April 5, 2009
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† our whole society is intellectually hamstrung by the way that English — like all the other languages of the world — tends to make us think about the†evaluation and comparison of the properties of members of groups.†And, I think, he might be right.
The easy and natural ways of talking about group comparisons express differences in terms of properties of the groups involved, or in terms of properties of imaginary generic or average group members: “the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children”; “Those who had spent their whole lives in poverty could hold an average of 8.5 items in their memory at any time. Those brought up in a middle-class family could manage 9.4.” Writers and speakers may know what’s really going on, at least with half of their brains, but readers and listeners are fooled into thinking that they understand these generic statements, even though in the absence of information about the comparison of distributions rather than the comparison of average values, they’re left completely unable to put that understanding to any valid use.
This situation ought to be just as puzzling, at least to members of a more advanced civilization, as the Pirah„’s ignorance of numbers is to us.
This kind of cognilinguistatistical analysis just strikes me as so powerful, and so complimentary to all of its various parts, that I wish there were some kind of new program that just devoted to all of the different highly technical ways we have to make sense of stuff: linguistics, statistics, model-building, cryptography, semiotics, paleography, information sciences. I’d double-major in that and philosophy in a heartbeat — then start a think-tank devoted to high-end hermeneutics.
Also, I would wear all-black tailored suits and a sharp fedora, and ride around in the Batmobile. It would be so, so sweet.