I find this problem reoccurring in many skepticism-based (or just skepticism-flavored) web forums or generally, any discussions. In the most basic (and most annoying) form, it goes like this. Someone says something, or asks something, and then they are required to define the words they used. One very common example is:
- Q: Do UFOs exist?
- A(1): Define 'UFOs'
- A(2): Ofcourse the do! (smartass smile) (after a supposedly meaningful silence): surely there must be some objects that fly and were also unidentified at least by some!
- A(3): Define 'exist' (this case is nearly pathological, but it does happen in real life!)
All right. When someone asks about UFO they most certainly mean extraterrestrial visitors. Flavors may be different, but nobody means to ask this way about a hot air balloon which just happened to be unrecognized by your Aunt Marry. Everybody knows balloons exist, and that they sometimes may get unrecognized. If someone doubts that unrecognized part, they surely ask "can balloons get unrecognized or confused with something", not "Do UFOs exist".
Lets go to real examples from this website.
- Q: Is it possible to die instantly?
- Comment: define 'instantly'.
Geez. Everybody knows, what 'instantly' means. If asker had in mind some specific timespan which may also fall into the 'instantly' category, he would have asked just that: Is it possible to die within 3 milliseconds? Also, a proper answer should include scientific data, and scientific data is always specific enough to answer this kind of question whatever definition of 'instantly' asker had in mind, 2 seconds or half millisecond.
- Q: Can an average person be involuntarily hypnotised?
- Comment: define 'hypnotised'
- Answer: define 'involuntarily'
Answer is summed up by me. Real answer included thoughts about what free will is, if it exists at all, usual free will vs determinism BS, in other words. Which is completely irrelevant in this case. The asker updated his question with an example of what he considered 'hypnotized', a very good example I might add, but this is the kind of example 99.99999% of people would give you. Everybody knows what the common definition of 'hypnotized' is.
Where is the problem?
- Definitions hardly help. They just use more words, someone might in turn ask to define them, too, ad infinitum.
- Sometimes it's hard to find words to define something, even if you know what you mean very clearly.
- Sometimes it looks really silly and may scare common people away. People may think you are nitpicking, or making fun of them, or that something is wrong with you.
- It can be a flame bait, a start of a useless debate of what the real definition of x is, drawing attention away from the question. Happens in forums like, about everytime.
What I suggest
Now lets get this out of the way first. I am not saying that every question must be fine as is. Or that you should never ask for clarification or even definition, especially if the term is unheard of, or the question is really vague, etc. But, points to consider:
- Does definition really matter? (example: does soul exist? - No. I don't care if you are talking about a soul in Hinduism sense, or a soul in Christian sense, or a soul in your personal sense, answer is the same.)
- Can the question be answered clearly enough without knowing the exact definition?
- Can you provide an answer for every common definition? (Example: is hypnosis real? short answer: depends. Movie-style or this-website-here style hypnosis helping enlarge your penis is BS [source], [source]. However it is possible to influence human mind in certain ways using certain chemicals, to which professionals refer as 'hypnosis' too [source][source][source])
- What the asker is most likely to have in mind? (See example with UFOs above)
- Can you answer it in the way that satisfies whatever definition? (i.e. is LSD like bad for your health? a: known LSD effects on your health are as follows: [list...] [source][source]
I am only suggesting that we should try to avoid asking for definitions as much as possible. Yes there's no such problem here yet, compared to some skeptics forums I used to read, but since I see the first signs of it, I don't wanna wait till it blossoms ;)
What do you think. Lets discuss.