Archive for Ethics

More deceptive statements about Voice Stress Analysis

Leonard Klie, "Momentum Builds for Voice Stress Analysis in Law Enforcement", Speech Technology Magazine, Summer 2014:

Nearly 1,800 U.S. law enforcement agencies have dropped the polygraph in favor of newer computer voice stress analyzer (CVSA) technology to detect when suspects being questioned are not being honest, according to a report from the National Association of Computer Voice Stress Analysts.

Among those that have already made the switch are police departments in Atlanta, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans, Nashville, and Miami, FL, as well as the California Highway Patrol and many other state and local law enforcement agencies.

The technology is also gaining momentum overseas. "The CVSA has gained international acceptance, and our foreign sales are steadily growing," reports Jim Kane, executive director of the National Institute for Truth Verification Federal Services, a West Palm Beach, FL, company that has been producing CVSA systems since 1988.

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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Did Harry Reid lie? Politifact says so.

Harry Reid has made a lot people mad, justifiably in my opinion, by saying that a Bain Capital investor told him that Romney didn't pay income tax for ten years. Reid has repeated his claim of being told this, and also said that he doesn't know whether or not to believe it.  To be sure, this is below-the-belt innuendo.  Politifact, however, has given Reid's claim its "pants on fire" rating. In Time Entertainment, James Poniewozik argues that in so doing Politfact is damaging its own reputation for probity, because "pants on fire" in the context of truth and falsity can only serve to evoke "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"  And Politifact has no way in the world of knowing whether or not Reid was lying in reporting that someone had told him something potentially damaging to Mitt Romney.  Furthermore, although in its full article Politifact reports accurately that Reid claims only to have been told the damaging story, in its list of pants-on-fire headlines, Politifact writes, next to a captioned thumbnail of Reid, "Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years," nine words in a box that accommodates an entry of twenty-five words in the box above with space to spare. Politifact seems to have forgotten to preface this with "said he has been told." Let's say this unfortunate inaccuracy was just an oversight on the part of Politifact and return to the issue of whether "pants on fire" was justified.

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No comment at The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail has this terse and unpunctuated notice below one of its stories today:

Sorry we are unable to accept comments for legal reasons.

Why this departure from the open comments policy that is the right of every online reader of anything in the 21st century?

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Ruminations on scientific expertise and the ethics of persuasion

We've had a bumper crop of recent electoral events where I live, and given that I write a good deal about language and persuasion, at regular intervals I get asked to advise on political campaigns. I always decline.

I have no trouble advocating publicly and with feeling for my own political beliefs. I also have no trouble accepting money from commercial entities (well, not usually, anyway) who want to hire me to consult on the technical aspects of their persuasion strategies. But I do get squeamish when it comes to drawing on my knowledge of language and psychology in order to tinker directly with the machinery of political messaging. It basically comes down to the fact that, in order to do so effectively, I would inevitably have to recommend—at least some of the time—the use of techniques that I would ultimately prefer not to play a prominent role in our political discourse. If you read much about political psychology and persuasion, it's hard to miss the growing pile of studies that reveal the various levers and buttons that reside in the less deliberative rooms of our minds and that can set in motion behaviors and choices all while leaving the persuadee convinced that it's his rational, thoughtful self that's been at the control panel all along. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think that the wholesale exploitation of shallow cognitive processes for political ends accomplishes no good thing for the overall health of civic life, and that thoughtful deliberation and evaluation of candidates and their ideas should drive our democratic impulses.

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Down the memory hole into bibliomysticism

For the better part of the past two years, I've resisted the temptation to run out and buy a Kindle. (Well, OK, I wouldn't have to "run out" to do it, nor could I; as far as I can tell, the Kindle can only be ordered on Amazon. But whatever, it's still an appropriate figure of speech.) The Kindle just seems made for me. I love books and I love to read, and I'm also a ridiculously huge fan of electronic publishing of all kinds, and (especially) of the idea of carrying a library worth of books with me wherever I go, because hey, you never know when you might want to read any one of them. (This also explains why my iPod touch overfloweth with just-in-case music.) The Kindle seems like it should be the best of both worlds: it's all there but the actual page-turning.

But still, I've resisted. I suppose I've been waiting for a sign, or at the very least for a definitive review of the Kindle — something other than the lap-doggish panting that was all I'd seen thus far. And in the space of the past two weeks, I've had both.

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The colleagues down the hall

This is a long-overdue follow-up to my post (from April 26), announcing the availability of the film The Linguists on Babelgum.com. A couple things that I failed to point out in that post: first, the version of the film on Babelgum is the DVD version, not the slightly shorter cut that has aired on PBS; second, there are several additional clips that you can watch separately on Babelgum that are on the DVD. Search for "the linguists" on Babelgum and you'll find links to the trailer, the film, and the additional clips. These are all available for some unspecified limited period, so watch 'em now if you're interested.

What I'm really following up on here, though, is this comment by Jesse Tseng.

I was struck by this sentence [in the film, spoken by David Harrison--eb]:

I don't see how you can justify devoting your research career to the syntax of French (a language with millions of speakers), when the skills that you possess could help document a language that is going to go extinct within your lifetime.

Hmm. The fieldwork skills I possess would make me go extinct long before any tribal language I helped to document. And good luck doing any syntax at all with your 15 sentences of Kallawaya…

Seriously, I was disappointed to hear this gratuitous swipe at the colleagues down the hall. I would like to believe that we are all engaged in a common endeavor, with the same justifications. And when linguistics departments get cut, all the sub-fields of linguistics go down together. Or are they hoping that the money then gets funneled into Anthropology?

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Industrial bullshitters censor linguists

A bullshit lie detector company run by a charlatan has managed to semi-successfully censor a peer reviewed academic article. And I don't like it one bit. But first, some background, and then we'll get to the censorship stuff.

Five years ago I wrote a Language Log post entitled "BS conditional semantics and the Pinocchio effect" about the nonsense spouted by a lie detection company, Nemesysco. I was disturbed by the marketing literature of the company, which suggested a 98% success rate in detecting evil intent of airline passengers, and included crap like this:

The LVA uses a patented and unique technology to detect "Brain activity finger prints" using the voice as a "medium" to the brain and analyzes the complete emotional structure of your subject. Using wide range spectrum analysis and micro-changes in the speech waveform itself (not micro tremors!) we can learn about any anomaly in the brain activity, and furthermore, classify it accordingly. Stress ("fight or flight" paradigm) is only a small part of this emotional structure

The 98% figure, as I pointed out, and as Mark Liberman made even clearer in a follow up post, is meaningless. There is no type of lie detector in existence whose performance can reasonably be compared to the performance of finger printing. It is meaningless to talk about someone's "complete emotional structure", and there is no interesting sense in which any current technology can analyze it. It is not the case that looking at speech will provide information about "any anomaly in the brain activity": at most it will tell you about some anomalies. Oh, the delicious irony, a lie detector company that engages in wanton deception.

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Looking at ethics

Language Loggers haven’t posted much on the category of ethics lately, so this may be a good time to announce a panel called “Ethical Issues in Forensic Linguistic Consulting,” which will take place at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America from January 8 to 11 at the San Francisco Hilton. I will chair a panel that includes professors Geoffrey Nunberg, Gail Stygall, Ronald Butters, Edward Finegan, and Janet Ainsworth.

The panel believes that as more and more linguists are being called upon to consult or give expert witness testimony in civil and criminal law cases, a number of ethical issues need to be addressed. This is especially important information for linguists who may be taking on their first consulting assignments in this area. In a three-hour session, this panel will address the following issues in particular, although other topics may also arise:

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Don't ask Language Log

I did get one question phoned in by a journalist during my long stint on the night semantics desk. A reporter from the New York Daily News called to ask me about some things that former yoga instructor Rielle Hunter had said, about former Democratic politician John Edwards being "an old soul" with a "special energy" who could be a truly "transformational leader" if only he would use his heart more and his head less; and about her purpose on this Earth being "to help raise awareness about all this, to help the unenlightened become better reflections of their true, repressed selves." The reporter wanted to know what this meant — what becoming a better reflection of one's true repressed self would amount to, in precise terms. Doesn't it suggest that one's real self is trapped inside, he asked, and one's apparently real self that walks around among us, and eats breakfast, and experiences temptations regarding sexual relations with blonde videographers, is merely a reflection of that inner reality? Is this not, he went on (having apparently majored in philosophy at Columbia), a remarkable inversion of the way language is normally employed by philosophers talking about the self? Has Ms Hunter not got the outside inside and the inside outside?

I'm afraid I was unable to answer. In fact I have something of a headache, and since it is now breakfast time and I have been on duty all night I think I will have breakfast and go to bed. Ask Language Log, yes; but don't ask it absolutely anything at all. In particular, we are generally powerless to interpret reincarnationspeak and yogababble.

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Philip Parker's House of Words

Something is rotten in Fontainebleau, and it isn't the cheese. There, a business professor and entrepreneur named Philip M. Parker INSEAD Chair Professor of Management Science at INSEAD, is creating a publishing empire of sorts, a very odd publishing empire. He claims to have published over 200,000 titles.

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