Here are some recent things that I found interesting that may interest you as well.
On MOOCish matters: http://www.voxeu.org/article/disruptive-potential-online-learning. The big finding is that employers don’t like MOOCs that much and treat them as inferior degrees. This would change if, for example, places like Harvard and MIT and Stanford substituted the 4 year college experience they currently offer to elites with a MOOCish experience. When the well-to-do vote with their kids’ feet and buy into MOOC based degrees, then everyone will. Till then, it will largely be a way of bending some cost curves (and you know whose) and not others.
Dan Everett (DE) still doesn’t understand what a universal is: http://fivebooks.com/interviews/dan-everett-on-language-and-thought
This little interview is filled with exciting tidbits. Here are three:
(i) Sapir’s hypothesis concerning the interaction of language with thought is far more modest than many have assumed. On DE’s interpretation, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not the rather exciting (but clearly wrong) view that, the language we speak determines the way we can think” but the rather modest claim that “the language we speak affects in some way some of the ways we think when we need to think quickly.” Note the Kahnemanian tinge here. IMO, this is hardly an exciting thesis, and it is little wonder that the strong version of the thesis is what aroused interest. The weak version seems to me close to a truism.
(ii) But a truism that Everett is impressed with. He claims that Sapir discovered that “culture can influence language” and that though language “clearly has some computational aspects that cannot be reduced to culture…there are a number of broad characteristics that reflect the culture they emerge from…”(3). I confess that this strikes me as obvious and is the first thing a neophyte learning a second language focuses on. So, though Sapir is deserving of honors, it is not because of this “insight.” Curiously, Everett seems not to have noted that Sapir’s first observation (i.e. that language is a kind of computational system) does not impress him. Maybe that’s why Everett has problems understanding claims that people imake about such systems. In particular,
(iii) DE still confuses Chomsky Universals with Greenberg Universals. It comew across in DE’s discussion of recursion where he once again asserts that the existence of a finite language would undermine the Chomsky claim that language is recursive (see answer to question 2). This is not the claim. The claim is that UG produces Gs that are recursive. So the fact that FL endows humans with the capacity to acquire Gs that are recursive does not imply either that every language has a recursive grammar or that every speaker uses this capacity to produce endlessly large sentences. So, evern were Piraha a “finite language” as DE claims (and which, truth be told, I still do not believe) it implies nothing whatsoever for Chomsky’s claim that it is a fact about FL/UG that language is recursive. This is simply a non-sequitur based on DE’s misunderstanding of what GGers take a universal to be (note his claim would be valid were he understanding ‘universal’ in Greenbergian terms). However, do note expect DE to ever loose this misunderstanding. As Upton Sinclair once noted: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” What do you think the odds are that DE would be getting interviewed here or featured in the New Yorker or the Chronicle of HigherEeducation were he not peddling the claim that his work on Piraha showed that Chomsky work in linguistics was incorrect? Do I hear 0?
(iv) DE does not appear to understand that Gs can be recursive even if utterances have an upper bound. I am not saying that this is what is the case for Piraha. I am saying that recursion is a property of Gs not of utterances. A mark of recursion (i.e. evidence for recursive mechanisms) can be gleaned by looking to see if the products of this mechanism are unbounded in length and depth. But the converse does not obtain: Gs might be recursive even if utterances (their products) are bounded in size. DE seems to think that during language acquisition, kids scale the Chomsky hierarchy, first treating them as finite lists and then as generated by regular grammars and then by context free and then…all the way to mildly context sensitive. Where he got this conception I cannot fathom. But there is no reason to think that this is so. And if it is not, then given that Piraha speakers can learn what even DE considers recursive languages (a bad locution, by the way, given that ‘recursive’ is properly speaking a predicate of grammars, and only secondarily their products) like Portuguese it is clear that they have the same UGs we all do. And if this is right, then it is quite unlikely that they would not acquire a recursive G even for Piraha. But this is a discussion for another time. Right now it suffices for you to know that DE, it appears, cannot be taught and that there is still a large and lucrative market for “Chomsky is wrong” material. Big surprise.
Genes and languages: The Atlantic has a little piece showing that some “languages and genes do in fact share similar geographical fault lines.” Apparently, whether this was so was a question of interest to linguists. As the paper puts it: “Using new dataset and statistical techniques, the researchers were able to scratch an itch linguists and demographers have struggled to reach.” I confess to never having had this itch so I am not sure why this observation is of particular interest to linguists.
It is quite clear that whatever genetic change occurred did not affect the basic structure of FL. How do I know this? Because, so far as we can tell any kind can still learn any language in roughly the same way any other kid can. And, from what we can tell, all Gs obey effectively the same kinds of general structure dependent constraints. So, whatever the genetic changes, they did not affect those genes undergirding FL/UG. Nor, so far as I can tell, is there any reason to think that the phoneme properties and genetic features that are tracked are in a causal relation (i.e. neither is the root cause of the others change). It just seems that they swing together. But is this really surprising? Don’t people who have similar phonemes tend to live near each other? And as these kinds of genetic changes are subject to environmental influence is this really a surprise?
Maybe this is interesting for some other reason. If so, please post a comment and let me know what that interest is. I would love to know. Really. Here’s the link:
Some philo/history of science: I enjoyed this little piece mainly for the discussion of the relationship between realism and mathematics in the physical sciences historically. It suggests one way of understanding Newton’s famous line about not feigning hypotheses. His theory gave a precise mathematical understanding of gravity. He thought that this was enough and that metaphysical speculations concerning its “reality” were not required from a scientific theory. This was enough. At any rate, there has been lots of intellectual pulling and pushing about how to understand one’s theoretical claims (e.g. realistically, instrumentally) and it is interesting to see a little history.
Replication/Reproducibility and stats in science: Here’s yet another paper on replicability in the sciences (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/redoing-scientific-research-best-way-find-truth. Many factors are cited as creating problems, but the one that I thought most provocative is at the end:
Much of the controversy has centered on the types of statistical analyses used in most scientific studies, and hardly anyone disputes that the math is a major tripping point…
There is a case to be made that though statistics is in principle useful, applying it correctly is very very hard. It’s one of these things that are better in theory than they are in practice. And maybe any paper dressed up in statistical garb should ipso facto be treated cautiously. Right now we do the opposite: stats lend credence to results. Might it be that they should be treated with suspicion until proven innocent? (For some useful discussion how even the best intended can go statistically astray see this recent piece by Gelman and Locken.)
One great scientist who was very suspicious of statistical results, it seems, was Ernest Rutherford. He was working at a time when physical theory was far more advanced than anything we see in our part of the sciences. Here’s what he said: “If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.” The problems with replication seem to lend his one liner some weight, as does the apparent difficulty inherent in doing one’s stats correctly.