March 30, 2004

Ten leading results in 20th century linguistics?

Lauren Slater's new book "Opening Skinner's Box", as described in this review by Peter Singer, sounds interesting:

The idea behind Lauren Slater's book is simple but ingenious: pluck 10 leading experiments in 20th-century psychology from the pages of the scientific journals in which they were first published, dust off the painfully academic style in which they were written up, add some personal details about the experimenters and retell them as intellectual adventures that help us to understand who we are and what our minds are like.

Now, it's clear that there are some issues about the actual content here. Slater has been accused of misunderstanding or misrepresenting some of the research she discusses, as well as some of her interviews with psychologists. See this Guardian review for some discussion, and look here for letters of complaint to her publisher from several of the psychologists whose interviews she described in the book, and here for an extended critique of a recent Guardian piece by Slater presenting material from one of the book's chapters. And according to this story, Deborah Skinner is suing over the way her upbringing (by B.F. Skinner) and its consequences are depicted in the book, for reasons she discusses in a Guardian piece entitled "I was not a lab rat." It sounds like psychology is not more reliably depicted by its popularizers than linguistics is.

I'm also not wild about the overall slant of Slater's choice of experiments (as describe in the reviews -- I haven't read the book). She focuses on clinical issues, especially pyschological damage allegedly due to bad parents and other authority figures. I don't have any problem with her choices taken individually -- all are interesting at least in a sociological sense, and most are scientifically interesting too. But her interest in mental health problems excludes neat (though less fraught) stuff like Fitts' Law (relating time, distance and target size for aimed movements), or the Rescorla-Wagner model of classical conditioning. This is a matter of taste, and her tastes are no doubt more popular than mine would be.

Anyhow, I like the "ten great experiments" concept. Not the "top ten" -- it's silly to try to map everything onto a single dimension of evaluation -- just a limited set of especially interesting and important things. As I was walking back from class this morning, I spent a few minutes thinking about what I'd pick as ten leading pieces of work in 20th-century linguistics.

I had no trouble coming up with a list -- the biggest problem is to trim it to ten -- and I'll tell you what it is in a later post. I'd be curious to hear what other people's suggestions are as well, so feel free to send me your ideas by email.

[Update 4/13/2004: The NYT has noticed the fuss about Slater's veracity, after Peter Singer totally missed it in his 3/18/2004 review. It's odd that he did so, since he himself notices that "Slater makes some errors that made me wonder about her accuracy in areas with which I am not familiar." The information was easy to find on the web a month ago. I guess he may have written the review before Deborah Skinner's 3/12/2004 Guardian piece appeared, but was it before Ian Pitchford's 3/2/2004 posting on psychiatry-research, or the late-February weblog posts by folks like Rivka? As a professor at Princeton, Singer doubtless knows how to research a subject; as a best-selling author, I bet he has assistants who can do it for him; this is supposed to be an area of expertise for him; I found everything cited here just by idly googling "Laura Slater"; was this really "due diligence"?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 30, 2004 01:56 PM