Archive for The language of science

Brain wiring and science reporting

People have been asking Language Log (well, at least one somewhat off-topic commenter asked once) whether we have a view about the recent study alleging sex differences in brain wiring by Ragini Verma and colleagues. Language Log does not really regard this as a linguistic story, but keeps an eye on such neurophysiological topics for their occasional implications for language and the way it is implemented in the brain, and also on the language in which such science is reported. The study has been (of course) wildly overhyped, with newpaper stories around the world talking about men's and women's brains being wired completely differently (guys, you have tons of front-back wiring to aid you in spear-chucking and direction-finding; gals, you have oodles of left-right cross-connections to aid you in gossiping and domestic multi-tasking; that sort of thing). For a short, sharp, and well-informed critique of the way ideology (and philosophical error) warps the press interpretation of brain-scan results, take a look at the letter by Rae Langton and John Dupré in the Guardian, submitted by two excellent British philosophers with interests in both the biology and ideology of the relations between the sexes. They call the press coverage of this study a "deterministic fairy-tale" that is "bad for men and women, bad for science, bad for us all."

Update: A fuller version of the Langton/Dupré letter with discussion can be found on Brian Leiter's blog, and there is more here on Language Log here and here.

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Prestigious nonsense, tendentious frames

Kimmo Ericksson, "The nonsense math effect", Judgment and Decision Making 7(6) 2012:

In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject). Participants were presented with the abstracts from two published papers (one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology). Based on these abstracts, participants were asked to judge the quality of the research. Either one or the other of the two abstracts was manipulated through the inclusion of an extra sentence taken from a completely unrelated paper and presenting an equation that made no sense in the context. The abstract that included the meaningless mathematics tended to be judged of higher quality.

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Not really one of my favorite products, actually…

From my inbox:

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Diving deeper into the metaphorical molasses

My column in Sunday's Boston Globe is on a popular topic here at Language Log Plaza: the multitudinous metaphors spun to explain the Higgs boson discovery to a non-scientific audience. Metaphors noted by Mark Liberman in his two posts on the subject (from divine wraiths to smoking ducks) make cameos in the column as well, and I dig a bit deeper into the history of describing the Higgs field as "cosmic molasses."

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Keith Chen, Whorfian economist

Language Log has been asked more than once to comment on an unpublished working paper by Yale economist Keith Chen that is discussed in various online sources, e.g. here and here, and most recently David Berreby's post at Big Think. Briefly, Chen's paper alleges that a certain simple grammatical property of languages correlates robustly with indicators of profligacy and lack of prudence, as revealed in the speakers' lack of concern for their financial and medical prospects. Language Log does not really want to comment on an unpublished working paper about language by a non-linguist that is not written for publication and has not had the benefit of serious critical attention from academic referees. But neither does it want to disappoint its readers by clamming up. So I will make a few remarks about Chen's work, and the journalistic reporting that it is beginning to attract. I will not be very rigorous; but as I will explain, it is too early for that.

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What we believe in

Faye Flam, "‘Belief’ in evolution? It may be the wrong word", Philadelphia Inquirer 6/27/2011:

When the contestants in the Miss USA pageant last week were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, many volunteered that they either "believed" or "didn't believe" in the concept.

"I don't believe in evolution," said Miss Alabama. "They should teach both sides since some people believe in evolution and some people believe in creation," said Miss Arizona. "It's something people believe in," said Miss Florida. "I believe in evolution … and I like to believe in, like, the big bang theory," said Miss California, who won the crown.

Faye quotes some people who think that talk about believing in things confuses science with faith. She also quotes some people on the other side, including me.

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Reproducible Science at AAAS 2011

I'm at the AAAS 2011 meeting in DC, mainly because as chair-elect of Section Z (Linguistics) I'm duty-bound to be here, but also partly because I'm giving a talk in a symposium tomorrow afternoon on "The Digitization of Science: Reproducibility and Interdisciplinary Knowledge Transfer". The session was organized by Victoria Stodden, and this is its abstract:

Scientific computation is emerging as absolutely central to the scientific method, but the prevalence of very relaxed practices is leading to a credibility crisis affecting many scientific fields. It is impossible to verify most of the results that computational scientists present at conferences and in papers today. Reproducible computational research, in which all details of computations — code and data — are made conveniently available to others, is a necessary response to this crisis. This session addresses reproducible research from three critical vantage points: the consequences of reliance on unverified code and results as a basis for clinical drug trials; groundbreaking new software tools for facilitating reproducible research and pioneered in a bioinformatics setting; and new survey results elucidating barriers scientists face in the practice of open science as well as proposed policy solutions designed to encourage open data and code sharing. A rapid transition is now under way — visible particularly over the past two decades — that will finish with computation as absolutely central to scientific enterprise, cutting across disciplinary boundaries and international borders and offering a new opportunity to share knowledge widely.

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Your brain on ___?

A couple of days ago, the New York Times published another in its Your Brain on Computers series, which "examine(s) how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave". The latest installment is Matt Richtel's "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction", 11/21/2010:

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

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The worst science journalism ever?

Here at Language Log, we've been known to complain from time to time about language-related reporting in the popular press.  But a couple of days ago, when I clicked on a link in the science section of Google News and hit John Brandon's "Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist", Fox News, 4/5/2010, I was reminded that things could be worse.

Look past the details of a wonky discovery by a group of California scientists — that a quantum state is now observable with the human eye — and consider its implications: Time travel may be feasible. Doc Brown would be proud.

The strange discovery by quantum physicists at the University of California Santa Barbara means that an object you can see in front of you may exist simultaneously in a parallel universe — a multi-state condition that has scientists theorizing that traveling through time may be much more than just the plaything of science fiction writers.

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Why men don't listen

A web search for the phrase "Men don't listen" turns up lots of pop-psychology books and articles. There's Allan and Barbara Pease's relationship self-help book Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps;  an online chapter from the book Be Your Own Therapist with the title "Men Don't Listen; Men Don't Communicate"; another self-help book, by Wayne Misner, that's called just plain Men Don't Listen; an MSNBC Today article "Honey, did you hear me? Why men don't listen"; a BBC News Health article from 2000, "Why men don't listen?". And that's just on the first page.

Most of these books and articles propose a biological basis for the phenomenon.

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The defend-your-turf area?

OK, I'm back in Philadelphia and my copy of Louann Brizendine's The Male Brain has arrived. I still haven't had time to read it, but I promised to look up the business about the dorsal premammillary nucleus, so here goes.

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Olympic overfitting?

According to William Heuslein, "The man who predicts the medals", Forbes Magazine, 1/19/2010

Daniel Johnson makes remarkably accurate Olympic medal predictions. But he doesn't look at individual athletes or their events. The Colorado College economics professor considers just a handful of economic variables to come up with his prognostications.

The result: Over the past five Olympics, from the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney through the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Johnson's model demonstrated 94% accuracy between predicted and actual national medal counts.

First question: what do you think it means to "demonstrate 94% accuracy between predicted and actual national medal counts"?

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The business of newspapers is news

At the Atlantic, David Shenk mediates an exchange of letters between Mark Blumberg and Nicholas Wade about the appropriateness of calling FOXP2 a "speech gene",  about "gene for X" thinking in general, and about the nature of science journalism:

Blumberg: Trumping up FOXP2 as yet another star gene in a series of star genes (the "god" gene, the "depression" gene, the "schizophrenia" gene, etc.) not only sets FOXP2 up for a fall; it also misses an opportunity to educate the public about how complex behavior – including the capacity for language – develops and evolves.

Wade: I'm a little puzzled by your complaint, which seems to me to ignore the special dietary needs of a newspaper's readers and to assume they can be served indigestible fare similar to that in academic journals. [...]

As for missing an opportunity to educate the public, that, with respect, is your job, not mine.  Education is the business of schools and universities. The business of newspapers is news.

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The Full Liberman

On The Lousy Linguist, blogger Chris takes on a media report on "The Healthiest Way To Fight With Your Husband" (linked to via Slate):

It's a classic piece of idiot journalism worthy of a Full Liberman* if only it weren't so trivial and obvious as to be beneath the man, so I'll take a crack at it.

… *I'm going to start using the term "The Full Liberman" to refer to Mark Liberman's excellent manner of debunking bad journalism (see here and here for examples).

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Native wails

In today's newspapers and magazines:

"Newborns cry in their native language".
"Babies cry with an accent within the first week of life".
"Babies cry wiith the same 'prosody' or melody used in their native language by the second day of life".
"Newborn babies mimic the intonation of their native tongue when they cry".
"French babies cry in French, German babies cry in German and, no doubt, the wail of an English infant betrays the distinct tones of a soon-to-be English speaker".

The science behind these statements is in a paper released yesterday: Birgit Mampe, Angela D. Friederici, Anne Christophe and Kathleen Wermke, "Newborns' Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language", Current Biology, in press. Does it support these journalistic generalizations? Before reading the paper, I give ten-to-one odds against, on the general principle that journalistic statements involving generic plurals are almost never true. Mesdames et messieurs, faites vos jeux. Let's spin the wheel.

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