I have a confession to make: I read (and even monetarily support) Aeon. I know that they publish junk (e.g. Evans has dumped junk on its pages twice), but I think the idea of trying to popularize the recondite for the neophyte is a worthwhile endeavor, even if it occasionally goes awry. I mention this because Aeon has done it again. The editors clearly understand the value (measured in eyeballs) of a discussion of Chomsky. And I was expecting the worst, another Evans like or Everett like or Wolfe like effort. In other words I was looking forward to extreme irritation. To my delight, I was disappointed. The piece (by Arika Okrent here) got many things right. That said, it is not a good discussion and will leave many more confused and misinformed than they should be. In what follows I will try to outline my personal listing of pros and cons. I hope to be brief, but I might fail.
The title of Okrent’s piece is the title of this post. The question at issue is whether Chomskyan linguistics is scientific. Other brands get mentioned in passing, but the piece Is linguistics a science? (ILAS), is clearly about the Chomsky view of GG (CGG). The subtitle sets (part of) the tone:
Much of linguistic theory is so abstract and dependent on theoretical apparatus that it might be impossible to explain
ILAS goes into how CGG is “so abstract” and raises the possibility that this level of abstraction “might” (hmm, weasel word warning!) make it incomprehensible to the non-initiated, but it sadly fails to explain how this distinguishes CGG from virtually any other inquiry of substance. And by this I mean not merely other “sciences” but even biblical criticism, anthropology, cliometrics, economics etc. Any domain that is intensively studied will create technical, theoretical and verbal barriers to entry by the unprepared. One of the jobs of popularization is to allow non-experts to see through this surface dazzle to the core ideas and results. Much as I admire the progress that CGG has made over the last 60 years, I really doubt that its abstractions are that hard to understand if patiently explained. I speak from experience here. I do this regularly, and it’s really not that hard. So, contrary to ILAS, I am quite sure that CGG can be explained to the interested layperson and the vapor of obscurity that this whiff of ineffability spritzes into the discussion is a major disservice. (Preview of things to come: in my next post I will try (again) to lay out the basic logic of the CGG program in a way accessible (I hope) to a Sci Am reader).
Actually, many parts of ILAS are much worse than this and will not help in the important task of educating the non-professional. Here are some not so random examples of what I mean: ILAS claims that CGG is a “challenge to the scientific method itself” (2), suggests that it is “unfalsifiable” Popper-wise (2), that it eschews “predictions” (3), that it exploits a kind of data that is “unusual for a science” (5), suggests that it is fundamentally unempirical in that “Universal grammar is not a hypothesis to be tested, but a foundational assumption” (6), bemoans that many CGG claims are “maddeningly circular or at the very least extremely confusing” (6), complains that CGG “grew ever more technically complex,” with ever more “levels and stipulations,” and ever more “theoretical machinery” (7), asserts that MP, CGG’s latest theoretical turn confuses “even linguists” (including Okrent!) (7), may be more philosophy than science (7), moots the possibility that “a major part of it is unfalsifiable” and “elusive” and “so abstract and dependent on theoretical apparatus that it might be impossible to explain” (7), moots that possibility that CGG is post truth in that there is nothing (not much?) “at stake in determining which way of looking at things is the right one” (8), and ends with a parallel between Christian faith and CGG which are described as “not designed for falsification” (9). These claims, spread as they are throughout ILAS, leave the impression that CGG is some kind of weird semi mystical view (part philosophy, part religion, part science), which is justifiably confusing to the amateur and professional alike. Don’t get me wrong: ILAS can appreciate why some might find this obscure hunt for the unempirical abstract worth pursuing, but the “impulse” is clearly more Aquarian (as in age of) than scientific. Here’s ILAS (8):
I must admit, there have been times when, upon going through some highly technical, abstract analysis of why some surface phenomena in two very different languages can be captured by a single structural principle, I get a fuzzy, shimmering glimpse in my peripheral vision of a deeper truth about language. Really, it’s not even a glimpse, but a ghost of a leading edge of something that might come into view but could just as easily not be there at all. I feel it, but I feel no impulse to pursue it. I can understand, though, why there are people who do feel that impulse.
Did I say “semi mystical,” change that to pure Saint Teresa of Avila. So there is a lot to dislike here.
That said, ILAS also makes some decent points and in this it rises way above the shoddiness of Evans, Everett and Wolfe. It correctly notes that science is “a messy business” and relies on abstraction to civilize its inquiries (1), it notes that “the human capacity for language,” not “the nature of language,” is the focus of CGG inquiry (5), it notes the CGG focus on linguistic creativity and the G knowledge it implicates (4), it observes the importance of negative data (“intentional violations and bad examples”) to plumbing the structure of the human capacity (5), it endorses a ling vs lang distinction within linguistics (“There are many linguists who look at language use in the real world … without making any commitment to whether or not the descriptions are part of an innate universal grammar”) (6), it distinguishes Chomsky’s conception of UG from a Greenberg version (sans naming the distinction in this way) and notes that the term ‘universal grammar’ can be confusing to many (6):
The phrase ‘universal grammar’ gives the impression that it’s going to be a list of features common to all languages, statements such as ‘all languages have nouns’ or ‘all languages mark verbs for tense’. But there are very few features shared by all known languages, possibly none. The word ‘universal’ is misleading here too. It seems like it should mean ‘found in all languages’ but in this case it means something like ‘found in all humans’ (because otherwise they would not be able to learn language as they do.)
And it also notes the virtues of abstraction (7).
Despite these virtues (and I really like that above explanation of ‘universal grammar’), ILAS largely obfuscates the issues at hand and gravely misrepresents CGG. There are several problems.
First, as noted, a central trope of ILAS is that CGG represents a “challenge to the scientific method itself” (2). In fact one problem ILAS sees with discussions of the Everett/Chomsky “debate” (yes, scare quotes) is that it obscures this more fundamental fact. How is it a challenge? Well, it is un-Popperian in that it insulates its core tenets (universal grammar) from falsifiability (3).
There are two big problems with this description. First, so far as I can see, there is nothing that ILAS says about CGG that could not be said about the uncontroversial sciences (e.g. physics). They too are not Popper falsifiable, as has been noted in the philo of science literature for well over 50 years now. Nobody who has looked at the Scientific Method thinks that falsifiability accurately describes scientific practice. In fact, few think that either Falsificationism or the idea that science has a method are coherent positions. Lakatos has made this point endlessly, Feyerabend more amusingly. And so has virtually every other philosopher of science (Laudan, Cartwright, Hacking to name three more). Adopting the Chomsky maxim that if a methodological dictum fails to apply to physics then it is not reasonable to hold linguistics to its standard, we can conclude that ILAS’s observation that certain CGG tenets are falsifiable (even if this is so) is not a problem peculiar to CGG. ILAS’s suggestion that it is is thus unfortunate.
Second, as Lakatos in particular has noted (but Quine also made his reputation on this, stealing the Duhem thesis), central cores of scientific programs are never easily directly empirically testable. Many linking hypotheses are required which can usually be adjusted to fend off recalcitrant data. This is no less true in physics than in linguistics. So, having cores that are very hard to test directly is not unique to CGG.
Lastly, being hard to test and being unempirical are not quite the same thing. Here’s what I mean. Take the claim that humans have a species specific dedicated capacity to acquire natural languages. This claim rests on trivial observations (e.g. we humans learn French, dogs (smart as they are) don’t!). That this involves Gs in some way is trivially attested by the fact of linguistic creativity (the capacity to use and understand novel sentences). That it is a species capacity is obvious to any parent of any child. These are empirical truisms and so well grounded in fact that disputing their accuracy is silly. The question is not (and never has been) whether humans have these capacities, but what the fine structure of these capacities is. In this sense, CGG is not a theory, anymore than MP is. It is a project resting on trivially true facts. Of course, any specification of the capacity commits empirical and theoretical hostages and linguists have developed methods and arguments and data to test them. But we don’t “test” whether FL/UG exists because it is trivially obvious that it does. Of course, humans are built for language like ants are built to dead reckon or birds are built to fly or fish to swim. So the problem is not that this assumption is insulated from test and thus holding it is unempirical and unscientific. Rather this assumption is not tested for the same reason that we don’t test the proposition that the Atlantic Ocean exists. You’d be foolish to waste your time. So, CGG is a project, as Chomsky is noted as saying, and the project has been successful as it has delivered various theories concerning how the truism could be true, and these are tested every day, in exactly the kinds of ways that other sciences test their claims. So, contrary to ILAS, there is nothing novel in linguistic methodology. Period. The questions being asked are (somewhat) novel, but the methods of investigation are pure white bread. That ILAS suggests otherwise is both incorrect and a deep disservice.
Another central feature of ILAS is the idea that CGG has been getting progressively more abstract, removed from facts, technical, and stipulative. This is a version of the common theme that CGG is always changing and getting more abstruse. Is ILAS pining for the simple days of LSLT and Syntactic Structures? Has Okrent read these (I actually doubt it given that nobody under a certain age looks at these anymore). At any rate, again, in this regard CGG is not different from any other program of inquiry. Yes, complexity flourishes for the simple reason that more complex issues are addressed. That’s what happens when there is progress. However, ILAS suggests that contemporary complexity contrasts with the simplicity of an earlier golden age, and this is incorrect. Again, let me explain.
One of the hallmarks of successful inquiry is that it builds on insights that came before. This is especially true in the sciences where later work (e.g. Einstein) builds on early work (e.g. Newton). A mark of this is that newer theories are expected to cover (more or less) the same territory as previous ones. One way of doing this for newbies to have the oldsters as limit cases (e.g. you get Newton from Einstein when speed of light is on the low side). This is what makes scientific inquiry progressive (shoulders and giants and all that). Well linguistics has this too (see here for first of several posts illustrating this with a Whig History). Once one removes the technicalia (important stuff btw), common themes emerge that have been conserved through virtually every version of CGG accounts (constituency, hierarchy, locality, non-local dependency, displacement) in virtually the same way. So, contrary to the impression ILAS provides, CGG is not an ever more complex blooming buzzing mass of obscurities. Or at least not more so than any other progressive inquiry. There are technical changes galore as bounds of empirical inquiry expand and earlier results are preserved largely intact in subsequent theory. The suggestion that there is something particularly odd of the way that this happens in CGG is just incorrect. And again, suggesting as much is a real disservice and an obfuscation.
Let me end with one more point, one where I kinda like what ILAS says, but not quite. It is hard to tell whether ILAS likes abstraction or doesn’t. Does it obscure or clarify? Does it make empirical contact harder or easier? I am not sure what ILAS concludes, but the problem of abstraction seems contentious in the piece. It should not be. Let me end on that theme.
First, abstraction is required to get any inquiry off the ground. Data is never unvarnished. But more importantly, only by abstracting away from irrelevancies can phenomena be identified at all. ILAS notes this in discussing friction and gravitational attraction. It’s true in linguistics too. Everyone recognizes performance errors, most recognize that it is legit to abstract away from memory limitations in studying the G aspects of linguistic creativity. At any rate, we all do it, and not just in linguistics. What is less appreciated I believe is that abstraction allows one to hone one’s questions and make it possible to make contact with empirics. It was when we moved away from sentences uttered to judgments about well formedness investigated via differential acceptability that we were able to start finding interesting Gish properties of native speakers. Looking at utterances in all their gory detail, obscures what is going on. Just as with friction and gravity. Abstraction does not make it harder to find out what is going on, but easier.
A more contemporary example of this in linguistics is the focus on Merge. This abstracts away from a whole lot of stuff. But, it also by ignoring many other features of G rules (besides the capacity to endlessly embed) allows for inquiry to focus on key features of G operations: they spawn endlessly many hierarchically organized structures that allow for displacement, reconstruction, etc. It also allows one to raise in simplified form new possibilities (do Gs allow for SW movement? Is inverse control/binding possible?). Abstraction need not make things more obscure. Abstracting away from irrelevancies is required to gain insight. It should be prized. ILAS fails to appreciate how CGG has progressed, in part, by honing sharper questions by abstracting away from side issues. One would hope a popularization might do this. ILAS did not. It made appreciating abstractions virtues harder to discern.
One more point: it has been suggested to me that many of the flaws I noted in ILAS were part of what made the piece publishable. In other words, it’s the price of getting accepted. This might be so. I really don’t know. But, it is also irrelevant. If this is the price, then there are worse things than not getting published. This is especially so for popular science pieces. The goal should be to faithfully reflect the main insights of what one is writing about. The art is figuring out how to simplify without undue distortion. ILAS does not meet this standard, I believe.
 The CGG as mysticism meme goes back a long way. I believe that Hockett’s review of Chomsky’s earliest work made similar suggestions.
 In fact, few nowadays are able to identify a scientific method. Yes, there are rules of thumb like think clearly, try hard, use data etc. But the days of thinking that there is a method, even in the developed sciences, is gone.