Today I had the opportunity to present some of the new work I’ve been doing on modeling the relationship between cognitive biases and typology with my most excellent collaborator Bill Thompson at MPI Proudly Presents. 

I must admit that when Bill and I signed up to give a talk about our work I was very skeptical- our work is relatively new and very preliminary, and I think we would both have worries about how it would be received by a general audience, it being as abstract as it was. I ended up being very happy with how our talk went, and we put a lot of work into it- I am continually amazed by how great of a thinker Bill is – how you can throw any problem at him and he can discuss it and make you think about things in ways that you might not have, despite being the supposed “expert” on a subject- but this isn’t a post about that.

Today I was blown away by the quality of the talks, mostly given by junior academics (MSc and PhD students). The event is titled “MPI Proudly Presents”, and in his closing remarks Peter Hagoort stressed that we should indeed be proud of the work we do- the MPI for Psycholinguistics is a truly unique place, and the work being done there on so many parts of the puzzle of language is really inspiring. But again – this isn’t a post about that.

What struck me most of all today, beyond the quality of the talks, was having my expectations about the *kinds* of talks that would be given being shattered- this was not a group of elitist “we have it all figured out” students preaching about how the gene, the animal model, the language, the computational model, or the experimental approach that they are using solves all of the problems of research into the evolution of language – far from it. My experience of talking to many of the other speakers after the day of talks was that they were hungry, gifted, and intellectually honest young academics. They were not prideful, but humble and acknowledging that they do not have all the answers. Maybe I am jaded beyond my years, but this has not been my experience with science generally, so I really found that today recharged my batteries.

As an early career academic I have many worries about the future of science, and especially the future of science communication- it is easy to be tempted down the dark path of making unsubstantiated claims to grab eyeballs – today I saw almost none of that. I saw young researchers with a similar mindset to my own- idealistic thinkers who are interested in solving difficult problems without simplifying away everything interesting and making impossible claims. There were many talks from areas outside of my own specialisation and they were delivered so wonderfully that I rarely found myself lost – the spirit of good science communication was very much alive at the MPI today: results were framed plainly, but without stripping them of nuance or their connection to the real world.

It’s not very often that I feel like I managed to give one of the worst talks at a workshop- and I stand behind the work that Bill and I presented today and think it was important- but even if every person in attendance agreed that our talk was the worst of 15, I wouldn’t feel bad about it- there truly was a rarefied air of excellent science going on- massive amounts of credit are due not only to the young academics who gave talks but also to their directions, the MPI, and the MPG. I could write many blog posts about each of the individual talks that I saw today – fascinating stuff about genetics, the neurobiology of language, comparative cognition, and experimental linguistics, but know that the work presented will all make it to publication, and trust the authors to present their own work much better than I ever could. Based on my personal interests a few talks stood out- Amanda Tilot‘s talk about relatively modern evolution of brain structure, my good friend Limor Raviv’s talk about the linguistic niche hypothesis, and Matthias Sjerp‘s talk about cortical tuning of speech processing specifically, but to focus too much on any of those talks would be a disservice to the amazing amount of information I was bombarded with today.

I said about that this isn’t a post about how unique the MPI is – In the words of my favorite comedian, I am not for the mawkish- but if something is true, then it is not sentimental. Ultimately I am both incredibly proud and incredibly humbled to be part of the MPI. Steve Levinson’s generosity and support in bringing in our group is something that I know I will look back upon fondly no matter where my academic career takes me. Today I was reminded of that fact – something it is easy to forget while bound up in the day-to-day grind of being a researcher. The path forward is not always clear, and no one has all the answers – today seeing so many talks that made substantive scientific contributions while remaining humble reinforced that. To be able to speak in the same company as those who presented today, and to such an established and important audience was an amazing opportunity that I never thought I would have. I am immensely privileged to be at the MPI, to work with my incredible collaborators, and to be surrounded with so many outstanding academics.

Academia… maybe it ain’t so bad after all.