Yeah, I’m not sure that that’s the takeaway

I’m reading a paper by Centola and Baronchelli. It describes a well-designed, ambitious experiment with interesting results. But I hit the brakes at this:

The approach used here builds on the general model of linguistic conventions proposed by Wittgenstein (39), in which repeated interaction produces collective agreement among a pair of players.

I’m always thrilled to see philosophy quoted as inspiration in a scientific paper, but in this case there’s a legitimacy problem: no one who ever actually paid attention to Wittgenstein is going to have the guts to gloss him that blithely. You don’t formalize into language a legendary demonstration of the non-formalizability of language without introducing and following your gloss with a bunch of pathetic self-consciously equivocal footwork. Also, Wittgenstein, I’m really really sorry for describing Philosophical Investigations as merely or even remotely about the non-formalizability of language.

D. Centola, A. Baronchelli, (2015) The spontaneous emergence of conventions: An experimental study of cultural evolution. http://www.pnas.org/content/112/7/1989