ESCOM 2009 – day 1

The conference started! The 300+ participants from 35 countries have arrived, the keynotes, spoken papers and poster sessions are now on the way.

The first keynote was given by professor David Huron. He talked about how important it would be for the cognitive scientists and ethnomusicologists to work together. There are many reasons why these two groups of researchers are often each others’ harshest critics, the main one being the difference in points of view: cognitive scientists are in search for universals, while many ethnomusicologists work within the postmodern “paradigm”¬† with an emphasis on the uniqueness of each musical culture. And while ethnomusicologists might exaggerate the differences, they have strong and often justified scepticism towards cognitive musicologists’ claims that their findings, obtained by testing small groups of Western undergraduates, are universally true.

I tweeted Huron’s suggestions yesterday. Here’s a quick recap (the headings are Huron’s, the formulation of the explanations are mine, as I try to remember what prof Huron said…)

1) Don’t claim the truth
– there might not be one, and your’s is not the only one (we don’t do physics, and even their truths change)

2) Broaden your audience
– try to talk to those who disagree

3) Narrow your claims
– every sample is a convenience sample, and as cultures differ, claims of universality are very dangerous.

4) Don’t confuse universal with innate
– behaviours are complex interactions between individuals and environment. Nature via nurture, as Matt Ridley would put it.

5) Seek both difference and similarity.
– as Huron pointed out, “it’s not research if you don’t invite failure”. This is the key point in Popper’s idea of falsificationism as a scientific philosophy.

6) Acknowledge the limitations of cross-cultural comparisons.
– we do most of our cognitive work within the so-called Western cultures. Occasionally, when cross-cultural research is done, one or two other cultures are involved. Finding similarities in such a study does not, however, constitute compelling evidence for universality. There are more than 4 cultures out there.

7) Aim to collaborate (even if you can’t find a collaborator)
– this of course requires that we all talk with each other more, across disciplines, and accept that there is more than one way to do good research.

8 ) Travel broadens the mind
– a good inoculation against thinking everyone’s like me is to go to places to see they aren’t.

I’ll try to post daily, every evening, but as yesterday evening I had the pleasure to host my old colleagues from Cambridge, this post was delayed till next morning. I’m currently contemplating Aniruddh Patel’s keynote on music and evolution, and will post my thoughts later. This was a true conversation starter as a presentation, and I hope there will be some here in this blog, as well.