Pincher Martin's Bibliothèquewebbie -- Sunday, January 29, 2012 -- 01:39:17 AM
Reviews and commentary on all things related to books. Extended discussions on political, social, and cultural topics sparked by a review of a book are also welcome.This thread is tagged:
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I like the captions! But I agree about the review.
One interesting part of the book is when Erard writes about those undeveloped areas of the world -- West Africa, South India, and the Amazon are his specific examples -- where most people speak several languages as a natural result of their multilingual environment. Some of these areas have been documented as regions where the inhabitants have very low average IQs -- much lower than anything we find in the states. And yet most inhabitants there chatter away in several tongues without thinking it at all unusual or themselves special because of it.
Erard points out that these aren't really examples of a community filled with polyglots because the languages most people in these communities use are very limited and only for certain circumstances. They might be able to speak fluently about meat in a neighboring tribe's tongue where they go to buy meat, for example, but be completely lost when the subject there turns to, say, textiles. So they speak five or six languages, but only in a very limited fashion.
Erard speculates that this was probably the rule for most of the planet's inhabitants for most of their history. If he's right, there might be a natural basic competency in language learning that even the least intelligent among us possesses and that is independent from IQ. This basic linguistic competency could vary widely on the individual level depending upon the learner's sociability, ear, and other traits that we don't see as strongly connected to learning ability. But this competency is probably also limited to low-level fluency. I would guess that the further you go in learning a language, the more a high IQ reasserts itself in importance to the task. Basic chit-chat in a foreign tongue? You probably either have a knack for it or you don't. (I don't; your father apparently did.) But high-level fluency? I would guess that IQ plays an important role.
I knew many, many, many language learners who I'm sure were about average or even below average in intelligence, but picked up Mandarin much faster than I did. It was very frustrating for me to watch during my early days on the island because I feared there must be some permanent linguistic defect in me that I would not be able to correct. There's no worse feeling in the world than having some smug dumbass, who thinks he's smarter than you, proceed to give you his thoughtful, heartfelt advice on how to improve your language skills.
But after a year or two, hard work and patience began to pay off for me. And many of the dumb language learners I knew who started off fast began to level off and never improved dramatically beyond the street corner language they quickly mastered in their first few months on the island, even though they continued to take language classes and live in the same environment they had benefitted from so vividly before.
Having said that, there's no doubt that a lot of cases defy easy categorization. Some people just seem to have a gift for languages, even though they are not high achievers in other areas. Other people struggle like the dickens no matter how competent they appear at most other tasks in their life.
It's quite obviously not beyond you. I'm sure you could do it in short order if you chose -- certainly in a much shorter time frame than it took me to accomplish it. You simply had, and have, other priorities and intellectual pursuits, that's all.
I beg your indulgence. I'm preparing to publish a speciality blog focused on book reviews at the end of the year. This thread is sort of a trial run for that effort. I'm using it to build up a store of reviews, experiment with form, and get some feedback.
I agree with you about the stars and synopsis, but I hope to have visually interesting elements of a similar sort in the blog. I like clean blogs, but I dislike large blocks of text that aren't broken up with a few interesting and consistent items that attract the eye to the page. I want to lure that marginal reader who might want to read a review, but still prefers his online content in a stimulating format. I think a photo of the book and a few other relevant pics put judiciously in the text helps in that aim. I'm eventually hoping to use many of my own photos for this purpose, as well as become more adept at using, and manipulating, what I find online. But for this thread, my use of photos is more pro forma -- like a reminder of what I need to do for the future.
I agree with you about the star system. I don't like it. I'm working on a radically different and more visually stimulating way of ranking the books, but this will take some time. In the meanwhile, I'm using the star system as a mental note to myself, so that once I do start the blog I can easily re-sort the stars I have assigned into my preferred ranking system for the reviews I choose to recycle on the blog.
I'm inclined to junk the synopsis before I do anything else. But I'm also still thinking of ways to incorporate a similar item into my reviews, but once again do so in a more visually stimulating way. So for the time being, I'll keep the homely-looking synopsis around until I'm either sure I won't use them or I develop a new form to take its place.
Pincher's 18 seems exactly right to me. Many adults can quickly achieve a breezy competence in pidginised forms of a foreign language. They string together a bunch of words with enough skill to make themselves understood, and they know enough words to understand native speech -- but only up to a point, without nuances. That kind of fluency is ubiquitous in the world up and down the social and intellectual ladder, in the scale of billions. It takes confidence, perhaps brashness, a decent memory and immersion to pull it off. But it requires altogether a different set of skills -- not to mention diligence, patience, discipline and attention to detail -- to attempt a simulation of native speech in pronunciation, grammar, and idiom.
There are many different ways and degrees of fluency. People who are fluent in a language may or may not…
* speak with an accent recognised as native ;
* speak with complete ease and spontaneity, but in a pidgnised fashion ;
* be able to read beyond simple prose ;
* be able to write with ease or with formality or at length ;
* speak in a manner indistinguishable from a native, as long as the subject does not require detail, nuance or complexity.
Then there are those who can read even complex literary or technical writing with little difficulty, but lack the ability to speak at all or beyond simple phrases. The key here is the difference between active and passive vocabulary. It's possible to have a fairly large passive vocabulary in languages one can't even begin to form a sentence in.
I think you're exactly right about the many degrees of fluency.
But many can't. And many second language speakers of all ages become increasingly fluent at the second language with practice, and many don't. All I'm saying is that the ability to achieve fluency in any form does not, to me, seem related to IQ.
I'd never thought of that before, but you're right. I could do quite well on a French vocabulary test.
It is a shame that most of the twit-lib droolers found around here are functionally-illiterate morons possessing little if any intelligence, much less the motor-coordination required to hold a real book, read the words, and/or turn the pages.
Although it is not my issue to decide, they should all be banned from posting on this specific board, IMO.
After all, most cannot put their meager thoughts into words.
Yet we allow these same numbskulls to vote in elections.
IQ scores are not synonymous with intelligence; they're only (fallible) measures of key aspects of it.
I wouldn't presume to suggest I know your father better than you do, but your description of his abilities and the opportunities he has been able to exploit, not to mention his linguistic capacities, suggests he isn't unintelligent.
IQ scores are very accurate measures of cognitive ability. My father is of below average intelligence as measured with IQ. You appear to have the usual liberal delusions about IQ.
However, I've read some about fluid vs. crystallized intelligence. I suspect that IQ more accurately measures fluid intelligence than crystallized--or, rather, we don't do a good job of measuring the IQs of people with high levels of crystallized intelligence but low levels of fluid intelligence.
In addition to my father, I've run across about 10 people (as both teacher and tutor) who have almost no ability to deal with abstractions--can't deal with algebra at all, even single variable equations, can't identify metaphors, can't draw parallels in any meaningful way. But once they knew something, they knew it. High school students who could not solve 3x + 5 = 17 but could answer in a flash if you asked them number would equal 17 if you multiplied it by three and added five. College graduates who could not easily provide the definitions of words or analyze the meaning of a sentence, and couldn't read very quickly, but could write excellent position essays with strong opinions and good language. Or my father, who explained the mechanics of flight to me so well when I was nine years old that it is still the memory I use when I have to explain it to someone else.
But I suspect that high crystallized/low fluid intelligence is a rare combination, and we don't know how to work with it.
This is for another thread, but not if you're just going to repeat platitudes about IQ.
I have a book on IQ in the pipeline. I hope to have it up in a week. Let's run with the discussion then.
I'm not suggesting IQ tests don't measure something real, just that a definition of cognitive ability as measured entirely by IQ tests is a tautology.
The last clause is what's at issue: IQ tests may not properly measure your father's intelligence.
I don't; my politics, such as they are, don't play into this question one way or the other. But I don't know why you bother to go on about "platitudes." The link you yourself posted informs you that IQ measures both fluid and crystallized intelligence. If you are asserting that "we" don't do a good job of measuring the latter, then you have generously offered an example of IQ tests failing to quantify an aspect of intelligence, which goes to what I said in the first place.
There are discrete mental capabilities that IQ tests, for all their virtues, don't measure--perfect pitch, for example. If the world were such that we all used or needed musical pitch to survive, I imagine we would count it a component of intelligence. Perhaps the same is true of the capacity for multilingualism.
As Pincher said, let's defer until he reviews his book on IQ.
Pincher, that review was really a tiny masterpiece. If the New Yorker ran criticism that good, I would allow my husband to resubscribe.
When I was reading more about the nuts-and-bolts of education, I came across the theories of Jim Cummins, who developed the BICS/CALP distinction. Translated from their true educationalese, these would be Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills vs Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. In other words, this would be the elaboration of the aforementioned ability to chat, negotiate in the market, or tell bar stories in one or more languages vs the ability to do academic work in one or more languages. I would suspect that while the BICS level is more independent of IQ, CALP would be strongly linked to IQ, since it draws on academic proficiency in general.
Cummins' theories have been widely recommended to teachers, especially at the elementary level, and have certain policy implications, but I thought it was interesting to see that discussion here.
Pincher, I somehow missed post #18. That's fascinating and yes, that synchs up nicely with my opinion. Which is probably why I think it's fascinating.
Stay of Execution: Saving the Death Penalty from Itself by Charles Lane, Bowman and Littlefield, 2010, 164 pp.
When an EU delegation arrived in Japan in 2008 with the goal of persuading Tokyo to abolish the country’s death penalty, Japanese Justice Minister Kunio Hatayama had an uncharacteristically eloquent response for a country whose political leaders are not known for their rhetorical flourishes: “[Japan] places extreme importance on the sanctity of life. For that reason, we feel extreme anger toward those who rob another of life. We have a culture of repaying a death with a death. I feel proud to have been born into such a culture. I feel that, on the contrary, giving someone life in prison rather than the death penalty, no matter how many people they kill, is a dry and coldly logical way of thinking.” The Japanese minister’s language was a sharp rebuke to the EU. He refused to accept that his country’s position on the death penalty was a moral burden and turned the tables on the delegates by suggesting that their own position had some serious moral shortcomings. More than two centuries earlier, on the other side of the world in a place with a very different culture, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had already come to a similar ethical conclusion. He dismissed death penalty abolitionists as both overly compassionate to the guilty and too utilitarian in how they would dispense with justice. Kant reasoned that when thinking about capital punishment one should ignore deterrence and instead focus on the crime itself. He concluded that the moral calculus of a murder requires the ultimate retribution, with the state morally obligated to put the offender to death.
Prominent U.S. supporters of the death penalty today rarely speak in such direct moral terms. During one of the 2000 presidential debates, then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush said “...[deterrence is] the only reason to be for [the death penalty]. I don’t think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don’t think that’s right. I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people’s lives.” Bush’s opponent in the debate, Vice President Al Gore, supported Bush’s reasoning, even as he admitted it was controversial. (There is, in fact, no solid evidence that the death penalty deters crime.) Both Bush and Gore were articulating a view that Kant and Hatayama had each in their own ways rejected -- the utilitarian merits of capital punishment. To the Japanese minister and the German philosopher, it wasn’t important that capital punishment saved lives. They instead chose to emphasize the ethical necessity of retribution.
Some American politicians might shy away from advocating the death penalty for retributive purposes, but as Charles Lane points out in his cleanly-argued book Stay of Execution, the views of the German thinker and the Japanese minister still have excellent company in the U.S. “Retribution remains one of the few purposes of capital punishment,” Lane writes, “whose constitutionality has been specifically and repeatedly acknowledged by a majority of the Supreme Court.” The American legal system’s concept of justice reflects what most of the American public feels. Poll after poll has shown a majority of the public wants criminals who have been found guilty of terrible crimes to pay with the ultimate sanction, even on occasion when those crimes do not involve murder.
At some level Lane must agree with these views, as his book is an attempt to save the death penalty in the U.S. But he rarely lets his guard down to reveal his own values or how he came to believe in them. He argues with the same cold and dry logic the Japanese minister accused the EU delegation of employing in their arguments. Nothing bleeds in this book. There are no real-life examples of justice denied to raise one’s blood pressure. The reader never has to sweat through a case where a vicious murderer gets off scot-free or escapes after a lengthy incarceration to murder again. Lane acknowledges that both the supporters and opponents of capital punishment have an equal moral claim, and he makes a strong case that there are no proven utilitarian reasons to favor capital punishment. But if he’s really trying to preserve a moral choice the majority of Americans have favored over the last four decades and for nearly all their history, why argue for trimming the sails of the death penalty’s scope? Why just play defense by blunting the best arguments of the abolitionists? Why not go on the offense by explaining why so many favor the death penalty in the first place?
The cinematic version of Charles Lane wonders if Stephen Glass is eligible for the death penalty.
If Lane is unwilling to be more proactive in advocating for capital punishment, he’s certainly a capable defender of it. One by one he takes on the best arguments against capital punishment and methodically dismembers them. Does the death penalty inadvertently kill men who are innocent of the crimes they’re convicted of committing? Lane cleverly uses the abolitionists’ own facts to show that these controversial cases are extremely rare among all death penalty cases. He takes what they consider the questionable cases in the modern era and, after properly vetting a handful of them, builds a simple statistical argument showing less than one percent of all death sentences to be in error. Lane’s method is quietly devastating to the abolitionists’ case. Using their figures, only 62 cases of potential factual innocence exist out of 7,280 death row judgments in the modern era of the death penalty. As Lane puts it, “under these assumptions, the criminal justice system got it right 99.2% of the time.” He also points out that the backlog of death penalty cases where DNA has not yet figured into the review has almost been cleared and there is still no definitive proof an innocent man has been put to death by the state in the modern era. From here on out, the use of DNA science will be routine in death penalty cases, making it even less likely mistakes will occur.
What about the connection between capital punishment and racism? Racism was a serious problem in how the death penalty was applied before the 1972 Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia forced the states to revise their statutes to deal with its suspect nature. In the thirty years before Furman, 90% of the men who were executed for rape in the United States were black. Lane looks at both sides of the question -- not just the possibility that blacks are more frequently given a death sentence than whites who are convicted of the same crime, but also the fact that black victims are far more likely than white victims to have their killer get a life sentence instead of the death penalty. He shows that the disproportionate numbers of African Americans who were executed before 1970 -- a skewed ratio obviously racist in intent because it was unrelated to the number or nature of the crimes blacks committed -- has been so effectively reversed in the modern era, and the courts now so dismissive of this line of legal attack, that the best-informed opponents of capital punishment have ceded the point by moving on to other arguments. They now argue that residual racism is still inherent in the death penalty because white victims of crime are much more likely to have their perpetrators sentenced to death than are black victims of crime.
Do prosecutors put more value on white life than black life? Lane carefully builds a case showing that this statistical phenomenon is actually the result of racial sensitivity combined with local prosecutorial discretion. The U.S. has not fifty potential jurisdictions where different sentences are applied -- fifty-one, if you include federal law -- but over 3,100 counties where local prosecutors have the power to decide what penalties to seek. So even within states that allow for capital punishment, there are still substantial differences in the frequency death penalty cases are pursued within the various counties. And most black citizens in black-majority counties do not like the death penalty. They associate capital punishment as one method the south used to keep them under control in the Jim Crow era. The local prosecutors in those counties know this and so routinely choose not to seek the death penalty in cases where it might be applied. The twist is that the victims in these black-majority localities are also likely to be black, thus causing the irony whereby prosecutors are less likely to seek the death penalty in cases where there are black victims because they defer to black opinion about capital punishment. Lane finally dismisses this statistical argument with one of the best lines in his book: “In the old days, it did not take multivariate regression to find the evidence of racial bias in capital punishment.”
Lane is always fair and generous to the opposition. He says they have a principled position in supporting abolition of the death penalty. He treats all their arguments seriously. But his approach of constantly bending over backwards in respect of the opposing view, while it strengthens many of his individual arguments, works against his book’s aim. The reader who comes to Stay of Execution with soft support for the death penalty could very well finish reading the book, agree with all of Lane’s points, and still wonder why bother. Because with a couple of brief exceptions, Lane never makes the case for why the death penalty is needed. He’s so busy playing defense against the abolitionists’s arguments that he never goes on the offense. His book lacks that emotion on which to build a moral case -- that crucial element Immanuel Kant and the Japanese minister found so compelling. What direction an important marginal segment of the U.S. public swings on capital punishment often depends on context, on what they’ve recently heard, or (as Lane shows) on what way the crime rate is trending. Those people can’t be reasoned into a position that started off as a moral impulse, any more than they can be reasoned into a religion. When that retributive impulse on behalf of others has been dulled in them for some reason, they can only be reminded of what caused them to support capital punishment in the first place. Lane’s book might blunt some of their misgivings about the death penalty, but it’s unlikely to provide that spark of support that can only come from hearing the details of a heartbreaking case that gets those retributive juices flowing in them again.
Rating: Seven out of Ten Stars. ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Synopsis: Completely convincing in its individual arguments explaining how the abolitionists greatly overstate their case, but lacks the emotional punch to convince any undecided readers of the continued need for a death penalty.
I like Lane. I don't know when he switched from liberal to skeptic, but it's been a welcome change. Maybe it was the Glass affair.
If this book is any indication, he hasn't quite made the switch as fully as I would like.
I'm against the death penalty. My reason is pretty simple: I think it's wrong for the state to kill people in "cold blood", as it were. I think all of the usual arguments against the death penalty are ill-conceived and incorrect. I have no argument with people who support the death penalty; I think their reasons are entirely grounded in a different, but entirely valid, morality. Were I to write a book pointing all this out but refrain from making passionate arguments in favor of the death penalty or point out why it is needed, you might call it bloodless. I would call it intellectually honest.
It's quite possible that he doesn't agree with the death penalty, and before you argue that no one would ever write a book deconstructing the opposition while agreeing with it, remember that you know me. (g)
Lane does say at one point in the book that he supports the death penalty, but he puts the comment out there almost as an aside. If he hadn't made that slight admission, though, there's almost nothing else in the book that would have clearly signaled to me what side he came down on. Even his arguments against the abolitionists are so carefully couched in respectful and generous terms that I could have inferred he might be one of those types trying to find middle ground on a difficult issue, but who didn't really particularly care one way or the other how the issue was resolved.
Whether the death penalty deters murders has never been proven, but if it were proven to your satisfaction would you still not support it?
I do agree that, given what we know now, both support and opposition to the death penalty is a personal moral stand. You either agree with the practice or you don't.
But if someone says the death penalty is racist or frequently kills innocent people or deters crime, there are effective rebuttals to those points.