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).
May I present to you, dear readers, a reading from the Book of Revelations...
"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
"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:
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).
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.)
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?
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!