Language sells. How else to explain the number of consistently uninformed articles in the major media purporting to bring scientific expertise to one or another language phenomenon. Most recently, there have appeared a trio of articles in The Age, The Guardian and Newsweek whose aim is to delight he masses with scientific insights into language. I was intending to write about these, especially the horrible piece by Ibbotson and Tomasello. However, I have been (very very happily) been spared the chore. I hate cleaning out stables, and I don't have to do it because Asya Pereltsvaig has done the unpleasant lifting (here). Let me add three comments to her excellent discussion.
First, I like the tone. It recognizes that this stuff is junk and says so. It also provides a handy set of heuristics for those wanting to identify probable junk. I hope that the popular press takes note and acts accordingly, but I am not going to hold my breath.
Second, Asya links to many detailed comments of relevance to the (ahem) substantive points made. The fact is that there are no substantive points made. The Ibbotson and Tomasello piece, as Asya and others point out, is either vacuous or false (sound familiar?). Yes, social interaction probably has something to do with language, and no this tells us very nothing about linguistic structure in any domain. In fact, it is not clear that the claims made are intended to be taken seriously given how little thought it takes to show how inadequate they are (e.g. see the excellent boxed comment by David Pesetsky on Asya's post). What's evident is that editors allow clearly inflated and uninformed claims to be made without any skepticism whatsoever. I used to find this amazing, but again these are the same people who bring us weapons of mass destruction, lights at ends of tunnels, the immanent collapse of social security and rampant voter fraud. Why expect better when it comes to linguistics? For these venues, language is a little like animal planet: forget biology, look for cute, fuzzy or odd. This said, kudos to those that engage.
Third, though infuriating, I am suspect that this sort of junk in the popular press does not matter much to the standing of linguistics. What matters a whole lot more is that the absence of reasonable linguistic coverage in the popular science press and the absence of respectable linguistics in the research of our scientific neighbors in computer science, psychology and neuroscience. Let me discuss each briefly in turn.
Not having decent stuff in this venue, I believe, matters a lot. Why? Because this is where scientists cover the science that are not their specialties. That should be our intended audience. Of course, I have nothing against correcting the journalistic unwashed. But, I have doubts that their views would carry much weight in the science community if good stuff were constantly being discussed in venues like Science Daily, Scientific American, or New Scientist and aggregators like Aeon or Nautilus. We should be figuring out how to get the attention of these venues.
Second, we ignore the bad linguistics prevalent in psych, CS and cog-neuro at our peril. These are far more important politically than linguistics is. If we fail to engage with this audience I fear that we will have a short half life. Many linguists have stopped seeing linguistics as part of cognition and biology. Indeed, it often looks like many linguists consider the cognitive/biolinguistics perspective on GG to be windy sentiment. This hurts us far more than a few stupid pieces in the popular press.
So, thanks to Asya for carrying the can here and to others who have jumped in to shovel the garbage. I thank you from the booth of my blogging heart.