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Poker players know that the eyes never lie. Indeed your eyes almost always signal your intentions for the simple reason that you have to see what you intend to do.
This is an essential difference between communication with eye movement/eye contact and other forms of communication. The connection between what you know and what you say is entirely your choice and of course you will always use this freedom to your advantage. But what you are looking at and where your eyes move are inevitably linked.
Naturally your friends and enemies have learned, indeed evolved to exploit this connection. Even the tiniest changes in your gaze are detectable. As an example, think of the strange feeling of having a conversation with someone who has a lazy eye.
Given that Mother Nature reveals such a strong evolutionary advantage for reading another’s gaze the question then arises why we have not evolved to mask it from those who would take advantage? The answer must be that it would in fact not be to our advantage.
With any form of communication, sometimes you want to be truthful and other times you want to deceive. The physical link between your attention and your gaze means that, for this particular form of communication you can’t have it both ways. Outright deception being impossible, at best Nature could hide our gaze altogether, say by uniformly coloring the entire eye.
But she chose not to. By Nature’s revealed preference, this particular form of honesty is evolutionarily advantageous, at least on average.
There’s only so much time in the day so we can’t talk about everything. Given the opportunity cost, ideas that are obviously bad aren’t worth talking about, even if you are someone who always considers both sides of every issue. This means that if you discuss an idea you demonstrate that you don’t think it’s obviously bad, even if what you conclude from your discussion is that the idea is obviously bad.
Now if I think that an idea is obviously bad and I hear a friend, or politician, or media outlet engage in a discussion of both sides of that issue, I conclude that they have the wrong priorities, even if they ultimately agree with me on the idea. Therefore, my friends, politicians who want my vote, and media who want me to listen to them will not even bring up ideas that I think are obviously bad. Even if I am wrong.
The never-enigmatic Presh Talwalker analyzes the strategic bobbling occasionally effected by the heads of Indians.
I have personally witnessed this maneuver in two contexts which fall outside of the categories Presh identifies in his post.
- Indian students asking me a question and getting an answer. The ensuing head-bobble has always suggested to me something like “of course. obvious. so obvious in fact that the thundering stroke of clarity is making my head roll around.” I have also noticed that on these occasions the bobble is contagious. The Indian student sitting next to the questioner bobbles sympathetically.
- Indian classical music. The tabla player, say, will bobble just after a rapid-fire phrase. There might even be a sound emitted. It’s something like “Chella.” The whole display says something like “Behold, the rhythm is so frenetic that it is rebounding back through my arms and neck and dissapating through the top of my head. Chella.”
The atmosphere of melancholia on the show Mad Men has to broken by brief bursts of bright comedy or an undercurrent of sexual intrigue. In this instance, the show indulged in the use of (at least) three strategic ploys to distract us from the plight of sad, newly divorced Don Draper regretting he boinked his secretary.
Draper’s ad agency SCDP is facing competition from a small entrant, say agency X (I forgot the name). SCDP has lost some accounts and is bidding for a new contract from Honda. Honda has put strict limits on the bid, stipulating that only a storyboard should be presented, not a filmed ad. SCDP cannot afford to produce a filmed ad and nor can agency X. Also, Don believes the Japanese might not appreciate the rules of their auction being broken. He comes up with a bluff: pretend to make a filmed ad and thereby trick agency X into making one. The Japanese will reject them and agency X will be driven close to bankruptcy. The ploy works not because of the clichéd Japanese cultural stereotype embraced by Don but because Honda is using its own strategic ploy: it gets a better deal from its existing agency by threatening to switch to the winner from the auction.
Two players bluffing and lying.
And then another player, Dr. Faye, reveals her bluff. She is not really married and is wearing a wedding ring to ward off unwanted male attention. She tells Don and he wonders why she told him. Faye smiles slightly. We know why she revealed her hand and we wonder why Don doesn’t get read it. Married-Winner-Don of Seasons 1 to 2 and perhaps even Season 3 would have worked it out immediately. But Single-Loser-Don of Season 4 is missing even blindingly obvious signals. I guess codes will be broken in a later show.
This is in fact an excellent introduction to game theory full stop. It covers strategic and extensive games, complete and incomplete information, sequential rationality, etc. Very nicely. And then on page 64 it gets really interesting, applying evolutionary game theory to pragmatics, a field in linguistics concerned with the contextual meaning of language.
Sarcasm is a way of being nasty without leaving a paper trail.
If I say “No dear, of course I don’t mind waiting for you, in fact, sitting out here with the engine running is exactly how I planned to spend this whole afternoon” then the literal meaning of my words leaves me completely blameless despite their clearly understood venom.
This convention had to evolve. If it didn’t already exist it would be invented. A world without sarcasm would be out of equilibrium.
Because if sarcasm did not exist then I have the following arbitrage opportunity: I can have a private vindictive chuckle by giving my wife that nasty retort without her knowing I was being nasty. The dramatic irony of that is an added bonus.
That explains the invention of sarcasm. But it evolves from there. Once sarcasm comes into existence then the listener learns to recognize it. This blunts the effect but doesn’t remove it altogether. Because unless its someone who knows you very well, the listener may know that you are being sarcastic but it will not be common knowledge. She feels a little less embarrassment about the insult if there is a chance that you don’t know that she knows that you are insulting her, or if there was some higher-order uncertainty. If instead you had used plain language then the insult would be self-evident.
And even when its your spouse and she is very accustomed to your use of sarcasm, the convention still serves a purpose. Now you start to use the tone of your voice to add color to the sarcasm. You can say it in a way that actually softens the insult. ”Dinner was delicious.” A smile helps.
But you can make it even more nasty too. Because once it becomes common knowledge that you are being sarcastic, the effect is like a piledriver. She is lifted for the briefest of moments by the literal words and then it’s an even bigger drop from there when she detects the sarcasm and knows that you know that she knows …. that you intentionally set the piledriver in motion.
Sarcasm could be modeled using the tools of psychological game theory.
Are prejudices magnified depending on the language being spoken? An experiment based on a standard Implicit Association Test suggests yes.
In an Implicit Association Test pairs of words appear in sequence on a screen. Subjects are asked to classify the relationship between the words and then the time taken to determine the association is recorded. In this experiment the word pairs consisted of one name, either Jewish or Arab, and one adjective, either complimentary or negative. The task was to identify these categories, i.e. (Jewish, good); (Jewish, bad); (Arab, good); (Arab, bad).
The subjects were Israeli Arabs who were fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic.
For this study, the bilingual Arab Israelis took the implicit association test in both languages Hebrew and Arabic to see if the language they were using affected their biases about the names. The Arab Israeli volunteers found it easier to associate Arab names with “good” trait words and Jewish names with “bad” trait words than Arab names with “bad” trait words and Jewish names with “good” trait words. But this effect was much stronger when the test was given in Arabic; in the Hebrew session, they showed less of a positive bias toward Arab names over Jewish names. “The language we speak can change the way we think about other people,” says Ward. The results are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Nice. But this leaves open the possibility that, since Hebrew is the second language, all response times in the Hebrew treatment were increased simply making it harder to see the bias. I would still prefer a design like this one.
Balaclava bluster: Johnson.
Yesterday on the NPR hourly newscast the lead-in to the barefoot bandit story was this “A man allegedly known as the barefoot bandit…” Perhaps I had too much time on my hands (I had a doctor’s appointment and they always go like this: Step 1) you are 30 minutes too early Step 2) please wait for an additional hour in a room with no AT&T reception Step 3) Stop wasting our time, your blood pressure is 120 over 70, go away and never come back) but this struck me as a strange way to phrase it.
Journalists apparently have a self-imposed rule that suspects should be “alleged” to have done whatever they are suspected of, at least until they are convicted. Presumably this is to avoid prejudging guilt. Now, since this guy was just picked up, the rule applies and he is “allegedly” something. But allegedly what? ”Allegedly known as the barefoot bandit.” Is it a crime to be known as the barefoot bandit? And is that what he is accused of?
OK, there were some crimes committed and all of these crimes are thought to have been committed by the same person and that, so far unidentified, person has been given a proxy identity “the barefoot bandit.” Now we are trying to find the barefoot bandit. The linguistic complication is that since “the barefoot bandit” is not a real identity you cannot say that someone “is” the barefoot bandit. Whoever this criminal is, he is “AKA (*also* known as) the barefoot bandit.” We are not literally looking for someone who is called the barefoot bandit, as if that by itself is a crime. We are looking for the person who committed the crimes which have been grouped together by that heading.
So we are looking for the person who (not by his own choice has come to be) “known as the barefoot bandit.” And now we have to somehow fit the “allegedly” in there in order to comply with the journalistic moral code. That’s the problem and the NPR copyeditor seems to have just stuck them together without trying to parse the final product.
Probably he didn’t have the spare time afforded by a futile doctor’s appointment. Or if he did, he had no iPhone reception to make the necessary changes before the newscast went live.
- Are civil wars more often North vs South than East vs West? Put differently, based on the boundaries that have survived until today, are countries, on average, wider than they are tall?
- Which will arrive first: the ability to make a digital “mold” of distinctive celebrity voices or the technology allowing celebrities to map the digital signature of their voice in order to claim property rights?
- The hard `r` in Spanish and other languages creates a natural syncopation because the r usually occupies the downbeat, as in “sagrada” or “cortado”
- Syncopation adds a dimension to music because brain tickles as it tries to make sense of two times at once.
- Among European soccer nations, the closer to Africa the fewer black players on the national team.
You (the sender) would like someone (the responder) to do you a favor, support some decision you propose or give you some resource you value. You email the responder, asking him for help. There is no reply. Maybe he has an overactive Junk Mail filter or missed the email. You email the responder again. No reply. The first time round, you can tell yourself that maybe the responder just missed your request. The second time, you realize the responder will not help you. Saying Nothing is the same as saying “No”.
Why not just say No to begin with? Initially, the responder hopes you do not send the second email. Then, when the responder reverses roles and asks you for help, you will not hold an explicit No against him. By the time the second email is sent and received, it is too late – at this point whether you respond or not, there is a “No” on the table and your relationship has taken a hit. The sender will eventually learn that often no response means “No”. Sending a second email, while clearing up the possibility the first non-response was an error, may lead to a worsening of the relationship between the two players. So, the sender will weigh the consequences of the second email carefully and perhaps self-censor and never send it.
Then, Saying Nothing will certainly be better than Saying No for the responder and a communication norm is born.
Native English speakers never have difficulty learning which prepositions to use. On the other hand I often hear even quite fluent second-languagers stumble over things like “Independent from, er… independent of.” (As in, X is independent of Y.) Is this just because children are better at learning language than adults? That probably explains a lot. But as I have speculated before I think there are some aspects of the difference between adults and children that don’t require an appeal to brain differences.
Adults are building on stuff they already know, children are learning for the first time. Adults know what a preposition is and that “from” and “of” are both prepositions. They know grammar and they think in terms of grammatical structure. So they search through the prepositions they know that would play the right grammatical role.
Children don’t think about language, they just copy what they hear. They don’t hear “independent from” so they never consider saying that. Of course adults learning English don’t hear “independent from” either. The fact that they still make the mistake means that they don’t learn purely by imitation like children. They make use of the rules they already know.
What is the point of a big speech outlining your intentions when everybody already knows that when push comes to shove you are just going to do what’s in your interest? Usually such a speech is all about the reasons for your stated intentions. If you can change people’s minds about the facts then you can change their minds about your intentions.
But the public facts are already that, public. There’s no changing minds about those. At best you can change minds about how you perceive the public facts or about facts that only you know. But here we are in the realm of private, unverifiable information and any speech about that is pure cheap talk. You will invent facts to support whatever intentions you would like people to believe.
Except for two wrinkles.
- Making up a coherent set of facts that support your case and survive scrutiny is not easy. On the other hand, the truth is always a coherent set of facts.
- You can only say things that you can think of. That’s a small subset of the set of all things that could possibly be true and the truth is always in that subset.
Together these imply that cheap talk always reveals information. It reveals that the story you are telling is one of the few coherent stories you could think of. And if that story is complicated enough it becomes more and more likely that this is the only story that complicated that a) is coherent and b) you could think of. Since the truth always satisfies a) and b), this makes it ever more likely that what you are saying is the truth.
This is why when we want to change minds we make elaborate speeches full of detail. It convinces the listener that we are telling the truth. And this is why when we want to be inscrutable the listener will pepper us with questions in order to require so much detail that only the truth will work.
Here’s an interesting experiment I would like to see. Look at adults who learned a second language as a child from one of their parents. For example, the father speaks only English but the mother speaks English and Hungarian. English is the standard language outside of the home.
Profile the personalities of the parents. Now have a Hungarian speaker interview the subject and profile his personality and separately have an English speaker profile the subject’s personality. Is the subject’s personality different in the two languages and is he more like his mother when speaking Hungarian?
It’s as if someone at the New York Times scanned this blog, profiled me, and assembled an article that hits every one of my little fleemies:
(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.
As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”
Literature leverages our theory of mind.
Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.
And they even drag evolution into it.
To Mr. Flesch fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot.
Cordobés address: Marcin Peski.
(I blog by sending myself emails when I have an idea. These emails are stored in a separate folder to think about later. Some ideas have gathered dust and I am cleaning them out.)
Bilingual kids have better pronunciation than those who acquire a second language as adults. I have read that this is because of specialization both in the brain and physically in terms of the kinds of sounds we are able to make. But I bet there is another reason: adults know how to read.
Take the hard ‘r’ sound in Spanish. It can be farily well approximated by an English ‘d’ sound which any English speaker has the wiring and hardware to make. But native Enlish speakers do not mispronounce ‘corazon’ by saying ‘codazon.’ Instead, they say ‘core a zone.’ And the reason is presumably that they have seen that word written out and the association between the written ‘r’ and the familiar sound has been highly reinforced. This is also a problem with most vowel sounds.
I would bet that adults would more easily learn fluency in another language if they were taught exclusively orally. Now it would seem that the obvious test case would be Chinese to English and vice versa. I don’t know but I would guess that it would not be possible to write English words phonetically using written Chinese. Despite this “advantage,” native Chinese speakers have a hard time with English fluency. Bad for the theory. But I think that Chinese to English is already too difficult for other reasons to consider this a good test. First of all the sound palettes are very different. Second, the rhythms of the languages are very different, even with good pronunciation.
Instead, to hold other factors constant, I would look to the blind. My guess is that the blind have a weaker association between pronunciation and the written language. (How much of a role does Braille play when a blind person learns a new language? ) The key prediction then would be that among native English speakers who learn Spanish as adults, the blind are more fluent.
Here’s a case where English has it relatively easy. There’s been plenty of fuss over whether to retain actress or to use actor for females as well as males, whether to adopt new gender-neutral terms like chair and craft in place of chairman and craftsman, and so on. But most English words for social roles and titles are already linguistically gender-neutral: president, senator, minister, dean, secretary, teacher, boss, judge, lawyer, …
In languages like Italian and Spanish, in contrast, nearly all such words are specified for grammatical gender, and their grammatical gender is usually interpreted sexually.
From an interesting post at the great blog Language Log. Lots of great comments too.
Telephone is a kids’ game where the children sit in a circle and pass around a message by whispering in the neighbor’s ear. The game is to see how garbled the message gets by the time it makes it all the way around the circle. My 21st century version of telephone is played solitaire, using Google Translate.
- No, the only option at this point is to tackle her, landing you both deep in the snow
- (English -> French) Non, la seule option possible à ce point est à sa face, vous êtes tous deux d’atterrissage dans la neige
- (French -> Italian) No, l’unica opzione a questo punto è sul suo volto, si sono entrambi di atterraggio in mezzo alla neve
- (Italian -> Spanish) No, la única opción en este momento está en su cara, han de aterrizaje en la nieve
- (Spanish -> Chinese) 沒有，唯一的選擇在這個時候是你的臉，已經降落在雪地裡
- (Chinese -> Estonian) Ei, ainus võimalus sel ajal on oma nägu, on lossitud lumi
- (Estonian -> Afrikaans) Nee, die enigste opsie is op die oomblik is op jou gesig, dit geland in die sneeu
- (Afrikaans -> Turkish) Hayır, şu anda tek seçenek in your face, bu kar indi
- (Turkish -> English) No, currently the only option in your face, the snow fell
Hilarity ensues! (As usual, one of the kids seems to be sabatoging the game. Here we can see that it is the child translating from Afrikaans to Turkish.)
Mamihlapinatapai (sometimes spelled mamihlapinatapei) is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word”, and is considered one of the hardest words to translate. It describes “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start.”
In a much-discussed post at one of my favorite blogs, Language Log, Mark Liberman christens a new game:
We might call this the Pundit’s Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the player’s best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn’t just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.
(Aside on the game name game: when I was a first-year PhD student at Berkeley, Matthew Rabin taught us game theory. As if to remove all illusion that what we were studying was connected to reality, every game we analyzed in class was given a name according to his system of “stochastic lexicography.” Stochastic lexicography means randomly picking two words out of the dictionary and using them as the name of the game under study. So, for example, instead of studying “job market signaling” we studied something like “rusty succotash.” I wonder if any of our readers remember some of the game names from that class.)
(Stay tuned for my next Matthew Rabin story which will involve a hackey sack and a bodily fluid.)
There is indeed a strong incentive for pundits to distort what they say, and it has the flavor of contrarianism. Its based on an old paper by Prendergast and Stole (requires JSTOR sorry. Support Open Access publishing.) Suppose that what pundits want is to convince the world that they are smart. (Perhaps they want to influence policy. They will be influential later only if they can prove they are smart today. So today the details of what they are saying matters less than whether what they are saying is perceived to be smart.)
The thing about being really smart is that it means you are talking to people who aren’t as smart as you. (Sandeep faces this problem all the time.) So they can’t verify whether what you are saying is really true (especially when we are talking about climate change policies where if we ever do find out who was right, it will be well past the time that punditry is a profitable enterprise.) But one thing the audience knows is that smart pundits can figure out things that lesser pundits cannot. That means that the only way a smart pundit can demonstrate to his not-so-smart audience that he is smart is by saying things different than what his lesser colleagues are saying, i.e. to be a contrarian.
In the Old English of Beowulf, seven different rules competed for governance of English verbs, and only about 75% followed the “-ed” rule. As the centuries ticked by, the irregular verbs became fewer and far between. With new additions to the lexicon taking on the standard regular form (‘googled’ and ‘emailed’), the irregulars face massive pressure to regularise and conform.
Today, less than 3% of verbs are irregular but they wield a disproportionate power. The ten most commonly used English verbs – be, have, do, go say, can, will, see, take and get – are all irregular. Lieberman found that this is because irregular verbs are weeded out much more slowly if they are commonly used.
To get by, speakers have to use common verbs correctly. More obscure irregular verbs, however, are less readily learned and more easily forgotten, and their misuse is less frequently corrected. That creates a situation where ‘mutant’ versions that obey the regular “-ed” rule can creep in and start taking over.
When animals move, forage or generally go about their lives, they provide inadvertent cues that can signal information to other individuals. If that creates a conflict of interest, natural selection will favour individuals that can suppress or tweak that information, be it through stealth, camouflage, jamming or flat-out lies. As in the robot experiment, these processes could help to explain the huge variety of deceptive strategies in the natural world.
The article at Not Exactly Rocket Science, describes an experiment in which robots competed for food at a hidden location and controlled a visible signal that could be used to reveal their location. The robots adapted their signaling strategy by a process that simulates natural selection. Eventually, the robots learned not to pay attention to others’ signals and the signals become essentially uninformative.
kwik, serv, kleen, EZ, FasTrak, thru, etc.
There are certain words in certain contexts that Americans purposefully misspell in a way that is half ingratiating, half condescending. I am not talking about txting where the purpose of the misspelling is to economize on characters. Instead these words are usually associated with low-end commercial products and the misspellings predate the internet.
Here’s what you get when you search google maps for the word “kwik” (and you happen to be in Stony Brook, NY.) My favorite: Kwik Ezee.
It has always fascinated me. There seems to be a common theme. It is not a movement toward phonetic spelling. Is it an attempt to be kool? Is it a way of saying “Come to KwikiMart and get your Cheezits. And don’t worry we won’t judge you for it, hey, we can’t even spell!!” The letter k apparently has a special attraction.
Sandeep says that this doesn’t happen in Britain and I believe him, but here is a google maps search that says otherwise.
Does this happen in your language? Is your language phonetically challenged like English? What’s your theory of kwaint misspellings? Any good examples (English or otherwise)?
Apparently the price you are quoted when you search for fares on Spain’s high-speed railway depends on whether you search in English or Spanish:
When I searched the site earlier that day from my office, I searched in Spanish. A one-way ticket from Barcelona to Madrid could be had for around 44 euros on a “tarifa Web,” their Internet special fare with 30 day advance purchase.
When I was at home, ready to finalize my purchase, I opted to search with the site language set to English. The price was nearly 110 euros.
The economic logic is standard: language is a way to segment the market and this segmentation is profitable if the two markets have a large difference in price-sensitivity. Presumably if you are searching in English then you are a tourist and you have fewer alternative modes of transportation. This makes you less price-sensitive.
I thank the well-travelled and multi-lingual Mallesh Pai for the pointer.
From Language Log:
The opening sentence of George F. Will’s latest column (“Have We Got a Deal for You“, 6/7/2009):
“I,” said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, “want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector.”
This echoes J.B.S. Haldane’s quip that the creator, if he exists, must be inordinately fond of beetles; and Will, like Haldane, is presumably proposing an inference about someone’s preferences from his actions, not reporting a direct emotional revelation.
So, since I’m one of those narrow-minded fundamentalists who believe that statements can be true or false, and that we should care about the difference, I decided to check. (On Will, not Haldane.)
Based on a few press conferences, it turns out that Obama uses “I” less often than both G.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. By the way it looks like I have found a good resource for searching Presidential cheap talk: The American Presidency Project.
But I am somebody who is very anxious to have the Afghan government and the Pakistani government have the capacity to ensure that those safe havens don’t exist. And so it, I think, will be an important reminder that we have no territorial ambitions in Afghanistan; we don’t have an interest in exploiting the resources of Afghanistan. What we want is simply that people aren’t hanging out in Afghanistan who are plotting to bomb the United States.
Obama said this in an interview with NPR (transcript.) He actually says “hangin’ out” but the transcriber apparently wanted to maintain an air of formality and wrote “hanging.” You can hear it here, around the 12:30 mark. He chuckles a bit when he says it.
These are conspicuoulsy different ways for a President to talk, especially about something as serious as terrorism. It says something about the man himself and it also draws a sharp contrast with Bush, whose standard catch phrase at these moments would be “rout out the terrorists.”
Previous installment in the series.
Here is an article (via MindHacks) profiling the types of people who are attracted to conspiracy theories.
It is the domain of psychology to study the specific conspiracy theories that appear and the people who advocate them, but to a game theorist the prevalence of conspiracy theories is not surprising. They fill a credibility gap. Like nature, the truth abhors a vacuum. It cannot be an equilibrium that only the truth is told and retold. Because then we would learn to believe everything we hear. That would be exploited by people trying to take advantage.
Conspiracy theories are just one example of noise that must be present in equilibrium to ensure that we don’t believe everything we hear. And arguably conspiracy theories about events that have already happened or are beyond our control are the cost-minimizing way of moderating credibility. Nobody really gets harmed.
Let’s try a little (thought) experiment in verbal short-term memory. First, find a friend. Then, find a reasonably complex sentence about 45 words long …Now call your friend up on the phone, and have a discussion about the topic of the article. In the course of this conversation, slip in a verbatim performance of the selected sentence. Then ask your friend to write an essay on the topic of the discussion. … How likely is it that the selected sentence will find its way, word for word, into your friend’s essay?
In case you haven’t guessed, the question is rhetorical and the article (from LanguageLog, a great blog) is referring to Maureen Dowd’s plagiarism. It is a fallacy though to focus only on the probability of the scenario you are trying to reject. What matters is the relative probability of that scenario with the alternative scenario, namely that Maureen Dowd would bother (intentionally) lifting word for word a paragraph which is not particularly insightful or cleverly written from a popular blog at the risk of being called a plagiarizer.
When something happens that has two very unlikely explanations, picking one of those explanations is mostly driven by your priors.
We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.
Essays about creativity teach us a lot. Not a whole lot about creativity, mind you, but they teach us a lot about the person writing the essay and also the social and political context. Not that David Brooks is a particularly important person to learn a lot about. Instead, treat this more of as an example of how the way in which we talk about unique people really says something more about the way we see ourselves in relation to unique people. (Similarly, this essay will not teach you much about its main subject matter but it will probably reveal stuff about me.)
People, especially intellectuals, are obsessed with what makes people creative. Mostly what makes other people creative. We are surrounded by amazing people who are always coming up with ideas that seem to come from nowhere. It gets worrisome when every day we hear people say ingenious things that would never have occurred to us in a million years. It is comforting to adopt theories of the origin of creativity that puts us on equal footing with them.
These theories come in two varieties.
- Theories that say that those people who seem to be unique are really just ordinary.
- Theories that say that us ordinary people are in fact unique.
And of course these are two ways of saying the same thing. And that’s why these essays don’t really tell us anything about creativity. But the choice of which way to say it reveals a lot about the person saying it.
Apropos my previous post on simplifying English, a more dramatic example is simplified Chinese:
A clash between traditional and simplified characters comes down to elitism vs. populism. A recent poll conducted by Sohu.com on whether to reinstate the traditional characters shows that more netizens oppose it. Behind the elitism/populism divide is the opposition between an archaistic nostalgia toward the illusory “purer” traditional Chinese literacy and a pragmatic and forward-looking modern drive. (Both Singapore and Malaysia, with sizable Chinese populations, also adopted simplified characters decades ago.)
Read a debate here.
Hau muC tym dew kids wayst lerning tew spel ingliS? Sudent we 3ther standerdeys 0n a simplifeyd speling sistem or just ubandun speling cunvenCins oltewgether? And hau muC tym is lost lerning to r3d? I caym ucross the Spelling Society wiC advocayts speling r3form and 0lso Wyrdplay wiC arcayvs a number of simplifayd speling sistems raynjing frum the totul3 fonetic tew sistems wiC are intended tew bey incrementul steps toword r3form. This wun I am yewsing is just mayd up bayst 0n luking at a few uf them.
- Dont thinc that deveyces will mayk the pr0blem mewt. Yes my iPhone pr3dicts wut I am reyting but onl3 b3cus I spel the furst few letters curectl3.
- The pr0blem with fonetic sistems is that BritiS and Umericun werds wud be speld diferently.
- I expect that informul speling cunvenCuns wil 3merj sewn withaut a t0p-daun iniSitiv. Instunt mesujing is the furst big r3sun for kids to reyt tew 3C uther. Til nau, kids talct to 3c uther but rot onl3 tew thayr t3Cers. Thay develupt informul spocen layngwij ul0ngseyd the formul layngwij. This is hapening nau with reyting. Just as informul spocen layngwij perm3ayts the formul, this wil hapen with the ritin langwij. 3ven morso b3cus uf the 3fiSens3 gayns.
- This wud b3 a thing uf the past.
(C0nversaySin with Wolfgang and Tomek acn0lijd.)