Friday, October 3, 2014

Why Academic Writing Sucks

I'm not a huge fan of Stephen Pinker's psychology, but he is a solid writer, and I respect his perspective on many subjects. So when he wrote a Chronicle article on "Why Academics Stink at Writing" I took notice. The article starts by considering, and rejecting several suggestions for why academic writing is so bad:
  • Bad writing is there deliberately, to stop normal people from realizing scholars are talking about nothing.
  • Bad writing cannot be avoided, because the topics of discussion are so complex.
  • Bad writing is virtually required by reviewers and editors, who will not accept papers written in more straightforward manners.
These things happen, but apply to a very small percentage of published work, Pinker claims. Instead, Pinker suggests that academic writing is bad because it tries to mix writing styles, and authors become muddled about the audience and its desires. As he puts it:
Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which "the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise."
With this perspective in mind, Pinker argues that much bad writing in academia is the result of "agonizing self-consciousness". This leads to too much meta-discussion, and leads academics to lose the balance between their role as communicators of knowledge vs. their role as members of a profession with its own internal norms and mores. There are many good criticisms of common phrases used by academics, which weaken their writing, and bad habits, such as the misuse of scare quotes. He goes on to talk about how certain cognitive processes (chunking, functional fixity, and the curse of knowledge) make it hard for authors to realize what will make sense to their readers. And he ends with a discussion about how few obvious incentives there are for academics to write well. For the most part I nodded in agreement, and thought about making some minor tweaks to a few papers that are in the pipeline. However, there were two points that made me uneasy.

First, Pinker criticizes "apologizing", such as when authors say that the topics they are about to write on are "extremely complex." I can see how this can be inappropriate in some circumstances, but I think the audience needs to be considered. Many of the things I write about are not subjects that others think about much, and when others do think about those subjects, they tend to think things are very simple. In that context, when I use the language Pinker is criticizing, it is because I am informing the reader that their initial views might be mistaken. For example, the types of psychological questions you can ask using a rat, in a box with a level and a few lights, are quite complex. Many psychology students and even many psychology professors (nevertheless members of the general public) do not believe that assertion, until they have learned quite a bit about the amazing studies that people have done.

Second, Pinker criticizes authors who "hedge" their statements, rather than relying on the reader to be charitable. This criticism baffled me. Certainly it is possible to over-hedge, but Pinker lives in a world full of non-charitable readers. I cannot understand his position except as a weird statement of elitism: He is too influential to be taken down by minor nit-picking, so he assumes all academics have the luxury of ignoring it as well. In my world, there is a big difference between making a claim such as "Perception is accurate" and saying "For the most part, perception is accurate." Depending on the context, a paper could easily get rejected for the hedged sentence, or get rejected for the non-hedged sentence. --- In fairness, Pinker acknowledges that some hedging may be necessary, but argues that skilled writers use it cautiously, rather than as a "tick." Alas, I'm not sure that hedge is sufficient to convey the reality; most academic authors face extremely ungenerous gatekeepers.
It is also interesting to note how often Pinker cannot resist the urge to be clever, inserting semi-jokes, at the expense of clarity. I do that too, but I am not sure I would do it so much in a piece specifically about clear writing. It makes his article half-way between something amazingly clear, like Elements of Style, and joking self-aware rule lists, with entries such as "Preposition are not things to end a sentence with."

Overall, however, very good, and recommended reading.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The once and future behaviorism - Ralph Barton Perry

Perry was a Harvard Philosophy Prof, a major student of William James, and James's first biographer. There are excerpts from his 1921 paper "A Behaviorist View of Purpose." These notes are part of a continuing effort to reconstruct a better history of behaviorism... or, perhaps, a history of the better behaviorism that never quite happened.

The article is good, overall, but it has some problems. These are mostly in its leaning towards stimulus-response formulations and not properly contextualizing the place of neuroscience insights. Perry shouldnt' make these mistakes, given his familiarity with Dewey (e.g., the "Reflex Arc" paper) and Holt (e.g., the "Recessions of the Stimulus" concept), but que sera. I'm only quoting some choice sections below, so those shortcomings won't be apparent. The article gives some insight into the connection between James's work and the rapid acceptance of behaviorism, and is relevant to some emerging movements today.

The difference between psychology and physiology ceases to be a difference of subject-matter, like the difference between entomology and ornithology, where each deals exhaustively and exclusively with a class of objects; and becomes a difference of method and approach like that between chemistry and physics, where two sciences deal with interpenetrating type-complexes which contain common elements and are found in the same objects. Psychology deals with the grosser facts of organic behavior, and particularly with those external and internal adjustments by which the organism acts as a unit, while physiology deals with the more elementary constituent processes, such as metabolism or the nervous impulse. But in so far as psychology divides the organism it approaches physiology, and in so far as physiology integrates the organism it approaches psychology. (p. 85)

Now many will object that this is to leave out "consciousness." But what is this "consciousness" we are under obligation to include---is it a datum or a theory? It was once said that psychology omitted the soul. And so it did, in so far as the term "soul" was the name for a theory formulated in theology or "rational" psychology. But psychology never deliberately neglected any of the facts or problems lying within the field of the mental life of man; and as a result of omitting the older theory of the soul it reached a very much better understanding of the actual mode of existence in question. No one would now think of conceiving the soul as a simple, indivisible and incorruptible static entity, or as a naked act of pure reason. In every [current] philosophy the soul is now a process; or a flowing, and more or less complexly organized, experience. When, therefore, we say the soul is lost, what we really mean is that a theory is more or less obsolete, as a result of its having been successfully ignored. The soul as an existent fact having a nature and an explanation, is not lost, but found.

Now something of this same outcome may with reasonable safety be predicted in the case of  "consciousness." If a behaviorist be enlightened he will have no intention of omitting any facts, but only of abandoning a theory which he believes has proved unsatisfactory. He does not abandon consciousness, but the introspective theory of consciousness. This consists in taking the data of introspective analysis as the ultimate constituents of the mental life, the units which in their own peculiar aggregations and sequences compose mind. Psychophysical parallelism and atomic sensationalism are developments of this theory, and are evidences of its weakness. It has in fact never worked. The most illuminating things that psychology has said have been said when it has allowed itself liberties with this theory, and introduced as much of the outlying physical and organic field as proved convenient. The behaviorist has emphasized the failure of the introspective theory to yield results comparable to those obtained in kindred sciences, and proposes to try another. He does not deny or intend to neglect any of the data of introspection. He merely believes that this is not the best place to begin, because the introspecting mind is a peculiarly complex form of the mental life. He regards an animal reflex or habit as a more elementary mental phenomenon than an introspectively discriminated sensory intensity.... The behaviorist concedes that introspection and all its works must find a place in any comprehensive and adequate view of mind. When they do find their place they will perhaps have lost their present outlines, because of having been broken up and redistributed. But in so far as the new theory is more successful than the old, consciousness as a group of facts, as something that exists and happens, will have been found and not lost. (ibid, p.87-88)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Digital Humanities and Darwin on Psychology... Notes from the field: Cheiron, Day 3

The morning of Cheiron, Day 3 contained a fascinating panel using "Digital Humanities" methods to study the history of psychology. And some interesting coverage of evolutionary and epigenetic topics. Digital Humanities methods were first. These methods do complex textual analysis, and have great potential to provide insights into changes in psychology's history that are simply too dispersed across texts to be observed in any other way.  I suspect that, when better developed, these methods will also find niches in non-historical empirical work in our field.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Notes from the Field: Cheiron 2014, Day 1

I have the great pleasure of being within driving distance of Cheiron this year. It is a small and very supportive conference focused on the History of the Behavioral and Social Sciences. "Psychology" certainly gets the plurality of talks, but many other disciplines are represented. Today was only a half day, but here are some of the highlights.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What is going on in philosophy: Searle's goals



There are some philosophers I really disagree with, but whom I also really like. In general, this is because we share similar views as the overarching goal of our efforts. This common ground is sometimes found in articles specifically about doing philosophy,  but it is also found in the introductions to works I otherwise might not like. A great example of this is found in Searle’s “Freedom and Neurobiology”. While I don’t like his solution to the Big Questions that the book deals with, I love the way he sets up the problem:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How to Explain Behaviorism: We are Reflections of our World

This is the second in my ongoing series of articles trying to provide basic lead ins to behaviorist theory. The first is here.

How to Explain Behaviorism, version 2: 
We are Reflections of our World


A friend of mine asked for advice online. She is a teacher, working with a 9 year old girl who is "Bossy, has to be right, have things her own way. Failing is not an option, so she lies about failing at anything." The inquiry generated many suggestions, all good. Someone suggested that maybe the daughter is afraid of admitting failure, because she covets approval. Another suggested that maybe sibling dynamics might be at play, especially if there is an older sibling who is very successful. Had the daughter been taught that everyone makes mistakes and that it is ok to admit them? When it was mentioned that the girl is choleric, someone suggested that spending times with other cholerics might help. (By the way, fascinating that the Waldorf Schools still uses those terms!) Maybe playing sports would help if, she could find a coach who rewards efforts and teamwork. Etc., etc., etc. So many suggestions were offered, but... not a single person proposed either a more detailed study of the behavior in question or a systematic study of the child's environment.

What would I like to know, before I began an intervention? Things like: Which particular types of situations is she bossy in? To whom is she bossy? What, exactly, does that "bossiness" look like? How do those around her respond? In particular, how often does she get what she wants? Is the thing she wants --- the thing that stops an instance of bossiness --- what she is ostensibly asking for or is it something else? 

Even if I thought like my friend's other advisers, I would still want to know these things, because I like to have a good understanding of the problem I am trying to solve before I try to solve it. But I don't think like the other respondents, I think like a behaviorist. In this context, one important implication of being a behaviorist is that I think my types of investigations might well tell us everything we need to know. That is, we might well learn everything we need to know about the daughter's "bossiness" if we know what the behaviors looks like (its "topology") and the circumstances under which they occur (the aspects of the world that the behavior is a function of).

This is because, behaviorists view behavior as a reflection of the world. If you live in a world where being obstinate works, you will be obstinate. If you live in a world where being unobtrusive works, you will be unobtrusive. If you sometimes live in a world where it works to be obstinate and you sometimes live in a world where it works to unobtrusive, and there is a way to tell which world you are in at any given time, then you will adaptively switch between being obstinate and unobtrusive. Etc., etc., etc. Of course, you cannot make these adjustments instantly, so there is a heavy developmental component. So what I really mean is that at any given time you are changing to better fit the world you exist in, and if your world stays stable long enough, you will come to reflect it very well. 

Sometimes you can see this most clearly when things go wrong. For example, my wife and I became quite frustrated at our children's inability to be quite when instructed to do so. This is the type of skill that some kids (by dint of past experience) are good at, and other kids (by dint of past experience) are bad at, and our kids were showing no improvement towards the right behavior. After sitting back and observing for a bit, I pointed out that sometimes when we said "be quite" we meant "talk more quietly", but other times we meant "stop talking." Because the same signal was used in both cases, it was no wonder our kids were not matching their behavior to the situation! So we made a new rule, and we now distinguished between "be quiet" and "be silent." Once there was a reliable signal in the world that told our kids what to do, they began to reflect it almost instantly. They are still not perfect, but neither is our use of the terms. 

When you start to think this way, you get reflexive answers to many common questions (many of which you probably shouldn't say out loud).  "Why don't children pay better attention in class?" Because class is boring. "Why does Bobby keep kicking Linda?" Because good things happen when he does. "Why do my kids act so differently when I raised them the same?" Because you didn't. "Why does Jane act so confident, but Bob doesn't?" Probably because good things happen when Jane acts confident and bad things happen when Bob acts confident (or at least that has been the case in the past). 

But what about when people don't seem to reflect their environment well? There are several things that could be going on. I can't list them all, but a top 4 would probably be: 1) Their world might not contain any signals that their behavioral system can latch onto, or the signals are so weak they will need special training to attune to them. This often occurs when a novice enters a world full of experts, which is part of the natural state of childhood. 2) They could still be adjusting to the world. Adjustment may be very slow if the person used to be well attuned to life in a different world. Also, if the world changes faster than a person can adjust, that person might never attune very well. This could happen for example, if you have a job where the boss rapidly changes, and the bosses have wildly different styles. 3) The person could have a damaged adjustment system. Such effects could be transient (e.g., during a blood sugar crash), or relatively permanent (e.g., the fate of most professional boxers). If so, the person could be stuck in a state of partial attunement, where their behavior still reflects the environment, but never quite as well as you think it should. 4) The person could be attuned to aspects of the environment that you do not appreciate. Never neglect this possibility. This last part is so important, I will end with three examples, one young kid example, one teenage example, one adult example. 

Unexpected Attunement - Young Kid Example
Most kids like to play "birthday". This usually involves asserting, seemingly out of no where, that it is your birthday, or someone else's birthday, and then proceeding to do a rough reproduction of certain aspects of birthday activities. "How creative," the parents think, "what an imagination!" This is a great example of a situation in which people think that the behaviorist approach will fall apart. But the behaviorist begs you to examine the world of the child. From that perspective, the child is doing exactly what adults do. The way birthdays work is that someone walks into the room and says "Today is Grandma's birthday, lets give her a call" or "It is Merryn's birthday on Sunday, so we should invite people over." That is the initiation of the "birthday" game, from the perspective of the young child, who does not live in a world where there were any preceding steps. Thus randomly stating that it is someone's birthday is simply a part of a larger pattern of adult imitation, and should be displayed by kids who live in a world where imitating adults tends to create good outcomes. We need not hypothesize anything else behind the behavior.

"But," you object, "the child thinks it is his birthday." I'm really not sure what that objection means. Absent further evidence, I suspect the child is simply playing a game that involves the world birthday. Does the child really believe that today is the anniversary of the day of his birth on the Gregorian Calendar. Really? I don't know many 2 or 3 year olds who think that. "Well, no, I don't mean that he understands what a birthday is, I just mean that he thinks it is his birthday." Alright, I guess, but I think that just gets us back to my assertion that, for the child, "birthday" is a thing you get to say at fairly arbitrary times. and that if others agree with you then it initiates a particular type of game. 

Unexpected Attunement - Teenage Example
A frequent complaint from my friends with teenagers: "Why does he think the world revolves around him?" My most common response "He isn't wrong." The parent objects "Oh yes he is, he's gonna have a rude awakening one day." And the parent is right in a broad sense; the adult world does not revolve around their particular child. But the teenager is also right; the world the teen is in does revolve around them. Their school is focused on them, their friends are focused on them, their home life is focused on them, their TV and other media experiences are focused on them. Back in the day (a few hundred years ago) parents tried to move kids as quickly as possible to be part of the adult world, but now we have designed a world in which there is a buffer time, during which our teenagers and young adults are in a world that is revolving around them. Why does a kid who has more than enough complain when they don't have more? It is not because they "think" they don't have enough, in any grand sense, it is because in their world complaining works, and they are correctly attuned to that world.

Unexpected Attunement - Adult Example
My wife is fidgity, but not always fidgity. She has been for as long as she could remember: lots moving around, not much standing still. It was "just who she was", and there was no obvious cause of it, or the variation in it. She recently did a "tilt table test" where they strap you to a board an then repeatedly transition the board from standing you straight up and down, to lying you flat, to holding you almost completely upside down. It turns out she has postural orthostatic hypotension. Basically, her blood pressure drops dramatically when her orientation changes, and it also happens if she stays still for too long in a vertical position. When she has higher blood pressure (e.g. she has been drinking more water and eating more salt) it is not as bad, but if she has had even minor diuretics (e.g., coffee) it is worse. Her fidgiting, the behavior, was attuned to an aspect of the world that was very hard to observe, but it was attuned nonetheless. If you live in a world where being still makes you nauseous and dizzy, and moving makes you feel better, then you move.





Sunday, April 20, 2014

Libertarianism and American Philosophy II

Why the politics all of a sudden? Aside from a long time interest, I will be doing an interview this Monday at 8 pm for John Shook's "Humanist Matters." John has great knowledge of American Philosophy (he runs pragmatism.org, edits Contemporary Pragmatism and has numerous books and articles), he is also a prominent atheist (e.g., The God Debates), and a prominent humanist. We have a lot to talk about, but an ongoing discussion we have had is whether my libertarian leanings are compatible with my other beliefs. As I said in the last post, I think it is possible to provide a grounding for libertarian ideas within the context of philosophers such as Peirce, James, Dewey, and Holt, and I think it is worth the effort to see where this leads. In this post, I want to talk about honesty regarding psychology, in relation to politics.