Sunday, July 23, 2017

Chomsky In Ruins

I just finished Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom of Speech and found it pretty convincing.

I have said for years that as much as I objected to Chomsky's politics, I thought his reputation as a linguist was deserved.  I counted myself a believer in his Universal Grammar and even his later Minimalist Program, though I later learned that everything I thought I knew about the latter was inaccurate.

Misunderstanding Chomsky is not new for me.  I encountered Transformational Grammar and Universal Grammar as an undergraduate and thought they had something to do with a new hippie way of understanding things and how we are all so much alike, despite our different cultures.  Likely, I was getting muddled by associating them with his leftist politics somehow. Also, reading the textbooks would have helped me get that straight, I'll warrant. Still, somewhere in the 1970's I understood the basic concept that the human brain is hardwired for language, and that there are pieces already in place, a basic toolbox, used to acquire language. I have maintained it solidly for years.  So has nearly every other linguist until recently.

I caught wind of some of his opposition from Collier and Horowitz's The Anti-Chomsky Reader, which came out in 2004, but I didn't pay much attention to it.  I was more interested in the political arguments. Plus, the concept of a hardwired Language Acquisition Device is such a cool idea.  It would be so great if it were true. So I was not much motivated to hear anything against it at the time, despite the association with Chomsky.  There was also Steven Pinker, a Chomskyite disciple, who I also liked.  Only recently has he been able to say even mildly negative things about his work. Over the last decade this opposition has intensified, yet I still wasn't much interested. I picked up Wolfe's book knowing that he had supposedly undermined Chomsky, but I doubted he could do it.  A talented amateur may have something useful to contribute to any field, but he is likely to slip up in areas beyond his expertise. Still, I like Wolfe and I like linguistics.

Wolfe does not himself undermine Chomsky.  He reports on the other linguists who have left the theory of Universal Grammar in ruins. In particular, he tells us about Daniel Everett, who lived among the Piraha in the Amazon, learned their language, and found it emphatically did not fit what a dedicated Chomskyite (which he was) would expect.  It was a solid enough counterexample to the idea of Universal Grammar as to be a disproof. Larry Trask of the University of Sussex was happy to tell The Guardian 
I have no time for Chomskyan theorising and its associated dogmas of 'universal grammar'. This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time. I deeply regret the fact that this sludge attracts so much attention outside linguistics, so much so that many non-linguists believe that Chomskyan theory simply is linguistics, that this is what linguistics has to offer, and that UG is now an established piece of truth, beyond criticism or discussion. The truth is entirely otherwise.
You can get more of Trask's argument against the whole enterprise here, in his review of  Chomskyite disciple Mark Baker's book. He notes that one of the weaknesses of Chomsky's theorizing is that it was largely based on English and some related languages. (There has been some work to broaden this, but not so much as you'd think.  Apparently.) Even committed leftists are going to have trouble with that these days.  Trask, an expert on Basque, was always well-placed to see the holes.

Part of Wolfe's (also vicious) fun is in recording how vicious and unprofessional Chomsky has been in response. I admit I did not know what many linguists have long known, that Noam Chomsky flat-out lies, evades direct questions with person insults, and will work behind the scenes in linguistic journals and departments to destroy reputations. "...a deep contempt for the truth, descents into incoherence, and verbal abuse of those who disagree with him." Tom opens and closes the book with the dreadful irony of Chomsky and others having to admit in a 2014 paper "The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever."

For the record, I had read some negative reviews of Wolfe's book but am not persuaded. Those I read reasonably point out that Wolfe makes very great claims, not well supported, for his own ideas of what speech is and how it comes to be. But that does not alter the fact Wolfe is drawing on the work of other linguists, and his attacks on  Chomsky's character, however intensified by dramatic language, are based on Chomsky's words and actions, not mind-reading, as Tom Siegfried does of Wolfe.

Wolfe's book is recommended on other grounds.  He details how Charles Darwin jobbed Alfred Russel Wallace out of credit for the theory of natural selection, and gives enough gripping detail from Daniel Everett's adventures in the Amazon Don't Sleep, There are Snakes to sell a few more copies for Dr. Everett.

Yet still, Chomsky might be a jerk and a bully but still correct about Universal Grammar.  As Everett is our primary source for what Piraha is all about, he may be misleading himself, or us, and who would know?  Better minds than mine will sort it out, but it is at least clear that Chomsy doesn't fight fair, and I usually regard that as a clue.

A note on Dan Everett, unrelated. He was a teenage convert to Christianity and married the daughter of the Methodist missionaries who pulled him from his LSD-soaked wandering in 1968.  He soon went to Moody Bible Institute and their language program, was revealed to be exceptionally good at learning languages, and was sent to work with the Piraha - the language of which had eluded even talented others - in order to bring the gospel, not study them. His faith began falling apart "influenced by the Piraha's concept of truth."  I have to say, that sounds like any exit would have looked good enough.  I don't accuse of him of dishonesty, but perhaps not so much insight into his own motivations. Still, he has done much that I have not, and I don't want to criticise too glibly.


RichardJohnson said...

I admit I did not know what many linguists have long known, that Noam Chomsky flat-out lies, evades direct questions with person insults, and will work behind the scenes in linguistic journals and departments to destroy reputations.

Year 501: The Conquest Continues is one of Noam Chomsky's books on Latin America.I have fairly good knowledge about Chile during the Allende and Pinochet years,so I looked at what Chomsky had to say. (Pages 179-180)

For example:"Per capita health care was more than halved from 1973 to 1985, setting off explosive growth in poverty-related diseases such as typhoid and viral hepatitis."

Chile's Life Expectancy went from 8th in Latin America in 1973 to 6th in 1985 and 5th in 1989. Chile's Infant Mortality went from 9th in Latin America in 1973 to 3rd in 1985 and 5th in 1989. (Source: World Bank)

"College Education, once free for everyone under Allende,is now for the more privileged."
The "free" college education was a subsidy for the better-off. (I am reminded of Venezuela's 10 cents per gallon gasoline, which subsidizes the 20% of Venezuelans who own motor vehicles.) Pinochet cut off that subsidy. In looking at government expenditures on education, a higher proportion of government expenditures went to the poor under Pinochet than under Allende.

From Tarsicio CastaƱeda's Combating Poverty: Innovative Social Reform in Chile During the 1980s, we find the following. From 1974 to 1986, the proportion of public spending by education level changed drastically: from 47.4% to 23.8% for University Level, for Preschool and Primary, from 38.6% to 57.4%. The proportion of overall spending on the poorest 30% was calculated to changed from 28.6% in 1974 to 37.5% in 1986. (Tables 2.20 and 2.21, pages 61-62)

That tells me that Chomsky is a bullshitter.

(Pinochet, in his 16 years in power, had a superior record in improving Life Expectancy and Infant Mortality than did Fidel Castro's first 16 years in power.My experience is that if you tell that to a group of lefties, they will threaten to beat you up.)

At least I didn't pay any money for Chomsky's book, but picked it up at a Little Free Library in my neighborhood.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Richard, occasional commenter Gringo was in Chile during some of those years, and brings forth similar examples, because having lived it, he knows where to look for the data. I suspect you two would enjoy comparing notes sometime. He also lived or was frequently in the north when he was younger (Adirondacks, I think) and now lives in San Jacinto.