Finding the Right Words

Olivia Goldhill, ‘Psychology will fail if it keeps using ancient words like “attention” and “memory”‘, https://qz.com/1246898/psychology-will-fail-if-it-keeps-using-ancient-words-like-attention-and-memory/
Russ Poldrack, ‘How folksy is psychology? The linguistic history of cognitive ontologies’, http://www.russpoldrack.org/2016/04/how-folksy-is-psychology-linguistic.html

A very quick post, this one, owing to (stop complaining Raphael!) a very busy time at work. I’ve been sitting on these two blog-type salvoes for a while, wondering what I think about them. They’re saying… psychology is using words like memory and attention which are (i) old, and (ii) folky. So the discipline is using the same language it used in its infancy, and it’s using words that are polluted by a set of loose and general associations.
      Well, this is interesting. On the one hand, yes, technical refinement probably should go along with a language that is technical and refined. On the other hand, psychology is often talking about things that regular people recognise in their everyday experience, whereas quantum physics isn’t, and that should perhaps be reflected in its terminology. And I would prefer to read things that are trying to speak to me, as an interested person, than ones that are not. But then again, I have myself in these very virtual pages complained at times about loose use of familiar words (mostly when they are being used in ways that are unnaturally narrow), and worried about the way that some popular psychology books attract the attention of general readers by (perhaps) overstating the real-life relevance of experimental findings.
      I find myself undecided, of course. But also I’m thinking that this debate helps a words-person like me see that psychology is pushed and pulled in interesting disciplinary and interdisciplinary directions.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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