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Pragmatics and Statistics


One of my Listservs led me to this interesting article by John Allen Paulos about the distinction between the "literary and scientific cultures". As part of the discussion, Paulos discusses some cases where knowing a narrative background affects how probability is assessed.

Consider the following two statements.

  1. Sarah is a bank teller.
  2. Sarah is a bank teller and has a philosophy degree.

The answer is that the first option is more probable because only one condition needs to be met. In order for the second to be true, two conditions are required - being a bank teller and having a degree in philosophy degree.

Now consider this version from Paulos in which the teller is given a brief bio:

Linda is single, in her early 30s, outspoken, and exceedingly smart. A philosophy major in college, she has devoted herself to issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. So which of the following is more likely?:

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The finding is that more people will be that the second option is the most likely - i.e. that Linda is a bank teller and in the feminist movement, even though it requires the fulfillment of two conditions.

There are several philosophical tacks one can take to the problem, but I think one factor is that the story along with the presentation of the information affects the construction of the model used to evaluate the statements.

Someone reading first scenario without the narrative probably constructs the intended model where the probability of being a bank teller versus a bank teller with a philosophy degree is evaluated across all adult women. It's easy to see that fulfilling condition A is more probably than fulfilling condition A and B.

The second scenario with Linda though probably causes most people to build a model not across all adult women but across all adult women who have a philosophy degree and who were activists in their youth. It's NOT the same pool of candidates, and there is a legitimate reason to think probability judgments COULD be different. Interestingly, if you presented the two Linda options as

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is active in the feminist movement.

then the conclusion would likely be that Linda being active in the feminist movement is more likely than her being a bank teller. In other words, readers could be using the narrative to build a stereotyped persona where someone who was politically active in college remains active. In the same vein, most people likely assume that someone with a philosophy degree becomes a teller only as a last resort and that most tellers have a degree in accounting or other related field. This is one possible source of the fallacy.

I would also argue that the presentation of the options causes the pragmatic engine to introduce another logical trap. Because both options allow that Linda is a bank teller, This could mean that readers assume the Linda ends up as a bank teller (even though that's not what the option says). Thus, readers could be interpreting the Linda options as:

  1. Linda is a bank teller who is not active in the feminist movement.
  2. Linda is a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement.

There is a further pragmatic interpretation that option a) "Linda is a bank teller" means that she is not politically active at all. That's not literally the case (for instance, option a) does allow that Linda could still be active in the anti nuclear proliferation movement, but not the feminist movement). In pragmatic land though, omitting information is interpreted as meaning it doesn't exist. That's why people often consider not saying something to be "lying."

So to summarize, I think the skewed probability judgments aren't just a result of people being sucked into a mini soap opera, but to two factors the narrative introduces - 1) narrowing the set of women to those with philosophy degrees, which leads to different stereotypes and 2) the options leading to misconstrued pragmatics which differ from what the literal meaning is.

The ability to reasonably construct a pragmatic meaning behind a literal statement is critical for social relations and reducing conversational length. But it can lead to some glitches like the narrative above.

Concept Maps and Verbs


I'm cleaning out my instructional design papers and I ran into the "concept map" papers and remembered an interesting question about whether you should include verbs in concept maps.

First, if you don't know what a "concept map" is, I'll just say it's a diagram of concepts and how they connect. Here's a concept map from Wikipedia to define what a concept map is. Typically concepts (usually nouns) are placed in different shapes and arrows are drawn to show different types of connections. Note though that these arrows are labeled with either verbs or prepositions.

Concept map of Concept Map
Click Image to Enlarge

Now although I adore diagrams, I find concept maps surprisingly confusing. A question to LinguistList pointed out one reason why - the arrow labels are confusing (and it may not be just me). In theory, if you can add labels to boxes, you should be able to add labels to connections, but that may not be the best approach.

The truth is that our culture (and many others) use a lot of concept maps including family trees, subway maps, pie charts and many others. In almost all of them, the labels are left blank and the conventions of placement/size telegraph the relationships. Either by culture or maybe some inborn ability, I think a lot of people have learned to interpret relations just from the graphic design. (If you're not a natural map reader, I would be curious to see if labelling does any good).

For instance, in a family tree, we understand that the names on top are the ancestors and those on the bottom are the descendants. The equal sign or line between a man and a woman usually indicates marriage and lines from the equal sign to a name is a legitimate child (unless it's a dotted line, in which case things are different). Similarly names on the same level with lines going to the same equal sign are full siblings. Finally if it's a royal family, the bold face name or the one in another color is the monarch.

You can convey a lot of information with just changes in lines and special labels. In fact, you can usually make connections (e.g. determining first cousin or transfer point on a subway system) by tracking the appropriate sets of lines to the proper boxes. I would say that this convention is so powerful that adding too many labels is in fact distracting because it is interfering with the cues that the diagram structure is trying to convey.

You can call it interference on the visual vs verbal/linguistic channels if you like. In the map with the labeled arrows above, the arrows are all the same which implies "same relationship" (at least locally), but the labels are saying "no - different relationship". You really may have conflicting cues here.

So I'll present two concept maps below, my original one without the labels and one with labeled arrows. Which one is clearer to you?

Two Images - Dialects of English

Click Each Version to View Full Size Image

Concept Map, No Labels on Arrows, Different Shapes for Dialects vs Events. Description Below

Concept Map, No Labels on Arrows, Different Shapes for Dialects vs Events. Description Below

Text Version

We begin at Anglo Saxon (pre 1066) which is spoken in England and southern Scotland. In 1066, the Norman Invasion (William the Conquerer) establishes a foreign government in England, but not Scotland. Scots splits off from the rest of English (somewhat before the Great Vowel Shift. In England most dialects go through the Great Vowel Shift and lose /x/ and /ü/.

During the period when North America is colonized, many dialects in English experience loss of word final /r/, but some maintain it. Settlers from regions losing the final /r/ arrive in New England, New York City and the South, but settlers who keep the /r/ arrive in the Mid Atlantic and Canada. The MId-Atlantic form becomes Standard American/Standard Canadian while the New England and Southern forms become regional dialects. Standard U.S. continues to evolve into Californian English and other varieties (as does New England/New York/South).

After American independence, the English continue to colonize other regions in the world including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Although these dialects experience unique vowel changes, they have all lost final /r/.

Note this is just a quick summary. You should read more about the history of each dialect for details. The books Albion Seed (David Hackett Fisher) and The Story of English (Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil) have some good information.

Teaching in the Wild?


I ran into a great interview with primatologist Rebecca Saxe (NOVA/WGBH) about the relative inability of chimps to teach in the same ways humans do. I wrote one entry on my Teaching with Technology blog about some of her observations, but I noticed some other observations that I thought I would mention here.

One comment Saxe made was that human children have two pointing gestures. The first that emerges is children pointing to something they want right now! Apparently many species, including chimpanzees, share this gesture.

The second pointing gesture is when a child points at he or she wants to show to parents for some other reason (e.g. bunny rabbit!). According to Saxe, parents look for this gesture and become excited since it is an early form of interaction. A communicative pointing instinct?

I would want to check to see if most cultures had this gesture (Saxe may have data, but it wouldn't appear in this article), but since all cultures interpret basic facial expressions the same way, it seems plausible to me. In fact this pointing gesture seems to be the quintessential reason why some scholars speculate that language and gestures are related.

The other interesting question is if other species can "teach". It seems clear that humans may be the only primates to have this level of cultural transmission, but what about dolphins, orcas and dogs? A BBC news story commented that dolphins may name themselves while scientists are finding evidence of cultural differences among dolphin and orca pods (e.g. some orcas are "killer whales" who eat meat and other are vegetarian orcas).

Even dogs may show cultural differences as documented in Stanley Coren's How Dogs Think. Coren even discusses that dogs such as Saint Bernard rescue dogs and herder dogs may actually train each other.

We know that dogs and dolphins can be trained to do quite a wide variety of tasks. They have to be pretty darned good learners, especially if they can learn in the homo sapiens educational system.

Remix into Music


Recently Stephen Colbert interviewed remix advocate Lawrence Lessig. In a fit of pique, he announced that "copyright was forever" and commented that he would be "litigious" if the interview was remixed with "some great dance beat."

But since we are the YouTube Generation, of course multiple people remixed the interview with some great dance beat. What's interesting here though is that most of the remixes involve looping short snippets of dialogue over and over.

As hip-hop artists know, if you loop a short phrase enough, you are one your way to a quasi-lyric. This was also noted on a NPR podcast which I've lost track of, but I think the remix here really shows how little looping is required to generate a rhythmic feeling.

There's been recent speculation on how music and language relate to each other, and clips like these do make a case that music is some sort of auditory cheesecake (to quote Steven Pinker). In other words, music is borrowing phonological aspects of language (pitch, rhythm), then "kicking them up a notch".

I don't think it's the full story of music, but then again visual arts are also a little mysterious to the neo-Darwinist. Still I'm glad I have both my screensaver and my iTunes to brighten my day.

A Sentence Predictor?


The Onion News Network has a great parody on a new Mac laptop with the keyboard replaced with just the iPhod wheel (jut what we've all been waiting for. But the best feature, was the "sentence predictor". Like the word predictor, the sentence predictor would give you options for completing a sentence once a few words had been typed in.

But is this possible in real life? (continues below video)

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

I hope you enjoyed the video as much as I did, but it get me wondering if a sentence predictor is possible, and if so what it would be like. It is a real problem that researchers are exploring as can be seen in this presentation from Nicola Carmignani.

Actually I could see something like a phrase predictor based on syntax and morphology (and these have been built). For instance, if had a phrase "give the book", English syntax dictates that we usually have to specify a destination, hence you can predict that the next word will be "to". After that though, syntax dictates that you can give a book to anyone (literally an infinite number of choices).

So for a more robust sentence predictor, you would probably need be able to access the context or discourse of the entire passage. For instance if you had been discussing your friends Rachel and Phoebe, then a sentence predictor could guess "to Phoebe" or "to Rachel" as plausible guess for "give the book". Carmignani's presentation in fact, gives a song lyric as an example - "Penny Lane", which most people could predict would end with "is in my ears and in my eyes" (following the Beatles song).

When I thought about it I realize that I do have a built in sentence predictor (or maybe cliche predictor). After all I use to complete sentences for my friends all the time. Interestingly, they don't always thank me for it...

Is Counting Innate in Australia?


A new study by Brian Butterworth and others finds that indigenous Australian children can count even if the language does not gramatically have the same range of number words as other languages. This is an interesting counterclaim to the notion that members of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe not only lack number words, but can't learn to count. The experiment in Australia was conducted by asking children to put up the number of objects matching the number of beats on two drumsticks.

This experiment was interesting in that younger children were used. The use of children is interesting because, as far as I know, the Pirahã subjects were adult men. But since Pirahã children who learn Portuguese also learn to count in Portuguese, there may be a critical period element of some sort (or not). In any case it would be interesting to replicate both experiments in the other region (assuming the Pirahã parents would agree to it of course).

The other thing that would be interesting to track is how the Australian language number systems were structured. As far as I can tell, the Pirahã "number" words aren't numbers at all, but estimates of small vs. large quantities. The Australian number system may be more limited, but some words like "one, two, three" may refer to exact quantities which is a key conceptual difference.

The study is in the Aug 18 issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stated of America). This article did not seem to be available yet.

The Language Without Numbers


An interesting news story from the past few years is the Amazonian language Pirahã which lacks number words. That is, instead of counting quantities (1,2,3,4...), the Pirahã only estimate quantities (relatively small, relatively large). The latest study from MIT seems to confirm this. Interestingly, when objects are taken away from a pile, the estimates change so that "small" may become 5-6 instead of 1-2 as previously thought.

This has perplexed linguists since almost all languages have some sort of counting (even in remote locations). The only other examples of low-tech numbers had been systems of 1,2, many. We normally think of counting as a "basic" cognitive skill, but it appears to be primarily cultural.

I first about this in 2000 from a guest speaker Peter Gordon. His evidence was convincing, but there have been some points I have been pondering.

  • Pirahã children who learn Portuguese also learn to count - it's not a difference in cognition [Peter Gordon, personal communication]
  • Not surprisingly, male laborers in Brazil are stiffed a lot because they do not pay as much attention to "exact" quantities. However the Pirahã women are reported to gently mock their men folk for this [Gordon, p.c.] It reminds me of cultural gender stereotypes like men can't pick coordinating colors and women can't work with computers (and yes many of us buy into them whether they are 100% true).
  • Many animals can easily distinguish quantities of 1,2,3, (or a little more) on sight, but after that they guesstimate. In this study, monkeys can recognize quanities of 1-4, but estimate after that. This predicts that a basic counting would be something like 1,2,3, many, but the Pirahã system is even more basic.

It is startling to think that counting could be essentially "cultural" because almost every other culture has some form of counting, but when I read more, I did realize that there is some truth to this. For instance, most languages have unique words for one such as one, aon (Irish), bat (Basque), but once you get into the range of 1,000,000 (one million), the word starts to resemble million in many languages (e.g. 1 million = milioi in Basque). That's because the concept of such a large quantity is relatively new (few hunter-gatherers needed to count to 106). As modern technology spreads, so do numbers (Basque itself apparently borrowed 1,000 mila from the Romans (i.e. Latin millia).

Even in my lifetime, I can see the scale of numbers "escalating". When I was a teen, 80 KB (80 kilobytes or 80,000 bytes) was a lot of memory, then in college computer drives came in sizes of 1-2 MB (megabytes or 1-2 million bytes), but today you need a hard drive of about 80 GB (80 giga butes, or 80 billion bytes). Now I'm seeing references to terabyte drives (a trliion bytes). Believe me I could not tell you what giga- and tera- were in 8th grade. Now I see on the Wikipedia SI prefix page that you can get up to yotta- (1 septillion or 1024). But I'm pretty sure there's some room for more prefixes

Postscript (24 Jul)

Pirahã is considered to be a member of the Muran language familty, and I had been wondering if the related languages had any counting. Alas, all the other Muran languages are now extinct. I'm still not sure about Everett's claim that Pirahã culture does not deal with abstract topics - That is unbelievably rare considering almost all cultures have art, mythology, and pretty elaborate kinship systems.

Presidential Comic TIming and Voting for Head of State


It's high Presidental primary season here in Pennsylvania, 2008 and I can't leave this momentous era without SOME kind of observation on the process. I've been watching a lot of primary night analysis, and one thing that few people touch on is the "Head of State" factor.

That is, one of the major duties of the president is to serve as Head of State. Normally this is seen as a "trivial" duty since I think most people associate it with opening the Olympics, attending important funerals or supervising the Easter Egg roll. And yet, I think it's an important sub-conscious factor in our decision making process.

After all the Head of State also has to comfort us in times on national tragedy and also be able to relate to the average citizens he (or she) has to meet and greet. How do we know if a presidential candidate can relate to average citizen? One way is to challenge them to a fish toss in Seattle. Another is to see if they have a sense of humor about themselves - self-deprecating if possible. Abraham Lincoln is maybe the best -known master of the art.

And if you think about our recent successful two-term presidents, you will see that almost of them had a sense of timing regardless of party boundary. On the Democratic side we have Bill Clinton, and the late John Kennedy (his press conferences still make modern audiences laugh). On the Republican side there has been Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (really).

Chances are that the list I just named has at least one president you absolutely can't stand - but if you watch their quips or speeches for the National Correspondents Dinner, I bet you will see they had a great sense of comic timing. Some of our recent one-term presidents (Carter and Bush I) had more problems with this of self-deprecating comedy, and, sure enough, they were beaten by candidates with better comedic timing. Oddly enough, Nixon is our only recent anomaly - he was never known for great timing yet won two terms. But look at what happened to him!

And for 2008 - does it still matter? We don't know yet, but I submit that at least one candidate is having problems partly because that person has not completely mastered the art of delivering a good quip (a few have backfired very, very badly). It sounds shallow, but I also sense that it can be a sign of deeper issues with the candidate. When all you really know about a candidate is what you see on TV, it's interesting what cues you may have to use.

Grammar is not always logical


One class of linguistic questions I see a lot is "Why does John Doe say X when it doesn't make any logical sense?" This is usually in reference to a new idiom, dialect or language the questioner is encountering. The answer is that while grammar is usually consistent, it doesn't always follow real world logic. Even worse, there are lots of idiosyncratic quirks that happen "just because".

A recent one was – if people from Korea speak Korean, why don't people from Japan speak *Japanian (instead of Japanese). And why do the Basque speak just Basque and not *Basqu(i)an, *Basquese or even *Basquish. It's a mystery. You can solve some of it by saying that the -ish/-sh/-ch ending is older and tends to be used with languages closer to Britain (e.g. English, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, French (aka Frankish)). But do you really think the average adult has even connected language names with history of the Anglophone world?  No - it's just memorized.

Ironically, non-standard dialects can actually be more logical, yet will still be dismissed as "poor grammar". After all, if we say her pen but that pen is hers and our building and that that building is ours...shouldn't we also say that pen is mines (like they do in Baltimore). Logically...yes. But I think we all know what happens to the poor student who uses mines in an essay – and it's not an A+ for logic.

This is an unsettling concept because so many writers and speakers do use language to construct effective, logical arguments. Shouldn't the bones of language (vocabulary and grammar or syntax and morphology) also be equally logical. The surprising answer is that while grammar can have a system, it's not one that is "logical". To me this is a powerful reason to think grammar is not directly connected with "general cognition".

I mean, who in their right mind would invent a language with as many irregular past tense verbs as English has? Ugh!

Ah...The Gathering Instinct


As many of us learned from a PBS documentary, humans were "hunter-gatherers" in the days agriculture developed. Since this "hunting and gathering" has gone on for much longer than agriculture, many anthropologists and biologists have speculated on what impact this has had on humanity as a species.

Normally though, I hear more references to the "hunting" instinct and its impact on our species. Topics have included the thrill of "the chase", cooperation within the hunting band and speculations on the thrill of the "kill" (not to mention the thrill of the grill). Those who believe that some of the weirder aspects of human behavior can be explained by evolution tend to believe that many humans still have a "hunting" instinct of some sort.

Rarely however, do I hear discussions of the "gathering" instinct (at least not so much in popular science). Yet "gathering" is probably the more productive of our food gathering strategies - although hunting does give you the higher value "protein".

So in one of those odd caffeinated moments in the car, I asked myself we still "gather" as well as "hunt"? And then it hit me - we shop!

More importantly, we often shop even if we don't need to. After all, do the Gossip Girls really need another pair of shoes? Do I really need to buy another novel when I have a stack on my bed table? Of course not. And gadget gurus - if you've been able to cope without the iPhone did you really need to be in line at 4 AM on the first sale day? Just asking....

It's not just in modern Western culture either that shops. Archaeology is full of evidence for cultures going to great lengths to obtain the right gemstones, the best dyes and even the best flint for your flint tool set (those things work!) And there has always been a luxury food market. They don't call chocolate the "food of the gods" for nothing.

So is anyone investigating this all-important human activity? Yes actually, and some very interesting regults can be found at Design of Desire. Marketers have always been interested in exploiting the shopping instinct, but it's also good that there's some neuro and cognitive science behind this too. As much as we may not want to admit, our desire to gather and hoard really does drive a lot of our economic behavior.

(OK - That was such a good site - I had to share it with you!)