We’re All Semanticists Now: Dr. Beaver’s Response

I blogged recently about a linguistics paper so stuffed with jargon that it read to me as if it had poorly translated from the original Croatian. I also wondered what the paper had to do with belly buttons, as was suggested by its title (“Have You Noticed That Your Belly Button Lint Colour Is Related to the Colour of Your Clothing?”), when in fact its abstract made not a single umbilical reference. The author of the paper was named David Beaver.

It turns out that Dr. Beaver is a very good sport. He wrote in to say that he wasn’t thrilled with the blog post — although his mother thought it served him well, his wife disagreed — but, rather than complain, he did one better: he translated the paper back into Croatian. He also explained the belly button connection. Finally, he noted that he no longer teaches at Stanford, as I’d written, but is now at the University of Texas. His full response, posted on Language Log, is well worth the read, especially if your Croatian is as poor as mine.

FWIW, the reason I came across Beaver’s paper in the first place was that I was Google-searching for “they might be giants” and “belly button.” Why? Someone had mentioned that TMBG might have written a song about belly buttons, which I wanted to find because of a forthcoming book in which I have a steep interest. More on this later.


Dennis O'Neill

While I understand your distaste for Dr. Beaver's opacity, what you might in fact be objecting to is his use of the technical language of his trade. Ever listen to an engineer? Or a sports fan? Why not substitute "that color the grass is when the weather's been appropriately wet and appropriately sunny" for "green"? Except then you'd have to explain the jargonistic term "grass".

Paul

Re: the "original Croation" comment...dude, I LOVE "Brain Candy"! That movie rocks!

/it sounds better in the original Croatian.

Mani

Dubner didn't criticize the writing, as much as he flippantly noted that - by virtue of his admitted ignorance on the subject - it struck him as quirky, and then asked for elucidation from those that would know.

Beaver responded in kind and appropriately on both counts: a jab with a jab, and a genuine question with an informative answer. No harm no foul.

John Fowler

Res ipsa loquitur, sed quid in infernos dicet?

mark oehlert

Si Hoc Logere Scis Nimium Eruditionis Habes. ;-)

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

I'mway onfusedcay, utbay, atwhay Elseway isway ewnay? Iway
inkthay ethay aperpay ouldshay ebay oneday inway Igpay Atinlay...

David R.

I think I found an audio clip of what you were originally looking for:
http://www.waterdogmusic.com/artists/badexamples/lemons.html

Ralph's World was nominated for the "Best Children's Album" grammy. They lost to the late Mr. Rogers. Whomever suggested the "They Might Be Giants song" probably saw both bands play on the same bill at Millenium Park/Grant Park in Chicago.

David R.

I ran my last post through the fact checker, and I had the wrong location for the Ralph/They Might Be Giants co-appearance...

"Friday, August 25th, 2006 at 7pm. This may sound like it's a great show for kids- and it could be- but it's a double-dose of fun for adults with The Bad Examples AND They Might Be Giants sharing the same stage at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. While the zoo itself is always free, this concert on the South Lawn does require a paid ticket. Please check out our website for all the details or check in the with the zoo's box office."

Ralph Covert is the song writer and main performer for Ralph's World and
Bad Examples .

jpop

Well, since Croatian is my native language, I found this series of posts highly amusing. But, I can assure you that the 'croatian translation' is anything but. Croatian is a rather complicated language (with noun declinations, verb conjugations, genders and so on), and machine translations (the source of translation, I presume) can only go so far. And, with a twisted text like this, not very far at all.

For those who might find it interesting, the actual first couple of sentences in proper croatian would go something like:

Karttunen je uocio razred polu-uzrocnih glagola. To je bilo pogrešno, ali poucno.
Stalnaker and Gazdar su objasnili da Karttunenovi podaci ukljucuju poništavanje prijedloga kao posljedicu pragmaticnog zakljucivanja, držanje koje je preoblikovao van der Sandt.

But, to a croatian non-linguist, it makes as much sense as the English original. :-)

Oh_What_Ever

I think it's a bit rich for an economist to be complaining about the writing in another academic field. The pot calls the kettle black.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract of an article called "Choice under Limited Uncertainty" by Dr. Ettore Damiano from a journal called "Advances in Theoretical Economics" (2006, 6:1):

"This paper considers the problem of an agent's choice under uncertainty in a new framework. The agent does not know the true probability distribution over the state space but is objectively informed that it belongs to a specified set of probabilities. Maintaining the hypothesis that this agent is a subjective expected utility maximizer, we address the question of how the objective information influences her subjective prior..."

Bala ' Nary' Narayanaswamy

I concede that it's the Freakonomics blog. But that does not mean a no-holds-barred license to write opinions on any topic that may catch the fancy of Messrs Dubner / Levitt.

Indeed, the real merit of the book lay in the empirical bases and the perspective the authors brought. Their personal opinions on the world-at-large is a different matter altogether.

From that standpoint, I feel Mr. Dubner's supercilious comment on the Beaver Paper was unpardonable.

I read Prof. Beaver's response. Clearly he was hurt. Despite that I find his response to be sober, and informed with a grace and humour.

It was no different from someone eavesdropping on a conversation and mocking at the accents. The Paper was addressed to academics and not to the lay public. The Language is English, sure, but the Accent is, let us say, Academic.

A successful book on one theme grants the authors a recognition, and the blog an opportunity to speak aloud - neither of them by any stretch can confer a 'universal right to write on anything'.

I wonder if NYT editors look at this blog before it's published. If so, then I would question their judgement in allowing Mr. Dubner's observations as 'Fit to Print'.

Nary

Read more...

stevesliva

The abstract really isn't so bad. Not a single verb is jargon. The sentences are clearly declarative. There aren't any acronyms, even.

It's just that we have no idea what the nouns mean. As others have pointed out, that's not so surprising.

I wish I could say the same about some Electrical Engineering papers I'm an author on. Rather we just revel in laypeople having no idea what we're talking about.

In fact, pretty much everyone just boils it down to, "You work with computers." Which is about as enlightening as saying that David Beaver "reads books."

martin g

I think it was the famous mathematician Hilbert who admitted that one reason he got into the field was so he could impress others by talking about esoteric matters using incomprehensible jargon. Speaking in "secret code" is one way of claiming social exclusivity. Kids do it all the time.

Dwight

Stephen, I agree that some fields use language to disguise their intent rather than to illuminate. And, I don't find the abstract posted by Oh What Ever vague in the least--but I do this kind of thing for a living.

As an aside, I met the author of the original belly button lint paper, Dr Karl, a couple of weeks ago, and recommended your book. Small world.

Peter

My recollection is that the NYT is written at the 6th grade English level while some other US dailies are at the 4th grade level. That, however, is still no reason to write in such a tone about a paper intended for a limited, academic audience which could be expected to be aware of the precise meaning of each word in that abstract. And no, I'm not a linguist and didn't understand it at first glance but I'm sure that after looking up those terms in Wikipedia the topic of the paper would be quite clear.

Dubner might have critized any other scentific abstract -- they all obviously include jargon but I doubt that that would be in any way correlated with the usefulness or relevance of a piece of reserch. Finding someone funny because of his accent, the words he uses, etc. is normal and human. Reading about that experience on a website such as this in Dubner's tone is, well, disappointing.

lambert strether

Actually, it's an interesting paper, and I wish the authors of this column would return to it and take a serious look.

A cognitive factive (writes the author) is:

the class of factive verbs used primarily to convey information about what information the subject has or how the information is acquired or lost.

Examples are "know," "realize," "discover."

If we want an example of a cognitive factive that had important results, we need look no farther than Bush's famous 16 words:

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

"Has learned" would be the cognitive factive.

As the author (dryly?) remarks:

Recent empirical research ... shows that
factives are commonly (more than half the time) used when the factive complement is not previously established to be true.

Indeed.

So, the column is interesting, but please consider revisiting this paper, leaving the snark behind!

NOTE: I am not a linguist; I just looked at the PDF , which, obviously, is readable by a layperson.

Read more...

Dennis O'Neill

While I understand your distaste for Dr. Beaver's opacity, what you might in fact be objecting to is his use of the technical language of his trade. Ever listen to an engineer? Or a sports fan? Why not substitute "that color the grass is when the weather's been appropriately wet and appropriately sunny" for "green"? Except then you'd have to explain the jargonistic term "grass".

Paul

Re: the "original Croation" comment...dude, I LOVE "Brain Candy"! That movie rocks!

/it sounds better in the original Croatian.

Mani

Dubner didn't criticize the writing, as much as he flippantly noted that - by virtue of his admitted ignorance on the subject - it struck him as quirky, and then asked for elucidation from those that would know.

Beaver responded in kind and appropriately on both counts: a jab with a jab, and a genuine question with an informative answer. No harm no foul.

John Fowler

Res ipsa loquitur, sed quid in infernos dicet?