Field of Science

Overheard: Scientific Prejudice

A senior colleague recently attended an Autism conference. Language is frequently impaired in Autism, and so many of the neuroscientists there were trying to look at the effects of their animals models of Autism on language.

Yes, you read that correctly: animal models of language. In many cases, rats.

This colleague and I both believe in some amount of phylogenetic continuity: some aspects of language are no doubt built on mechanisms that existed in our distant ancestors (and therefore may exist in other modern-day animals). But given that we have, at best, a rudimentary understanding of the mechanisms underlying language in humans -- and certainly little or no agreement in the field at present -- arguing that a particular behavior in a rat is related to some aspect of language is at best wild-eyed conjecture (and I say this with a great deal of respect for the people who have been taking this problem seriously).

Unfortunately, this colleague didn't get very far in discussing these issues with these researchers. One, for instance, said, "I know rat squeaks are related to language because they're auditory!"

Sure, so's sneezing:

The problem with such conversations, as this colleague pointed out, is that neuroscientists often don't take us cognitive types seriously. After all, they work on a "harder" science. (For those who haven't seen it yet, read this by DrugMonkey -- tangential but fun.) A friend of mine, who is a physicist, once told me that he wasn't sure why psychology was even called a "science" since psychologists don't do experiments -- never mind that I was IMing him from my lab at the time (which he knew).

When I applied to graduate school, I applied to one interdisciplinary program that included cognitive people and also physiology folk. During my interview with one professor who worked on monkey physiology, he interrupted me as I was describing the work I had done as an undergraduate. "Nothing of value about language," he told me, "can be learned by studying humans." When I suggested that perhaps there weren't any good animal models of language to work with, he said, "No, that's just a prejudice on the part of you cognitive people."

Keep in mind that there were several faculty in his department who studied language in humans. This is why such mixed departments aren't always particularly collegial places to work.

I bring this up not to rag on neuroscientists or physicists, but to remind the psychologists in the audience that we have this exact same problem. I don't know how many people have told me that linguistics is mostly bullshit (when I was an undergraduate, one professor of psychology told me: "Don't study linguistics, Josh. It will ruin you as a scientist.") and that philosophy has nothing to offer. When you talk to them in detail, though, you quickly realize that most of them have no idea what linguists or philosophers do, what their methods or, or why those fields have settled on those methods. And that's the height of arrogance: linguists and philosophers incude, in their numbers, some of the smartest people on the planet. It only stands to reason that they know something of value.

I'm not defending all the methods used by linguists. They could be improved. (So could methods used by physicists, too.) But linguists do do experiments, and they do work with empirical data. And they're damn smart.

Just sayin'.

Photos: mcfarlando, Jessica Florence.

1 comment:

Jason Goldman said...

neuroscientists often don't take us cognitive types seriously

this is so true. the other day at an interdisciplinary journal club, a neuro-type actually asked one of the psych-types if the psych department "actually teaches statistics to its students."