Friday, September 04, 2009

Advice for the Day: The Importance of Definitions

My students over the decades knew that I was high on definitions (not that kind of "high" but taking to an elevated degree of emphasis).

Often I would take a statement or question offered and say, "Imagine that you cannot use that term and then tell me what you mean using other words." It was helpful either in revealing that the students really did not know what they meant or in clarifying for the rest of us what we were talking about.

I still am high on definitions. The reason is simple.
Some issues cannot be discussed intelligently unless the crucial terms are made plain so that conversation can continue on the basis of shared understandings.
Some examples:

Is it safe to fly?

Are we safer now from terrorist strikes than before 9/11?

Is the recession over?  

The list could be made very long.

Unless we know what  those who pose the question or  those who answer mean by "safe," "safer," and "recession," the exercise is of little value beyond expressing the beliefs or feelings of those asked. To the extent that perception is tantamount to reality, opinions polls can be useful. But they contribute little to understanding beyond that.

Hence, I find opinion polls on these subjects that do not define the terms or have the respondents do so merely evoke my life-long demand for definitions.

Advice for the day: Try asking for definitions next time when it is not clear what questions and answers mean. It will annoy the heck out of people, but you will feel good about it.

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