Sunday, March 8, 2015

A good Sunday read

Bob Berwick sent me this old review by Richard Lewontin. I'm a big fan of Lewontin's. His paper in the Invitation to CogSci on the evolution of cognition (here) is (or should be) standard reading for anyone interested in Evolang. At any rate, this review of a Carl Sagan book is a terrific (funny) discussion of the scientific method (there is none), the overhyping of science by scientists, the increasing cynicism of the "unwashed" towards this overhyping, science as show business, the cultural bases of (some of) the public's antipathy towards science in the USA, and more. If I had read this before, I didn't remember. I certainly enjoyed it this time around.


  1. Also on history of science, today in the Times, Sam Kean on Steven Weinberg's new book,

  2. also relevant seems:

    1. I don't see at all how this paper is relevant to the discussion. Postal uses a quote from (what one might possibly construe as) a popular science text as his starting point, but his actual complaint has nothing to do with the relation of science and the public. There are episodes from Southpark and Star Trek that have more of a right to be mentioned in this context.

      Two technical observations that might be of general interest but don't fit the thread topic either:

      1) The paper hinges on the fallacy that a principle can be falsified in isolation of the theory it is embedded in. Postal's example of wh-extraction from a wh-phrase, for example, contradicts the A-over-A principle only under very specific assumptions about what features are instantiated on which heads.

      2) There is also such a thing as the spirit of a principle being preserved through various iterations, and this is the case with A-over-A morphing into subjacency, which then leads to Relativized Minimality and the Minimal Link Condition. A stronger version of that is the Shortest Move Constraint in Minimalist grammars, and as Sylvain Salvati proved a couple of years ago, it is one of the main reasons why the formalism has such attractive computational properties and is in the right ballpark wrt generative capacity.

    2. Thank you for raising these points, Thomas. I would never have dared to suggest that there are episodes from Southpark and Star Trek that have more to do with the relation of science and the public than a discussion of Chomsky’s work - but if you say so I won't disagree; you are an expert on his work.

      Allow me a few questions re the technical observations you raise:

      1. In true ‘Galilean-style’ you allege that Paul’s paper is based on a fallacy. Could you be so kind and explain to the readers of this blog why this alleged fallacy is only a fallacy of Chomsky’s critics but a perfectly fine move when used by Chomsky himself? You are of course familiar with the discussion of this issue by Brame, Michael K. (1984) "Universal Word Induction vs. Move Alpha", Linguistic. Analysis 14, 313-352. I am not aware where Chomsky replied - can you direct us to a reply [or maybe provide one of your own?]

      2. You actually talk about the spirits of principles Paul told me about (silly me thought he was pulling my leg). Please do tell: does each principle have only one spirit, or are there multiply spirited principles. If the latter, are the different spirits happy together or are there spirit conflicts. As good Galilean scientists you should hope your principles conflict with the facts.  Should you also hope that your principle spirits conflict with each other? Would that help you find better spirits? Maybe you can also let us know: what is the best technique for finding the actual spirt or spirits of a principle.  Are the spirits of false principles better than those of true principles?  
      Finally, to get back into the spirit of Norbert's post: would you happen to know great scientists in other fields whose major contributions included false principles with, however, terrific spirits?

    3. Alas, dear Christina, I fear you have me confused with someone else. I am no more an expert on Chomsky's work than I am expert on Kayne's work, Cinque's work, Rizzi's work, Postal's work, Bresnan's work, or Pullum's work --- as somebody who no doubt is intimately familiar with the generative literature given their persistent interest in this topic, you will certainly agree that there is more to syntax than just Chomsky's work. And as a computational linguist --- not a syntactician, as some may surmise --- I have even less right to claim expert status on any syntactician's work.

      But I also hasten to add that while the skills and virtues of an expert are indispensable in various activities, these do not include casting doubt on whether a discussion on the relation between science and the general public could benefit from a highly specific 60-page paper on terminology, historical developments, and theory construction.

      As for the two points you raise --- and I would like to express my gratitude to you for giving me an opportunity to elaborate on both of them --- I believe I do not fully understand the problem you have identified. My replies to both of them are rather obvious, so I am sure that you could have easily answered them yourself if those were indeed the issues that caused you concern. Maybe further pondering will allow me to fathom the true depths of your remarks, but for now I can only offer the following: [cont below]

    4. 1) You point out that the fallacy I mention is not a lex Postalis and that everyone should try to stay away from this pitfall. I wholeheartedly agree and applaud you for putting in such bold terms what I foolishly assumed was apparent from the compositional semantics of the words I used.

      2) Science is full of ultimately false principles with terrific spirits (as you so aptly put it). Frequently they are preserved through iterations or inspire new principles in completely different areas. Models of planetary motion were the inspiration for the first models of the atom, leading to the Bohr model, which ultimately turned out to be false but nonetheless established important intuitions that can still be found in current models (e.g. that electrons have specific distributions).
      In his book The Double Helix, James Watson explains how previous models of DNA structure that had already been proven wrong nonetheless provided important insights that they sought to preserve with the double helix.

      Astute reader that you are, you will immediately remark that even if one is willing to concede this point, it does not show that the same is the case for the A-over-A principle. Fortunately scepticism is unwarranted in this case, and I believe the MG lineage I described emphasizes this fact rather forcefully --- now that I think about it, I wonder why you shifted the topic to a general issue rather than applying your sharp mind to the specific technical facts I brought up. But I digress...

      The A-over-A principle is noteworthy as one of the first incarnations of the idea that transformations are subject to locality conditions, and that these locality conditions are relative in nature. Languages do not block extraction across, say, more than 5 words, they pay attention to more abstract structural properties such as containment in certain phrases, closeness, and so on. Trivial as it may seem in hindsight, this is an important realization, and while the technical specifics still haven't been fully worked out, the evidence for locality constraints is overwhelming.

      Thank you again for pushing me on these points, I am sure the readership will appreciate our little banter about the A-over-A principle much more than the contributions below that miraculously managed to stay on topic. As a small token of my gratitude, I would like to offer you the following comic strip for your amusement: sea-lioning

    5. Charming cartoon, I did not realize you resemble a sea-lion - but I'll make sure to avoid you should we ever attend the same conference. Not really sure though how you determine what is and is not off topic for 'a good Sunday read'. Norbert wrote: "... a terrific (funny) discussion of the scientific method (there is none), the overhyping of science by scientists, the increasing cynicism ..." If you are aware of more cynicism towards the overhyping of Chomsky's 'science' than offered by Postal please direct us to examples...

      re your [1]: Given that you now confirm "that everyone should try to stay away from this pitfall." I assume that you must be unfamiliar with the Brame paper I mentioned - pity really since he documented 30 years ago Chomsky's double-standards regarding that 'pitfall'. [if I knew how to do this, I'd make available a pdf here]. I am delighted we established that you wholeheartedly agree Chomsky [or those defending his approach - we do not want to single him out] should never apply such double standards.

      It is also informative to see how the generative enterprise has moved from comparing itself to the remarkable successes of science [Chomsky = the Einstein of linguistics] to likening itself to notable failures [the examples were yours, not mine]. I imagine at this rate Chomsky may soon be talked about as the [Johann Joachim] Becher of linguistics...

  3. Here's a popular media short story on the same lines about the overhyping of science:

  4. @ Diogo

    I enjoyed reading this piece too, but the big difference between the two articles is that Lewontin really takes scientists to task, while the Medium article takes pains to avoid blaming scientists. While the Medium article is certainly right about the role of the media and "fandom", many scientists certainly are marching right along with them and egging it on, or failing to issue corrections. Also the journals and academic institutions. It's easy enough to blame the unruly public for the misperceptions of science, but we have a responsibility to keep in check those within our own community. And this is a large part of the problem.

    One notable example of this self-policing is Robert Trivers, the evolutionary biologist who publicly took down one of his own high-profile Nature publications.