The Virtual Skeptics (29 Aug 2012)

August 29, 2012

A new episode of the Virtual Skeptics is up! Dragons, Sphinxes, Black Helicopters, and Bigfootses.


This Week in Conspiracy (26 Aug 2012)

August 26, 2012

I am reliably informed that another week has passed and that it is time for another dumpster dive into the week that was weak. Lots of stuff competed for the top spot on the list this time around. Let’s have at it.



An embarrassment of riches this week, really.

The Onion ‏@TheOnion
Conspiracy Theorist Convinces Neil Armstrong Moon Landing Was Faked  #InFocus

David Allen Green ‏@DavidAllenGreen
Already woo-woos are disputing both the shadows and flags of Neil Armstrong’s funeral service.

Tom Dullemond ‏@Cacotopos
Today it is every person’s solemn duty to punch a moon-landing-hoax conspiracist. #RIPNeilArmstrong

And then there was this guy:

Murad Merali ‏@OhSweetArabia
400+ died today in Syria but they get NO recognition. A man dies who supposedly went to the moon is everywhere. Our society is diabolical

The response to Mitt’s birther joke was swift on the Internet:

Mitt Romney: “I’m not racist for bringing up Obama’s birth certificate. I’m just PANDERING to racists. Totally different.” — Top Conservative Cat (@TeaPartyCat)

Mitt Romney: “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They only do that to demean black people, which I am clearly not.” — Top Conservative Cat (@TeaPartyCat)

Frank Conniff (@FrankConniff)
Rush Limbaugh loved Mitt Romney’s birther joke. That’s like John Wayne Gacy raving about one of your clown paintings.

BREAKING: Tampa is reporting a serious shortage of tin foil. #p2 #uppers — Joseph J. Santorsa (@Marnus3)

Oh, what the hell. Let’s just make this the “All Jon Kay, All the Time” edition of the roundup.

“@JosephFarah: County plans no-church zone R we still living in USA?” Ha! this from guy who led Ground 0 mosque freakout — Jonathan Kay (@jonkay)

And that’s all for now. I’m going to go pick deer ticks off myself after my birdwatching romp in the woods this afternoon. Now that I don’t have to wear a “Live Strong” bracelet anymore, perhaps I should consider putting a flea and tick collar around my wrist?



Article about my work…

August 26, 2012

Hey, ho!

I thought I’d let you know that my work was profiled in an article in Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. It’s “The Article They Don’t Want You to Read.”


skeptical about the mainstream 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 4)

August 26, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for points made. I’m going to be away quite a bit during September (mainly for the UK-wide Heritage Open Days scheme: many historic properties which are not usually open are specially opened up, and many which normally charge admission are open for nothing). I may thus be delayed in posting or in responding to comments.

I’ll continue, starting with some further comments on Chomskyan linguistics.

It must be noted that some critics of Chomsky are confused on some quite basic issues. G.A. Wells – who does make some cogent points about, for instance, the unpredictability of English derivational morphology and the consequences of this for Chomskyan notions – seems to misinterpret Chomsky’s descriptivist notion of grammaticality (which is largely shared with all contemporary linguists) as prescriptivist in character or at least as relating only to standard grammar. Wells even suggests that Chomsky believes that there are ‘no rules for incorrect speech’. In a somewhat similar vein, the ‘anti-linguist’ Ronald Englefield argues that people can communicate without the benefit of any ‘formal’ grammar, and suggests (as does Wells) that – if Chomsky’s view of the matter is correct – adult native speakers of a language who do not command the grammar of the relevant standard variety have either somehow failed to develop (pre-birth) the tendency to acquire grammar which Chomsky believes humans inherit, or have acquired grammar but have then ‘lost’ or suppressed it. Wells and Englefield seem to have misunderstood what Chomsky means when he says that all normal human infants have access to a Universal Grammar (UG) enabling them to acquire the syntax and other aspects of their native languages very rapidly. The term grammar here (as elsewhere in linguistics) does not refer only to standard/formal grammar as taught in schools and socially endorsed as ‘good usage’ (etc.); it also includes the grammar of informal and indeed of non-standard usage as used naturally by many native speakers of each language. Native speakers who systematically produce non-standard forms have simply acquired a different grammar. The idea that non-standard or informal usage somehow lacks grammar, while widespread among non-linguists in many communities, is folk-linguistic and does not stand up under careful examination; and Chomskyan linguists fully accept this.

The acquisition of the specific grammars of individual languages (spoken or signed) clearly requires exposure to suitable data (as does the acquisition of their respective phonologies); not even a ‘hard-line’ Chomskyan would dispute this. However, some non-linguists (including some skeptics) assume that humans actually inherit some of the specifics of their parents’ or ancestors’ particular languages. Even a few scholars in relevant disciplines have adopted this stance, notably J.R.R. Tolkien, who was expert in philology (descriptive historical linguistics) but not in modern theoretical linguistics. Tolkien apparently believed, for instance, that he himself had acquired older varieties of English formerly used in his own home area in the West Midlands of England (where his family had long resided) more readily than would students from other areas. No positive evidence of such effects exists, and, if they were genuine, they would in fact be difficult to explain in scientific terms. Children clearly inherit a language-learning propensity (specific, as asserted by Chomsky, or more general); but they obviously learn the individual languages, accents etc. used by their early carers and in their communities, and if they have no contact with their biological parents they know nothing of the languages used by them.

Anthony Gordon denies that features of human language which genuinely are universally shared across languages are either inherited as Chomksyans believe or grounded in general psychological functions as Sampson argues. He himself holds, somewhat implausibly, that all such features are instead derived from experience.

A number of writers on the margins of linguistics and some genuinely mainstream scholars have proposed fairly major revisions to the basic common assumptions behind linguistic theory involving UG or other, still more basic features of human language. One such author is Terrence Deacon. Deacon argues (not altogether unconvincingly but not decisively) that the reference of words is the defining central feature of human language, rather than syntax as proposed by Chomsky (and very many other linguists, including many anti-Chomskyans). However, the apparent absence of syntax and the presence of reference (even if only to general types of object/situation) in animal communication systems suggest that this view is at least overstated. Paul Monk has somewhat similar views regarding the origins of language.

The mathematician and polymath John L. Casti has directed his criticism of linguistics especially at Chomskyan ideas, rehearsing many of the points made above. Other non-linguists who have criticised contemporary linguistics include S. Takdir Alisjahbana and the followers of Charlton Laird (both especially on applied linguistics) and Paul Goodman (on the alleged – and allegedly unhelpful – obsession of linguists with ‘code’, that is, linguistic form, as opposed to the messages expressed in the ‘code’). Some points made by these authors appear overstated, and some may even involve misreading of the work of linguists; but these works do serve to offer ideas from intelligent alternative perspectives and warrant more attention from linguists than they typically receive.

Some linguistically-informed philosophers have critiqued the ideas of linguists from the perspective of their own discipline. Two such thinkers are G.A. Wells, who addresses Chomskyan linguistics in his work on the dangers of the interpretation of words as ‘magical’ (see also above), and Roland Barthes, who offers critical (but largely positive) discussions of twentieth-century mainstream ‘Saussurian’ linguistics.

As noted earlier in the context of unconvincing accounts of the structures of relatively ‘unusual’ languages such as Welsh, some mainstream explanations of grammatical phenomena do invite skeptical attention; and this problem also arises in cases where sociolinguistic issues, especially those involving what has been labelled ‘political correctness’, are at stake. For instance, there is a desire not to ‘disrespect’ the speakers of creole languages – languages descended from ‘pidgin’ languages used for communication between groups lacking a common language, often originally in colonial contexts including the slave trade. There is an associated tendency to re-analyse features of these languages as syntactically different from the features of the source languages from which they are ultimately derived (as indeed is much creole vocabulary). These source languages are often those of the former colonisers. Sometimes these re-analyses are clearly justified; but there are problematic cases. One such vocabulary item is tiek or tek, derived from English take and employed in constructions in some English-based creoles (used in the Caribbean and in originally Caribbean communities in the UK) such as Tek rieza blied kot it aaf. This sentence obviously corresponds with English Take a razor blade [and] cut it off, and has the same meaning. However, some linguists re-interpret tek as a preposition, and gloss the creole sentences in question in terms such as ‘Cut it off with a razor blade’. There seems to be no strictly linguistic reason to adopt this grammatical analysis in preference to interpreting tek as still being a verb similar in function to English take, especially given that if tek really were a preposition one would also expect alternative orderings such as Kot it aaf tek rieza blied – which do not seem to occur. It appears possible that the structural links between English and contemporary English-based creoles are being downplayed for political reasons.

Next time I’ll turn to less persuasive criticisms of mainstream linguistics made by non-mainstream thinkers who believe that they know enough linguistics to attempt this exercise.


We got trolls…

August 22, 2012


We love you dearly, but we have a troll, the infamous Mabus. So, we’re going to put up comment moderation for the time being.

We apologize for the inconvenience.


Virtual Skeptics (22 Aug 2012)

August 22, 2012

Virtual Skeptics is live!



skeptical about the mainstream 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 3)

August 21, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

I turn here to some specific examples of the development and establishment of ‘paradigms’ in mainstream linguistics and of their core notions, and of skeptical reactions to these.

Some (quasi-)postmodernist feminist sociolinguists (one is Penelope Gardner-Chloros) have appeared to dismiss analyses developed by male sociolinguists as artefacts of the authors’ backgrounds while themselves advancing alternative (feminist) analyses which are also assumption-laden and no better supported by the evidence. When I made this point (in moderate language) in a seminar discussion, I had a frosty response from some feminist colleagues – despite myself identifying as a feminist. (I grant, of course, that such reactions are by no means universal. A further issue here involves the fact that the very notion of feminism has various, sometimes opposed interpretations.)

In another vein: the anti-prescriptivist approach to sociolinguistic and dialectological variation, best exemplified by the pioneering work of William Labov, arose as a professional reaction to very widespread prescriptivist folk-linguistic attitudes (‘you shouldn’t use ain’t, it’s bad English’, etc.).. More recently, it has in turn been challenged by writers such as John Honey, a historian with some knowledge of linguistics. Honey has argued that the case (at least in social terms) for a considerable degree of prescriptivism (especially regarding accents) remains strong, and that the mainstream academic sociolinguistic program which involves the wholesale modification of attitudes to accent and usage differences (even though it appears to fit in well with current egalitarian notions on a broader front) is in fact unrealistic. Although Honey clearly overstates his case in places, some of his points appear at least arguable, notably where he suggests that Labov exaggerates the coherence of some texts delivered in non-standard usage and the contrasting lack of coherence in some passages couched in more standard language.

In addition, most currently fashionable mainstream theories involving the structural analysis of language data fail at many points, making numerous predictions which are not borne out by the data, or else avoiding this only at the cost of a degree of non-specificity or abstraction which precludes empirical testing (empirical emptiness). For instance, some syntacticians committed to a basic NP+VP (Noun Phrase + Verb Phrase) analysis of sentence structure appear to assume that their theory (often left undefended) is so secure as to ‘trump’ any disconfirming data. They therefore have to deal with languages such as Welsh, where the Subject NP normally separates the Verb from the Object NP (Verb-Subject-Object word order, as in gwelodd y dyn y ddraig = ‘the man saw the dragon’), by adopting contrived and sometimes empirically indemonstrable analyses of such sentences involving covert. underlying/abstract NP+VP ordering; or at least they struggle to analyse these structures.

Some ‘nativist’ general linguistic theories, notably those associated with Chomskyan linguistics, involve, very centrally, the theory of linguistic universals and Universal Grammar (UG). These notions refer to alleged deep/abstract cross-linguistic universal features, especially in grammar but also in phonology and other aspects of language, which supposedly arise from the genetically-inherited, species-specific and very largely species-uniform mental faculty which, as Chomskyans hold, humans possess.

In opposition, some linguists, notably Geoffrey Sampson, have argued that the linguistic evidence actually supports the contrary view that we acquire language through our general intelligence, that UG does not exist, and that general psychological considerations are relevant here rather than specifically linguistic ones (as mentioned earlier). On this account, such universal features of human language as do exist are generated either by physiological constraints (these may include ‘double articulation’, the construction of meaningful morphemes out of individually meaningless phonemes) or by general psychological constraints. For example, Sampson interprets the data involving the British ‘KE’ family (many of whom struggled with language all their lives) in a very different way from Steven Pinker and other Chomskyans, regarding the relevant FOXP2 chromosome-code mutation as generating below-average general intelligence and thus causing difficulties with language but with much else besides; he would deny that the members of KE are of normal intelligence in other respects.

Indeed, various linguists, relying especially upon typological data, have argued that the apparent diversity of languages reflects deep dissimilarities, and that UG does not exist. For instance, Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson, citing various other researchers and accessibly summarised by Christine Kenneally, present wide-ranging data arguing for this view, including phonological evidence suggesting that even the supposedly basic Consonant-Vowel core syllable structure is not universal. If these linguists are correct, only very general ‘design features’ such as double articulation distinguish human language from pre-human communication systems (if indeed these features are in fact altogether absent in the latter). Among the many other prominent linguists who have argued extensively against Chomskyan views of these issues are Roy Harris, Peter Matthews, Ian Robinson, and the group of linguists who produced the Anti-Chomsky Reader.

Some Chomskyans are apparently offended by these criticisms, as if their views were analogous to religious doctrines rather than representing scientific findings which (like any such findings) might possibly prove to be mistaken. For instance, Sampson draws attention to the fact that the prominent Chomskyan linguist Neil Smith commented on his own views in terms of distaste. Such a response is indicative of a stance which can hardly be deemed scientific or even rational. Indeed, Chomsky’s early work is sometimes treated almost as an incorrigible revelation of truth.

I am not suggesting here that anti-Chomskyan linguists are effectively blocked from furthering their careers by some kind of Chomskyan ‘cabal’. Indeed, in some communities of academic linguists, notably in the UK and Australasia, non-Chomskyan viewpoints actually predominate. The best example is probably ‘systemic’ linguistics, which is especially associated with M.A.K. Halliday. (It should also be noted that Chomsky’s own early ideas, while clearly derived in part from notions which were then current in the mainstream, were initially perceived as highly radical and encountered severe criticism.) The point is rather that linguists espousing views very different from their own are often, as it seems, treated by Chomskyan linguists as less than worthy ‘opponents’. (At one time, the one course in non-Chomskyan linguistics offered in Chomsky’s own department was labelled ‘The Bad Guys’ by students and staff.)

Neither am I arguing here that the Chomskyan approach is altogether mistaken; it might indeed prove in the end to be largely correct. In addition, the views of Chomsky and his followers do display some variety; and, as one would expect in a scientific enterprise, they have also changed considerably over the years. The issue is rather that of the attitudes of some practitioners of Chomskyan linguistics.

More next time!


This Week in Conspiracy (19 Aug 2012)

August 20, 2012

What ho! The Virtual Skeptics has gotten off to a real whiz-bang of a start. It streams live at 8:00PM Eastern on Wednesday nights. It’s like Meet the Press, but with chupacabras.

But not all of the free, live content in the world could keep me from plucking the ripest lowest-hanging fruit from the tree of conspiracy and hurling it at your head. So, head’s up!

We have mass graves dug all over America for the planned killing of millions of the Middle Class of America. We have had a large number of guillotines that have been shipped to America. Chopping off of heads is the Islamic way of killing off your enemies. We have secret federal concentration camps set up all across America. C.I.A. and other intelligence sources are supposed to help engineer terrible economic conditions in America for October to help stir up the people to mass discontent, rioting in the streets, etc. and this gives Obama the legal excuse to place America under martial law. Foreign soldiers are already arranged to help mass disarm the American people of all their guns. Homeland Security for example has already been notified to prepare for massive uprisings in America in October.

The mocking of conspiracy theories in the American press and Western media is based on the simplistic argument that reason is on the side of the government and officialdom, not on the fringe of society and civilization.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

My favorite report of the week came from the venerable Weekly World News:

That’s it for this week! Check out the Virtual Skeptics this Wednesday at 8:00PM Eastern! Pip pip!



A New Web Series: The Virtual Skeptics

August 15, 2012

Eve and I are panelists on the new web series The Virtual Skeptics. We had a pretty good show today. We are doing this every week with Sharon Hill from Doubtful News, Tim Farley from…the entire Internet but mostly, and producer/host Brian Gregory from


Tell your buddies! Trick your enemies! #VirtualSkeptics 8:00PM EST Yay!


skeptical about the mainstream 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 2)

August 14, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for the interest in skepticism about mainstream linguistics. I’ll continue!

In addition to sheer conservatism and the ascribing of undue status to works produced by the famous, there are also other factors which may make it more or less difficult to publish. At any given time, some viewpoints – currently, for instance, ‘multiculturalism’ and some aspects of postmodernism – are very ‘trendy’ and indeed ‘politically correct’; papers espousing the relevant views are liable to be favourably regarded. Indeed, in public presentations (at conferences and such) where one can be identified it often requires courage to speak in criticism of such an offering. This trend also means that papers endorsing views contrary to those in political or cultural favour may struggle to achieve publication, even if they (and their authors) are otherwise sound; or, if they do achieve it, they may then be subjected to withering and arguably biased criticism. None of this implies that intellectual ‘rebels’ within the mainstream are necessarily correct in opposing majority mainstream viewpoints; the issue is that of critics obtaining a fair hearing, especially when they are well qualified on the matters at hand. Where this becomes difficult, the need for skepticism about the academic mainstream will obviously increase.

In fact, some skeptics have actually become known mainly for critiquing mainstream – if often contested – positions rather than non-mainstream ideas. Negative comments of this kind can sometimes be partisan and overstated, but in other cases they can be legitimate or arguably so.

Skeptical comments on mainstream linguistics, specifically, can be directed at a range of arguably unwarranted mainstream assumptions/ideas. These include: Chomskyan ‘nativism’; bizarre analyses of data adopted under the influence of unproven and often unlikely theories which are apparently regarded by some linguists as virtually immune to criticism; undefended and inadequately/inappropriately grounded analyses of basic grammatical structures; support for dubious but ‘trendy’ or ‘politically correct’ sociolinguistic theories (sometimes under postmodernist influence); exaggerated postmodernist ideas more generally; etc. Some specific examples will follow in later posts.

As noted, some of the skeptical criticism which the linguistic mainstream receives is produced by linguists themselves, as illustrated last time by the case of Göran Hammarström. In addition to Hammarström, various other ‘insiders’, thoughtful linguists who have been more able than most to remain independent of the various ‘paradigms’, have written of these matters in an essentially skeptical way (while not necessarily identifying as skeptics). Perhaps the most prominent of these linguists is Geoffrey Sampson, who has antagonised some other prominent linguists by arguing very persuasively that their pet theories are empirically empty or obviously contradicted by inconvenient data (see later on this issue). Sampson, in fact, goes some way along the road taken more indiscriminately by Amorey Gethin and others (again, see later), suggesting that many of the unexplained facts (cross-linguistic and language-specific) and many of the theoretical issues debated by linguists may find their solutions in other domains such as psychology, and that – while there is a clear role for linguistic description and the necessary generalisations – a truly valid general linguistic theory would thus be minimal in scope.

Some of the linguists who critique the linguistic mainstream are skeptical linguists turning their skepticism on their own mainstream (as they are often urged to do by the non-mainstream thinkers whom they criticise). Obviously, I myself identify as a member of this group. I would argue, in fact, that mainstream linguistics is perhaps more in need of skeptical attention than some other mainstream disciplines. One reason for this is the relative lack of consensus or orthodoxy in linguistics, and how this is handled. Obviously, on many major issues involving language almost all linguists do in fact agree with each other, at least in general terms. However, one does not have to penetrate far into linguistics to find disagreement on basic points. There are many competing ‘schools’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘frameworks’ within many of the branches of linguistics, differing from each other on such fundamental and basic issues as, for instance, the ‘true’ or most insightful grammatical analysis of sentences as straightforward as ‘Mark drank his beer’ in a language as well-described as English (the largest issue is that of whether this sentence divides into two constituents or three). Of course, all fields display some differences of this kind, despite displaying substantial cores of shared ideas. In the case of linguistics, however, the degree of disagreement is so great that the need for skeptical attention would appear greater than in some other disciplines.

Professional linguists have not been conspicuously effective in dealing with this problem. Some, especially those influenced by postmodernism, seem to adopt a quasi-relativist view on which the issue is (perhaps) acknowledged but is not presented as truly problematic, even where the different ‘frameworks’ appear to be offering incompatible analyses of the very same aspects of the matters in question. One can make any set of ‘assumptions’ which is not self-confounding or refuted by obvious facts, and can then extrapolate massively from these ‘assumptions’, with little fear that anyone will actually attempt to disprove them. Limited interest is shown in the question of how far the ‘assumptions’ and ‘paradigms’ upheld by a given group of linguists might actually prove demonstrably preferable to alternative ideas. A further problem here lies in the fact that different ‘schools’ do not by any means always agree even on what is valid and relevant evidence in such cases, or at any rate upon the relative importance of different types of evidence (for instance, some linguists regard typological surveys across many languages as crucially important in resolving issues of analysis and theory, while others prefer to rely mainly upon close, abstract analyses of one language or a few languages).

One reason for this situation lies in the relative intractability of linguistic data. Linguistics is an essentially empirical subject; but, in the more abstract or speculative areas of such a domain, it is not always easy to adduce decisive reasons or evidence for preferring one account or analysis to another. However, it is surely preferable to seek to address this kind of issue with whatever decisive evidence may be found, rather than to forge ahead at great length with any one ‘paradigm’ in circumstances where there can be little confidence that it really is the ‘best’ available.

The training of academic linguists and the nature of many linguistics departments contribute (often inadvertently) to these problems. Some departments have a strong bias towards one ‘paradigm’ or another. Many of these ‘paradigms’ have now developed in such depth and detail that students must spend several years familiarising themselves with one ‘paradigm’ before their grasp of the material is at such a level that they can make fresh contributions at the ‘cutting edge’. Differences within the ‘paradigm’ are discussed, but its basics are often left unchallenged. Furthermore, many of the central concepts and issues within each ‘paradigm’ are intelligible only within that ‘paradigm’.

More next time, including some specific examples!