Archive for Ethics

Normative language

A matter that requires nuancing: Jinyi Kuang and Cristina Bicchieri, "Language matters: how normative expressions shape norm perception and affect norm compliance", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2024:

Abstract: Previous studies have used various normative expressions such as ‘should’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘approved’ interchangeably to communicate injunctions and social norms. However, little is known about whether people's interpretations of normative language differ and whether behavioural responses might vary across them. In two studies (total n = 2903), we find that compliance is sensitive to the types of normative expressions and how they are used. Specifically, people are more likely to comply when the message is framed as an injunction rather than as what most people consider good behaviour (social norm framing). Behaviour is influenced by the type of normative expression when the norm is weak (donation to charities), not so when the norm is strong (reciprocity). Content analysis of free responses reveals individual differences in the interpretation of social norm messages, and heterogeneous motives for compliance. Messages in the social norm framing condition are perceived to be vague and uninformative, undermining their effectiveness. These results suggest that careful choice of normative expressions is in order when using messages to elicit compliance, especially when the underlying norms are weak.

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Old Long Since: Firefly light, snow on the window

Yesterday, on New Year's Eve, I was sending around, to family and friends, the lyrics and melody of the beloved song we sing at this time of year (here [The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin], here, [Rod Stewart]).  I also circulated the Wikipedia article so that people could know the ballads and folk songs that preceded Robert Burns' famous poem (1788).

This morning when I awoke, I received the following message from Martin Schwartz:

Shortly before midnight I googled Auld Lang Syne, which we were singing, and the first entry had the lyrics plus a Japanese translation.  It may be interesting to see how Burns' Scots lyrics were rendered in Japanese.

It is indeed interesting to see how these Scottish sentiments are presented in this East Asian language.  Thoughtfully, the source provided an English translation for the Japanese.

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Sogdians and Xiongnu / Huns

The ethnicity and language of the Xiongnu / Huns (the names are related, but that is not to say they are exactly the same peoples across the stretch of time during which they existed) have long been enigmas for scholars of Chinese and Inner / Central Asian history during the late first millennium BC and early first millennium AD.  Recently discovered archeological evidence may shed new light on these puzzles.

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ESL spam scam? (updated)

I just got an email from WordPress notifying me of a comment awaiting approval at LAWnLinguistics. Here is the comment, in full:

This is Pam, and English is my 1st language. I'm for real, and would like you to get back in touch with me.

The comment makes four assertions:

  1. This is Pam
  2. English is my 1st language.
  3. I'm for real,
  4. and would like you to get back in touch with me.

It's almost certain that three of those four assertions are false. Does anyone want to guess which is the one that is true?

CLARIFICATION (after reading the first five or six comments, all guessing wrong): For the benefit of those who want to submit a guess, note that what prompted this post was the content of the comment, not anything about its word choice, syntax, punctuation, etc.

HINT (after reading more wrong guesses): Pragmatics.

HINT IN THE FORM OF A QUESTION (after reading still more guesses that are not only wrong but aren't even close): How often have you encountered a situation in which, upon your initial contact with someone who is a complete stranger, the first thing they say after introducing themself is "English [or some other language] is my 1st language?

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Open Access Handbooks in Linguistics!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrung my hands on Facebook over the proliferation of commercial publishers' Handbooks of Linguistics. These are usually priced out of individuals' budgets, being sold mostly to university libraries, and the thousands of hours of work poured into them by dedicated linguists are often lost behind a paywall, inaccessible to many of the people who would most like to read them.

That post prompted a flood of urgent discussion; it seemed like this was a thought that was being simultaneously had around the world. (Indeed, Kai von Fintel had posted the identical thought about six months prior; probably that butterfly was the ultimate cause of the veritable hurricane  that erupted on my feed.)

Long story short, a few weeks later we now have a proto-editorial board and are on to the next steps of identifying a venue and a business model for the series. Please check out our announcement below the fold, and follow along on our blog for updates as the series develops!

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New frontiers in bullshitology

Gordon Pennycook, James Allan CheyneNathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, & Jonathan A. Fugelsang, "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit", Judgment and Decision Making 2015:

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

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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 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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