Monday, March 2, 2015

A defense of my sentiments

I am not always kind. In fact, wrt some views I have been (and likely will be) pretty unrelentingly negative. I will most likely indulge in ridicule, sarcasm, humor, and, satire, irony and petulance. I will throw verbal tantrums, make fun of the views, treat them as nonsense and generally avoid taking their claims seriously for the umpteenth time. Many will find this disrespectful (it is). Many will think that this is self-defeating (it may be, not sure). And many will think that this is not the way to treat views you don't agree with. After all intellectual disagreement should be civilized, right? Yes, but only to a point. There really are some views that are so far gone, so misinformed, so relentlessly clueless that treating them with regard is dishonest. I've discussed such papers in the recent past. My  position: Junk is junk and needs to be called out as junk.

Now, why bring this up? Well, it seems that on this matter of critical style I am not alone (yeah!!!). There is at least one other that has voiced similar opinions (and he has a Nobel Prize (well sort of a Nobel Prize. It's in Economics)). It is in another discipline, but the sentiments are the same. He defends his practice here.

Krugman notes three strategies for dealing with ideas that are popular but deeply wrongheaded and that have been continuously shown to be such. The first is to pretend that there is really an issue worth debating and that this is a disagreement among serious people. The second is to point out the wrongness  again and again quietly and politely. The third is to be nasty, snarky and loud. Krugman argues for door number 3. Why? Well you read it. What's relevant here is that I agree with K here. There are positions that are just silly. They are based on simple confusions, which have been pointed out repeatedly and  regularly ignored. There are books that are plain dumb, so misinformed and off base that pretending that they say anything worthwhile is an exercise in mass deception. Most things are NOT like this. But some are. And the problem is that many of these things get highlighted in the semi-popular intellectual press. Like K, I think that the best replies will not be pretty and polite and quiet and "serious." Snark, laughs and satire, irony, jokes and outrage. I plan to pile it on, and have fun in the process.


  1. I would have thought as US linguist you'd observe National Grammar Day:

    "On all other days, we write as much as we want. On National Grammar Day, we must omit unnecessary words".

    seems virtually all words in the above could have been omitted ...

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  4. Door 2 and door 3 aren't categorically different. It's a question of what you mean by polite. There is a way of saying "this opinion is absurd" without simply piling insults. Pinker usually strikes an okay balance but leaning a bit towards the "wrong" meaning of polite, which is too polite. Chomsky and Fodor are even better at pointing out the absurd firmly and even when their arguments are great overreach they make sense. But door 3 is Postal, where arguments go away and attack dominates. That's not a good idea. No one will listen except true believers. This is bad advice. It makes the problem look trivial. It's not.

    1. The difference you point to is not as regards the doors but as regards the object of obloquy. As I said many times before, ideas are fair game. People should not be. There is nothing wrong with harshly attacking an idea and poking fun at it and basically treating it with extreme disrespect. It is even fair game to indicate who has or is currently holding such views. But the inference from this idea is silly/deeply misleading/ignorant etc. to the conclusion that A who holds this idea is silly/ignorant etc is not valid. That said, it is a slope a bit on the slippery side, and it is hard to not make the inference on occasion. However, given the current predilection towards extreme politeness and the go-along-to-get-along temper of the times (a kind of extreme relativism as regards taste and worth) I think that a while of erring on the side of intemperance is a good idea. We need to debate taste and worthwhile-ness right now as the domain of inquiry is littered with dumb ideas that we need to warn people away from and "politeness" does not seem up to the task. I suspect that part of our disagreement on this issue revolves around a simple fact: I can afford to be intemperate given my "age" while my younger colleagues might encounter consequences from so acting. So to them I say, at least THINK it and when you can start acting it. To my older colleagues I say: step up to the plate. Time to defend not only what you are doing but why it is worth doing and going after junk. Letft alone junk seems to proliferate. I think that there is even a folk theorem to this effect: bad stuff driving out good.

    2. Interesting perspective Ewan, if I understand you correctly, if someone provides as much evidence in support of one's criticism as Postal does 'arguments go away and attack dominates'? I have a couple of questions below. Please do not understand them as challenges to your position; they are genuine questions.

      1. You say no one will listen to Postal except true believers. What do those true believers believe in?

      2. We probably agree that only 'true believers' never question anything said by the person they believe in. I assume you are no 'true believer' but acknowledge that Chomsky has on occasion said something that is wrong. Now maybe you can educate us on how one ought to criticize correctly. Pick any claim by Chomsky you consider to be incorrect and show us how it is done.

      3. To my knowledge Postal has never accused anyone in print of being a charlatan. Chomsky has done this [without providing any evidence whatsoever that Everett is a charlatan]. So by your own evaluation matrix behind what door should we place this Chomskyan slander? Maybe there is a door 4?

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    4. CB: "To my knowledge Postal has never accused anyone in print of being a charlatan."

      Paul Postal, quoted in the New Yorker, March 31, 2003, page 77: "After many years, I came to the conclusion that everything he [Chomsky] says is false. He will lie just for the fun of it. Every one of his arguments was tinged and coded with falseness and pretense. It was like playing chess with extra pieces. It was all fake."


      The Chomsky quote alluded to by CB, like the Postal quote, comes from an interview, filtered through a reporter. So perhaps there is more to the story of both quotes. Whatever the story, perhaps we should not give up on some of the other doors so quickly.

    5. Thank you kindly for this quote. May I ask how it is relevant? Given that you are a person who nails others to the letter of what has been said I would have expected you apply the same diligence yourself. Now by definition a "charlatan (also called swindler or mountebank) is a person practising quackery or some similar confidence trick in order to obtain money, fame or other advantages via some form of pretense or deception". Would you mind telling us where in the above Postal claims Chomsky is attempting to obtain money from his lies or that he is 'practising quckery'?

      As for filtering: I have of course checked the facts on both stories. Chomsky has confirmed by e-mail that he was not misquoted and, furthermore, that he still holds the above definition applies to Everett. Postal on the other hand has told me that the quote contains errors of fact and that the reporter 'blew him off' when he asked for a correction. [I gladly make copies of the e-mails available]. But since, presumably, you have applied the same diligence yourself that may not be necessary.

  5. "Pick any claim by Chomsky you consider to be incorrect and show us how it is done."

    Trivially easy.

    Take one of Chomsky most highly regarded work and the inspiration of the current branch of syntactic research where you would look for true believers in Chomsky: The Minimalist Program. In it, Chomsky defends the existence of a single syntactic head in simple transitive sentences, called there v, which 1) introduces the external argument 2) assigns accusative case to the object 3) triggers spell-out of its complement (what Chomsky later called a phase head) and 4) is responsible for a number of extraneous properties in various languages (say, providing a cyclic escape hatch for objects in relativized clause in French).

    I consider this claim to be incorrect (and I'm nobody but I believe a majority, or at least a sizable minority, of people doing minimalist syntax share this assessment). As for the reasons, I am persuaded by the analysis of (among many others) Austronesian and Celtic languages by (among many others) Lisa Travis and Alain Rouveret that the external argument is introduced in some languages well below spell-out of the lower phase, so that the functional head triggering spell-out is not (always) the same as the head introducing the external argument. See (among many others) (A.Rouveret VP ellipsis, phases and the syntax of morphology Natural language and linguistics theory (30) 2012) example (28) a.

    There you go: direct disagreement with Chomsky, substantiated by precise reference both of the claim of Chomsky and why I disagree, not a trace of slander anywhere in sight. And, I should say, the only thing that I find remarkable is that you could doubt that anyone with even a passing knowledge of linguistics could or would do this.

  6. ooh. I like this game. How about a quote from my 2013 book (just to highlight Olivier's point that it's perfectly normal to disagree with Chomsky about matters of substance). Here is the critique I give of the proposal Chomsky has been developing for labelling for the past few years:
    "For External Merge of a specifier, Chomsky suggests two possible solutions. One is based on Moro’s (2000) idea that {XP, YP} structures are somehow too symmetrical, and this symmetricality has to be disrupted by movement of one or other of XP and YP. Applying this to Merge of the specifier of v*P, we could say that the specifier has to raise, leaving a structure with just a head (LI), v*, which provides the label (assuming that the trace can be ignored).
    However, this would mean that all base Merged specifiers have to raise, given that they will all give rise to the same problem. But the question then is whether there is always a target for such raising. Take, for example, small- clause absolutives in English:
    (16) With the vase on the table, the room looks perfect.
    There is no evidence that the vase has moved. In fact, the lack of expletives in such structures suggests that there is no target position:
    (17) *With there a vase on the table, the room looks perfect.
    Furthermore, taking Moro’s (2000) position, we might expect predicate inversion in such constructions, which is also impossible in English:
    (18) *With on the table the vase, . . .
    Similar considerations apply to PP and AP complements of small-clause-taking predicates like consider and possibly also to causative make and perception see.
    Connected to this empirical problem is a theoretical one: if it is the label that selects and is selected in External Merge, when T combines with the unlabeled constituent {Subject, {v, V}}, before movement of the subject, the constituent has no label and so cannot be selected by T. The subject cannot move before Merge of whatever selects {v, V}, because there is no position for it to move to, but if the subject does not move, then {Subject, {v, V}} cannot be selected, leading to a paradox: the subject must move so the constituent can have a label, but it cannot move because there is no position to move to unless {Subject, {v, V}} already has a label"

  7. (continued) I don't really believe there's a `correct' way to criticise, which is what Christina asked for, but that's one model. I think of course you can be stronger, but, as Norbert urged, the criticism is always more effective when aimed at ideas (or the exposition of ideas) rather than at individuals. So, for example, in my review of the Evan's book and article, I do say that, in those works, he misrepresents things, misunderstands things and makes mistakes, and I provide evidence for these assertions, but I don't say he is dishonest or say he is lying for the fun of it (unlike the Postal comment David quoted). If something is misrepresented or misunderstood, it's a good thing to correct it, forcefully, but that isn't Postal style invective.

    And just for the sake of accuracy, where is the Chomsky charlatan quote `in print'? I haven't seen it.

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    2. The Chomsky quote appears in an editor's note at the bottom of a 2009 interview with Dan Everett in A Folha de S.Paulo (the New York Times of Brazil, more or less). The original source is behind a paywall now, but it is reprinted at (in Portuguese), bottom paragraph. The Portuguese text of that paragraph is probably no problem for anyone with other Romance languages under their belt, but Google Translate also does a moderately credible job with it (despite stumbling over subject pro-drop).

    3. Here's the quick and dirty translation of the quote mentioned by David Pesetsky just above:

      Noam Chomsky does not want to discuss Daniel Everett. He asks that the reporter get in touch with his MIT colleague David Pesetsky who, together with Andrew Nevins (an American) and Cilene Rodrigues (a Brazilian), refute Everett in an article that will be published in the September issue of "Language". Nonetheless, the greatest living intellectual does not refrain from saying a thing or two about his rebellious disciple.

      "He has turned into a plain charlatan, even though he used to be a good descriptive linguist. It's because of this that, as far as I can tell, all serious linguists that work in indigenous Brazilian languages ignore him."

      According to Chomsky, even if it is the case that Pirahã does possess the properties described by Everett, the implications for Universal Grammar would be "zero".

      "Everett is banking on his readers not understanding the difference between UG in the technical sense (ie, the theory of the genetic component of human language) and in the informal sense, which relates to properties common to all languages", he [Chomsky] says.

      "Speakers of Pirahã have the same genetic components that we do, so Pirahã children try to construct a normal language. Suppose that Pirahã [the language], does not allow this. That would be analogous to finding a community that crawls but does not walk, such that the children growing up in such a community would probably crawl too. The implications of such a finding for human genetics would be null."

    4. If the quote above is the sole source of the whole "Chomsky has called Everett a charlatan in print" issue, then I think those pushing it have been highly disingenuous. If there are other instances, than I'd be happy to stand corrected.

      As the quote makes abundantly clear, Chomsky did not write an article with such accusations, and did not even want to discuss Everett with the reporter. In addition, he pointed the reporter to the appropriate academic resource for the question at hand.

      So all we really seem to have is a footnote in one of the many articles at the height of the Chomsky-Everett (pseudo-)controversy in which we find a reluctant Chomsky explicitly refusing to provide the juicy quote the reporter apparently wanted so much, and only after an unspecified amount of prodding, saying something at all.

      This is a far cry from the idea that Chomsky has been accusing Everett of being a charlatan *in print* (he hasn't, he was quoted, and it is not really clear he was aware it would go on record) and *without any evidence* (the very quote adduces some).

    5. Thank you for this translation and apologies if it was not clear what I object to: there is a difference between attacking ideas and attacking people. I would have had no objection to Chomsky putting in print that he believes Everett is wrong about Piraha and there is some evidence relevant to that claim in the Nevins et al. paper. But that paper provides no evidence for Everett having the character flaws Chomsky accuses him of when he calls him a charlatan and when he claims all serious linguists working on indigenous Brazilian languages ignore him because he's a charlatan. [Notice that this statement implies that if someone is working on indigenous Brazilian languages and they do not ignore Everett, then, according to Chomsky, they are not serious linguists - so the insult is not just against Everett...]