Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life

-Victor Hugo

Most people agree that being precise is helpful to both understanding things, whatever they may be, and to communicating those concepts to others. Precision usually comes up in the context of language.

If we ask Alice, a chemist who has never studied airplanes before, to describe how airplanes fly, she could talk about how the engine burns fuel to propel it forward, and how the wings hold it up. But, she would have to stop there.

But, if we ask Bob, an experienced aerospace engineer, he would get into how Bernoulli’s principal provides lift on the wings, how the slats and the flaps affect the equation, and he would outline the key differences between airplanes with slotted flaps and those with Fowler flaps. The aerospace engineer would use much more precision, which he’s gained through years of systematically determining the differences and interconnections that exist between all the different parts of the airplane.

Bob doesn’t understand the way airplanes fly because he knows the words associated with flight. Rather, he is able to attach precise words to the concepts because he understands how they work. Understanding leads to precise language. Precise language is a signal that the understanding is there.

What’s amazing, though, is how little we realize where the words are missing in our realities, and therefore, where our understanding is missing. It has probably never occurred to Alice that she doesn’t really know why planes stay in the air.

The reason that I’m writing about this in the first place is that starting to write this blog has caused me to feel like a total Alice! I had no idea that the words were missing in the area of my personal identity, and that therefore, I didn’t really understand it.

John von Neumann once famously said that “there’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.” For now, that sounds right. But hopefully, not for long.

In the meantime, we should pay attention to situations in which the words are missing. It’s more of a hint than it seems!