More on "vocal fry"

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Josef Fruehwald has an excellent post "On vocal fry". (For some background, see "Vocal fry: 'creeping in' or 'still here'?", 12/12/2011.)

He observes that the media coverage has been an intellectual "train wreck", and he promises to explore the whys and wherefores in a future post. I'll look forward to his analysis — but I came to my own conclusion a few years ago ("Bible Science Stories", 12/2/2006):

I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

What would the producers of CNN Headline News, NPR's "Wait, wait, don't tell me" or the BBC's "Have I got news for you" say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story.


  1. MattF said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    Well, it's not a complete loss. If someone wants to do a study of speech patterns associated with 'expertise', that Today show segment would be exhibit A.

  2. jan said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    I hope it's okay to mention earlier examples.

    I remember hearing a song over the intercom at a drug store…I think
    "The Tide Is High"; according to Wikipedia…

    "…a 1967 song written by John Holt and originally performed by The Paragons with John Holt as lead singer. The song went mainly unnoticed in the rest of the world until it was rediscovered in 1980 when it became a US/UK number 1 hit for the band Blondie."

    The way she sings the phrase, "I'm not!".

    And in an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, the gang is in Mary's bathroom while she's taking a bath, somebody drops something, I think a ring, into the bathtub, so Ted starts to reach in to retrieve it and Mary says with emphasis, "Don't you dare!" with "dare" pronounced very low.

    Come to think of it, Carol Burnett often did that.

  3. Faldone said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    Ever since this vocal fry thing hit the big time I've been listening for it. Lots of people of all walks exhibit it, some more subtle than others. Males tend to be more subtle in their vocal fry but it certainly isn't absent in males.

  4. Avinor said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 6:59 am

    Funny that it is seen (true or not) as a something typical of young trend-following women in American English.

    In a recent Swedish sitcom ("Starke man", think The Office at a small-town mayor's office) actress Anna Blomberg uses (what I think is) the same thing to portray a bored middle-aged municipal administrator. One of the Youtube commenters describes it as "tråkröst", "boring voice", which is exactly how it comes off in Swedish:

  5. Alan Gunn said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    Why are you surprised? Last week, the AP ran a story showing that poverty in America was at a record high. Their evidence? Data showing that half of all Americans now have an annual income at or below the median. And a New York Times columnist jumped in, explaining that even those reactionary conservatives, faced with this study, wouldn't be able to deny the extent of poverty. Somewhere there may be college graduates dumber than journalists, but I haven't run across any yet. People who don't know what a median is aren't likely to do any better with a science story that at least seems plausible if you don't look into it.

    [(myl) Do you have a link? Not that I doubt your word, mind, but we don't want to start our own urban legends here. Actually, I do doubt your word, a bit, because the only relevant things I could find in a search of the AP wire were variants of this story, which doesn't contain the claim that you assert to have been present. There's an argument that the circular claim is implicit in the way that the "poverty line" is calculated, but that's a different matter.

    Back in 2004, I noted an article in a student newspaper that featured this quotation: "Hess said some of the act's problems go beyond funding. The tests being used are formulated so that 50 percent of the test-takers will fall below the median score — in effect setting school districts up for failure no matter how much preparation students receive, he said."

    So I recognize that stuff like this can get published, though I often suspect secret Ninja infiltrators from The Onion. But I've never seen this particular trope in the AP's news feed, and if it really happened, I'd like to document it.

    My point, in any case, is that ignorance of science (and even lack of common sense) is not the real problem in media coverage of science. The issue is that the overall goals of the media enterprise have little or nothing to do with truth, except to the extent that reputational or even legal damage might be at risk. In the case of science reporting, the reputational and legal effects of misleading or even outright fictional stories are generally small, and so PR departments, reporters, and editors are free to pursue their other goals of maximizing the popularity of their stories by providing entertainment, confirmation or denial of stereotypes, and general moral lessons.]

  6. Michael Straight said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    I think this is right. I think the media does two kinds of science stories:

    1. Stories about science that has an immediate and obvious bearing on public policies. These stories are usually about which side in a particular debate benefits from the scientific findings.

    2. Everything else. These stories are basically entertainment. "Hey! Look at this!" They don't care if it's true, it's just a bit of interesting fluff.

    The astronomer Matthew Bailes complained that the media accepted his discovery of "diamond planets" without question while dismissing much stronger evidence for global warming. The reason is because no one really cares whether his diamond planets are real or not.

  7. David B. said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    Regarding "possible damage to the vocal cords", what death-metal singers (both male and female) do to theirs is leagues beyond this, and as far as I know, incidents of long-term damage are minimal.

  8. MikeA said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    @David B.
    That's possibly because the big-leaguers have taken Scream Training.
    Seriously. Would you play rugby without a few pointers?

  9. Zach Blume said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 3:59 am

    I thought Mr. Fruehwald went pretty hard on the authors..then I read this, where one author goes *way* farther with her claims:

    " 'It's so obvious and unnatural, using vocal fry is bound to catch attention,' said Dr. Abdelli-Beruh… there is definitely a prevalence when you consider the rate of young college female students using it on a regular basis on the C.W. Post Campus."

    "…While men and women are both able to use vocal fry, a study done by the C.W. Post team found that males usually don't. The exception is found in some dialects of British English where the male usage is more common."

    I'm baffled by that. What is she citing as evidence for this? Mr. Fruehwald's analysis seems spot on, anecdotally I hear people use vocal fry all of the time. I would be shocked to see anything vastly contradicting that, however Dr. Abdelli-Beruh's claims are pretty specific.

    [(myl) University PR people are just as likely as reporters to push researchers in the direction of a story line that they think will sell — we've documented many cases of good researchers who end up being promoted by press releases that appear to describe a completely different piece of research than what was actually done and reported on, e.g. here or here. In such cases, the researchers themselves can be anywhere between innocent victims and active instigators.

    In this case, it seems that the press release is based on a mixture of remarks in the literature, not-yet-reported research, anecdotal impression, and pure invention, all seasoned with a generous pinch of hype. Exactly what the recipe was, and who did what in the kitchen, are things that we don't know.]

  10. a George said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    It is a long time since I heard the little story told by a computer as an example of synthesized speech, "The Sun and the North Wind were arguing one day…" . Do I remember incorrectly, or was there a distinct vocal fry?

  11. Azimuth said,

    December 24, 2011 @ 11:42 pm

    Vocal fry now may seem coolly sexy, like carefully mussed hair. But I think the collegiate women with the rough, cracking voices that I heard back in the early 1990's had eating disorders.

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