Hi again, everybody! Thanks a lot for your ‘votes’! Seven people responded and I’ll try to deal with all proposed topic areas in due course. One topic area – skepticism about mainstream linguistics – obtained two votes, and so I’ll start there.
This is a topic which obviously has considerable potential relevance for skepticism about mainstream scholarship more generally, perhaps especially in the humanities.
Obviously, skepticism in any given intellectual discipline is typically directed at ideas towards the outer edges of that discipline. It generally focuses upon positions within the discipline (or dealing with its subject-matter) which are not merely controversial but so controversial or ‘strange’ that they can reasonably be called ‘non-mainstream’, ‘fringe’ or ‘non-standard’. Even in cases where the qualified thinkers are themselves seriously divided (so that there is no orthodoxy or consensus – although some positions may still be more controversial than others), comments of an overtly and specifically skeptical nature are relatively rare in the mainstream literature itself.
The explanation for the neglect of the mainstream by skeptics may seem obvious enough. The skeptical enterprise involves subjecting the claims of non-mainstream thinkers and practitioners – who are typically not themselves academics or professional researchers – to tests of the kind which are routinely undergone by the claims of mainstream scholars. The latter receive intensive and prolonged training and examination in the basics of their disciplines; their preliminary drafts and initial pilot studies are discussed and criticised by their colleagues and others; their ‘finished’ books and papers are exposed by house and journal editors to anonymous (‘double-blind’) peer-review and often rejected or returned for re-writing, and – if and when published – are assailed in a barrage of further criticism; their experiments are replicated again and again in a determined effort to find sources of error or alternative explanations. In contrast, a non-mainstream publication is typically a book written at a fairly popular level and published by the author or by a press with few academic pretensions, or an article in an ‘anomalist’ journal or on a web-site used largely by those who share the author’s basic non-mainstream position. There is sometimes a review process, but the authors, editors and reviewers – who often form a close-knit group, very much on the edges of the relevant scholarly worlds – agree in upholding the basic ideas which divide them from the mainstream; reviewers will generally attack only points of detail. In this context, skeptical scholars provide (albeit only after publication) the processes of testing and review which non-mainstream publications would otherwise lack. Naturally, their conclusions and assessments are usually negative.
Many scholars confronted by skeptics trained in their own field take the view that skeptical work of this kind is simply unnecessary in the context of mainstream thought. They believe that the safeguards outlined above really do work well enough to obviate the need for specifically skeptical examination. Skeptical linguists, for example, are sometimes asked what difference there is between skeptical linguistics, as applied to the mainstream, and just plain linguistics, conducted within the usual academic constraints. This view is understandable, and obviously it is not entirely inaccurate; but the amount of doubtful material which achieves serious publication might suggest that additional vigilance is indeed needed. Some non-mainstream authors actually suggest that skeptics should direct their attention at the mainstreams of their own disciplines as well as or even instead of at non-mainstream material; and, while one might not wish to take such an extreme view of the matter (almost diametrically opposed to that of some mainstream scholars as reported above), it is more than arguable that some mainstream ideas do warrant more skeptical attention than they tend to receive.
For instance, the degree of conservative bias which inevitably affects publication and acceptance of novel ideas probably does mean that some of the more obviously mainstream works which are published may indeed owe too much of their success to their mainstream status (although non-mainstream writers certainly exaggerate the degree to which such things occur).
One very interesting study along these lines was produced by the adventurous mainstream linguist Göran Hammarström, in an unfortunately little-read 1971 article which illustrates how the published views of very eminent linguists may appear ludicrous when looked at in a different (maybe more realistic or more ‘common-sense’) way and without undue respect for their reputations. Hammarström summarises four works of linguistics which may all appear nonsensical to the uncommitted intelligent reader. Three of these are journal articles; the fourth is a mainstream book (The Sound Pattern of English; New York, 1968). The three short pieces are very obviously non-mainstream, not to say bizarre, in nature, and the thinking involved is lacking in self-criticism. (Details on request!) Hammarström suggests that they were accepted in error by the editors of the journals in question; in the first two cases the editor was a dialectologist rather than a theoretical linguist, while in the third case the journal had a language-specific, not overtly linguistic focus.
On the other hand, the book in question was written by the very prominent linguists Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle; it was taken very seriously by the linguistic world as a whole when it appeared, and, while now dated in many respects, is still regarded as a ‘classic’. Hammarström argues that in fact the thinking set out in this work is little if any less ludicrous than that rehearsed in the three shorter pieces discussed earlier. Much of the theory developed in the book is highly abstract, counter-intuitive and seriously under-demonstrated. For example, abstract ‘underlying representations’ for the spoken forms of English words are established, often appreciably closer to current spellings than to orthodox phonemic representations. (This is associated with the Chomskyan claim that more abstract, non-phonemic spelling is psychologically preferable.) In associated works, theoretical findings based on these ideas are applied to other languages and indeed are treated (as is normal in this tradition) as of universal application if valid. However, Hammarström argues (quite cogently, and later supported by other linguists) that these and other such Chomskyan analyses are inadequately justified (both for English and cross-linguistically), and at times they appear simply bizarre. They have, it seems, been highly respected in large part because of the prestige and perceived authority of authors such as Chomsky and Halle – far greater than those of the authors of the three shorter pieces, who certainly had far inferior training in the discipline.
More on this general theme next time!