking, my relevant complaints to this post are talked about in this video, although that doesn’t necessarily mean I agree entirely with that that video is saying). This thing also has cropped up a lot in the recent Math with Bad Drawings posts; that’s not even a blog I dislike (I think it’s even in the sidebar on here, and also half the time the examples on there are actually ironic). Incidentally, remind me someone to write the post I keep meaning to about this MwBD post.

I don’t know why people feel the need to do this: are you trying to sound smart? (In which case everyone who knows how to use the words you use think you sound like you’re just trying to sound smart, and everyone else just thinks you’re an arsehole.) Do you actually think that using these words make you more understandable? (Surely not.)

Mathematical terminology, like ‘injective function’, is used in order to make statements precise and clear. One will say ‘the function is injective’ in lieu of saying ‘the function is such that inputs can be uniquely identified by outputs’, because it shortens and/or clarifies mathematical prose (it encapsulates a single, well-used concept); but that doesn’t mean that you can just drop it into random sentences. Sure, it makes sense in the sentence above – but it’s pointless, because it’s simpler and more clear in this situation to say ‘I don’t think there’s an objective way to talk about films being better or worse’, or even (if you really want to push some kind of mathematical metaphor) ‘I don’t think there’s a well-ordering of films based on favouriteness’.

And that’s even putting aside the fact that what the asker here is saying is nonsensical to begin with: “an operationalisation of favoriteness in a linearly ordered set”? What does that even mean? I think that what they mean is that they have some set which contains values which quantify favouriteness, and they have placed a well-ordering on it. Whatever they mean, it’s certainly not clear to me – and if I have to guess what they mean because of imprecise language, then their use of mathematical terminology is arguably pointless. (I have looked up the meaning of ‘operationalisation’ and it does seem that this is what they meant, but it’s still a mixed metaphor at best and a giant stretch at worst.)

So my point is that if you want to use mathematical language, step back and ask yourself two questions:

  1. Am I just doing it because I’ve just learned these cool new words and I want to show off?
  2. Is it easier and clearer to understand what I’m saying if I don’t use a mixture of statistical terms and naive set theory to describe it?

I don’t think I’m asking too much: after all, there are plenty of situations in which using naive set theory and statistics drastically increases the clarity of statements.

A job interview in which you are being asked your favourite film is not one of them.

Just more generally, I want to include in this category (because I’m apparently categorising things which annoy me) those science podcasts which unnecessarily bring in terminology from elementary physics or calculus for no real reason; it just feels like they’re introducing an artificial barrier for entry – if you’re not talking about sophisticated ideas, you shouldn’t need sophisticated language. Not that I’m against people trying to talk about elementary calculus or physics in podcasts, it’s just the unnecessary use of words which I object to. I think the video I linked to above about The Big Bang Theory is somewhat relevant here too: the problem I have is people referencing the terminology of something on a surface level (replacing the word “acceleration” with “second derivative of displacement” for no good reason, for example – I’m aware this is a fairly tame example) in order to artificially raise the perceived sophistication of their content, or to ‘tag’ their content as being ‘sciency’.

Why is this important? The main reason I care about this so much is that people seem to fall for it. I think it would be great if we could, as a society, be in a place where people could listen to and create scientific content in a thoughtful way, rather than just throwing around some buzz-words and thinking that that’s enough (again, I should stress that I’m not singling out anyone here – nor could I, even if I wanted to. I think everyone is somewhat guilty of this, and it’s something a lot of people are aware of anyway – I’m not spouting new ideas). It’s fine if what you’re saying makes sense, but the problem is that people who want to go out and spread ‘fake science’ (I wish there was a better phrase) can just throw buzz-words around as well; and if everyone is just throwing words around as ‘tags’ for their audience rather than to actually further an argument or clarify a point, then there’s no way for the general public to discern an actual scientific argument which cites replicable data from a reputable peer-reviewed study from pseudoscience.

(<sarcasm>Join me next time, when I for no real reason yell at people who talk about calculus like it’s the most sophisticated pinnacle of mathematical achievement.</sarcasm>)

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