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Monday, September 29, 2014

Two years in

Faculty of Language was launched September 28, 2012. This means that it is now entering its third year and FoL is now in its terrible twos (TT). So no more cute quiet complaisant blog. No more walking on tip toes around important issues. No more shying away from polemics and vigorous debate. Now that we are in the TTs it's time to say what we really think and pursue the intellectual debate loudly and vigorously.

With this in mind, I would like to invite those who have been passive readers to join the fray.  FoL was started to focus on the big issues that initially motivated the Generative enterprise. These, IMO, had lost the prominence they once had, and linguistics did not benefit from this. GG was once at the center of the cognitive revolution. Sadly, this is no longer so. It is similarly absent from much discussion in the cog-neuroscience of language. In other words, much of what GG has discovered has remained a well kept secret and the influence GG should have had on work in these areas has dissipated. I believe that we need to change this, both for the good of linguistics as a discipline and because we have important (indeed vital) contributions to make to the brain and cognitive sciences.

We need to reconnect with the big issues and vociferously push the consequences of our discoveries hard in the larger cog-neuro community. And part of this involves getting clear what we think these consequences are and part involves making sure that what we've done is neither misunderstood nor ignored. And this means talking up in public venues where the issues are raised and making sure that others get it, even if this means being intellectually pushy. And this means being ready to critique what we take to be work that ignores or /and flies in the face of all we know.

So let's make year 3 a good boisterous one. No more pussy-footing around. Please send me things YOU find important and relevant. Please send suggestions for things to discuss. Let's make lots of noise!! We will all benefit.

17 comments:

  1. Apart from throwing temper tantrums on this blog, what does your Terrible Twos call to arms entail? Do you suggest that we display our lack of potty training to folks in other fields? Or that we throw pacifiers in the media? Will these get the attention of passers-by? Or do we need to put-up-or-shut-up, e.g., show that a learning model with suitable linguistic knowledge can learn things that others cannot, or show that computer tools that take linguistic results seriously can do very well (... by some criterion that we define)?

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  2. Funny you should ask. A temper tantrum or two would be fine, especially in the right venues. The positives you mention go, I would have thought (though clearly you do not) go without saying. But the way you bring them up also betray (at least to me) a view that I do not share. It suggests that we have nothing to show AS OF NOW. I don't think that this is so. You might. So, aside from doing what we should be doing and will do (namely do good work that integrates what we know with what others are doing and using all available methods to solve interesting problems (see, I told you this did NOT need saying)) we also need some sharp PUBLIC criticism of work that ignores what we have discovered. We need people, not unlike you, publicly criticizing shoddy work that denigrates our accomplishments, and publicly moving organizations, not unlike the LSA, to more highly value Generative linguistics. So, if you are looking for things to do, try things in this order: a well placed tantrum or two in the right venues, criticism at the powers that be that screw up and, of course, continue solving those insolvable problems.

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    1. We need [...] organizations, not unlike the LSA, to more highly value Generative linguistics
      This, I think, is an interesting point because it highlights that the generative enterprise doesn't just have a, shall we say, PR-problem outside of linguistics, but even within its own ranks.

      Norbert has complained about lAnguistics (as opposed to linguistics) before, and it's also not clear to me how strongly the other subfields --- foremost phonology and semantics --- are commited to what Norbert thinks linguistics should be all about.

      A lot of current work in phonology deliberately conflates the competence-performance distinction, and it is my impression that phonologists never had the kind of mentalist commitment to their theories that we see among syntacticians. SPE's idea of tying markedness to rule complexity is the only thing that comes to mind.

      Many semanticists even seem to take an active anti-mentalist stance (historical baggage from Montague?), but that doesn't make much sense for those semanticists working on the syntax-semantics interface, does it?

      So yeah, it would actually be nice to hear from the phonologists and semanticists how they feel about these issues. What exactly are the core problems and results of each area, what are the findings that haven't been sufficiently appreciated by outsiders, what does modern syntax look like to them, and so on. That's basically what I try to do with my posts: present results that syntacticians should be aware of, and talk about what syntax looks like from over here in the computational camp.

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    2. I must take issue with the notion that the LSA should be taken to task for not valuing Generative Grammar sufficiently. I'm currently serving on the LSA's governing board, and I co-wrote its current strategic plan. I've learned a lot about what the organization does and what it can(not) do. It is a very small outfit, and it serves its diverse membership, plus thousands of other linguists who don't bother to join. In addition to publishing low-cost journals, organizing conferences and institutes, it does a lot of advocacy work on behalf of the field, and on behalf of beleaguered programs. It also makes special efforts to publicize the work of linguists -- some of the mass media stories about linguists are there because of the efforts of the LSA. Most linguists have little clue what the LSA does (I know I had no clue before I was more involved). And they're often criticized for not doing things that they do actually do ("but why don't they tell us about it?" you ask; but they do -- and they know what small percentage of you open their email messages). It's not perfect, and improvements can be made, but it's not what it was 10 years ago, and they're doing their best on a shoestring budget. They could do more if more linguists were to join their field's primary professional society.

      I know that some folks complain "but Language is opposed to work in generative grammar". That's not true. Folks in many sub-fields make similar complaints. Similarly untrue. What *is* needed is that submissions be high quality, and it helps if (i) the editors and reviewers understand the broad relevance of the results to the field, and (ii) the reviewers in a given subfield do not make a habit of savaging one another. The editors of Language are also looking to grow new online only sections of Language with a more specialized focus, creating room for more articles. A proposal from a group wanting to launch a section on syntax would be welcomed, I'm sure. What would not be welcomed would be a proposal for a section that was perceived as exclusive to a particular theoretical faction.

      And more of the folks who read this blog should make it a habit to go to the LSA Annual Meetings and give kick ass talks that make everybody want to work on similar problems, hire more syntacticians, etc. If folks hide away in their niche-specific meetings, and don't bother to interact with the field at large, then it's little surprise that the field at large won't pay much attention. It's the one big meeting that brings the whole field together. Organize some symposia or debates, that would create some buzz. (Yes, the time of the year is always sucky; but they do that to get great prices for students and other linguists who are self-funding. And there has been a real effort to line up cities that folks want to go to.)

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  3. ... but going back to the main topic. I do believe that there are lots of interesting findings to share. I'm less convinced of the diplomatic effectiveness of tantrums, at least not in the absence of a strong pre-existing relationship. (That's what saves real life toddlers from being thrown into dumpsters when they have a meltdown.) More importantly, all politics is local. Folks in other areas tend not to get excited about something from elsewhere unless it either (i) solves a problem that they were already working on, or (ii) gives them something to do -- something that their peers will value and recognize. You may have a truly brilliant theoretical breakthrough that unifies X, and Y, and I may think it's awesome, but if the folks in the next field over could care less about X and Y, then they're less likely to pay attention. The strategy of just yelling "You idiots, don't you see how effing awesome we are!" does not, to my knowledge, have an enviable record of success. At least, not without the additional help of substantial financial or military backing.

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    1. Yes, I know that's what you think. I disagree, as you no doubt know. I'll leave the bridge building to those that care about the sensitivities of those that don't much value what we do. Maybe that will work. It hasn't to this point and that's not because we have nothing to show for it. I know whereof I speak as my colleagues regularly complain about how their advances are snubbed. Maybe making yet more nice is the right way to go. But maybe, just maybe some loud well aimed critical engagement might not be misplaced. I doubt you'll agree. That said I hope you succeed, though there is no apparent track history to back this up.

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    2. "... no apparent track history to back this up". You raise a very good point. So I'm curious: do you know of good examples of ANY strategy being effective at achieving the kind of change you want. In any field? We could learn a lot from such examples.

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    3. Before you think about how to correct this problem, it might be good to diagnose precisely why MGG has lost its place at the centre of cognitive science. I really don't think it is because people don't know about it. People know about these theories, and they think they are false, at least in my experience. So shouting won't help.

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    4. How about Chomsky's review of Skinner? The article certainly precipitated the massive interest in cognitive science as against the dogmas of behaviorism.

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    5. There are several models, WIlliam is right to point to the original cog revolution, but there is also the rise of modern molecular biology/genetics. I think that where there has been success in changing a field's direction it's because three kinds of work were being done. First, there was strong internal training within the emerging discipline highlighting what was truly central and what was less so. The ideological underpinnings of modern linguistics has faded from the field's memory. Grad students are no longer indoctrinated in the field's basic dogmas (and yes this is partially tongue in cheek, similar to the "central dogma" in genetics) and this is not good. This means that when linguists go out into the wider world they are very susceptible to cognitive capture as the central findings of GG and its relevance is not that well understood. Second, a successful emerging field critically engages the enemy, and in intellectual terms there is an enemy. I know that putting things this way reassess hackles, but so be it. The senior members of the field have abdicated their roles as critics, scouring the intellectual countryside for BS and forcing bad thinkers to defend themselves. This can be done and it is important. Drawing sharp distinctions is part of changing minds. William mentioned Chomsky's review of Skinner. But there were many such attacks on the rampant empiricism of the time. Fodor, Katz, Bever, Miller, did important polemical work that was critical in changing the intellectual tide. We've stopped doing this, making it much easier for crappy ideas to gain a foothold outside the discipline and garner some significant sympathy within it. Third, we need to work on OUR problems and make progress, not work on theirs. This must be coupled with constant explanations for why our problems are worth working on, while theirs might not be (and why) and which problems are ripe for the picking given where we are. Again, the senior members of the field need to engage in this. More often, I find that we area making apologetic approaches to the other disciplines, all the while apologizing for how poorly we've done explaining what we have in mind. Sometimes, yes, we could do a better job. But sometimes, people disagree with us because of what we believe and it is our job (in part) to bring the fight to them and intellectually force a confrontation. This has happened repeatedly in the sciences, and the successful ones have won these fights.

      So are there models? Sure. How do they succeed? By a combination of new work, good polemics and strong indoctrination. We have some of the first but are failing in the second and third. And this is a failure by the senior members of the discipline.

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  4. Let's try to get concrete: Norbert, would, e.g. this article by the kind of thing you have in mind for linking theoretical ling to cog-neuro?
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0911604414000475
    From where I sit, one big issue has to do with levels of description: the neuro people and the syntacticians are generally operating at different levels. Both useful when done well, imho, except for the cross-talk gets harder. That's why I like measures of behavior across early development: noisier data but hopefully clearer links.

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    1. Just a side comment - this article looks fantastic by the highlights and so thank you for posting it here.

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    2. This is the kind of thing I have in mind. However, even more modest attempts seem worthwhile. There is interesting work on finding features in brains and very interesting work by Dehaene and company on tracking brian indices of merge. There is also some early work by Poeppel and friends finding indicators of hierarchy. These are modest steps but important ones. So yes there is some interesting work being done and hopefully more will be forthcoming.

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  5. First a practical observation: more generative grammarians should be active on twitter. Including Norbert (who already has an account and followers). There are more people on their talking linguistics then you might think.

    Second: What's missing from this discussion so far is a consideration of the austerity that's been imposed on research at present. I know its been written about on this blog, as well as else where. The connection between the publishing, funding, tenure situation & conservative science has been pointed out by ppl like Norbert, Chomsky, & Fodor (http://thepolemicalbrain.blogspot.ca/2014/10/the-fodorgraph-redux.html)

    So in addition to actively taking space in linguistics / psych communities that may be hostile to us (which may include well timed tantrums), established linguists need to make a greater effort to work with / assist interested undergraduates and graduate students who may lack funding. This might include raising funds to host conferences with no registration fees; publishing more often in open-access journals; etc.

    @Colin: I think you're making the bureaucrats' fallacy. if people aren't joining the LSA or even opening their e-mails perhaps the LSA has lost touch with its rank-and-file. It might stand to learn something from the labour movement: people don't want a third party to "represent them" from above, they want an organization which enables them to represent themselves. (not to mention organize themselves).

    @AlexClark: "I really don't think it is because people don't know about it. People know about these theories, and they think they are false, at least in my experience. So shouting won't help."

    that seems unlikely because of the amount of time it takes to understand these theories. and the institutional structure & culture in many psych/ling departments doesn't encourage taking the time.

    Quantitative analysis doesn't have the same demands. To do quantitative analysis takes machines & methodological know how; theory is often an afterthought (and a sloppy one at that). In my experience, people don't know gg or even phil 101 so their inquiry into the mind is just rubbish.

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    1. apologies for the typos, writing this hurriedly between meetings.

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    2. that seems unlikely because of the amount of time it takes to understand these theories.
      The noble but nonetheless incorrect assumption here seems to be that people know what they don't know and wouldn't pass judgment on something they do not fully understand. If the first thing you hear about X is a disparaging remark from a person you trust, you're inclined to see X in a negative light, and once that's your mindset it quickly becomes part of your worldview unless you make a concerted effort to dig really into it. And that takes time and energy that few can afford.

      So what does this mean concretely: I can easily imagine grad students from other fields hearing rants about those pompous linguists and their head-in-the-clouds proposals without empirical substance (in particular because Chomsky, Fodor etc have made many enemies over the years). That natrually predisposes these students not to spend too much time on work coming out of that area, in particular if it contradicts the work in their own field. And if somebody is actually curious and wants to figure out this stuff, they're in for a rather painful experience because linguistics is challenging, abstract, and a little on the dry side (no cool machinery, no colorful graphs, no fancy tables, just text and text and text). Nor does it have much of a practical payoff in their daily work, compared to, say, learning how to operate that fancy new eye tracker. Once these students get jobs, they have even less time. So the best you can hope for is polite disinterest.

      Somewhat ironically I think that this is exactly the situation we have with mathematical linguistics as a subfield of linguistics. The Peters and Ritchie result wasn't received well (imho based on a misunderstanding of the goals of their work) and after that formal language theory was mostly used as ammunition against Chomskyan proposals. Students go through a linguistics PhD program without any real exposure to mathling, the little they hear about it is that the results are irrelevant, and the few that want to know more run into the brickwall of math and abstraction.

      In the last few years we have been fortunate that Minimalist grammars can act as a lingua franca to bridge the gap between the two communities, and the Minimalist program as a whole seems to have made the field more open to new perspectives (my impression 30 years after the fact is that the success of GB killed off any interest in non-P&P explanations of anything). But even among the very interested and open-minded readership of this blog I can't just write a post about CKY parsing of MCTAGs because that's simply too niche.

      Given my personal experiences, I think the following strategy would work best for linguists: determine where our interests overlap with folks in the cognitive and behavioral sciences (this need not be about language, necessarily), pick a few talking points we want to convince them of, and then engage with the community in a polite but assertive manner.

      Sorry, Norbert, I'm with Colin when it comes to manners. You might have been as open-minded (and you have been very open-minded) even if I had made my points Christina B style, but then you're the exception. Going for a head-on confrontation only makes sense if you vastly outnumber the enemy, or if your situation is so hopeless that you've got nothing to lose. Under all other circumstances, you want to be strategic.

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    3. Thomas (and Colin): there is a difference between being polite to persons and being polite to ideas. The former deserve respect, the latter need to earn it.IMO, there is nothing wrong with going after a bad idea hammer and tong. Indeed, I would say that fudging differences in the service of civility is a very bad idea.

      I understand that distinguishing idea from the people that hold them is not easy for academics. We assume that only stupid people can have dumb ideas. Were that this was so! However, this assumption prevents drawing invidious distinctions and making forceful critiques and this tends to blur rather than illuminate the intellectual landscape. As you might have guessed, I think that there are some very bad ideas out there (put the 'E' word here) and that revealing them and discarding them is very important. That does not mean that I want to discard or critique the people that hold them. Ideas are fair game, people not.

      So, politeness towards people, sure.Treat everyone with respect. But not all ideas should be well received and gently discussed. This is simply the first part of a slippery slope towards mediocrity, and, frankly, we should resist this.

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