Disentangling a fishy, confused mess

Investigator Gary Dryfoos writes:

Question: Is it correct that Canadian Sociologist Steve Penfold wrote a column in Canadian Donut Monthly, praising Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby for his insightful piece about the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn’t sociologist Penfold in CD Monthly, but linguist Mark Liberman in the blog Language Log; and second, it wasn’t Globe columnist Jacoby, but New York Times columnist David Brooks; and third, Brooks’s subject wasn’t trans-Atlantic cultural differences, but between Asian and Western societies; and fourth, Liberman didn’t praise Brooks, but rather he mocked and excoriated him for misleading interpretations of sloppy experiments with ambiguous results.

Liberman’s clever use of the question-and-answer style of “the Radio Yerevan jokes that arose in the Soviet Union” — as demonstrated above — enlivens a very sweet piece of b.s. detection and debunking. Here is a nice little chunk of it:

Question to Language Log: Is it correct that if you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing, while if you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn’t a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn’t Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn’t a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn’t mention the “focal fish” more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often.

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