Friday, April 29, 2005


For the next two weeks, I am still an undergraduate, which means that I am taking courses intended to broaden my mind. One of them, which really isn't too bad, is Cognitive Psychology. We discuss a lot of experiments and critique the conclusions drawn out of them.

Today, we talked about language. Noam Chomsky enters into this, and became famous, for critiquing B. F. Skinner's book, "Verbal Behavior." Without getting into this too much, Chomsky mischaracterized Skinner's argument (It is generally felt that he either didn't understand it or never read the book), and then attacked this straw man.

This episode is seen as epochal in cognitive psychology (it's mentioned in the 1st chapter of our textbook), because it was part of the decline of behaviorism.

Anyway, one of Chomsky's arguments for why language must be inborn is that if you take the meaningful, grammatical sentence "John drove the car into the garage," you can shorten it to "John drove the car," to make another meaningful, grammatical sentence. However, if you take the sentence, "John put the car into the garage," and shorten it to "John put the car," the resulting sentence is not meaningful.

Chomsky points out that children don't make the second sentence - they seem to know better. At this point, I got confused, becasue I'm sure I've heard children making homologous mistakes. So I asked the prof, "Are there any experiments that back this up?" And he said, "Of course not!" And I said, "I wish you would have told me there was no evidence for this before I put so much effort into trying to believe this."

That's the problem with psychology, and the attached pseudo-disciplines (like linguistics) - it's not all science, but it's not all non-science either. You just have to be clear on which is which. As an English major, I'm used to being in circumstances where we have to argue a bunch of vague, untested, untestable statements, and as a biochemist, I'm used to being in the exact opposite circumstance. I would just rather know which set of rules we're playing by.

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