Jul. 11th, 2011

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 Apparently, thought isn't as dependent on language as we might naively think


"The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figur e things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.
In contrast to the absolute inability Idefenso had getting the idea of ‘idea,’ or his struggles with points in time, he clearly was capable of all sorts of tasks that suggest he was not mentally inert or completely vacant. He had survived into adulthood, crossed into the US, kept himself from being mowed down in traffic or starving to death. Moreover, he and other languageless individuals had apparently figured out ways to communicate without a shared language, which I find both phenomenally intriguing and difficult to even imagine (putting aside the definitional problem of distinguishing human communication from ‘language’ broadly construed).

Schaller highlights that learning language isolated Ildefonso from other languageless individuals. Schaller explains:

The only thing he said, which I think is fascinating and raises more questions than answers, is that he used to be able to talk to his other languageless friends. They found each other over the years. He said to me, “I think differently. I can’t remember how I thought.” I think that’s phenomenal!

That last part about not being able to remember how to think or talk to his languageless friends echoes other research that language is important for encoding memories (I don't have the link handy, but in short: young childrens' ability to remember stuff was shown to be strongly correlated with their progress in language acquisition). But the way Ildefonso is described above makes me think that the lack of ability to remember pre-language events might not be due to an inability to encode memories in the absence of linguistic symbols, but a result of not sharing enough mental context with your prelinguistic self to be able to retrieve them.
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 Who'da thunk it that scientists are just as prone to cheating as people in other professions? A Nature article(non-paywalled version) found that around a third of around 3000 respondents admitted to having engaging in some kind of scientific misconduct, ranging from falsified data to the comparatively benign sin of not keeping proper records related to research projects.

Looking at the percentages of people confessing to various behaviours puts me strongly in mind of one of Dan Ariely's studies, documented in Predictably Irrational, where he gave people tests with monetary rewards for correct answers, and then progressively made it easier for each subsequent group to cheat. His overwhelming conclusions were a) that people will cheat if you let them, but only up to a certain point, and b) that removing money from the equation by, for example, giving the participants tokens that were exchanged for money just a minute or two later, greatly increased the incidence of cheating because money is Serious Business. 
We can see the same kind of cheating going on here, with relatively large numbers of respondents admitting to some kind of misconduct, but most of it being of the minor easy to rationalise variety and further away from the parts of their work that really pay their salary (funding and publishing). For example, 7.6% of all respondents admitted to circumventing minor aspects of human-subject requirements but only 0.3% circumvented major aspects. Similarly, almost no one failed to disclose involvement in firms whose products were based on their research (0.3%) but around 15% allowed funding sources to pressure them into changing their design, methodology, or results, despite the same type of objectivity being called for. 


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