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Study: Subjective language is even worse than we thought.

kemmler3D

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A while back I proposed some kind of study that would home in on what people are really referring to when they use subjective language about audio. Overall nobody was too excited about it and there are many people around here who regard that as an impossibility.

Well, I don't like the word "impossible", but the problem is very real. A bigger study on a very similar subject just came out, and the researchers were surprised at how much variation there is in what people mean when they use words. That sounds like a broad statement, and it is. Turns out there is a great deal of variation in what people mean when they communicate using the same words, even outside of controversial subjects.

Our concepts are crucial to exactly what we mean when we use language, and new research has found that the concepts people hold, even for a word like penguin, vary from person to person on a shockingly frequent basis. This does not mean we all disagree on the basic definition of a penguin. But while some people might think they are noisy, plump creatures, more like a whale than an eagle, others might consider them to be awkward, strange animals, more like an ostrich than a dolphin.

These discrepant views—these concepts of penguins—are the kind of information researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, elicited from participants in a study that was published last month. The team’s results show that even the plainest of nouns can invoke dozens of distinct concepts in individuals’ mind. “People have wondered for a long time how to put a number on how much overlap there is, and it’s really low. It blows my mind,” says psychologist Celeste Kidd of the U.C. Berkeley, who was senior author of the study.

So, the next time you're conversing with a subjectivist and you feel the need to pin down what they heard, don't be frustrated... this phenomenon of needing to dig deeper to find out what someone means isn't just because the audio world is flaky, it's apparently universal.
 

notsodeadlizard

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"The findings could be relevant to disagreements about more serious matters than whether a penguin is heavy. “If this happens with common nouns, how much worse can it be with abstract words we use to describe the big problems we’re dealing with?” De Meyer says."

Oh yeah. Especially when it comes to complex technical highly specialized terms, for example, from audio acoustics (because there are a lot of acoustics). Or from digital electronics. Or from analog electronics, God help us.

All this has nothing to do with the subjectivism of perception at all.
 

fpitas

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"The findings could be relevant to disagreements about more serious matters than whether a penguin is heavy. “If this happens with common nouns, how much worse can it be with abstract words we use to describe the big problems we’re dealing with?” De Meyer says."

Oh yeah. Especially when it comes to complex technical highly specialized terms, for example, from audio acoustics (because there are a lot of acoustics). Or from digital electronics. Or from analog electronics, God help us.

All this has nothing to do with the subjectivism of perception at all.
If there's anything the internet has taught us, it's that it's fine to parrot anything about those subjects that you read on the internet, or saw in a YouTube video. Say it long and loudly and you'll be an expert. Take that, boffins!
 
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kemmler3D

kemmler3D

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All this has nothing to do with the subjectivism of perception at all.
Right. I think the lesson for us from this study is that if there is more than one possible meaning of a word, you can't be 100% sure what the other person means by it unless you ask.

Case in point: We talk about THD a lot. However, if I just say "THD" I might mean the THD spectrum overall, I might mean THD at 1Khz, I might be mostly thinking about the 2nd and 3rd harmonics, I might even be speaking improperly about all types of distortion combined. Even something "objective" like THD can mean something different in different people's minds.

Just one example of how communicating about audio in words is tricky, maybe that's why we like measurements and graphs so much here. :)
 

MattHooper

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Right. I think the lesson for us from this study is that if there is more than one possible meaning of a word, you can't be 100% sure what the other person means by it unless you ask.

Exactly.

Communication is a two-way street. You need one party attempting to communicate, and the other sincerely attempting to understand. That way you can move towards some level of mutual understanding. If one party is inherently skeptical about the possibility of communicating something in language, he/she will make it all the harder to communicate by constantly rejecting attempts to do so.

But also once you establish a rapport, you don't necessarily keep having to have the same conversations of "what do you mean" for every little word.

I have such a rapport with my friend, an audio reviewer. Whenever he has something new in for review, usually speakers, he'll ask me to come over and give a listen to double check his own impressions. He won't say a thing about his impressions, I'll listen, and then I'll described the sound (or visa versa, I'll ask him to describe the sound before I do). So for instance I was recently over listening to some $65,000 loudspeakers he has in for review - a higher up model of the same brand, from which he owns a cheaper model in his second system. After playing a bunch of tracks I described what I heard in detail: the soundstaging and imaging characteristics, the bass quality, pluses and negatives, the timbral character and frequency characteristics and it's effect on various instruments, dynamics, issues I was having with some coarseness in the sound for some stuff, how it differed from his usual speakers in that room, how it differed from the cheaper model he owned upstairs, etc.
I wasn't surprised that he felt my descriptions pretty much perfectly agreed with what he was hearing. The issues that stuck out for me were ones that he notice too. That's the usual result when we compare notes that way.

And this is not limited to direct interaction with someone. In the same way, if you *care* about sound put in to subjective descriptions, and you pay attention to trends in subjective reviewers, you can over the course of various reviews, and comparing to your own experience with some gear he may have reviewed, come to understand
what a particular reviewer is describing. So when I hear some reviewers describe gear I've known, or that I go to hear after their review, I can say "Yeah, they really did communicate the gist of the character of this gear."

We always have to be careful to keep the big picture in mind. Our senses are fallible...yet still useful. Our memory is fallible, yet still useful. It all comes with caveats, but that's ok. There's a danger in falling in to a skeptical bias just as there is a gullible bias. The gullible with a positive bias toward X counts the hits and ignores the misses, and comes to an unjustifiable confidence. On the other hand someone disposed to a skeptical view can end up counting the misses and ignoring the hits, to dismiss the viability of a proposition. Which can take the form of appealing to studies in which, under the scenario of the study some fallibility is uncovered in our perception, but then leveraging that to an unwarranted level of skepticism regarding our perception.

Case in point: We talk about THD a lot. However, if I just say "THD" I might mean the THD spectrum overall, I might mean THD at 1Khz, I might be mostly thinking about the 2nd and 3rd harmonics, I might even be speaking improperly about all types of distortion combined. Even something "objective" like THD can mean something different in different people's minds.

Just one example of how communicating about audio in words is tricky, maybe that's why we like measurements and graphs so much here. :)

Yes, but note as you already indicated, and contained in the lesson of the study, is that simply appealing to measurements doesn't get you out of the communication problem. There's no magic dividing line between talking about penguins or talking about THD or whatever.

This is particularly sticky if measurements are used, as they are in audio, in the context of the subjective implications. If you say "the measurements indicate a 4dB low Q frequency dip between 200Hz to 400Hz " in a speaker...what have you communicated? It's meaningless without the context in which it has any meaning (e.g....it's subjective effects). You can't get away from the web of inferences, associations, implications etc also tied to communicating with measurements, especially when
it's subjective implications that we care about.
 

Axo1989

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A while back I proposed some kind of study that would home in on what people are really referring to when they use subjective language about audio. Overall nobody was too excited about it and there are many people around here who regard that as an impossibility.

Well, I don't like the word "impossible", but the problem is very real. A bigger study on a very similar subject just came out, and the researchers were surprised at how much variation there is in what people mean when they use words. That sounds like a broad statement, and it is. Turns out there is a great deal of variation in what people mean when they communicate using the same words, even outside of controversial subjects.



So, the next time you're conversing with a subjectivist and you feel the need to pin down what they heard, don't be frustrated... this phenomenon of needing to dig deeper to find out what someone means isn't just because the audio world is flaky, it's apparently universal.

I can't decide if the Scientific American journalist's summary is more like the study it refers to, or more like a dolphin.
 

MattHooper

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I can't decide if the Scientific American journalist's summary is more like the study it refers to, or more like a dolphin.

Ha! Exactly a point (of coherence) that went through my mind (lest one take too skeptical a message from such an article)! :)
 

MattHooper

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So, the next time you're conversing with a subjectivist and you feel the need to pin down what they heard, don't be frustrated... this phenomenon of needing to dig deeper to find out what someone means isn't just because the audio world is flaky, it's apparently universal.

By coincidence, the day this was posted I happened upon a reddit thread where someone posted pictures of his listening space with some beautiful Devore O/96 speakers. I commented and the OP recognized me from the audiogon forum where I have a long thread detailing my impressions of many speakers, including in-depth descriptions of the Devore speakers. He said he'd auditioned a lot of speakers, none were quite hitting the mark, but based upon reading my descriptions he bought the Devore speakers as a "blind purchase" (nowhere to audition them). Turned out...they were just as I described and exactly what he was looking for. He's in heaven.

I've had similar experiences many times over the years, whether it's people who end up (happily) purchasing speakers based on my descriptive reports or where I've been led to happy purchases the same way via other subjective descriptions. (And, generally speaking, this how many audiophiles purchase their gear, and it seems usually the result is positive).

This is one reason why, despite the fact I think it's fantastic that we are getting more objective information on gear these days, I still find subjective descriptions of gear can be quite useful. (So long as each side is interested in that form of communication).
 
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