Does a Smart Phone make Smart Science?

A new paper in plos one, published today, has shown that experiments on human cognition needn’t be confined to the lab.

Experiments on human cognitive abilities, such as language, often rely on testing small and homogeneous groups of volunteers (mostly undergraduate students) coming to research facilities where they are asked to participate in behavioral experiments. This arrangement is not ideal as your sample will not be representative of the population as a whole and will also be restricted as there is only so many participants that money and time will allow you to get into the lab to be tested.

This new research by Dufau et al. shows that the sampling limitations which laboratory experiments produce can be overcome by using smartphones. Using smart phone technology, data can be collected for cognitive science experiments from thousands of subjects from all over the world.

To illustrate how this can be done the authors carried out a large-scale study using  iPhone and iPads. This was a linguistic study looking at people’s ability to distinguish words from similar non-words.

The project, which began in December 2010 has managed to collect data from 4,157 subjects in just 4 months! This can be compared with the English Lexicon Project which acquired a similar volume of data using traditional methods which took more than 3 years.

The data was collected using applications which were produced in seven languages (English, Basque, Catalan, Dutch, French, Malay, Spanish). Smartphones can also support studies in alphabets other than Roman including Chinese, Greek, and Japanese. This creates the opportunity to create large-scale cross linguistic studies without even having to move from behind your desk.

Whilst the example here is linguistic there is every reason that smart phones can be implemented in looking at how universal other areas of cognitive behaviour are. Or even neurosceince and experimental philosophy.  I wonder if it would be possible to carry out experiments using transmission chains using smart phones.

However, I do worry that using things like iPhones will have the same problems as using things like mechanical turk, as it means that experimenters will not be able to make sure that participants are carrying out the tasks properly and removes quite a lot of control. Smartphones are also still a luxury and therefore only people within a certain socio-economic class will have smartphones, so maybe these methods may not reach such a wide audience, which seems to be why they’re being proposed in the first place.

The authors of the paper are hailing smartphones  “a potential revolution in cognitive science” but only time will tell if this really kicks off!


Stephane Dufau, Jon Andoni Dun abeitia, Carmen Moret-Tatay, Aileen McGonigal, David Peeters, F.-Xavier Alario, David A. Balota, Marc Brysbaert, Manuel Carreiras, Ludovic Ferrand, Maria Ktori, Manuel Perea, Kathy Rastle, Olivier Sasburg, Melvin J. Yap, J (2011). Smart Phone, Smart Science: How the Use of Smartphones Can Revolutionize Research in Cognitive Science PlosOne, 6 (9) : 10.1371/journal.pone.0024974

Language is not necessary for analogy

Analogy is a trait thought to be uniquely human and the origin is largely unknown. Recent studies have suggested that some language trained apes can find relations between relations, which is thought to be what is at the root of analogy. However, a new study in the journal  Psychological Science  has tested baboons using shapes with matching features. These baboons were able to match pairs which had matching features and pairs which had no matching features.

The study was run by Joël Fagot of the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (CNRS/Université de Provence) and Roger Thompson of the Franklin & Marshall College (United States).

It has been hypothesised in the past that finding relations between relations is an ability only accessible by language, but these new findings with baboons cast doubt on this assertion.

The experiments were carried out on 29 baboons. The baboons were first shown two shapes on a screen. The baboons then touched one of these shapes and two other pairs of shapes appeared on the screen. To be successful at the task the baboons had to touch the pair representing the same relation as the initial pair. So if the first pair matched in a feature the baboon had to choose the pair which also had a matching feature, and avoid the pair where there was no matching feature, in order to gain a reward. This shows the inherent abilities behind analogy.

6 baboons correctly performed the task after thousands of trials of training showing that it is definitely within the abilities of old world monkeys to resolve analogy problems.

The researchers also revisited the same baboons with the same task a year later and the monkeys were much quicker at acquiring the task showing that they remembered what to do.

These results show that language is not necessary for analogy and leaves questions as to what might make this ability adaptive.


Fagot J, & Thompson RK (2011). Generalized Relational Matching by Guinea Baboons (Papio papio) in Two-by-Two-Item Analogy Problems. Psychological science PMID: 21934135

Sonority and Sex: Why smaller communities are louder

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThrough this post on Sprogmuseet about Atkinson’s analysis of the out of Africa hypothesis, I found an article by Ember & Ember (2007) (who also quantified the link between colour lexicon size and distance from the equator, see my post here) on Sonority and climate.  The article extends work by Fought et al. (2004) which finds that a language’s sonority is related to climate.  Sonority is a measure of amplitude (loudness) as is greater for vowels than for consonants (for example, see here).  Basically, the warmer the climate, the greater the sonority of the phoneme inventory of the population.  The theory is that “people in warmer climates generally spend more time outdoors and communicate at a distance more often than people in colder climates”.

Continue reading “Sonority and Sex: Why smaller communities are louder”

Linguistic diversity and traffic accidents

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgI was thinking about Daniel Nettle’s model of linguistic diversity which showed that linguistic variation tends to decline even with a small amount of migration between communities.  I wondered if statistics about population movement would correlate with linguistic diversity, as measured by the Greenberg Diversity Index (GDI) for a country (see below).  However, this is a cautionary tale about obsession and use of statistics.  (See bottom of post for  link to data).

Continue reading “Linguistic diversity and traffic accidents”

Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing

It has long been obvious to me that the so-called cognitive revolution is what happened when computation – both the idea and the digital technology – hit the human sciences. But I’ve seen little reflection of that in the literary cognitivism of the last decade and a half. And that, I fear, is a mistake.

Thus, when I set out to write a long programmatic essay, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, I argued that we think of literary text as a computational form. I submitted the essay and found that both reviewers were puzzled about what I meant by computation. While publication was not conditioned on providing such satisfaction, I did make some efforts to satisfy them, though I’d be surprised if they were completely satisfied by those efforts.

That was a few years ago.

Ever since then I pondered the issue: how do I talk about computation to a literary audience? You see, some of my graduate training was in computational linguistics, so I find it natural to think about language processing as entailing computation. As literature is constituted by language it too must involve computation. But without some background in computational linguistics or artificial intelligence, I’m not sure the notion is much more than a buzzword that’s been trendy for the last few decades – and that’s an awful long time for being trendy.

I’ve already written one post specifically on this issue: Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable, where I write abstracts of four texts which, taken together, give a good feel for the computational side of cognitive science. Here’s another crack at it, from a different angle: symbol processing.

Operations on Symbols

I take it that ordinary arithmetic is most people’s ‘default’ case for what computation is. Not only have we all learned it, it’s fundamental to our knowledge, like reading and writing. Whatever we know, think, or intuit about computation is built on our practical knowledge of arithmetic.

As far as I can tell, we think of arithmetic as being about numbers. Numbers are different from words. And they’re different from literary texts. And not merely different. Some of us – many of whom study literature professionally – have learned that numbers and literature are deeply and utterly different to the point of being fundamentally in opposition to one another. From that point of view the notion that literary texts be understood computationally is little short of blasphemy.

Not so. Not quite.

The question of just what numbers are – metaphysically, ontologically – is well beyond the scope of this post. But what they are in arithmetic, that’s simple; they’re symbols. Words too are symbols; and literary texts are constituted of words. In this sense, perhaps superficial, but nonetheless real, the reading of literary texts and making arithmetic calculations are the same thing, operations on symbols. Continue reading “Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing”

Creative cultural transmission as chaotic sampling

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgLast week I attended a lecture by Liz Bradley on chaos.  Chaos has been used to create variations on musical and dance sequences (Dabby, 2008; Bradley & Stuart, 1998).  I was interested to see whether this technique could be iterated and applied to birdsong or other culturally transmitted systems.  I present a model of creative cultural transmission based on this.

Continue reading “Creative cultural transmission as chaotic sampling”

Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Japonic languages

Lee & Hasegawa (2011) use phylogenetic methods to trace the origins of Japonic languages and dialects.  Two hypotheses are considered:  First, the farming/language dispersal hypothesis posits that the main factor for the divergence of genetic and linguistic diversity was agricultural expansion.  Second, the diffusion/transformation hypothesis posits that cultural innovations such as farming can diffuse between societies, and so genetic and linguistic diversity should not be linked.  The estimate of the common linguistic ancestor was in accordance with the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, again suggesting that that linguistic diversity followed genetic diversity.

The study is notable in considering dialects as well as languages and using etymology dictionaries to reconstruct forms from Middle and Old Japanese.  The analysis is also done with their own reconstructions and another, unrelated set.  The technique is similar to that used by Russel Gray et al. (2009) to study Pacific settlement patterns.

Lee S, & Hasegawa T (2011). Bayesian phylogenetic analysis supports an agricultural origin of Japonic languages. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society PMID: 21543358

Gray, R., Drummond, A., & Greenhill, S. (2009). Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement Science, 323 (5913), 479-483 DOI: 10.1126/science.1166858

Academic Blogging

Natalia Cecire has a good post on academic blogging over at Arcade. Tne ensuing discussion is excellent.

Here’s what I posted to the discussion:

Excellent post, Natalia, and excellent discussion all.

I come at this subject from a different angle. I was trained as an academic, held an academic post, then failed to get tenure. Since then I’ve done this and that, while maintaining an active intellectual life. The advent of the web was a godsend to me, for it opened up new lines communication. Now I could easily find out about things and stuff and contact any scholar with an email address. I was once again in the mix, though a somewhat different mix, to be sure.

It’s within that context that I see my blogging. I do most of my blogging at my own blog, New Savanna, which is a mixture of various things. I could easily break it into 3 or 4 more tightly focused blogs, but why do that? (Perhaps readers would be less confused.) I post photos, personal essays (not so many of those), and material on a wide variety of topics at varying levels of sophistication and intellectual development.

I’m particularly fond of the work I’ve been doing on cartoons, most of which is analytic and descriptive. I regard that as being as important as anything I’m doing, but I don’t see how I could do that work in a formal academic venue. As far as I know, there’s no place to publish largely analytic descriptive work on cartoons. So I blog it. Most recently, a series of four posts on Porky in Wackland and eight on The Greatest Man in Siam. While some of those posts get just a tad heavy here and there, for the most part they’re pretty straightforward and accessible. Anyone who’s interested in that material can read those posts. And there’s a substantial community of folks interested in animation that isn’t being served by academia.

So, I’m a public intellectual without the reputation that seems to be part of the implicit understanding of the term. Continue reading “Academic Blogging”

Replicated Hauser Results

Some of you may remember last summer Marc Hauser was found guilty of research misconduct. This investigation raised questions about several publications including a paper from 2007 in Science. This paper looked into the ability of non-human primates to understand the intentions of a human experimenter by interpreting his gestures.

Today Science has published a partial replication of the study in question which confirms the original findings that chimpanzees, cotton-top tamarins, and rhesus macaques can distinguish intentional gestures, such as pointing to indicate a container with food inside, from “accidental” actions such as a hand flopping against a container.

The Science wesite states the following:

Following the Harvard misconduct investigation, first author Justin Wood, now an assistant professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, wrote to Science in June 2010 to notify the journal that the investigation had revealed that the original field notes for the rhesus experiments could not be found:

“An internal examination at Harvard University determined that there are no field notes, records of aborted trials, or subject identifying information associated with the rhesus monkey experiments; however, the research notes and videotapes for the tamarin and chimpanzee experiments were accounted for. Professor Hauser states that “most of the rhesus monkey observations were hand written by [co-author David D.] Glynn on a piece of paper, and then the daily results tallied and reported to Wood over email or by phone” and then the raw data were discarded. The research assistant who performed the experiments (Glynn) confirmed that these field notes were discarded.”

Hauser and Wood returned to Cayo Santiago island in Puerto Rico to redo the experiments from the 2007 paper with the same population of free-ranging rhesus monkeys. Their findings, including field notes and video trials, are available online and they essentially match those reported in the original paper.

It is still not known what went wrong with the original experiment, a statement issued by Science today only says the following:

We stress that this new publication aims only to determine whether the original rhesus monkey experiments from the 2007 paper can be replicated. It has no bearing on questions raised about Dr. Hauser’s larger body of work.

This article from Science Inside quotes Dario Maestriperi as saying:

“The results of this replication are straightforward and entirely consistent with those of the original study. If the authors’ interpretation of their results is correct, these findings are very important and represent one of the clearest demonstrations that nonhuman primates can interpret the behavior of other individuals as intentional or non-intentional….Since the experimenter who tested the rhesus monkeys in the replication study appeared from the video to be the first author on the paper, Justin Wood, he was clearly knowledgeable of the hypotheses being tested and had some strong expectations and desires about the monkeys’ performance on the test.”

So is this replication a clarification of groundbreaking findings or could the monkey’s behaviour be down to the Clever Hans effect?

Meanwhile investigations into Hauser’s research are still ongoing and he is still banned from teaching for the next academic year.


Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa

Just read about an article on phoneme diversity via GNXP and Babel’s Dawn. Hopefully I’ll share some of my thoughts on the paper this weekend as it clearly ties in with work I’m currently doing (see here and here). Below is the abstract:

Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder-effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is no explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.

Reference: Atkinson, Q.D (2011). Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Science 332, 346. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199295.

Update: I’ve given a lengthier response here.