Tom Bartlett (TB) is fascinated by Chomsky, but in a very strange way. TB has written about him in the Chronicle twice (here1 and here2). Both times he has misrepresented the intellectual issues at hand. Both times, IMO, he has failed to be a useful popularizer of scientific/intellectual matters. Given how important I believe good popularization to be, I want to spend some time going over TB’s two papers and show how they get things wrong. After doing this I will speculate as to why TB seems so consistently off the mark and whether there is anything that can be done about this. Here goes.
As you might know, Chomsky is by any standards an intellectual. He has made important (I would say revolutionary) contributions to linguistics, cognitive science and philosophy. He has also written extensively on political/historical themes and has vigorously criticized Western media and academics for their coverage of these issues. He is well known both within academics and without, being one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals. This dual status, scientist and social critic, fascinates TB.
Nor is TB alone. Many have wondered about the relation between Chomsky the linguist/scientist and Chomsky the public intellectual. TB dates this fascination to a Paul Robinson review in the NYT in 1979 that first introduced “the Chomsky problem” (TCP) (here2:1). Robinson describes TCP as follows: it is “the problem of an opinionated historian inhabiting the same skin as the brilliant and subtle linguist.”
Off hand, it is hard to see how this is any more a problem than the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. After all, why should indulging in either enterprise preclude doing the other? True, this is not that common nowadays given our obsession with specialization and the technical demands that many disciplines place on their practitioners, but it is hardly unheard of, especially among quite talented people (of which all agree Chomsky should be included). Newton wrote on Physics, mathematics, theology and alchemy (more pages on the last two than the first two). He also ran the government mint. Descartes also wrote on many topics, as did Hume and Leibniz. In the modern period, Russell and Einstein were known to discourse on a wide variety of subject matters as well beside their particular domains of technical expertise. So, the capacity to break out of one’s zone of specialization is hardly unheard of. So what’s the problem?
So far as I can tell it is not that Chomsky does more than one thing, but that his views seem to be very influential in more than one domain, domains that bridge the two cultures divide moreover. His technical writings in linguistics, cog sci and philosophy are very widely read, as are his more popular political works. In other words, he seems to be a recognized expert in many domains and this both raises admiration and suspicion (especially, I would guess, among those whose work he critically discusses). At the very least, identifying this as a “problem” suggests that there is something slightly illicit going on. Indeed, the quote that TB takes from Robinson’s NYT piece suggests what the problem is. Recall the quote: it is “the problem of an opinionated historian inhabiting the same skin as the brilliant and subtle linguist” (here2:1). The quote contrasts “opinionated” with “brilliant and subtle” (the natural reading I think). The clear implication is that qua historian Chomsky is neither subtle nor brilliant, just opinionated. Thus the problem is how someone so gifted in one domain can be so ham-handed in the other.
Now, it is not my intention to go into Chomsky’s politics. This is not FoL’s remit and I so I won’t go there here. However, I am interested in the logic of the TCP, because only by clarifying its logic we will understand why people like TB cover GG the way that they do and why this coverage is both misleading and, IMO, worse than worthless. So what’s the logic?
TB refocuses the discussion by permuting “the Chomsky problem” into “the Chomsky puzzle.” What’s the puzzle? How does celebrity (or “the crime of charisma” (here2:8)) affect the dissemination of scientific/intellectual ideas? Or, to put this another way, how do Chomsky’s writings in two disparate domains (linguistics and politics) function to make his ideas in both more influential than they should be in either? TB quotes the execrable Wolfe piece (see here) to make clear what he takes the puzzle/problem of the “celebrity scientist” to be. Here is the Wolfe quote that TB uses to frame the discussion (here2:2):
Chomsky’s politics enhanced his reputation as a great linguist, and his reputation as a great linguist enhanced his reputation as a political solon, and his reputation as a political solon inflated his reputation from great linguist to all-around genius, and the genius inflated the solon into a veritable Voltaire, and the veritable Voltaire inflated the genius of all geniuses into a philosophical giant ... Noam Chomsky.
So, the problem is the illicit advancement of questionable ideas in domain B in virtue of substantial kudos arising from authoring popular/influential ideas in domain A.
This dynamic is hardly limited to Chomsky. But the problem/puzzle is particularly poignant TB suggests in the Chomsky case because of the vicious/virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing influence and the inflated reputational gravitas that emerges. The problem then is one in which size matters: Chomsky’s trading in these two reputation markets has made him the Warren Buffet of intellectual capital and that creates a potential problem as it serves to crowd out ideas that are not his. TB (and Wolfe) sees this as a problem.
Now, I concede that were this so, then it could be a problem. I for one often get upset when “experts” in one domain pontificate as “experts” in others. And I do consider it an important responsibility of intellectuals to carefully demarcate when they are basing their views on expert knowledge and when they are not. In a scientistic age, like the one we live in, this is something that scientists should be very careful about. However, making such a charge stick requires quite a bit of work and TB does none of it (nor do Wolfe nor Knight (who I will return to)). What kind of work?
Well let’s consider some possible reasons for why some idea might gain great influence. One important route to prominence is that the ideas possess a large dose of truth and make sense of deep and interesting questions. So, Newton and Galileo’s ideas gained purchase because they were largely right. Ditto for Einstein and Bohr. The influence of these ideas was legit because they were largely right. And these ideas were, happily, very influential. There is no Newton/Einstein/Bohr problem/puzzle for we attribute the notoriety/influence of their ideas to the fact that they were largely accurate. This suggests that one ingredient of an “X problem” is that the ideas are more influential than they should be. So, to demonstrate that there is a Chomsky problem/puzzle we first must show that those ideas of Chomsky’s that are widespread do not deserve to be so widespread and that their influence can only be attributed to the illicit mixing of different spheres which had they been kept separate would have mitigated the reach of these false though influential ideas. In other words, in order to have a problem/puzzle we must show that a position is popular because of the blinding charisma of the person advocating it rather than its truth.
If this is correct, then it is also clear what anyone interested in the Chomsky problem/puzzle must do: the Chomsky critic must first demonstrate that the influential ideas are false (or trivial or uninteresting). For unless this is demonstrated it is always possible that the ideas are deservedly influential and then we don’t have a problem/puzzle to explain. One might therefore expect that Chomsky puzzlers would spend a lot of time arguing (and arguing is quite different from asserting) that the Chomsky ideas they are upset with are false or boring or trivial. Moreover, one might expect these puzzlers to obey some argumentative ground rules: Any decent criticism requires criticizing what someone actually says, not what you want her/him to say and any decent criticism requires offering the best interpretation of someone’s ideas (exercise what philosophers like to call the principle of charity).
But if you expected this of Chomsky puzzlers you would be sorely disappointed. TB for one has consistently failed to do either. He has twice covered the Chomsky-Everett “debate” and has twice failed to even remotely convey the fact that Everett’s empirical claims even if completely accurate are logically incapable of upending Chomsky’s views for the simple reason that whether or not Piraha has recursion in no way bears on the question of whether or not the faculty of language (FL) does, which, as Chomsky makes clear, is what he is arguing for.
I want to emphasize this: one cannot beat Chomsky over the head with Everett’s putative results if his results in no way bear on Chomsky’s claims. And if this is so, then discussing whether or not Everett is actually correct concerning the G of Piraha distorts the discussion. How so? Well focusing on whether Everett is right about Piraha serves to distract attention from the fact that whether he is right or not is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand, viz. whether recursion is a basic feature of FL/UG. So, not only are TB’s pieces uninformative, they actually leaves anyone who reads them with less appreciation of the basic issues at stake. The issue TB worries to death is whether Everett is right about Piraha. But the issue that everyone cares about is whether Chomsky is right about recursion being part of FL. As Everett’s claims in no way bear on Chomsky’s, pretending that they do distorts the intellectual landscape.
Now, you might object, Chomsky has been obscure in making this logical point. But you would be wrong. In fact, TB’s pieces are replete with quotes from Chomsky and his papers in which he makes it absolutely clear that for him recursion is a feature of FL, the capacity for language. Here is TB quoting from Chomsky in the 2002 Science paper (my bold, NH):
“In particular, animal communication systems lack the rich expressive and open-ended power of human language (based on humans' capacity for recursion)," the authors wrote. Elsewhere in the paper, the authors wrote that the faculty of human language "at minimum" contains recursion. They also deemed it the "only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.” (here1:3)
Here is a quote from Chomsky in which he makes the point, via an analogy with bipedalism, that he is interested in the capacity not the output of that capacity.
"To take an analogy, if a tribe were found where people don’t stand upright, though of course they could, that would tell us nothing about human bipedalism." (Here2:4)
Note that Chomsky repeatedly says very explicitly that the notion he is interested in is a feature of the FL, the faculty of language, and as a result the observation that some particular language (e.g. Piraha) fails to incorporate recursion in its particular G is not relevant to the claim that humans have the capacity for recursion (anymore than some persons never walking is evidence that humans are not bipedal). In fact, we know that Piraha speaker FLs do contain the capacity for recursion as they can acquire Gs that are indisputably recursive. So, not only is the inference from lack of recursion in Piraha G to lack of recursion in FL (UG) illogical, the more general contention that Piraha FLs are not recursive is simply false. The upshot is that nothing Everett has to say about Piraha bears on his criticism of Chomsky’s views of recursion or Universal Grammar. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Bubkis. Gar nicht. Rien. Zero.
This is the central point about the alleged debate over recursion and it is one that TB repeatedly obfuscates. He spends lots of time reviewing claims concerning whether Piraha Gs are recursive. He reports Everett’s claims and notes that Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues have made counter claims (which I would put good money on are correct, btw) and Gibson’s (an Everett co-author) claims that there is not yet sufficient evidence to decide. He also carefully follows the gossip surrounding the “debate” and ruminates at length about what could make linguists so contentious and so “fierce” (here2:4). He considers Chomsky’s status in the discipline and muses over the “problem of a field in which the forceful personality of its founder and the field itself grew upward together and became deeply entwined” (here2:9). However, all of this musing is effectively little more than gossip mongering bereft of any intellectual value or potential insight given that it is entirely based on the premise that Chomsky’s outsized influence is due not to the correctness of his views but to some structural defect of the discipline or some illicit charisma that Chomsky possesses. And as the only evidence even tentatively proffered for the falsity of Chomsky’s main views concerning the recursive nature of FL are Everett’s “findings” the fact that his findings are irrelevant make the whole discussion completely worthless. The sad fact is that TB’s two articles are poster children for really bad science journalism. They not only fail to illuminate the issues (which frankly are easy for a lay person to understand if outlined) but they make them more confusing than they were before TB got his hands on them. As a science journalist TB’s efforts are a failure (meets roughly National Inquirer standards) and the Chronicle, if it cares about accurate enlightening reporting, should consider putting someone else on the beat.
If all of this is right then we have no current reason for thinking that there is a Chomsky problem/puzzle for the critics and musers like Wolfe and TB have not even begun to show that Chomsky’s most influential ideas are illicitly influential. Nor, will they ever be able to do so for the ideas that they criticize Chomsky for holding are almost certainly correct. Let me very briefly explain.
As I have repeatedly argued in detail (e.g. here), it’s morally certain that FL and UG exist and that recursion is a feature of FL. Why? Because the existence of FL with UG features, one of which is recursion, is based on three very simple easily observable facts:
1. Species specificity: Nothing talks like humans talk, not even sorta kinda.
2. Linguistic creativity: “a mature native speaker can produce a new sentence on the appropriate occasion, and other speakers can understand it immediately, though it is equally new to them’ (Chomsky, Current Issues: 7). In other words, a native speaker of a given L has command over a discrete (and for all practical and theoretical purposes) infinity of differently interpreted linguistic expressions.
3. Plato’s Problem: Any human child can acquire any language with native proficiency if placed in the appropriate speech community.
These three simple observable facts support Chomsky’s basic claim that humans have a species specific capacity to acquire Gs that are recursive. As I’ve noted before, that an FL with such properties exists in humans is not really open to debate. What is debatable is the fine detail of Gs, FL and UG, and these details have been endlessly debated. As regards details, Chomsky’s views have not been uncritically accepted. In fact, I think it is fair to say that most of his specific proposals have been extremely controversial within linguistics even if the conclusion that humans as such have FLs with UG touches capable of acquiring recursive Gs is not. TB, and many others, seem to have difficulty distinguishing two different questions: (i) whether there exists a UGish FL and (ii) what specific structure a UGish FL contains. That such an FL exists is trivially true. What it’s fine structure is, well that is highly contentious, and rightly so.
So to return to the main point: why are Chomsky’s central claims so influential? Because they correctly identify a worthwhile project and outline the form of a reasonable solution. He has basically stated an interesting problem correctly. We don’t need magical charisma or theological attraction to explain why so many find these particular views attractive. Indeed, IMO, the problem is to explain how anyone could deny these conclusions given the truisms on which they are based.
So what are we left with? There is no Chomsky problem/puzzle. But there is a TB puzzle. It is the following: How come so many people find it hard to understand what Chomsky’s point is and why do they find his conclusions drawn from truisms so contentious? Damn if I know. But let me speculate.
Here is some personal gossip: I spent several hours with both TB and Knight (the other author TB reviews in Here2) explaining these issues. I am pretty sure that there was a point where they understood what I was saying. However, they still wrote junk. Why? Let me discuss Knight and TB in turn.
As regards Knight, I cannot say that I finished his book. He, like Wolfe, knows nothing about modern GG and so his scathing criticisms are silly (though TB, not surprisingly, finds it a “compelling read” (here2:6)). His book is a psycho babble thesis to the effect that modern formal linguistics and the many distinctions Chomsky has made (e.g. competence vs performance) all stem from Chomsky’s trying to reconcile his acceptance of military money to do basic GG research in the 60s and 70s with his abhorrence of the US war machine and the US invasion and destruction of Vietnam. To resolve this cognitive dissonance (i.e. taking the money and hating the war/military), Chomsky developed his view that the study of language concerns not how language is actually used (performance) but how language is possible at all (competence). That’s Knight’s story. IMO, it is dumb. But even if correct, it says nothing whatsoever about whether the distinctions Chomsky came up with to resolve his cognitive strain are true, useful, and insightful. How ideas arise in someone’s mind tells us nothing about whether these ideas are worthwhile and true. However, Knight’s story is that all of modern GG rests on Chomsky’s mental strain from trying to reconcile these two conflicting parts of his persona and therefore modern GG is just a convoluted messy intellectual hash. That’s the story and it is not worth a minute of your time. The story is laced with tendentious criticisms of the current GG enterprise, but as Knight knows absolutely nothing about any of the technical work it is impossible to take seriously. Even if GG were rotten to the core, Knight could not possibly know that it is. He just doesn’t know enough to know. BTW, I know that he knows nothing, for, to repeat, I talked to him for about 2-3 hours (over coffee in Bethesda).
Now TB: I spent about an hour on the phone with him discussing the Wolfe piece. I really wanted him to zero in on the point that the Everett criticism was irrelevant even if everything Everett claimed was correct. I believe that TB understood this point. However, here2 does not reflect this. Why not? Because if he were to write this the rest of the article would be pointless. Recall, there is no Chomsky problem/puzzle if Chomsky is basically right. So, in order to discuss the gossipy crap it is necessary for TB to make it (at least) seem like the Chomsky-Everett debate is a real one. TB does this by concentrating on claims and counter-claims about whether Everett has made his case concerning recursion in Piraha G. The conceit that TB develops is that the GG enterprise and Chomsky’s views stand or fall on whether Piraha has recursion, and that this is still an open question in that all the relevant data has not yet come in. But this, to repeat, is deeply misleading and (I say this knowing that it is a serious charge) deeply dishonest. TB knows better for we spent over an hour discussing it and he got the point. Indeed, he repeated it to me endlessly. But if this is the main point and TB constantly obscures it by focusing on the accuracy of Everett’s claims about Piraha, I can only conclude that this is not a point that TB wishes to clarify. Why not? Because the rest of the piece would have been silly if indeed Everett and Piraha are irrelevant to the Chomsky-GG enterprise. There would have been a story here, but a boring one: how magazines catering to the smart set hijacked simple minded logical errors to generate gossip about a famous person. Should sound familiar. These kinds of magazines already exist though the smart set shies away from them when encountered at the checkout line (they tend not to appear at Whole Foods). And that’s the solution to the TB problem, I believe: nothing, certainly not logic or ethics, should stand in the way of a good gossipy story that will garner a high brow readership.
I am pretty sure I know how TB will respond to this charge. He will say that his piece annoyed both me and Everett and so it cannot be so bad. But this is false. The problem with TB’s reporting is that it sacrifices ideas for entertainment. It is not intended to enlighten but to titillate, to generate hits, to purvey gossip and to speculate about the mental state and character of individuals. It is misinformed, unenlightening and deeply dishonest.
Near the start of here2, TB asks of Wolfe’s piece whether what he does is “any way to treat arguably the most important intellectual alive” (here2:2). That is the wrong question. The right one is whether anyone deserves this kind of treatment. The goal of science popularization and science journalism is to educate the non-expert in interesting new ideas. On this measure, TB and the Chronicle have failed. His writing obfuscates the issues and revels in the gossip and shallow exploration of personalities. The Chronicle together and Harper’s are purveyors of infotainment. The “thinking” person’s People magazine. What a waste.
Let me end with the hardest question: what can we do about this? I suspect not much. I would urge everyone who can to discuss how junky this stuff is at every opportunity. People will ask and you should clearly state how stupid the Wolfe, TB, Knight stuff is. Not wrong, stupid! Second, especially talk to fellow academics. They are the prime audience for this sort of junk. But otherwise, I suspect we cannot do a whole lot. Chomsky sells. He does GG. So discrediting his views on GG will sell.
 For a prize of nothing, guess which academic discipline Robinson inhabits. Hint: some now call it ‘herstory.’
 As I note below, this is not exactly the puzzle TB addresses, but it helps to start here, as TB himself does in here2.
 TB describes this as Wolfe’s “crack at explaining” Chomsky’s “bifurcated persona” (here2:1). But this is clearly incorrect. There is no explanation of any “persona” here. Rather it describes a social dynamic of illicit intellectual influence peddling.
 I should add that I don’t believe that Chomsky does this. He does not use his expertise in linguistics to leverage his political views. In fact, so far as I can tell, with the exception of noting how the agentless passive often creeps into political discourse there is nothing remotely “linguistic” about Chomsky’s political writing.
 I have a personal bone to pick with TB. He mentions my “predictably” scathing comments on Wolfe’s Harper’s piece noting that I refer to it as sludge. However, TB never mentions why I take it to be sludge, rather than, say, simply common place recycled junk. I argued that what makes Wolfe’s piece particularly heinous is the garbage tone of his comments about Chomsky the person. IMO, Wolfe’s tropes border on the anti-semitic, and so not only is his piece factually and logically ignorant (based as they are on yet another misunderstanding of the irrelevance of Everett’s findings), it is also a disgusting form of character assassination. I should add that TB seems to find that Wolfe’s “barreling narrative” is full of “patented Wolfeian exuberance” though it “does breeze past a few niceties.” TB clearly enjoys this crap (as does the NYT reviewer here). and is far more sympathetic to Wolfe’s take on events than those of the “fierce” members of Chomsky’s “truth squad” (Wolfe’s term quoted by TB) who, are clearly sour party poopers if not unthinking acolytes of a Chomskian godhead. Sheesh! Who would have guessed that being interested in getting the facts and argument right could be seen as a vice. Of course, for Wolfe (and, IMO, TB as well) it probably is if it stands in the way of an entertaining story.
 The same holds for Wolfe, who (in here2:9) “ acknowledges that he’s no expert.” TB quites as him as follows: “I don’t know enough about linguistics to make a judgment myself and claim any validity.” Were only such modesty more evident on the page! At any rate, this self judgment is completely accurate.
 Curiously, it seems that Everett now seems to think he has not yet done shown that Piraha Gs have no recursion. At least Gibson doesn’t think so if TB quotes him accurately. Note that if this is correct it really is impossible to see what the fuss is about even on Everett’s and TB’s own terms, which, to repeat, are, logically speaking, the wrong way of understanding the issues. On their terms the issue should go away unless it can be conclusively shown that Piraha has no recursion. But they have not shown this. The conclusion is obvious: no there there squared! Even if accurate it irrelevant and thre no reason to yet think that it accurate. Shoddy, shoddy, shoddy.