Belles infidèles in the neuroscience of bilingualism

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Following up on "Citation crimes and misdemeanors" (9/9/2017), Breffni O'Rourke sent in a link to Michel Paradis, "More belles infidèles — or why do so many bilingual studies speak with forked tongue?", Journal of Neurolinguistics 2006:

This note reports misquotations, misinterpretations, misrepresentations, inaccuracies and plain falsehoods found in the literature on the neuroscience of bilingualism. They are astounding in both number and kind. Authors cite papers that do not exist, or that exist but are absolutely irrelevant to, or even occasionally argue against, the point they are cited to support; or they attribute a statement to the wrong source, sometimes to a person who has vehemently and persistently argued against it. Obvious errors are quoted for years by numerous authors who have not read the original paper, until somebody blows the whistle — and even then, some persevere. As Darwin [Darwin, C. (1872). The origin of species. 6th edition. New York: A. L. Burt.] put it: ‘great is the power of steady misrepresentation’.

A footnote explains the French phrase in the title:

Les belles infidèles (literally, ‘the unfaithful pretty ones’) refers to a literary practice popular in 19th century France, whereby translators would ‘improve’ on the source text and thus not be very faithful to the original (Zuber, 1968). The simile is that often facts or statements are reported in a light that makes them look favorable to one’s hypotheses, sometimes calling for some inadvertent embellishment. Sometimes, of course, the facts reported are simply blatantly false, for no apparent reason but lack of rigor on the part of the writer.

And in case you're curious, as I was, about the source of the Darwin quote, it comes from the start of chapter XV "Recapitulation and Conclusion" in later editions of The Origin of Species, e.g. from the 1872 edition (emphasis added):

I have now recapitulated the facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent. This has been effected chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favourable variations; aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner, that is, in relation to adaptive structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously. It appears that I formerly underrated the frequency and value of these latter forms of variation, as leading to permanent modifications of structure independently of natural selection. But as my conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position–namely, at the close of the Introduction–the following words: "I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification." This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.

It often seems to me that Darwin might have underestimated the endurance of misrepresentation, and Paradis certainly  supports this doubt, with a barrage of shocking examples. You should read the whole thing — I won't recapitulate its content here. But  I will take issue with one quantitative point. Paradis writes:

Massina et al. (2000) may hold the world record for cockeyed citations. These authors manage, in one single paper, to cite two nonexistent articles and another three that are absolutely irrelevant to the issue in support of which they are cited. They also refer to two nonexistent journals and three fictitious authors.

I believe that the world record in question still belongs to Brizendine (2006). In "Open-access sex stereotypes", 9/10/2006, I found nine (of nine) irrelevant articles listed in just one of that work's hundreds of end-notes. And in several other posts, I found other end-notes to be similarly irrelevant or empty, leading me to wonder whether the author or editor had hired a research assistant who coped with the long list of unsupported (and often unsupportable) assertions by throwing in whatever references some scientific information-retrieval system turned up.

But Paradis deserves the last word:

The reader will notice that the title of this article ends not with a period, but with a question mark. It is therefore not a promise to give the reasons why. What follows is thus not an attempt to answer the query. Rather, it is a rhetorical question of the type ‘why on earth?’ and has the elocutionary force of an imprecation to the gods. Nor will there be any attempt on my part at double guessing the intentions of the authors concerned. What is reported speaks for itself. Readers are free to reach their own conclusions. The proposed message is that nothing should be read uncritically—including this article. This is not an exercise in pedantry. It is a serious exhortation to readers to read with a critical eye whatever is found in print, even by reliable authors in prestigious publications. It is also a denunciation of certain practices, such as citing something that someone else has cited, without checking the source. One may be surprised to find out that the author in whose article the citation is found had not checked it either, sometimes with very unfortunate consequences: misinterpretations, misrepresentations, inaccuracies and plain falsehoods. This is why it is important to refer to the original sources and beware of secondhand reports, as the few examples below will illustrate.


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

    I think in that last para Paradis means illocutionary force, not elocutionary (elocution is about diction, i.e. phonetics; illocution is about the semantico-pragmatic effect of utterances: stating, asking, ordering, promising, begging…).

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

    Perhaps Anne Coulter doesn't qualify because she's not a scholar, or anywhere being a scholar, but her 2002 book, "Slander," may have set some sort of record. According to a number of sources, including Huffington Post, Salon, and the Daily Howler, many of the 780 footnotes in that book pointed to sources that were either irrelevant or said exactly the opposite of what she claimed they said.

  3. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

    There's a lovely phrase quoted from Pulvermueller in the concluding section: "the radical and respectless critique that is a necessary condition for scientific progress." Hear hear. If I have sometimes seemed a bit radical and respectless in my criticisms of this or that, just think of it as my humble attempt at service to science.

  4. Brett said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    @Ralph Hickok: Future senator Al Franken has a detailed discussion of the obscenely poor quality of Ann Coulter's research, through an analysis of her endnotes (not footnotes) in his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

  5. Brian Ogilvie said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

    As a former Darwin scholar, I feel obliged to point out that there was no 1856 edition of _On the Origin of Species_, which was first published in 1859.

    [(myl) Sorry! Slip of the fingers, or perhaps the brain — date and link have been corrected…]

  6. KeithB said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 6:08 pm

    Any comment on AN Wilson's new book?

  7. Rubrick said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 6:09 pm

    "A heretofore unknown edition of On the Origin of Species*…"

    *Liberman, 2017

  8. Dominik Lukes said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 4:35 am

    My candidate in linguistics is a book called Structure of Language by Townend and Walker incredibly published by Wiley. They don't make up any references but most of their 2 pages of references are wildly irrelevant and out of date, most hilariously referencing every single book by Chomsky without actually dealing with anything that is in them and from the brief mentions obviously not having read them. The book itself is not horrible for its intended audience and purpose, though. (BTW: Just noticed that the Wiley website description spells 'grammar' as 'grammer', indicating the level of editorial attention this must have received.)

    This sort of referencing topoi are very common in scholarly literature and are one of the ways through which scholarly prestige increases but is barely more than name dropping. My favourite example was a book on Coptic published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s that listed Stalin's work on language first – out of the alphabetical order in the list of references. The cult of personality parallels are not incidental (if more than a little hyperbolic).

    [(myl) Interestingly, the "grammer" spelling can be found in the table of contents on the Wiley blurb page:

    but not in the book itself, at least as represented by amazon:


  9. mg said,

    September 13, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

    I was going to write that this reflects badly on the peer reviewers, but then remembered that I don't usually check the references – it never occurred to me that they might be plagiarized or made up!

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