Monday, April 23, 2012

Semantic Drift; Keeping All Four Wheels of Public Awareness on the Race Track

In an Infographic: Federal Tax Revenues GEI reminds us of our governments habit of plotting historical linkages between GDP and tax rates.  Is that a non sequitur by fiat, or just habit?

There's an obvious and quite embarrassing semantic conundrum at work here.  Here are just 3 examples.

1) Economists who persistently discuss taxes as revenue to a fiat currency issuer. :(
     (And, of course, the lay public & their policy staff, who blindly follow this example of broken semantics.)

2) MMT proponents who argue that public debt doesn't matter to a fiat currency issuer. :(   
    (How can you owe fiat?  More broken semantics.)

3) Atheists who claim that there is no God, no devil, and you won't go to hell. :(
    (So, of course, you should instantly forget all those terms constantly drilled into your memory!)

There's a simple rule being displayed here.  You cannot win a semantic argument by propagating the terms your opponent defines.   Case closed.

As long as utilized terms remain sloppily defined, you can appear to win a debate in your jargon, while simultaneously losing it in someone else's jargon!   For the love of Pete!  It's not about a paradigm, it's about surfing 1 billion digms that continually shift  with context.

Socrates & Sophocles discussed this linguistic conundrum extensively, over 2000 years ago.  All human languages - indeed all representational codes - carry the capacity to be either very lean & flexible (& hence slow), or very fast (& precisely wrong outside the original conditions).  A vocabulary can be presumptuously precise & lean, or it can be flexible & fuzzy, or it can co-optimize some function of the two.  Hint, homo sapiens excels at the latter, homo academinuses at the middle, and homo Ludditious at the former strategy. 

If flexibility is optimized, the result confers a tremendous but slow adaptive power.  In that case, a very lean vocabulary can EVENTUALLY be re-generalized at will to infinitely many context variations.  Slang, lingo, jargon ... even the name changes, if you get my drift.

Like any tool, however, language can be mal-adaptive if not used and/or interpreted with care.  

If speed is optimized at the expense of flexible meaning, then adaptive capacity is constrained.  

If speed & flexibility are co-optimized in an increasingly complex culture, then the semantic co-jargons leave multiple gaps in linguistic completion - and precise meaning becomes highly compartmentalized.

The result is that people in neighboring villages - or even two different professions in the same town - may quickly find that the exact same word has lost any shared utility across their two sub-contexts. In that case, a new danger arises, as sophists become icated into sophisticated Control Frauds.

To convey fidelity to context, every language demands accurate propagation of uncertainty limits.  The obvious solution is to maintain some minimal error propagation abilities - upon demand - in order to manage the inherent tradeoff between redefining terms in every discussion, vs communication speed.

There's a sad but simple fable explaining why WE don't have YER law.   It all started with an old argument between neighboring villages, over whether or not a given word used in both villages did or didn't slander the other village.  It started with the typical name calling, then descended to "yer momma," and on to even "yer rules" and "yer law."  Finally, they sent two sophists to compare the two law sets, which turned out to be easy to do.  When the explanatory mappings were distributed, however, some sub-audiences disagreed on the order of grammatical construct, and whether it should be "yer law" or "law yer."   Seditious vendors instigated war to the last man, someone won, and a secret bidder claimed divine right afterwards.  Variants who could explore any option, not just one, fled underground, into recessive genetics, but they keep cropping up in places like the Virgin Islands.

Legend holds that a savant will one day bring balance to the semantics, and that humans will voluntarily stop plotting the relationship between non sequiters and fiat.

ps: When that occurs, up off the farm, no longer propa, will ganda be.

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