Sunday, July 19, 2009

Open letter to Scott McLaughlin, PhD

Dear Professor McLaughlin,
My class in language development is using your text, Introduction to Language Development (second edition, Thomson) and I have run across something which I would like to ask you about.
On page 86, Chapter 3, the section on Physical Contact, second paragraph (last one on the page) I quote:
"Physical contact between infants and caregivers is as necessary as breathing. In the most basic sense, infants would not survive without it."
First, by what metric do you define "as necessary as," or in what measure of necessity are they equal.
Second, what references do you have to back up this claim. I could not find any myself and so I suspected you may have accidentally written the statement in language implying it were true.
Thanks very much for your help in this,

When I brought this up in class the other students and professor were actually defending it. But it turns out that saying "they have done studies" when you can't name a single one, is just like saying "I made it up."

Update, Professor McLaughlin responded extremely politely with a good answer to my question. The statement was metaphorical. You may also notice that he is a talented author as this email is very well written

Hi Jonathan,
First, I want to thank your for taking the time and showing the interest to inquire about my book. I'm always gratified that someone has chosen to use my book. When I decided to write it, I never planned on getting rich (and I have not), but I was enriched by the thought that maybe my approach to the subject matter would be helpful to someone - an instructor or a student. I hope you have found it to be a "student friendly" text.
With regard to my statement about physical contact being as necessary as breathing, on one level I would say that it is metaphorical - the way someone might say, "I would just die if I couldn't watch baseball every night." On the other hand, in a more real way, there were a number of studies that occurred in the U.S. during the 40s and 50s investigating the effects of "psychosocial deprivation" in orphanages. They found that even though orphaned babies were provided with sufficient nutrition, the ratio of infants to caregivers in the institutions was so high that infants were fed regularly but rarely cuddled. As a result, they had stunted physical and neurological development - failure to thrive - even to the point that some died without any apparent physical cause.
Because mine is a "normal development" text, I didn't think to go into that kind of background information to substantiate my metaphor, but you may be correct in the suggestion that it should be substantiated and maybe even backed up with citations. At the very least, I might include a "text box" that relates the anecdotal evidence from the orphanage studies I mentioned in the next edition.
I always appreciate any suggestions or questions that serve to improve the book so thank you for taking the time and interest to pose your question. Good luck in your studies - ours is a very complex, exciting, and challenging field so continue to give it your all!
Scott F. McLaughlin


  1. Also in the days before bottles and formula, an infant denied physical contact with a caregiver died of hunger and thirst. So, it seems to me the statement at least used to be true.

  2. Dr. McLaughlin's statements were, in part, metaphorical. There is good anecdotal (at the very least) evidence, as he states in his response to you, to shore up his assertions.

  3. Anony, the issue is not whether there is evidence to back it up or not. The issue is that the statement is, at some level, hyperbole, and the other students and professor were willing to take it at face value without evidence. This is something very dangerous, which cannot be allowed to be encouraged in any field that approaches science.

    Dr. McLaughlin expressed interest in sourcing and clarifying this point, and I hope he does.