Scott Aaronson and Steve Pinker decry language policing

December 24, 2019 • 11:15 am

On December 12 I reported on what has to get the award for Dumbest Pecksniffery of 2019. A group of 16 computer scientists wrote a letter to Nature saying that their colleagues (and everyone) should stop using the phrase “quantum supremacy”, a term that refers to the ability of a quantum-computing device to do what conventional computers simply cannot. The language police, always sniffing about for something to condemn, decided that the word “supremacy” was unpalatable: the title of their Nature letter was “Supremacy is for racists—use ‘quantum advantage’.” (I see the title has now been changed to simply “Instead of ‘supremacy’ use ‘quantum advantage.” That already shows they knew they overstepped.)

At any rate, here’s a bit of the Pecksniff’s plaint:

In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well — in human and robotic spaceflight, for example, terms such as ‘conquest’, ‘colonization’ and ‘settlement’ evoke the terra nullius arguments of settler colonialism and must be contextualized against ongoing issues of neocolonialism.

You don’t have to be a genius to know where this language policing is going to go: into trying to purge from English every word that has any connection, however tangential or irrelevant, to oppression of “minoritized peoples.”  Steve Pinker, who works with language, immediately called this out in a series of tweets:

Besides the invidious behavior of those so quick to sniff out innocent language as ideologically impure, Steve’s last point is salient: the sniffing “does nothing to combat actual racism and sexism.” Because, really, does the use of the term “quantum supremacy” somehow further racism and sexism? Of course not, and so its elimination will do nothing to mitigate them.

The true test of whether social-justice warriors are really combatting oppression is to ask this question: if we followed their prescriptions, would oppression be materially reduced? For cases like eliminating General Tso’s chicken because it’s not cooked properly, the elimination of the word “niggardly” (see above, and yes, that word is doomed), and virtually all cases of “cultural appropriation”, the answer is “no.” This is virtue signaling, pure and simple. And “prissy” is an appropriate descriptor.

Scott Aaronson, who knows a thing or two about quantum computing, weighed in on the kerfuffle on his website Shtetl-Optimized, and you can see his take (he agrees with Pinker) by clicking on the link below:

A brief excerpt, since his post is long:

In this context, the trouble with obsessing over terms like “quantum supremacy” is not merely that it diverts attention, while contributing nothing to fighting the world’s actual racism and sexism. The trouble is that the obsessions are actually harmful. For they make academics—along with progressive activists—look silly. They make people think that we must not have meant it when we talked about the existential urgency of climate change and the world’s other crises. They pump oxygen into right-wing echo chambers.

But it’s worse than ridiculous, because of the message that I fear is received by many outside the activists’ bubble. When you say stuff like “[quantum] supremacy is for racists,” what’s heard might be something more like:

“Watch your back, you disgusting supremacist. Yes, you. You claim that you mentor women and minorities, donate to good causes, try hard to confront the demons in your own character? Ha! None of that counts for anything with us. You’ll never be with-it enough to be our ally, so don’t bother trying. We’ll see to it that you’re never safe, not even in the most abstruse and apolitical fields. We’ll comb through your words—even words like ‘ancilla qubit’—looking for any that we can cast as offensive by our opaque and ever-shifting standards. And once we find some, we’ll have it within our power to end your career, and you’ll be reduced to groveling that we don’t. Remember those popular kids who bullied you in second grade, giving you nightmares of social ostracism that persist to this day? We plan to achieve what even those bullies couldn’t: to shame you with the full backing of the modern world’s moral code. See, we’re the good guys of this story. It’s goodness itself that’s branding you as racist scum.”

In short, I claim that the message—not the message intended, of course, by anyone other than a Chu or a Marcotte or a SneerClubber, but the message received—is basically a Trump campaign ad. I claim further that our civilization’s current self-inflicted catastrophe will end—i.e., the believers in science and reason and progress and rule of law will claw their way back to power—when, and only when, a generation of activists emerges that understands these dynamics as well as Barack Obama did.

I’ve put links to the three entities mentioned in the last paragraph; I knew about Arthur Chu and Amanda Marcotte, but not the SneerClub.  And if you want to see what Scott is on about the word “ancilla”, read his post.

Scott’s interpretation of the criticism might be a tad overstated, but in essence he’s right: the Thought Police, if you don’t stop using “quantum supremacy” and similar words, will then tar you as a racist. They might not try to end the career of someone like Scott Aaronson, but they’ll always give him the stink-eye. And yes, because their criticism—and the Nature letter—are pure virtue-flaunting, their posturing really is a way to say, “See: we’re the good guys.”

Soon after Scott put up the post above, he added another one with some new thoughts contributed by Steve Pinker. Pinker was specifically addressing the name change of the conference “Neural Information Processing System” to “NeurIPS” because the acronym for the former, NIPS, conjured up in some people’s minds the word “nips”, which in some quarters is a shorthand for “nipples.” And of course that would be salacious!

Click on the screenshot to read what both Scott and Steve think about this:

Here’s part of Steve’s take:

Even if people with an adolescent mindset think of nipples when hearing the sound “nips,” the society should not endorse the idea that the concept of nipples is sexist. Men have nipples too, and women’s nipples evolved as organs of nursing, not sexual gratification. Indeed, many feminists have argued that it’s sexist to conceptualize women’s bodies from the point of view of male sexuality.

If some people make insulting puns that demean women, the society should condemn them for the insults, not concede to their puerility by endorsing their appropriation of an innocent sound. (The Linguistics Society of America and Boston Debate League do not change their names to disavow jejune clichés about cunning linguists and master debaters.) To act as if anything with the remotest connection to sexuality must be censored to protect delicate female sensibilities is insulting to women and reminiscent of prissy Victorian taboos against uncovered piano legs or the phrase “with the naked eye.”

Re the “quantum supremacy kerfuffle”, Pinker says this:

Any harm to the community of computer scientists has been done not by me but by the pressure group and the Symposium’s surrender. As a public figure who hears from a broad range of people outside the academic bubble, I can tell you that this episode has not played well. It’s seen as the latest sign that academia has lost its mind—that it has traded reasoned argument, conceptual rigor, proportionality, and common sense for prudish censoriousness, snowflake sensibility, and virtue signaling. I often hear from intelligent non-leftists, “Why should I be impressed by the scientific consensus on climate change? Everyone knows that academics just fall into line with the politically correct position.” To secure the credibility of the academy, we have to make reasoned distinctions, and stop turning our enterprise into a laughingstock.

To repeat: none of this deprecates the important effort to stamp out harassment and misogyny in science, which I’m well aware of and thoroughly support, but which has nothing to do with the acronym NIPS.

I think we have to take a stand when dealing with stuff like this, and refuse to accede to the wishes of the Virtuous Pecksniffs. We all know it’s easy to go along to get along, but there’s no going along just once. As Scott noted above, if you bow to the erasure of innocent words because you’re afraid of being called a racist or sexist, you’ve already put one foot on the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four. And that road has no end.

Not only should we refuse to go along, but we should give our reasons for not going along, as did Steve. There is genuine sexist and racist language that should be shelved because it does perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but NIPS and “Quantum Supremacy” are not in that category.


94 thoughts on “Scott Aaronson and Steve Pinker decry language policing

  1. Need historians stop using the phrase “air supremacy” for what the allies had established in the European and Pacific theaters by the end of World War Two?

    1. I wonder if air superiority would work better but no, that would be too close to air of superiority and then you are branded arrogant and possibly snobbish.

      1. I thought “air supremacy” was a step up from “air superiority” — meaning one side’s control of the skies was completely uncontested — but, hey, you’re the USAF vet, so you tell me. 🙂

        1. But I was on the ground. Just worked on them, didn’t fly them. I recently was looking at an interview with Chuck Yeager talking about his war time experiences. He said that near the end of WWII, he and his buddies flying P51s felt more confident and superior than any other time. He felt they could handle anything the Germans could send up against them. I think the Germans still had some good planes but the good pilots were mostly dead.

          1. The Germans actually flew some Messerschmitt near war’s end, but too few and too late to make any difference.

            An oldtimer I tried some cases with when I was a young lawyer had taken a bullet in the shoulder from one during a strafing run after the breakout from Normandy. First time he ever saw a jet airplane, or even knew such a thing existed, one was coming over a rise shooting at him, ending his participation in the War.

          2. The technology advance the American pilots had was auto gun site system. Yeager said they had this on their P51s. The pilot just would input distance and it would give them the lead. Said this helped them shoot down planes better. Later planes like the F-100 I worked on had a more sophisticated site system. It also had 4 20 millimeter cannons.

        2. This is true. They mean different things.

          If you have air superiority, you have enough control to run your air operations without significant interference by the enemy and the enemy’s operations incur significant losses.

          If you have air supremacy, the enemy pretty much can’t put an aeroplane up without it getting shot down.

  2. It’s interesting to see that the comments to Aaronson’s Pinker email post point out that “nips” is an ethnic slur referring to Japanese people. They expected that would be the objection to NIPS rather than as an abbreviation for “nipples”. This nicely points out the ridiculousness of this silly word association game. Practically every short word will have an association with a bad idea.

    1. I expected that too. I am a child of the ’60’s and I knew that meaning only because of the crappy sit-com McHale’s Navy, where it was frequently and casually used. No way this could be done now.
      But now, I doubt that most younger people know of it as a coarse reference to Japanese people.

        1. I never heard of that “Navy” programme until today, but on this side of the Pond, growing up in the 70s, the etymology of the nickname was Japan=Nippon(Empire of) –> “Nips”.

          1. ‘I never heard of that “Navy” programme until today’

            You are indeed fortunate. Unless you love Ernest Borgnine. Myself, I found Phil Silvers marginally less intolerable. But none of those 50’s laugh tracks are nearly as good as the ‘Off’ switch.


          2. In an act of utter heresy, I’ve never seen the point of the Goon Show. Individually good performers (Seacombe excepted) but as a group, a resounding “Meh!”

      1. Yes, I also remember it from McHale’s Navy and other shows of the era. I vaguely remember kids using it too though we had little contact with anyone Asian in those days, let alone Japanese.

      2. I think they used “Nips” (for Nipponese) on McHale’s Navy because “Japs” had by then already earned its well-deserved status of verboten ethnic slur.

        Nowadays, I wonder if they could call Capt. Binghamton “Old Leadbottom.”

        1. Yes, I think you’re right. It was “nips” because it sounded better than “japs” at the time. I’m sure the dialogue would have sounded strange if they had been forced to say “Japanese” or “the enemy” all the time.

  3. One of the Bourne sequels was called “The Bourne Supremacy”.

    It will have to be banned… 🙂

    The little snowflakes.

  4. “If we followed their prescriptions, would oppression be materially reduced?”

    I need to remember this and reference it explicitly when appropriate.

  5. One of the commenters on Aaronson’s 2nd post mentions the name change as an “accommodation”, which I am not sure has been talked about here, though perhaps I missed it:

    “God, I don’t understand why one would engage with the name change on such deliberately bad faith. The state of affairs is rather simple: some people in the community were uncomfortable with the name, and the community decided to change it on those grounds. This is an act of accommodation”

    Do we really need to accommodate every complainer and every complaint? If not, what are the rules? As is often the case, the commenter simply refers to the complainers as “the community”. As we say in the computer biz, this is an idea that just doesn’t scale.

    1. The word “topping” is associated with suicide, as in “she decided the only way out was topping herself”. This makes me uncomfortable so you need to accommodate me by changing your name.

      Also, Paul was a first century cult leader who, by his actions caused the world’s most bloody religion to survive and spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. You need to change that too, to accommodate me.

          1. If someone said ‘My greatest accomplishment was topping Mt. Denali”, I’d understand, though maybe that verb-version ain’t in the dictionary.

          2. It subsequently occurs to me that climbing it, not dropping a large bomb on it, was my thought!

  6. I think an earlier poster suggested the term “quantum privilege”. Incidentally, our contemporary offense brigades are nothing new. Their posturing resembles that of a category of French intellectuals in the 50s which was called tiers-mondisme, i.e. the sanctification of anything (especially
    revolution) emanating from the Third World.
    Albert Camus disposed of this affectation neatly when he described it as “beating another man’s breast”.

  7. “if we followed their prescriptions, would oppression be materially reduced?”

    Another question: If for any reason oppression were to be materially reduced, would the SJWs report on that fact and rejoice in it?

    The answer, as far as I can tell, is “no”. They don’t want to appear as though progress is being made, as though the oppressors are making good faith efforts to do less oppressing, as though their own woes are somehow less than those of the true victims they find common cause with. It has to be kept as bad as possible to maintain the requisite levels of rage.

  8. This isn’t really on point, but I’ll share it anyway.

    Back in the mid 80s I was working in Silicon Valley. There was an AI startup that called itself Advanced Information Decision Systems, or AIDS for short. When the AIDS epidemic erupted, notably in the San Francisco Bay Area, this acronym that was plastered all over their documents and business cards became untenable, so they tried to rebrand. They changed their logo to AI&DS, but that wasn’t enough, so the ampersand got bigger and bigger, and finally just ADS. I don’t know where they ended up — probably out of business.

    1. But you see that is how this sort of thing should go, though admittedly this one emerged very quickly and unexpectedly. Language evolves, and words start to get more than one meaning. When a word is found to be more unfit than fit because of one of its meanings, its use in all cases may then become tainted and so fall out of general use.
      I am sure ‘ISIS’ has been used before. And I bet lots of people named ‘Trump’ are rather self-conscious these days.

      1. Isis is an Egyptian god. It’s a reasonably popular name in Britain for certain shops, often selling New Age type products. Its new association with terrorism has caused problems.

        There’s also a river called Isis which is a tributary of the Thames. It’s used as the name of the Oxford B team in the University boat race. I don’t know if there have been issues with the name in this context though.

        In Britain, “trump” is a colloquial term meaning “to break wind”. It’s only a problem in the sense that we think he’s not so much a fart as a complete shit.

    2. I spent most of the 80s and a fair chunk of the 90s living with the nickname “Aids”, because of my given name. Even with watching several friends die of it, others in that group still used the name.

    1. Tolkien will be in trouble:

      ‘No niggard are you, Éomer,’ said Aragorn, ‘to give thus to Gondor the fairest thing in your realm!'”

  9. Language policing has succeeded (and I think rightly) when a sizable proportion of well meaning people recognizes the need to let a word be quietly retired. So we don’t say ‘faggot’ for kindling, or ‘niggardly’, or any number of other words whose original meanings have been largely forgotten. “Enslaved” is pretty much expunged from general use, by popular consensus. “Crazy” is under suspicion. Use carefully.
    Language policing has worked in this rather natural and organic way. So “supremacy” is not yet retirable. Not yet, and calling for it to jump the line is only going to earn push-pack. Maybe one day we will reach a general consensus that it has to go. But not yet, and maybe never.

      1. Cripple is used here in the US. It of course refers to a disabled person and more generally to any thing or process that is slightly broken. It is definitely impolite now to use it for a disabled person, but it is not yet toxic in general usage.

        1. I remember using “cripple” in the office in the early 80s and getting pushback. I was using innocently to refer to one person out of a group who wasn’t in the room at the time. I was told they now prefered “disabled”. Of course, that word is now been replaced by “differently abled”. I can’t imagine what will be next but we’re definitely on the slippery slope.

          1. Luckily “differently abled” seems to have been discarded in most places here. I find the term to be totally patronising, it reminds me of the times in the 60s and 70s when you would often hear waiters say “what would he like,” as they assumed my crutches, sometimes wheelchair meant I could not order for myself.

            Using terms like differently abled makes us sound second class. Disabled is not a slur but a fact, although in the presence of the overtly politically correct I use the term cripple because I can.

          2. “I use the term cripple because I can.”


            Love it! You might as well exercise one privilege your disability gives you!


          3. Oh, the look of sheer disgust I get when pointing out that we have physical performance requirements at work which are absolute! No matter how good you feel about yourself, if you can’t remove an aircraft window and climb through it while upside down underwater, you are not getting on a helicopter with me. It’s not because we’re prejudiced against the differently-abled, its that if you can’t do that, then you could well be killing the person behind you.
            Similarly for evacuating through fire-filled equipment spaces in the dark. If you don’t pass the test, you don’t get the job.

    1. So we don’t say ‘faggot’ for kindling,

      Speak for yourself.
      Actually, last nights meal was faggots in sauce and tatties. One of the finer “pork products” on the market, rather than the bundle of kindling I used to light the living room fire for Mum’s 80th party.

  10. The word “quantum” itself is problematical, implying something discrete, separate, and unchanging, impervious and aggressive to the social context — all nature and no nurture. And of course physical discourse is rife with privilige, classifying particles in strict hierarchies, perhaps most trenchantly exemplified in the Pauli Exclusion Principle.


  11. In addition to many other demeaning or racists contractions used during WWII “nips” was a contraction of Nippon. Some might find the word insulting or degrading.

  12. Just now, in preparation of family who are coming tomorrow, I was decorating home made gingerbread cookies with white icing and little chewy candies called “Cinnamon Imperials. I soon realized my error, but it is much too late!

    But the gingerbread males and females (I stenciled and cut them out myself) have a range of orientations and identities, and every one of them is to be celebrated and treated the same. They are all equally delicious, I am sure.

  13. It follows the wokified stigmatization of other innocent words, like “House Master” (now, at Harvard, Residential Dean) and “NIPS” (Neural Information Processing Society, now NeurIPS).

    — Steven Pinker (@sapinker) December 16, 2019

    The acronym “NIPS” has racist overtones.

    1. The word “nips” only has racial overtones within context. In the sentence “Those dirty nips” it has racial overtones. In the sentence “The dog nips at a bone” it has none.

          1. On the Internet it is hard to tell, but there may have been a tongue in Mike’s cheek. I like to hope so.

    2. I suggest the rename it Neural Information Processing and Propagation for Linguistic Emergence Society, or NIPPLES for short.

  14. I could get behind banning “minoritized” (and several other otiose “ize” words), if we’re gonna expurgatize language. 🙂

    1. Ah, the verbification of nouns. When did that doomed rearguard action start – was it Sam Johnson, the harmless drudge, or Bill Shakespeare, the Count of Oxford?

  15. Sone time ago nip and nips referred to drinking a small amount of whisky. In college we used the term frequently. Have a nip was a very cordial invitation between close friends.

    Does anyone know any good little moron jokes?

    1. Why go for a little moron joke when there are big morons like the Tangerine Shitgibbon around to make fun of. He’s not in a position to defend himself. It’s not like he has an army of Second Amendment bear-armourers ready to launch a coup d’etat.
      I’m trying to remember what the technical definition of “moron” used to be. [Wikis] Various definitions used, but between 2 and 3.5 s.d. below norm. How open-minded a society we are.

      1. Do you remember the term moron replaced for humane reasons snd the term that replaced and the term that replaced the term that replaced the term that replaced moron. All changes made fir human reasons and not to be offensive.

    1. Just use the more Greek-like pronunciation, “Ouranos”.
      In any case, it was grandfathered in by Mighty Zeus. Try to get around that and you’re going to get an “enlightening” experience.

    2. Would ‘Myanus’ be preferable?
      Perhaps not so good, since declaiming ‘My ass!’ is a way of informing someone that they are full of shyte (at least in the places of disrepute where I misspent my youth).

  16. I seem to remember that dwarfs and midgets had to be referred to as Persons Of Restricted Growth, I fail to understand why that didn’t really catch on. 🙂

    1. ‘Restricted’ implies some sort of limitation or inadequacy, which is very non-PC. I expect the preferred term might be ‘Persons of Alternative Height’. (Yes I *know* that’s less specific and even ambiguous but that seems to be a required attribute of PC euphemisms these days)


        1. Actually, I think you’re right. I give it about five years, tops, before someone concludes that ‘little’ is too patronising or demeaning to be permitted.


          1. I thought that in this non-blog, ‘little people’ meant religiosos of very limited theological sophistication, even 300 pounders??

  17. ‘Quantum supremacy’ seems wrong to me, too. Not for political reasons, but ‘supremacy’ looks like hyperbole. Would quantum computing so dominate all other computers as to be ‘supreme’? (Possibly it would, I doubt it, though I confess ignorance).

    But as for the reasons in the Nature letter – crap.


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