Saturday, March 24, 2012

Chomsky, the Pirahã, and turduckens of the Amazon

A seething dispute has burst back into life with the publication of Language: The Cultural Tool (Economist, New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education). I’ve yet to read the book, though I’m pretty sure I will. I admire its author, Dan Everett, as an ex-missionary, who saw the light in those on whom he had sought to foist salvation, as a fieldworker, whose time in the wild is something I can only dream of, and as a defender of one tribe's right to continue its traditions against the depredations of modernity. And I admire his detractors, amongst them, my professor from phd days, David Pesetsky, and my one-time neighbour at MIT, and now near neighbour at UCL, Andrew Nevins.

The Pirahã, and their language, are, Everett believes, different from other groups and other grammars, so different as to threaten Chomsky’s theory of natural language. I wouldn’t describe myself as a card-carrying Chomskian—or as a card-carrying anything. However, my work is inconceivable without the program of research he initiated, and, so, potential Pirahã problems interest me.

Before you venture into foreign terrain, you set your bearings. If all you can see is rainforest, with no clear line of sight to the horizon, then it’s easy to forget your general direction and get caught up in undergrowth and bogged down in mud. So, before I open Everett’s book (or any other), I ask myself what the argument would need to look like to make me reevaluate where my research is headed and why. I’ve found Pirahã very helpful for my work (it’s cited in my last five(?) papers). Does it really destroy the edifice I’m building?

The Pirahã maelstrom has had two vortices: recursion, and the language–culture connection. Recursion promises/threatens to slay Chomsky, who argues that much of grammar is innate. The language–culture connection promises/threatens to resurrect Whorf, who argues that language shapes how we think. I work on the latter and I’ve written (here, here) on why I choose not to work on the former. For now, I’ll concentrate Chomsky and recursion, because, truth be told, the “Pirahã slays Chomsky” headlines seem to me like errors in elementary reasoning. In other words, the kind of “because” abuse that this blog is named after.

Recipes for recursion

Recursion means sticking something you made earlier into something else. So, preparing perogi (I’m in Kraków just now) isn’t culinary recursion—you’ve just put filling in pastry and left it there—but making borsht with dumplings is—you put something in something to make pirogi and then put your pirogi into your soup. The ultimate in culinary recursion would be turducken, a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a chicken (stuffed inside a person).

“Turducken recursion” and “dumpling-borsht recursion” are different and both are found in human language. In “turducken recursion”, you take two things of the same type and put one inside the other—a sentence inside a sentence (Pawel ate the pirogi his mother wanted to sell) or a noun inside a noun (Pawel’s mother’s pirogi). In “dumpling-borsht” recursion, you put something inside something different—a noun inside a verb phrase (ate pirogi) inside a full sentence (Pawel ate pirogi).

Why does recursion matter to Chomsky? Well, one of the ways to think about what he is up to (and how I explain my work at dinner parties) is to pretend the brain is a kind of computer, like an iphone. (Sorry for mixing metaphors, computers with food. But, well, iphones are apples.) Obviously, we share lots of our brain hardware with other animals. But other animals apparently don’t have anything like human languages, not even the vocal, gregarious, communicative ones, not even primates formally schooled in sign languages by eager experimenters. Chomsky has co-written that the crucial difference might be that our hardware at some point became capable of recursion.*

Which recursion does Everett think Pirahã lacks and should Chomsky care? (And why all this talk of “putting inside”, rather than “putting next to”? E.g., why is Pawel’s “inside”, not “next to”, mother’s pirogi?)

Turduckens, iphones, and irrelevance

Everett says that there’s no turducken amongst the Pirahã. No sentence-in-sentence or noun-in-noun. You have duck (Pawel ate pirogi) and you have chicken (His mother wanted their sale), but you’re not getting to ducken, with one inside the other.

But if Everett, and the media, don’t get turducken, they make hoopla. Everett’s claim has been portrayed as a Chomsky-slayer of a fact.** In truth, though, the turducken hunt is a red herring.

My iphone tags my photos to say where I took them. It tells me what’s nearby (cafés, restaurants, museums, shops, ...). It shows me where I am on maps and how to get to where I want to go and which of my friends are nearby. My mother never tags her photos, she never wants to know what’s around her, she never displays herself as a blip on a map, and, if she wants to know if you’re nearby, she calls. But that’s a fact about how my mother has set her iphone up. All location services are off. But that doesn’t mean her iphone can’t provide that information. The computational capacity of our phones is the same, her configuration is just different.

If the Pirahã don’t have turducken sentences, that’s a fact about how their language is configured. It’s not a fact about their hardware. If you kidnapped a Pirahã child (a practice inflicted on numerous indigenous communities) and raised it speaking Portuguese—or, less horrifically, if you exposed it to enough Portuguese for it to grow up bilingual—you’d expect them to be just as capable of learning Portuguese as any other child they were raised with. When Chomsky is concerned with recursion, he is concerned with hardware. The claim is about what brains can learn, not what a particular brain has learned. A dearth of turduckens of the Amazon just doesn’t matter.

Six degrees of separation

Here’s a different path to the same conclusion. “Six degrees of separation”. It’s every Chomskian’s favourite game. You pick some humdrum language, like English, and, with just a tweak here and tweak there, you get yourself up the Amazon without a turducken. The point is to show which exotic delicacies are just familiar fare in fancy sauce. Here’s a pertinent example inspired by the first paper I read in grad school.

What’s the difference between ask and wonder? A normal person will say it’s something about their meanings. Fair enough. But a linguist will it’s about recursion. You can ask what the time is or ask the time. Both are fine. Not so with wonder: you might wonder what the time is, but you can’t wonder the time. Such differences are widespread and don’t appear to depend on meaning. After all, ask and inquire are near synonyms, but I can’t inquire the time. I’m limited to inquiring what the time is.

And now we tweak. Imagine we go, verb by verb, taking everything like ask and making it like inquire, so that it can only combine with a noun, not a sentence-like, “concealed” question. By the time we’re done, English would be on its way to being Pirahã: verbs would no longer be the aperture through which you can turducken one sentence inside another.

Sure, there’d still be relative clauses (Pawel’s mother wanted to sell the pirogi that Pawel ate). But they depend on there being words like that. We could get rid of them too.

Yet, none of this would mean that “English-ish” speakers’ brains had become incapable of recursion. They’d just have turned off their iphones’ location services. No change in hardware, just change in use. So, again, finding a language without turducken recursion is, simply, irrelevant to deciding whether recursion is the crucial component of hardware that makes us computationally competent for language.

Back to borsht and dumplings

We have an expression in English, “to string words together”. This probably reflects what most people think sentences are. Words strung together. One of the major insights of early work by Chomsky & Co is that real generalizations about sentences aren’t phrased in terms of strings. To characterize what is possible a sentence in a language and how possible sentences are related to each other, you don’t talk about which bit follows which other bit. You talk about which two bits were combined first, and about which other bit their combination was combined with next, and so on. Language, in the computery, grammatical sense relevant to Chomsky, is not about strings, it’s about structures.

If Pirahãs’ lack of turducken recursion is irrelevant to Chomsky’s claims, can Everett make hoopla from dumpling-borsht recursion instead? Does Pirahã make us think that its sentences are not built up by this kind of recursion? Three things make me sceptical that Language: The Cultural Tool can show this.

First, the rhetoric. If Pirahã has such sentences, then it is remarkable for what it has, not for what is missing. It would have sentence types that can’t come from recursion, rather than merely not having certain types that do. Yet, all discussion I’ve seen has focused exclusively on what Pirahã lacks. Quite a U-turn.

Second, a point-by-point rebuttal of Everett’s earlier formulations, indicated where Pirahã is similar to Chinese, German, and Hebrew, amongst others. So, if Chinese, etc don’t have sentence types irreconcilable with recursion, then Pirahã probably doesn’t either.

Third, it is not hard to show what a theory cannot do. For all I admire Everett for his post-missionary enlightment, his time in the field, his advocacy of indigenous rights, and his desire to go beyond descriptive work and engage with the foundations of cognition—something I share—I have to recognize that discussion of turduckens and iphones suggests that Everett isn’t the person to do this. The task requires good basic logic and an understanding of the fundamentals of the theories you’re trying to engage with. Turduckens and iphones may seem like silly metaphors, but they reveal, in familiar and concrete terms, Everett’s errors in logic (arguing from irrelevant data) and in understanding (the crucial distinction between linguistic hardware versus its use in a given language). This does not bode well.

Ready for incursion

Not everyone is good at everything. My mother can’t use location services on her iphone, and, frankly, I’m not a fan of the thought of turducken. But my mother doesn’t preach the downfall of Apple and I don’t portray myself as an expert turduckenist.

There’s more to Language: The Cultural Tool than recursion (watch for future posts). But then why all this hoopla about its impact on Chomsky’s view of our mental hardware, if the main subject of the book in all likelihood has nothing of relevance to contribute? Having marshalled my thoughts, I will open the book with a heavy heart. I’ve seen a laudable fieldworker produce lamentable theory before.


*So all you need to get Dostoyevski is a monkey brain and recursion? No. When Chomsky talks about language, he’s talking only about our computational hardware. Your hardware needs a set of concepts to compute over and, once there are enough people who can also compile their concepts into beautifully articulated thoughts, it’s pretty handy to have some way of getting thoughts out of your head and into theirs: communication—which potentially raises new computational questions, about flattening thoughts built by recursion into sequences sayable/signable one bit at a time. For the curious, I should add that I focus as much on the store of concepts as on building by recursion, if not more. So, I’m not as deeply involved in these issues as some.

**There’s been debate about whether it is a fact at all: he previously found turducken in his neck of the Amazon, and there’s dis-ag-ree-ment about whether he’s been able to reanalyze the examples at stake as separate sentences standing side by side.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Multiple postings, and Dunning your Kruger

Sorry about all the posting and reposting on this week’s two posts (Language, Flat Earth and Goldilocks: Three riffs on evolution and The anti-evolutionist case: Fred Reed, “scurrilous” indeed). It took some fiddling to get the html to display indentation and suppress interparagraph struts in both Chrome and Safari (haven’t checked other browsers).

Also, Danny G from Sydney points out that what I called “Kruger-Dunning” is normally called “Dunning-Kruger”. I noticed this too, in the wiki link. But by then I’d used “Dunning” as a verb and I didn’t want to lose the grammar geekage. The original paper is by Kruger and Dunning, not Dunning and Kruger. And, after all, this blog is about truths, not norms :-)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The anti-evolutionist case: Fred Reed, “scurrilous” indeed

The student mentioned in yesterday’s post sent me four of the anti-evolution articles that she was impressed with. No offence to her—students are there to learn and learning to spot unreliable sources is particularly tricky—but they are far worse than I was expecting. Here are the two emails (with minor changes for readability) that I sent back this morning.

I’m posting them here for two reasons. In case any else needs alerting to the atrocious incompetence of Fred Reed’s writings (read my other posts to see that I don’t go in for exaggeration). And as an illustration of how to avoid being duped by a Kruger-Dullard, someone who mistakenly believes themself expert enough in an area to offer “scurrilous commentary” on the “foolishness” of others (to quote Reed).

It’s common sense. Before you trust someone in foreign terrain, you test them on ground you both know. When it’s my mother’s medical musings, where I have minuscule factual knowledge, I go for the statistical/experimental jugular: if a “trial” can’t possibly show what the authors think it proves, then they can’t tell bad science from good. They’re Kruger-Dullards.

In the case of biological (rather than cognitive) evolution, I’m competent only in the shallows: when the argument dives deep, the details drown me. Fortunately, Fred warms up with a potted history of science and some comments on what scientists think they’re doing. This is bread and butter stuff. And he gets diametrically wrong, attributing to scientists in general, and Newton in particular, the very opposite of what they say, believe, and do. A Kruger-Dunning delusive if ever there was one.

I started off with a general piece about two world views (ah, rival world views, like my first book) and, after a quick skim, this was my response (“smooth-tongued” picks up on a comment of the student’s about Reed’s writing style):

Hi ******,
Thanks for forwarding. I’ve skimmed one and I’ll take a look at the other three, but so far I’m not impressed. The writer understands some basic principles of science, but also makes several errors that are typical of highschool-level understanding: mechanism died with Newton, determinism died with Poincaré (replaced with chaotic determinism, or deterministic chaos), the digression into ethics and evolution misrepresents what evolutionary theory actually posits and covers and wholly ignores the contributions of cognitive science, where, incidentally, Chomsky has addressed the “problem of consciousness” and the significance of volition, which Fred presents as arch-problems that science has ignored. Not a promising beginning.
What’s really weird though is his premise that, if we divide the world into those who think we can know it all and those at peace with the inevitability of ignorance, then scientists fall in the know-it-all camp. The claim is quite bewildering. Knowing/asking/understanding are all biological processes. They are therefore limited just as every other biological process is. Just as there are speeds we can’t run at, and sounds we can’t hear, and wavelengths we can’t see, so there are questions we can’t conceive of and answers we can’t give. And even if that weren’t true, we’d never have enough time to answer all our questions. So ignorance is inevitable and anyone who gives the matter a moment’s thought knows as much. Enlightenment scientists were aware of this, reviving a tradition that goes back to Aristotle at least (suppressed under religious influence in the interim).
If somebody, especially a smooth-tongued somebody, tells me that they’re going to tell me the problem with science and then makes so rudimentary an error as to claim that scientists believe all questions to be answerable, then I conclude that they are either ignorant or dishonest. Either way, I’m disinclined to trust anything else they say. After all, if they get the basics wrong, they’re only going to get more confused when it comes to the details.
Let me know if you disagree. More as and when. Regards, Daniel

I’d intended to stop there, but there’s nothing like bollocks for breakfast and a quick click brought me to a critique of judicial rulings on intelligent design in science classes. My response:

OMG, this is appalling!
Next came Newton. There were others before him, but he, though he was himself a Christian, was the towering figure in the rise of mechanism, the view that all things occur ineluctably through mindless antecedent causes. He said (remember, I’m simplifying exuberantly) that the physical world is like a pool table: If you know the starting positions and velocities of the balls, you can calculate all future positions and velocities. No sprites, banshees, or Fates, no volition or consciousness.
This is the exact opposite of what Newton said. Descartes was the billiard ball physicist. Newton was accused precisely of reintroducing “occult forces” on a par with sprites.
OK, this guy is way too ignorant to be worth reading. I’m stopping here.
Regards, Daniel

The misunderstanding was so preposterous, there was no point going on. I regret to say, Fred Reed isn’t “simplifying exuberantly”. He’s an exuberant simpleton. And on science (at least), he writes pure rubbish.

(Hmm, this post is more ad hominem than I’d like. Sorry Fred.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Language, Flat Earth, and Goldilocks: Three riffs on evolution

A blonde girl with big lips surprised me after my talk in Toronto yesterday. Double surprised me, in fact. I thought she’d been asleep but I guess she’d been listening with her eyes shut. I had just argued that language, analysed à la Chomsky, reveals the stages by which our minds evolved. Minds don’t leave fossils. So, the common wisdom says, we can only get at cognitive evolution indirectly, by examining artefacts, like cave paintings and tools. Finding that the capacity for language is itself a fossil bed of mental evolution turns the conventional wisdom on its head. But Eyes Shut had been reading articles by a journalist—not religious or christian, she hastened to add—who had found lots of problems with evolution and she found his case convincing. Her question: so what did I think about that?

The classic Kruger-Dunning conundrum! To know whether you can trust the journalist and his assessment of evolution, you need to judge his level of expertise. But to judge expertise, you need expertise. Which makes the journalist useless: if you’re expert, you don’t need to rely him; and if you aren’t, you can’t. But people engage in because charades. They don’t believe things because they’re true, but because they sound like what they want to hear. So, they assume that unreliable sources are reliable and, worse still, assume that they have gained expertise by reading them.

Eyes Shut seemed more open than this, but I know from experience how difficult Kruger-Dunning delusions are to dislodge. My mother is always Kruger-Dunning me. She insists on having unearthed all manner of esoteric truths in health and healing by reading about herbs, and electro-medicine, and magnesium, and potato skin soup fasts, and coconuts, and …. But without expertise, you have no way of knowing whether what you’re reading—electro-medicine, evolution, etc.—gives correct answers, or competent answers, or complete answers, let alone whether it asks the right questions to begin with. Anyone can make a case sound convincing by ignoring everything that’s inconvenient and, if you’re not expert, you don’t know what they’re hiding from you, or from themselves.

So far as evolution and language go, though, I can answer with some expertise. And the power of Darwin’s idea seems to me little short of miraculous.

For instance, I recently finished a paper that argues against the “geometric hypothesis”. In brief, think of the brain like a computer. Language is one of the tasks it can perform (like playing dvds, or word processing). My job is to discover the program that the brain runs which makes it fit for language. Hence, what are building blocks of the program and how are they put together? The geometric hypothesis says that some combinations of building blocks are ruled out, even though the computational system would have no trouble with them. The opposite view, which I believe in, is that there are no such restrictions: the brain welcomes all inputs. It’s like kosher versus treif: some combinations of food are fine for the digestive system (meat and milk, meat and fish, …), but you’ll never find them on a Lubavitcher buffet.

There are two ways to disprove the geometric hypothesis.

In one, you go off and describe hundreds of languages (in this case, we’re interested in pronouns, verbs, and words like this/that, here/there, hither/thither). You then pool all the data to see which types of languages the brain is capable of producing. Then you simmer away for years to boil the data down to a set building blocks all combinations of which are used by some language or other—hoping that the whole thing doesn’t blow up in your face like an ill-set pressure cooker.

Given the hundreds of languages you need to document, the hundreds of hours that go into describing each one, the hundreds of hours that go into conducting initial, then larger, then yet larger cullings of the data, and the hundreds of hours that go into devising and evaluating successive proposals, a reasonable estimate is that it has taken this approach some 100,000 “thought hours” to show that we’re not at a Lubavitcher buffet: the geometric hypothesis is wrong.

Here’s the Darwinian alternative. You consider whether geometries are evolutionarily necessary (they aren’t), whether they’re evolutionarily stable (they aren’t), and whether they offer informational, hence adaptive, advantages (they don’t). In fact, if we ever had geometries, evolution would expect us lose them. So, if it’s a sunny day and you have some good coffee, you can probably get all this thinking done under 10 hours.

Darwin didn’t have that much to say about language. Indeed, we can apply his ideas to the geometric hypothesis only because several scientific and mathematic revolutions separate us from him. For his ideas, in such radically foreign intellectual terrain, to deliver in 10 hours what nose and grindstone only churn out after 100,000 strikes me as close to miraculous.

* * *

“Thought hours” is a useful way of guaging the robustness of an idea and the concept came up again in my conversation with Eyes Shut, in a moment of superb irony. As said, it’s up to experts to assess critiques of evolution. However, if the problems are so obvious that an enthusiastic amateur can unearth them, then you’d think that theory would have been debunked long ago. There is, after all, no “scientific establishment” that protects bad ideas. There is only a scientific disestablishment, that finds the false and roots out the wrong. The bigger the ideas are, the more credit you get for making them fall.

However, Eyes Shut observed, it had taken centuries for people to stop believing that the earth is flat. “Evolution, your days are numbered” was the subtext, I guess. The comparison, though inapt, is fascinating.

Evolution and flat-earthism may be of great age, but, in its time, evolution has withstood hundreds of thousands of hours of criticism, modification and reform. Flat-earthism dies once you watch a ship vanish over the horizon: hull first, mast last. Age in thought hours, not years, is what matters.

What keeps me smiling as I type (and reread) this is the latest twist in the evolution of anti-evolutionism. Flat-earthers are the archetypal rejectors of progress, the possessors of undislodgeable delusion. Evolution, by contrast, is an idea so revolutionary that, long after it became the mainstay of the natural, social, and cognitive sciences, the religious still struggle to accept it. Yet at least one anti-evolutionist wants to equate evolution with the flat-earthism, the symbol of (religious) recalcitrance.

* * *

Before Toronto, I was at a mine in northern Quebec. The highlight was watching professional geologists in action. Scrutinizing tray after tray of dreary rocks, consulting the chemical analysis, plotting and comparing the drill sites, then having an animated discussion about how long this now upturned, underground volcano had been active and underwater, how long it had remained hot after it ceased erupting, why millions of years later it had withstood the pressures that had distorted the neighbouring geology.

Here’s how the discussion did not run:

“Let’s pretend that god created this bit of the earth so that it looks like there was a volcano here.”
“Yes, and let’s pretend that he put a basalt cap at this end so that we would think that the convection currents would have remained active longer.”
“Good idea, and let’s also pretend that this a magma chamber and that this is swarm of barren dykes.”
“Great because if we pretend that god did all of that, then we’ll know where to look for which metals.”
“Yes, but let’s just hope though that god made this pretend volcano like all those other ones.”
“True, you can’t be too careful. You know how god loves dykes. He might have just put them there to test us.”

Geology makes a nonsense of the bible. But so does physics. So do linguistics, genetics, and cosmology. And yet only evolution seems to hold a special place in the hostilities of the godly, as a shibboleth of the faithful.

I think it’s because evolution is the goldilocks science. Linguists are too abstract for anyone to care to question them. And geologists and physicists are too concrete for anyone to dare to question them (the bible belt likes its oil and mining companies and the GPS that guide them). But evolution is about us. It hits home. Plus you can deny it without personal cost. Deny physics, and your GPS navigator becomes black magic (“Begone Satan, I shall perform no U-turn in 100 yards”). Evolution is—as the faith-fooled bleat—“just a theory”.

And yet, as genetics advances, it builds a bridge between evolution and technology (think of the bible belt’s love of GM soya). The debunkability of evolution is declining market.

Besides, it’s only a matter of time before the religious discover a special fondness for evolution. As cognitive science finds the fossils that reveal why the mind creates gods, and why groups of minds create religions, the godly will suddenly proclaim that evolution provides the ultimate proof of god’s existence: he has programmed us to believe in him! Well, we’ll deal with irony when we come to it. First, let’s deal with his charade of making gold mines look like superannuated subaquatic volcanoes…