Monday, November 7, 2011

Doctor Who and Hugo Chávez

I'm a big nerd.  How do I know?  When I read the headline below from the Wall Street Journal, it messed with my head:

Doctor Who Said Chavez Faces Grim Cancer Prognosis Flees Venezuela

You see, most normal people would have no problem figuring out what this sentence means.  Some doctor gave Chavez a bad prognosis and now has to hightail it out of the country. To get technical, "who said Chavez faces grim cancer prognosis" is a relative clause and it modifies "doctor".

Me?  I read this and figured Dr. Who is somehow making diagnoses about Chavez. I assumed that "said" was the main verb of the sentence, and when I got to "flees Venezeula", I was completely baffled.  I was also confused as to why a Time Lord was making medical diagnoses.

This type of sentence is the bread and butter of your average psycholinguist.  You give someone an ambiguous sentence, see which interpretation they prefer, and the answer tells you something interesting about how the mind works.

Problems arise when different people have different preferences.  In general, language researchers assume that everyone is basically the same.  Some language scientists recognize that people vary in how good they are at getting to an interpretation or that people with different cognitive capacities prefer different ways of resolving ambiguities, but in general, when most language researchers propose a theory of language processing, they assume it applies to everyone.

But we're probably not the same.  We all have different experiences.  I'm not a huge Dr. Who fan, but I've heard the name enough times, that when I read "DOCTOR WHO" I think "Doctor Who".  Ok, you're thinking, so maybe people with different experiences approach a given sentence in different ways.  Big deal.  ...but what if different people process language in fundamentally different ways? Maybe different types of experience or differences in the ways in which individual's brains develop lead to different optimal ways of approaching language.

What if nerd speech is different than non-nerd speech?


  1. No doubt the standard of capitalizing all letters in headlines contributes to such crash blossoms.

  2. I agree that this headline is ambiguous for nerds, but I interpret "Doctor Who" as the television show Doctor Who. I would refer to the character himself as The Doctor. Since your post has spoiled the sentence for me I can't do a real test of whether I expect the Wall Street Journal to make the same distinction between two!