ANTHROPOLOGY HURTS: McWhorter / DiAngelo / Wittgenstein / Blow!


Do you believe this happened?: Like love, anthropology hurts. 

That said, it also teaches. According to leading scholars in the field, anthropology teaches us that we humans pretty much aren't "the rational animal."

In the western tradition, we'd always been taught that we were. Anthropology says that we basically aren't. For a recent example, consider:

At present, by journalistic convention, it's back-to-school time in the United States. Perhaps for that reason, John McWhorter has offered an essay about the best way to teach kids to read.

Does some such "best way" really exist? We wouldn't assume that it does.

That said, McWhorter feels sure that instruction in phonics works better, for more children, than the so-called "whole word" method. In this passage, he starts by defining the dueling approaches:

MCWHORTER (9/3/21): A popular strain in the education world has it that English’s spelling is so bad that there’s no point in teaching children how to sound out words letter by letter. Rather, they should learn to recognize whole words at a time by the general look of them: the whole word method.

And that may be the way you learned to read. It tends to work for children from book-lined homes where reading is taught almost by osmosis by family members because print is so deeply embedded in the home culture. But for other children, the whole word method is a big gamble; they learn better by being, well, taught: sounding out words letter by letter.

In a word, phonics...

With instruction in phonics, kids are taught to "sound out words." With "the whole word method," kids are encouraged to recognize whole words—including the many irregular words which they pretty much can't "sound out."

As he continues, McWhorter speaks up in favor of phonics. Most strikingly, he revisits a long-standing claim about a long-ago miracle cure:

MCWHORTER: In a word, phonics...

Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a huge investigation in the late 1960s led by education scholar Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the phonics-based Direct Instruction method from kindergarten through third grade at 10 sites nationwide. The results were polio-vaccine-level dramatic. At all 10 sites, 4-year-olds were reading like 8-year-olds, for example.

Friend, do you believe that claim? Do you believe that actually happened?

In that passage, McWhorter describes a "dramatic," "polio-vaccine-level" cure for our reading woes. But friend, do you believe it? 

Do you believe that, in the late 1960s, "a huge investigation" ended with  "4-year-olds reading like 8-year-olds" at all ten sites nationwide? Do you believe that happened? 

Everything is possible, of course. But for reasons we've described many times, we can't say we're ready to swear that any such thing really happened. 

More to the point, do you believe that those miracle results were recorded in the course of "a huge investigation" but, more than fifty years later, that finding has had little or no effect on the way reading is taught across the United States? 

Friend, do you believe that? Do you believe that no one reacted to the spectacle of "4-year-olds reading like 8-year-olds" in ten out of ten research sites? That everyone has just plowed ahead, as if no such thing ever happened?

Sadly, we'll acknowledge that some such thing is possible. In a way, that helps establish anthropology's hurtful point!

For ourselves, we're not strongly inclined to believe that any such "polio-level" miracle event ever  happened. In our experience, claims of public school miracle cures have routinely turned out to be fraudulent, bogus, false.

It has happened again and again and again. In this particular area, there's been a whole lot of Bogus out there!

That doesn't mean that this particular miracle cure didn't actually happen. But it doesn't seem to have crossed McWhorter's mind that the polio-level event he's describing, followed by nationwide indifference, may not have really occurred.

McWhorter read about that miracle outcome, and it seems he simply assumed that it must have taken place. We'd grade him way down on points for that, but anthropology makes it clear that we humans tends to reason in such imperfect ways.

Man [sic] is the rational animal, we've long told ourselves in the west. Increasingly, anthropology teaches us that this has never been so.

The later Wittgenstein's work can be seen as a highly specialized part of that process—of the process by which we've been shown that our highly self-impressed species just isn't deeply rational at its core after all. 

According to Professor Horwich, the later Wittgenstein taught that high-end academic philosophy had long concerned itself with "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." By that account, our most exalted high-end thinkers hadn't been successfully "rational" at all!

Let's leave that aside for now. In the next few days, let's briefly turn to the here and now—especially to the here and now as practiced by our own blue tribe here in our own blue towns.

We'd give McWhorter a failing grade for his highly credulous column concerning that miracle cure. At the same time, we'd give him a very high grade for the essay he wrote, in July of last year, about the antiracism theoretics of Robin DiAngelo, a major star in our towns.

Wherever Franklin D. Roosevelt looked, he saw "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Wherever we look today, we see a blue tribe which is reasoning very poorly, and perhaps counterproductively, concerning issues of gender and race.

DiAngelo and Blow, oh my! But also, the latest on Gawker—and our blue tribe's war-inclined commenters! 

We encountered this stuff all weekend long. The highly jumbled later Wittgenstein seemed to be lurking nearby.

Tomorrow: Charles Blow spots the Klan


  1. "According to leading scholars in the field, anthropology teaches us that we humans pretty much aren't "the rational animal.""

    Anthropologists do not study cognition (judgment and decision making). That is what cognitive psychologists study.

    This is like saying that "according to leading scholars in the field, baseball players teach us that human beings pretty much aren't "the rational animal." If baseball players don't study human cognition, who cares what they think about it?

    Somerby never tells us what "leading scholars" are saying this mistaken thing.

    1. Perhaps it's those lazy philosophers coming up with it? Here's a book:

      Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

      The author is listed as:

      Justin E.H. Smith, a philosopher at the University of Paris

    2. According to the author (who notably references two more philosophers):

      The thesis is that the 20th-century philosophers T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer were basically correct when they argued that the Enlightenment world has an innate tendency to degenerate into myth, reason into unreason. And that this tendency of reason toward unreason is exacerbated by overly ambitious efforts to suppress or eliminate unreason. I think this is true both at the level of individual reason, or “psychology,” as well as at the level of society as a whole.

    3. Philosophers tend to consider deviations from formal logic to be "unreason." I think the words reason and unreason are being used with different meanings by Somerby and others. If reason is being judged by adherence to beliefs that one disagrees with, or that have become obsolete, that is different than abstract reasoning, such as in symbolic logic (if p then q).

      Somerby seems ready to call people unreasoning because he dislikes their options and concerns. The logicians expected people to be reasonable in the sense of their judgments conforming to formal logic, but studies found that people don't think that way.

      A famous example is the Wason task, in which people regularly commit several fallacies and ignore modus tollens when the task is presented abstractly, but do very well when the task is presented in a context that might arise in daily life (such as who needs to be carded in a bar). That finding shows that people have a lot of difficulty with abstracts but do fine in environmental contexts. And if this were not true, how would reason have been useful enough to evolve in our species? The superiority of humans to their nearest relatives in problem solving and cognitive tasks leaves little doubt that we do reason better than those species, which suggests that reasoning as performed does aid survival and has been selected for in our development as a species.

      Somerby is mainly name-calling. The philosophers had to recognize that this isn't just a matter of reason versus unreason, but of determining how people reason and how it helps us in our lives. Adherence to formal logic would be less effective in many of the situations people must face, especially judgments under uncertainty (for which Kahneman got a Nobel prize).

    4. I think this misses the point somewhat. What Somerby is talking about is the breakdown of our national discourse. When logical presentation of facts and evidence gives way to sticking to a set script, and anyone that strays out of line is labeled and categorized.

      So it's not about the rationality of an individual (such as with your Wason task, as good a reference and as interesting as it is). It's about the rationality of society as a whole and particularly the way society digests and discusses new information.

    5. Yes, I agree that Somerby is talking about that, but I don't agree that this is what is happening in our national discourse.

      McWhorter is a counter-example to Somerby. He is black and calls himself a grumpy liberal, but his statements on both phonics and criticizing white fragility are far from liberal narrative and no one is punishing him for straying out of line.

      Given the plethora of Democrats in disarray stories that appear in the media, there is infighting between old style liberals and progressives and the word "woke" implies that some are sleeping, so there seems to be a great deal of disagreement just among Democrats, so where is the script and narrative and punishment there? I just don't see it.

      I generally don't think it is helpful to anthropomorphize entities that don't behave like humans. Society as a whole doesn't think or reason or breath or play basketball or do anything human. It doesn't have a brain and isn't controlled top down, and it operates according to forces that are difficult to measure (hence fields such as economics and political science). Talking about it as a person leads to confusion, not clarity, in my opinion. People digest information, society does not.

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  2. Phonics-schmonics. Tsk. Let's be realistic, dear Bob: why would anyone in your liberal cult need to be able to read, when you have Rachel Maddow (and plenty of other dembots) to tell you fellas what to think? Seriously, dear Bob.

    1. Somerby is not liberal and he does not have a "liberal cult". It seems clear that Somerby can read, but for some reason, he chooses to read nothing but old textbooks from his Harvard days and conservative essays in the NY Times and Washington Post.

  3. "In the western tradition, we'd always been taught that we were."

    This was true until the 1950s when cognitive psychology experiments showed that people do not reason according to formal logic. Then those psychologists started studying how people DO reason and found that human judgments are probabilistic and accord with the likelihoods of events important to their survival. The survival-related and context dependent biases in human cognition (which enable them to adjust to their environments) have become the foundation for behavioral economics (see Daniel Ariely). Several Nobel prizes have been awarded to those who have studied how people actually reason (see Daniel Kahneman and Michael Lewis's book about Kahneman & Tversky, The Undoing Project).

    Somerby apparently lives in a world where none of this has happened. He might have more respect for how people reason if he actually knew anything about it.

    1. Lack of empirical support

      In the early years of cognitive psychology, behaviorist critics held that the empiricism it pursued was incompatible with the concept of internal mental states; but cognitive neuroscience continues to gather evidence of direct correlations between physiological brain activity and putative mental states, endorsing the basis for cognitive psychology.[41]

      There is however disagreement between neuropsychologists and cognitive psychologists. Cognitive psychology has produced models of cognition which are not supported by modern brain science. It is often the case that the advocates of different cognitive models form a dialectic relationship with one another thus affecting empirical research, with researchers siding with their favorite theory. For example, advocates of mental model theory have attempted to find evidence that deductive reasoning is based on image thinking, while the advocates of mental logic theory have tried to prove that it is based on verbal thinking, leading to a disorderly picture of the findings from brain imaging and brain lesion studies. When theoretical claims are put aside, the evidence shows that interaction depends on the type of task tested, whether of visuospatial or linguistical orientation; but that there is also an aspect of reasoning which is not covered by either theory.[42]

      Similarly, neurolinguistics has found that it is easier to make sense of brain imaging studies when the theories are left aside.[43][44] In the field of language cognition research, generative grammar has taken the position that language resides within its private cognitive module, while 'Cognitive Linguistics' goes to the opposite extreme by claiming that language is not an independent function, but operates on general cognitive capacities such as visual processing and motor skills. Consensus in neuropsychology however takes the middle position that, while language is a specialized function, it overlaps or interacts with visual processing.[42][45] Nonetheless, much of the research in language cognition continues to be divided along the lines of generative grammar and Cognitive Linguistics; and this, again, affects adjacent research fields including language development and language acquisition.

    2. This excerpt is about the need to revise theories in the light of new methods (in this case neuroscience) that present data that challenges old ideas. Every time there is an advance in methodology, new findings emerge that make this necessary.

      The debate over the modularity of language doesn't have a lot of application to teaching reading. Neither generative grammar nor cognitive linguistics has much to do with it either. Teaching reading is an applied field that may be informed by but is not driven by theories like those mentioned here. That said, the excerpt pretty much supports what I said.

    3. It was mainly the middle paragraph that I found of interest.

    4. That kind of dialectic exists in many fields. An argument exists until the situation is clarified by new studies.

      People engage in visual processing and verbal (language based) processing and many tasks can be done either way. Individuals seem to have preferences but can generally use either approach. The instructions and context of an experiment can evoke one or the other type of processing. If these models don't fit neuroscience, it may be because the neuroscientists don't yet know how to interpret what is happening in their images of brain activity, or it may be that the models need to change. Further research will clarify things eventually. It isn't the case that cog sci is wrong and neuroscience is right or vice versa. The two fields are working toward the same goal of understanding, from different directions. Behavior doesn't map cleanly onto localized brain activity, but behavior emerges from brain activity. We don't yet know how that works.

      For example, I once read an imaging study that compared men and women doing Raven's Matrices (a test of math problem solving). They found that women's brains showed far greater activity in more diffuse areas than men's did. The authors wanted to conclude that it was because men were solving the problems more efficiently than women. But it could also have been that women were using language instead of visualization to do the tasks, or perhaps that they were worrying more about their performance on the task than the men were. When there are alternative explanations like that, more work is needed to figure out what the extra activity might mean.

  4. "More to the point, do you believe that those miracle results were recorded in the course of "a huge investigation" but, more than fifty years later, that finding has had little or no effect on the way reading is taught across the United States? "

    Why would Somerby, himself an elementary school teacher, say this about phonics? It is taught in most school districts. Contrary to McWhorter's claim, it is not opposed by liberals. It has largely been incorporated into methods that include phonetic decoding combined with practice of other skills, including building vocabulary and fluency. The so-called whole word method is a strawman. Reading instruction today is about more than simply decoding. Reading is increasingly being taught in context so that students can understand what words mean, not just decode them phonetically without understanding their meanings.

    McWhorter seems to be behind the times, but it is more likely he is beating a dead horse that was a conservative issue (much as CRT is now) back in the 1960s, without realizing what modern teaching does in the classroom. That wouldn't be surprising since McWhorter is a linguist, not an educator, and there is no reason he would have the expertise to be writing the kind of opinion piece he put his name on. His field is not even language acquisition, a subfield of developmental psychology, not linguistics, which studies the structure of language.

    "He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations. His research specialties are how creole languages form and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena." He is also an expert on creoles, which is the study of how languages change with cultural contact (not how people acquire language).

    Most people seem to learn to read naturally, without needing much instruction, as a natural extension of participating in an environment where language is being used. Those who do not, need specific help that addresses the obstacles to their learning. That requires some diagnosis and methods attuned to overcoming whatever deficits they may have. That is what reading specialists do. They are trained for it. Note that these are educators, teachers.

    Another approach to studying how people read comes from neuroscience. From imaging studies of the brain in use, researchers know that language involves both hemispheres, not just the left (in right handers), that the left hemisphere analyzes words in terms of their parts (letters, features, phonetical sounds) while the right hemisphere processes the overall shape of a word and its context. This info is combined into recognition of the word and attachment of a meaning. So different parts of the brain do different parts of reading and they work together (under normal circumstances). That suggests that phonics is important and needs to be processed, but so do other aspects of reading. The more modern approaches are consistent with these findings from neuroscience. McWhorter's essay is not.

  5. Here is a link to the Project Follow Through study McWhorter references:

    The study does not focus on phonics but on "Direct Instruction," which is something else. The methods compared are not "whole word" but include three approaches to teaching loosely characterized as: basic teaching, problem-solving, and self-esteem.

    The results depend on the tests used to assess the students in these different schools. If you provide a test that measures basic skills, then of course students whose schools have focused on that will do better. If the test were about problem solving, the basic skills kids would do worse.

    The self-esteem approach was abandoned a long time ago, after studies showing that self-esteem arises from competence, not from praise and encouragement aimed at increasing self-esteem. It was possible to raise self-esteem without improving student skills, via praise. Since the goal was to improve performance, not self-esteem, and self esteem did not leading to higher performance (although higher performance did produce higher self-esteem) that approach was abandoned.

    It does seem like McWhorter is misrepresenting the results of the study, although not in the way Somerby lazily implies (that the results are just too good to be believed).

    1. I was unclear about self-esteem. It arises from competence, but it can also arise from praise (warranted or not). Educators hoped that increasing self-esteem would lead to better performance in school. They found that increasing self-esteem did not improve performance. However, improving performance did result in higher self esteem, as did praising students without linking that praise to achievement. In other words, self-esteem is not causally linked to performance but is an outcome of it. Someone can be a very high performer while having very low self-esteem, or have high performance with high esteem. Esteem doesn't matter to performance but can be increased by higher performance.

  6. "Wherever Franklin D. Roosevelt looked, he saw "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Wherever we look today, we see a blue tribe which is reasoning very poorly, and perhaps counterproductively, concerning issues of gender and race."

    Somerby juxtaposes two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Why?

    We already know that Somerby has his own ideas about gender and race. Instead of addressing specific beefs, he claims that all blue thinkers are messed up. Do we believe him on the basis of such an assertion? Why should we? Then he tosses around a few names, again without making any specific complaint about anything they've said, except that he disagrees with it.

    That isn't any kind of analysis. It is an emotional response, not even an opinion. We get it that he doesn't see race and gender the way liberals do. It is part of why he is not a liberal these days, if he ever was one.

  7. Somerby embodies white fragility. That makes him not the best person to assess an article about it (McWhorter or DiAngelo). McWhorter's article is behind an Atlantic Magazine paywall, but he was interviewed on NPR:

    "Lozada writes that White Fragility views people of color as "almost entirely powerless, and the few with influence do not wield it in the service of racial justice. Columbia University professor and linguist John McWhorter, who is Black, echoes that criticism"

    Here we have McWhorter using his position of power, not to advance racial justice but to advance his own career by joining those who attack the concept of white fragility. The article makes a point of saying that he is black, so he becomes the novelty of being a black man who speaks against black interests, calling black people dehumanized because a white author wishes to tell white people to solve their own racial attitude problem.

    There was a time in the 1960s when the black power movement insisted that only black people would be motivated to help them deal with their own community's issues. White assistance was spurned and white people who wanted to help were considered paternalistic. McWhorter seems to be stuck in that era (with Somerby perhaps). Today's view is that the mistreatment of black people is intrinsic to our culture and our history and thus is everyone's problem. But instead of white people "fixing" black people's problems, white people are being told to clean up their own act. It is hard to see why McWhorter considers that dehumanizing or patronizing or infantilizing to blacks. The focus is on white racial attitudes and especially the white objection to change. So, I think McWhorter is wrong.

    Somerby, of course, is pleased to single out anyone who agrees with his mistaken racial and gender views. In that sense, he is using McWhorter to justify his own racial attitudes. And notice how cleverly he introduced McWhorter into this dialog, by first pretending an interest in phonics and then bringing up his attack on DiAngelo, and Blow (who is receiving ire without any specific offense being mentioned). Is it because Blow thinks that black racial justice issues still exist? Maybe Somerby will tell us, or maybe it is enough for him to call him out, without saying what for.

    1. Some of the criticism of White Fragility I've read from black people is that in her "focus on white racial attitudes " she makes declarations about how black people feel without providing a basis which comes off as patronizing, condescending and racist. She does a lot of "speaking for" black people and how they feel but doesn't back up her claims. Ie. where does this little old white lady get off lecturing in the world about how blacks feel?

      And speaking of advancing careers, it is DiAngelo who is getting filthy rich pinballing across the country lecturing white people about how racist they are using baseless assumptions about how black people feel.

    2. "she makes declarations about how black people feel without providing a basis which comes off as patronizing, condescending and racist."

      Ie. she paints blacks as weak victims. Some blacks find that really offensive.

    3. Are we sure she actually does this? If she provided cites for sources when describing how black people feel then she is attributing those feelings to black people themselves. Do we know she didn't do that?

    4. Lol - if you can find the sources of which you speak, let us all know.

  8. How does it help our ‘discourse’ to ‘prove’ that philosophy is a bunch of bs, as Wittgenstein supposedly did (according to Horwich and Somerby)?

    Hasn’t Somerby said that philosophers/logicians didn’t do enough to stop the collapse of our society, or some such thing? Why or how should or could they do more if their entire field of study is bs? It’s a very small group of people. (Fewer than 1% of students graduate with a degree in philosophy.) They don’t seem to be well-positioned to have much influence on our ‘discourse.’

    Wouldn’t we be better off, if Somerby’s view is correct, without the input of people who study bullshit? Or is he saying they are all so brilliant that they and they alone can prevent the collapse of society? But if they’re that brilliant, why didn’t they realize the pointlessness of their chosen field?

    1. "Hasn’t Somerby said that philosophers/logicians didn’t do enough to stop the collapse of our society, or some such thing? Why or how should or could they do more if their entire field of study is bs?"

      Perhaps that is the point. They didn't because they couldn't have because they were spending their time on "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking."

      What good are they if they can't pipe in while society is collapsing?

    2. When was it established that society is collapsing?

    3. "society is collapsing" - or some such thing. The issues to which Somerby was referring. What good are they if they can't pipe in?

      Did they not pipe in on these issues because they couldn't have because they were spending their time on "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking"?

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