Ten commonly misused terms

August 5, 2011 at 2:37 pm (Arts and languages, Evolution and psychology, Mass media)

1. Social construct

Social construct refers to a specific and arbitrary social arrangement. It can be compared to the idea of a social contract, although a social contract often involves common knowledge while a construct does not.

In critical studies and in other fields, there has been a trend of labeling pretty much every social or natural phenomenon as a “social construct”, often with the implication that it is imaginary and undesirable. But many of these “social constructs” can be attributed to natural causes, and are completely unrelated to society.


  • Languages are social constructs.
  • Gender roles are largely social constructs.
  • The idea that “romantic love” exists is a social construct.
  • Language use is not a social construct.
  • Gender is not a social construct.
  • The feeling described by “romantic love” is not a social construct.

2. Ad hominem

The notion of argumentum ad hominem is distinct from the notion of personal attacks. Argumentum ad hominem is to relate a person’s argument with his character; if someone states that homosexuality is immoral, and is revealed to be a closet homosexual, it is an argumentum ad hominem to question his hypocrisy, though it is not intended as a personal attack. It is also logically permissible.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible to make a personal comment without making an argumentum ad hominem, and in fact this is very common in daily conversation – “It’s not what you said, but the way you said it” “I don’t like your attitude” – etc.

3. Ethos, pathos, logos

These are commonly known as the three “modes of persuasion”, but they are nothing of this sort. Ethos (sense of authority/credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason) belong to the audience. The three modes of persuasion are appealing to ethos, appealing to pathos, and appealing to logos.

These terms are also often confused with each other. For example, Brutus’s speech to the citizens in Julius Caesar is often cited as an appeal to ethos or pathos, but it is in fact mostly an appeal to logos. While he talks about his love of Caesar, and of Rome, it was not an attempt to establish his own character or appeal to the audience’s emotions, but to justify the act of killing Caesar as a reasonable decision. One can speak of his own character and of emotions without it being an appeal to either ethos or pathos.

4. Objectivity

Objectivity does not mean “not taking a stance”. That is best described as being neutral. Objectivity is making a statement without the influence of your own role – i.e. imagine you are an average, non-involved person, what would you do or say?

In the case of things such as politics, almost everyone is objective, because almost everyone is largely unaffected by whatever opinion he happens to have on an issue. Of course, it is also the fact that being objective is often very different from being correct.

5. Second-guess

This is more of a language problem, but since it is abused so frequently, I will mention it with the others. In the mass media, and even in academic writings, the word “second-guess” has been used to refer to pretty much any action that an author does not know how to describe. Some examples: to criticize someone else’s decision, to feel anxiety over your own choices, to attempt to predict something, etc. All of these usages are wrong. To second-guess is to criticize after an outcome is known. That is why it’s called a “second” guess – to contrast it with the first attempt. The idea that you shouldn’t second-guess is equivalent to the saying that “Hindsight is 20/20.”

6. Calculus

The word calculus in academics may specifically refer to a branch of mathematics focused on functions, differentiation, integration and so on. More generally, it can refer to any formal system of symbols, whether involving numbers (lambda calculus) or not (predicate calculus). It is not, however, a blanket term for any kind of operation involving numbers. Just call it a calculation.

7. Cognitive dissonance

The term cognitive dissonance as it is used by the public, and to a lesser extent the academia, is often used to refer to two completely different psychological phenomena. One is best described as “choice-supportive bias” – you make a decision that has a number of pros and cons, and after the decision you tend to focus on the benefits and ignore the negatives when you are justifying the decision to others or yourself.

The other phenomenon, and in my opinion the rightful owner of this term, is the situation in which a person tries to reconcile holding two contradicting beliefs by eliminating one of them. For example, you believe your textbook’s claim that the Sun always rises from the East, but one day you look up and see the Sun rising from the West. You reconcile these contradicting beliefs by, for example, reducing your confidence in textbooks’ validity, or reducing your confidence in the validity of your senses.

Note that in both cases you are trying to eliminate one of your beliefs. But in the first case there is no inherent contradiction, and your cause of action is irrational (in this specific context). In the second case there is an inherent contradiction, and your cause of action may very well be rational.

8. Metaphysics

Metaphysics is often used as a label for anything that is overly abstract,  irrelevant and devoid of reality, and for good reason – all the philosophers that call themselves metaphysicists today are those that have failed in every other field. Even Mao Zedong couldn’t refuse to take a jab at metaphysics – he was famously quoted as saying “metaphysics is the easiest field, because it allows you to say whatever that you want. It does not need to be validated by reality.”

But metaphysics used to be a respectable field. The term was used by Aristotle to denote any inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. And while it contained a fair amount of bullshit at the time, which was not unexpected in a civilization that found it proper to take your enemies as your slaves and their wives as your concubines, it also included most of the progress in physics and biology of the ancient world. Over two thousand years later, science has become a separate discipline, logic and language have evolved into their own separate fields, and metaphysics is left with those individuals who still believe in the superiority of Socratic dialectics and other ancient nonsense. (As a humorous example, see this entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.)

9. Utility

The word “utility” is used by different academics in widely different ways, and as a result it is probably the most frequently misunderstood and misused words in the academia.

Utility is distinct from happiness, at least in economics. There are two separate ideas of utility: ordinal utility and cardinal utility. Ordinal utility is simply a ranking of preferences. Choices of action which are more preferable to individuals are considered to have a higher utility. Hence, the claim that individuals prefer actions with higher utility is tautological. Cardinal utility holds that the size of the utility has meaning on its own; they are a measure of the satisfaction that individuals derive from certain actions. However, this is still distinct from the psychological notion of happiness.

Utility is distinct from utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, in that it only cares about the consequences of an action. Further more, it argues that the greatest good for all individuals is desirable (There are other forms of consequentialism, such as arguing that only consequences which lead to your own benefit is desirable, but for obvious reasons they aren’t popular as a matter of public policy, so these two terms are often considered equivalent). Yet arguing for the greatest good has nothing to do with how you measure “the greatest good”. You can be an utilitarianist, for example, without believing that the word “utility” has any inherent meaning.

This also explains why if you create a character whose notion of “the greatest good” is to murder a lot of people, and then use that as an indirect attack on the idea of utilitarianism, you probably won’t convince a lot of people.

10. Crisis

Again, this is more of a language issue. A crisis is a situation that has reached a critical stage. It is not a term that can be used to describe any bad situation. If two nations are on the brink of a nuclear war, that is a crisis. But if there is a train accident and a lot of people die, that is a tragedy, not a crisis. The key here is that a crisis must involve uncertainty, and it must be possible that the situation deteriorates.

The Chinese term for crisis, which has also been abused by everyone from JFK to Al Gore, is actually more obvious in this regard. The term, weiji, simply means “precarious situation”, which is very close to the proper English meaning.

I have only written entries for those common abuses that are not widely known (hence why they persist). Wikipedia has two excellent lists of more well-known misuses of English words and misconceptions.


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