February 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Moldova, Iran, Basra, Thailand, Bangladesh, Kirghistan, Tunisia, and Egypt are only few of the countries that come to my mind in which there was some major uprising in the past 2-3 years. Most of these revolts came into existence for a variety of reasons. It would be silly to say that they were caused by breakthroughs in social media and communications technology, while discounting economic and social factors. Although Facebook and Twitter provide a good venue for exchanging dislike for corrupt governments or individuals, unemployment and social degeneracy are also important factors that can elucidate why people have the courage to go out on the street and risk getting injured.

A professor in high-school once told an apocryphal story how Lenin, the founder of Communism in Russia, recruited people for his uprising. Lenin went largely to regions populated with people who lived in abject poverty, and not to those that shared an anti-czarist sentiment, as one would assume. So, during his recruitment, he would ask a pheasant:

“Do you own a house?”
” We can’t take you. Next.”
“Do you own a house?”
“Do you have a wife and children?”
“Here is your Bolshevik uniform, comrade.”

As I mentioned, the story is likely fictitious and is told only to show that to Lenin it did not matter whether his recruits were actually loyal to communist ideology, because he knew that such things as devotion can easily be  inculcated through demagoguery and propaganda. What he cared about is to have followers who had nothing to lose, for whom it is best to struggle through an uprising than go back to a life that did not have much to offer anyway.

Now, when I read the news about the riots in Egypt, I cannot envision how much change there would be after Mubarak’s departure. He has been a president for about thirty years, who in that time probably managed to gain control over every aspect in Egyptian government. The police, the judiciary, the army, the whole damn administration, from the insignificant clerks to high officials, are all in his hands. Even if a new leader is elected that would hopefully value the principles of democracy, whatever they might be, he would have to face a rigid decapitated system that can very well live on its own. Putting a curtain on a dictator and asking him to step down is not enough. This will only turn him into a prompter that will remind his followers what their role is.

Mubarak's avocation

Mubarak's avocation


Categories: Uncategorized

Are you lucky?

January 29, 2011 Leave a comment

The issues related to distributive justice have bothered many of us . I assume that as long as you have the capacity for empathy, there was a time when you felt that the world is simply unjust. Nonetheless, when qualifying what inequalities are permitted to exist, there is a tendency to assume that as long as an individual is responsible for those inequalities, then it might be permissible for the world to be somewhat unjust. After all, if we consider that a meritocratic system is the best system available for distributive justice, then it would be unacceptable to grant rewards solely on the basis of chance. For example, we would perceive an unbalance when a person who has done nothing to achieve a reward is given the reward with no strings attached. As long as that person has no disadvantages arising from poor economic and social circumstances or physical and mental ailments, we expect him to work, either intellectually or manually, in order to achieve some welfare in his life. Thus, the lazy should have no claims for social and economic equality.

This view, also known as luck egalitarianism,  fits perfectly with many egalitarian philosophers, including Roemer and Cohen. Rewards must be given for the responsible choices people make, and any type of mishap caused by unmade decisions that are not under control, such as congenital disability, should be compensated. However, there is a problem: Luck egalitarianism is fluff as long as there is no resolution to the existence of free will. If there is no resolution to free will, then how can the doctrine of luck egalitarianism say for what choices should people be held responsible? Consider the case of homeless children in Odessa, Ukraine:

From left to right: Slavic Berestov, 12 years, Vladislav Bernicov, 12 years, and Janna Potapnekova, 14 years, smoking cigarettes in an underground sewerage. Source:

If you look at these three children, can you hold them responsible for the situation they are in? Some of you would say that an unwanted child, born in a poor family, in circumstances that  encourage coolness and belligerence, has a higher likelihood of screwing up their lives, so they can probably be only partially responsible for who they are. Since luck egalitarianism aims at compensating people who had a large share of bad luck in their lives, it has to find a way that would discern between choice and non-choice, hence it has to inevitably deal with the problem of free will. Until a solution is found, it can be considered flawed on both metaphysical and practical levels.

Can religious people be nihilists?

January 24, 2011 3 comments

What a silly question, you might ask. When nihilism represents the rejection of any sort of deity or spirituality, when it asserts that morality and law are subjective, it is clear that nihilism and religiosity are incompatible.  Even more, since all nihilists are by necessity atheists, how could a religious person be a nihilist and at the same time an atheist?

The logic does not work both ways, however. Remember that atheists are not necessarily nihilists, and some atheists have some sense of spirituality, but they give credit to the fact that their make-believe is just that, make-believe.

Two videos:

Crazy Watering Can:

Documentary about Deborah, a thirteen-year-old born and educated in a theist family:

Documentary about 13-year-old Deborah Drapper, who — unlike other British teens — has never heard of Britney Spears or Victoria Beckham. She is being been brought up in a deeply Christian family and her parents are trying to make sure she and her ten brothers and sisters have grown up protected from the sins of the outside world.

Deborah is a bright, confident girl who has big ambitions for her life, and the film spends a summer with her as she ventures out into the world to see what life outside her family could be — as she starts putting her beliefs forward to a wider audience.


Antisocial Personality Disorder: Wittgenstein’s Beetle

January 21, 2011 3 comments

When I am in situations where there is lack of semantic clarity, where two or more speakers have a different set of “pictures” that describe one or a set of propositions, I am reminded of Wittgenstein. Science has specific operational definitions whose purpose it to get rid of lack of semantic clarity and achieve congruity in the perceived meaning of language signs between two or more individuals. That is why when there is a misunderstanding, the speaker or the listener should provide “clues” that would clarify what is meant by a language sign.

In the previous post, I was reminded by two readers that the four criminal profiles that I presented fit into the narrower criteria for psychopathy and not ASPD. It was a fair notice on their part. Although many characteristics between psychopathy and ASPD overlap, there are marked differences between the two. Moreover, the four profiles do not give a fair description of what a psychopath is like, since not all psychopaths engage in criminal behavior.  The confusion stemmed from the fact that I used the criteria found in DSM-IV, and not the one found in PCL-R. Now that the source of misconstruction has been clarified, let’s look what is the distinction between the clinical and scholarly views on psychopathy.

The current edition of DSM does not have a criteria that specifically addresses psychopathy, although before the publication of DSM-III such a criteria did exist. Currently DSM includes a broader checklist for antisocial personality disorder that addresses specific behavioral patterns.  According to Hare, Hard, & Harpur (1991) the change in clinical diagnosis and the exclusion of  psychopathy from DSM is attributed to the following reasons: a)the desire to increase the congruence and compatibility between the DSM and ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), which does not include psychopathy and b) the desire to simplify the criteria for psychopathy. Even though proponents for retaining the criteria for psychopathy, such as Robert Hare, have tried to persuade the DSM committee to revert back to the previous criteria for psychopathy (with a few changes), they have been unsuccessful. The publication of a new DSM edition has largely been done because there was something lacking or wrong in the previous edition. One of those things that was lacking in previous edition is lack of specificity. When a diagnosis is based largely on observing character traits and making clinical inferences, there could be disagreements among clinicians when deciding if a person is a psychopath or not.  Hence, the DSM-III committee saw the need to come up with a criteria that would increase reliability in diagnosing psychopathy. They changed the criteria and renamed it into antisocial personality disorder. This decision caused some controversy, which continues to the present day. Hare et. al(1991) points out that the addition of long lists of symptoms does not add any clarification and only makes the diagnosis process long and cumbersome, and the focus on behavioral indicators would likely lead to letting clinicians come up with their own idiosyncratic prototypical criteria (e.g., how many acts of deceit is enough to lead us to characterize an individual as deceitful?). In addition, Hare points out that behavioral indicators in diagnosis are not trustworthy especially in the case where there is reliance on self-reports of autobiographical memories.

Now, it is important to point out again that even though ASPD and psychopathy have some characteristics in common, but they are not the same. Psychopathy is usually defined as a disorder of personality, that is, diagnosis is not based only on behavioral patterns, while DSM-IV criteria for ASPD is largely behaviorally based (Ogloff, 2006). If you look at the wording of DSM  and PLC-R, you can probably see what I mean.

DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2000) Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised (Hare, 2003)
Evidence of conduct disorder before age 15 years pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others since the age of 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following: 

1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect

to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly

performing acts that are grounds for arrest;

2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit

or pleasure;

3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;

4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by

repeated physical fights or assaults;

5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others;

6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by

repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations; and

7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

(Note: For DSM I selected only the criteria that relates to behavioral and personality indicators).

Factor 1; Interpersonal/Affective 

  • Facet 1: Interpersonal

-Glibness/superficial charm

-Grandiose self-worth

-Pathological lying


  • Facet 2:Affective

-Lack of remorse or guilt

-Shallow affect

-Callous/Lack of Empathy

-Failure to accept responsibility for actions

Factor 2; Social Deviance

  • Facet 3: Lifestyle

-Need for stimulation/ prone to boredom

-Parasitic lifestyle

-Lack of realistic long-term goals



  • Facet 4: Antisocial

-Poor Behavioral controls

-Early behavioral problems

-Juvenile delinquency

-Revocation of condition

-Criminal versatility

As you can notice, in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist most traits are treated as open concepts.  In the DSM, on the other hand, clinicians are expected to look at behavioral patterns. Of course, the former looks specifically for psychopathy while the latter for ASPD. In the next edition of DSM there will likely be some changes that would reconcile this divisive issue (Hesse, 2010).

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edn, text revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 2000.

Hare, R.D. (2003).Manual for the hare psychopathy checklist, 2nd edn, revised. Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems.

Hare, R., Hart, S., & Harpur, T. (1991). Psychopathy and the DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100 (3), 391-398 DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.100.3.391
Ogloff, J. (2006). Psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder conundrum Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40 (6-7), 519-528 DOI: 10.1111/j.1440-1614.2006.01834.x

Morten Hesse (2010). What should be done with antisocial
personality disorder in the new edition of the diagnostic and statistical
manual of mental disorders (DSM-V)? BMC Medicine : 10.1186/1741-7015-8-66

Antisocial Personality Disorder: Demon Doctors

January 18, 2011 6 comments

This is my second article in the series on antisocial personality disorder, which because of my unduly sloth has not been completed yet. The first post can be found by clicking on the link below:

1. History of the Antisocial Personality Disorder – up to 20th century

Those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (APD), a diagnosis that carries with it a lot of controversy, are characterized as being impulsive and highly aggressive. Mental deficiencies heat up a lot of polemic today, as it happens in most of the cases involving the gruesome shooting of a famous individual, such as Gabrielle Giffords. Occasions like the one that happened Jan. 8  create in some individuals enough hindsight bias to allow them to put a psychiatrist’s cap and assert with confidence, “All signs showed that he was a wannabe criminal.” Surely, we often meet eccentric individuals whose behavioral is a bit asocial, but must we really be so quick to conclude that a person with interrelationships problems has psychological difficulties? For now, lets focus on our four high-profile demon doctors:



H.H. Holmes

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (his real name was Henry Mudgett) is considered the first serial killer in the US.  He is known for opening a hotel south of Chicago that was nicknamed the Castle. From an early age he had a fascination with surgery, so he enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, where he stole stole bodies from the laboratory, which he latter disfigured, so that he could claim insurance on the allegedly accidental deaths. After finishing medical school, he sent his wife back to his birth-town, New Hampshire, and sought employment in Illinois at a druggist. The druggist, Dr. Holton, at that time was severely ill with cancer, so his wife, a future widow, was glad for the help that Holmes offered. Later he proposed to Mrs. Holton, now alone and despondent, to buy the store. She accepted on the condition that she be allowed to live on the second floor of the building where the pharmacy was located. Shortly, however, she mysteriously disappeared, and no one thought to question Holmes extensively about her quick departure. After that he bought some land across the street from the drugstore, where under a close supervision he build his own castle of horrors. He made sure that the workers he hired would not stay on the job for more than a week, so that the layout of the building would not create any suspicion. The Castle was three stories high. The first floor was left for exclusive shops, while the upper floors and the basement were entwined with mazes, secret hallways, trap doors, stairs leading to nowhere,  and gas pipes attached to a control panel in Holmes’ bedroom. The basement had an acid tank, a dissecting table, and a crematorium. In his Castle it is rumored that Holmes killed more than 200 victims, while he  admitted during the trial to 27 murders. Holmes behavior was particularly gruesome. He is the prototype killer, to whom the prospect of dying did not bring fear. A very well written and chilling article about him can be found here.


Shiro Ishii

Dr. Shiro Ishii, a graduate of Kyoto Imperial University, has been involved with a large group of scientists in creating biological weapons. His story and the story of the Unit 731, a facility he helped create, is not very well known. Japan even today downplays its crimes against humanity during the Second World War, and after an agreement between America and Japan, most of the atrocities committed at Unit 731 have largely been covered up. Unit 731 was a concentration camp in Pingfang, whose  purpose was to develop biological weapons. Ishii had absolute rule over all the dealings in the Unit 731 and several other similar units in the region, and he was the one who largely orchestrated unwarranted experiments:

When he [Ishii] wanted a human brain to experiment on, guards grabbed a prisoner and held him down while one of them cleaved open his skull with an axe. The brain was removed and rushed to Ishii’s laboratory.

They [prisoners]were exposed to phosgene gas to discover the effect on their lungs, or given electrical charges which slowly roasted them. Prisoners were decapitated in order for Japanese soldiers to test the sharpness of their swords. Others had limbs amputated to study blood loss – limbs that were sometimes stitched back on the opposite sides of the body. Other victims had various parts of their brains, lungs or liver removed, or their stomach removed and their oesophagus reattached to their intestines.

Other experiments involved hanging prisoners upside down to discover how long it took for them to choke to death, and injecting air into their arteries to test for the onset of embolisms. Some appear to have had no medical purpose except the administering of indescribable pain, such as injecting horse urine into prisoners’ kidneys. (Source)

The exact number of people who died either because of experimentation or because of the germ warfare is unknown, but estimates range from 200,000 to 580,000 people. After the war was over, Ishii was acquitted and many scientists at the Unit 731 went on to prominent careers, all in exchange for the data on biological weapons that Americans desperately wanted. He died of throat cancer in his home prefecture at the age of 69. More info on him can be found here.


Linda Burfield Hazzard

Dr. Linda Hazzard, also known as the starvation doctor, is famous for her ‘starvation cures, which she declared could cure “anything from toothache to tuberculosis.” Needless to say, such cures had an aversive effect on her patients, and she knew how to make a profit out of it, either by appropriating their property while they were in her supervision or by demanding high fees. Hazzard had a large popularity among her followers, mainly because starvation cures were relatively common at that time (an old-fashioned counterpart to homeopathy, heh?). Her scheme was simple. She would advertise her treatments  in a newspaper or through her book, which usually convinced some individuals to come to her and seek help for their ailments. After that she put her patients in shabby hotels or shacks, took their property, either forcefully or through subversive means, managed to obtain the power of attorney over their lives, and made them undergo a cruel treatment, which involved eating nothing but low-calorie broth, painful enemas, and pummeling (i.e., beating her fists against the patients’ foreheads and backs ).  The unfortunate part was the lack of intervention:

The health director of Seattle said he couldn’t intervene, since Dr. Hazzard was licensed and the patients were willing participants in her deadly therapy. She had many loyal followers, and a commanding personality. Some of her patients were afraid of her, and couldn’t bring themselves to disobey her. But the health director did keep an eye on her in case she treated any children, at which point he said he would step in. (source)

She was eventually convicted for manslaughter and sentenced to Washington State Penitentiary. Her sentence didn’t last long because she was released on parole after two years and received pardon Governor Ernest Lister. Once out, she went with her husband to New Zealand and continued practicing quackery. The total number of victims that died because of her treatments is unknown.


Marcel Petiot

As his name suggests, Petiot was born in France. He served in the French Infantry during WWI. Throughout his early life, from adolescence to his service in the military, he was diagnosed as having a variety of mental illnesses. However, the certitude of his mental instability was not verified, since most accounts started to surface after he became a notorious serial killer, and it is hard in these circumstances to decipher what accounts are due to hindsight bias or objective recording. After the war he completed the medical school and became an intern at a mental hospital. Later he was involved in over-prescribing drugs and fraud. During WWII Petiot assumed an alias, “Dr. Eugene,” who  provided “safe” passage for those in the German occupied France for a fee of 25.000 francs. All his clients were given lethal injections, and the bodies were stored in a quick lime pit and later burned in a furnace. His capture was largely due to his miscalculation:

The crimes of Dr Petiot came to light when he discovered that burying the bodies in a pit of quicklime was not dissolving the bodies as he had expected it to. So he started to burn the bodies in the building’s furnace, then left the building. The burning produced a lot of greasy black foul-smelling smoke, which on 11th March 1944 the neighbours complained about it. When the police arrived they discovered the chimney was on fire. It was the fire brigade therefore who discovered the source of the fire. (Source)

Eventually, he was arrested on October 1944 and charged with 26 murders. He confessed to only 19 of them, although the body count  was in the 60s when they captured him. A couple of articles on him can be found here, here, and here.

More info on the above serial killers can be found in Kenneth Isserson’s book Demon Doctors.
Handel, D. (2004). DEMON DOCTORS: PHYSICIANS AS SERIAL KILLERS. By Kenneth V. Iserson. Tuscon, Galen Press, 2002, 441 pages, $28.95. Journal of Emergency Medicine, 26 (2), 261-262 DOI: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2003.12.007

Swanger, Andrew J (1998). Japanese scientists conducted biological research experiments.. World War II, 13 (2).

Atheist Rationalizations

January 17, 2011 2 comments

This post will be a long read for you. I spent more than a month unsuccessfully persuading myself not to write anything on this topic, but thoughts just kept pestering me to the degree that I could not focus on other, more important things.

Being godless does not come only from carefully considering the evidence on the existence of the supernatural and reaching the conclusion that since there is no evidence, then the claims on the existence of god are unsupported. It is common knowledge by now that you can be godless simply by being apathetic. You probably met individuals who resist the desire to be proselytized not because they can point fallacies in religious thinking, but because they do not care about metaphysical questions at all. For them the existence of god carries as much importance as the existence of unicorns. This message is not for them.

In my own time, I have done my own share of evangelizing. Although I was not committed to a church, I surely tried to convince others that believing in the Christian god is a good thing. Since the Orthodox Church in my country is known for its bigotry and corruption, it was not hard to persuade some people that you can believe in god without necessarily believing in a church. Of course, now, when I look back, I am embarrassed. I remember those moments when I was surreptitiously perusing Jehovah Witnesses’ books, or those where I was standing up in an auditorium of a church filled with two hundred to two-fifty people, mumbling words of a karaoke song from a screen, “O, Jesus please save me,” thinking about how crazy are the people in the front row with their raised hands, twirling as if in a Sufi-like dance. I remember the moment when my father called me during one of those Christian sermons, and asked me about the songs in the background, and how I had to answer, or better lie, that I was at a rock concert, certainly a place where a normal sixteen-year-old guy should be. I doubt that he believed me, since in a conversation that did not last more than one minute he asked me twice about the music, and who would ever believe that rock concerts are held at ten in the morning?

But this image of me as a believer did not describe me entirely. I was a believer only in the eyes of the unbelievers or agnostics or believers who went to church out of tradition, but who had little knowledge of the bible and history of religion. In the eyes of more avid Christians, however, I was at best an agnostic or an atheist who was yet noncommittal about his lack of belief. After all, I always asked controversial questions about all the rape, war, incest, and other things that are supposed to be sinful with which the Bible is replete. I had good conversations with these avid Christians, from which I learned that most of them did not read the Bible entirely, but have selectively taken mostly the good parts in it. Even pastors who led the sermons at some protestant churches, which in Moldova are called rudely “SEKTA,” a name that in the US would be attributed to Moonies, were reluctant to talk about the darker parts found in the Bible. That is when I understood how powerful the social bonding among protestant Christians is. I realized that many of them do not come to sermons only to hear the “Message,” but they come there because they can find supporting friends, who would be glad to help them with whatever spiritual or financial troubles they might have. They come and have a good conversation with like-minded people, and also feel good about themselves for leading a subjectively righteous life. Or they come there because the food is delicious, as it often happened and happens in my case.

Clearly, I have changed. I was an unaffiliated Christian, then an agnostic, and now I am atheist. I treaded the same road from belief to disbelief that many others  went on, but I know that this journey would have been bumpier and longer if someone challenged my belief in the existence of god. Why? Because whenever someone’s personal beliefs are challenged in a militant way, that someone will erect barriers that no amount of reason and persuasion can surmount. I remember the rare occasions when I met atheists, who were extremely polite and nice people, and how after conversing with them on matters of religion I would end up being more convinced that I was in the right and they were in the wrong. How else can you make your case in such an uneven debate, where you have to prove the existence of the nonexistent with rational arguments, but by ruefully maintaining your apologetic quackery? Unless you are a new-age creationist, such a Michael Behe or Gerald Schroeder, who conjures data in a mystical way, there is as much evidence you can provide for the existence of god as there is for the existence of crab-people.

Later, I got rid of the Pascal’s wager that you can find in his apologetic notes in the Pensees. I realized that persuading people to believe in a deity simply because the bets are lopsided is emotionally manipulative and undignified. “Well, you know,” says Pascal, “that if you do not believe in Santa, he might change his mind and not bring you anything for Christmas.”

Still, I am not a militant atheist. I know from my own experience that defending my lack of belief and attacking religious groups would only make things worse. That is why I do not support leading atheists like Dawkings, Hitchens, Dennet, Harris, and especially Silverman, although I share their line of reasoning when it comes to the existence of god. They have been promulgating a message of atheism for more than enough time, and I believe that their message has strengthened the lack of belief in atheists, but it has not added any use in persuading believers to let go of their irrationality. Even atheistic demotivators or motivators or whatever those black-framed photographs are called, with their cutting humor that mocks religion, are pandering to atheists and are reinforcing the faith of believers. Saying to a large group of people that they are foolish enough to believe in something that does not exist is a quite telling message, which is often met with aggressive responses. In order to show you how far people can go to rationalize their beliefs, let us look at an observational study described by Leon Festinger. Go Wiki:

Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined “Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood.” A housewife from Chicago, given the name “Marian Keech” (real name: Dorothy Martin, later known as Sister Thedra), had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of “automatic writing” from alien beings on the planet Clarion. These messages revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. The group of believers, headed by Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers.

Of course, the end of the world did not happen, and many of us would assume that that would be it. What happened, however, is that most members rationalized their beliefs by claiming that their faith saved the world. Also, before the day of the supposed apocalypse, they preached their message reluctantly, while after the dis-confirmation, they became ardent missionaries, tirelessly maintaining their belief in aliens from the planet Clarion.

Does it, then, make sense to aggressively promote a message of disbelief, if the end result is the opposite of what atheists want?

An aquired taste

January 3, 2011 Leave a comment

If you do not have a penchant for reading literary novels or if you see in poetry nothing but lines of words, utterly abstruse, foolish, and unnecessary, brought together carelessly by naive poets, who might as well speak a foreign language, then you are not likely to care too much about the sequence in which words are used. But if you do like poetry, if you do like novels, then you are very likely to care about the verbal freshness of words that are used to convey meaning. After all, the plot of the Lighthouse might as well be summarized in one page, except that when some of us read it, we look for something more than just a simple story.

Of course, not all of those who spend their days savoring Shakespeare and Hugo do so because they were born with an innate talent to relish on words. The first book that was put into your hands was likely something easy to handle (mentally), and described an interesting, magical tale. But would you consider, as you grow up, that reading literature affects sensitivity to word distributions when reading texts? If the answer is yes, this, at the very least, would explain why an Anglophile abhors Dan Brown’s novels,  while I, an uneducated boor, never got a knack for Shakey.

So, do we really develop an acquired taste to detect skill and beauty in literature? Do we really have the affinity to detect the small incongruities in the words others pick to make sentences, so that later we can point out to ourselves that the writer, with all his talent, must’ve used some other word to please us?  Apparently, yes.

A closely knit group of researchers at the department of psychology at Stanford found that reading habits affect the judgments of writing quality. Their study rests on the premise that language is probabilistic in nature. That is, some words occur together more frequently than others, and we often can finish each others’………………..sentences because we have a preference for some chunk frequencies than others, even though there is no difference in the meaning conveyed. A briefer, yet humorous explanation is provided below:

But it's not all that simple

Yes, things are not all that simple. If you do not put much relevance to the context in which language is used as it is done in the comic strip ( and which you must always do in real life!), and only look at the probabilities that define the preference for certain chunk frequencies rather than others, then you notice that if we defy those probabilities and use a somewhat odd expression, we get the feeling that something doesn’t feel right. The authors of the paper give an example:

In many ways, the idea that we pay attention to how words are used is hardly surprising. It seems obvious, for example, that “a daunting task” sounds more “right,” or more familiar, than “a daunting job.” In fact, although job is a higher frequency word than task, “a daunting task” appears over a hundred times more frequently on Google than “a daunting job.” We are sensitive to the different frequencies of the two chunks and prefer the one with the higher frequency, even though there is no real reason why a job cannot be described as daunting.

With this, Kao et. al set forth to test if “literary readers would be more sensitive to the probabilistic distributions of literary words than nonliterary readers.” They selected four and four excerpts of literary and non-literary writing and manipulated the frequencies of several chunks. They hypothesized that literary readers (those who love reading literary works) are likely to give higher ratings for passages that have higher chunk frequencies of what could be called ‘literary blocks.’ Non-literary readers would prefer reading passages that have been modified to contain non-literary chunk frequencies. Here is an example from the paper:
(a) On the further side of the field – this is the original chunk frequency suited for literary works.
(b) On the further part of the field -this is a modified chunk frequency suited for non-literary works

As you can probably notice, the meaning of both sentences is the same, but for an Anglophile the modified expression would sound odd and would make her give a lower rating. A person who reads non-literary works would likely prefer the modified chunk because he is used to seeing it more often (i.e., has higher frequency in his corpora).

As it was assumed, there was a significant interaction between the subject’s reading preferences and habits. Those who mostly read literary works gave higher ratings to original passages that have higher frequency chunks, while non-literary readers preferred mostly passages with non-literary chunks.  But that is only for literary passages. For non-literary passages,  all subjects preferred the originals.

Kao, J., Ryan, R., Dye, M., & Ramscar,M. (0). An acquired taste: How reading literature affects word distributions when judging literary texts. Not specified