Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Andrew Sullivan, Please Take a Cog Sci Class!!!!

Even though he blogs at a mere undergrad level (I’m slightly higher, heehee) I basically respect Andrew Sullivan as a blogger. He blogs about a diverse set of topics and has thoughtful and intelligent (even if controversial) comments and analysis. And he’s prolific, to say the least (surely the advantage of being a professional blogger, rather than stealing the spare moment at work while your test suite runs its course). That said, he can sometimes really come across as a snobbish little twit. Like yesterday when he linked to an article about Shakespearean language which talks about a psycholinguistics study initiated by an English professor, Philip Davis; as is so often the case, the professor has wildly exaggerated the meaning of the study. Please see Language Log’s post Distracted By The Brain for related discussion. Here’s crucial quote from that post:

The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

My claim: the neuroscience study discussed in the Davis article distracts the reader from Davis’s essentially absurd interpretations, and Andrew Sullivan takes the bait, hook, line and sinker (and looks like a twit in the end).

The article does not go into the crucial details of the study, but it says that it involves EEG (electroencephalogram) and MEG (magnetoencephalograhy) and fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) noting that only the EEG portion has been completed. A pretty impressive array of tools for a single psycholinguistics study, I must say. Most published articles in the field would involve one or maybe two of these, but all three for a single study? Wow, impressive.

It’s not clear to me if this was a well designed study or not (my hunch is, no, it is a poorly designed study, but without the crucial details, I really don’t know). However, it is undeniable that professor Davis has gone off the deep end of interpretation. The study does not even involve Shakespearean English!!! It involves Modern English! Then Davis makes the following claims (false, all of them, regardless of the study):

["word class conversion"] is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another(underlines added)

This is the classic English professor bullshit. I don’t even know what “economically compressed” means (Davis gives no definition); it has no meaning to linguistics that I know of. The quote also suggests Shakespeare’s English had some sort of magical linguistic qualities that today’s English does not possess. FALSE! Modern English allows tremendous productivity of constructions, neologisms, and ambiguity. A nice introduction to ambiguity can be found here: Ambiguous Words by George A. Miller.

Davis ends with a flourish of artistic bullshit hypothesizing:

For my guess, more broadly, remains this: that Shakespeare's syntax, its shifts and movements, can lock into the existing pathways of the brain and actually move and change them—away from old and aging mental habits and easy long-established sequences.

Neuroplasticity is only just now being studied in depth and it’s far from well understood, but the study in question says NOTHING about plasticity!!! There’s also no reason to believe that Shakespeare’s language does anything that other smart, well crafted language does not do. And we’re a generation at least away from having the tools to study any of this.

I’m accustomed to simply letting these all too common chunks of silliness go without comment, but then Andrew had to slip in his unfortunate bit of snooty arrogance. After pasting a chunk of the obvious linguistics bullshit on his site (then follow-up comments), he has to finish with "I knew all that already". Exactly what did you know, Andrew? Since all of the major claims Davis makes are obvious bullshit, what exactly do you claim to have had prior knowledge of? What did Andrew know, and when did he know it?

Really, Andrew, did you never take so much as a single linguistics course during all your years at Harvard and Oxford? The University at Maryland has excellent psycholinguists as does Georgetown. Please, consider sitting in on a course, won’t you?

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