Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Buller, the Short Version

If you don't want to go out and buy Buller's book, you can read a shorter version of his critique of Evolutionary Psychology in his upcoming Trends in Cognitive Sciences paper, which is here. Notice the critique of the use of Wason selection tasks. As I said in yesterday's review, if you're familiar with the literature, you will be baffled.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Has Evolutionary Psychology Been Demolished? A Review of Buller, Chapter 4

Before I begin, I need to give a brief explanation of terminology (if I don't, I can guarantee you that Razib of Gene Expression will note that I should have). There are two senses of the label "evolutionary psychology," and since Buller is only addressing one, I will be as well. The first, broader sense, includes any psychology that takes evolution seriously, or includes evolutionary considerations in its explanations of psychological phenomena. The second, which is generally associated with Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, David Buss, and Steven Pinker, includes only those evolutionary psychologists who adhere to a certain set of tenets, including massive modularity, assumptions about the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" (or the EEA), and a belief that the modern mind evolved in the EEA. To distinguish this second sense from the first, I will use Buller's convention or referring to it with capital letters (Evolutionary Psychology, Evolutionary Psychologists), and using only lowercase letters for the first sense.

If you've read through my archives (I can't imagine anyone has), or have been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I am no fan of Evolutionary Psychology (EP). I'm not alone in feeling that way. Most cognitive scientists aren't fans. And we have good reasons not to be.

I'm also not a fan of attacking the scholarship of others without providing at least some semblance of a critique (in fact, I feel bad about doing just that in the previous post, even if everything I said is true, and I've offered more than a semblance of a critique of Lakoff in past posts). It's not always easy to avoid doing that where EP is concerned, as it stirs up a lot of emotions among cognitive scientists. To be honest, I've been guilty of some pot shots towards EP and its adherents in the past. It doesn't help that I harbor a deep personal animosity towards one of EP's most prominent figures (I won't mention any names, but you can ride him to work), an animosity built largely around my dislike for his research. However, even he is a very bright guy, and he works hard at what he does, as do most Evolutionary Psychologists. So, as scholars, I think we owe it to them, and any other scholars, to give reasons for any harsh words we may utter about their work. That's why I took Brian Leiter to task for his post entitled "Evolutionary Psychology Demolished." That post referenced a bad book review of a book that it's not clear Dr. Leiter has read, on a topic it's not clear Dr. Leiter is qualified to address (he may be, but he's given no indication that he is). But even my attack on Dr. Leiter's post made me feel a bit guilty, so I feel like I should say something a bit more substantial about the book reviewed in the article he linked.

It just so happens that I have read the book. My general policy is not to read books on EP, because in books, you can say just about anything you want, and Evolutionary Psychologists tend to do that more than most. Even carefully reviewed academic books are subjected to standards far below those of peer reviewed journals. I'm particularly reticent to read books on EP by philosophers (after reading the God-awful Furnishing the Mind, which I also got for free, I'm wary of any books on cognitive psychology by philosophers). But I got a copy of Buller's Adapting Minds for free, and I had heard about it through the grape vine, so I went against my general policy and read the book. It turns out that on the whole, it's a very good book. The first three chapters are excellent, and the chapters on Mating, Marriage, and Parenthood (chapters 5, 6, and 7) are very good, too.

But those areas of EP are its weakest. They are the areas with very little experimental work, and a heavy reliance on incredibly large and poorly controlled surveys. It's true that they are the most popular areas among the general public, but that's because they're the sexiest (sometimes literally). So, if you want to say that EP has been demolished, you have to do more than attack its weakest links. To do that, you have to critique its strongest points. And it goes without saying that from a methodological and theoretical standpoint, EP's strongest point is the work of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and their colleagues on social exchange. They use actual experiments, rather than surveys, and they've produced a great deal of challenging data. Buller addresses their work in Chapter 4 (which he co-wrote with Valerie Gray Hardcastle), and in my mind, that is the book's weakest chapter. If his weakest chapter is a critique of EP's best research, then it may be difficult to say that Buller has demolished EP. Furthermore, since Dr. Leiter wants "law-and-economics" folk to read this book to see how shoddy EP is as science, Chapter 4 is the most relevant to his purposes. It is the work on social exchange that has been seen as directly applicable to economics. Cosmides and Tooby have even written a paper on applications of EP to economics. So, if EP is to be demolished even for Dr. Leiter's purposes, Chapter 4 has to do the bulk of the work.

To see why it's important to critique the work of Cosmides and Tooby in order to show how misguided EP really is, it's important to understand the goals of EP, and how Cosmides and Tooby's work is integral to the accomplishment of those goals. Dan Sperber and Vittorio Girotto put it this way1:
Evolutionary psychology--in its ambitious version well formulated by Cosmides and Tooby (e.g., Cosmides & Tooby 1987, Tooby & Cosmides 1992)--will succeed to the extent that it causes cognitive psychologists to rethink central aspects of human cognition in an evolutionary perspective, to the extent, that is, that psychology in general becomes evolutionary. The human species is exceptional by its massive investment in cognition, and in forms of cognitive activity--language, metarepresentation, abstract thinking--that are as unique to humans as echolocation is unique to bats. The promise of evolutionary psychology is thus to help explain not just traits of human psychology that are homologous to those of many other species, but also traits of human psychology that are genuinely exceptional and that in turn help explain the exceptional character of human culture and ecology. (p. 197)

However, most of the work done in evolutionary psychology so far is on aspects of human psychology that are not specifically human except in their details. Showing, for instance, how human preferences in mate choice are fine-tuned in the way the theory of evolution would predict is of great interest (see e.g., Buss 1994) but it can be done on the basis of a relatively shallow psychology.
Thus, Sperber and Girotto argue, if EP is to accomplish its goals, work like that of Cosmides and Tooby (CT from now on) on specifically cognitive, and specifically human characteristics must be at the forefront. I would further argue that the primacy of work like that of CT is paramount if EP is to accomplish the goal of making psychology evolutionary. If psychology were to become evolutionary in the manner of work by people like Buss, it would truly be a regression, rather than a progression, in psychological science. Even the area most adjacent to the EP research on mating and parenting, social psychology, has been using experimental methods for nearly a century. Thus, whatever theoretical gains the evolutionization (yes, I made that word up) of psychology might bring us, it would cancel them out with losses in methodological rigor. I've already seen this happening within the realm of EP itself. I've attended many job talks by graduate students and post docs. Those that presented experimental research were so undertrained in experimental methods that, when they presented their work, everyone in the audience who was not an Evolutionary Psychologist (and perhaps some who were) could do little more than roll their eyes. And these were the best applicants to the best EP program in the country, and thus were the best that EP's next generation had to offer. Thus, from both a theoretical and methodological standpoint, the work of CT, and their intellectual progeny, is integral to the aims of EP itself.

OK, enough of all that preliminary stuff. On to Chapter 4 itself. The chapter is not just about the work of Cosmides and Tooby, but about modularity in general (it also discusses theory of mind, which I'll get to at the end of this post.. It begins quite well, arguing that massive innate modularity is unlikely, if not unlikely, from the perspective of developmental neurobiology. He gives a detailed description of the development of the brain in the human fetus and soon after birth, and argues that the facts of this development argue strongly against the existence of a large number of innate cognitive modules. He also addresses some of the arguments for massive modularity, such as the one which Donald Symons once characterized by saying,
It is no more probably that some sort of general-purpose brain/mind mechanism could solve all of the behavioral problems an organism faces (find food, choose mate, select a habitat, etc.) than it is that some sort of general-purpose organ could perform all the physiological functions (pump blood, digest food, nourish an embryo, etc.).2
Buller points out that neural plasticity, and the way that it allows brain circuits to be shaped by experience, allows the brain to evolve as a general-purpose organ. In fact, given the dynamic nature of the environment of our evolutionary ancestors, neural plasticity is likely a more adaptive solution than massive modularity, which restricts the brain to a specific set of tasks. It's also a more likely solution, since modules would quickly become obsolete as the environment changed. He also addresses Pinker's argument for modularity, which compares all of cognition to language in the first section, noting that language is likely unusually complex, cognitively, and that we do many incredibly complex things that we obviously do not have modules for (like playing chess). Language is likely a bad analogy, then.

Overall, the theoretical and developmental discussion of massive modularity is very good. However, after that, he turns to the evidence for modularity, which consists almost entirely of CT's work on social exchange. Note, first, that while it may be that the brain is not massively modular (it isn't!), it is still possible that there are a few individual modules for specific cognitive tasks that did not change over long periods of our evolutionary history. It could be that a cheater detection module did evolve, even if it's not accompanied by a lot of other domain-specific modules. Thus, Buller's arguments against the massive modularity thesis of EP can't be used as a critique of social exchange theory3. Also, as Buller himself notes, theoretical arguments are great, but they only go as far as the empirical data, and as any good scientist will tell you, no matter how foolproof the logic of a theory sounds, if in the face of that theory the data remains recalcitrant, we have to let it go. If the data is most consistent with the existence of a cheater detection module like the one that social exchange theory posits, even though theoretical arguments against the existence of cognitive modules make a lot of sense, we, as scientists, are going to have to go with social exchange theory.

Buller devotes the bulk of chapter 4 to examining the evidence for a cheater detection module. Before I get to his critique of that evidence, though, I should probably summarize social exchange theory and the evidence for a cheater detection module. I've done it before, but since I'm too lazy to go back and find the posts, I can't expect anyone to actually read them.

In his classic 1971 paper titled "The evolution of reciprocal altruism,"4 Robert Trivers argued that in order for reciprocal altruism to evolve, two other capabilities must have been present: the ability to detect cheaters, and the tendency to reward reciprocators. This insight has been confirmed by several game-theoretic simulations5. Drawing on these arguments, Cosmides developed social exchange theory, which is designed to explain the evolution of reciprocal altruism in humans. As part of this theory, she hypothesized that humans have evolved a cheater-detection module that allows them to detect those who do take benefits without reciprocating. This cheater-detection mechanism would allow humans to satisfy Trivers' two requirements for the evolution of reciprocal altruism.

There is evidence of a cheater detection algorithm in several nonhuman species. The most frequently cited example (perhaps because it's just plain cool) comes from vampire bats. Apparently vampire bats will regurgitate excess blood so that other members of their group can eat it. Furthermore, they can tell when another bat is not regurgitating excess food, by looking at its fat belly. A fat belly and no regurgitation equals cheating, and bats will not regurgitate their food for cheaters6. In humans, however, it's a bit more difficult to detect cheating (a fact which is unfortunate for researchers studying cheater detection). According to CT, the complexity of detecting cheaters means that we must have evolved a mechanism specifically designed to do so. This mechanism would recognize social exchange situations, and activate the appropriate reasoning principles in order to detect any cheaters.

The evidence for the existence of such a module comes almost exclusively from experiments using multiple variants of a single task, the Wason selection task (see this post for my short description of this task). There are two relevant versions of this task, the descriptive and the deontic. The descriptive task uses an indicative conditional of the form "If p, then q," and the deontic form uses a deontic conditional of the form "If you do p, then you must also do q," or some variant thereof. One of the classic findings from Wason task experiments is the "content effect," in which people perform quite poorly on the descriptive version, and quite well on the deontic version. Cosmides argues that the increased performance in the deontic version is due to the fact that it activates the cheater-detection module, and thus allows people to use domain-specific reasoning mechanisms to solve the task, whereas the descriptive version requires the use of domain-general reasoning mechanisms.

It is to this argument which Buller replies in Chapter 4. He offers two criticisms of this research, one of which is a "big picture" criticism, and the other of which is a "devil in the details" criticism. Here is his description of the first, from pp. 171-172:
Cosmides derives the hypothesis of a cheater-detection module from Trivers's argument that reciprocal altruism is evolutionarily unstable unless parties to reciprocal exchanges of benefits have the ability to detect when someone is taking a benefit from them without providing them with a benefit in return. Reciprocal altruism concerns what Cosmides calls social exchanges, which occur when two individuals perform acts that benefit one another at a cost to each. Social exchanges are thus relations between two individuals, and cheating in social exchange involves benefiting from an act performed by another individual without performing an act that benefits the individual. Virtually all of the experimental results that purportedly provide evidence of a cheater-detection module, however, derive from selection tasks involving what Cosmides and Tooby call social contracts, which is a much broader class of phenomena than the class of social exchanges. [Emphasis in original.]
But wait, that's not how CT define social exchange. Here is how they define it7:
[A] situation in which, in order to be entitled to receive a benefit from another individual or group, an individual is obligated to satisfy a requirement of some kind (often, but not necessarily, at some cost to him- or herself). Those who are rationing access to the benefit impose the requirement because its satisfaction creates a situation that benefits them.
This definition is completely consistent with Trivers' analysis of reciprocal altruism, and completely consistent with the problems used to detect the cheater-mechanism in CT's experiments. If that doesn't seem obvious from the "beer" example in the post I linked above, here are some more to help make it clear:
  • If you go canoeing on the lake, then you have to have a clean bunk house.
  • If a man eats cassava root, then he must have a tattoo on his face. (Accompanied by a story in which cassava root is an aphrodisiac, and tattoos are a sign that a man is married.)
  • If I give you some potatoes, then you must give me some corn.
In fact, the last of these, which was used in one of the papers that Buller cites, is perfectly consistent with Buller's definition as well. If CT are actually testing the definition of social exchange that they offer, and derived from Trivers, and even use problems that are consistent with Buller's definition, then why does Buller offer this groundless criticism? I have no idea, but even more baffling than that is his second criticism.

Buller's second criticism, which he spends 16 pages describing in reference to several different experimental results, is simple. He points out, correctly, that the logic of an indicative conditional is different from that of a deontic conditional. For an indicative conditional, ~q is the negation of the consequent. However, for deontic conditionals, the equivalent of the "~q" card in the Wason task doesn't actually negate the consequent (such a negation would be something like, "doesn't have to have a tattoo on his face," for the cassava root example above). Instead, it simply says that condition of the rule has not been obtained (e.g., "no tattoo"). So, solving the deontic version of the Wason task involves using a different set of logical principles. Buller argues that this explains the difference in performance in the descriptive and deontic versions (the "content effect,") and CT and their colleagues have never realized this.

Upon concluding these 16 pages, all anyone who is familiar with the literature on social exchange theory can do is say, "Huh?" Cosmides herself noted this in the 1989 paper in which she first described social exchange theory8. In fact, a debate has been raging for the last 16 years about whether the content effect can be explained by reference to a mechanism that uses the logical principles of deontic conditionals (Buller's explanation), or whether a cheater-detection mechanism is needed9. Sixteen years of debate, and Buller treats the issue like he is the first to notice the problem. In fact, CT believe that they have addressed this issue, by showing that social exchange deontic conditionals produce better performance on the Wason task than non-social exchange deontic conditionals (e.g., in Fiddick, et al. 2000, reference in footnote 7). Since Buller cites this paper, without acknowledging that they address his criticism, I can't believe that he's simply unaware of their answers to it. He doesn't cite, and therefore may not be aware of the neurological evidence that Cosmides and her colleagues have offered to demonstrate that social exchange and non-social exchange deontic conditionals are understood using different brain regions10. They showed that a patient with brain damage to an area of the brain associated with social reasoning was unable to perform social exchange versions of the Wason task, but performed quite well in non-social exchange deontic versions.

None of this is to say that the Wason tasks actually do provide evidence for the existence of a cheater-detection module. In fact, reasoning researchers and other cognitive scientists have been poking holes in this research for the better part of two decades. Most notably, Sperber and Girroto (e.g., their 2003 paper, cited in footnote 1) note that relevance theory, a theory that states that people use pragmatic cues to search for information that is relevant to their perspective, actually predicts CT's findings, along with another set of Wason task findings that social exchange theory cannot predict. They show that by manipulating perspective and the availability of relevance cues, you can make people perform well or poorly in deontic and descriptive versions of the Wason task. The domain of the problem is irrelevant. Thus, they argue convincingly that the Wason selection task cannot provide evidence for the existence of a cheater-detection module. Sperber and Girroto therefore arrive at the same conclusion that Buller does, but unlike Buller, they do so by actually addressing the claims and research of Cosmides and Tooby.

The neurological data is problematic as well, but Buller doesn't even address it, so readers of his book would be unaware of the problems. They only had an n of 1, which means they were unable to show a double dissociation, and his brain damage was to the medial orbitofrontal cortex and anterior temporal cortex (both bilateral), two regions which are associated with a wide range of social reasoning abilities. Their Wason task is unable to dissociate cheater-detection from general social reasoning, and is therefore not evidence for their theory.

Before I wrap up this review of chapter 4, I should say something about his short discussion of the research on theory of mind. I don't really want to, because I'm genuinely embarrassed for Buller. If he intentionally or unintentionally ignored large portions of the literature on social exchange, he at least made an attempt to look like he was familiar with that literature. In his discussion of theory of mind, however, he makes no such effort. In fact, while there is a huge body of literature, written almost exclusively by non-Evolutionary Psychologists, which demonstrates fairly conclusively that humans have at least some innate theory of mind abilities (i.e., abilities to reason about the thoughts and desires of others), Buller only addresses one finding. He doesn't address the infant gaze-following literature, the language-learning literature, or many of the developmental reasoning tasks showing that from early in infancy, children reason about animate objects differently than they reason about inanimate objects. The finding that he does address, that autistic children tend to perform worse on false belief tasks than non-autistic children, has been criticized extensively already, because the false belief task may not detect theory of mind at all. Buller repeats this, and then argues baselessly that this indicates that there are no innate theory-of-mind mechanisms.

So, if you've read this far, you've probably realized by now that Buller doesn't demolish Evolutionary Psychology. In fact, while he does a very good job of showing just how shoddy EP's shoddiest research, that on mating and parenting, really is, he doesn't even touch EP's strongest research. Of course, even this strongest research has been thoroughly dealt with in the literature. For most cognitive scientists, social exchange theory is either falsified or evidenceless. Even those most willing to accept social exchange theory must admit that the reliance on a single experimental paradigm which has been shown, over the last 30 years, to cause several difficulties in interpretation, is problematic. But one would never know this from Buller's book. All we get, in chapter 4, is baseless criticisms. It might be fair to say that Buller failed to demolish a theory that was already demolished to begin with.

So, while I would definitely recommend this book to the general public, so that they might read the excellent chapters 1-3, and the good chapters 5-7, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's interested in the scholarly debate of these issues. I also wouldn't recommend it to economists and legal scholars. While the general public is most interested in what EP has to say about sex, they tend to be interested in what it has to say about social exchange, and since Buller's book is so far off on the social exchange research, it would be worthless to them.

1Sperber, D. & Girotto, V. (2003). Does the selection task detect cheater-detection? In Fitness, J. & Sterelny, K. (Eds.). From Mating to Mentality. Macquarie Monographs in Cognitive Science, Psychology Press.
2Symons, D. (1992). On the use and misuse of Darwinism in the study of human behavior. In Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 137-159). New York: Oxford University Press.
3Of course, Cosmides and Tooby also tend to treat evidence of a cheater detection module as evidence of massive modularity. However, evidence for one module is not evidence of massive modularity. Buller successfully argues that point when he counters Pinker's analogy to the language module.
4 Trivers, R.L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 29-47.
5Axelrod, R. & Hamilton, W.D. (1981). The evolution of cooperation. Science, 211, 1390-1396.
6Wilkinson, G.S. (1984). Reciprocal food sharing in the vampire bat. Nature, 308, 181-184.
7Fiddick, L., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2000). No interpretation without representation: The role of domain-specific representations and inferences in the Wason selection task. Cognition, 77, 1-79.
8Cosmides, L. (1989). The logic of social exchange: Has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task.
Cognition, 31, 187-276.
9See e.g., Cheng, P., & Holyoak, K. (1989). On the natural selection of reasoning theories. Cognition, 33, 285-313.
10Stone, V.E., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., Kroll, N., & Knight, R.T. (2002). Selective impairment of reasoning about social exchange in a patient with bilateral limbic system damage.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(17), 11531-11536.

What like a bullet can undeceive!

OK, two more, because I can't resist. These are poems from a different war, though, so they get their own post.

"Shiloh, A Requiem" by Herman Melville

SKIMMING lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the fields in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh--
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh--
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there--
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve--
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

"War is Kind" by Stephen Crane
Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment, Little souls who thirst for fight, These men were born to drill and die. The unexplained glory flies above them, Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom -- A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift blazing flag of the regiment, Eagle with crest of red and gold, These men were born to drill and die. Point for them the virtue of slaughter, Make plain to them the excellence of killing And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

There Died a Myriad

On Memorial Day, I'm always reminded of the poems of war because, perhaps more than any other form of literature, they paint of it a picture that is more real than romantic (except maybe in Tennyson). In particular, I am reminded of the poetry of World War I, because that war seems to have been such a shock to the poet's senses that all of the poems that it inspired express a horror at war. Too often on Memorial Day, and other such days when we are called to remember the sacrafices of veterans, as we should, we glorify not only their sacrafices, but the often unnecessary and always inhuman wars in which they were forced to make them.

Everyone knows "In Flanders Fields" and "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death" (which is one of my favorite poems on any topic), but there are others which I think are equally deserving of widespread recognition. My favorite among them is Ezra Pound's "Ode Pour L'election De Son Sepulchre," of which I'll give you a bit:

These fought in any case,
And some believing,
pro domo, in any case...

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later...
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;

Died some, pro patria,
non "dulce" not "et decor"...
walked eye-deep in hell
believing old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

That poem references another very good WWI poem, with each of the Latin phrases ("pro domo," for home; "pro patri," for country, and the line, "non 'dulce' not 'et decor," non sweet, not with honor):

"Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!---An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,---
my friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The old Lie, by the way, when translated into English is, "It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

P. 137, Wherein Lakoff Proves He's Insane

I know I have chided others for snarky comments about the work of other scholars, but since I've presented much of the case against conceptual metaphor, I feel entitled to a quick jab. And since I just got my computer back from the shop, this serves as a nice quick post.

Brandon notes that George Lakoff is clearly off his rocker when it comes to the discussion of religious concepts. He can't even grasp the appropriate literal-figurative distinction for the discussion of Biblical literalism. And that may be his sanest mistake. Brandon points out many more.

All of this makes me wonder why, for the last 25 years, some people -- very few of whom are, cognitive scientists, and even fewer who publish in the mainstream journals -- have taken all of this seriously. Personally, I realized that Lakoff was completely insane as an undergrad in the mid-90s, when I read Metaphors We Live By, the book he and Mark Johnson published in 1980, marking the beginning of conceptual metaphor theory. Admittedly, I got all the way to page 137 (out of 242) before I realized it, but something they said there made the absurdity of their view so apparent that even a naive young college student like me couldn't avoid writing "ha ha!" in the margins. Here is the passage (which actually starts on page 136):
We have seen that metaphors play an important role in characterizing regularities of linguistic form. One such regularity is the use of the same word to indicate both accompaniment and instrumentality. This regularity is coherent with the conceptual metaphor INSTRUMENTS ARE COMPANIONS. Many of what we perceive as "natural" regularities of linguistic form are regularities that are coherent with metaphors in our conceptual system. Take, for example, the fact that questions typically end in what we perceive as a "rising" intonation, while statements typically end in what we perceive as "falling" intonation. This is coherent with the orientational metaphor UNKNOWN IS UP; KNOWN IS DOWN... Questions typically indicate what is unknown. The use of rising intonation in questions is therefore coherent with UNKNOWN IS UP. The use of falling intonation with statements is therefore coherent with KNOWN IS DOWN.
They go on (and on), discussing questions with falling intonation (rhetorical, indicating statements, and thus coherent with KNOWN IS DOWN), statements with rising intonation (indicating uncertainty, which is UP), and even offering an explanation for the reason that "WH-questions" have a falling intonation in English. Apparently WH-questions (they give "Who did John see yesterday?" as an example) usually indicate that only one piece of information is unknown (we know John saw someone, and we know when, we just don't know who!), and thus the rising intonation indicates that the question is statement-like.

Lest you think (as I, at the time I was first reading, desperately hoped) that they think the implausible, but at least remotely possible causal direction goes from our very early experience with intonation to a metaphorical understanding of uncertainty as UP (an abstract understanding that, in any account of cognitive development, would come well after we began uttering questions with the proper intonation), they quickly explain what all of this means, on p. 138:
Examples like this indicate that regularities of linguistic form cannot be explained in formal terms alone. Many such regularities make sense [editor's note: if only "make sense" was used ironically here] only when they are seen in terms of the application of conceptual metaphors to our spatial conceptualization of linguistic form. In other words, the syntax is not independent of meaning, especially metaphorical aspects of meaning. The "logic" of language is based on the coherence between the spatialized form of the language and the conceptual system, especially the metaphorical aspects of the conceptual system.
So, to sum up p. 137-138, the upward intonation at the end of a question is an instantiation of the conceptual metaphor UNCERTAINTY IS UP, as are many of the spatially conceived aspects of syntax and speech. I wish I could present a coherent argument against this view, but it makes so little sense that it's well-nigh impossible to do so. The best I can do is point out that plenty of linguists have made sense of intonation without reference to conceptual metaphors, and that it's hard to imagine people need to recognize the connection in order to understand or use the proper intonations in questions and sentences. Who, exactly, needs this daffy explanation to make sense of intonation, then, is a mystery.

It may be that Lakoff's understanding of theology, religion, philosophy, mathematics, and the various senses of the word "infinity" are absurd, as Brandon notes, but we shouldn't expect anything but absurdity after we've read p. 137.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Rose, if Called Cheddar Cheese...

Via Language Log, and David Beaver's post titled "Juliet Was Wrong," which begins
Standing at a window overlooking her family orchard in Verona about 700 years ago, Juliet Capulet is reputed to have developed a famous hypothesis which Shakespeare later recorded. Details may have been lost in translation, transmogrified through the passage of several hundred years before her words were set down, or magnified from nought by the pen of a man whose poetic license has never been paralleled. This is what she hypothesized:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,

The guy smelt pretty damn sweet for Juliet to scent him from a window high above an orchard. But remember, these were the middle ages. Anyhow, it turns it she was wrong.
I discovered this paper (the full reference to which is at the end of this post). Apparently the label you give to a smell does matter. "Clean air" which was called "cheddar cheese" was rated as smelling more pleasant than the same air which was labeled "body odor." The researchers also collected some functional neuroimaging data, and discovered that the level of activation in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex, which are activated by odors, was influenced by the labels. In particular, "cheddar cheese" produced more activation in these areas, and the activation in both areas was correlated with the pleasantness ratings. The authors postulate that this top-down influence of conceptual/semantic information on olfactory perception occurs through mechanisms similar to those that are involved in the selection of attended information in vision.

I don't really have anything to say about the research. The olfactory system is way outside of my area of expertise, though I do recommend checking out the work on visual attention that they cite. Gustavo Deco does some very cool work.

The paper's full citation is:
de Araujo, I.E., Rolls, E.T., Velazco, M.I., Margot, C., & Cayeux, I. (2005). Cognitive modulation of olfactory processing. Neuron, 46, 671-679.

Monday, May 09, 2005


In the past, I've criticized bloggers who comment on topics, especially scientific or otherwise intellectual topics, about which they know little or nothing. In that post, the examples I used were all from conservative blogs. In the interest of fairness, I'm going to now criticize a liberal blogger for doing the same thing. In fact, it's hard to distinguish what he does from what Todd Zywicki did in the posts I previously referred to as examples of what I was criticizing.

The blogger is the philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter (what is it with legal scholars and intellectual laziness?). It is true that Dr. Leiter and I have different views of when and how civility should be used in discussion and debate, but some of what he does on his blog is, in my opinion, inexcusable. I'll give two recent examples. First there is his recent short post titled "Evolutionary Psychology Demolished." I figure I should start with this one since one of my previous examples was of someone using the ideas of Evolutionary Psychology despite having no expertise in the area. In this case, Leiter is criticizing them despite giving any indication that he has the requisite background knowledge to be able to do so. In that post, Leiter writes:
A new book, Adapting Minds (MIT Press), by philosopher David Buller (Northern Illinois) is discussed here:Download wall_street_journal_review.pdf. Law-and-economics folks, who are often especially partial to this shoddy science, would do well to read the review and the book.
And this isn't the first time Leiter has attacked Evolutionary Psychology. In previous posts, he has made similar remarks about Allen Orr's review (subscription required) of Pinker's The Blank Slate. Why does Leiter think that Evolutionary Psychology is "shoddy science," and what particular expertise does he have for making such an assessment? Well, his reasons are a mystery, as nowhere on his blog (or, as far as I can tell, in any of his published work) does he offer a critique of Evolutionary Psychology. I'm not even sure if he's read The Blank Slate, and I would bet money that he hasn't read Adapting Minds. How can he possibly know from a short review in the popular press, written by a good science writer, but one who has no training in any of the fields that Buller discusses (a fact that is just as true of Leiter!) that the book really does demolish Evolutionary Psychology? If he had read Adapting Minds, he'd know that Buller himself criticizes other critics of Evolutionary Psychology (especially Gould, but there are plenty of others) for just the sort of blanket criticisms that do not address the specific claims of Evolutionary Psychology.

A scholar, and a philosopher in particular, should know better! As an intellectual authority (and as a professor and widely-respected author and intellectual blogger, he is one), he should either remain silent on issues about which he knows little or nothing, or, if he in fact does know something, as a scholar, he should give reasons for his opinions. Simply referencing a book review of a book he hasn't read does not constitute giving reasons. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Leiter understand this. He once wrote:
[O]ne of the decidedly weird aspects of the blogosphere is discovering that one is being denounced as “ignorant” or “stupid” by noxious mediocrities, individuals of no discernible accomplishment or intelligence. ... Have these people no critical distance from themselves, no sense of their own limitations, no perspective on how out of their depth they are?
But Dr. Leiter, apparently, has little sense of his own limitations, or how out of depth he is. Or perhaps he does, and that is why he fails to offer any criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology. Maybe he realizes that he doesn't have any, because in the area of Evolutionary Psychology, he is out of his depth.

The second comes from an equally pithy post on the abstract of a paper from a field within which Leiter has demonstrated no expertise, but still feels justified in critiquing. Here is his post, including the abstract, in its entirety:
This abstract is by a professor of English at a major university; it is for "A Prolegomenon to Cognitive Aesthetics." It will not, I fear, enhance the opinion of philosophers about what goes on in some English Departments:
In this essay I begin with the proposition that AI [Artificial Intelligence] programs attempt to construct poems to blow our heads off. Beginning with this proposition opens up at least two pathways. The first pathway leads to the investigation of the nature of theories of mind, logic, and language. This is the domain of cognitive science and philosophy. I will say something about this pathway, but my concerns involve the construction of a second pathway, a path characterized by the transformation of the question 'what does it mean to be human?' into the question 'can one construct a philosophy of mind from literary aesthetics?'. Both questions should be understood as ways (failed ways) of trying to figure what is real as what is meaningful, what I understand as the paradigmatic goal of theology. Consequently, the mind understood in this way is both a theological and aesthetic problem, as much as a scientific question. Accomplishing the transformation of these two questions will delineate a domain of inquiry in which the relation between what counts as the mind and what counts as ways of meaning can be sensibly questioned.

These questions are partly motivated by the conflicting claims a string of related words have on me, or anyone, words through which I emerge as a human being to myself within language: 'psyche', 'animate', 'inanimate', 'soul', 'mind', 'inhabit', 'meaning', understand', 'description', 'justify', 'I', 'we', 'mine', 'our', 'world, 'before', 'after', 'then', 'now', 'soon', 'change', and 'time'. I organize this collection around four superordinate words: 'meaning', 'self-reflection', 'mind' and 'animation'. These four words mark the primary areas of contention between the disciplines of literature, analytic philosophy, and cognitive science (or AI). I call these words and the area of contention they delimit cognitive aesthetics.
Reading this brings to mind John Searle's famous remark about Derrida: "this is the kind of stuff that gives bullshit a bad name."
The abstract, which was apparently for a talk given at a conference a few years ago, strikes me as out in left field in places (and the "blow our heads off" metaphor, while I get it, is a bit silly), but that's not surprising, given that I've got no expertise in literary theory, and in fact haven't read any of the author's (Brett Bourbon) work, or any related work in the field (I do actually own Bourbon's book, Finding a Replacement for the Soul, which I believe is an extension of the work presented in the paper to which Leiter refers, but which I haven't read and do not plan on reading anytime soon). Many of the abstracts of physics papers sound like they're in left field to me, simply because I'm not a physicist, and have no real experience with the literature. Perhaps if Leiter had taken to the time actually read some of the literature, instead of discussing something that, in all likelihood, falls well outside his knowledge base, he might actually understand the abstract, and be able to critique the paper/talk's claims on substantive grounds. Or does Leiter believe that jargon, communicative practices and standards, etc., are unique to philosophy, and therefore he should be able to understand scholarly work in any other field without having to immerse himself in the literature simply to grasp the field's language, common allusions, etc.? It may turn out that Boubon's work on "cognitive aesthetics" is a bunch of hot air, but Dr. Leiter is in no position to know this after having read one abstract.

Honestly, I like Dr. Leiter's blog. I often find news stories that I would not have otherwise discovered, there. But intellectual laziness, or arrogance, like this makes me sick, whether it's coming from Leiter, Zywicki, or any other intellectual, liberal or conservative. I especially hate that it might have influence over less than discerning readers, who might believe that someone like Leiter, who is obviously quite bright, must know what he's talking about if he criticizes scholarship that, at least ostensibly, lies well outside of his area of expertise. I genuinely hope that people read Buller's book (it is excellent) and other critiques of Evolutionary Psychology, in order to understand the paradigm's flaws, but if it comes down to accepting the claims of Evolutionary Psychologists, or dismissing them simply because a non-expert like Leiter dismisses them without offering any reasons, I'd rather people just accept them. At least Evolutionary Psychologists present reasons for doing so.

Postscript: I just want to reiterate that my beef, with Dr. Leiter's posts, as well as the posts I criticized previously by Zywicki and others, is that they are made by scholars, in public forums (in some cases, widely read forums), without any attempt to give reasons or arguments for the positions which, in some cases (e.g., Leiter's) involve broad generalizations. In Zywicki's case, it was quite clear that he had absolutely no knowledge of the IAT, the object of his derision. In Leiter's case, it's not clear whether he is qualified to comment on EP or not, but it is quite clear that he offers no reasons for his dismissal of it as a research paradigm, and endorses a review article that presents at best a short and perhaps inaccurate summary of a book that he shows no evidence of having read. This is now how scholars should make public comments on any scholarship, and it is a particularly dangerous way to discuss science publically. Given how poor the general public's representations of science, scientists, and scientific reasoning already are, even among many scholars in non-scientific fields (e.g., law!), general comments on entire research paradigms without justification in public forums can do no good, and can quite easily do harm. Perhaps it is unfair to single out Dr. Leiter, as his posts are no different from those of many other intellectual bloggers on a wide range of topics (hell, I've probably done this before), but I felt, and still feel, they serve as good examples of exactly what scholars should not be doing, especially since they correspond nicely to some of the posts I had previously criticized by other bloggers.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

If I could teach the world one thing about science, it would be...

Don't listen to what scientists say they think is the one thing that the world should be taught about science! Seriously, is it just me, or are scientists (your truly included), who are by nature some of the most skeptical people in the world, some of the biggest know-it-alls in the world as well? I think there are some scientists who are sitting around just waiting to be asked really general questions like this one:
If you could teach the world just one thing about science, what would it be?
That's the question that "over 250 renowned scientists" were recently asked in honor of Einsten Year, the 100th anniversary of E=mc2. The most common theme, found in 23 of the responses, was evolution. That's not surprising, given that evolution is both central to the understanding of modern biology (making it a likely response for many biologists) and the scientific idea that receives the most backlash from nonscientists. Still, I can't imagine that the most important thing to teach people about science is the theory of evolution. I mean, come on, just to understand evolution and the evidence for it, you have to teach people a little bit about science itself. Shouldn't we teach people about science itself, including its methods, what sorts of standards of evidence scientists use, how theories are derived from evidence, etc.? Honestly, I think the best response of the bunch was that of Gerardus 't Hooft, a physicist who, in refusing to answer, gave a great answer. He recognized that this question, like most of its kind, is just silly, writing:
This question brings me to despair. Is it really true that the world wants to hear only one thing about science? And then continue after that, with its ongoing religious, superstitious and political disputes? There are thousands of essential things you need to know about science.
I also like Toby Andrews' answer, which speaks to the "skeptical know-it-all" nature of scientists. He writes:
I should teach the world to beware the natural scientist who makes generalisations outside their area of expertise - especially on the subject of human nature. The scientist will invariably be unqualified to make such pronouncements.
In other words, once again, such questions are worthless. But that won't stop me from talking about the answers. Among the respondents there were several cognitive scientists and scientists from related fields. If anyone should be able to say what it is that people should know about science, in order to understand it better, it's the people who study human understanding, so I'm glad they asked a few. Here are some of their responses:
  • Philip Johnson Laird:
    Johnson-Laird is one of the more prominent cognitive scientists in the disciplines short history. In my little neck of the woods, he is most famous for his work on mental models, but he's done a lot of other interesting work as well. In response to the question, he wrote:
    I should teach the world that the creation of a scientific theory depends upon imagination, and upon empirical tests of some sort. Science is both a creative activity, and a critical or sceptical activity.
    The rest of his answer follows up, sounding like a textbook explanation of the Popperian view of science. The problem with this being the one thing that we should teach about science is that teaching such an abstract idea won't help anyone to learn about science.
  • Stevan Harnad:
    The founder and long-time editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which was at times one of the most interesting journals in the field (though at others, was one of the strangest and least productive), wrote:
    The single principle I should teach the world is that there is really no such thing as science - science is merely systematised, institutionalised common sense. The infant - human or other animal - learns, from their experience of trial and error, what to eat, avoid, mate with, etc. That learning from the experience of trial and error is already science.
    And later:
    We humans have a second way of doing science, over and above individual trial-and-error, or experimental learning guided by the error-correcting feedback arising from the consequences of our actions. We also have language, and we can save one another a lot of risky and time-consuming experimentation, by telling one another what's what.
    Much like Johnson-Laird's answer, this one expresses something true, but worthless as the one thing we should teach the world about science. This one is perhaps a bit less worthless, since it is important to teach people who know little about science that science is not some mysterious institution with a bunch of mad geniuses coming up with crazy ideas using wholly unorthodox reasoning methods. It really is just the use of the same cognitive mechanisms that everyone else uses, but with specific aims and a culture of time-tested methods, standards, etc.
  • Susan Blackmore:
    The cognitive scientist best known for her work on memes (I highly recommend her book The Meme Machine, because it is by far the best work I've read on memetics, and shows at the same time just how broadly those who study memetics conceive the discipline, and just how little empirical research has been done in the field) , and for having more colors in her hair than any other cognitive scientist (see the picture in the link above), predictably wrote about evolution. The most interesting part of her answer comes at the end, where she writes:
    If everyone understood evolution, then the tyranny of religious memes would be weakened and we little humans might find a better way to live in this pointless universe.
    I wish I were that optimistic. It's rarely been the case that people who understood complex theoretical ideas, even if they know the facts that accompany them, have lived their lives in accordance with the implications of those theoretical ideas. A studier of memes should know better than to think that those incredibly pervasive and "selfish" religious memes of which she speaks would disappear simply because people realize that evolution is a fact. She needs to go read her own book again, so she can remember that memes don't work that way. A true idea doesn't always make for the most successful or influential meme.
  • Scott Atran:
    I really like much of Atran's work on folk concepts and religious cognition, but his answer is disappointing. He went straight to evolution. On understanding evolution, he writes:
    Why is this discovery important? Because we then understand that, as the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued, reason itself is an evolved instrument, and the slave of prior passions. By understanding this, we deal with these passions directly, rather than seeking to bypass, override, or explain them away - though they be the main drivers of politics, economics, and social life.
    I can't imagine that's his reason for believing that evolution is the one thing we should teach everyone about science.
  • Annette Karmiloff-Smith:
    The cognitive neuroscientist answered:
    Paradoxically, I wish that everyone - including scientists working in the field - fully understood that developmental disorders are developmental.
    All I can say is, "Umm... OK."
  • Lisa Saksida:
    Another cognitive neuroscientist, with a much more sensible (and sense-making) answer:
    I wish people understood that there is no mind/brain duality. Specifically, I wish people understood that there is no such thing as a purely psychological disorder.
    This probably isn't the one thing people should know about science, but I really wish more people understood this. Once we understand that mental disorders are as physical as any non-mental illness, we may be able to combat much of the stigma that is associated with mental disorders. Of course, we also have to recognize that just because something is manifested physically doesn't mean we can treat it by just throwing medicine at it.
  • Jesse Bering:
    A cognitive scientist with whose work I am familiar, but having nothing to say about it, writes:
    There have been two domains of inquiry that have repeatedly managed to hit me, in the same way that I'm guessing scripture must hit spiritually famished parishioners. These are evolutionary biology, which - as anybody who does it sensibly knows - implies that human life is meaningless; and existential psychology, which asserts that human life is not only meaningless, but fundamentally absurd.
    OooooK... I'm a big fan of phenomenology, and that means I enjoy existentialism, but when I read that someone thinks that existential psychology is part of the one thing we should tell people about science, all I can do is move on to the next answer.
  • Tara Dineen:
    A psychologist about whom I know absolutely nothing, has an excellent answer.
    Upon reflection and with an ear open for cosmic laughter, the one thing I wish people understood about science is how science inspires puzzlement and wonder.
    That is an excellent thing to teach people about science: that instead of turning the world into a cold mass of matter, energy, and bare cause and effect, it actually shows us just how amazing and beautiful the world really is.
  • Christopher Frith:
    A neuropsychologist who wrote:
    The world, especially politicians, need to be taught what science is and what it can do. Science is not about certainties; it is about probabilities. What most interests scientists is not what we know about the world, but what we do not know about the world. Scientists do not have privileged access to the truth about the world, but they have a method for getting closer to that truth.
    Once again, an answer that involves something that is both true about science and very important for people to learn, but that can't be the first thing they learn. Without understanding how science works in general, people will use this (as creationists already do) to discredit science where it is unreasonable to do so. I'd rather we teach people this immediately after teaching them how science is actually done, and why it's the best system out there for doing what it is designed to do.
  • Gary F Marcus:
    This neuroscientist's book, The Algebraic Mind, is actually a very interesting introduction to the issues surrounding connectionism. His answer, on the other hand, is wholly uninteresting. Just as 22 other respondents did, he said evolution.
Those are the cognitive scientists' answers. Most of them are pretty bad, as answers to the actual question, but since the actual question was pretty stupid in the first place, I can't really blame them. These and the rest of the responses can be found here.

Monday, May 02, 2005


Sorry for the dearth of posts over the last few weeks. I have been having trouble with my computer. It turns out that some Toshiba laptop models had a couple defects, one of which causes power problems. My laptop, which is my main computer at home, has been acting up for a few weeks, and finally died last week. It's now in the shop for the third time since I bought it in late December, though Toshiba has apparently issued replacement parts that do not have the defect, meaning this should be the last time for a while. The moral of this story is, never buy a Toshiba laptop.

I have posts on goals and the connection between memory and analogy on the laptop, but those will have to wait until it's out of the shop. In the meantime, if you have anything you'd like to see me post about, let me know. If I can't post on it before the computer gets back, I can at least be thinking about it.