You might think the cartoon about the science news cycle that Mark Liberman recently reproduced here is exaggerating the silliness of newspaper reports of scientific findings. It isn't. Take a look at today's example, from the psychology of language and music. Diana Deutsch of the University of California, San Diego, has recently shown that possession of perfect musical pitch (ability to state the pitch of an isolated note without having first heard a reference note) correlates with two environmental factors: (i) having early musical training, and (ii) being a fluent speaker of a tone language such as Mandarin Chinese. Now here is the opening sentence of what the Metro (a free paper in the UK) made of it this morning:
You can develop musical skill comparable to Hendrix and Sinatra — if you learn an East Asian language.
I swear I'm not making this up: take Chinese lessons and you can be like Jimi Hendrix, that's their take. (They then go on to say that tone language speakers are more likely to have perfect pitch, as if that were an expansion of the content of the first sentence, that's about it, except for crediting Deutsch as belonging to the nonexistent "California University".) It barely needs the commentary that I've decided I'm not going to give, does it? When Language Log tells you that science reports touching on language are often so stupid that it boggles the mind, don't imagine that we're exaggerating.
The paper by Deutsch was written with coauthors Kevin Dooley, Trevor Henthorn, and Brian Head. The popular version of the paper, which anyone can access and anyone with a journalism degree should be able to understand, is posted here. It really does seem to be language, not ethnic or racial group membership, that is relevant: Asians who understand a tone language but aren't fluent speakers of it don't score significantly differently from Caucasians who don't speak a tone language. It's having fluent knowledge of a tone language is associated with probability of having perfect pitch, not something like being of Chinese extraction. Deutsch does not mention having tested any Caucasians who have learned to speak a tone language with real fluency; that would be a particularly interesting thing to look at. The Metro piece implies that we know what the result would be (they'd all be Hendrices and Sinatrae), but of course the article by Deutsch doesn't support that at all.
Did Hendrix or Sinatra have perfect pitch, by the way? Has that got a damn thing to do with what Deutsch is talking about? I don't think so.