James McElvenny writes…
The title of this post is probably a bit misleading. This is not an anti-science rant as such. My title is simply intended to evoke Beware of speech experts bearing science, a recent post from Aidan Wilson here on this blog that could considered an example of the ‘Respect mah authoritah!’ genre of linguistic blogging. I do hold out the cynical hope, however, that the title will score me some hits from the Lord Monckton Appreciation Society or the Adam and Eve Intelligent Design Support Network.
This post isn’t an apology for Dean Frenkel, either (that’s the gentleman under consideration in Aidan’s post). At least in the quotes Aidan presents, many of his pronouncements do seem rather odd – some might say wrong. This post is essentially a critique of the ad hominem turn Aidan takes in criticising Frenkel, if you’ll pardon my Latin. Aidan says:
…he’s [Dean Frenkel] certainly not a linguist or speech pathologist so he should refrain from claiming to have answers to such questions as the evolution of language, the development of the vocal tract, the linguistic ability of Neanderthals or the entire field of phonetics. Phoneticians undergo years of training in order to be able to comment on phonetics, as do evolutionary anthroplogists and historical linguistics. Giving Frenkel and people like him airtime cheapens our entire field.
It is true that academic linguists undergo years of training and that Dean Frenkel is not one of them. But this does not mean that linguists can wave their PhDs in the air and say ‘Chomsky hath said it’ – they have precisely the same responsibility to present arguments and evidence to support their claims and refutations, and to keep it clean.
Now it’s not possible for anyone in a twenty-minute radio interview or a blog post to convey the knowledge required to properly assess a theory of language evolution. But I think it does more harm than good to bring it to the level of ‘credentials’ (a word Aidan uses later on in the post) rather than keeping it impersonal.
And we scientists need to be conscious of our own limitations and correspondingly modest. In this respect I think Thomas Kuhn’s classic book The Structure of Scientific Revoltions is a good point of departure. As many Fully (sic) readers will know, the book contains several historical case studies which Kuhn uses to demonstrate his thesis that scientists are often constrained by their intellectual environments: he sees them as working within ‘paradigms’, theoretical structures for pursuing particular problems.
In his case studies, Kuhn finds that the paradigms serve as an unquestionable core of belief for scientists carrying on their work. When alternative views or even evidence that conflicts with the paradigm emerge, they are often ignored until a crisis develops. At this point, a scientific revolution takes place, a different paradigm is adopted – which might actually offer less good solutions than the preceding paradigm for some problems. Of course, Kuhn’s book does not stand alone, and in the fifty or so years since it first appeared there have been many critiques and refinements of the sort of views he presents. For those interested in finding out more, an introductory textbook to the philosophy of science, such as Alan Chalmers’ What is this thing called science?, is a good place to start.
Linguists, our pet scientists in this case, provide living and breathing examples of paradigm allegiance. A follower of Noam Chomsky will swear that the grammars of all languages are basically the same – the differences between languages are only superficial – and the reason why is that grammar is already hard-wired into human brains. There are arguments for and against that, and whether you subscribe to that paradigmatic assumption or not will determine what sort of linguistic research you do, and which other linguists you talk to. Another camp, whose members are generally in what linguists would call complementary distribution with Chomskians, will say, following Benjamin Lee Whorf, that the grammars of languages are different in many ways and the differences affect the way their speakers see the world. Here evidence and argument are also presented. There are innumerable other schools of linguists that we could mention to illustrate this point further.
It has to be said, however, that we don’t all have the time and enthusiasm to acquire the knowledge needed to comment intelligently on these different approaches to language and the results they present. The same is true of any other area of science or specialised knowledge. We need to have a certain amount of trust in experts. This is quite normal: when I have a toothache, I go to a dentist; when I get sued for defamation, I go to a lawyer. When a committee of climate scientists tells me I ought to trade in my black smoke belching 1976 Beetle for a bicycle, I listen.
These are dangerious times for scientists – their expertise is frequently called into question by people with vested interests, anti-intellectual attitudes, or with a desire for self-aggrandizement. But scientists have to treat non-specialists in their field with respect: explain as best they can why they have reached the conclusions they have and the problems with ‘unscientific’ views (such as those of Frenkel). ‘I’m a scientist, you’re an idiot’ is not an argument.
With the demonstrated propensity for linguists to reach for ad hominem denunciations, it’s probably fortunate that they generally have a fairly low profile and the fate of the world does not depend on them, unlike, say, climate scientists. We’re only likely to be subjected to the tyranny of a linguist if we need another unit for our BA degree and think that Linguistics 101 looks easy or when we accidently subscribe to the RSS feed of a linguistics blog and can’t work out how to delete it.