At the Intersection of Science, Language and Spying

I’ve had these three articles tucked away in my notebook for awhile now, hoping to construct a fairly long piece on the intersection of science and language and about the ways that our speech shapes the world around us. However, I’m fairly certain that I won’t have the time I need in the near term, so instead I have pulled out a few key quotes and offer them to you below.

In this case I’ll have to let juxtaposition stand in for analysis. If something in the intersection of these three pieces resonates for you, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Beauty, Charm, and Strangeness: Science as Metaphor
by John Banville

“I wish to advance a thesis which, were they to take note of it, the academies would decry as scandalous. My thesis is that modern science, particularly physics, is being forced, under pressure of its own advances, to acknowledge that the truths it offers are true not in an absolute but in a poetic sense, that its laws are contingent, that its facts are a kind of metaphor. Of course, art and science are fundamentally different in their methods, and in their ends. The doing of science involves a level of rigor unattainable to art. A scientific hypothesis can be proven—or, perhaps more importantly, disproven—but a poem, a picture, or a piece of music, cannot. Yet in their originsart and science are remarkably similar. It was a scientist, Niels Bohr, who declared that a great truth is a statement whose opposite is also a great truth. Oscar Wilde would have agreed.”

Why Are Spy Researchers Building a ‘Metaphor Program’?
by Alexis Madrigal

“A small research arm of the U.S. government’s intelligence establishment wants to understand how speakers of Farsi, Russian, English, and Spanish see the world by building software that automatically evaluates their use of metaphors. That’s right, metaphors, like Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage,” or more subtly, “The darkness pressed in on all sides.” Every speaker in every language in the world uses them effortlessly, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity wants know how what we say reflects our worldviews. They call it The Metaphor Program, and it is a unique effort within the government to probe how a people’s language reveals their mindset.

Every writer (and reader) knows that there are clues to how people think and ways to influence each other through our use of words. Metaphor researchers, of whom there are a surprising number and variety, have formalized many of these intuitions into whole branches of cognitive linguistics using studies like the one outlined above (more on that later). But what IARPA’s project calls for is the deployment of spy resources against an entire language. Where you or I might parse a sentence, this project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people.”

First evidence that birds tweet using grammar
Andy Coghlan

“They may not have verbs, nouns or past participles, but birds challenge the notion that humans alone have evolved grammatical rules. Bengal finches have their own versions of such rules – known as syntax – says Kentaro Abe of Kyoto University, Japan. “Songbirds have a spontaneous ability to process syntactic structures in their songs,” he says. To show a sense of syntax in the animals, Abe’s team played jumbled “ungrammatical” remixes of finch songs to the birds and measured the response calls.

Although many animals, including dogs, parrots and apes are known to interpret and construct “sentences”, and recognise human words for individual objects, Abe says that only his finches have been shown to have a form of grammar in their utterances.

In subsequent experiments Abe showed that the rules were not innate – they had to be learned. Birds raised in isolation failed to react to SEQ2 until they had spent two weeks with other birds. He also taught birds unnatural grammatical rules by habituating them to one of his jumbled versions, then gauging their reactions to remixed versions that violated the “artificial” rules.”

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