Field of Science


I have never been good at coming up with titles for articles. When writing for newspapers or magazines, I usually leave it up to the editor. There is some danger that comes with this, however.

Last week, I wrote a piece for Scientific American about similarities across languages. This piece was then picked up by Salon, which re-ran the article under a new title:
Chomsky's "Universal Language" is incomplete. Chomsky's theory does not adequately explain why different languages are so similar.
I agree that this is snappier than any title I would have come up with. It's also perhaps a bit snappier than the one Scientific American used. It's also dead wrong. For one, there is no such thing as Chomsky's "Universal Language." Or if there is, presumably it is love. Or maybe mathematics. Or maybe music. The term is "Universal Grammar."

If you squint, the subtitle isn't exactly wrong. In the article, I do claim that standard Universal Grammar theory's explanation of similarities across languages isn't quite right. But the title implies that UG suggests that languages are not that similar, whereas the real problem with UG is that -- at least on standard interpretations -- it suggests that languages should be more similar than they actually are.

I sent in a letter to "corrections" at Salon, and the title has now been switched to something more correct. The moral of the story? Apparently writing good titles really is just very hard.

GamesWithWords on Scientific American

Over the last week, has published two articles by me. The most recent, "Citizen Scientists decode meaning, memory and laughter," discusses how citizen science projects -- science projects involving collaborations between professional scientists and amateur volunteers -- are now being used to answer questions about the human mind.

Citizen Science – projects which involve collaboration between professional scientists and teams of enthusiastic amateurs — is big these days. It’s been great for layfolk interested in science, who can now not just read about science but participate in it. It has been great for scientists, with numerous mega-successes like Zooniverse and Foldit. Citizen Science has also been a boon for science writing, since readers can literally engage with the story.
However, the Citizen Science bonanza has not contributed to all scientific disciplines equally, with many projects in zoology and astronomy but less in physics and the science of the mind. It is maybe no surprise that there have been few Citizen Science projects in particle physics (not many people have accelerators in their back yards!), but the fact that there has been very little Citizen Science of the mind is perhaps more remarkable.

The article goes on to discuss three new mind-related citizen science projects, including our own VerbCorner project.

The second, "How to understand the deep structures of language," describes some really exciting work on how to explain linguistic universals -- work that was conducted by colleagues of mine at MIT.
In an exciting recent paper, Ted Gibson and colleagues provide evidence for a design-constraint explanation of a well-known bias involving case endings and word order. Case-markers are special affixes stuck onto nouns that specify whether the noun is the subject or object (etc.) of the verb. In English, you can see this on pronouns (compare "she talked with her"), but otherwise, English, like most SVO languages (languages where the typical word order is Subject, Verb, Object) does not mark case. In contrast, Japanese, like most SOV languages (languages where the typical word order is Subject, Object, Verb) does mark case, with -wa added to subjects and -o added to direct objects. "Yasu saw the bird" is translated as "Yasu-wa tori-o mita" and "The bird saw Yasu" is translated as "Tori-wa Yasu-o mita." The question is why there is this relationship between case-marking and SOV word order.
The article ran in the Mind Matters column, which invites scientists to write about the paper that came out in the last year that they are most excited about. It was very easy for me to choose this one.

Language and Memory Redux

One week only: If you did not do our Language and Memory task when it was running earlier this year, now is your chance. We just re-launched it to collect some additional data.

I expect we'll have enough data without a week to finish this line of studies, rewrite the paper (this is a follow-up experiment that was requested by peer reviewers), and also post the full results here.

Вы понимаете по-русски?

У нас новый русский эксперимент. Большинство психолингвистов занимаются английским. Мы хотим узнать больше об остальних. Не волнуйтесь -- я не сам перевёл эксперимент. Перевела его настоящая рускоязычная!

If you didn't understand that, that's fine. We're recruiting participants for a new experiment in Russian. Apparently you aren't eligible. :)

Much of the research on language is done on a single language: English. In part, that's because many researchers happen to live in English-speaking countries. The great thing about the Internet is we are freed from the tyranny of geography.

One week left to vote

There is less than a week left to vote for our panel at SXSW -- or to leave comments (apparently comments are weighted more heavily than mere votes). 

There is less than a week left to vote for our panel at SXSW -- or to leave comments (apparently comments are weighted more heavily that mere votes). So if you want to support our work in improving psychology and the study of the mind & language, please go vote.

Go to this link to create an SXSW account:
Then go to this link and click on the thumb’s up (on the left under “Cast Your Vote”) to vote for us:
You can read more about our proposal at the SXSW site, as well as here.