More Signals v Causes

I came across a couple good examples of confusing signals and causes this week.

1. Does language cause culture? In this case, do languages that “grammatically associate the future and the present, foster future-oriented behavior”? More likely: Language is shaped by culture. Cultures that save for the future evolve words that convey that part of their culture.

2. Does consumption of processed meats shorten life?  More likely: Folks who eat things that have been considered bad for you for the last 50 years also have other unhealthy behaviors that may contribute to shorten lives.

Thanks to the What We Think and Why blog for republishing my earlier Signal v Causes post.

What do you mean?

I enjoyed this Harvard Business Review Ideacast (podcast) that was based on the guest, Don Pollotta’s, HBR blog post, I don’t understand what anybody is saying anymore.

I recommend both.  Based on the number of comments to both, others did too.

I always like when someone calls BS on puffed-up language.  Business, politics, journalism and academics are full of it (pun intended).

I love the example he gives about a discussion he had about a “new media company around children in the preschool space.”

He said:  What do you mean?

You know, children in the preschool arena.

He said:  You mean preschoolers?

I’ve had similar experiences with business consultants.  Here’s one experience that sticks in my memory.  The consultant said, “We need to evaluate the efficacy of this action.”  I asked, “What do you mean?”  He said, “You know, the effectiveness of the project.”  I said, “ah, you want to see if it works?”  Yes.

My favorite part of the podcast (about 9 minutes in) Pollotta discusses having the courage to say what you mean. He gives the example of the 50 minute customer service queue where the message “your call is important to us” replays every couple of minutes.  As Pollotta says, “It obviously is not.”  Be authentic.  Have the courage to say, “we don’t have enough resources to handle the call volume and you’re going to have to wait 50 minutes.”  He believes folks will appreciate that.  I agree.

In my line of work, I have to communicate unpopular things sometimes.  I’ve learned that being straightforward works.  They may not like what you have to say, but they usually do appreciate that you didn’t try to “blow smoke up their” you-know-what.  They usually find the honesty refreshing.

I think another purpose of puffed-up language is to hedge what you really mean so that you won’t be pinned down for being wrong.

In my normal course of blog-reading, I come across discussions about New York Times columnist and Nobel economist Paul Krugman’s writings.  Waaaay too much of the discussion is about what Paul Krugman actually meant.  It’s like trying to find Waldo.

If I have to spend that much time trying to figure out what someone actually means, it’s not worth it.  And, I find it an absolute shame that society has bestowed such honors as a Nobel Prize and a New York Times column for writing so unclear that my junior high English teachers would not find it acceptable to even grade.

Bringing DNA to life

Here’s a great description of how DNA works from this blog post by Matt Ridley:

There are close parallels between DNA and a language like English. Just as evolution uses the same 22,000 genes in a different order to make a rhinoceros or a rabbit, so Shakespeare used many of the same 18,000 words in each of his plays. The 10 most common words in “Othello” and “King Lear” are the same (I, and, the, to, you, of, my, that, a, in), yet the plays are very different.