Category Archives: Science

“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar…”

“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow”

Whenever people end a Facebook post – or a tweet – with “do your own research,” there’s a chance that they’ve done no such thing themselves. Or to be more specific, they’re unlikely to have gone through a set of procedures that are what folks who actually do research for a living would go through. There are hundreds of books out there that explain, in excruciating detail, what “research” is but I’d bet money on the probability that the number of folks who have read ONE book on the research process is significantly lower than the number of people who believe the world is secretly governed by lizard people [1], that aliens regularly visit the earth [2], and that if there is no evidence for X, that in itself is proof that X exists [3].

Research is essentially a tool used by scientists to test the veracity of hypotheses. Or in words of one syllable, a way to find out if what you think is true is, in fact, true. But let’s go down the rabbit hole a little more here and try to avoid the words “true” and “truth” because like “commonsense,” so many people claim to know what it is but often turn out to be as subjective in their thinking as everyone else. For many people, “truth” is simply what they believe to be true and may have zero bearing on any actual, observable, demonstrable, measurable quality. The majority of people reading this will believe in some supernatural deity (or deities) with absolute conviction that this is “true,” yet given the opportunity to provide any supporting evidence that is objective and replicable, they will fail stunningly. Faith is not Truth, and Truth is not Belief. Anyone can have faith in something or someone, and anyone can believe in any ridiculous things they like. As I’ve said for years, the First Amendment of the US constitution pretty much guarantees your right to be a complete idiot, and it’s a testament to its power that so many people are making the most of it.

Deciding that something is “true” turns out to be a devilishly difficult and intellectually irritating thing. Even when Little Orphan Annie sings, “The sun’ll come out, tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun,” the scientist in you should be thinking, “Oh yeah, how do you know that’s true?” Annie is definitely on my list of “irritating imps” from literature, with the number one spot reserved for Dickens’ Tiny Tim, but she can’t be blamed for at least attempting to make a statement that has all the appearance of being unassailably truthful.

To be more accurate, we’d first have to make sure we all shared the same definitions of the hypotheses she’s espousing; that “The sun will come out tomorrow.” In relation to “the sun,” it would be churlish to suggest that someone might interpret what she’s referring to as Canis Major or Corona Borealis but if we want to be as accurate as we can, we’d make explicit that “the sun” is the star closest to Earth some 93 million miles away. Then, by “come out,” we mean that it will take a position in the sky above the horizon, regardless of whether it is obscured by clouds, smoke, overhanging branches, or a roof. That way is someone tries argue that, “I was in my cellar and didn’t see the sun so it didn’t ‘come out'” you can happily sneer and smack them on the head with a large dead cod and remind them of the definition. This also infers that we must have some way of measuring the act of “coming out” that is objective, which means it doesn’t really on belief, opinions, points-of-view, or any other internal mental phenomena), and repeatable by others, which means anyone else could do the same measurement. Finally, “tomorrow” also needs to be defined as being a point 24 hours after an initial point. If it’s 48 hours before it appears again, then that’s not tomorrow but “every two days.”

But it doesn’t stop here, does it? The location in which I take the measure may also affect the truth of the statement. It may work for Annie who’s in New York city but what about Pippi Longstocking on her visit to grandma’s house in Svalbard, Norway. Being inside the Arctic circle means she’s singing, “The sun’ll come out, in April, betcha bottom Krone that in April, they’ll be sun.” Clearly there is still a sense that “the sun will come up” at some point but it’s not as clean cut as it appears in the Tomorrow song.

Now, given that we’re happy with defining our terms and restrict our experiments to places closer to the equator, what happens when we find that we see the sun rise on Jan 1 at 7:20 AM, then again on Jan 2 at 7:21 AM. Can we say, “Yes, it’s true, the sun’ll come out tomorrow?” You could try and maybe many people would believe you. But the problem is that this is based on ONE sample and it’s a very poor piece of research that takes one sample and concludes it’s the truth. That’s like watching one video on YouTube of someone checking ballot papers and then concluding that the entire election was a scam (unless it was a vote for your candidate, in which case it was true!) No, you’d want to take another sample 24 hours later on Jan 3. Then Jan 4. Then Jan 5. And keep doing that until… well, when?

This is another feature of research that people can misunderstand; that there is an “end” to research [4]. Their understanding is that “research” and “scientific analysis” provide truth and “an answer” when, in reality, that’s not quite right! Back with the rising sun, if you were to say it’s true that the sun will come up tomorrow, what you’re really saying is “given that we’ve observed a sunrise since records began, and that the laws of physics which apply to the universe and how planets revolve around suns have not changed, there is probability close to one that the sun will come up tomorrow.” Is there a chance that the sun may NOT come up? Could there be an unforeseen cosmic accident (black hole hitting the sun) that may wipe out sun and the Earth during the night? Well, maybe. And that is where all research ends up.

Research is about creating hypotheses – ideas that may or may not be true – and then dreaming up ways to test them. You determine in advance what measurements you consider will support the hypotheses and after testing, see if those measures were achieved. If they were, then you can say, “yeah, the objective measure support my hypothesis and it’s therefore worth considering as ‘useful’ or ‘important.'” The more measures you take and the more support you find, then the more meaningful the results. Better still, if lots of other people do the same measures and get the same results, then your hypothesis becomes tougher, stronger, and develops a bit of a cocky swagger.

But although thousands upon thousands of repeated experiments can support a hypothesis, it only takes ONE discrepancy to shatter it into tiny pieces. This notion is sometimes called the “Black Swan” approach. If you set up the theory that “All swans are white” you can spend years out in the world looking at swans and see that every swan you comes across is white. You can then have hundreds of other bird watchers report back that every swan they’ve seen is white. But as soon as ONE person person provides evidence that they’ve found a black swan, the “All swans are white” is now wrong; it’s downgraded at best to “Not all swans are white” or “Most swan are white” or “All swans in the world, except for in the village of Little Turdington that are black, are white.”

Of course, this also introduces the issue of determining what constitutes valid data. The ornithologist from Little Turdington may have taken a photo of a white swan but, armed with a copy of PaintShop Pro 2021, changed the color to black in an attempt to discredit the original hypothesis. Real researchers wouldn’t take that one photo and accept it as proof but more likely send out lots of other researchers to LIttle Turdington to see if they, too, can observe and measure black swans. As more evidence of black swans appears, then the truth, or veracity, of the original claim is diminished.

Science progresses step by step by step. One hypothesis leads to another and depends on what has gone before. In the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, one of the claims by vaccine-skeptics is that it was developed too quickly and not tested enough, which completely ignores that fact that work on similar vaccines has been going on for years, and that all the work that has gone before always sets the scene for what comes next. Sir Isaac Newton, whose “Theory of Gravity” is still a theory [5], is credited with saying that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” and that’s pretty much what research is all about.

And if you don’t believe me, do your own research 🙂


[1] According to Wikipedia, the increasingly deranged ex-sports commentator, David Icke in the UK, believes that “tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.” He is, sadly, not alone. Proof, should you need it, includes videos of famous people (the Queen, Hillary Clinton, the Pope) all blinking like lizards, so it must be true.

[2] Given that (a) reports of aliens from outer space visiting earth have been around for as long as folks have been writing and (b) not one has yet gone through the “take me to your leader” process, it makes me wonder just how “alien” their thinking must be. Imagine investing unimaginable amounts of time, money, and energy into building interstellar spaceships that can carry you anywhere in the universe, traveling millions and millions of miles -perhaps over immense periods of time – and then landing in some backwoods to pick up a random person so you can stick an anal probe up their arse before flying back home. Now that IS some alien psychology!

[3] The best conspiracy theories are the ones that evolve in such a way that they become completely impervious to any evidence against them, and where all and any statements are “proof” of the theory. Any “proof” of election fraud in the US 2020 election is seen by conspiracy theorists as “clear evidence” for the stolen election; any absence of evidence of fraud is “proof” that the fraud was effective and therefore also evidence for the stolen election! According to one of my favorite philosophers of science, Karl Popper, this type of thinking is referred to a “metaphysical” because it is incapable – by design – of being tested by any objective measurement and is, ergo, non-scientific. Popper was no fan of Psychoanalysis and always deemed it a metaphysical philosophy rather than a science. Religion, as a phenomenon, is also metaphysical in nature in that there are no measurements we can do to test for the existence of a supernatural entity, or entities (it seems unfair to throw Odin, Thor, and Loki into the “myth basket” while allowing Jehovah and Allah special status as “real”).

[4] All research article end with “much more research is needed,” which is (a) probably true and (b) setting the scene for the next grant application. If anyone can cite a paper that concludes with “and, ergo, there is no need to look at this topic anymore because we now have all the answers” I’d love a copy.

[5] Just because something is labeled a “theory” doesn’t imply that is is somehow wrong. Both “gravity” and “evolution” are spoken of as “theories” but if you chose to believe gravity isn’t “real,” I suggest throwing yourself off a high building and seeing how well your disbelief stops you from hitting the ground at 150 miles per hour and leaving you intact enough to stand up and say, “See, I told you it was just a theory.” In this case, you’d be well advised to treat the “theory of gravity” as a practical reality.

Articles and Abstracts: Free Stuff from the Dudes

Articles and Abstracts

It’s not unusual for me to get an email from someone asking things like, “Do you have any references that support the idea that using AAC will stop a child from talking?” or “Can you point me to some articles that provide information on Core vocabulary?” As a member of the “Not Dead Yet” club of AAC practitioners [1], over the years I’ve collected a few useful papers that I can refer to, and continue to collect new ones whenever I can force myself to do some journal reading.

So to make life easier, I’ve created a suite of PDF files is a series I call “Articles and Abstracts,” with each file providing a selection of articles along with the abstracts. I can’t provide the actual articles without having to get lots and lots of permissions, and frankly I don’t have the time for that, but given the citations and the abstracts, folks can at least decide if they want to go track them down – and sometimes a starting point is really useful.

I’ve broken the series down into the following topic areas:

There’s no magic formula to explain why I chose this grouping, just that they are areas of research that impinge on the field of AAC and language. And I don’t claim to have anything close to a comprehensive listing of articles, just some key ones that are, in my opinion, useful and relevant. If anyone has any suggestions for additional papers, just let me know – I can’t read every journal that’s out there!

I update on an irregular basis, by which I mean that if a new article that I find interesting comes my way, I’ll update the particular file there and then. So I already some 2017 papers cited – and you can have the excitement of finding out which they are when you download the series 🙂

From our blog home page, select the FREEBIES menu and then down to Article and Abstracts for the list. Or just use the bulleted list above. Feel free to share the information – it’s all publicly available in peer-reviewed journals – but we’d be grateful if you’d mention the Speech Dudes as your source now and again.

[1] In a field where the turnover of practitioners is relatively high, one of the easiest ways to become known is simply to avoid dying. If you can also add “getting around a bit,” then your stock can rise without you having to do much more than that! Of course, if you want to reach the level of AAC Superstar or AAC Luminary, you do, in truth, have to put a little more work into it than I have, and the Superstars and Luminaries deserve their status. All I’m sharing is that even if you don’t aspire to professional sainthood, staying alive is a really, really good idea 😉 And as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to be immortal through my work; I want to be immortal through not dying.”

The Dudes Do ASHA 2015: Day 1 – Of Snow…

So it had been snowing in Denver. Not a lot. But snow there was. Just one week ago in Ohio I’d been able to wear a T-shirt and ride my motorcycle in unseasonably warm 70 degree temperatures. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact.

The charm of a snow-brushed Denver was somewhat offset by the accompanying bitter chill that my jacket was having a hard time fighting off. The Super Shuttle service, for those who haven’t used it, it located at the extreme edge of the transport area, beyond which appears to be nothing but plains for miles and miles. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to work out that if the wind is blowing in across freezing snow, the wind chill by the bus stand takes on a negative value and unless your willing to snuggle up to lots of folks like chickens in a roost, it’s cold. Another way to tackle the frosty air is to focus you thoughts on something else.

Like snow.

Allegedly, one of the special things about snowflakes is that no two are alike. Every single snowflake is different. In fact, a common metaphor used by the kumbaya brigade [1] is that people are like snowflakes and unique in their own special ways, and all of us are beautiful and special. What the one-world tree huggers fail to include in their metaphorical use is that snowflakes are also cold and short-lived; and while one snowflake might be exquisite, ten billion of the little buggers moving at 50 miles an hour is a blizzard.


Putting my curmudgeonly cynicism aside, what’s more interesting is that I suspect all of us happily accept the “all snowflakes are different” statement as a fact. But based on what? How many snowflakes do you need to look at before you can conclude that no two are alike? Or no three? Surely, you may think, that given the total number of snowflakes that have fallen to the earth since the dawn of time, at least TWO flakes have been the same. Doubtless one of our statistically oriented physics buff readers can supply some mind-bogglingly big numbers regarding snowflakes but math aside, let’s just think a little about what we mean by same and different.

As a Speech-Language Therapist, I’ve been teaching same and different as words and concepts probably from the first time I ever worked face-to-face with a kid. Like most SLPs, I’ve used objects, pictures, symbols, gestures, words, and any number of ways to reinforce what we mean by same and different because it’s a distinction that is critical to how we look at and talk about the world.

In language, “difference” is what marks fundamental distinctions at various levels of a communicative act. For example, at the sound level, whether you use the sound [p] or [pʰ] in a word is not going to make a difference in meaning if you are an English speaker. You might hear a slight variation but folks will not misunderstand you. However, in Hindi, using [p] or [pʰ] can make difference in meaning; [pɑl] means “care for” but [pʰɑl] means “knife.” These types of meaningful differences in speech sounds are what we all “minimal pairs” in Speech and Language Pathology and working with minimal pairs is bread and butter stuff to speechies [2].

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure made the following statement in his Course in General Linguistics [3];

Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system.  Their most precise characteristic is in being what they other are not. (p.17)

In other words, it’s differences within a language that are the stuff of speech, not the similarities.

Like all words, same and different are a little grey around the edges; they are not absolutes but “more or less.” Things are only the same so long as we using a pragmatic definition of same that works for us. If I open a can of peas and pour them into a pan to cook, I’d be very likely to say that they are all the same. We even have the expression, “as alike as peas in a pod.” But should I decide that my life is so devoid of meaning that measuring each pea using a micrometer seems like a good idea, I’m going to change my mind as say that the peas are all different. Equally when I say that the great thing about the McDonald’s Big Mac is that it’s the same wherever I buy one, in an absolute sense that’s false because no two Big Macs will ever be “the same” or even taste the same – they will be similar.

Most dictionaries define similar as meaning “resembling but not being identical to.” Logical positivists would probably be happy to argue that the word same should be replaced by the word similar, and hence forth when we’re teaching same and different to kids we should be honest and teach similar and different. Fortunately, most of us work at the level of pragmatic sense rather than absolute scientific truth. The inherent fuzziness of words within a language actually helps us to get on with life rather than banging our heads against a stack of dictionaries trying to find the REAL meaning of a word or the ABSOLUTE TRUTH of a proposition. Sure, they may be some mathematical truths out there, such as 2 + 2 = 4, but in the world of linguistics, imprecision is an inherent feature.

So as I got on the bus for the hotel, I was satisfied to look around and realize that we were all different but in the same profession, and we were all heading for the same conference center but then to different bars for different drinks.

Philosophy can be so comforting at times.

[1] The origin of the word kumbaya is still something of a mystery. In a recent article (The World’s First “Kumbaya” Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song) the author Stephen Winick suggests it originated in the American south as an African Spiritual, with “kumbaya” being a corruption of “come by here.” It’s plausible but there is no solid evidence. The way in which I use it is in a more modern incarnation where it has a pejorative meaning of wishy-washy or naively optimistic. You can even find examples of the phrase “kumbaya moment” in the Corpus of Contemporary American” being used political to deride the actions of the opposition.

[2] For the non-SLPs and non-linguists who follow the Dudes, it can be surprising to learn that the sounds we all use to make words vary across languages and that even a single sound such as a “b” can change depending in where is it being used in a word or phrase. It’s as if a speech sound isn’t a single thing but a cluster of “near enough” sounds. As long as the “b” you say is “near enough” to the “b” I’m used to hearing, then we’re good to go. If you actually record someone speaking a list of words with “b” sounds scattered around them (such as “bottle,” “cabin” “abstract” and “cab”), when you look at the words using speech sound analysis software, you will find that the “b” looks different in each case! The reason that we all think the “b” is always the same is because our brains are actually very good at interpreting “near enough” sounds, which makes life a lot easier.

[3] The original French version, Cours de Linguistique Générale was first published in 1916 after de Saussure’s death, based on the notes he had used for his taught course. It wasn’t until 1959 that an English language version, A Course in General Linguistics was published. It’s generally regarded as a landmark book in linguistics but unlikely to be recommended as an essential read – unless you’re studying the history of Linguistics.

Quinoa Salad and Literacy

Over the past month of so, the written word quinoa has been popping up in my life more than usual. Or should I say, in the interest of accuracy, my perception of the frequency of appearance of the word quinoa has been that its incidence has increased. For those of you who care about evidence-based assertions – and I like to think that’s almost all of you who read the Speech Dudes’ posts – there is a difference in those two statements. For example, if I mention to you now that the number 23 will haunt you mysteriously for the next few weeks, there’s a very good chance that it will. And is that because there is a spooky, paranormal force at work? No, it’s because I’ve just turned on your “Number 23 Detector” and from here on in, your awareness of it has been activated. In other words, the real frequency of occurrence of 23 hasn’t changed – you attention to it has [1].

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

The number 23 aside, what’s become apparent is that I’ve been able to read the word quinoa quite happily for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never made the link between how I think it sounds in my head and how it is really pronounced by the rest of the world! Up until now, I’ve imagined that the word is pronounced /kwɪ’nəʊə/ when it’s actually /’ki:nwa:/ [2]. This boils down to that other than the /k/ and the /n/ sounds, I’ve had everything else totally wrong. In my defense, the Merriam-Webster dictionary also includes the variant /kɪ:’nəʊə/, which is closer to my imagined pronunciation; but it’s still without the /w/ as part of the /kw/ blend.

So apart from learning that I’m wrong – a condition that causes me no end of shame and batters my already fragile ego – what else can I learn from this? How much lemonade can I squeeze from this mispronounced lemon?

Well, we can try to work out why I imagined the pronunciation that I did, and that goes back to the process of reading. When you see a word with which you are unfamiliar, you use your current knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to make a “best guess.” In this case, clearly when I look at the “qui…” I think of words such as quick, quibble, quiet, quirky, quins, quintuplet, quit, quip, quill, quintessential [3], quincunx, and the list goes on. In ALL of these words, the letters “qu” represent the blend /kw/, so when faced with “quinoa,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think /kwɪ’nəʊə/ is OK.

But this is based on an assumed etymology of “quinoa” being Latin, because in the Latin alphabet, the letters “qu” were used to represent the sound /kw/. English is heavily influenced by words of Latin origin, and its alphabet is also derived from the Latin alphabet. So if you were a betting person, when you see a word that starts with “qu,” you’d win more than you’d lose if you guessed it sounded like /kw/ at the beginning.

Unless the word comes from the South American language called Quechuan, pronounced /’kɛt͡ʃwən/ and not with a /kw/. And quinoa does.

The word quinoa comes from a grain plant native to South America and the grains from this have become popular in the Western world as a health food during the late 20th century. When Spanish colonists moved into South America in the 16th century, they not only brought with them a generous amount of guns, horses, and diseases, but their alphabet. And what’s special about the Spanish alphabet’s letter-sound correspondence it that the sequence “qu” is pronounced as /k/ and NOT the original Latin /kw/. So when they heard the word /’ki:nwa:/, it was a no-brainer to spell it using a “qui” and not a “k” at the beginning. Thus the word quinoa made its way into text along with its /k/-not-/kw/ pronunciation.

Quechuan in South America

Quechua in South America

This incidence of my public shame also serves to remind us of that the relationship between letters and sounds is not always as clear-cut as we might want or imagine. Whether the string “qu” is pronounced /kw/ or /k/ depends not just on the letter themselves but the history and origin of the word [4]. So if I’d known about the Quechuan language, my pronunciation error would never have happened [5], and servers in restaurants wouldn’t be giggling and pointing at me after taking an order.

I should have paid more attention to languages at school.

[1] This type of effect is called Selection Bias, Observational Bias, or, more memorably, Cherry Picking. It can happen both unconsciously, such as my believing that “quinoa” has suddenly become popular, or consciously, such as when I only read articles that support my long-cherished beliefs and ignore/trash those that challenge them. Only in the fruit distribution industry in “cherry picking” a good thing; in Science, it’s bad.

[2] I sometimes forget that some of the folks who read the Speech Dudes blog are unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or at least don’t use it very often. So here’s another way of writing those pronunciations using a different type of phonetic spelling: [kwih-noh-uh] versus [keen-wah].

[3] I can’t resist this but the word quintessential derives from the Latin quintessence, which translates as “the fifth element,” and which in turn is the title of a delightfully campy and visual stylish sci-fi movie with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. In classical and medieval philosophy, the fifth element was the stuff of stars and something hidden within all things. I guess Moby had the same idea when he produced “We Are All Made of Stars” back in 2002. Once again, you learn the quirkiest of things on a trip to the Dudes’ site!

[4] My modest obsession with etymology as a hobby (and yes, I carry around a little notebook and scribble words down when I hear them – or use Evernote if I’m in a digital mood) is actually usually pretty helpful when it comes to deciphering new words. It’s also a source of pleasure when looking at how words evolve and change over the years. For example, did you realize that the word amazing originally meant “causing distraction, consternation, confusion, dismay; stupefying, terrifying, dreadful,” and not “wonderful and astonishing.” From 1600 to today, it’s pretty much flipped its meaning from something bad to something good. I find that amazing!

[5] In a last-ditch effort to dig myself out of the hole, I should point out that the Oxford English Dictionary does, in fact, include my [kwih-noh-uh] articulation along with the more common, “correct” version. Alas, I suspect this merely reflects that I’m not the only Englishman whose attitude to foreign language is that if English were good enough for God, it’s good enough for the rest of the world. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m only a polyglot in so far as I can speak British English, American English, and a smattering of Canadian English, Australian English, and possible South ‘Efrican and New Zealand English.

The State of the Union Address 2015: “We Are Family…”

Within seconds of a President turning off the autocue, political pundits stop trembling, wipe the drool from their lips, and spend the next 2 years talking incessantly about what was said. A single speech that clocks in at just under 6,500 words can single-handedly generate more web pages than the callipygian [1] Kim Kardashian can generate page clicks. Being a dude, you might think that this post is now about to become an excuse to share a picture of the ample Ms. Kardashian’s gluteus  maximus in all it’s shiny glory – but you’d be wrong! What I’m actually more interested in doing is taking a more detailed look at the vocabulary that Barack Obama used from the basis of corpus linguistics and concordance software. At this point, 90% of the guys who found this post by googling “Kim Kardashian’s ass” will leave. Sorry, dudes.

The data came from a transcript available from, which I then used as input for WordSmith 6.0 software, a corpus analysis tool. Of the many things this software will let analyze, the ones we’ll look at here are word frequencies, keywords, and concordances.

Keywords are those words that appear in a sample as being used significantly more or less than they are typically used in the general population. In the case of WordSmith, the “general population” is a list know as the British National Corpus, a sample of some 100 million words used in British English (BrE).

The “teachable moment” here is to think about why I chose this sample. Now I know – because I have a ear for these things – that Barack Obama does not use British English; his accent is also a bit of a giveaway. However, for the purpose of this analysis, I don’t think the frequency differences between BrE and American English (AmE) are significant enough to warrant worrying about it. I could have used a different sample called the American National Corpus but that’s only good for 14 million words, which is much smaller than the BNC. Therefore, I chose to go for the larger corpus, knowing that there may be some variations between the two but not, in my opinion, enough to skew the analysis.

Top 25 words by frequency

Fig 1: Top 25 words by frequency

If we take a look at the most frequently used words in the speech, you’ll see that they are pretty much what you might expect on the basis of typical distributions. The word the is the most frequent in the English language and seeing it atop the President’s list is uninteresting. What is interesting is that the pronouns we and our are right up there above I and you. Pronouns regularly score high on frequency lists, and it’s one of the reasons practitioners in the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) should make sure these words are targeted. But the fact that we and our appear so high up the list (at #4 and #8 respectively) made me wonder; is this what we might expect to see in general? And that, my friends, is why we turn to a keyness list.

Top 25 words by keyness

Fig 2: Top 25 words by keyness

Take a look at that keyness column and notice how both we and our are way up there at #2 and #3. Ignoring for now the intricacies of how those keyness figures are calculated [2], what is significant is that the Pres is using those two pronouns significantly more than how anyone else would use them in general, and that reflects a conscious effort to come across as one of “us” and not an “I” or “me” who is doing things. He’s appealing to a “Spirit of Unity.”

You can see more evidence for this appeal if you simply look at the keyness of # 4 and #8 – America and Americans. He’s certainly using the words with more frequency than you’d find in a regular sample but we can perform one more kind of analysis in order to see just how he’s using them; and that’s to create a concordance.

A concordance is a list that shows instances of a word in context, along with the words that go before and after it. Below is a concordance for the word Americans as used alongside our:

Concordance of instances of the words americans and we

Fig 3: Concordance showing WE and AMERICANS

Given that there were 19 instances of the word Americans being used in total, this pairing accounts for over 30% of the use of Americans and we. So as well as using the pronouns themselves to paint a picture of unity, he’s yoking one of them with Americans to further that underlying message.

Casting your eyes just a few more lines down the keyword list you’ll see the words jobs and the economy coming in at #11 and #12, not too far above families (#14) and childcare (#16). Here we see Obama invoking notions of family and economics, both of which are important to voters because we are all involved at some level with both! But take a look at the concordance for how the word family is being used and see if you can spot some familiar words:

Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Fig 4: Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Notice how our and American are also used along with families, further reinforcing that Spirit of Unity. In fact, Obama even makes that relationship between families and the United States in the following few sentences:

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.

So not only do we hear this explicit appeal to family but by analyzing the words he uses throughout the speech using keywords and concordances, we can tease out those subliminal nods and pointers toward an underlying message: We are family [3].

[1] Callipygian is one of my favorite words and, like many of them, deserves to be used much more than it is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as, “of, pertaining to, or having well-shaped or finely developed buttocks,” which in turn comes from the Greek words kalli meaning “beauty” and pygi meaning “buttocks or rump.” Incidentally, an old word for someone who engages in anal intercourse is a pygist, and the adjective dasypygal means “having hairy buttocks.” Try using the last one next time you want to insult folks – especially if they’re making asses of themselves!

[2] So for that one person out there who has less of a life than I have, you basically count the number of times your target word occurs out of a sample of X words in total, then match that against the number of times the same word occurs in your reference corpus of Y words in total. Here’s the word we in a little 2 x 2 box:
Measure of usage of the word WEBecause I always prefer an easy life when it comes to all things numerical, I used an online calculator to take these figures to calculate a “log-likelihood” figure – the “keyness” number. You can find that site here:

When the site works its magic, you see the score expressed as G-Squared below:

SOTUA2015 LogLiklihood
Take a look at that G-Squared figure and then look back at the Fig 4 and you’ll see the keyness figure is (almost) the same. You can try this with any of the value in Fig 4 and you’ll see that the online calculator scores match those of the WordSmith software.

[3] It was the end of the 70s and tight spandex leggings were all the rage – for the ladies – and Sister Sledge had a monster hit with “We Are Family” from the album of the same name. Apparently the Sisters are still touring to this very day – although I’m not sure if they’re still wearing spandex.

All I Needed to Know About Adjectives I Learned at Starbucks

Language is an example of a moving target par excellence. Only today, I received a tweet that outlined a number of reasons why you should instantly wife your girlfriend. Wife her, I thought? Since when did wife switch teams and become a verb? Well, truth be told, it turns out that it became a verb in 1387, as evidenced by a quote from that popular 14th century pot-boiler Prolicionycion wrtten by Ranulf Higden:

Þey..kepeþ besiliche here children, and suffreth hem nouȝt to wyfe wiþ ynne foure and twenty ȝere.

But for reasons unknown – as is often the case in etymology – the use of wife as a verb disappeared sometime during the early 18th century, leaving only the noun usage in common use [1]. After a brief dalliance with verbiness, the word settled back into its original home.

Let’s now go back to just last week during the 2014 Closing the Gap conference in Minneapolis. After standing in line for almost 15 minutes to get a Starbucks latte from the hotel’s coffee bar, I asked for a “tall skinny” and was then quizzed with, “Is that the short tall?”

A “short tall?” Dear Lord, how much more torture do we want to subject the English language to? Prescriptivists everywhere would be wailing in anguish and putting red pens to paper – or maybe tweeting their disgust in 140 characters or less!

However, it’s pretty clear what’s happening here. Just like wife in the 14th century, the word tall is getting bored with being a simple adjective and deciding that being a rambunctious noun is much better; “Noun Envy” as the psychoanalinguists might say [2].

Starbucks, for purposes of marketing and not linguistics, decided to ignore the more semantically accurate method of labeling coffee sizes by “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “freakin’ huge,” in favor of “tall,” “grande,” “venti” and “trenta.” But they created an element of cognitive dissonance in consumers’ minds by linking a word like tall, which is semantically typically opposed to short, with the word small, which is more likely to be balanced against large. So using a word like tall to describe something that is cognitively small just doesn’t jibe.

What our consciously unaware but unconsciously linguistic barista has done here is to overcome that dissonance by treating the word tall as a noun and using short as an attributive adjective. Pretty damn cool, eh? [3] I can easily imagine that at some point, various baristas [4] have uttered not only “Is that the small tall?” but also “Do you mean a medium grande?” or “Is that a large venti?”

So while I’m hanging out here with you all in our virtual Starbucks, something else you might be curious about is the whole “How do I order my coffee?” issue. Does one ask for “a skinny grande cappuccino” or “a grande skinny cappuccino?” And when you start adding caramel or extra shots, where on earth do  you hang them?

Well, having castigated my good friends at Starbucks in relation to their idiosyncratic naming of drink sizes, I’ll offer them points for actually providing a “syntax” for budding baristas in order to make ordering easier. In a 2003 manual distributed to employees, the following generic ordering structure was recommended:

1. CUP: That’s hot, cold, iced, or “for here.”
2. SHOT and SIZE: No stipulation for which should be first.
3. SYRUP: For your caramel, raspberry, cinnamon etc.
4. MILK: Skimmed, 2%, soy, or whatever.
5. DRINK: Coffee, tea, mocha, or any other name.

My personal common order is for a “grande, non-fat latte,” which fits the rules of 2>4>5. During summer, I might order an “iced, grande, non-fat latte,” which again conforms with 1>2>4>5. My wife has a “grande non-fat, caramel macchiato” that follows the rules, and sometimes goes for the “iced, grande non-fat caramel macchiato,” which illustrates the full-blown 1>2>3>4>5 ordering.

Budding researchers [5] might want to spend an afternoon at their local Starbies armed with a pen and a notebook, jotting down as many orders as they can overhear – what researchers like to call “taking a sample.” After an hour of sampling both orders and coffee, they should be able to do some analysis to see how many people actually conform to the ordering paradigm. Remember, this is what research is all about; setting up a hypothesis about how we think folks will order coffee, and then testing it against observations of how they really order it!

Outside the world of Starbucks, adjective ordering in English also has some rules. One of the most common ordering paradigms is as follows:

Order of adjectives

If we compare this with the Starbucks recommendations, we can see that the sequence CUP-SHOT/SIZE-SYRUP-MILK-DRINK corresponds to the generic OPINION-SIZE-MATERIAL-QUALIFIER-NOUN. So they’re pretty much on the syntactic ball here!

Doubtless our hundreds of “proxy Dudes” collecting real data at coffee bars across the world will find exceptions to the ordering rules, but language performance has always been variable. On the other hand, we’re unlikely to hear “macchiato iced grande caramel” or “caramel latte venti soy.”

Or are we?

[1] I suppose as a proponent of using evidence and data to support propositions, I did take a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American and found no instances of wife as a verb in the 450 million word sample. Same for the British National Corpus (100 million word sample) and the Canadian Strathy Corpus (50 million words). Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I think I’m pretty confident in asserting that using wife as a verb is extremely rare and unlikely.

[2] Don’t rush out to your dictionary – even if YOUR dictionary is the Urban Dictionary – to find the word psychoanalinguist. It doesn’t exist. It’s only a “real word” in the sense that (a) I have just used it and (b) it can be understood within the context of this article.

[3] I suppose I need to appreciate that not everyone gets as excited about language change as I do. But this type of living example of how new meanings come about helps us all understand how important it is to be aware of the simple fact that languages are not, and never have been, static. I’m not suggesting that we allow some form of lexical anarchy where you can simply stick any old word anywhere but knowing that words can, and do, change meaning and category can, I believe, make us more aware clinicians.

[4] The word barista is, as you might know, Italian, so you might be tempted to point out to me that I should really be using the word baristi to mark the plural. However, the word baristas is perfectly acceptable because it’s an example of a word that’s been Anglicized i.e. taken into the English language, and the normal rule for making a plural word is simply to add an “s.” Hence baristas. I think I’ve talked about this before in relation to octopuses as being a wonderful plural, with octopi being fake Latin (octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, and if you wanted a Greek plural, it would really be octopodes!)

[5] It strikes me that a generous supervisor might be totally OK with letting a grad student work on a study such as, “Syntactic adjectival variability in coffee ordering.” And should that student be the recipient of a grant from Starbucks itself, it seems a bit of a no-brainer, don’t yah think?

“I don’t care what the research says…”

A colleague of mine was asking for some references to support the notion that kids with severe learning difficulties can learn to use high frequency core words (such as want, stop, and get) because they were being told that what these kiddos really use (or need) are words like toy, cookie, and banana. I duly provided a quick sample of peer-reviewed articles and shared the information with other colleagues. And what the hell, I’ll share them with you, dear reader, in the References section at the end of this piece.

Reading the research

Reading the research

But another of my friends also commented that there are still those folks who respond with comment such as, “I don’t care what the research says, I don’t care who these kids are. These are not the kids I’m working with. The kids I’m working with just aren’t going to use these words.”

So what do you do about this? At what point does being “critical of the research” become “ignoring the research because I don’t believe it.”? In the world of Physics, it’s hard to say, “I don’t care what the research says, I’m still going to fly using my arms as wings.” Mathematicians don’t say, “I don’t care what the research says, 1 + 1 does equal 7.” And it’s a brave doctor who would say, “I don’t care what the research says, you go right ahead and smoke 40 cigarettes a day and you’ll be just fine.”

No-one would argue that Speech and Language Pathology as a profession will ever achieve the rigid, statistical certainties of physics and mathematics, but what does it say about our profession if we openly admit to ignoring “the research” because it doesn’t fit with our individual experience? There are certainly enough practices  in Speech Pathology that are hotly debated (non-speech oral motor exercises, facilitated communication, sensory integration therapy) and yet still being used. But all of these are open to criticism and lend themselves to experimental testing, whereas an opinion based on personal experience is not. I could tell you that I have used facilitated communication successfully, but that is still personal testimony until I can provide you with  some measurable, testable, and replicable evidence. This is one of the underlying notions of evidence-based practice in action.

However, it’s  one thing to talk about using evidence-based practice but another to actual walk the walk. If the evidence suggests that something you are doing is, at best, ineffective (at worst, damaging), how willing are you to change your mind? If 50% of research articles say what you’re doing is wrong, how convinced are you? What about 60%? Or 90%? At what level of evidence do you decide to say, “OK, I was wrong” and make a change?

If there’s anything certain about “certainty” it’s that it’s uncertain! Am I certain that teaching the word get to a child with severe cognitive impairments is, in some sense, more “correct” or “right” than teaching teddy? No, I am not. But what I can do is look at as many published studies of what words kids typically use, at what ages, and with what frequency, and then feel more confident that get is used statistically more often across studies. This doesn’t mean teddy is “wrong,” nor does it preclude someone publishing an article tomorrow that shows the word teddy being learned 10x faster than the word get among 300 3-year-olds with severe learning problems.

But until then, the current evidence based on the research already done is, in fact, all we have. Anything else is speculation and guesswork, and no more accurate than tossing a couple of dice or throwing a dart at a word board.

Being wrong isn’t the problem. Unwillingness to change in the face of evidence is.

Banajee, M., DiCarlo, C., & Buras Stricklin, S. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for Toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19(2), 67-73.

Dada, S., & Alant, E. (2009). The effect of aided language stimulation on vocabulary acquisition in children with little or no functional speech. Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 18(1), 50-64.

Fried-Oken, M., & More, L. (1992). An initial vocabulary for nonspeaking preschool children based on developmental and environmental language sources. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 8(1), 41-56.

Marvin, C.A., Beukelman, D.R. and Bilyeu, D. (1994). Vocabulary use patterns in preschool children: effects of context and time sampling. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 10, 224-236.

Raban, B. (1987). The spoken vocabulary of five-year old children. Reading, England: The Reading and Language Information Centre.

The Dudes Do ATIA 2013: Day 3 – Of Dining and Data

Today was a day of meetings. Fortunately, the first was at a delightful restaurant; the Thai Thani  on International Drive in Orlando. Being an Indian curry lover, I opted for the Curry Fried Rice with chicken, and wasn’t disappointed. One of the house specialities is a pineapple yellow fried rice curry with a choice of beef, chicken or pork, stir fried with raisins, cashews, and onions but I wanted something less fruity so I’ll save this special for another visit.

Thay Thani restaurant

Thai Thani Orlando

Following two more meetings, I did the first of my two joint-presentations. I usually fly solo – then there’s only me to blame of things go wrong – but this year I tried sharing. And this one was on one of my favorite topics: automated data collection and analysis with AAC devices. The content was similar to the presentation I gave at ASHA 2012 and which has already been documented in The Dudes Do ASHA 2012: Day 4, so feel free to click and read that.

What wasn’t discussed in that older post was the way on which the word data itself can tell us something about language change over time. So try this quick test – and don’t spend too long thinking about the answer:

Which is these statements is correct:

(a) The data is good.

(b) The data are good.

If you answered (b), then you are in the company of the good people at the  Oxford English Dictionary (and that’s not bad company to be in) and the hearts of die-hard grammatical prescriptivists [1].

But if you answered (a), then you are not that different from the population of the English-speaking world as a whole because the is and the are seem to be in free variation! If you take a look at the Corpus of Historical American English, you’ll see that in terms of frequency of use, they don’t seem to differ that much since the 1930’s, and you can make a case, I suppose, for arguing that the is-form has edged ahead of the are-form.

Take a look at these charts that track use since 1830.

The word data and the verb is

“The data is…”

Notice that “data is…” was being used at the turn of the century and peaked in the 1990’s. Compare that with the “data are…” instances:

The word Data and the word Are

The data are…

There are hardly any examples prior to the 1930’s and from the 1960’s onward, both is and are appear to be neck and neck in terms of usage.

So why does this happen? What is it that makes data such a tough word for folks to decide whether it should be used with is or are? The answer – or a t least part of it – is related to our understanding of whether a noun is a count noun or a mass noun.

For those saner readers who are less obsessed with language than this Dude, count nouns are – unsurprisingly! – those that can be counted. So dog, cat, shoe, table, boat, and cup, are all count nouns because we can talk about “three cups” or “five shoes” or “a room full of dogs.” With a count noun, you’re usually able to turn it into its plural form by adding an “s.”

On the other hand, a mass noun cannot be counted. Pork, education, furniture, and weather, cannot be used with a number or pluralized by adding an “s.” You don’t have “*three weathers” or “*a room full of furnitures.”

Data is one of those words that has become a mass noun, even though it was originally a count noun. And by “originally,” I mean going back to Latin, where the singular was datum and the plural was data. What often happens with foreign words that are imported into English is that we apply regular English rules to them. On that basis, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see datums – but it didn’t happen 😉

What appears to have happened is that the word data has become a synonym for information, and folks feel that if “the information is good” sounds OK, then so does “the data is good.”

Incidentally, there is a way to turn a countable noun into a mass noun by using a rather gruesome linguistic device called a “universal grinder [2].” Suppose that in a frantic effort to catch a bird that has found its way into your house, you cat leaps up into the air and accidentally hits a rapidly rotating heavy fan. Saddened by its untimely demise, you might, through your tragic sobs, explain to someone over the phone that, “There is cat all over the room.” In this situation, a regular count noun has suddenly transformed into a mass noun.

Kitten playing with a fan

Careful, Mr. Tibbles!

Equally, in certain circumstances, some mass nouns can take on the appearance of a count noun. Although water is typically a mass noun, you might be in a restaurant and remark  that, “there are four or five waters already on the table.” Needless to say, folks learning English have a bit of a struggle trying to learn the difference between them as the only rule seems to be that liquids and powders (amorphous items) tend to be mass nouns, and the rest are count.

The learning point from all this – and we’re trying to be recognized as an educational blog as well as providing entertainment – is that when we are evaluating someone’s ability to use language, it’s critical to be aware of the fact that sometimes the prescribed way of speaking may actually be in free variation with the popular way, and this is actually one of the ways in which language changes over time [3].

For the sake of completeness, the day ended with wine, pizza, beer (mass noun), and a cocktail before bed. Needless to say I fell asleep quickly.

[1] In the world of language mavens, there are constant arguments between prescriptivists, who take the line that there are “correct” ways to say things, and descriptivists, who say that so long as you can be understood, there ain’t no right and wrong.  Although I’m more often the prescriptivist boat, I’m happy to jump ship depending on my mood – and whether I want to just get into a bit of a row with someone just for the hell of it.

[2] The Universal Grinder is a linguistic thought experiment first written about by Francis Pelletier, who used it in a paper talking about the nature of count versus mass nouns. Pelletier didn’t use household pets and rotating blades as his examples but the Dudes feel more at home with Edgar Allan Poe as a role model than, say,  Noam Chomksy or Stephen Pinker.

Pelletier, F.  J. 1975. Non-Singular Reference: Some Preliminaries. Philosophia 5.

[3] A pretty comprehensive coverage of how and why languages change over time can be found in Larry Trask’s 2010 book Why Do Languages Change? For those who want the Dude notes, you can click on the following Dude Link to get the 38-page summary. Link to book summary

The Dudes Do ATIA 2013: Day 1 – Of Disclosures and Data

As if to prove that “the best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley,” one of the Dudes has had to cancel his trip to the ATIA conference here in Orlando, along with his presentation on eye gaze evaluation and implementation for children. Fortunately we’ll be able to make the notes available in a few days time, so check back or follow us on Twitter as @speechdudes.

The other Dudes – which would be me – is therefore left with the task of making sure folks get their dose of comments and observations inspired by the conference [1].

And these start with as a result of watching Jeff Smizek, the President and CEO of United Airlines, at the beginning of the flight to Orlando International. YOU may have to swipe your credit card to watch TV shows and movies on the tiny screen at the back of the chairs of a United Airlines Boeing 737-800, but Jeff Smizek’s little promo pieces are always free. In the latest, he enthuses over the new “control center” for the company based on one floor of the Willis Tower, former called the Sears Tower, in Chicago. From here, he extols, all of United’s operations are controlled and monitored in a state-of-the-art facility.

Boeing 737-800

Boeing 737-800

So Jeff, if something were to happen to the Willis Tower facility, wouldn’t that be a “bad thing?” And wasn’t the last time the words “Willis” and “Tower” seen together in the movie Die Hard when Bruce Willis battled against terrorists who took over the Nakatomi Tower? Do you really want to announce to anyone who flies United anywhere in the world the address of the entire company’s nerve center? Call me paranoid, but couldn’t the marketing department find something else to promote – like plane safety, passenger-centric improvements, or a short piece on how airline food is made? Just sayin’, Jeff.

During flights, I take the opportunity to catch up on reading materials that have been piling up over the weeks, which on this trip included the latest copy of Bloomberg Businessweek. What caught my eye was an article on the growth in the Dubai economy. Now I know you’re thinking –  “But Dude, what has this to do with Speech Pathology or Special Education?” Bear with me.

Consider the following paragraph taken from the article;

Rewa Zeinati, a freelance writer in Dubai, has noticed more business cards with photos of scantily clad women offering massages piling up on her car windscreen lately. “Sometimes I’m away for 30 minutes and come back to find a stack of them, ” says Zeinati. “I’ve definitely seen an increase this year.”

For those wanting to learn about experimental design, what we have here is a rather memorable example of the research dynamic duo of validity and reliability. You see, whenever you measure something (length, temperature, density, hair color, foot odor, number of toes etc., the two big questions you typically want answered are whether the test you apply actually measures what it is you are supposed to be measuring, and are these measures accurate.

Take, for example, the masochistic morning activity in which many of us indulge; checking our weight on the bathroom scales. Of late, the numbers I’ve been seeing having demonstrated – how shall I put it? – an “ascendant tendency.” My wife, on the other hand, would say, “You’re getting fat.”

My hope may be that there is a problem with the scales. Unfortunately, they seem to be reliable because they are consistent. By that I mean if I step off the scales and then back on, if they still show me at 170 lbs, they are consistent i.e. reliable. And if they appear to show my weight increasing slowly over time, and don’t suddenly drop to 130 lbs one day and up to 250 lbs on another, that’s more evidence of the reliability.

Bag of flour

Bag of flour

The next line of defense is to argue that the scales are mis-calibrated and are adding an extra 20 lbs to my “real” weight. They are, in fact, lacking in validity – they are not really measuring what they are supposed to be measuring. My wife then grabs two bags of flour from the kitchen, each weighing 5 lbs, and drops them on the scales. The first one shows up as 5 lbs, the second as 10 lbs. She then has me stand on the scales holding the flour and tragically the scales show 180 lbs. Validity confirmed, I walk off in a huff and sign up for a WeightWatchers class [2].

In the case of the Dubai economy, the first assumption of validity is that massage services are dependent on how much money is sloshing around in the economy, and that if folks have more disposable income, they spend more on executive relief. So if there are more cards appearing offering such services, this is an indicator that the economy is on the rise [3].  On the other hand, we might want to argue the reverse; that as an economy declines, people seek temporary relief from the misery of privation by seeking solace in the company of a masseuse, so more cards equals shrinking economy. Readers of the classic Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy may recognize this as a variation on “Shoe Event Horizon” theory.

So it may be that the underlying assumption of the argument from the Businessweek article fails the validity test.

The other assumption is that the measuring rod – the number of cards on a windshield – is not accurate. Does each card measure X amount of “positive economy” or does the number of cards just fluctuate randomly over time? Without more longitudinal data – and looking at more cars than just Ms. Zeinati’s would also be critical.

So the card counting method may turn out to fail the validity test.

The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning has a simple, readable overview of validity and reliability as part of an on-line  tutorial about measurement in the social sciences, so it’s worth taking a look.

Signing in for the conference was a piece of cake. In fact, it was possibly the easiest sign in I’ve had for a while. A couple of days prior to arriving, ATIA sent me a confirmation email that included a bar code. All I needed to do was walk up to the desk at the conference hall, open the email on my smartphone, and wave the bar code at a sensor. My badge was automatically printed out and the only human element needed was for a person to put the paper with my name on it into a plastic holder. The day cannot be far off when even that job will be replace by having me fold my own paper and drop it into a holder I pluck out of a large box.

Registration barcode

Registration barcode

Dinner was at the Tropicale restaurant, one of the Caribe Royale’s on-site venues that I’ve eaten at many times, and I enjoyed a most excellent fire-roasted vegetable risotto served with chicken, asparagus tips, tomato fondue, and shaved Asiago. Delish! By the time dinner was over and beer had been consumed, my 5:00 am start ensured I was asleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow.

[1] As we’ve mentioned before, our posts during conferences are not intended to be a comprehensive review of what’s happening but a series of reflections on what our conference experiences bring to mind. Rather than take 1000 words to outline the features and functions of an iPad app, we’re more likely to riff on the name of the app or mercilessly skewer one tiny aspect. If we say that H.L. Mencken is a role model, you’ll catch our drift.

[2] Astute – or anal – readers may want to raise the objection that we’re now making an assumption about the validity of using the bags of flour as a reference point. What if the makers of the flour have been unscrupulously shorting the contents by 0.2 lbs? Duly noted. It’s a fundamental issue in all measurement that whatever standards we use have to be valid – or assumed to be valid.

[3] I was tempted to use the phrase “…the economy and male anatomy are on the rise,” which is not only puerile play on the word rise but an example of something called syllepsis – a form of sentence where two or more parts of a sentence are yoked together by a common verb or noun, more often than not for humorous effect. Dorothy Parker allegedly once said, “It’s a small apartment. I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.” The sylleptic aspect comes from the dual meaning of the verb “to lay” and this type of humorous device is often called a pun – all be it a special version of a pun.

First Baby Step to Thinking of Evidence-Based Practice: Be Skeptical

At the recent 2012 conference of the International Society for AAC (ISAAC) there was some robust discussion about the technique know as facilitated communication. It’s a controversial technique and surprisingly one on which ISAAC does not have a position paper – which is an endeavor currently underway with a view to something being published soon. I say “surprisingly” because many other professional organizations have had position papers for many years, from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1993) through to the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability [1]. ASHA has had a statement since 1994, so it does seem a little tardy for the group whose raison d’être is AAC to be publishing a statement on an AAC technique. But never mind, at least there is action being taken, which is better than continuing to say nothing.

But this isn’t about the pros and cons of FC. It’s about the development of a mindset that allows people to think about FC – and Non-Oral Motor Speech Exercises, Equine Therapy, Canine Therapy, Sensory Integration, and other such debatable practices. The reason I started with the reference to FC was simply because during the discussion, one person actually said, “But there’s more to this than Science.”

Is there? Is there really? I can appreciate that things in the world can be difficult to measure, and that there are times when measurement seems unfeasible and even intractable, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying.

Handbook of EBP in Communication DisordersEvidence-based practice can be tough. When you get into the nitty-gritty of the scientific method – which is a big chunk of what EBP is about – it’s easy to get overwhelmed by talk of variables, pre-tests, post-tests, levels of confidence, skewed distributions, ANOVA, one- versus two-tailed hypothesis, Bayesian, Cartesian, and the whole catastrophe that is experimental design. Even the most readable of books, such as the excellent The Handbook for Evidence-Based Practice in Communication Disorders by Christine Dollaghan [2], can be hard to read and even more challenging to digest. The potential complexity of designing ways to measure clinical practice is, to put it bluntly, off-putting. When you have a caseload of 200 clients and only 24 hours in a day, the idea of setting up formal measurement procedures is about as welcome as a bacon sandwich at a Bar Mitzvah.

Nil desperandum! Like any other skill in life, becoming a more effective practitioner of EBP doesn’t require you to be an expert all at once. You can improve your practice simply by sharpening your mindset to be more in tune with the concepts of EBP. And the first thing you can learn to do is become a Skeptic.

First, let me shovel out of the way that huge mound of steaming objection that being a skeptic is just an excuse for rejecting everything and believing in nothing. That’s a cynic, or a nihilist. In a 2010 interview with Skeptically Thinking, philosopher and author Massimo Pigliucci [3] said;

I think that a crucial aspect of being skeptical, of engaging in critical thinking, is not the idea that you reject claims because they seem absurd. That’s not being a skeptic, that’s just being a cynic. It’s just denying things for the sake of denying it. The idea of skepticism is that you inquire — that you do the work.

“Doing the work” is obviously a tough one because in our world of Wikipedia and endless cable shows about ghost hunters, psychics, celebrity hauntings, and quick-fix psychology, it’s easy to let someone else do the work for you – and that work may be of stunningly poor quality and accuracy. However, a little “critical thinking” is not that hard.

So here are my Top Three Critical Questions to help you become a baby Skeptic. And feel free to be skeptical about whether my three are a good three!

1. If someone claims X causes Y because they did Z, can the claim be tested independently? If I tell you that I can stop an interdental lisp by pushing the tip of a client’s tongue with a wooden spoon, while simultaneously saying “go back, tongue, go back,” you’d be right to ask if anyone else can do it, and you may even try it yourself. But if I claim that the reason no-one else can do it is because they don’t have the same spoon, or that my intonation pattern is very specific, you’d also be right to call bullshit on me.

2. If someone claims X causes Y because they did Z, are there any other simpler explanations as to why Y may have happened? When TV ghost hunters use a drop in temperature to “prove” the presence of a ghost, could something simpler have caused it? When a child appears to speak more after an hour with a dolphin, was it actually the dolphin’s presence causing it or just that the kids was happy?

3. If someone claims X causes Y because they did Z, what change was actually measured and how? “My kid talks more to my therapy dog, so therapy dogs work.” More than what? More than if there was a cat? More than 6 months ago? More than when he walked in the door? I had a client many years ago who swore blind that his stammer was much better after a few pints of beer and he wondered if he could get a prescription! Although I never took the opportunity to spend a night out at the bar with him, his measure of “better” was that he felt he was more fluent. But after a few pints of ale, I’m not sure my client was particularly accurate in his measurement techniques.

Everythiing is Obvious book

Oddly enough, I’m not going to suggest you use your common sense because this can be less “common” and “sensible” than you might believe. A recent book by Duncan Watts takes the notion of common sense to task. In Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us, he argues that;

Common sense is “common” only to the extent that two people share sufficiently similar social and cultural experiences. Common sense, in other words, depends on what the sociologist Harry Collins calls collective tacit knowledge, meaning that it is encoded in the social norms, customs, and practices of the world.

Anyone who feels that common sense is in some sense the truth may want to spend at least 30 minutes listening to the discussions that go on in your country’s government, with folks in the US now facing 2 months of pre-election “common sense” being thrust down their throats. If sense were really that common, all parties in the political divides would cease to exist because their would only be one truth.

So common sense is less helpful in making evidence-based judgements than the basic science of testing and measuring. Even minimal measurement is better than no measurement because it gets you ever closer to an improved metric. You don’t have to subscribe to the “all or nothing” fallacy that some folks promote. Remember that there are different levels of measurement you can use, and each one has its pros and cons.

So let’s invent an example based on Dolphin Therapy. I can ask my client to tell me as much as possible about a picture of a busy street and record what is said, then repeat the task 5 minutes after spending a half-hour with a dolphin. If I simple count the number of words before and after the swim, then find the post-dolphin condition has twice as many words, is that a “good” measure? Well, the safest answers is “it’s a measure” but the notion of “goodness” is more complex. But here’s the valuable thing; you’ve at least created for yourself a methodology that you can use with the rest of your swimming clients. You can also do it again next time you client has another dolphin session. And the next.

Of course, don’t be surprised if someone else comes along and pokes holes in your methodology and results. The good news is you actually have some results to talk about, rather than a blanket statement about how “good for the kids” this dolphin fun is. Nor should you be surprised if someone uses the second question in my list to suggest an alternative explanation such as “the kid was just relaxed and would have done just as well if you’d given him a massage, or a bowl of ice-cream, or a flight in a helicopter.” This will help you go back and think of a better way to measure and test (or try to get a grant for “Helicopter Therapy” sponsored by folks who like flying in helicopters!) [3]

Enough for now. Once an article passes the 1500-word mark, it ceases to qualify as “baby steps.” So take those three critical questions and start trying them out. If you want some homework, try them out while watching a TV show about UFO’s or Bigfoot – it’s kinda fun.

[1] No, the “Victorian League” is not a group of steam-punk enthusiasts who yearn for a return to the values of the 19th century but an organization (VALID) based in the Australian state of Victoria, the capital of which is Melbourne.

[2] Dollaghan, C. A. (2007). A Handook of Evidence-Based Practice for Communication Disorders. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing. This is great book and if you wanted to buy just one reference for EBP, I’d go for thisl But be warned; it is so full of excellent one-liners and summaries that if you use a yellow highlighter, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up with a banana-colored book. I use sticky tags and I think I went though three packs of them! And if you don’t want to spend the money – and time – on the book, you can read Christine’s 2004 ASHA Leader article entitled Evidence-Based Practice: Myths and Realities.

[3] Often the people promoting the benefits of animal therapy are animal lovers who appear to want to somehow “prove” that there’s something special about their dog/cat/dolphin/horse/lizard/three-toed sloth/whippet etc. I have no doubt that research shows how stroking a cat can reduce your blood pressure temporarily, but I can get the same effect from drinking beer, riding my motorcycle, or having sex. However, unlike the animal therapy folks, I am not promoting Drunken Biker Orgy therapy, or DBO as it would be referred to in the academic literature. Which may turn out to be a spectacular loss of revenue for me as a future project…