Sticks and stones (2): How names work

A stranger in the village

When people migrate to Sweden, they are given the option of exchanging their current last name for one that sounds a little more Swedish. The process is administered by the Patent- och registreringsverket  – the Patent and Registration Office (PRV) – and of the many rules it enforces, an important one requires anyone wanting to adopt an existing Swedish surname to prove their descent from at least two generations of people with that name who lived in the past 100 years. This, of course, is not something most immigrants can do. Instead they must  come up with a new name, and then apply to the PRV for permission to use it.

To help with the process of inventing new Swedish sounding names,  the PRV offers detailed guidance. This must come as a relief to anyone going down this path, because  Section 12, paragraph 1 of the Names Act (1982) states that that any candidate name that “in composition, pronunciation or spelling has such a linguistic form that it is not appropriate as a surname in this country” will be summarily rejected.

Although you might wonder why anyone would possibly go to all the trouble, many newcomers to Sweden clearly feel it’s worth it, and large numbers of them submit to the process every year. This in turn has created a kind of natural experiment, because it allows the fortunes of immigrants who adopt these new Swedish-sounding surnames to be compared to those immigrants who choose to stick with their existing, foreign surnames. And when economists Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie ran the numbers from this experiment, they found that immigrants who adopted Swedish sounding names earned 12 to 44% more in salary than immigrants who didn’t (depending on how exactly the difference was calculated). (more…)

Sticks and stones (1): How names work & why they hurt

Boiling a frog

In 1781, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, a civil servant, political writer and historian in what was then Prussia published a two volume work entitled Über die Bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (“On the Civic Improvement of Jews”). In it, von Dohm laid out the case for emancipation for a people systematically denied the rights granted to most other European citizens. At the heart of his treatise lay a simple observation: The universal principles of humanity and justice that framed the constitutions of the nation-states then establishing themselves across the continent could hardly be taken seriously until those principles were, in fact, applied universally. To all.

Von Dohm was inspired to write his treatise by his friend, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who wisely supposed that even though basic and universal principles were involved, there were advantages to be gained in this context by having their implications articulated by a Christian. Mendelssohn’s wisdom is reflected in history: von Dohm’s treatise was widely circulated and praised, and is thought to have influenced the French National Assembly’s decision to emancipate Jews in France in 1791 (Mendelssohn was particularly concerned at the poor treatment of Jews in Alsace), as well as laying the groundwork for the an edict that was issued on behalf of the Prussian Government on the 11th of March 1812:

“We, Frederick William, King of Prussia by the Grace of God, etc. etc., having decided to establish a new constitution conforming to the public good of Jewish believers living in our kingdom, proclaim all the former laws and prescriptions not confirmed in this present edict to be abrogated.”

To gain the full rights due to a Prussian citizen, Jews were required to declare themselves to the police within six months of the promulgation of the edict. And following a proposal put forward in von Dohm’s treatise (and later approved by David Friedländer, another member of Mendelssohn’s circle who acted as a consultant in the drawing up of the edict), any Jews who wanted to take up full Prussian citizenship were further required to adopt a Prussian Nachname.

What we call in English, a ‘surname.’

From the vantage afforded by the present day, it is easy to assume that names as we now know them are an immutable part of human history. Since one’s name is ever-present in one’s own life, it might seem that fixed names are ever-present and universal, like mountains, or the sunrise. Yet in the Western world, the idea that everyone should have an official, hereditary identifier is a very recent one, and on examination, it turns out that the naming practices we take for granted in modern Western states are far from ancient.


The unspeakable in pursuit of the unrepeatable *

(* with apologies to Oscar Wilde)

Replication is never far from the news in psychology these days. Pick up a newspaper or journal, or browse the blogosphere, and chances are you’ll encounter yet another piece on the importance of repeating experiments. Like those people who dress up in period costume and reenact old battles, researchers are battening down and busying themselves repeating each and every tedious behavioral experiment from the past 100 years or so. Just to make sure. Meanwhile, the bright young things are immersing themselves in metascience, writing treatises on statistics and worthy lists of good research practices that will probably, eventually help us figure out how minds and brains work… one day, when someone actually gets around to looking.

Were Onan alive today, he’d be a replicator. Or second author on a methods paper, anyway. Which is not so say that I think replication is a bad idea in itself (as I made clear in an earlier post, I’m all for it). It’s rather that I feel a sense of mounting horror as I realize that most of the things I think of as ‘standard scientific practice,’ seem to be news to many of my colleagues. And I feel queasy as I contemplate what seems to be the replication movement’s big idea, which is that somehow a few new statistical techniques and some registered replications will suffice to fix the many parts of psychology and neuroscience that are misguided, doltish, or simply wrong.

In fact, to the extent that I occasionally find myself feeling some support for the replication movement, it is because of this last point. In the same way that every minute that the managing committee of a soviet car factory spent debating their workers’ political education saved many a poor oppressed people from having to actually travel in lethally incompetent cars, so much of the output of the replication movement is, thankfully, irrelevant. Usually, at least, it avoids being actively intellectually harmful.

The problem, as I see it, is the bottom-line: There is an expectation that those of us that draw a salary for pursuing research in the brain and cognitive sciences will actually try to contribute to advancing research in the brain and cognitive sciences; that the people who are paying us to pipe would prefer some tunes to more methods papers. They want us to pump out as many cars as we can, and they would like them not to be deathtraps, if we can possibly avoid it.

And as I’ve pointed out in earlier blog posts, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists are not covering our selves in glory in this regard.

We are promising this:


yet delivering this:


Which raises a question: how can I convince you that I’m right about this problem without sounding like a soviet car committee pondering a new five year plan?



Last year I lost a dear friend.

Joe read, queried and quibbled with every word in every post I ever made here. In our last conversation, he was (successfully) trying to get me to change a tortuous metaphor at the end of the “Bells and Smells” post.

I miss him.



Bells, smells, and the ageing mind

Why bad science is as much of a threat to the elderly as age itself

The bells
A couple of years ago, I moved from California to a small town Southern Germany. Determined to experience the ancient wonders of my new hometown to the fullest, I spent my first two months living in a cupboard-sized hotel room, patiently waiting for my dream apartment — in a converted fifteenth century nunnery — to become available.

When the time came to leave my cupboard and move in, I realized I had neglected a very important piece of due diligence. The apartment is a loft in the attic of the nunnery, and its many windows stare directly at the clock tower of a church. ‘Handy view of the clock!’ I had thought at the time I fell in love with the place. What did not occur to me then, but was soon to be brutally revealed, is that a ‘clock tower’ can also be a ‘bell tower.’ (Had I thought of this, I might have noticed that by sticking my head out of the window, I could enjoy a glorious, uninterrupted view of the clock tower of another church, which dominates the town centre.)

Because I failed to make the clock tower – bell tower association, I settled down to sleep that first night in complete ignorance of the plans that had been made to greet me. On the stroke of each quarter-hour I was to be welcomed to the neighborhood by locals only too happy to pass the time of day: One deafening bong for the quarter hour; two deafening bongs for the half-hour, three deafening bongs for the three-quarter-hour, and as many deafening bongs as it took to enumerate the hour (plus a few helpful peals to discriminate the hour-bongs from all the other bongs). And although this alone would have been perfectly sufficient to crush my hopes of a good night’s sleep, there was more: Each heavy metal communiqué from the bell tower opposite my apartment was accompanied by another, slightly offset message from the other church; a subtle reminder that just as they differ slightly in their conceptions of the divine, so each demurs at the other’s idea of the exact state of time.

Less than three years ago I despaired of every sleeping more than an hour or so in my new home, yet now I barely notice the bells. Why? (more…)

The errors in my answer to Darwin

How the humble lab rat can teach you to raise your kids smarter and grow old gracefully

The importance of knowing how to look
Today, Charles Darwin is largely known for his theory of natural selection. Yet although his status as a scientific legend is assured, the nature of his fame does him an injustice. Darwin was not a theorist in the modern sense. First and foremost, he was a brilliant observer, and his extraordinary gift for observation is, more often than not, hugely underappreciated.

While the difficulty of observation is easily overlooked, it has become abundantly clear that we do not perceive the world ‘objectively’ (indeed, as Borges’ ingenious tale of the one-to-one map of the world reminds us, objectivity is a tricky idea at the best of times). Instead, our brains invent their perception of the world, inferring the nature of reality by means of a variety of processes based on of guessing and learning. For better or for worse we are theorists by nature, and the unreliability of perception is one of the reasons why we do science in the first place. It is also why observation is such a vital – and very difficult – scientific skill. Our facility to observe in an ‘objective-like’ fashion – consciously resisting the temptation to interpret every observation in accord with our minds’ prior expectations – is one of the great intellectual achievements of our species.

A prime example of Darwin’s genius for observation is found in his little-known contributions to the study of child psychology. Aside from his other well-documented achievements – and despite suffering from chronic illness throughout his adult life – Darwin not only fathered ten children, but even more remarkably, he found time to be a wonderful, engaged dad in an age when fathers were typically distant.

Darwin kept detailed diaries of the observations he made as his kids grew, and as a result of these we know that he may be the first person to ever notice a simple, yet deeply puzzling phenomenon that has tended to pass just about every other parent by: the bafflingly long time it takes kids to learn the meanings of color words. (more…)