Define your terms: on the practical value of pedantry

There’s a maybe-apocryphal1From 15-minutes of google research, it seems it’s not apocryphal so much as heavily paraphrased. The actual quote is from the Dictionnaire philosophique, and goes: “Define your terms, you will permit me again to say, or we shall never understand one another” and then goes on to list the kinds of undefined things he’s specifically referring to:  “Miracle, something admirable; prodigy, implying something astonishing; portentous, bearing with it novelty; monster[.]” Our list is a little different. Voltaire quote that I’ve been thinking about (and using) a lot recently: “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”

For better and worse, I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation around the office and in my social circles as being more knowledgeable than the average Joe or Jane about certain topics, namely the ones that appear on this blog: travel, productivity, exercise, nutrition, health, and so-on. This is probably because, as the teens say, I have no chill when it comes to this stuff. I always want to talk about it, and will happily overshare with even the smallest prompt. Case in point: I spend my limited free time clacking away at a blog about these things instead of scrolling through Instagram or whatever it is that people with chill do.

Given this reputation, folks ask me questions about these things. They ask about this or that thing they read online,  heard from a friend, or saw an ad for; if I’ve got opinions about whatever topic from my wheelhouse that happens to be on their mind.

For the most part, I enjoy this immensely — it’s a lot more interesting to me than talking about the weather or how the Bulls are doing.

That said, I’m rarely able to give an exact, unqualified response. I often just plain don’t know, and say so.2A decent amount of the time, when I don’t know something I’ll look it up and get back to the person who asked. Not because they expect me to, but because of my previously mentioned lack of chill — not knowing itches at my brain. But this is one of the main ways I find new books and learn new things, so I can’t complain too much. More often, though, I can’t give them a straight answer because I haven’t been asked a straight question.

There are two main types of un-straight questions in the cluster of things I get asked questions about:

  1. A request for a universally-true answer to something that has huge amounts of individual and situational nuance, and
  2. A question that asks for the “best” tool, or approach, or strategy, or whatever, without first defining what best means.

How about an example?

Let’s pull some examples from the field of nutrition, because of the topics I dabble in, it’s the topic that is somehow immune to critical thinking. In nutrition-land, an example of the first kind of question would be something like “are carbs really that bad for me?”, an example of the second would be the even simpler: “is this healthy?”

The honest answer to both of these questions is “it depends.” I don’t mean this in a relativist “nothing is truly true” sense — nutrition is a science, and while there are lots of things we don’t know, there are objective truths. Instead, I mean it practically. it depends because there’s not enough information in the question. Unfortunately, “it depends” is neither a practical or useful response, and the people asking are normally friends of mine.

Which brings us back to “define your terms.”

In the “carbs” example, the undefined terms are: bad, and me. Carbs may also be on the table, depending on the asker. In the “healthy” example, it’s just the word healthy. In reverse order because it makes more sense for the point I’m trying to make:

  • Healthy needs definition because it means something slightly different to almost everyone, and so practically it means very little. Healthy at what quantity? Everything is unhealthy in large enough doses (including water and exercise), and across a lifetime, almost nothing is unhealthy in moderate, sparing doses (including well-known toxins, in certain cases — look up hormesis and eustress if you want to read more about that). From context, a question about a food item being “healthy” would imply the healthiness in question has something to do with physical well-being,  but within that, it might mean “low calorie,” “high in micronutrients,” “not very insulinogenic,” (which itself needs definition — very is a relative term), or even something more vague like “not highly processed,” which is actually just a kind-of-bad proxy for “high in micronutrients.” It’s very possible the asker don’t even know in detail what they mean, which is …kind of the problem.
  • Carbs needs definition because carbs are a macronutrient, not a food, and it comes in many forms, from refined sucrose (table sugar, candy, etc; almost certainly not healthy when eaten often and in large doses) to complex whole food starches (sweet potatoes, brown rice, oats; probably healthy for most people, but even still it depends on the person, the amount, and what it’s eaten with).
  • Me needs definition because individuals have different biological responses to carbohydrate intake, and we can’t know if they’re bad for a person without understanding the person. If not offset with supplemental insulin, pretty much any amount of any carbohydrate will kill a Type 1 diabetic. Someone with metabolic syndrome has a lower carb tolerance than your average weekend warrior cyclist, who in turn has a lower carb tolerance than say, a professional Crossfit competitor like Rich Froning, who regularly engages in lots of glycolytic exercise and has a large amount of muscle mass to refill with glycogen.3Science sidebar: when you eat carbs, your body can’t just use them as-is. It has to use the hormone insulin to push the carbohydrate into muscle and liver tissue, where it can be converted first into glucose and then into glycogen and then either stored or used.
    If the muscle and liver are full and energy production is maxed out, the extra glucose doesn’t just hang around. It would be toxic.
    That extra glucose is instead converted into fat and then shuttled into fat cells via a process called De novo lipogenesis — literally, the production of new lipids, aka fat.
    So it follows that on balance, barring other problems like Type I diabetes, the more muscle tissue you have and the more often you use its glycogen and the more sensitive to insulin it is (caused by not abusing the system and also by exercise itself), the greater capacity for carbs you have.
  • Bad needs definition because it doesn’t have a magnitude or a reference point. From a question like “are carbs that bad for me,” the answer is probably “bad” as a proxy for “unhealthy,” which we’ve already discussed. But even still, unhealthy how? Are carbs “bad” because it feels shitty when you have a sugar crash in two hours? Maybe. Depends on what you’re eating, how much, and what else you ate recently. Are carbs bad if you eat whatever specific carb you’re thinking about every once in a while in a moderate portion? Almost certainly not. What if it’s a massive bowl of frosted flakes every morning? Even then, it depends. Is the asker optimizing for body fat percentage? Sports performance? Longevity? Where is the asker now in terms of these three things? How extreme are their goals?

The practical value of pedantry

If all of this seems a little pedantic, I agree. It is. I think that’s a good thing. I think you should be this pedantic too.4 You still have to be considerate of other people’s time and attention, of course. I try and be as un-pedantic as possible when I’m following this line of conversation with other people — who often don’t expect or need this kind of interrogation in response to what they thought was a simple question, although I suppose you should really ask them how successful I am at that. That said, when I’m asking myself these questions, I’m pedantic as all hell. Asking good questions to yourself and others is important, and worth being pedantic about, because better questions lead us to better answers.

I don’t mean this in a professorial, philosophical sense. I mean it in a practical, operating-system-for-everyday-life sense — how do you know what to do if you don’t know the rubric you’re scoring yourself against? How do you make informed decisions about the inherent tradeoffs between health, productivity, happiness, success, or anything else you want if you don’t know what any of those things mean, specifically? If you don’t have definitions for each of those words, how do you know if they’re worth pursuing at all?

Again, despite that string of questions, the point here is not to ponder the meaning of heady concepts. It’s to help you decide what you’re going to do later today, and tomorrow, and the next day. Define the terms, and then make them your rules of engagement. What’s the endgame, and what are the daily, low-level actions that put you on a collision course with it? No bad answers here, as long as they’re the answers to good questions.

You may not even have the answers to all of the questions. Totally fine. But be active in the process of figuring it out. Take a guess, do something that moves you towards that version of the answer, and update as needed. You’ll probably be updating your entire life. That’s encouraged. It means you’re learning.

Travel for Work?

Learn the secrets of pain-free flying with our weekly subscriber-only letters and two free chapters of our book, The Road Warrior.