Reverse Whorfianism and the value of SHAs

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Yesterday's Zits:

For a teenage boy, according to this joke, the idea of cleaning up his own messes is so alien that learning to understand its expression in simple English is part of learning a foreign language. I suspect that the stereotype is at least somewhat unfair, in terms of age as well as sex; but this comic strip also mocks (and thus illustrates) a common tendency to equate language and thought.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as advanced by its original authors, involved the rather limited idea that the obligatory morpho-syntactic categories of a language influence the habitual thought patterns of its speakers. Even in this form, the hypothesis remains controversial. But it's often distorted into various extreme and easily-refuted forms, such as the idea that a culture's interest in X can reliably be calibrated in terms of its number of monomorphemic words for X-related concepts; or worse, the truly bizarre idea that if you can't express a concept in a single word, then you can't understand it.

It's easy to see why people fall into these fallacies, because there are closely-related concepts that are pretty clearly true. I encountered one example a few months ago in reading James Flynn's book What is Intelligence? (for the context, see "One question, two answers, three interpretations", 8/14/2008).

Flynn writes (p. 146):

IQ gains are less than half the story of the cognitive history of the twentieth century. There are other intellectual qualities, namely, critical acumen and wisdom, that IQ tests were not designed to measure and do not measure and these are equally worthy of attention. […]

There is one encouraging development. Over the last century and a half, science and philosophy have invaded the language of educated people … by giving them words and phrases that can greatly increase their critical acumen. Each of these terms stands for a cluster of interrelated ideas that virtually spell out a method of critical analysis applicable to social and moral issues. I will call them shorthand abstractions (or SHAs), it being understood that they are abstractions with peculiar analytic significance.

He gives a sort of top-ten list of SHAs along with "the date they entered educated usage" according to the OED. His list is market, percentage, natural selection, control group, random sample, naturalistic fallacy, charisma effect, placebo, falsifiable/tautology, and tolerance school fallacy.

[The last of these terms somewhat undermines Flynn's optimism about the historical trend, since it's his own invention, and as he wryly notes, "somehow my coining this term has not made it into common currency". It means "the fallacy of concluding that we should respect the good of all because nothing can be shown to be good".]

Anyhow, Flynn's idea is that these words and phrases are the outward and visible sign of increasing "critical acumen and wisdom" in the culture that developed them. Some people will surely disagree, but I'm not among them.

In fact, I'd like to add a few things to Flynn's list, starting with a list of shorthand abstractions that have to do with ways of thinking and talking about properties of sets, and have been featured in many  Language Log posts over the years. The outward and visible signs of this set of interrelated concepts are terms like odds ratio, percentile, standard deviation, effect size, and contingency table. Here's an illustrative sample of relevant posts:  "Thou shalt not report odds ratios", 7/30/2007; "Gabby guys: the effect size", 9/23/2006; The 'gender happiness gap'", 10/4/2007; The Pirahã and us", 10/6/2007; "Scrupulously avoiding sigma", 3/2/2008; "Is autism the symptom of an 'extreme white brain'?", 3/26/2008; "Steven D. Levitt: pwned by the base rate fallacy?", 4/10/2008.

Although these are all statistical terms, I'd argue that the associated concepts belong to linguistics in the same sense that the concepts developed by logicians for talking about truth and consequences do. (These include things like sense and reference, de re vs. de dicto, entailment, implicature, quantifier scope, and so on.)

The crucial ways of thinking and talking about the properties of sets don't require anything beyond junior-high-school math to understand.  But the associated methods of critical analysis seem still to be mostly lacking among the sample of educated people represented by journalists in general, science journalists in particular, and even scientists writing for a general audience. As a result, genuine scientific results are garbled, and emerge as misleading or entirely false general statements that guide public policy choices as well decisions in private life.

Paradoxically, you could argue that the net impact of statistical concepts on public discourse in our society has been negative. They underlie scientifically valid forms of argument, but the authority of these arguments is then abused in discussions among people who overwhelmingly misunderstand and misuse them.

I wouldn't go that far — statistical reasoning has surely done far more good than harm, overall — but it's certainly long past time to increase the percentage of the population that understands it. However, it probably takes just about as much systematic practice to get comfortable with these ways of thinking and talking about the properties of groups as it does to learn to count and do basic arithmetic. So we'd be talking about a fairly large change in our culture's educational system.


  1. John Cowan said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    Papa Hegel he say that all we learn from history is that we learn
    nothing from history. I know people who can't even learn from what happened
    this morning. Hegel must have been taking the long view.
         –Chad C. Mulligan, "The Hipcrime Vocab" (in John Brunner, Stand On Zanzibar)

  2. dr pepper said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    It would probably help people understand scintific reports better if they could understand these terms easily. But obviously, codification precedes labelling, otherwise we wouldn't ever have gotten them.

  3. Bloix said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    1) "I suspect that the stereotype is at least somewhat unfair, in terms of age as well as sex; …"

    I am the father of two teenaged boys who, unless expressly reminded with particularity: (a) never turn a light out after leaving a room, (b) never clear the table, (c) leave their clothes in a heap on the floor of the bathroom when they take a shower, (d) leave empty snack bags next to the computer, (e) leave their shoes in the middle of the kitchen floor, (f) … (g) … (h) …

    So either they are just blowing us off or they literally do not understand the general instruction to clean up after themselves.

    (2) Statistics. Reporters and the like do not actually need to use the statistics they try to report on. They are not responsible for making decisions that are based on the data. Their responsibility is to produce a story that will hold a reader's eyeballs. To do that, they need to create a story line that will lead the reader to say "gee whiz!" If they do that, they've done their job. They can't try to hold the reader too long,, otherwise his or her eyes will glaze over and the reader will turn the page – and the reporter will have failed.. Therefore, the ability to understand and report statistical information accurately is a liability in a reporter for a general interest publication.

    (3) Both (1) and (2) are examples of the same phenomenon – people don't retain information that doesn't benefit them.

  4. Theodore said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    Another group of SHAs that *seems* to be increasing in general discourse of educated people and that relates directly to"critical acumen and wisdom": Formal names for logical fallacies. Humorist Lore Sjöberg runs down a few and assigns each a letter grade here:

  5. language hat said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 8:36 pm

    all we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history

    Did Hegel actually say that? People keep saying he did, but I have yet to see a reference. I tried to google a plausible German version; in German people quote him as saying simply "Die Völker lernen nichts aus der Geschichte" ['people learn nothing from history], but I can't find a source for that either.

  6. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

    A quick Internet digs up attributions to Otto von Bismarck (who seems, like Twain, to attract a lot of sayings of unclear origins) and shaw.

  7. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 3:15 am

    What do we learn from the history of attributions of quotations?

  8. Chris Lance said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 3:32 am

    @ language hat: The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations gives this from the introduction to Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction (1830, translation by HB Nisbet, 1975).

    What experience and history teach is this—that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.

  9. Chris said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 8:54 am

    @Skullturf: That attribution of quotations follows similar rules to what Bloix outlined above for reporters: it's more important for the attribution to be interesting than for it to be true. Bismarck and Twain are interesting, so attributing things to them gets spread even if it's wrong.

    Of course, if someone quotes this, they'll attribute it to someone more interesting.

  10. language hat said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    Chris Lance: Thanks very much for the attribution! At last one part of my mind can relax and enjoy the holiday season.

    But as Twain said (or was it Bismarck?), it's more important for the attribution to be interesting than for it to be true.

  11. JimG said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    'Twas written
    … if you can't express a concept in a single word, then you can't understand it. …

    And then the quotation from Flynn:
    … science and philosophy have invaded the language of educated people … by giving them words and phrases that can greatly increase their critical acumen.

    I'm not sure that one has to look so deeply into science and philosophy to find examples of individuals' inability to manage terms of art, such inability to serve as indication that the person doesn't understand the concepts of science or philosophy. Any idiot can learn buzzwords, and maybe even learn to use them with a minimum of effectiveness.

    In my experience, people who cannot use/control very simple grammar and vocabulary, in any language, cannot think logically and effectively. I have long believed that a test of basic language skills, perhaps a writing sample, should be used as a gateway screening for potential political candidates. As evidentiary examples, I point to various recent US Presidents and Vice Presidents.

  12. rpsms said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    When my grandmother suffered from dementia, the last thing to go were the catchphrases.

  13. Marcio Rocha Pereira said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    I read this post and went away but it kept bouncing in my head.

    The thing is, i kind of think in similar lines, which is to say i know Whorfianism can't really be right but it can't be wrong either, or at least there is something there that is still to be understood. The anecdotal evidence is simply that so many of my favourite philosophers where also students of language-theory (in one or another form, mind you…).

    So, yeah, the idea of SHAs seemed very tempting. For, you know, i am dealing with ideas pretty much all the time, and i do not seem to deal with them in their obvious form, like something so uncomplex that direct-denotation would be enough to explain the language content. For example, i do not think of /glasses/ and /beans/ to understand "production", nor do i think of /Bob/ and /Barbara/ to understand society. So, well, i can manipulate higher orders of abstraction, that sounds cool!

    But the problem with that is… well, the words-for-snow snowclone should convince us that people do not need to understand what they say to say it. Bloix above kind of puts his finger on it, but not quite.

    If people can say things that for me are SHA without really having an abstraction in their heads, that pretty much means that the SHA does not work without the person having made the abstraction through other means in her own head before. Ergo, language can't PRIMARILY a form of abbreviation of abstraction.

    Which is to say: SHAs can be a piece of the puzzle, but they are still not an explanation.

  14. Sili said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    If "appeal to the funnies" isn't a logical fallacy, I believe that Luann demonstrates that teenaged girls are every bit as messy and unattendant as boys.

    I'm afraid I don't like the strip enough to recall any linguistic hooks, though.

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