Archive for: December, 2010

Bad Metaphors Make for Bad Theories

Imagine for a moment, that you have been thrown back into the Ellisonesque world of the 1980’s, with a delightful perm and even better trousers.  One fragile Monday morning, you are sitting innocently enough at your cubicle, when your boss comes to you with the summary of a report you have never read, on a topic you know nothing about.  “I’ve read the précis and I’d love to take a peek at the report," he intones, leaning in.  "Apparently, they reference some fairly intriguing numbers on page 76.”  You stare blankly at him, wondering where this is going.  “Yess—so I’d love if you could generate the report for me.”  He smirks at you expectantly.  You blink, twice, then begin to stutter a reply.  But your boss is already out the door.  “On my desk by five, Susie!” he whistles (as bosses are wont to do) and scampers off to terrorize another underling.

You would be forgiven if, at that moment, you decided it was time to knock a swig or two off the old bourbon bottle and line up some Rick Astley on the tapedeck.

Because the task is, in a word, impossible.

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21 responses so far

From across the reaches of an Internet...

Dec 20 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

Here, dear readers, is a hilarious review of Gregory Sampson's "The Language Instinct Debate" from humorist and Amazon "top 1000" reviewer Olly Buxton.  There's politics; there's drama; and it is delightfully droll!  (Steve Pinker and Noam Chomsky also make appearances).

Olly gave the book a five-star rating and titled this review, "The sound of leather on willow floats across the village green."

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14 responses so far

Language doesn't feature much at the top

Dec 16 2010 Published by under Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

There is currently a debate raging over at The Economist over whether language shapes thought.  In the latest rebuttal, posted by the whimsical L.B., she makes the claim that:

"These days, scientists do not just make claims, they make measurements. The scientific study of how language shapes thinking comprises decades' worth of empirical discoveries, published in premier academic journals like Science and Nature..."

L.B. makes it sound like the two 'premier' journals regularly devote their pages to the sundry and subtle workings of the Whorfian question.  --Which is a misleading way to make it sound, I assure you.  (If by "like Science and Nature" she means PNAS, there may be slightly more credibility to the claim, but I'll take her at face value for the moment).

In the past year, I've had a number of manuscripts peer-reviewed at these journals, and in the interim, I've spent the time to actually dig through the archives of both journals to find out what work on language they've published over the last decade.  While L.B.'s claim is technically correct, it's also misleading.  The only Whorfian topics that have been published in either journal are to do with numerical cognition in the Pirahã.  'Decades worth' of discoveries have been published in other journals, no doubt, but Nature and Science have devoted relatively few pages to the question of how language shapes thought, or any other topic in language, period.

To give you a flavor: this year, Nature published 0 original research articles on language.  The best they did was a news brief on the genetic basis for stuttering and a feature on speed reading.  Science published 1.  On average, Nature publishes less than 2 a year on language; Science publishes a little over 3.  For Nature, that's 2 out of over 800+ articles published a year.  Clearly a hot topic.

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21 responses so far

Blind Item: Linguistics in the popular imagination

Dec 15 2010 Published by under Blind Item

This is a blind item, boys and girls.  Points to anyone who can tell me what famous postmodern novel this is from.  Cash money prizes to anyone who knows why I think it's so telling that this author cited Zipf (and what insight it might give us into said author).

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10 responses so far

The Parable of the Man Who Didn't Get the Message

Dec 13 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

May I present to you, dear readers, a reading from the Book of Revelations...

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9 responses so far

On philosophical confusion

Dec 06 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

"Any decent philosophical problem is held in place not by one mistake or confusion but by a whole range. Wittgenstein has a wonderful metaphor: if you shine strong light on one side of a problem, it casts long shadows on the other. Every deep philosophical confusion is held in place by numerous struts, and one cannot demolish the confusion merely by knocking one strut away. One has to circle around the problem again and again to illuminate all the misconceptions that hold it in place."

--P.M.S. Hacker, quoted in The Philosophers' Magazine

One response so far

Bayesian Fundamentalism or Enlightenment?

Dec 05 2010 Published by under Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

"Whatever society at large views as its most powerful device tends to become our means for thinking about the brain, even in formal scientific settings. Despite the recurring tendency to take the current metaphor literally, it is important to recognize that any metaphor will eventually be supplanted. Thus, researchers should be aware of what the current metaphor contributes to their theories, as well as what the theories’ logical content is once the metaphor is stripped away."

Jones & Love, 2011

While surfing the web for preprints, I found an upcoming Brain and Behavioral Sciences (BBS) release by Matt Jones and Brad Love which I would highly recommend as thought-provoking, lucid and approachable reading material.  It's entitled : "Bayesian Fundamentalism or Enlightenment?  On the Explanatory Status and Theoretical Contributions of Bayesian Models of Cognition" and it's part intellectual history, part rigorous scientific critique.  I should preface this by saying that I am not a Bayesian modeler, and while I'm acquainted with Bayes' laws and have read some Bayesian papers on language acquisition -- which mostly led to yawning and quiet grumbling about how they'd set up the problem wrong -- I am not in the best position to assess the merits of the arguments in this paper.  So I won't.  I just really liked reading it.  I'm eagerly anticipating the full BBS article, which, I'm assuming, will include responses from Tenenbaum, Griffiths, Chater and the rest of the Bayes high court.  If their replies are anything like their conference demeanor, it's going to be fun..

If you've read this far, and you're not familiar with Bayes' law, the Internet is chalk full of Bayesian fanatics, so a little Googling should find you a decent tutorial, like this one.  I do suggest reading it too : there have been dozens of articles lately in the popular science press about the application of this kind of probability modeling to, for example, medical statistics.

Now, if you're not familiar with the journal, that's something else entirely -- and must be remedied!  BBS is a excellent resource for getting your head around a problem, because it allows researchers to meticulously advance a new claim, or set of claims, and then invites scholars in their discipline to submit a one-page reply.  For scholars and the lay public alike, this is a brilliant means of both highlighting the issue and clarifying the positions at stake.

To get an idea of how this works, it's worth taking a look at this classic Boroditsky & Ramscar (2001) reply to an early Bayesian BBS article.  B&R somehow manage to make the entire contents of the abstract a joke.  (You'll see what I mean).

Excerpts, after the jump:

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5 responses so far