Saturday, August 13, 2016

Some blog fodder for blackout time

I am about to go dark for a couple of weeks. Vacation time!!! Woohoo!!! But before checking out, here are some pieces that I found fun to read.

First, there is a forthcoming review of the Berwick-Chomsky book Why only us in the New Yor Review of Books. It is by Ian Tattersall, a pretty impressive person in the field. It is a reasonable review, unlike virtually all of the others I have seen. The bottom line is that the Merge conjecture is a reasonable first step toward trying to understand how human linguistic capacity arose in the species. It is not the last word in Tattersall's opinion but it is a very good first step and pretty much the only reasonable suggestion out there. As this is completely against the received wisdom and as it is made by a very serious person who know something about the topic it is a great antidote to most of the reviews out there. BTW, Tattersall mentions these other reviews and puts them neatly in their place. Now, you are all expecting a link to the piece. But I cannot provide it as there is no publicly available URL. However, look for the review and/or get the issue from your library. It is very good and very helpful.

Second, in the previous post I discussed Pullum's views on Putnam's views on linguistics. I disagreed with him concerning their accuracy and utility, though, sadly, not their prevalence and influence. One point that Pullum did no discuss is Putnam's views on meaning and its impact on both linguistics and philosophy. Perhaps Putnam's most influential paper is The meaning of 'meaning'. It always gets trotted out for its important insights regarding narrow content, twin earth thought experiments and the role of social division of linguistic labor. For may part, I never understood why the last was a big deal given that in the end we needed to ground meaning in the relation of some mind's competence (in Putnam's views, those of some relevant expert). And there was little reason to think the this competence was different in kind from whatever we were looking for in that of the ideal speaker-hearer. Thus the observation, though possibly correct, did not seem particularly profound.

But this is not why I am discussing Putnam again. There is an excellent critical  review of the logic of this very influential paper that Paul Pietroski (here). I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Third: STEM. Everywhere you turn at the university STEM is the order of the day. There is, were are led to believe, because there is a crisis in this country and we are suffering from a paucity of technically trained scientists and engineers. So dump the humanities and let's concentrate on getting out more STEM trained people. However, this story is BS. There is no dearth of the STEM trained. This NYT piece provides some numbers (here).

Here is a rule of thumb: if there is a scarcity of well trained people then their hiring price goes up. We do not expect to see legions of them without work, nor their salaries stagnating. But this is what we see with many many STEM trained types. So why the hype? I have my own views (first among these is the idea that all of our societal problems arise form a lack of education rather than an economic system that skews things in unfortunate directions). However, whether my dark suspicions are correct, it is worth knowing that the STEM stuff is quite highly hyped and that it is mostly false.

Last point: this does not imply that STEM competence is an unworthy goal. It only means that it has nothing to do with the job market. It's value lies in the value of a decent scientific education for other reasons than employment.

Fourth: remember SSRN and Elsevier's takeover and how we were told it would not make a difference? Well, here is an update on who well that is going.  Hmm.

Fifth: A cute piece on physicists for hire to a answer the questions of the lay curious. I wonder if we could have a GG hotline for the tyro curious. Might prevent the sort of junk we regularly see in the press about GG.

That's it. Have a nice two weeks.


  1. There's some discussion of the (pretty outdated) model of neurolinguistics assumed by Berwick & Chomsky in this Biolinguistics paper:

  2. With respect to STEM, it depends on the definition of "STEM". Apparently there is a bit of a gold rush right now in terms of software development - companies are bringing in whoever they can that has programming skills, and if you are a speaker of English who programs apparently there is just a ton of money out there waiting for you. If programming for Snapchat counts as "STEM", then there apparently is a dearth of STEM trained types.

    1. The Computer Science department holds their careers fair in the basketball stadium. And they even struggle to convince their PhDs to pursue faculty positions, because of the competition from industry. You can see where students and parents get the impression that there are jobs out there.

  3. Here is a link to the Tattersall review, but it is behind a paywall.

  4. Looks like some geologists have found this too...

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Some more: