2518: Lumpers and Splitters

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Lumpers and Splitters
Anna Karenina is a happy family lumper and unhappy family splitter.
Title text: Anna Karenina is a happy family lumper and unhappy family splitter.


It is common to separate groups of things — species, people, languages, software models, etc. — into categories, but different people may do this in different ways. "Lumpers" work from the ground up by focusing on similarities among individual things to create larger categories, while "splitters" do the opposite, taking larger categories and trying to find characteristics that are not shared by all members of the group to further divide them into smaller subsets.

The comic points out the meta-ness of categorizing people based on how they categorize. It labels Megan and Cueball as those two types of categorizers. Megan, the lumper, describes herself and Cueball as both being "categorization pedants", lumping the two distinct categories "lumpers" and "splitters" into one. Cueball, the splitter, subcategorizes Megan into a more specific type of lumper: a "meta-lumper"—since the things Megan was lumping includes lumpers themselves—thereby splitting off lumpers from meta-lumpers. If Cueball further categorized himself he would be a meta-splitter.

The title text references the opening line of the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, which reads (as translated into English), "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Randall is drawing a parallel between this line and the lumper/splitter distinction because the line lumps one group of things (happy families) while splitting another group (unhappy families).

Additionally, this may be a reference to the podcast episode "Lingthusiasm Episode 60: That's the kind of episode it's - clitics" [1], published a few days before the comic, wherein the hosts separate people into lumpers and splitters of clitics.


[Megan and Cueball are standing looking at each other. There are boxes beneath each of them with a label.]
Megan: Really, we're both just categorization pedants.
Label: Lumper
Cueball: Ahh, so you're a meta-lumper.
Label: Splitter

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Lumping and splitting doesn't just apply to groups of people. It describes the way people categorize things in general. Barmar (talk) 00:13, 21 September 2021 (UTC)

I really thought this was about the different focus in individuals and other systems (notably AI research), to either pay attention to individual diverse detail, often involving great memory, or form patterns to generalize everything, often involving great ingenuity. It is the latter path ("lumping") where one used to imagine an AI transfering learning to its own processes ("meta"), and then taking off as a hyperintelligence that improves itself exponentially more rapidly. 00:16, 21 September 2021 (UTC)

Whereas this could be a goid example for lumping and splitting, there are many. It is really about top-down vs. bottom-up with the added twist to emphasize the subjects doing those approaches and (in the main comic) applying those self-referentially. This meta aspect you mentioned makes it a more interesting fit, hmmmhh. -- 06:37, 21 September 2021 (UTC)

I've been a lurker here for many years but I've never edited, so I don't know what's appropriate. Is it notable that the term "splitter" is used in the same sense in the movie "Monty Python's Life of Brian"? Maybe not, but if so, it would say something like "A notable use of the term splitter is in [LoB] when the 'People's Party of Judea' is used to satirize contemporary (1970s) factional communist parties." I've never heard the term lumper before this comic. 03:14, 21 September 2021 (UTC)

I say that if you think it should be in there, Explain away in your own words. (The only firm advice I have for editing is to learn the difference between a generic link and an interwiki link and do the latter wherever appropriate, because too many times the messier first type gets needlessly used.)
That said, I'd say LoB's "Splitter" is applied upon someone who allegedly splits themselves off from the (otherwise) common group of the person flinging the term around, rather than something someone could classify anyone (including themself) based upon how they treat memberships in general (with or without personal involvement). As such, I would say that a Judean 'splitter' is a different creature from an xkcdean one. I don't think by saying this I would significantly become a splitter in the former sense, unless I had significant opinion otherwise from which I was differentiating, but I would in the latter.
I'll also happily label myself with the second (indeed, now even unto the meta- level; if not N-meta- by dint of this potentially recursive aside!) but it would be entirely up to others to argue my status in the first sense. Never mind that I, too, have never heard of a 'lumper' in this sense (nor the counterpart usage of 'splitter'). I understand the terms - holism vs reductionism, in part..? - but this is the first time I've been exposed to the term. Immediately got the joke, though. Or at least thought I did. ;) 08:47, 21 September 2021 (UTC)
"Splitter" in Life of Brian is used in the sense of "traitor" or somebody who creates a schism. In context, it is definitely pejorative. "Splitter" her is somebody who likes to take a category and make it into several smaller categories. Jeremyp (talk) 10:18, 21 September 2021 (UTC)

Explanation says cueball would be a metasplitter if he further splits his own group of splitters. But I'd say splitting lumpers in to a meta-group already qualifies him as a meta-splitter. 13:13, 21 September 2021 (UTC)

Probably a good idea to link the Wikipedia article on lumpers and splitters somewhere. Intro could probably be expanded. Arcorann (talk) 15:24, 21 September 2021 (UTC)

Dear IP address HOW DARE YOU remove fat from the incomplete tag! 12:21, 22 September 2021 (UTC)BUmpf