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Linguistic diversity and traffic accidents: Lessons from statistical studies of cultural traits

Roberts, S. G., & Winters, J. (2013). Linguistic diversity and traffic accidents: Lessons from statistical studies of cultural traits. PLoS One, 8(8): e70902. doi:doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070902.
The recent proliferation of digital databases of cultural and linguistic data, together with new statistical techniques becoming available has lead to a rise in so-called nomothetic studies [1]–[8]. These seek relationships between demographic variables and cultural traits from large, cross-cultural datasets. The insights from these studies are important for understanding how cultural traits evolve. While these studies are fascinating and are good at generating testable hypotheses, they may underestimate the probability of finding spurious correlations between cultural traits. Here we show that this kind of approach can find links between such unlikely cultural traits as traffic accidents, levels of extra-martial sex, political collectivism and linguistic diversity. This suggests that spurious correlations, due to historical descent, geographic diffusion or increased noise-to-signal ratios in large datasets, are much more likely than some studies admit. We suggest some criteria for the evaluation of nomothetic studies and some practical solutions to the problems. Since some of these studies are receiving media attention without a widespread understanding of the complexities of the issue, there is a risk that poorly controlled studies could affect policy. We hope to contribute towards a general skepticism for correlational studies by demonstrating the ease of finding apparently rigorous correlations between cultural traits. Despite this, we see well-controlled nomothetic studies as useful tools for the development of theories.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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