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Thursday, February 23, 2012

You Can Find Correlations Where You Want

Economist Keith Chen has done work showing there is a significant correlation between strong-FTR languages (future time reference) and low savings rates, and weak-FTR languages and higher savings rates.

The difficulty? Well, here's the linguist, Östen Dahl, upon whose work Chen's classification is supposedly based (from the comments section of the above post):

"I do not specify a binary classification of European languages (let alone the languages of the world) and I do not use the terms 'strong-FTR language' and 'weak-FTR language.' (In the abstract of his working paper, Chen says 'what linguists call strong-FTR languages' — what he should have said is 'what I call strong-FTR languages'; Google Scholar yields no hits for the phrase 'strong-FTR language' except Chen's own paper.)"

In other words, Chen has found a strong correlation... based on a distinction that he himself made up, and that linguistics experts say does not have a basis in their science! If the distinction is bogus, then the correlation is surely pure chance.

UPDATE: An important point here, I think: Dahl writes, "It is quite clear that FTR marking differs cross-linguistically on many parameters for which information is often lacking in grammars..."

So, if a linguist who studies these things for a living is asked, "Does language X differentiate the future from the present?" he is likely to say, "In some ways, 'yes,' and in others, 'no.'" But such fuzziness can't be tolerated if you want to do a "hard," quantitative study. So Chen was forced to invent a binary distinction where none exists.

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