Archive for: March, 2011

A Pure Physiological Basis for the Life of the Psyche

Mar 31 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

It isn't the sort of argument Pointsman relishes either. But he glances sharply at this young anarchist in his red scarf. "Pavlov believed that the ideal, the end we all struggle toward in science, is the true mechanical explanation. He was realistic enough not to expect it in his lifetime. Or in several lifetimes more. But his hope was for a long chain of better and better approximations. His faith ultimately lay in a pure physiological basis for the life of the psyche. No effect without cause, and a clear train of linkages.

"It's not my forte, of course," Mexico honestly wishing not to offend the man, but really, "but there's a feeling about that cause-and-effect may have been taken as far as it will go. That for science to carry on at all, it must look for a less narrow, a less . . . sterile set of assumptions. The next great breakthrough may come when we have the courage to junk cause-and-effect entirely, and strike off at some other angle."

"No--not 'strike off.' Regress. You're 30 years old, man. There are no 'other angles.' There is only forward--into it--or backward."

(Pynchon winkingly giving cognitive science a what-for. cc: "levels of analysis")

10 responses so far

The Observer's Paradox

Mar 12 2011 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

If you have been following the debate on acceptability judgments and other linguistic methods, you may want to check out computational linguist Mark Liberman's (mini)-argument against self-observation on Language Log.  The tongue-in-cheek response is in reply to comments on Bill Poser's post about the pronunciation of the word "tsunami."  Mark writes:

"This gap between phonetic intuition and phonetic fact is a special form of the observer's paradox. Just as we behave differently when we're aware of being observed by others, we also behave differently when we imagine observing ourselves."

In doing some follow-up reading on the history of the paradox, I found a brilliant essay by the famous sociolinguist, William Labov, on the declining methodological standards in linguistics research (see p. 105-8 for what he thinks of the role of 'intuition').  The essay was published in 1972.  Labov wrote then:

"If new data has to be introduced, we usually find that is has been barred for ideological reasons, or not even been recognized as data at all, and the new methodology must do more than develop techniques.  It must demolish the beliefs and assumptions which rules its data out of the picture.  Since many of these beliefs are held as a matter of deep personal conviction, and spring from the well-established habits of a lifetime, this kind of criticism is seldom accomplished without hard feelings and polemics, until the old guard gradually dissolves into academic security and scientific limbo."

He could well have been writing about corpora.

For those of you who read my post last week about language change, you may be amused to note that in the same essay, Labov wrote: "We are forced to ask whether the growth of literacy and mass media are new factors affecting the course of linguistic change that did not operate in the past."  Well, Mr. Greene and I certainly never claimed to be the first to articulate these ideas!

Cheers, William.

On a different note, I have been extremely troubled by the reports about what is going on in Japan.  One of my best friends left the country a day before the earthquake.  To everyone there - or with friends and family there - my heart goes out to you.  If any readers are interested in giving to the disaster relief fund, you can find more information here.

9 responses so far

Why LOLCats ruined my English

Mar 09 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

The talented writer and polyglot Robert Lane Greene has a short guest blog in yesterday's NY Times today suggesting that (as Emily Anthes recapped on Twitter): "Perhaps we're seeing more grammatical mistakes because literacy is on the rise."

In the post, Greene scrutinizes the prescriptivist rallying cry that language is in a perpetual decline and must be enshrined (quick!) before it's too late.  He trots out the usual counter-arguments: linguistic change is constant and inevitable; linguistic change is not necessarily bad ("when a good thing changes it can become another good thing"); and so on.

The most interesting claim Greene makes comes at the end of the post, when he notes that illiteracy rates have plummeted over the last century, to virtually zero.  However, as he is quick to point out:

Literacy is a continuum of skills. Basic education now reaches virtually all Americans.  But many among the poorest have the weakest skills in formal English.

This, he thinks, is to blame for the rise of misplaced apostrophes and teen-text speak.  It's a truly interesting observation, but one I think he squanders in his conclusion.

Continue Reading »

15 responses so far

The Ashtray Argument

Mar 07 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

"I call Kuhn’s reply “The Ashtray Argument.” If someone says something you don’t like, you throw something at him. Preferably something large, heavy, and with sharp edges. Perhaps we were engaged in a debate on the nature of language, meaning and truth. But maybe we just wanted to kill each other."

--Errol Morris in the opinion pages of yesterday's NY Times, aptly capturing that spirit of wonder academics bring to the world... Or something.


20 responses so far

Let's stop mistaking 'thought experiments' for science

Trends in Cognitive Sciences recently published a provocative letter by a pair of MIT researchers, Ted Gibson and Ev Fedorenko, which has been causing a bit of a stir in the language camps.  The letter - "Weak Quantitative Standards in Linguistic Research" and its companion article - have incited controversy for asserting that much of linguistic research into syntax is little more than - to borrow Dan Jurafsky's unmistakable phrase - a bit of "bathtub theorizing."  (You know, you soak in your bathtub for a couple of hours, reinventing the wheel).  It's a (gently) defiant piece of work: Gibson and Fedorenko are asserting that the methods typically employed in much of linguistic research are not scientific, and that if certain camps of linguists want to be taken seriously, they need to adopt more rigorous methods.

I found the response, by Ray Jackendoff  and Peter Culicover, a little underwhelming, to say the least.  One of the more amusing lines cites William James:

"Subjective judgments," they claim, "are often sufficient for theory development. The great psychologist William James offered few experimental results."

Yes, but so did "the great psychologist" Sigmund Freud, and it's not clear whether he was doing literary theory or "science"...  More trivially, James was one of the pioneers of the fields and didn't have access to the methods we now have at our disposal.  That was his handicap - not ours.

We can contrast that (rather lame) response with what computational linguist Mark Liberman said about corpus research last week in the New York Times:

"The vast and growing archives of digital text and speech, along with new analysis techniques and inexpensive computation, are a modern equivalent of the 17th-century invention of the telescope and microscope."

Here, here, Mr. Liberman.  I couldn't agree more.

Last month, Michael Ramscar and I published a seven-experiment Cognitive Psychology article, which uses careful experimentation and extensive corpus research to make something of a mockery of one piece of "intuitive" linguistic theorizing that has frequently been cited as evidence for innate constraints.  Near the end of the piece, we take up a famous Steve Pinker quote and show how a simple Google search contradicts him.  After roundly (and amusingly) trouncing him, Michael writes - in what must be my favorite line in the whole paper -

"Thought-experiments, by their very nature, run into serious problems when it comes to making hypothesis blind observations, and because of this, their results should be afforded less credence in considering [linguistic] phenomena.”

No doubt, this one-liner owes some credit to a brilliant P.M.S Hacker quote (actually a footnote to one of his papers!):

"Philosophers sometimes engage in what they misleadingly call 'thought-experiments.'  But a thought experiment is no more an experiment than monopoly money is money."

Let's stop mistaking 'thought experiments' for science.

87 responses so far

Peer review favors vanilla

Mar 01 2011 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

In high school, I had a history teacher who would berate any student who gave a ‘vanilla’ response in class – code for a ‘middle of the road’ or ‘safe to all ears’ answer.  As Mr. Toy explained, while vanilla is the most consumed flavor of ice-cream in the western world, and by dint, the most ‘popular,’ vanilla isn’t also the most liked flavor – people tend to feel much more strongly about chocolate, butter pecan, and strawberry – it’s simply the one that’s most passable to the greatest number of people.

Peer review can, at times, reward papers for being merely ‘vanilla,’ particularly at the high-impact commercial journals.  Last year, we had a paper at one of the top journals rejected on a 4:2 split (4 in favor, 2 added in 2nd and 3rd round against).  We've since had 1:1 (reject), 1:2 (reject), 2:1 (reject).  It's never going to be the case that there isn't someone out there who doesn't hate our work.*  We take a very definite theoretical stand, which means we elicit bimodal responses at every single journal we try to publish in, doesn't matter the impact factor.  Does that mean that our work is somehow less worthy of publication than papers that receive a chorus of middling votes?

[Oh, you already know what I think!]

But the issue isn't personal - we're certainly not the only lab to face this problem.  The question is: Is science supposed to be controversy-free?  Or, dare I say, vanilla?  Are commercial journals really just out to preserve the status quo?

*Um, did that triple-negation work?  I've tried rereading it three times and I'm still not sure.  Late night.  At least Charlie Sheen would approve.  ("You can't process me with a normal brain.")

See also: Graphene.

19 responses so far