September 19, 2007

Dr. Alfred Crockus and Crosley Shelvador, M.D.

This all started on Monday, with an email query from Heidi W. She had attended a lecture by Dan Hodgins, an "internationally known presenter" who told the assembled teachers in her large urban school district that "Girls see the details of experiences", while "Boys Brains see the whole but not the details", because the girls' "Crockus is Four times larger than boys". Heidi questioned the validity of Hodgins' brain-lore, and she was especially puzzled about what that "Crockus" might be.

Some initial poking around turned up no prior art in crockusometry ("How big is your crockus", 9/17/2007; "High crockalorum", 9/18/2007). So I emailed Dan Hodgins himself, who responded that "The Crockus was actually just recently named by Dr. Alfred Crockus". This deepened the mystery, in a way, because I couldn't find any publications by Alfred Crockus on Google Scholar, nor any web presence for Dr. Crockus more generally. So I wrote to Dan Hodgins again:

Thanks for the quick reply!

But who is Dr. Alfred Crockus? I can't find him via Google or Wikipedia.

And again, he was kind enough to reply quickly:

Crockus works for Boston Medical University Hospital.
Good luck

This didn't help me locate the eponymous doctor, and so I asked:

Do you mean Boston Medical Center, which was formed about ten years about by the merger of Boston City Hospital (BCH) and Boston University Medical Center Hospital (BUMCH)? I checked their directory search and couldn't find anyone named Crockus:

As far as I know, the only other university hospital in Boston is the Harvard/MGH complex, and he doesn't seem to be there either. Perhaps he's retired?

Can you point me to an article or a book where Dr. Crockus describes his findings?

I haven't gotten an answer yet.

However, I too know what it is like to owe an intellectual debt to someone whose web presence is so ephemeral that others might be excused for doubting his very existence.

When I was in graduate school at M.I.T., I shared a group office in Building 20, down the hall from the Tech Model Railroad Club, with a large and motley collection of fellow students and others. You can consult the list of dissertations completed between 1972 and 1975 for a list -- but it's only a partial one, because some of our office-mates never got to the point of finishing a degree, and others were never enrolled in the program to start with, but just hung out in Building 20 for reasons of their own. During this period, one of the most reliable and influential inhabitants was Crosley Shelvador -- he seemed to be there 24/7, tirelessly interacting with whoever else happened to be in the office.

Older than the rest of us, Crosley never offered any information about his background. Mark Aronoff once told me about a story to the effect that Crosley Shelvador (or perhaps another individual of the same name) was an Anglo-Brazilian doctor who had made important (though amateur) contributions to Amazonian linguistics. But I suspect that this is one of those rumors that starts as someone's "for instance" speculation, perhaps in this case based only on the evocative resonances of Crosley's name.

In any case, I think it's fair to say that no one had a larger influence on my brief but intense graduate-school career than Crosley Shelvador did. Many of my best ideas were supported if not created by interactions with him. But when I now search Google Scholar for {Crosley Shelvador}, the only evidence that I can find of his existence as an intellectual is one single work: a review of Language and the History of Thought, by Nancy Struever, and The Search for the Perfect Language, by Umberto Eco, in Language 72(4), Dec. 1996) pp. 852-856. A search for {Crosley Shelvador} on Google Images turns up a number of pictures of what may be relatives, but none of them look exactly like Crosley as I remember him.

When I taught at M.I.T. in 1978, Crosley was still hanging around, but after that, I lost track of him, and I have no idea where he is today. The 1996 Language book review gives his address as Department of Cultural Studies, Peconic County Community College, Shelter Island, NY -- but that institution seems to have vanished from the pages of time, leaving a trace only in a list of "common misspellings or interpretations" at a dodgy-looking college loan site. Perhaps Mark Aronoff, who was the editor of Language in 1996, knows what happened to Crosley Shelvador and to PCCC.

And who knows, if I ever locate Crosley again, maybe Alfred Crockus will be there too.

[Meanwhile, in other crockusological news, Deen Skolnick Weisberg pointed out to me that there's an article in press at Cognition -- David P. McCabe and Alan D. Castel, "Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning", whose abstract reads as follows:

Brain images are believed to have a particularly persuasive influence on the public perception of research on cognition. Three experiments are reported showing that presenting brain images with articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to articles accompanied by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves. We argue that brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.

I believe that this provides additional experimental support for the wager that I jocularly attributed to Prof. Hodgins.]

[More here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 19, 2007 09:53 PM