Cognition on Boston Common

Posted on July 24, 2011

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It’s a warm Sunday afternoon and the park is full of people enjoying themselves. Nearby, some people are practicing what appears to be a play of some sort, and a couple of women are taking turns to play the ukulele. A tower clock rings the hour. It’s three pm.

It all feels very different to the previous few days and the several months before that. I have just attended the computer science society’s annual meeting and spent the previous few months dealing a rush of various personal and teaching-related responsibilities. I do not think that I have just sat and enjoyed the weather for a very long time, indeed. But, about the conference…

I was in something of a quandary which conference to attend – this conference in Boston or the philosophy of science conference in Nancy, France. In the end I chose this conference as it was important for me to finally attend one of the meetings of the International Association for Cognitive Science of Religion – which was a part of the Boston conference. The IACSR meeting took place last Tuesday and was opened by Richard Sosis, who lives not far from Boston. His talk presented in outline his views concerning costly signalling and proved very much worth listening to. Even though I was familiar with his views, his presentation of them made clear to me a problem in his approach that I have to keep in mind in order not to fall into myself. As he allowed, to apply costly signalling theory to religion it is necessary to talk about perceived costs and benefits rather than just actual costs and benefits. However, evolutionary forces do not act on perceived costs but only on the actual ones. I raised the issue with Sosis, but neither I nor several others in the audience were satisfied with his response. I think that Henrich’s formulation of costly signalling in terms of credibility enhancing displays manages to avoid the issue but I still need to think this issue through.

Sosis’ talk was followed by just five more talks, making for a very short meeting. Each of these presentations was interesting in a variety of ways but this did not make up for the fact that there simply were not enough of them. Even given the one-day limit that being associated with the cognitive science conference placed upon the meeting, I would have thought it possible to include a greater number of talks given that the attendees had travelled from as far as New Zealand to participate in the meeting. That there were sufficient potential presentations to make this possible was made clear by the poster session at the end of the day (and I am not even thinking about my own poster as any of those I looked at would have made for an interesting talk). Still, it is not the talks that are really central to any academic meeting – most of what makes them worthwhile are the post-presentation discussions. And this was definitely the case here in Boston. I was particularly glad to meet a number of the younger people working in cognitive science of religion, including a large contingent from Aarhus, most of whom I had not run into when I was there.

While the IACSR meeting was quite small, the rest of the cognitive science conference was gigantic, with several sessions taking place simultaneously and the plenary sessions requiring a large ballroom to seat all of the audience. I do not generally like such huge conferences and I did not appreciate the size of this one either. However, they do have their upsides. The first is that you get to choose from a great variety of different talks. This meant that even though I did not actually find that much that was relevant to my own research, I did find a lot that was very interesting in and of itself. In particular, I have found much pleasure in the various inventive experimental methodologies that some of the studies used. As I have said on many previous occasions, it is a crime how little this aspect of science is appreciated by philosophers, including even some philosophers of science. The other upside of attending a big audience is that you are likely to get to listen to some of the big names in the field. And this was very much the case in Boston. The one plenary speaker that had me taking out my camera was Noam Chomsky, who gave a long and very tightly argued talk that defended his views concerning universal grammar. Even so, I doubt that he convinced many in the audience to accept his view that language was primarily developed for the function of reasoning rather than for communication. His idea that UG appeared thanks to a single mutation that spread through the population by genetic drift could not have helped. Much more in tune with the views of the audience was the talk given by Tomasello the day following. But that is hardly surprising since Tomasello’s work has played a significant role in determining current views concerning language within the cognitive science community. These and many other extremely competent presentations were at times daunting by showing just how adroit some of the others working on cognitive science are. There was one talk which had a very different effect, however.

Without going into the specifics – in order to protect the guilty – one presentation managed to include examples of pretty much every mistake that could have been made. It started off by misnaming the author of a well known cognitive science of religion text, which had me and the other cognitive science of religion people in the audience cringing. And things only went downhill from there. The methodology used was so messy that even I as a philosopher could tell that all was not well. It may sometimes make sense to divide the subjects into something like 16 different groups. But not when one only has 60 subjects in total. It also does not help when no apparent attention is paid to the various ways in which some of those groups will have been primed given the set-up nor to the length of the texts to be read when measuring response time. And it really does not help when the presenter does not even know how the subjects were trained for the experiment, making it impossible to determine whether there was any further priming going on in the training stage. Actually, scratch that, given the set-up it is fairer to talk about straight out framing, rather than something as subtle as priming.

The presenter said that the results were a surprise. And so they would be, had the methodology been in the least bit sound, as they ran counter to a plethora of results obtained by a variety of methods over the last few years. As it was, it was astounding that the people who committed this deeply flawed study did not make the modus tollens inference that was clearly called for. To point out that all these (and more) faults were topped off by a PowerPoint presentation that could well serve as the exemplar of what not to do with PowerPoint just feels like twisting the knife. Yet, the presenter was clearly oblivious of all the faults of the work. So much so that they began the presentation by letting the audience know that the grad students who’d cooperated on the study would soon be on the market.

My flight back home leaves tonight, which has left me with a day to relax as well as to try to finish up an article that is due by the end of the month. Which is why I get to sit in the park, watch the other people and catch up with blogging before going back to the article.

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