Friday, December 17, 2010

Coming Full Circle on Whorf

With this interesting study on English and Mandarin speakers, the research on the influence of language on thought has come full circle. Researchers at Stanford have found that Mandarin speakers were far more likely than English speakers to view time vertically, with earlier events above later ones. They conclude that this is due in part to differences in the words used by the two languages to refer to time and events.

You'll no doubt recall that Whorf's original research focused in part on differences between of English and Hopi subjects in terms of how they spoke about and conceived of time. For years, linguists discounted and derided his findings based on everything from prejudice about the conclusions to claims that his work was shoddy and his conclusions self-motivated.

Now we have a modern, well-designed study that arrives at the same conclusion Whorf did-- that the structure of your native language can influence the structure of your thinking and conceptualization.

Now can we start taking the implications of that conclusion seriously and consider implementing changes in our educational system to accommodate?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Who will Reframe the Reframers for Us?

In this report on people in the "stigmatized" role of debt collector, researcher Madeleine McKechnie found that reframing the way they describe their work helped these workers feel more positive and therefore stay in their jobs longer. They called themselves financial counselors or information detectives or negotiators. These substitutions in wording help them change their self-image and give them a way to feel helpful rather than predatory.

The researcher notes that "Not a lot of research looks at these professions that are necessary for a functioning society."

In the comments section after the report, one wag noted:

The author is using the phrase "functioning society" as a substitute for more accurate words so she can feel positive about the validity of her conclusions and continue disseminating propaganda as is necessary to maintain her role in a "functioning society."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Researchers catching up with GS

A recent study in Europe has found that language has an effect on both verbal and nonverbal number processing in first-graders. The researchers looked at number comprehension in children who spoke German, Italian or Czech, and found that differences in how the language handles placeholders had a significant effect on how well the children comprehended two-digit numbers. Their conclusion:

The data corroborate a weak Whorfian hypothesis in children, with even nonverbal Arabic number processing seeming to be influenced by linguistic properties in children.

The more linguists study language in real-life settings, the more they achieve these kinds of results. Many recent studies have found similar results, and headlines often grudgingly acknowledge the earlier discoveries. The mention of Whorf in a research, rather than amounting to an academic kiss of death, now indicates a modern, forward thinking study. How nice.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Knowing What We Know (or Not)

The movie "Inception" imagines a technology that allows agents to enter the subconscious of a target and manipulate their memories and thus their beliefs. David Sirota, in this Alternet article titled "A Lesson from "Inception": How the Right-Wing and Corporate Media Brainwash Americans" contends that our 24/7 mediation by politically-oriented media outlets produces a similar frame of mind. If we only hear things that align with our prior information and beliefs, we get to a point where contradictory evidence cannot make a dent. Sirota quotes Cal State Fullerton's Nancy Snow, who wrote in 2004 that:

today's most pervasive and effective propaganda is the kind that is "least noticeable" and consequently "convinces people they are not being manipulated."
Few things show more resistance to contradiction than a "fact" that we believe we discovered on our own.

As Wendell Johnson put it, we become our own "most enchanted listener". When that happens, we have less motivation to ask "what do I mean?" and "how do I know?" which increases the likelihood that we will not recognize the possibility or validity of contradictory information.

So what did you NOT notice today?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How We Change and How We Don't

There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others. -Michel de Montaigne, essayist (1533-1592)
Montaigne wrote a lot about recognizing the differences among people, but this quote suggests he also understood that we ourselves do not maintain a single "self" over our lifetimes.

In GS readings, you might encounter the term RIOT, standing for Relative Invariance Over Time. This concept accounts for our ability to simultaneously recognize ourselves in baby pictures and in the mirror, despite the years between the two images. GS considers our "selves" to represent a different level of abstraction than our bodies at any given moment. RIOT represents a chain of evidence, if you will, that links that child to this adult, a chain we can grasp conceptually as a single entity due to our skill at categorization.

But while that gives us the ability to carry on from day to day and still pay the bills and visit the in-laws, we do well to retain an awareness of the underlying, less continuous, less consistent, less conceptual being that changes minute by minute and hour by hour. While the *concept* of "I" recurs every day as the "same person", the *fact* of "I" changes--we age, we fall ill, we learn a new skill, we forget an old friend. We think one thing one day and a different thing another day. We find ourselves unable to decide something because we can see both sides, or all sides, and part of us wants one thing and part wants another. We differ from ourselves.

That covers the first part of Montaigne's quote.

As for the second part, we face similar but different issues. RIOT accounts for our ability to recognize others as a) humans like us; and b) strangers or acquaintances. We can easily grasp the benefits of RIOT here--we can operate in our society without continually have to retest our perceptions of those around us.

On the other hand, when we do not retest our perceptions of those around us, we fail to detect changes that might have significance for our interactions with them. We do not notice that we may not agree on how to conduct civil discourse, how to govern, how to share resources, etc. Overlooking disagreements about how to do something in a shared environment usually leads to discord, disharmony, divorce, even war. After all, while we are overlooking differences, so are the other folks, and who decides which side of the difference "is right"?

More than anything, Montaigne wanted to encourage us to recognize that no "right" exists, to recognize that we do things the way we do them because we learned to from our ancestors, who learned from their ancestors. We revere our ancestors because they produced us and told us what to hold true to, but we have no basis for saying that what they taught us has any independent validity. And the other guys have just as many ancestors with just as many beliefs, equally without independent validity, but still cherished as true. So we differ from others too.

So, without thinking about this, we war amongst ourselves and we war within ourselves.

Can understanding the mechanisms for these wars help us avoid them? Perhaps, if we incorporate that awareness into our deliberations, if we account for both the RIOT and the changes it obscures, both within our selves and between us and others. If we know we cannot require ourselves or others to remain unchanged, if we accept that what we know and what we learned may not match up with what others know and learn, if we grant ourselves and others the leeway to change and differ, we have taken steps closer to a saner, more accurate map, and that seems like a good way to find our way.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Writing about Doing

GIST Publishing and Multi-Dimensional Press announce the publication of Graymanship: The Management of Organizational Imperfection, by Bob Eddy. See more at the GIST website.

Drew Carey once joked, "Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar." Surveys show that job dissatisfaction and cynicism are at an all-time high. Why have we let our jobs become so toxic? Bob Eddy's book, Graymanship: The Management of Organizational Imperfection delivers a mind-boggling, out-of-the-box approach that shatters common sense concepts about how to manage businesses and employees. Other books, focusing on one-minute leadership and relocating cheese, may contain interesting viewpoints, but they have not succeeded in reversing, or even lessening, the negativity of our work lives. What can we do about miscommunications, incompetence, disorganization, disruption, disobedience, inequity, disloyalty, politics, unethical behavior, conflict, and cynicism? We obviously need a deeper analysis of why we suffer these ills. Graymanship suggests that we take a new and different look at the assumptions we have bought into that keep us prisoners of old paradigms and worldviews. Eddy compares the Realist's black-and-white viewpoint that most of us grew up with to a more balanced Constructivist worldview that embraces shades of gray, shifting our language away from dividing and blaming, and toward more nuanced, results-oriented evaluations. With this new mindset, Eddy proposes 66 concrete actions that managers, employees and organizations can take to restore sanity and enjoyment to our organizational membership. "Graymanship works in the world because it reflects the queasy, hard to pin down, flexible reality we live in." Bill Conner, educational administrator. "It's professional, persuasive, provocative, surprisingly concise, and very, very readable." Dave Kimball, retired CEO.

The book will be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major book sellers.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Words don't mean....

The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes.
-Max Beerbohm, writer, critic, and caricaturist (1872-1956)

I might have said, "by how we have experience the word in use." As I understand it, words don't actually "connote," any more than they "mean." Instead, we encounter words as used by people in our environment, we observe the effect of the word on those around us, construct a meaning, and and we go on to apply the word in situations we believe similar to the original experience. Thus a given word may strike one person as beautiful and another as ugly, due not to the dictionary meaning of the word, but rather to the circumstances surrounding their experiences of the word in use.

But that explanation doesn't make for a handy little aphorism.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Word Magic Alive and Well in Utah

This article in the UK Guardian reports on the passage of a non-binding resolution in the Utah State Assembly with quite amazing language encouraging the US EPA to cease all efforts to rein in CO2 emissions "until a full and independent investigation of climate data and global warming science can be substantiated."

First off, one wonders where they plan to look for scientists who have not already staked out an opinion on climate change. As I understand it, the vast majority of climate researchers, indeed, of scientists in all relevant fields, supports the conclusion that human activity has profoundly and negatively affected the world's environmental balance, and further, that the sooner we take action to reverse these problems, the better.

For example, the director of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, Robert Stavins, recently told an audience:

Climate change is an important threat meriting serious attention by policy-makers in California and around the world.
According to Wikipedia's article on climate change concensus:
No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion since the American Association of Petroleum Geologists adopted its current position in 2007.
Utah seems unconcerned about their minority position. The final bill as passed contains a laundry list of "whereas" statements to support their conviction that the whole "global warming" thing is just a conspiracy by left-wing eggheads intent on tricking Americans into giving up their way of life, rather than a scientific effort to save both the planet and the world's economies from decline due to indiscriminate energy consumption and its aftereffects. For example (deletions from the original wording shown in bold):
WHEREAS, global temperatures have been level and declining in some areas over the past 12 years;
WHEREAS, the "hockey stick" global warming assertion has been discredited and climate alarmists' carbon dioxide-related global warming hypothesis is unable to account for the current downturn in global temperatures;
WHEREAS, emails and other communications between climate researchers around the globe, referred to as "Climategate," indicate a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate H. [ and incorporate "tricks" related to ] .H global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome;
WHEREAS, global governance related to global warming and reduction of CO2 would ultimately lock billions of human beings into long-term poverty....
This despite abundant information that the "warming" part of "global climate change" does not mean EVERY temperate EVERYWHERE will go up FROM NOW ON, and despite wide agreement in the view of many climate scientists that the "hockey stick" graph has NOT "been discredited."

Apparently a majority of the assembly believes that if you simply "say it isn't so", it won't be so.

However, I think we get a glimpse into the heart of the issue in this "whereas":
WHEREAS, H. [ the climate change "gravy train," estimated at ] .H more than $7 billion annually in federal government grants, may have influenced the climate research focus and findings that have produced a "scientific consensus" at research institutions and universities;
Given the economic importance of oil and coal production in Utah, the "gravy train" slur that appeared in the original wording points, this clause clearly means to say "Keep your hands off OUR gravy train!"

In other words, the short-term economic boon of dirty coal and oil far outweighs the likely economic, health, social and scientific FUTURE disaster of filthy skies and a dying planet, as long as it holds off until after *we* die, right?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Applying Science to Science

GS suggests that terms like "global climate change" and "economic depression" and "political action" fall into the category of large, multifaceted, heavily-laden abstractions lacking specific meaning when used generally without specific context. This can make it difficult to discuss various facets of those terms in a reasoned scientific way, since one person's "major polluter" may look like an "economic necessity" to someone else. Based on these over-under-generalized terms, our global society has found it difficult to come to grips with not only how to act regarding these issues, but whether to act at all.

This YouTube video offers an interesting, if somewhat simplistic, proposal:

Basically, the speaker demonstrates that we can come to a conclusion about whether to act without resolving the question of whether global climate change "is really happening" or not. He shows that, regardless of how you define the potential outcomes of the "is it real" debate, you can estimate the relative cost of acting or failing to act sufficiently well to decide which course makes sense.

While someone could attack the potential outcomes he assigns to various possible actions as oversimplified, his logic seems pretty reasonable and straightforward. If the worst risk of not acting appears to exceed the worst risk of acting, why would we not act?

Of course, one might answer, "because *I* face the risks of our acting now, while future generations face the risk of our not acting now." But that's an argument for another day.

For now, I would agree with the video maker: what's the worst that could happen?

Maybe this?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Rare Notice of a Rare GS Idea

Every once in a while, somebody rediscovers or remembers some GS-related idea or practice and writes about it in the world press. Today's example comes from Oliver Burkeman, Life and Style columnist for the British newspaper, the Guardian, who writes a fair and generous article on the topic of e-Prime.

Burkeman appears to know his GS. He says:

in this anniversary year [of Bourland's original article on e-Prime], his eccentric vision deserves celebrating. Because in theory at least, E-Prime aimed at nothing less than using language to make our insane lives a little more sane.

While some of his explicit examples of e-Prime come out a little stilted ("To live or not to live, I ask this question" and "The Lord functions as my shepherd"), Burkeman's articulate posting shows he has a fairly competent handle on e-Prime. For example, he notes:
"I am a failure" feels permanent, all-encompassing, hopeless. Restating it in E-Prime – "I feel like a failure" or "I have failed at this task" – makes it limited, temporary, addressable.
To think about and function in the world, Korzybski said, we rely on systems of abstract concepts, most obviously language. But those concepts don't reflect the world in a straightforward way; instead, they contain hidden traps that distort reality, causing confusion and angst. And the verb "to be", he argued, contains the most traps of all.
Burkeman also notes that neuroscience has begun to catch up with Korzybski's and Bourland's understanding of the connection between the words we use and the thoughts we think:
as cognitive therapists note, thoughts trigger emotions, and "finalistic, absolutistic" thoughts trigger stressful emotions.
Despite having used e-Prime to produce a clear and easy-to-read article extolling the value of e-Prime, Burkeman seems to dismiss his own point, when he says "in fairness Bourland never meant it as a serious replace­ment for English", as if someone promoting e-Prime needs an excuse for such wacky thinking.

In my view, any tool that exposes the biases and errors in understanding hidden in our day-to-day speech can only help improve communication. Most people reject e-Prime either because it makes writing difficult (it does, but only because you have to stop and think what you might really mean to say) or because it results in stilted, awkward phrasing (it can, but usually only while the writer unlearns the thought processes that rely on the far easier to-be structure.)

For example, Burkeman offers "The Lord functions as my shepherd" as an example of e-Prime. In my view, this only substitutes non-to-be words without actually rethinking the meaning of the sentence. I would suggest "The Lord guides me as a shepherd guides his sheep," which clears away the labelling of the original while exposing the actor and identifying the action.

That, to me, represents the value of a tool like e-Prime. In the years since Bourland's article, others have come to recognize that just rejecting "to be" doesn't quite cover the various pitfalls of unthinking speech. Allen Walker Read suggested using e-Ma, "English minus absolutisms", implemented by avoiding false-to-fact words like "every", "all", "always" and "never."

I prefer my own blend of these ideas, which one might call "e-MaP", English minus "to be", minus absolutisms, and minus "prescriptives", meaning words like "should", "must" and "need". To say "I must go to work today" obscures the choice I make. To say "I need a new car" obscures the fact that I can certainly live without one, but would prefer something new and shiny in my driveway.

Give it a try. You have only your implicit prejudices to lose!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Words We Use DO Make a Difference?!

More corroboration of the connection between the words we use and the meanings we make comes in an article from the International Journal of Drug Policy, reported here.

Researchers developed two different texts about a man who was "having trouble keeping to his court-ordered treatment program requiring abstinence from alcohol and other drugs." In one version, the man is labeled as "substance abuser" while in the other, he is described as "having a substance-abuse disorder". These two texts were presented to mental health workers, after which the subjects were asked their opinions on how to treat the "patient".

The PhysOrg blog poster, apparently associated with Mass General Hospital, reports:

participants who received the paragraph describing [the patient] as a "substance abuser" were significantly more likely to agree that he should be punished for not following his required treatment plan. They were also more likely to agree with statements implying that that he was more to blame for his difficulty adhering to the court requirements.
The posting continues:
"We found that referring to someone with the 'abuser' terminology evokes more punitive attitudes than does describing that person's situation in exactly the same words except for using 'disorder' terminology," says John F. Kelly, PhD, associate director of the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine, who led the study.
GS has long made a distinction between the application of a label and the reporting of observed process-oriented conditions. As the researchers found, the label inevitably reduces the individuality of the person labeled, enabling erroneous or prejudicial inferences to cloud the evaluation of the situation. Conversely, the use of scientific terms and phrases that describe the behavior or actions of person provide some distance between the person and the behavior, allowing the evaluator to treat the behavior with less prejudice and inference.

What we say about someone or something can influence not only how others react, but how we ourselves react to the words we have just used. Awareness of this interaction, and the effects it can have, can reduce the potential damaging effects of inadvertent prejudice and improve the outcome of treatment.

As Kelly says, ""There's an old proverb that states, if you want something to survive and flourish, call it a flower; if you want to kill it, call it a weed."