Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Academic disdain (paca)

I've been working off and on for a while now on a research paper about what we can and cannot learn from certain psychological experiments with children's language abilities. They are called "poverty of the stimulus" arguments and relate to the whole "language instinct" debate that I discussed previously. If things go well, this will be the first paper I submit to an academic journal (followed closely by the apology one, J-W, I promise!).

In many ways, it's a really dumb or brave thing to do, because no topic brings out the worst in linguists more than the topic of whether or not language is "innate". Perhaps more than any other question, academics feel free to treat the other camp with the utmost disdain, and it happens on both sides.

I am reading a book called biolinguistics that is in "the Chomsky camp" that is chock full of such examples. One person whom the author seems to love disagreeing with is Steven Pinker, which is odd as Pinker (if you remember my earlier essay) is the one who popularized the idea of the language instinct, which pseudo-originated with Chomsky. Pinker's big crime? He believes that the evidence for language innateness is much stronger when a diversity of methodologies all support it instead of just using linguistic theory. In a footnote, my biolinguistics author states that Pinker fails to understand or appreciate the power of traditional linguistic data gathering. Not that Pinker understands but disagrees, but that he just doesn't get it - assumingly he doesn't have the stunning intellectual powers of the author.

I'm reminded of political debates where everyone is convinced that people with whom they disagree are just not getting the obvious. If only they'd understand what is so obvious, we'd all get along. Chomsky himself loves to move between seeming accomodating, open engagement with opposing viewpoints to throwing out that (literally he has said this) if you disagree with his theses, you must believe there's no difference between his granddaughter and a rock. No false dichotomies there.

But of course, this lack of regard for people with differing viewpoints is not just on the "nativist" side. One essay describes Chomsky's tradition of grammar analysis as baroque and nothing more than an amusing historical artifact. Others view it as mere magic and hand-waving, explaining nothing.

Where am I coming down? Well, I am going to be viewed as anti-Chomsky because my essay argues that a certain type of evidence that is basic to his hypothesis is weak. However, in fact, I am trying to push through the fighting forces to find a better methodology for answering the questions that Chomsky has rightfully posed.

Disdain for people with whom you disagree is of course not the perogative of academia. It's particularly acute in politics where part of the job is to belittle the other guy (I'm distinguishing politics from governance, which our current set of politicians appears unable to do). I think it is revealed more often in academia than in some other fields, though, because these remarks get published in print. If you belittle someone in your company's board room, only the people in the room usually hear it. But when you do it in your Oxford University Press monograph, it stays on the library shelf to be read for 30 years.

1 comment:

ril said...

Interestingly, just last night I was browsing through Chomsky's "On Language" and making occasional notes when my daughter, who does not talk yet, managed to communicate to me that her diaper was causing her some distress. She was able to convey this message completely without any coherent verbalizations. Of course, I curtailed my Chomsky activities in order to attend to this minor domestic event, in the course of which, upon discovering that chocolate pudding changes little in consistency in its travels through the digestive tract, I was reminded of your theory.




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