MSM science bait

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Jorge Cham at PhD Comics follows up on his analysis of the science news cycle:

In the general area of language, two of Cham's topic areas apply without modification: robots and unrealistic sci-fi gadgets. Other sure-fire linguistic MSM bait includes talking animals, individual genes "for" language as a whole or more specific linguistic abilities, the decay of standards among kids today, deleterious effects of recent technology, sex differences, languages that have too few or too many words for X, and of course, that elusive millionth word.

I don't think that we have any equivalent of chocolate or of experiments that might blow up the world, unfortunately. We do have various forms of "words that guarantee success"; and I keep hoping for the evolution of some mutated "tower of babel" meme (Twitter! It causes accelerated sociolectal divergence! Which affects the brain! Soon no one will be able to understand anyone else! Or even themselves! I'll put a grad student on it right away…).

[Update: I should have checked — a Google Scholar search for {linguistics chocolate} yields 17,800 hits, of which the first is Karen Dakin and Søren Wichmann, "Cacao and Chocolate: A Uto-Aztecan Perspective", Ancient Mesoamerica 11:55-75, 2000. This looks like an excellent paper, but despite its iconoclastic thesis, it does not seem to have been picked up by the mass media:

The origin of the words ‘cacao’ and ‘chocolate’ and their use in the reconstruction of the early history of Mesoamerica, remain very controversial issues. Cambell and Kaufman (1976, American Antiquity 41:80–89), for example, proposed that the word ‘cacao’ originated from Mixe–Zoque languages, thus possibly representing Olmec traditions. According to this argument, other Mesoamerican languages, including Nahuatl, borrowed the word as a symbol of prestige and Olmec influence. Other researchers claim the word ‘chocolate’ represents a more recent neologism, a possible Maya–Nahuatl hybrid, due to the late appearance of the word in central Mexico’s Colonial sources. We refute the putative Mixe–Zoque origin of ‘cacao’ and provide linguistic evidence to propose that ‘cacao,’ like ‘chocolate,’ is a Uto-Aztecan term. Analysis of these words highlights general and particular evolutionary trends that originate from the Uto-Aztecan language family. In addition, we show that these two words were initially used as descriptive terms to refer to the shape of the plant’s bean and the techniques of drink preparation. Etymological evidence verifies the use of a Mayan term for cacao as early as the Classic period (fourth century a.d.). This early appearance of the term in Mayan and the later diffusion of the Nahua word throughout all of Mesoamerica correlate with additional data to support the conclusion that Teotihuacanos spoke Nahuatl.

I suspect that the ball was dropped by the PR departments of the Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and the Department of History of Religions at the University of Copenhagen, who could perhaps have figured out a way to work in (the lack of connections to) von Daniken's Maya Astronaut and Mel Gibson's Mayan Apocalypse of 2012.]


  1. Sili said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    I'm sure you could get a headline out of a culture with no word for chocolate.

    Btw did you know that the Belgians have 117 words for chocolate?

  2. Thomas Westgard said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    Maybe some linguist could apply their cunning to a study on how journalists bungle news reporting.

  3. Mr Punch said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    There's almost a linguistic equivalent of chocolate, I think: taboo terms relating (or not, depending upon the legal argument) to sexual matters. The reason it's "almost" is that the MSM has difficulty in actually reporting these stories.

  4. Paul Frederick said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    How about: "In Bengali, the word for chocolate is the same as the word for intuition."

  5. Fred said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    Healthy invisible chocolate robots blow up the world!

  6. parvomagnus said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    "Scientists report that hearing the word 'chocolate' too often can remove 20 IQ points in women – even worse than social networking sites such as facebook. Affected women rarely managed more than 10,000 words per day, and are markedly less Venusian."

  7. Cecily said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    The main concern with Facebook is surely not the possible loss of a few IQ points, but the fact that Facebook gives you cancer. At least, that's what the Daily Mail would have us believe:
    A prime example of the dangerous misreporting of science that this and the previous phdcomic are trying to highlight.

  8. rpsms said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    Portraits of dogs are the chocolate news story of the art world…

  9. Bob Ray said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    They've left out at least three research topics that are guaranteed to be covered in the popular press:

    1. Purported brain differences between males and females.

    2. Purported brain differences between gay and straight people.

    3. How humans are like/unlike other primates.

  10. Chris said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    Cecily raises another example that got left out of the PhD comic: cancer. Anything that can *possibly* be rearranged to say that some substance or activity gives you cancer or prevents cancer will be reported, regardless of how weak the correlation or how small the effect size.

    Other diseases may or may not have the same effect, but cancer is guaranteed.

  11. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    @Bob Ray:

    I don't recall any MSM stories about how humans are *unlike* other primates – though in all fairness, I can see that such stories might not appear terribly newsworthy …

    It's true that evolutionary psychology and such seem to be surefire MSM-bait.

    I think this is actually a specific instance of a much more wide-ranging MSM failing:

    "We already know the story: now we need a news item to illustrate it".

    Preexisting stories are pretty easy to spot: add a few dozen of your own favourites:

    "Nothing happens in Africa except atrocities and natural disasters."
    "We are well on the way to explaining the human mind by applied neurology."
    "Science/medicine advances by breakthroughs, giant leaps brought about by mavericks. The scientific/medical establishment opposes these saintly and inspired people out of envy and pride."
    "There is no fundamental difficulty in explaining everything about an organism from its DNA, which succinctly encodes its entire structure. We know the code,after all."
    "Human beings are not only animals, but in fact not in any important way particularly distinctive."
    "Men and women are fundamentally different psychologically. Science has invalidated feminism and to suppose otherwise is just wishful thinking."

    In principle, the preexisting story might be absolutely true, I suppose, but the trouble with stories like that is they can't provide the slight "so there" frisson that seems to be needed for a real classic, and it wouldn't really be newsworthy any more.

  12. Andrew said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

    One thing I have noticed is the tendency of media to say that a discovery has been made 'by' a university. This, of course, completely distorts how universities work. I think it may also give a spurious air of authority to some results – if a team of researchers at Oxford says something, another team of researchers at Oxford may disagree, but if the University of Oxford says it, it must be true, mustn't it?

  13. dr pepper said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

    Farmers in Minitoba say that their ring tailed lemurs all pronounce the word "chocolate" in the same local accents as the humans. Except for the isolated township of South Jasper, where the lemurs are reputed to say "carob" instead. Scientists attribute this to a gene that affects the shape of the crockus.

  14. Lugubert said,

    May 23, 2009 @ 6:45 am

    If media in year n reports that substance X causes cancer, what are the odds that media in year (n+1) reports that substance X protects you from cancer, and vice versa? Or is it unethical to bet on a sure thing?

  15. Robert said,

    May 23, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    Dividing substances into those that cause and those that prevent cancer is sometimes known as the oncology ontology.

    But yes, Lugubert, it appears that sunlight both causes and prevents cancer.

  16. Alex said,

    May 24, 2009 @ 5:06 am

    Talking animals/animal language is also guaranteed to make the headlines

  17. Noetica said,

    May 24, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    Healthy invisible chocolate robots blow up the world!

    The death toll includes women and children.

  18. Philip said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    It's too bad the Dakin and Wichmann article didn't get more press – it's a good investigation of a topic with very little prior work.

  19. Assorted Links | NineCents said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 12:18 am

    […] Assorted Links Posted on May 28th, 2009 by Michael The Science News Cycle, via Mark Liberman.  Followup here. […]

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