Saturday, February 26, 2005

What's in a Name?

Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respect

You've done it, no doubt--called somebody a "birdbrain". I bet you didn't know you were conferring a compliment on them! Here's an interesting report on recent research showing that birds' brains are at least as complex and inventive as those of chimpanzees.

I found especially interesting this refreshing insight into the power of language, in a statement by Dr. Erich Jarvis, one of the leaders of the consortium that produced the report: "Names have a powerful influence on the experiements we do and the way we think." While much attention focuses on "experimenter bias" and the idea that a scientist might subtly influence the results of a test towards a preferred outcome, Dr. Jarvis addresses the question of the bias that exists even before the experiment begins. If we only use one set of terms for phenomena that are similar but not identical, how much real-world information do we miss because we have not words to describe it?

This ties in nicely with a theme I have pursued lately, stimulated by my reading of Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By and The Silent Language by Edward T. Hall. While gs talks a lot about bringing our personal history into our interpretation of words, these two books cast a new (to me) light on the mechanisms for that process.

Using metaphor in daily language (something we do constantly but usually without awareness) gives us a built-in set of familiar meanings for unfamiliar concepts. For example, suppose I say "Bob purred with appreciation as the sports car pulled up." You know Bob is not a cat, but you know what "purr" means so you hear a sound in your mind that approximates what Bob did. You also know that cats purr, and when they do, they indicate contentment, they might stretch appreciatively or rub against you. From that, you might imagine some physical action that Bob takes to further show his appreciation, maybe slapping you on the back and pointing. Purring allows cats to communicates a certain emotion and, metaphorically, Bob communicates a similar emotion.

Similarly, if I call you a "bird-brain" you use the constellation of meaning that surrounds your understanding of birds to interpret the phrase and assign related meaning to it. How can a scientist conduct serious research on soemthing as silly and frivolous as a "bird-brain"? You see the problem.

Much of these metaphoric constellations remain completely hidden from our consciousness. Hall describes the deep structural changes that occur in our brains as we grow up and learn our native language and culture. While we all understand how our language divides us from those who speak a different language, many of us will find it a surprise that the division runs just as deep over such simple cultural habits as time sense, personal distance and eye contact. Lakoff extends this disconnect to the metaphors we use.

For scientists, this means overcoming not just the stigma of a word like "bird-brain" but also, for example, the cultural estimation of the value of other species. In some cultures, not only does the word imply insignificance, but society's view that birds primarily represent food adds an additional layer of unconscious stigma that neither the scientist nor the society as a whole even recognize.

The subject of how our descriptions can influence how we value work deserves more thought and research.

Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respectbirdbrain.htm

Monday, February 14, 2005


One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.
-Voltaire, philosopher and writer (1694-1778)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

What's Wrong with this Article?

With the current social and political climate leaning precariously towards the "faith-based" approach to life, examples of faulty logic and language abound. One topic generating much heat concerns the so-called "theory of intelligent design" proposed as a serious alternative to simple evolution as an "explanation" for Why We are Here.

In this NYT article, biologist Michael Behe presents what he undoubtedly intended as a cogent and irresistable argument in favor of Intelligent Design. He insists that ID proponents in the scientific community do not incorporate a religious aspect into their theory, but simply question the ability of natural processes to produce sub-cellular appropriate technology in such variety as we now understand exists.

Behe says cell are more like watch mechanisms than William Paley ever could have imagined: "There are little molecular trucks in the cell to ferry supplies, little outboard motors to push a cell through liquid." The presence of such mechanisms, so similar to things we know to have been designed underlies one of the prime arguments put forth to support ID.

As a general semanticist, I have to gently correct Mr. Behe. We know from our studies of how language influences perception, that his statement says nothing about the cell and everything about the speaker. If you see intelligent design in the similarity between a cellular body and a motorboat, it's because an intelligent being designed the motorboat! That's why we say "form follows function." We can't imagine a spontaneously arising mechanism so similar to one that we made with our intelligence, ignoring the fact that some of the ideas for the design of motorboats comes from the simple need to meet certain requirements--moving through a thick medium, needing to steer against currents etc. If you need something to quack like a duck, you watch ducks quack and then do something similar. If you later come back to the duck and find miraculously that their quack sounds a lot like your mechanical quacker, and from that derive a theory of intelligent design of the duck, you are being fooled by your own language and forgetfulness.

As for his closing remarks that we should not "search relentlessly for a non-design explanation for Mt. Rushmore"--what he is trying to do there is to equate the design we *think* we see in nature with something that any human would recognize as designed. Continuing research on evolution has nothing to do with explaining things we *know* were the results of design, like tattoos on Maori warriors, or the appearance of bound feet in ancient Japan. Nobody cares to find the reason behind the making of Mt Rushmore. In fact, science has no *need* to find the reason for evolution or any other natural process either. If evolution answers the most questions about how things work, then it suffices until something comes along that does it better. That's how science works. And "intelligent design" does absolutely nothing for the advancement of scientific understanding. By definition, that makes it something other than science--like religion perhaps?

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Design for Living