Saturday, November 26, 2005

Discerning Reasonableness -- An introduction

A clever amateur looks at a controversy among professional linguists, and attempts to determine which side is more reasonable, not from knowledge of linguistics, but knowledge of reasoning.
The proto-World controversy in a nutshell: Merritt Ruhlen, following Joseph Greenberg and some Russian linguists called Nostraticists, believes that the extant languages of the world all derive from an original language, and that we can demonstrate enough connections to observe this. Most other linguists believe that the languages may have derived from an original language, but we are unable to know this because the time-depth is too great to observe reliable connections.
The amount of anger generated over this would be surprising unless one had observed such controversies in one’s own field. Ruhlen’s The Origin of Language is scathing and even rude in his complaints against the linguistic mainstream, which he contends will not give him a fair hearing. The linguistic mainstream, for its part, is seldom dispassionate and judicious in its criticism of Greenberg and especially Ruhlen, preferring to scoff dismissively and knock down straw men rather than answer the challenges.
I am completely unequipped to argue with either group on linguistic grounds. However, it is possible to come to tentative conclusions and take sides on the basis of something I do understand: the nature of reasoning and argument. As with discussions of global warming, alternative medicine, pre-war intelligence, and a dozen other subjects we might encounter, how people argue, what they choose for evidence, and how they respond to challenges to their reasoning reveals a great deal that an intelligent layman can use to decide whose theories are more likely to prove true.
Few of us are world-ranked experts in any subject, and none of us are expert in more than a very few. Plate tectonics was rejected and even sneered at early in the 20th C. Even though Wegener, the originator of the theory, has proved right, I could still not successfully argue with those who thought him wrong. I don’t know their subject in depth. But I can observe the type of argument they made, and estimate whether it was founded on reason and data, or on self-interest and closed-mindedness.

So google up some basic information on the topic, and see if you and I agree which side is making the better arguments.


OBloodyHell said...

I tend to agree with you on this. You can't always be sure who knows his shit, but you can usually tell who's pumping an agenda, and that's usually enough.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thanks for dropping by, nick. I hope to keep this informative and entertaining.