Infinite-Oregano Concerns

In my last post, I talked about how shifted burden-of-proof and Courtier's Replies allowed one person in a dialogue to generate arbitrary amounts of work for the other. I described this as looking like a "rules-lawyery, infinite-oregano concern". After making that post, I realised that a vanishingly small number of readers will understand that reference. I'd like to try and remedy that with this post, and perhaps elaborate on the idea a little further. Once I'm done, I may confusingly forward-reference this post from that one to confound future web-archiving software.


In 2008, Wired Online put up a short commentary piece on what cookbook reviews would be like if they were subject to the same criticism as RPG books. I used to be a role-player in a previous life, and this was so on-the-nose it got linked like wildfire ((I'm not sure wildfire is actually linked all that much)) by many of my old role-play buddies. By far, my favourite excerpt is the following:

Posted: 12:48 a.m. by Goku1440 I found an awesome loophole! On page 242 it says "Add oregano to taste!" It doesn't say how much oregano, or what sort of taste! You can add as much oregano as you want! I'm going to make my friends eat infinite oregano and they'll have to do it because the recipe says so!

This is an example of rules-lawyering: being more concerned with what the rules allow you to get away with than playing the game as intended. Goku1440 has interpreted the vagueness of the recipe as a vulnerability that is open to abuse. Feeding your dinner guests infinite oregano is absurd, and hence the scenario is funny ((Jokes become way better when you explain them, right?)). In the context of a recipe in a cookbook, and in real life in general, you would never be realistically concerned that someone would force you to eat infinite oregano.

This should hopefully convey what I mean by "infinite-oregano concern": a concern that a rule, policy, or convention (or lack thereof) might be open to abuse, even though such an abusive outcome is unrealistic. I described shifted burden-of-proof as looking like one because in an actual discussion you wouldn't blithely and meticulously evaluate every unsubstantiated claim your interlocutor made; you'd go and find someone else to talk to. You wouldn't just sit there and eat the infinite oregano they were trying to feed you.


When I found myself using the phrase "infinite-oregano concern", one very clear example of such a concern came to mind. Several months ago I put forward an argument against allowing people to select their own arbitrary set of personal pronouns ((I don't think too many people are actually for this specific proposal, but it was part of a broader discussion about pronoun usability)). I won't go into it in detail, but the gist is as follows: although personal pronouns may refer to a subject, it's generally not the subject who has to use them. It might seem reasonable that we refer to people how they wish to be referred, but it's possible for those wishes to comprise an unreasonable or unworkable expectation on the part of others.

Consider the person who changes their name to "(+)--(*)-(@@@)-(*)--(+)" ((I should have checked this at the time, but there are an existing set of restrictions on what you can change your name to by deed poll, and pronounceability is the second requirement on the list.)). If this is the name you wish other people to use when referring to you, it seems unlikely that many people would find this reasonable, and even fewer would find it reasonable if you expand this out to a whole set of declined parts of speech.

My discussion partner, though amenable to this argument, proposed that "reasonableness" was a sketchy basis for issuing policy about identity politics, and my concern only became a problem when taken to extremes, which are rare and identifiable on a case-by-case basis.

In other words, it's an infinite-oregano concern.


At first blush, it seems that raising infinite-oregano concerns is pedantic and unhelpful. No-one can force you to use their exotic pronouns that look like they were lifted from the Linux command line. Why express concern for an event that will never come to pass?

I think this is the wrong question to ask. The burden-of-proof convention doesn't safeguard us against our interlocutor forcing us to verify all their claims, but against a breakdown of dialogue. I'm not worried that someone issuing a bunch of Courtier's Replies will oblige me to read a stack of antiquated theological essays; I'm worried that someone issuing a bunch of Courtier's Replies will mean I'll have to stop talking to that person.

In the case of personal pronouns, names, and forms of address, the Infinite-Oregano Concern is slightly more fiddly. "(+)--(*)-(@@@)-(*)--(+)" is clearly unfit for purpose as a name, but the deed poll restrictions prohibit a wide selection of options that probably are fit for that purpose. No doubt some people would like these restrictions to be more stringent and others would like them to be less so, but the existing restrictions provide a common standard of expectations for what people might accept or exhibit as a name. This isn't a trivial concern. You can only obtain a bank account if you have a name the bank's software can validate, and many legal procedures and ceremonies require the utterance of one's name ((Fun fact: if you're deaf-mute in the UK, you require an interpreter to make your wedding vows.)).

In the absence of any similar clear set of restrictions for whatever pronouns people might like, it's hard to coordinate on a set of standard expectations, and without those expectations, it's easy to imagine how the occasional untenable request might pose a setback to the broader discussion. I won't go so far as to claim some imposed restriction would fix this, but I will tentatively speculate that it might help.


When I first started writing this, I became mildly concerned that I was just reinventing the slippery slope argument ((For a good take on the legitimacy of slippery slopes, I recommend Scott's LW post on the subject)), but I'm now reasonably convinced I've carved out more of a negative image of the slippery slope. A slippery slope argument would run "if we allow people to use any oregano at all, they'll end up forcing us to eat infinite oregano", whereas the infinite-oregano concern would go "we have to safeguard against the risk of being forced to eat infinite oregano in order for people to feel comfortable about having any oregano at all".

The concepts are parallel enough that I don't expect "infinite-oregano concern" to catch on, but I think it's a useful pattern to consider. The next time you find someone protesting against an outcome you know to be implausible, could there be an underlying fruitful negotiation that has to fall apart to prevent that outcome from happening?

The Underlying Problem of The Courtier's Reply

You're probably already familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen story of The Emperor's New Clothes, in which the eponymous emperor is fooled into purchasing a set of clothes so fine that only the most intelligent and sophisticated people can see them. In fact, the clothes don't exist, but the emperor, all his courtiers, and much of the population all pretend to be able to see them for fear of appearing foolish and unsophisticated.

I have often wondered why the emperor didn't raise the objection that he didn't want unsophisticated people looking at his balls.

This tale also lends a name to an argumentative tactic known as the Courtier's Reply, echoing what one of the emperor's courtiers might say when quizzed on the emperor's junk-baring status: "you're not sophisticated enough to see the clothes". The prototypical example is the theist who turns to the atheist and says "if you'd read all of Augustine and Anslem and Thomas Aquinas, you'd see that, actually, our arguments for the existence of God are very well-substantiated, and until you read and understand this material, you're not in a position to criticise it."

The Courtier's Reply is regarded in some quarters (particularly atheist areas of the internet) as an out-and-out fallacy. I have some sympathy for this position. As a rhetorical device, "you don't know enough about this topic, and if you did you would agree with me" is frustrating, unproductive and just plain rude. That said, I don't think we can legitimately call it fallacious in its own right. Moreover, its existence points to a genuine underlying problem for which I don't have a good answer.


We should probably first look at the problems with issuing Courtier's Replies from a practical standpoint.

So, burden of proof is a messy and awkward concept that lots of people get wrong, but at its heart, in the context of argumentative discourse, it boils down to the notion that if you make an assertion, you have to provide support for it. There are a few practical reasons behind this, one of the most salient being that without it, Interlocutor-B can force Interlocutor-A to carry out an arbitrary amount of work before conceding the point. Unless Interlocutor-B holds responsibility for substantiating their own assertions, they can keep manufacturing claims for Interlocutor A to evaluate for relevance, at Interlocutor-A's expense.

Issuing a Courtier's Reply has a very similar problem. Interlocutor-B can generate an arbitrary amount of work for Interlocutor A for as long as they can name areas Interlocutor-A is not familiar with. This might sound like a rules-lawyery, infinite-oregano concern, but I suspect most people who have tried to carry out productive discussion on the internet will concede that other people have minimal regard for your time or effort.

It's worth mentioning that, much like the relevance problem which burden-of-proof tries to circumvent, this isn't an infraction of logic, but of courtesy. You can't use either to substantiate factual claims. Provided you're not doing this, you're not making a fallacious argument. You are, however, being kind of a dick, and if you persistently generate work for your interlocutor, they would be quite justified in not engaging with you.


There is another very important reason why a Courtier's Reply is not intrinsically fallacious: sometimes it's quite correct. If you believe the moon is made of green cheese, there are some books you can read, and once you've read and understood them, they will quite probably change your mind.

The green-cheese-moon example, though exotic, is a surprisingly apposite one. Someone who has come to the belief of the moon being made of green cheese has a very wrong conceptual model of a lot of astronomical phenomena, and rather than figure out how this bad model is put together, the least amount of collective work probably involves pointing them in the direction of appropriate educational materials. There are a lot of similarly exotic memeplexes out there which people buy into through ignorance. I have no idea what diseased ideas lead people to believe in the Redemption Movement, or the Phantom Time Hypothesis, but the materials necessary to disabuse them of these notions are fairly identifiable, and it's doesn't feel like it's worth your time or mine to hold their hand while they work through it ((Less charitably, we might suppose that people who have manoeuvred themselves into seemingly-untenable positions have done so for motives other than pure rational inquiry, in which case we're probably wasting everyone's time even further.)).

As you may have established from other posts on this blog, I have a modest economics background. This is an area of public discourse where ignorance reigns like a mighty tyrant god-emperor. A significant number of pressing public issues are economics issues, and it should come as no surprise that the discipline has input into them. Nonetheless, certain subsets of the public imagination have cast economics as the bastard offspring of Mr. Spock and Margaret Thatcher, and many people, from a position of complete ignorance, have decided the subject is end-to-end nonsense unworthy of their time. When these people make pronouncements about Robin Hood Taxes and the inevitable collapse of global capitalism, the Courtier's Reply looks deliciously tempting.


We now come to what I see as the underlying problem of the Courtier's Reply: how do I know I'm not the ignorant one?

It's not like I've never thought along the same lines as my economically-illiterate nemeses. I'm pretty sure that if I were presented with a post-structuralist Marxist critical post-colonial analysis of Russia's current actions in Ukraine, I'd probably assume it was of extremely limited value, and this is largely based on my own preconceptions. But how do I know these preconceptions are serving me well? How do I know I'm not labouring under some exotic combination of falsehoods that would be torn apart if I just read the original Jacques Derrida?

The "PoMo cluster" radiates very strong repulsion forces to those of a technical bent. I shall ostensively define the PoMo cluster with the following examples: postmodernism; post-structuralism; post-*; critical anything; continental philosophy. The output from these areas all look like the same sort of loopy word-salad to the median STEM-background observer.

At time of writing, I'm fairly sure I could provide an explanation for what is meant by "postmodernism" that would satisfy a plurality of proponents, and I'm deferring final judgement on the broader cluster until I've explored it further, but I still mistrust the cluster. Part (though by no means all) of the reason for this mistrust is that various bits of it feel like machines for manufacturing irrelevant claims and Courtier's Replies.

That said, I imagine this is what economics might look like to my economically-illiterate nemeses.


As I said at the beginning, I don't really have a satisfactory answer for this. It falls into the general problem of "where is the good stuff that I should be reading?" The very term "Courtier's Reply" implies that the replier is defending a naked emperor. Naked emperors certainly do exist (figuratively); there are ideologies and disciplines and sets of belief which must be wrong, and yet their proponents will, in good faith, say they are right, and provide you with a litany of corroborative material beyond your resources to study. There are also ideologies and disciplines and sets of belief that look exotic from our perspective, but turn out to be extremely useful. In some cases they can demonstrate that usefulness immediately, but in others, there's little to distinguish them from a naked emperor.

How do you distinguish a naked emperor from an emperor who merely looks like his balls are showing?

Core Concepts: Conceptual Models

Time to embark on a not-very-ambitious project: I'm going to try to define, explain and justify the merits of some core concepts I wish everybody knew. The ideas that people have come up with a word for, and having that word lets you manipulate that idea in your head more easily.

I am going to start with the conceptual model. I think I first encountered the term in Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, and while I thought it was useful at the time, I've come to find it an indispensable idea.


The Design of Everyday Things is about interaction design. Its core thesis goes something like this: human beings have a lot of physiological and psychological similarities, and we can use those similarities when designing objects for human use. The very shape of a well-designed artefact should tell its user how to use it.

An everyday example is doors. Do you push or pull on a door to open it? Norman firmly insists that you should never need "PUSH" or "PULL" signs on a door. If the door has a plate, the only option you have is to push it. If the door has a handle, it is affording you the option to pull it. A door built this way tells you how to use it (( This book was published in 1988, and yet my workplace, built just a couple of years ago, has ambiguously-handled doors that catch people out all the time )). Its shape gives you a conceptual model of how the door operates: you've got a pushable thing on this door, and if you push it, the door will open. If it has pull handles on both sides but only opens in one direction, it would be giving you a bad conceptual model that will lead you to misuse it.

Doors are quite a simple artefact. A more sophisticated example would be a thermostat. The typical thermostat works to known principles: you set it to a temperature, and heating elements will turn on or off to regulate the room to that temperature. There generally isn't any gradation in the heating elements; they're either on or off. In spite of this, thermostat users still commonly turn the thermostat up to a higher-than-desired temperature in the belief that it will heat the room faster.

What's gone wrong here is that the user has a bad conceptual model. They think the temperature of the thermostat is the temperature of the heating element. If this were the case, turning the thermostat to a higher temperature would indeed heat the room faster, but it's not the case, so they get undesired and confusing results from their thermostat.


Conceptual models play an important part in design. Today millions of people carry around incredibly sophisticated computing devices in their pockets, but the principles of interaction design make their use feel intuitive. Almost nobody using Twitter has any idea of how it works, but it's built with a very straightforward conceptual model that people can grasp without difficulty.

It's worth mentioning that conceptual models don't have to accurately reflect what's going on "under the hood" in order to be useful. Your computer, for example, doesn't store its data in any way that resembles actual files and folders, but the intermediary file system provides a conceptual model that allows you to abstract away all the ones and zeroes.

Design is not the only reason for thinking in terms of conceptual models. In the broadest sense, any model of how a concept works is a conceptual model ((the Wikipedia page linked above lists a variety of other disciplines that make extensive use of it)), but the design context is a very apposite one. When a user has a bad conceptual model of how a piece of technology works, they struggle to use it. They bang their head against it and call it all manner of nasty names. In my experience, this is also what people do when they have a bad conceptual model of more abstract concepts, like currency or calculus.


We're now getting to my motivation for wanting "conceptual model" as a thing inside everyone's head. I would love to be able to be able to ask "can you give me a conceptual model for how this works?" and expect a functional but not necessarily factually-correct story or metaphor that equips me to use it. I'd love to be able to say "I'm giving you a conceptual model for this", and have the person I'm talking to realise that I'm giving them a tinker-toy explanation that works for most practical purposes, but shouldn't be thought of as "true".

Also, bad conceptual models are everywhere, and I would like to be able to identify them as such. When someone's labouring under a false assumption, you can say "you're labouring under a false assumption" and they will probably understand what you mean. I'd like that level of conciseness whenever someone (especially myself) is labouring under a bad conceptual model.

Conceptual models are a highly useful concept: download this app to your necktop.