The moos you can moo

Mark Liberman, Language Log, Dec 21, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

This article looks at news reports that anthropomorphize elements of scientific reports and, as a consequence, misrepresent their conclusions. In this case, scientists examine how cows use distinctive calls to communicate with offspring. The news media adds a human element to this behaviour by saying these are "names" for the calves. What's happening is that the news media, by describing cows as though they were human, are essentially making stuff up. Geoff Pullman writes, "They actually print what are obviously lies, even when the text of the same article makes it clear that they are lying."

I think the same thing happens in educational writing. If this article, for example, we are told about "the brain’s danger detector, the amygdala, being down-regulated, trading energy normally spent on vigilance for heightened focus and enhanced recall." But the brain is doing no such thing; that is an interpretation of a set of neural phenomena. Or this: "the human brain locks down episodic memories in the hippocampus." Or this, "the eyes and hands of children save memories for them." Assigning cognitive functions to things that do not have cognitive capacities is pernicious anthropomorphism, and it imposes a theory of self on the evidence that has no basis in reality.

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