Friday, July 28, 2006


The Utility of Labels

Thinking about previous posts, it's interesting to consider the utility of labels.

In science, a large part of the effort is figuring out how to organize, classify and label things: that's the difference between science and a mere collection of facts (I forget the good quote that ought to go here). But we must remember that our labels are our constructions and not grant them the reality that essentialists grant them -- and remember that the excitement and interest is often in the breach of boundaries, not in the typical object of a class.

Another thing is that, while labels help us make sense of the world, they often also tell us only what we think we already know. Labels can be constructive or merely lead to destructive confirmation bias. For instance, labeling a child as "special needs" can allow the child to get the help she needs at an early stage. But when the label attaches, sometimes even age appropriate behavior is taken as yet another example of the label applying (confirmation bias).

Truly labels are double edged swords -- and I'm not just talking about getting a paper-cut from the output of a label maker here.

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