The saying goes: “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance”. This is the same idea as “weirdness points”: you can only bother people a certain amount before they go away. So if you have something important to bother them about, don’t also bother them in random ways that don’t matter.
In writing about science or rationality, you already risk sounding too nerdy or out-of-touch with real life. This doesn’t matter much if you’re writing about black holes or something. But if you’re writing about social signaling, or game theory, or anything else where the failure mode is sounding like an evil robot trying to reduce all of life to numbers, you should avoid anything that makes you sound even more like that evil robot.
(yes, people on the subreddit, I’m talking about you)
I’m not always great at this, but I’m improving, and here’s the lowest-hanging fruit: if there are two terms for the same thing, a science term and an everyday life term, and you’re talking about everyday life, use the everyday life term. The rest of this post is just commentary on this basic idea.
1. IQ -> intelligence. Don’t use “IQ” unless you’re talking about the result of an IQ test, talking about science derived from these results, or estimating IQ at a specific number. Otherwise, say “intelligence” (as a noun) or “smart” as an adjective.
Wrong: “John is a very high-IQ person”
Right: “John is a very smart person”.
Wrong: “What can I do if I feel like my low IQ is holding me back?”
Right: “What do I do if I feel like my low intelligence is holding me back?”
Acceptable: “The average IQ of a Nobel-winning physicist is 155”.
Acceptable: “Because poor childhood nutrition lowers IQ, we should make sure all children have enough to eat.”
2. Humans -> people. This will instantly make you sound 20% less like an evil robot. Use “humans” only when specifically contrasting with another animal:
Wrong: “I’ve been wondering why humans celebrate holidays.”
Right: “I’ve been wondering why people celebrate holidays.”
Acceptable: “Chimpanzees are much stronger than humans.”
3. Males -> men, females -> women. You can still use “male” and “female” as adjectives if you really want.
Wrong: “Why do so many males like sports?”
Right: “Why do so many men like sports?”
Acceptable, I guess: “Why do male sports fans drink so much?”
Use “males” and “females” as nouns only if you’re making a point that applies across animal species, trying overly hard to sound scientifically credible, or arguing some kind of complicated Gender Studies point that uses “man” and “male” differently.
Acceptable: “In both rats and humans, males have higher testosterone than females.”
4. Rational -> good, best, reasonable, etc. See eg here. Use “rational” when describing adherence to a good cognitive strategy; use “good” etc for things that have good results.
Wrong: “What is the most rational diet?”
Right: “What is the best diet?”
Wrong: “Is it rational to invest in bonds?”
Right: “Is it a good idea to invest in bonds?”
Acceptable: “Are more rational people more likely to succeed in politics?” (if asking whether people who follow certain cognitive rules like basing their decisions on evidence will succeed more than those who don’t. Notice that you cannot sensibly replace this with “good” or “best” – “Are better people more likely to succeed in politics?” is meaningless (unless you switch to the moral value of “better”)
5. Optimal -> best. I feel kind of hypocritical for this one because the link above says to replace “rational” with “optimal”. But if you really want to go all the way, replace “optimal” with “best”, unless you have a specific reason for preferring the longer word.
Wrong: “What’s the optimal way to learn this material?”
Right: “What’s the best way to learn this material?”
6. Utility -> happiness, goodness. Use utility only when talking about utilitarian philosophy.
Wrong: “Will getting more exercise raise my utility?”
Right: “Will getting more exercise make me better off?”
Wrong: “What is the highest-utility charity?”
Right: “What is the best charity?” or “Which charity helps people the most?”
The same applies to “utility function”.
Wrong: “My utility function contains a term for animal suffering.”
Right: “I care about animal suffering.”
7. Autistic -> nerdy. Use autistic when referring to a psychiatric diagnosis or a complicated package of sensory and cognitive issues. Use “nerdy” when referring to people who are book-smart but lack social graces.
Wrong: “Haha, my friends and I are so autistic, we talk about physics all the time.”
Right: “Haha, my friends and I are so nerdy, we talk about physics all the time.”
8. Neoreactionary -> right-wing, far-right, reactionary. Use neoreactionary when talking specifically about the philosophy of Mencius Moldbug, if you think you’ve looked into it and understand it. If you’re just referring to far-right ideas, use far-right.
Wrong: “I disagree with neoreactionary ideas like traditional gender roles.”
Right: “I disagree with right-wing ideas like traditional gender roles.”
In general, beware of attributing very broad and complicated ideas to local bloggers. Local bloggers often repackage or reinterpret larger tendencies from outside philosophy. This is useful and important work, but if you ever say anything that could be interpreted as identifying them as inventing those tendencies, people will jump on that and make fun of you. There’s not a hard and fast line between inventing a (specific) idea and reinterpreting a (broader) idea. But most local bloggers aren’t glory hogs, so they won’t get mad if you err on the side of non-attribution, or just linking to their good explanations of these ideas without specifying they’re the inventors.
Relatedly, Blue Tribe -> Democrats/liberals/leftists, Red Tribe -> Republicans/conservatives/rightists, almost always. When I coined those terms I was trying to explain how Democrats/Republicans were the tip of an iceberg of related traits, but now that the message has sunk in I think it’s reasonable to call that iceberg by the name everyone else uses.
9. High probability of -> Probably. Use “high probability” when discussing probability theory; use “probably” when discussing the real world. You can also say “most likely”.
Wrong: “There’s a high probability I’ll get the job.”
Right: “I’ll probably get the job.”
Saying “50-50”, “90 percent change”, or “99 percent chance” casually is probably okay. In popular writing, you should avoid any more specific use of a numeric probability (like “70% chance I’ll get the job”) unless you really have some good reason for thinking it’s 70 rather than 75 (like that you used some kind of algorithm to calculate it), or unless you think your intuitions can really distinguish between 70 and 75 percent probabilities (superforecasters can!) and want to make a very formal prediction.
10. Meme -> idea, belief. Use “meme” only when analogizing ideas to organisms undergoing evolutionary selection (or for silly cat pictures).
Wrong: “Pro-military memes are everywhere in America”.
Right: “Pro-military beliefs are everywhere in America”.
11. Status -> popularity, respect. My feelings on this one aren’t quite as strong; if you really want to use “status”, use “status”. But I think if you’re trying hard to appeal to ordinary people, you’ll want to take it out.
Wrong: “He’s high status in this community.”
Right: “He’s well-respected in this community.”
Wrong: “Bob was really low status in high school”
Right: “Bob was really unpopular in high school”