Not enough uncertainty

Talking about oxidation at a Phlogiston conference. Image © Dreamstime.com

It is easy to see how too much uncertainty can hinder communication. What about too little uncertainty?

Consider the following exchange between spouses over the phone, both in a hurry:
A: Where is the key for the garden shed?
B: The door is not locked.
A: What do you mean? It has always been locked.
B: It is not locked. Go have a look.
A: I don’t have time for that. I need the key.

There was only uncertainty about the location of the key, not about the door being locked, which is why B’s utterance about it not being locked had little effect. As there was no uncertainty, there was nothing to reduce. Such a domestic example is simple and easy to solve, by shifting the topic of the uncertainty from where is the key to why is the door no longer locked.

There are situations, however, where such shift is not necessarily acceptable to the people involved. Take religious debates, for instance. Or even scientific ones, with reference to Kuhn’s paradigms, which are defined as incommensurable approaches to the object of study. Among other things, paradigms differ in terms of what questions are regarded as valid, i.e. what the uncertainty is regarded to be about.

If you go to a conference of Phlogiston researchers to talk about oxidation, you are not taken seriously. The same happens if you go to a semantics conference to talk about uncertainty reduction as the basis of communication.

Within those communities, that reaction is natural. Since semanticists study word meanings, they cannot afford to have any uncertainty about whether words have meanings. That is not a valid question. They are totally (and I believe sincerely) immune to any approaches to communication that do not rest on word meanings.

Which, by the way, is yet another phenomenon hard to explain using word meanings. If communication worked by transmitting information encoded in words, then your words about uncertainty reduction would have at least some effect on the semanticists in your audience. But they don’t.

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