What should we call the terrorists?

A little over a year ago, The Boston Globe published a piece by Zaba Khan on why we shouldn’t use the name ISIS. For obvious reasons, it’s now circulating again, bringing a really important issue to the fore. For one, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is exactly what we refuse to see the group as: Khan quotes President Obama as saying, “ISIL is not Islamic . . . and [is] certainly not a state.” Referring to it as such gives it it unwarranted legitimacy.

The term Islamic State probably has other unintended consequences for the anti-ISIS cause as well. When we use the same word Islam to refer to a group of terrorists and to completely innocent and unrelated Muslims, it’s so easy to mentally conflate the two. This happens way too much.

What’s a better alternative to ISIS? Khan writes that in 2014, the French government announced that it would refer to the group as Daesh, which drastically abbreviates the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. John Kerry and President Obama have reportedly begun using the term as wellDaesh is also a bit of a stab at the group though, since its Arabic translation can mean “to trample down and crush” or “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Not surprisingly, the term Daesh is not popular with its members.

The Globe article also mentions that we know much about language’s influence on thought. Khan cites research demonstrating that while speaking a second language, our automatic cognitive processes are slightly more inhibited, allowing us to deliberate a little more (at least in the context of a controlled lab setting using standardize gain/loss decision making tasks). She brings this research up to suggest that if policymakers used the Arabic word Daesh, instead of the English translation, ISIS, they would effectively be “thinking” in a second language, and might therefore be freed from some of the native-language irrationality. This seems a bit of a stretch. The policymakers would not be learning Arabic; they would be using a single Arabic word in an English context. Effects of single words on cognition are usually minimal, if measurable at all. Although there’s no evidence that using Daesh will encourage us to think less impulsively about the group, it may still be an effective name. There’s only one way to find out.



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The problem with things that “cause” cancer

Causation is a tough concept to wrap our heads around. In its simplest sense, we say that one thing causes another when the first made that second thing happen. This is usually a 1:1 relationship. A leads to B, regardless of whether some other things do or don’t happen, and without A, B would not happen.

One common error is to attribute causality when there is none. It’s this type of thinking that leads us to believe that we need a lucky pencil to take tests – with it, we’ll ace the test; without it, we’ll bomb. When two things are correlated (for example, losing fifteen pounds and getting asked on more dates), it’s easy to make a causal inference, even when it’s not warranted. This is the reason that science teachers drill the phrase CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION into students’ heads.


Image: xkcd

We can also make the reverse inferential mistake; that is, when one thing does actually cause another, we can interpret it as a correlation. This is especially true when ascribing to causation would require that we change our behavior. For example, we might be less likely to really buy into the idea that obesity leads to heart disease if it suggests that we should change our habits, instead diluting the relationship to a more correlational one in our minds, acknowledging that, yeah, people who are obese tend to have more heart disease, but there are plenty of obese people who don’t, so maybe there’s no need to cut out the Big Macs just yet. This is commonly referred to as cognitive dissonance: having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

To further complicate causal thinking, many things don’t have 1:1 causes. A might cause B, but only in the presence of C, D, and E, or only in the absence of F and G. And sometimes one of those factors that mediates whether A causes B is pure randomness. This is another concept that is really difficult for humans to wrap our heads around, but randomness has played a huge role in making us the creatures we are and making the world the place it is today.

This week the World Health Organization (WHO) made a splash by releasing guidelines that placed processed meats in the same “cause” category for cancer as smoking and asbestos. What does this mean? It means that the WHO is confident that processed meats increases our likelihood of developing cancer. It does not mean that they increase our chances of getting cancer as much as asbestos or smoking do, but that they are equally confident that all of these things do in fact increase cancer risk. This is not one of those straightforward A causes B types of causation, though. We know that there are some people who eat lots of processed meats and never develop cancer. The causation is one of the more complicated types, most notably involving randomness. If someone eats a lot of these meats and then the right randomness (genetic mutations) take place, that person is more likely to end up with cancer than someone who didn’t eat any processed meat but experienced the same randomness (though that second person could very well get the disease too, as we know).

So the word “cause” is not a lie, or even an exaggeration. It’s true. But how do we interpret it? This week, it seems that most people interpreted it as the 1:1 relationship cause, accounting for much of the media hype. It might seem, then, that we should avoid this chaos-inducing word, and instead go for something less anxiety-provoking: maybe “linked to” or “associated with” would get the job done.

These weaker phrases have their own drawbacks, though, precisely because they induce less alarm. They are likely to encourage more cognitive dissonance, more of the reasoning that this is not something that affects me personally and I therefore shouldn’t feel as compelled to overhaul my sausage-filled diet.

There is probably no single verb that can be used in a headline to capture the relationship between certain behaviors and cancer risk, one that will encourage the right amount of alarm. Our best bet is to be aware that there are no perfect words to talk about complex ideas, and that means we will inevitably use imperfect words, words that mislead in different ways. Sometimes it takes some media chaos for an issue to get the attention it needs so that people can understand a situation and make informed decisions. Hopefully this is one of those times.


PS: There is a very cool study of science blogs and blog readers going on! I’ll also be receiving information about survey results from my blog readers, so your responses will be helpful to me as well as the researchers looking to learn more about science blogging more generally. To participate, take this survey: http://lsu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0dIyegEdCzOFNxr

For completing the survey, readers will be entered into a drawing for a $50.00 Amazon gift card and other prizes, and all participants will receive a small thank-you gift

Cog Sci for a High School Student

One class I’m taking this quarter is called “Communicating Science.” The fact that this class exists is exciting because it says that scientists recognize the importance of communicating beyond just to further their own careers (which also certainly requires top-notch communication, in order to receive funding to do research and in order to get that research published).

One assignment we have is to summarize an article in our field for a high school student. This was a fun task, and I’m posting my attempt here. High school students (and non-high school students), have at it – tell me how I did!

The paper is called “Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity,” and is by Jeffrey Bowers and Christopher Pleydell-Pearce:

Have you ever said a swear and then felt a little amped up after? Maybe your heart started beating a little faster, or you felt your cheeks flush red. It seems that we have a physical reaction to swearing. Is this true? And if so, is it the swear word itself that we react to, or is it the meaning behind the swear word that we’re reacting to? An experiment by researchers named Bowers and Pleydell-Pearce set out to answer these questions.

The researchers measured participants’ skin conductance, which is a measure for how mentally or physically aroused a person is. When we become very aroused (for example if a teacher calls on us in class while we’re not paying attention or we receive a grade that’s much better or worse than we expected), our skin temporarily conducts more electricity. More arousal leads to more skin conductivity. The participants came into a lab and were looking at a computer that flashed different words at them, which they had to repeat. Sometimes those words were swears. Other times, they were neutral words (like glue).

The researchers found that after people said swears, their skin conductance was greater than after they said neutral words. In other words, saying a swear aroused them, even though the context in which they said it was exactly the same as the context in which they said the neutral words. This finding still does not address whether there’s something special about the swear words themselves, or whether their meanings are what arouse people. For example, it could be that thinking about poop (the meaning behind the “swear” shit) is what arouses people, as opposed to the word shit itself.

To answer this question, the researchers included an extra word type in their experiment. In addition to saying the swear words and the neutral non-swear words, sometimes people had to say a swear word euphemism (like f-word). The logic was that if the swear word itself led to the increased skin conductance, these euphemisms would not also do so. But if thinking of the meanings of the swear words was what increased skin conductance, these euphemisms should also do so.

They found that people’s skin conductance was greater to swear words than to their euphemistic counterparts, suggesting that we have a strong physical response to the actual words. This is probably because those words have been closely associated throughout our lives to emotional situations. Euphemisms, on the other hand, are less tied with emotional contexts, and produced a smaller skin response. However, these words still produced more arousal as measured on the skin than the completely neutral words did. These findings suggest that euphemisms that take the place of swears are still somewhat emotionally linked, but not as strongly as the swear words themselves are. Worth considering next time you swear or hear someone swear – your body is probably reacting to saying this word, whether you realize it or not!


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Hints for Sacks-like Success from On the Move

Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, professor, writer, and role model for many in medicine and other scientific fields. He had a unique ability to view patients in context, a refreshing opposition to the common tendency to treat each symptom in isolation. He wrote prolifically about his patients and what they could teach us about the mind, brain, and body. And his books were widely accessible – no M.D. needed to understand their contents.

When he died recently, many people wrote moving tributes to Dr. Sacks and his life. As I read some of these, I realized that I had read startlingly little of his writing, so I decided to read his memoir, On the Move. Sacks doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda with this book besides to share his life story. We learn about everything that was most important to him – people, places, jobs, and interests. In many ways, this book reminds us that even this revered doctor is still a person like the rest of us. There’s tension in his family, people who criticize his work, and he has his heart broken. At the same time, though, I often found myself thinking, he’s really not just like the rest of us – there’s something special here. I think that many of those unique traits contributed to his success, so I’ve tried to compile a few here.

Oliver Sacks spent a lot of time alone. He writes quite a bit about how much he loved his motorcycles and his time on them. Although this is something he did do with others at times, he refers to himself as a lone rider. Sacks seemed to be at peace with being alone. He writes that “by disposition I am solitary and venture to believe that the best, at least the most creative, part of me is solitary.”

He passionately pursued things that were far from his work. One of these activities was weightlifting. Lifting didn’t seem to be a just hobby for Sacks, but instead became a central part of his life at times. This quote hilariously sums up his commitment: “Rationing myself to five double cheeseburgers and half a dozen milkshakes per evening and training hard, I bulked up swiftly…” He did end up setting a lifting record in the state of California, further proof that this was not a half-hearted diversion for him.

On a related note, he threw himself fully into everything he did – especially his work. When he had a goal, it seems that nothing could stop him from achieving it. “It was the first of September, and I said to myself, ‘If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.’ And under that thread, I started writing.” That’s certainly one approach to getting your writing done on time.

He embraced writing. He explains that “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” Although it seems that he was sometimes able to sit down and write prolifically for hours (at one point he refers to an “explosion of writing”), he also shares his lulls. His book A Leg to Stand On gave him prolonged trouble, taking almost 10 years to complete.

These are not necessarily traits that we can force ourselves to have. Oliver Sacks was a truly unique person who produced insightful and inspiring work. But knowing a little more about the person behind this phenomenal physician and writer may help us to embrace our own oddities and see the ways that they contribute to our unique successes as well.


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Can there be an end to language?

A couple of days ago, The Atlantic published a provocative piece by William Davies, Facebook, Smart Tech, and The End of Language. I call it provocative because even though the writing was top-notch, my inner monologue while reading went something like: “What? No… But how…?!” (repeat, repeat, repeat).

The article is about a comment that Mark Zuckerberg recently made about augmented reality, devices that will allow us to transmit thoughts directly from one mind to another. He refers to this as the “ultimate communication technology.”

Davies explores what Zuckerberg meant by this comment. There are already technologies that allow people to communicate to play a game, albeit about very simple things like “shoot now.” The article continues to talk about people’s “growing suspicion in language” as a motive for developing the technologies that Zuckerberg referred to. This suspicion is epitomized in a quote that Davies includes by a neuromarketing guru – “People lie; brains don’t.” (As a picky side note, isn’t a brain a necessary component of a person generating a lie?)

The logic is this: we have a pure thought, and we have no way of sharing it other than by using words. Once we use words, our pure thought becomes tainted, skewed by those words we’ve chosen to express it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cut out the pesky linguistic middle man?

Actually, this sounds like a terrible idea to me. For one, there’s really no such thing as a pure thought – the language that we use to express thoughts makes those thoughts exactly what they are. Using words to express ideas can be fun. It can help us clarify them. It generates conversation – which in turn encourages us to reevaluate our ideas, to expand on them, to see connections to other people’s thoughts. We would miss out on so much richness if we were to ever eliminate our precious linguistic middle man. Davies points out another crucial flaw in the end-of-language logic: any AR needs to be created by a human, so it can never be created without the bias that language has instilled in its human creator. Instead, that one creator’s bias would be disseminated to all users of the technology.

Granted, there are some uses for augmented reality (AR) that would be cool and useful. For example, it could help people who experience brain damage and are unable to speak communicate practical needs. But could it ever allow for the end of language? Let me just sit here and think about that.

What’s marriage like?

I’m getting married today. In my remaining few hours as an engaged person, I’m engaging in my favorite way to reflect on a complex, complicated concept – a metaphor dissection.

What are the metaphors we use for marriage?

Our talk of love is full of metaphors. One of the most well-known in cognitive linguistics is that love is a journey: relationships can be on the rocks, take a turn for the worst, or cruising along. We also like to talk about love as a rock: a stabilizing, timeless force in our lives. Last night while watching a 30 Rock rerun, I learned that love can also be like an onion: “you peel away layer after stinky layer until you’re just. . . weeping over the sink.”

Maybe we can use a lot of the same metaphors we use for love to talk about marriage as well. But while marriages might involve figurative journeys, rocks, and onions, marriage is also something distinct from love. Since it’s a complex and abstract topic, it seems natural that we’d invoke metaphors to talk about it, but as I started trying to come up with them, I had some trouble. Thus, I called on Google.

This is what Google thinks marriage is like

This is what Google thinks marriage is like.

These Google results are a nice mix of clever (marriage is like a garden because you reap what you sow) and discouraging (like a deck of cards?!). But metaphors are often more hidden than this search would allow me to uncover – we don’t often say that “love is like a journey,” but instead just whip out journey-related phrases when talking about love. Here’s my second attempt at uncovering marriage metaphors through Google:

And this is what Google thinks that marriage IS. If this doesn't quell any pre-wedding jitters, I don't know what will.

And this is what Google thinks that marriage IS. If this doesn’t quell any pre-wedding jitters, I don’t know what will.

After this search, I decided Google wasn’t the way to go. I thought about phrases I’ve heard about marriage. We’re tying the knot. What knot is this? Do I really want to be tied to another person? Similarly, we’re getting hitched. Hitched to what? Last I checked the only things we really hitch are trailers to trucks. These metaphors are pretty uninformative and don’t paint the greatest picture of marriage.

Then what are the metaphors we should use to talk about marriage?

I don’t know first-hand what marriage is like yet, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about my expectations of it. I expect that it’ll require effort. The effort might be planning long-distance Skype dates, remembering birthdays, and biting my tongue when the toothpaste isn’t squeezed the way I like it to be. It’ll require compromises, sacrifices, and honesty. But when we both put in that effort and maybe some warmth, what we’ll get out of it will be much greater than what we could have otherwise. It should be pleasant, satisfying, and fulfilling. It should make us smile, and when we share it with others, it should make them smile too.

By this definition, marriage is not much different from an oven. You have some raw ingredients, you mix a little of some with a lot of some others, and then you immerse them in warmth to bake. You have to be patient for a while, but then you end up with a batch of fresh-baked cookies. They’re warm, sweet, and satisfying, especially if you take a moment to savor them. And you can share them with other people, give them a taste of one of life’s simplest pleasures. All thanks to the oven. I hope we can have an oven-like marriage. We’ll have to invest in quality ingredients and put in effort to them together in the right proportions. We’ll have to be patient. We’ll savor what we get out, and we’ll share what we can with others in our life.


Since an oven is not a very sexy metaphor for marriage, I look forward to coming up with new and better ones as we learn more about what marriage is like for us. In the meantime, we’re going to tie the knot, get hitched (to what? I’m still not sure) and get working on the first of many batches of cookies.

Where is my data when it’s in a cloud?

I recently stumbled upon a cool Atlantic piece from a couple of year’s ago by Rebecca Rosen – Clouds: The Most Useful Metaphor of All Time? I was looking for metaphors used to talk about the internet, and of course the cloud is a ubiquitous one. I also find it a confusing one. I own that Kindle book, so why isn’t it on my iPad? or I wrote that note on my phone, so how’d it get in my email drafts? How is it that my cloud is “full?” Although I haven’t invested much time in learning about the internet cloud, Rosen’s Atlantic piece suggested that my confusions are more logical than I gave myself credit for. Clouds are used (both graphically and linguistically) for concepts that are vague and fuzzy:

What is it about clouds that has such sticking power? Clouds get traction as a metaphor because they are shape-shifters, literally. As a result they can stand in for many varied cultural tropes. Want something to represent the one thing marring your otherwise perfect situation? Done. Want to evoke the nostalgic feeling of childhood games of the imagination? Done. Maybe you want to draw a picture of heaven? You’re in luck. Clouds as metaphors pepper our language: every cloud has a silver lining, I’m on cloud nine, his head is in the clouds, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Clouds are the lazy man’s metaphor, a one-image-fits-all solution for your metaphor needs.

The point of clouds is that they’re vague. And in fact, how much do we really know about them, despite the fact that we see them almost every day? We do often talk about things we don’t understand in terms of other things we don’t understand. For example, to talk about love (a hard-to-understand idea), we often draw on terms from chemistry (an even harder-to-understand one). And even though we don’t really understand the metaphorical domain (chemistry), we feel like we understand the source (love) a little better thanks to our metaphorical use. So it is with clouds. For someone being introduced to the idea of the Internet’s cloud, they might initially get the gist pretty quickly – just as a cloud floats around in the sky, my data is floating around somewhere (or at the least, it’s not solely on my device). But then once you start using your cloud – accumulating books, songs, and documents – your understanding might become foggier. Because how do you get something back when it’s in a cloud? Wait for the rain? Jump on a plane? I’m still trying to figure this one out.