Get Me to the Bookshop NOW

11 09 2007


Really now — do we ever talk about anything else? 🙂

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of psychology at Harvard University. In 2006, Time named him one of the 100 most important people in the world. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time, and Slate, and is the author of six books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate.



12 responses

12 09 2007

Got it yesterday afternoon in a thunderstorm, but I couldn’t get out the door without this too.
“The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

From the front jacket flap — “For years, Taleb has studied how we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world. Now in this revelatory book, Taleb explains everything we know, about what we don’t know. . .”

12 09 2007

A Snook meditation on language as the stuff our thoughts are made of:
“Large Dogs Welcome”

I’ve already read enough of the Pinker, to know we could blog it for weeks if we want — and there’s a Calvin and Hobbes strip on page 15, about using a linguistic loophole created by the inherent “social nature of words” even in school and even in science class and even when the use of “your own words” is specified. 😉

13 09 2007

Medical criticism of artificially definite labels for diverse people in NYT today.

Could connect with The Black Swan thesis, that what we really need to know, is that we don’t know! And if that’s important in medical science, it’s more so in professional “education” and “schooling” diagnoses and treatment, like “gifted” or “dyslexic” or “grade level” — or “homeschooling”?

One manifestation of our limited knowledge is that many patients meet several diagnostic definitions at once. . .

Conversely, very diverse patients often qualify for the same diagnosis. . .
Indeed, the link between diagnosis and treatment is relatively weak.

. . .Why aren’t we closer to understanding the relationship between manifest illness and its underlying causes?

One obstacle is the staggering complexity of the brain. Another may be what Dr. First calls the “unfortunate rigidity” that all-or-nothing diagnostic checklists and sharply bounded categories impose. In order for the condition of a patient to meet the definition of clinical depression, for example, he or she must have five out of nine symptoms. But does a patient with only four symptoms have a different disorder, or no disorder at all?

One way to improve the classification of mental illnesses would be to define certain pathologies along a continuum, so that patients who are truly ill won’t fall short of qualifying for a diagnosis.

. . .A more nuanced approach could also make a real difference for population surveys of mental illness and clinical trials, both of which tend to rely on rigid symptom checklists.

An updated manual, however, is unlikely to transform treatment substantially — after all, revising diagnoses is still just another way to describe mental conditions we don’t fully understand.

13 09 2007
Nance Confer

OK, OK! I ordered the book. And the one recommended by Pharyngula recently — Science as a way of knowing — — so that should keep me busy for a bit. 🙂


13 09 2007
Black Swan-Ugly Duckling School Software Found In Florida « Cocking A Snook!

[…] reading isn’t necessarily school reading. For all our own schooling, we really don’t know much about dosing kids with specific treatments to make them learn specif…, and apparently we do better at real education when we learn THAT […]

13 09 2007

Your pending title from Pharyngula makes me think of what Young Son is devouring right now, his most “grade level challenging” nonfiction book yet:
“What’s Science Ever Done for Us: What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe” (Wiley, 2007) by Paul Halpern, physics professor at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia

Young Son is a huge Simpsons fan and right now what he likes most about the book is that he knows all the characters’ middle names and remembers all the episode details. The science is sort of coming along for the ride, but it’s a lulu anyway. 🙂

Here’s a fun read about math on the Simpsons but for science specifically, here’s what a physics blogpost had to say years ago, and it plays right into the new Black Swan book, too, about the impact of improbable events! Not to mention debunking the t-crossing, i-dotting literalism arming to prevent public school taking over homeschooling because school choice (and the word homeschooling itself) are just too darn flexible in current usage. (Don’t you love it when this stuff just throws itself together and weaves up an improbably powerful theme without us even trying??)

A newscaster describes the ethos of the inhabitants: “Never give up and never think things out.”

Could Hawking really have found an acceptable credo here? Quite possibly.
Life – and maybe Hawking was thinking, “science” – offers us a constant sequence of false alternatives. When we grab one choice, and find that it inevitably founders, new possibilities emerge and we are spared the worst.

Chance is not the awful terrorism dreaded by the rationalists presented by Einstein’s dice-playing God. Improbable events, dumb luck and human bungling sabotage us but they also help us to muddle through, however comic this process may look to outsiders.

The things in heaven and Earth work far more perversely than dreamed of by our science and philosophy. We pull Homers and go on. Life (and science) is resilient.

A credo for Unschooling we could learn, love and live with? 🙂

13 09 2007

FRIDAY SEPT 14 – Pinker will be interviewed about the new book by Ira Flatow on the second hour of Science Friday, on NPR.

UPDATE – added audio link from archive so you can listen to his segment just by clicking. Language is made up of “phenomenally complex rules” for life both inate and learned from birth, the truth of human nature revealed in words! (Maybe this is the deeply religious meaning behind “revelations” from The Word, hmmm)

15 09 2007

JJ’s flash-typing notes listening, not corrected to be smooth written language. 🙂

Change of state given more significance than simple change of location or size, for example — How you construe the event, your theory of what’s going on, decides your description of it – in his research three-year-olds said “fill the salt into the shaker” because they construe the relevant event they’re seeing as changing the state of the shaker (from empty to full) but not changing the state of the salt, just moving it. (And the human actor isn’t the point either way, JJ notices, which connects to something FavD discussed in sociology yesterday, about Japanese culture compared to ours as perceiving interactions rather than individuals as more important)

very different “theory of what’s going on” is what leads to different expression of it — [Ain’t that the truth, HOMESCHOOLING!!!!!!]

“The ability to frame reality in multiple ways lies at the heart of our political and moral discourse, our poetry and fiction, our scientific descriptions of the world.”

[Children learning to perceive the world and communicate about it, though, are NOT framing events to influence others politically, or to get some reward or grade. They are influencing their OWN minds, learning and communicating and correcting as they go, just trying to get in sync with and relate to those around them, by working on their own thoughts and expressions. They are not seeking to teach or preach or control, to impose a certain construction of reality on the minds of others. This seems like a key difference to me, when we think about “framing” as adults and try to use it on each other — are we coming to human nature and reality as children would, seeking and trusting that we can learn and understand and get better at relating to one another and the world, or are we cannily trying to force our frames on others for our own dominance of relationships and resources? Is that perhaps the real difference between “teaching” and “learning” — how would reality benefit if political adults quit doing the former, to focus like children on doing the latter instead?]

The F Word — “The F Patois probably originated with WWII soldiers” when it was confined to groups without women around. It became casual in mixed company and is now ubiquitous in our culture, excepting broadcast media by law. Pinker says he too finds the F Patois “rather tedious” but the youth of today aren’t at fault for it.

Human nature is fantastically rich, and our thoughts, emotions and relationships all are laid bare by dissecting our language — from swear words to looking at what people are touchy about, in innuendo . . .”

Our individual and collective intuitions of what is standard, often run way ahead of what is academically recognized by dictionaries and other language authorities. New usage that makes sense syntactically and “feels right” can be remarkably persistent.

“Grow the economy” is disturbing to Pinker because it overstates the event, sneaking up on brains to imply the human actors are achieving a real change of state, seeming to describe transforming the economy rather than just changing its size and moving it around. Transitive and intransitive verbs are really more limited than that, in the way human nature wants to use and understand them – we have limited rules for acting on a noun to actually change its state, not just dimensions or location. So “grow the economy” disturbs him in the same way that his Mac computer sometimes says, “hover the mouse or sleep the computer” — growing an apple is different because you brought the apple into existence, changing its state all along.

Innuendo and doublespeak –
Angry passenger at busy airport counter – “I have to be on this flight in first class, never mind all these other people. Do you have any idea who I am??” In response, the attendant take the PA system mic and announces to the entire airport: “We have a passenger at the desk who does not know who he is. If anyone can help identify him, please come to the front of the line.” We often misconstrue each other’s meaning like that on purpose, called “rhetorical” response, to impose our own or to create a new one that we know isn’t “right” because we think it’s a way of fighting back. Pinker thinks it’s a shame we feel the need to do this so often.

So thought exemplifies language but also, how does language influence or limit what we’re able to think and understand? A major theme of the book

What about “online” language like virtual worlds such as Second Life, and email? We’re always listening between the lines, applying everything we know to figure out what the person means. Online so much is missing, so we often construe that people are insulting our intelligence (that would explain the tiny cat pants crowd!)

Watergate transcript language – “it is shocking to see how incoherent most people are” in transcribed conversation. Sitting on a printed page ripped out of its context, his own academic speeches horrify him. That’s why writing is an art and written communication can be so different from spoken language.

16 09 2007
“Helping the Sense of the Homeschool Conversation” « Cocking A Snook!

[…] I saw a sentence that I’d love to hear Steven Pinker analyze: “Politically correct insistence that ‘homeschooling’ includes anything-goes […]

23 09 2007

In today’s NYT Magazine, this long, deep reflection on the languages on culture, identity and advertising, “How Do You Say ‘Got Milk’ en Español?”

Like many immigrants’ children, I tend toward complicated feelings about language, heritage and the wages of fitting in . . .

19 10 2007

PINKER’S PARADOXES OF PROFANITY (being reported on cable news today as “the bonding effect of swearing at work” LOL)

Talk of the Nation, October 17, 2007 · In his new book, The Stuff of Thought, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker sorts through some of the paradoxes of profanity.

He points out that in a society that prides itself on free speech, certain words pertaining to sex and excretion remain off-limits.

Pinker says taboo words are particularly powerful for humans because they spark activity in the amygdala — a part of the brain involved in storing emotionally salient memories.

7 05 2008
Vote Now! Top Five Thinkers for Our Times « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Gardner Steven Pinker Salman Rushdie Christopher Hitchens Richard […]

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