The Economist just published a magazine article on the relationship between poverty, stress, and memory in childhood development. It’s a powerful thesis, and breathtaking in its scope. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has an equally powerful takedown that walks back some of the big conclusions the article suggests.
Basically, the differences found in the research are actually statistically smaller than you’d think. As debunkings go, this is ho-hum. But I’m much more intrigued by Liberman’s Whorfian idea about why we get confused when we start to talk about statistical variation among groups:
This is presumably because a significant proportion of [The Economist’s] readers would be baffled by talk of effect sizes or percentiles, while the proportion who are bothered by vague talk about generic differences is minuscule. Such things are not effectively taught or widely learned, even among quantitatively-minded intellectuals. But I also think that there’s a linguistic aspect. If Benjamin Lee Whorf were alive, he might argue that