Thursday, June 30, 2016

Two quick reads

Here are two quick pieces:

The first is on an unexpected consequence of making academic life more family friendly. Here are the facts: woman get pregnant. Men don't. Moreover, child bearing comes at an awkward time in the academic life cycle (i.e. right before tenure decision time). US universities have accommodated to this by freezing tenure clocks for those choosing to start families, in effect allowing pregnancy to lengthen the tenure clock. The NYT's piece reports on a study seeing how this worked out. The results is that it made it favored men. The reason is that the leave rule was applied equally to men and women in a family allowing both to use the lengthening provision. Men were able to use this extra time more effectively than women to burnish their research records. The result: men gained disproportionately from the new liberal leave rule. The piece also discusses ways of "fixing" this, but all in all, the result is that things get complicated.

Here's my hunch: the problem arises because of how we insist on evaluating research. There is a kind of assumption that the bigger a CV the better it is. Line items matter a too much. More is better. This really does handicap those that hit a dry patch, and given the biology of families, this means that on average women will have a tougher time of it than men if this be the criteria. We need a rethink here. Simple things like quality not quantity might help. But I suspect a better measure will arise if we shift from maximizing to satisfying: what do we consider a good/reasonable publication record. In fact, might too much publication be as bad as too little? What marks a contribution and what is just academic paper churning?

The second piece is by Frans de Waal on whether animals think. There is a line of thought (I have heard it expressed by colleagues) that denies that animals think because they identify that with having  linguistic capacity and animals don't have such. Hence they cannot think. This, btw, is a standard Cartesian trope as well; animals are machines bereft of res cogitates. De Waal begs to differ, as indeed does Jerry Fodor, who notes (quite rightly IMO) the following in LOT (1975):
‘The obvious (and I should have thought sufficient) refutation of the claim that natural languages are the medium of thought is that there are non-verbal organisms that think.’

Not only do animals think, they do so systematically. Of course, having linguistic capacity changes how you think. But then so does picking up a new word for something that you had no explicit word for. So, language affects thought, but being without language does not entail being thoughtless.

But this is not what I wanted to highlight in this piece. De Waal, one of the most important animal cognition people in the world, notes the obvious here concerning human linguistic capacity and its non continuity with what we find in animals:

You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider humans the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species. 
In other words, nothing does language like we do. There is no qualitative analogue to human linguistic capacity in the rest of nature. Period.

De Waal, however, makes a second important observation. Despite this unique human talent, there are    "pieces" of it in other parts of animal cognition.

But as with so many larger human phenomena, once we break it down into smaller pieces, some of these pieces can be found elsewhere. It is a procedure I have applied myself in my popular books about primate politics, culture, even morality. Critical pieces such as power alliances (politics) and the spreading of habits (culture), as well as empathy and fairness (morality), are detectable outside our species. The same holds for capacities underlying language.
There is a version of this observation that points to something like the Minimalist Program as an important project: find out which pieces are special to us that allow for our linguistic capacities and those that we share with other animals. Of course, the suggesting is that there will be pieces (or, if we are lucky, just one piece) that is special to us and that allows us to do linguistically what nothing else can. At any rate, De Waal is right: if one identifies the capacity for thought with the capacity for language then animals had better have (at least) rudimentary language. Of course, if we don't identify the two, as De Waal and Fodor urge, then there is nothing biologically untoward about one species of primate having a capacity unique among animals.


  1. It seems there are a bunch of problems with the extended tenure-clock paper (which apparently was a discussion paper reporting preliminary work, though the NYTimes didn't mention that). See this blog post for useful discussion:

  2. Beware of what you read in the NY Times. The response that Steven links to is a good start. Many things are misleading in the report. E.g., (i) the NYT cherry-picked the findings; (ii) the study reported only 20-30% tenure rates, because it ignored all cases where somebody moved before tenure; these rates are implausibly low, even in economics; (iii) the study did not include any information about actual tenure decisions or actual children or leave taken.

    It's an important issue. But the NYT is sensationalizing it by distorting the claims of a working paper. Of course, the NYT knows that if they gave a more accurate report, nobody would bother to read it.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.