Given any question/answer is it not important to use standard language?

This question relates to the following question/answer exchange : Does the fossil fuel industry benefit from trillions of dollars of subsidy from governments every year?

The highest rated (And only) answer at the moment seems to consider the answer to the question as 'yes', based on the non-standard use of the word "subsidy" by the IMF. Comments that question this use of 'subsidy'(or suggest that the distinction very clearly be made) appear to be getting purged, suggesting that non-standard use of language to prove/disprove something is currently acceptable, maybe even encouraged.

Ignoring the topic of the above question, this feels like a very flawed way to approach anything as skeptics. Without something resembling common definitions, are we really asking/answering the same questions? It's even more problematic when both 'definitions' of a word are meshed together in the same location, implying that they refer to the same thing.

3 Answers 3


I want to take a more philosophical, descriptivist approach.

A broad-brush discussion about argument

No-one owns the definitions of words, not even experts. While there may be some widely-accepted meanings of jargon words in one community, it doesn't mean no-one can use the word differently.

This leads to some frustrating situations - for example:

  • Chemists have widely-accepted definitions of "chemical substance", but products can be advertised as "chemical-free", because they are using the word "chemical" to mean "artificial additive."

  • Physicist have widely-accepted definitions of "energy", but people can talk about "feeling low-energy" or "aligning one's energy" because they are using the words to represent their mood.

So, when we are presenting our case in an argument, it is important that the writer and reader agree on the meaning of a word. Thankfully, we can assume a certain amount of common ground, given the context. An article in a journal of chemistry won't waste time defining "chemical substance". But if there are any doubts, we must present the definitions we are using, for the sake of this particular argument.

That has its own risks. My go-to example here is Robert Kiyosaki who wrote a book that made a startling claim on the cover that "your home is not an asset", and then in the fine print deep in the book defined "asset" in a way that was totally different to how any economist would define it, making the original startling clickbait-like claim completely mundane.

Generally, in a discussion, there can be some to-and-fro until a common definition is agreed upon, but in writing it is harder. Sometimes as a reader you need to temporarily accept a definition, and have a caveat on the conclusion that it might not be true if you use different meanings for words.

Bringing it to Skeptics.SE

We ask for notability links for claims here. There are several reasons for that, but one is context. Taking a brief one-sentence sound-bite often doesn't give us enough context to understand what was being said. Again, there are several reasons for that, but one is meanings of words. Ideally, with a notability link, we can find the original location of the claim, and see what definitions where explicitly stated by the original claimant, or at least look for contextual clues about what meaning they had. (Someone may intend different meanings of "energy" when speaking at a Physics conference versus speaking in a yoga class.)

I think my position boils down to this:

  • Refuting a claim by preferencing our own definitions above the original claimant's isn't productive. [I won't say Kiyosaki is wrong in his claim that your house is not an asset.]

  • Warning that a claim is strongly dependent on a definition that isn't a common one (either because it doesn't match the jargon used by experts, or it doesn't match the common use by the public) is useful. [I will say Kiyosaki is misleading in his claim that your house is not an asset.]

  • Arguing that one definition is better than another is largely opinion-based. If we are agreeing on the actual facts, but disagreeing on how they are best categorised with words, we are getting off-topic for this site. [While I think Kiyosaki's definition is ridiculous, I won't waste people's time by sharing this opinion.]

Focussing on the "subsidy" question

The controversial answer looked at the context of the claim, found the original source, found and quoted the explicit definition that they were using for the term "subsidy", and showed that, within the context of that definition, the claim was correct.

The answer (after a few revisions) went further and showed that this definition was commonly used by a set of experts who were likely to be primary audience of the article.

While it didn't have an explicit "this definition may be different to what you were thinking when you first heard the sound-bite claim" warning, it spent considerable effort to highlight what definition was being used, so there could be no doubt.

I see that as a legitimate answer.

The arguments that there are better definitions of "subsidy" out there are (a) opinions, and (b) largely irrelevant - the claimant provided the definition they were using.

  • I didn't mean to imply that the definition of words are owned by anyone, standard/non-standard may have been too strong, and common/uncommon closer to what I was getting at. Your example of deceptive marketing practices strikes very close to what bothers me about the question/answer, and the moderation that has gone into it. If a politician made claim X based on their own personal definition of Y, which flies in sharp contrast to what Y is commonly understood to describe, would that claim be true, or false? If their primary audience were those that had the same definition, does that change? Nov 16, 2017 at 15:10
  • I can't refute any of your arguments here, but by your logic, an answer that accepts creationist's use of term "evolution" (pick your own, most misleading and incorrect use they can use) thus claiming creationist claims are correct, in context, would be equally valid. Wouldn't get as many upvotes for political reasons, but would be equally valid.
    – user5341
    Nov 26, 2017 at 13:43
  • 2
    @user5341: Yes, I agree that is a consequence. For example, I have seen proofs of the existence of God that rely on explicitly defining God in such a way that the Big Bang meets the definition. I now find the question of "Does God exist?" to be meaningless until a consistent definition of God is provided.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Nov 26, 2017 at 22:20
  • @Oddthinking - and yet, if you find such a pro-creationism answer flagged, would you let it stand or delete it? If the latter, how is that different from the answer this Meta complains about? If the former, the site really does lose its meaning and succumbs to postmodernist "everything is relative" thing.
    – user5341
    Nov 27, 2017 at 0:47
  • @user5341: If an answer showed that the claimant was explicitly using such a definition, and warned that it was a definition that the reader might not expect, I'd let it stand - how can I preference my definition over theirs?
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Nov 27, 2017 at 3:36
  • @Oddthinking - because your definition is one used by a majority of subject matter experts. As I said, at this extreme, you get full marks for absence of hypocricy, but risking sliding down the abyss of postmodernist anti-rationality; where any claim is considered "true" if the claimant just bothers to use their own personal definitions of common terms.
    – user5341
    Nov 27, 2017 at 5:53
  • @user5341 It's necessary for folks to select their own definitions, otherwise our extremely limited word set would prohibit discussion on most anything. There's nothing post-modern about this; it's how language has always worked, throughout recorded history.
    – Nat
    Nov 28, 2017 at 6:13
  • 1
    @user5341 What you may be having trouble with is the issue for miscommunication, which can occur even when all parities are acting in good faith, though some attempt to exploit for rhetorical purposes in obviously dishonest ways. However, the solution to that problem isn't to reject communication itself, or insist that it be limited to a very strict subset of simple ideas, but rather to give due effort to clarifying ambiguity when parties are acting in good faith and disengaging from those who're willfully trying to avoid communication.
    – Nat
    Nov 28, 2017 at 6:18
  • One additional thing: in addition to (1) citing where the report had defined subsidy; and (2) providing references for equivalent use elsewhere by domain experts; I also (3) provided a referenced explanation for the theoretical basis of the definition: in this case, the deadweight loss and consistent market distortions. I think it's reasonable to expect answerers to provide both the descriptivist basis (1 and 2) and the theoretical justification (3), when using technical language which appears to have a different meaning to how the same words are used in a lay context. (e.g. energy <=> joules)
    – 410 gone
    Nov 29, 2017 at 9:50

I think the comment nuke explainer is the reverse of what the mods intended

We especially don't care if you agree with environmental economics in this case.

I believe this was intended as:

We especially don't care if you disagree with environmental economics in this case.

The reason people need these fossil fuel subsidies brought into existence is so they can be compared to and far outweigh the renewable energy subsidies, so the "But fossil fuels are subsided too!" argument can work.

It's only in the fine print that the renewable energy subsidy is in the form of actual money paid by the government, and the fossil fuel subsidy is in the form of implied estimated Environmental externalities.

To me it's a nice example doublespeak, and even though I'm in favor of less fossil fuel consumption, I'm also against tricks like this.


Commenting on the answer

People vote with their prejudices. There is a point of view where it is unfair that renewable subsidies are counted but the implicit environmental costs are not. People with that point of view applauded the International Monetary Fund for making that assertion because it supports their world view. From their point of view, a lack of externally imposed costs is the equivalent of a subsidy in the same way that imputed rent is income.

That said, the answer that I believe you mean makes that clear in the details. It says, with bolding:

plus a tax to reflect environmental damage

You are of course welcome to disagree with that interpretation. But telling the poster (which is what a comment does) is unlikely to have much effect. The poster knows that this isn't the common definition. But people of that viewpoint don't care. To them, that should be the definition to be fair. The answer explains why at length.

Telling such people that their view is wrong won't change their mind. At best it will express a separate opinion. A better way is to write a separate, cited answer, that expresses the view that "subsidy" is the wrong word.

Of course, if you do that, you're stuck with the fact that on this site, there are more people who favor the environmentalist view that it is unfair not to include externalities as imputed subsidies. So such an answer is likely to receive some downvotes and not so many upvotes.

Evaluating the answer

This meta answer says:

The answer (after a few revisions) went further and showed that this definition was commonly used by a set of experts who were likely to be primary audience of the article.

That is of course absurd. The question wasn't about the original article. The question was about a series of claims that appeared outside environmental science journals. One of them appears in The Guardian, which is not a scientific publication in any way shape or form. So the question was actually whether the statement made sense under the definition used by readers of The Guardian headlines, not in the environmental science literature.

The question also quotes Forbes as saying that the definition is skewed. This too is unsurprising as their prejudices reject the concept of environmental costs. But then the question becomes if it is reasonable to say that the definition is skewed. And of course it is.

That's not opinion-based. In terms of the definition used by Forbes, which is internally consistent, a subsidy is when the government sends a check to someone for that purpose or when the government allows a tax deduction for that purpose that they wouldn't allow for other purposes. By that definition, subsidies for fossil fuels are far smaller.

Note that renewables advocates don't include such subsidies when talking about renewables. They don't include tax deductions taken searching for gallium (used in solar panels) as renewables subsidies. They don't include the environmental damage from dams as renewables subsidies. When they talk about renewables subsidies, they only include direct subsidies and tax breaks. It's only when talking about fossil fuels that they start using a broader definition.

That's not opinion-based. It's just fact. But it's hard to cite, because it goes against the point that environmental scientists are trying to make. It would be difficult to establish, because it would require showing that those costs were not included in the other costs. And it would be hard to publish, because it's not particularly interesting to people who do that kind of work. But it's still hypocrisy.

Beyond all this, it's worth noting that The Guardian uses the term subsidy in two different ways. It claims that subsidies are "largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas" and "many of the energy subsidies highlighted by the IMF go toward finding new reserves of oil, gas and coal". On the one side, they claim costs to governments are the bulk of the subsidies and on the other hand they claim that finding new reserves are. That's using subsidies in two different ways in the same article.

That's just hypocrisy. It's not opinion-based to say so.

What is opinion-based is the implicit assumption that all this is justified because most people don't understand things well enough. So the truth has to be distorted so that other people feel as concerned about this as the activists do.

It is reasonable for the IMF to use an internal definition of subsidy. And it is reasonable and not opinion-based to point that out. But that doesn't answer the actual question, which is if the British Medical Journal, The Guardian, and Forbes are also basing their assertions in fact.

Now, I can't look for hypocritical casting in Forbes, because I refuse to allow them to run Javascript and their site doesn't work without it. But their definition of subsidy is consistent with how business people use the word.

This BMJ article is pitched not to economists (as expected from an IMF publication) but to doctors. I'm not sure that the typical doctor defines subsidy as the absence of a Pigovian tax. That argument does not appear in the portion of the article available to non-subscribers.

So in terms of this particular question, whether the IMF definition is internally consistent is beside the point. The real question is if the definitions used by the BMJ, Forbes, and The Guardian are internally consistent. And whether they can be reconciled.

If that's opinion-based, then it is a characteristic of the question itself.

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