Thursday, December 13, 2018

Happy 90th Birthday

As many of you may know, Noam just turned 90. In his honor, Michael Schiffman (with some help from Joahnn Hari and at the behest of Valeria Chomsky) put together short pieces by people on their Noamesque encounters. I contributed a little piece as well. Here it is.

Noam and Me[*]

It is not clear to me why it is that Noam would wish to know how I came to be a fervent acolyte, but the editors of this tribute assure me that he would. So here goes.

I met Noam when I was an undergrad at McGill. In fact I met him four different times.

The first time was through Harry Bracken. Harry taught philosophy at McGill and I was his student (and I also often ate lunch with him and Jim McGilvray (who, at the time, was a useful Empiricist foil for Harry (yes, Jim has changed))). One of Harry’s interests was to understand the contrasting Empiricist and Rationalist worldviews. He was a staunch Rationalist partisan and firmly believed that the world/universe would be a much better place were Rationalist conceptions of minds and persons the default. The class spent considerable time rehearsing the 17thand 18thcentury debates. We also spent a lot of time on Noam’s writing, which, at the time included Aspects(chapter 1), Language & Mind, and Cartesian Linguistics. Why Noam? Because for Harry, he was Descartes’ 20thcentury avatar, fighting the good fight against arch Behaviorists like Skinner and (our own home-grown Empiricist) Hebb. This was my first introduction to Noam: leader of the anti-Empiricist Rationalist resistance.

My second introduction built on this. The impresario was Elan Dresher. At the time, Elan was a grad student in linguistics. He was also a great friend and weekend drinking buddy. Like all young Montrealers, we went out Fridays and Saturday nights. Unlike all Montrealers, we seldom had dates. So we sat and talked, and talked, and talked. About everything. We argued about whether the Loch Ness monster existed (Elan argued compellingly that the evidence was mixed, and at least as good as the evidence for the existence of the Great Blue Bear (which we took as very solid)), about whether sugar grew in cubes (again Elan pointed out that the transition from cubes to grains was more “natural” (dare I say economical) than the transition from grains to cubes and so an elegant Nature would opt for the cube growth option), and, of course, about the virtues of Empiricism and Rationalism. We discussed and argued these points for hours, with Descartes’ views (and those of his modern day paladin Noam Chomsky) generally winning the day. 

I should add that at the time Elan was quite taken with the music of Woody Guthrie and he wrote a “train” ballad about Rene D that included the following verse:

Rene Descartes on the train line
Wearing an Engineer’s hat
Said, go and tell the people at Harvard
That a man ain’t nothing like a rat!

There were many more verses and I suggest that you get Elan to sing it for you when next you see him.

So the first two “meetings” with Noam were what we might today call somewhat “virtual.” The next one brought me closer to the actual life and blood Noam, though still at a small remove. Here’s the story.

I was a student at McGill from 69-75 (yes, six wonderful years) and at the time Noam was vey well known for his politics. It was thus somewhat odd that I mainly initially got to know him as a leading Rationalist linguist and philosopher (at the time, these two domains were close kissing cousins). However, given the times, I soon also started reading his political stuff. The Responsibility of Intellectualsand At War with Asiawere standards. But Noam was everywhere, writing in the New York Review of Books(something that he would not do ever again after the war) and the lefty rag of the times, Ramparts. At any rate, we all devoured this stuff. 

However, the US invasion of Viet Nam was not the only war of importance at that time. There was also the 67 war in the Mid East and the recurring intense conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. I (together with Elan) were quite involved with the latter at McGill. We both went to a Zionist High School (Herzliah) and co-edited a magazine (Strobe) that discussed some of these issues in its pages (actually, he was editor, I was his sidekick). At any rate, we were deeply involved. I (and Elan) was a lefty Zionist politically, favoring a two-state solution based on the 67 border (which, truth be told, I still think is the most realistic proximate decent option). But I was quite definitely a Zionist in that I believed that Israel was basically forced into its military and political responses by recalcitrant Palestinian (and Arab) initiatives (the old Ebanism “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” being a tacit mantra). I believed that Israel did not do much more than respond to events as best it could. This is important background for my third Noam meeting.

He published a piece in Rampartsarguing that Israel was the prime mover in the region and that it was responsible for initiating much of the trouble and intransigence. I could not believe what I was reading. I got really annoyed and decided to write Chomsky a letter showing him the error of his ways. What the hell did he know! Not much from what I could tell. So, I, a graduate of Herzliah and a lefty Zionist, was going to set him straight. I wrote him (yes, in those days we still wrote letters) a many-paged letter that went over his mistakes line by line and popped it into the mail feeling pretty good. I am not sure why, as I did not think that this intervention would lead anywhere. I honestly expected no reply. The whole effort was expansive virtue signaling (to myself largely), just good to get things off my chest and let Noam know that someone was monitoring his mistakes.

Well, you all probably know what happened next, as has happened to countless many before and since. Within the week I received a many-paged typed line by line reply to my letter telling me nicely (but firmly) that I might want to consult various sources (e.g. The Economist, BBC transcripts, various histories (those by the Kimche’s come to mind) etc.) that would show me that my view of the situation was not (ahem) entirely well grounded. This reply was entirely unexpected, and unfortunately quite impressive and extensive, but I was not convinced. I went to the library, chased down the sources, and wrote another revised note making similar points to the first but with slightly better backing. Suffice it to say, that after three or four iterations of this process I came to the tentative conclusion that I really did not know what I was talking about. I was not sure that Noam was right. But I was pretty sure that my former very firm views were very tenuous. This was a real revelation. Even bigger than discovering that Rationalism is right and Empiricism is (at best) wrong. I do not know if you have ever been privy to an episode of radical Cartesian Doubt where everything you thought was solid seems to evaporate (By the way, a bout of Cartesian Doubt is a bit like vegetables: good for you but not all that pleasant when you are in the midst of it). This was my first experience of that and if for nothing else, my third encounter with Noam will remain ever memorable (and my debt to him enormous).

The last intro was not epistolary but in the flesh. I met Noam for the first time (Elan was there too) at U Mass Amherst at the summer institute. I just walked up to him, introduced myself and we shook hands. He looked nothing like Descartes, or his demon. Elan agreed. 

So that’s how I got to meet Noam. Since then we have remained in contact, mainly via email (except for the four years in Cambridge when I got to see him pretty regularly). I discovered that there were more things that I did not understand beyond the politics and history of the Middle East. Many many (maybe a few too many?) more things. But I am sure that this is a standard reaction. I discovered that Noam likes nothing more than finding points of disagreement, and following ideas to see where they might lead. I found that I like that too, at least the way he does it. Noam’s great gift has been showing me how much fun it could be to think about things. It really is fun, even if that involves changing your mind again and again and again. Quite a nice gift, and I appreciate it every day.

[*]Thanks to my good and great friend Elan Dresher for vetting the contents and checking the spelling and punctuation. For those that do not know this, Elan played Noam in a skit he and Amy Weinberg and I performed for Noam’s 50thbirthday. I played Koko the Gorilla. Amy played Penny Patterson. The skit involved a debate between Noam and Koko about whether Gorillas could be linguistically competent. To my mind, Noam lost that debate. I can be very persuasive when a gorilla. I mention this here because one of the benefits of knowing Noam before spell checking is that he automatically corrected my spelling and punctuation when I gave him a paper to read. Given the historical connection between Noam and Elan, it seems fitting that Elan has done me that service here. I have always relied on the kindness of good copy editors.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Bad science vs scientism

Here are a pair of papers (here,here) that discuss scientism. Scientism is hard to define exactly for it relies on being able to distinguish what is scientific from what is not and those that think that some piece of work is scientistic also generally think that demarcating science from non-science is a mug’s game. The longer paper is by Susan Haack. The shorter is a comment by Andrew Gelman who adds a codicil to her 6 distinguishing features. Here is Haack’s list:

1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.
3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.
4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.
5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.
6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

Gelman adds a distinction between active vs passive scientism. Here’s how he elaborates this distinction:

A familiar examples of passive scientism is “pizzagate”: the work, publication, and promotion, of the studies conducted by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Other examples include papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on himmicanes, air rage, and ages ending in 9.
In all these cases, topics were being studied that clearly can be studied by science. So the “scientism” here is not coming into the decision to pursue this research. Rather, the scientism arises from blind trust in various processes associated with science, such as randomized treatment assignment, statistical significance, and peer review.
In this particular manifestation of scientism—claims that bounce around between scientific journals, textbooks, and general media outlets such as NPR and Ted talks—there is no preoccupation with identifying the scientific method or preoccupation with demarcation, but rather the near-opposite, an all-too-calm acceptance of wacky claims that happen to be in the proximity to various tokens of science.

I am not sure that what Gelman notes constitutes a natural kind with what Haack is worried about. Moreover, I think that the distinction is worth preserving if for no other reason that we need to allow for badscience, which is what Gelman is really pointing at. Bad science is science badly done and one can do things badly in a variety of ways, including in a way that rightly irks Gelman: “blind trust in various processes associated with science.”But this is still different from what Haack is trying to dissect which is more along the lines of a category mistake: the extension of scientific methods and modes of discussion into domains where they don’t really apply so as to join the slip stream of prestige that scientific inquiry enjoys.  The difference between scientism and bad science is sorta like the difference between bullshit and lies. Both are bad but they are not quite the same thing.

But once we are cataloguing, let me add one of my own pet peeves: the refusal to actually criticize what is being asserted. FoL has canvassed many “debates” wherein critics have attacked a position that nobody defended. Dan Everett on universals is a classic example of a “debate” based on a pun. But there are many others as well. A kissing cousin of this is the “refutations” of PoS arguments for one or another conclusion where the critic often has no idea what the PoS argument consists in. I would think that a useful rule of scientific method is to make sure that you read and understand that which you are objecting to. But the ubiquity of “critiques” and “refutations” that ignore this simple principle suggests that I would be wrong to think so.

I have been privy to a more recent version of this kind of criticism. For the last several years I have been arguing that Minimalism has been a tremendous success when evaluated in its own terms.  The papers and presentations that try to make this case lay out what I take the Minimalist project to be and how various proposals have succeeded in illuminating the questions it poses for itself. In particular, the project is to explain why we have the FL/UG we do and this project only makes sense given certain presuppositions and judgments (e.g. the project is decidedly mentalistic, it presupposes that many of the laws of grammar that GB style theories have discovered are roughly accurate, etc.). Most of my presentations spend a large amount of time spelling out these presuppostions and judgments and explaining how giventhese, Minimalism has offered plausible and defensible answers to the questions identified. I even make the point that ifone rejects these presuppositions or has made different empirical judgments regarding the presupposed facts that the Minimalist project as outlined will not appear particularly appealing. And I often add that there is no disputing taste (here I am being concessive, for I think that this is false) but that this is not relevant to the evaluation of the project’s achievements. And what does this get me? Mostly very little. Here is what I mean.

More often than not this does not satisfy everyone who reads the paper or attends the lecture. I cannot imagine why for as indicated I am always perfectly persuasive, gregarious, open-minded and mentally flexible. Still, I often fail. Why? Because so far as I can tell many just don’t like the very idea of the Minimalist project and think that working on such a project is illegitimate. Of course one cannot just assert “I just don’t like Minimalism!” and declare “Nor should anybody else!” because saying these sorts of things will make one sound like a crank. So, to avoid sounding like a petulant whack-job an MP hater will typically reach for generic criticisms (e.g. it’s not methodologically scientific, its ideologically driven, look at all the problems, etc.) that do not in any obvious way tie up to the premises defended or the arguments proffered. And this is, IMO, unkosher science. It’s fine not to like something. It’s fine to follow your gut. It’s fine to openly sneer at the taste of others (ok, that is notfine, but at least it can he done honestly). But it is not fine to pretend to offer criticism that seems based on reasons but is actually based on either ignorance, petulance, or mental indigestion. This is simple bad faith. And, sad to say, IMO, there is a lot of this in the sciences in general, and even in parts of contemporary linguistics. 

So what would I add to the Haack-Gelman discussion. I would add that there is a lot of junk science out there and much of it is driven by bad faith. This bad faith is illustrated by a refusal to address the actual arguments being made. And this is not a great thing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


So, MOOCs will not kill higher ed. Nope, we can leave that to Republicans and neo-liberal democrats (at least the great jewel in the crown, public higher ed). Remember when MOOCs were all the rage and we were being told constantly about how the end of standard education was imminent? Recall how some of us doubted that this would happen, at least for elite institutions (sure, garbage ed is always an attractive alternative for the unwashed). Remember when some said that we know that MOOCs will win the day when they become the standard at fancy schools where you need to pay 60k a year in tuition and another 40k to live? Well, that day won't come, and the prophets of the revolution are packing up their bags and disrupting something else.  Here is the epitaph in the Chronicle (thx to Bill Idsardi for sending the piece along):

In 2012, Sebastain Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, declared “In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.” 
If this is to come true, it seems clear that Udacity isn’t going to be one of them, not just because they’re shedding employees, but because Udacity continues to “pivot” away from education and towards corporate training, helping companies “upscale their talent” in Thrun’s parlance.  
“MOOC” does not appear once in the news of the layoffs. The Udacity nanodegree job guarantee program is currently on hold, perhaps never to return.
So MOOCs aren’t going to kill higher education institutions. This disruption isn’t to be.

Bright shines toys are what make the hearts of administrators race with excitement. MOOCs were the magic something for nothing flavor of the month. There is a saying, "those things too good to be true, aren't." MOOCs weren't and now they aren't. On the way some made lots of money and others wasted  many other people's time. But, as of now, it seems the wicked witch is dead. Celebrate, and remember for the next time.