Blind Item: Linguistics in the popular imagination

(by melody) Dec 15 2010

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

(by melody) Dec 13 2010

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

(by melody) Dec 06 2010

"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

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Bayesian Fundamentalism or Enlightenment?

(by melody) Dec 05 2010

"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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Epic Failures in Language as Prediction

(by melody) Nov 20 2010

Am happy to announce that my month-long hiatus from blogging -- spent on a whirlwind tour of Chicago, New York, Portland & St. Louis -- is finally coming to an end.  Before jetting for Psychonomics, Prof Plum and I filmed a spot for Science Saturdays, which is now online! (Good!) But -- which has been more or less universally panned by a clique of rabid commenters over at BloggingHeads (Less happy-making -- mrarm, but possibly deserved).

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On bullshit

(by melody) Oct 26 2010

I've spent the last couple of days exploring The Guardian's secret philosophy / religion section and reading interviews from the Paris Review (and reading more and more Marquez; I can understand why Bolaño makes fun of him now, though it's hard not to find the man's scribblings adorable).  The last interview I read this afternoon was with Haruki Murakami, who changed my life at fourteen with Norwegian Wood (him and Eugenides; see: The Virgin Suicides).  There are two quotes I loved, in particular :

"In the 19th and early 20th centuries, writers offered the real thing; that was their task. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it’s the real thing. But I don’t. I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it’s a commitment, it’s a true relationship. That’s what I want to write about."


"I like to write comic dialogue; it’s fun. But if my characters were all comic it would be boring. Those comic characters are a kind of stabilizer to my mind; a sense of humor is a very stable thing. You have to be cool to be humorous. When you’re serious, you could be unstable; that’s the problem with seriousness. But when you’re humorous, you’re stable. But you can’t fight the war smiling."

This came, of course, directly after reading a joyful interview with the comic writer P.G. Wodehouse who must have been the merriest man alive. But still -- these words gave me some solace. "You can't fight the war smiling." Of course you can't, though you must try to delight in what you can.

And then there was this Don DeLillo ruby hidden in the midst of a beguiling David Mitchell interview :

"It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams."

I suppose, in the heady pursuit of science, it is impossible to bury reality.  In the academic world, there is the interminable reality of rejections; politics; ghastly ideas (and some ghastly people promoting them as well).  That strange, fake world.  But sometimes, for a moment, it's nice to forget it -- and to struggle on, imagining the rightly impossible to be very near.  Sometimes I think that perhaps what is so devastatingly wrong with the current state of academic psychology is the lack of wonderment among certain careerist academics; the obsession with protocol and publicity and status and not (rightly) with the meat and marrow of ideas, which might transform our world, which might bring us some much needed relief. When money and career are at stake, there are far too many too easily compromised.  And for what?

Should earnestness be a requirement in a good scientist?  Or should science teach us to be cynical?

(Link is to "On Bullshit," the Frankfurt essay.)

8 responses so far

What belongs in the public domain?

(by melody) Oct 20 2010

Most science blogs link to other science blogs.  I get the feeling our readers are in good hands when it comes to getting their science-fill.  So here's what else I'm reading (or watching) right now:

Man Gets Revenge on Ex-Girlfriend on C-SPAN 2

What belongs in the public domain?  This video begs the question in a big way.  (It also happens to be hilarious).  See the Washington Post recap here.

Coming Out : On Gay Identity (A Video Series, Courtesy of BigThink)

There is something intensely voyeuristic about this, which makes it both compelling and avidly watchable.  I've seen quite a number of the videos on BigThink and am usually bored to tears within minutes (academics rambling on does not make for good viewing, typically).  But catch the brilliant at their most personal and it's something else entirely.  My favorite?  John Waters -- he comes at the end.

The Book Bench : Paul Muldoon takes on K$sha

Ever wanted to watch a vaunted Princeton lit professor take on pop's dirtiest star?  (In the vein of : Ali G. goes to Princeton)

Christine O'Donnell & Sarah Palin are proof that the more incendiary your beliefs, the better

A hysterical take-down of Christine O'Donnell by none other than the Guardian's AF Kennedy.  (A woman)  Be sure to at least check out the picture and O'Donnell's tightightight smile!

"Uppity anti-masturbation campaigner, ex-witch and TV pundit Christine O'Donnell is both an embarrassing threat to established Republican interests and a woman with the stunned eyes and tighttighttight smile of a stranger to self-love. (She also presents an apparently intoxicating, Palinesque persona: part 80s hooker, part moron, part woman who may wake boys with garden shears for impure thinking.)"

Please see also Christine O'Donnell, constitutional scholar, on the separation of church and state (what's that again--?)

What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?

A collection of contributed horror stories.  Hat tip to Mr. Ritchie for sharing.

Deprecated language columnist wins fiction prize

A short, short post on Language Log by Geoffrey Pullum (a linguist whom I greatly respect and admire).  He seems to always be advocating for optimism.  "I like the diversity of humankind, and the complicated character of individual human beings. The surprises and the contradictions appeal to me."

One link that's been circulating that I really can't stand : "FCKH8 (Warning : You Will Be Offended)"

There's something truly pathetic about preaching to the converted while offending the on-the-fencer's (who are you trying to win over here, anyway?).  One of the most powerful shorts I've seen in the last year was MIA's "Born Free."  I think that lyric testimony made me feel much more likely to give to a gay-rights campaign (or any other campaign to aid the marginalized or oppressed) than a flippant (adolescent) "f*ck you."  Anger can prove a powerful weapon, but wielding it is a delicate matter.

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The Knobe Effect

(by melody) Oct 14 2010

As an avid reader of Language Log, my interest was recently piqued by a commenter asking for a linguist's eye-view on the "Knobe Effect":

"Speaking of Joshua Knobe, has any linguist looked into the Knobe Effect? The questionnaire findings are always passed off as evidence for some special philosophical character inherent in certain concepts like intentionality or happiness. I'd be interested in a linguist's take. If I had to guess, I'd say the experimenters have merely found some (elegant and) subtle polysemic distinctions that some words have. As in, 'intend' could mean different things depending on whether the questionnaire-taker believes blameworthiness or praiseworthiness to be the salient question. Or 'happy' could mean 'glad' in one context but 'wholesome' in another, etc…"

Asking for an opinion, eh?  When do I not have an opinion?  (To be fair, it happens more than you might expect).

But of course, I do have an opinion on this, and it's not quite the same as the one articulated by Edge.  This post is a long one, so let me offer a teaser by saying that the questions at stake in this are : What is experimental philosophy and is it new?  How does the language we speak both encode and subsequently shape our moral understanding?  How can manipulating someone's linguistic expectations change their reasoning?  And what can we learn about all these questions by productively plumbing the archives of everyday speech?

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24 responses so far

Or is that just what Chomskytron programmed you to say?

(by melody) Oct 13 2010

I can't even explain how happy this comic makes me.  The poverty of the digits?  Chomskytron?  And just look at my lips!  I'm a mad hot bot, apparently.

Anyway, not what this post is about!  (But so excellent, I had to include).

I recently came by a fantastic little textbook written by Larry Trask, an acclaimed (and out-spoken) American linguist who specialized in the study of Basque, and was known to occasionally rage against Chomsky in The Guardian.  The subject of his text?  Historical linguistics.  A subject that, to be fair, I haven't read much about since being an impressionable young teenager, and discovering Merritt Ruhlen and protohuman language in the musty (dusty) stacks of the Glendale Public Library.  ("This sounds like historical fiction..." I remember thinking)  In any case, the Trask text has proved a wonderful refresher and I highly recommend it if you can find it on Amazon; it appears to be selling for under $5!

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6 responses so far

We've been drawn!

(by Jason G. Goldman) Oct 13 2010

Frequent commenter and excellent artist Joseph Hewitt has immortalized us in colored pencil. Apparently I play the role of "pseudoscientific dogmatist." wut?

(click to see the full page)

While we're at it, here are a few more links to enjoy:

From the NY Times:

When a 12-year-old’s mother asks him “How many times do I have to tell you to stop?” he will understand that the answer, if any is required, had better not include a number.

But that insight requires a sophisticated understanding of ironic language that develops long after fluent speech. At what age do children begin to sense the meaning of such a question, and to what degree can they respond appropriately to other kinds of irony?

In laboratory research on the subject, children demonstrate almost no comprehension of ironic speech before they are 6 years old, and little before they are 10 or 11. When asked, younger children generally interpret rhetorical questions as literal, deliberate exaggeration as a mistake and sarcasm as a lie.

Also from the NYT:

Child Protective Services investigated more than three million cases of suspected child abuse in 2007, but a new study suggests that the investigations did little or nothing to improve the lives of those children.

Feel free to share other interesting links in the comments.

2 responses so far

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