When Science Fails to Deliver


Fighting over who is right instead of collaborating is not just the domain of business. In fact, companies are learning about the benefits of cooperation and adopting partnerships and alliances as part of their strategies. Scientists however are still bent on getting the upper hand on their research and have a hard time engaging in what some researchers termed “adversarial collaboration.”

A recent story on the bitter fight over the benefits of bilingualism caught my eye, because I am bilingual, that is I speak, write, read, and understand at least two languages with a high degree of proficiency. Fully fluent, say some classifications.

It was a hard-earned competency, being exposed to English only as a teenager when the brain is fully formed developmentally — that explains the accent, for example. Fluency came with full immersion, and a painful period when my Italian was actually getting worse while English was improving.

The article's main thesis:

Since the 1960s, several studies have shown that bilingualism leads to many advantages, beyond the obvious social benefits of being able to speak to more people. It also supposedly improves executive function—a catch-all term for advanced mental abilities that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, such as focusing on a goal, ignoring distractions, switching attention, and planning for the future.


It’s an intuitive claim, but also a profound one. It asserts that the benefits of bilingualism extend well beyond the realm of language, and into skills that we use in every aspect of our lives.


But a growing number of psychologists say that this mountain of evidence is actually a house of cards, built upon flimsy foundations.

I do take (anecdotal) exception to the comment by Ellen Bialystok from York University that “The bilingual mind is in constant conflict. For every utterance, a choice is made to focus on the target language, so there is a constant need to select.” Since I am not aware of the context of that statement, it's possible there was more specificity to it. Because unless this is happening at brain scan level, I am rarely conflicted when it comes to language selection.

Two data points that might make me unusual and likely not eligible to be part of a research study on bilingualism is that I actually ended up studying four languages formally on top of my native language — two of which I do not speak, but can read with some effort — and performed thousands of hours of interpreting and translation work over the years both into and from my native language. That might have provided some extra boost, though the brain did that automatically and quite fast.

Maybe this exposure and a love of reading and writing in any language (I can) contributed to a natural predisposition for systems thinking, deep listening, connecting ideas and thoughts and learning quickly and cognitive control, which is another term for executive function. I credit the environment as well. People who work with me often describe me as a global thinker who can shift between domains.

Does it matter to individuals who speak more than one language whether they improve their executive function by doing so? They can connect with more people in more ways, be exposed to different cultures and information not available in translation, and potentially see history from diverse points of view.

Who benefits?

When in doubt about whether something is valuable and we should pursue it, a good rule of thumb is to look at who benefits. Research that shows there are advantages to doing something tends to be translated into practice — more people teaching their children a second language, or a third, even when they don't speak it, for example. 

Coding is a language, I learned some basic coding a few years ago. It was probably easier for me because it is so structured. But I can say I also enjoy the highly unstructured and fluid situations life has a way of sending our way.

The point is, even if we doubt that learning a new language does improve all of our cognitive processes, which include attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning, shouldn't we see an improvement of our ability to learn about anything better as an advantage?

Says the article, put personal biases aside and bring into it their different experience and skills:

the two sides could form an “adversarial collaboration.” That is, they would work together to test the bilingual advantage once and for all, through a large study, perhaps involving many labs. The teams would pre-register all their experimental plans and agree to publish the results no matter what, so there could be no accusation of questionable research practices or publication bias. Then let the chips fall where they may. This approach has already been used to some success in other areas of psychology.


“If people were really committed to getting to the bottom of this, we'd get together, pool our resources, study it, and that would be the end of the issue.”


But ultimately, this isn’t about whether it’s better to know more languages or not. It’s about how science is done, and what counts as decent evidence. It’s about the role of outsiders, and whether they’re best-placed to see through the biases that permeate a field, or incapable of judging it on technical grounds. And it’s about how researchers negotiate disagreements of opinion. It is deeply ironic that a topic that’s about shared language, mental control, and communication should have spawned a debate characterized by harsh words, flaring tempers, and a refusal to speak.

We invented science, surely we can decide how it works moving forward. It's just a matter of thinking in ecosystems vs. egosystems.


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