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A style of argument can be effective in an intellectual backwater but fail in the big leagues—but maybe it’s a good thing to have these different research communities

Following on a post on Tom Wolfe’s evolution-denial trolling, Thanatos Savehn pointed to this obituary, “Jerry A. Fodor, Philosopher Who Plumbed the Mind’s Depths, Dies at 82,” which had lots of interesting items, including this:

“We think that what is needed,” they wrote, “is to cut the tree at its roots: to show that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is fatally flawed.” . . .

The book loosed an uproar among scientists. (Its review in the magazine Science appeared under the headline “Two Critics Without a Clue.”)

“He and Chomsky had a modus operandi which was ‘Bury your opponents as early as possible,’ ” Dr. [Ernie] Lepore said, speaking of Dr. Fodor. “And when he went up against the scientific community, I don’t think Fodor was ready for that. He basically told these guys that natural selection was bogus. The arguments are interesting, but he didn’t win a lot of converts.”

That’s an interesting idea, that a style of argument can be effective in an intellectual backwater such as academic linguistics but fail in the big leagues of biology. It’s not so bad to have these different academic communities: we can think of academic linguistics as a “safe space” where scholars can pursue ridiculous ideas that might still become useful.

If we crudely model scientific hypotheses as being true/false, or reasonable/unreasonable, then it can at times be a good research strategy to start in “reasonable” territory and then deliberately wander into the “unreasonable” zone as a way of better traversing the space of theories. The best way to get to new reasonable hypotheses might be to entertain some silly ideas, considering these ideas seriously enough to fully work through their implications. And perhaps that is what Foder was doing in his thought experiment of cutting the evolutionary tree “at its roots.”

At the same time, you can’t expect biologists to just sit there and take it. Hence the value of distinct research communities. As long as we’re not using linguists’ theories of evolution to fight disease, I guess we’re ok.

P.S. Peter Erwin convincingly makes the case that the above post is “massively and bizarrely unfair to linguistics, especially by taking a single, controversial theorist (that is, Chomsky; Fodor is a philosopher) as being somehow representative of the field.”


  1. I like that inclusion of ‘silly’ ideas b/c much of what we hold is quite silly as it is anything else. Non silly or not silly etc.

    Basically people think in binaries even when they point to their limited utility in some queries. Very adroit debaters don’t seem to gain as much favor as one would assume. I think it has to do with the fact that such debaters are too declarative and too wordy, losing their audiences midway. So that’s really a talent or gift.

    Chomsky has been a master of exposition. However he doesn’t do as well in debates as one would expect. I grant there were one or two exceptions. Here literary bent does make a difference.

  2. Joshua Howard says:

    Actually, I would not say that linguistics is an intellectual backwater. But, anyway, Fodor’s argument is not a thought experiment. It is a logical analysis of a flaw in arguments about natural selection explanations, a flaw that makes them tend to be just-so stories without something else being added to them beyond the idea of natural selection—historical knowledge, fossil record, genomic evidence, biological structure, constraints on variation. It’s these things, not the theory of natural selection, that does the work in evolutionary biology, when successful.

    This is why evolutionary psychology is not so successful because our empirical understanding of the mind, how it’s structured, its history, how it changed, is not as advanced as our understanding of biology and paleontology. So evo psych wants natural selection to do work that it can’t do, and, in fact, does not do in successful biology, even if biologists often claim it’s Darwin’s idea that’s doing the work.

    This is also why some adaptationists (and evo psych people tend to be adaptationists) in evolutionary biology sometimes get so hot and bothered over the field of evolutionary developmental biology. It exposes the necessary gaps in our knowledge of phylogenetic mechanisms that you need to know to explain speciation.

    Fodor’s target is premature evolutionary explanations of the mind smuggled in from bio, despite the fact that that is not what’s going on in bio when you look to see what biologists actually do. And not what they say they do.

  3. Peter Erwin says:

    You are being massively and bizarrely unfair to linguistics, especially by taking a single, controversial theorist (that is, Chomsky; Fodor is a philosopher) as being somehow representative of the field. (Do I really need to remind you that the plural of anecdote is not data?)

    At the same time, you can’t expect biologists to just sit there and take it. Hence the value of distinct research communities. As long as we’re not using linguists’ theories of evolution to fight disease, I guess we’re ok.

    Linguists have something of a similar reaction when biologists think they can do do language-related research without bothering to really understand the data or the field. E.g., this detailed commentary on an attempt by some geneticists to reconstruct the history of Celtic languages. (You may be happy to learn that the paper in question was published in your favorite journal, PNAS.)

    And also when it’s physicists: Phys-splaining.

    (As Mark Liberman points out in a reply to a comment in the second post, “Noam Chomksy is hardly ‘linguists’ — and he’s been making sweeping statements about the inadequacy of other fields since the 1950s, when he was relatively young.”)

    • Andrew says:


      Good points! There seem to be two things going on:

      1. Researchers in field A ignorantly mouthing off about a topic in field B. This can go in all directions, and the whole thing can be tricky because sometimes an outsider can have a useful perspective. Seth Roberts liked to talk about the insider-outsider: someone who has enough expertise to make a useful contribution, but enough of an outsider to be able to see things differently. It’s not that Foder, being a philosopher, had no chance of making a contribution to biology; it’s just that it didn’t seem to work out in this particular case.

      2. Different styles of argument. If Fodor and Chomsky really had the “Bury your opponents as early as possible,” that seems like a style that can work in an insular field in which researchers, and strands of research, can be “buried” using intimidation, politics, and groupthink. Biology strikes me as too big and too mature a field for such a strategy to work.

      P.S. I like PNAS now! See here:

      • Peter Erwin says:


        The relevant “insular field” would more properly be philosophy rather than linguistics, I would suggest.

        (For what it’s worth, I’ve read a blog post by a philosopher married to a surgeon who commented on what he saw as the cultural differences between academic discussions in the two fields: his claim was that philosophers were more willing to be confrontational and dismissive up front, while surgeons might think — and say in private discussions — that a talk was crap, but they wouldn’t come out and publicly say that to the speaker: “the adversarialism of philosophical exchange is not merely a consequence of the fact that so many philosophers are assholes. As the example of surgery shows, it is perfectly possible to have a discipline full of assholes, who nevertheless sustain a non-adversarial discourse around academic research. In fact, I suspect the causality in philosophy runs the opposite direction – that being an asshole is not positively encouraged, but because of the adversarial norms, the discipline tends to attract more than its share of assholes.” So perhaps “bury your opponents as early as possible” is a reflection of philosophical styles of argument, though it hardly prevents individuals in other fields — e.g. Chomsky — from sometimes practicing it as well.)

        Another point is that biologists are, sadly, rather used to ignorant or misguided attempts to demolish evolution coming from outsiders, so they’re more willing and quicker to respond negatively to such critiques, and less likely to be intimidated.

        • Olav says:

          “we can think of academic linguistics as a “safe space” where scholars can pursue ridiculous ideas that might still become useful.”

          Speaking as a philosopher, this is partly how I like to think of philosophy.

        • Peter Gerdes says:

          Really? That’s exactly the opposite of my experience. If anything my experience is that philosophers are *far far* too unwilling to confrontationally dismiss something as crap when compared to other fields like STEM/math (my wife is a philosopher and my graduate background is in a mathematics and philosophy program).

          Almost all philosophers see some subject/approach/etc.. in philosophy as fundamentally confused and misleading but don’t air the kind of attacks we see in physics even against well-established subjects like string theory. This is especially true with respect to philosophical approaches like continental philosophy (or more controversially certain variants of feminist philosophy) where a good number of analytic philosophers privately view (at least portions of) as mumbo-jumbo but certainly don’t feel comfortable overtly opposing such work on these grounds.

          What does seem to be true in philosophy is that there is a stronger sense of received wisdom and communal sense of acceptable views so maybe you are responding to the sense that philosophers are more hostile to interlopers voicing views which they take to have already been settled?

          But most likely is that we just have a difference in baselines as to what we see as being particularly confrontational. My experiences in the hard sciences is that if you offer a paper which audience members see as total bullshit they won’t hesitate to let you know even if it falls within a recognized academic tradition, e.g., you might well hear from the people who think string theory is a load of nonsense. In philosophy there is far more social posturing to appear open minded and *appear* to be praising some aspect of the work even if it’s in a backhanded way.

          • Peter Erwin says:

            I wasn’t actually offering *my* experiences vis-a-vis philosophy (which would be hard to do, since I’m an astronomer); I was referring to a blog post by a philosopher (who was comparing his experiences with philosophy talks to his wife’s experience as a surgeon with medical talks).

            Of course, your experience is a nice illustration of why it’s dubious to extrapolate too much from anecdotes — which is why it’s always nice to have, at a bare minimum, multiple anecdotes, since that at least gives you a qualitative sense of the possibilities and differences and might prevent one from immediately deciding field X is Y based on a single person’s experience or behavior.

          • Olav says:

            I agree. I’m a philosopher, and my experience is that philosophy these days by and large is not very confrontational at all, and a large majority of philosophers I’ve met have been quite sweet. From what I hear, philosophy used to be more confrontational back in the day (before 1990 or so).

    • The singular of data is datum. So there ya go.

    • Fodor strayed into linguistics from time to time, at least as linguistics was conceptualized philosophically by Chomsky. But he was mainly a contrarian philosopher like Searle (or maybe like most philosophers!).

      If you look at what Chomsky and his colleagues have been up to for the last 50 years and realize just how dominant the “generative grammar” way of thinking has ecome in linguistics, it’s hard not to dismiss it as an intellectual backwater. Chomsky’s most influential work, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, introduced the competence-performance distinction that ruined linguistics by separating it from the empirical data of what people say or do. The linguists followed Chomksy into the backwater of “linguistic competence” and cut them off from the rest of science on purpose. If you think I’m joking, read the Wikipedia page on linguistic competence.

      • I’m not sure how generative grammar relates to actual human language usage, but it sure seems like a good piece of computing theory and logic, right up there with Lambda Calculus, and the Turing Machine. Maybe Chomsky is just misclassified ;-)

        • I’d agree that context-free and context-sensitive grammars are interesting in their own right. And I think they have even shed some light on natural language. Gazdar et al. got a long way showing what you could do with only context-free grammars in GPSG. Stabler then showed how GPSG constructions (specifically the metarules) could be used to implement a bunch of transformational grammar ideas from Chomksyan linguistics.

          I think all this searching for a formal language that aligns with natural language is a red herring. We should be looking at aspects of communication that allow us to take a complex system and stream it. Information theory has a lot more to tell us here than formal language theory. And this is coming from someone who spent a long time proving theorems about formal language theory and linguistics. I think the eye-tracking experiments of Tennenbaum are much more enlightening about the nature of language and how context and world knowledge interact with syntactic and lexical processing than theorizing about positions on the Chomsky hierarchy. The problem is exactly that the formal languages are pure and recursive and unbounded, whereas humans are not. We have limits to how far we can nest subordinate clauses before we run out of memory. These constraints have shaped our language and how we communicate.

          • Shravan says:

            Bob, you probably mean Mike Tanenhaus. I think the judgement against Chomsky is a bit harsh and one-sided though; one should acknowledge the amazing work that came out of that line of linguistics. I found Syntactic Structures just amazing; Tanja Reinhart’s c-command insight was really impressive too. Binding theory principles. There is a lot of interesting insight, and they came up with it just by thinking about what kind of sentence is possible and not possible. I mean, just think about how Chomsky derived aux-inversion and do-support in Syntactic Structures. Just wow.

      • Shravan says:

        Like Bob, I used to think in 2000 that the empirical aspect was missing in linguistics, and apparently many linguists think so too now. But what I see now is linguists using the illusion of experimental rigor to make claims they would have made previously using intuition. What this has resulted in is that linguistics is becoming intuition coupled with an entirely imaginary statistical rigor. Linguists were magically right about their theories before 2000, and they are magically right even after data started to be collected. The other linguist commenting here that Chomsky was right about this or that, it illustrates that it’s really about being right *each and every time*. Because of these problems, empirical data have been a net negative. A good example is the recent takedown of Martin Hackl’s work on antecedent contained deletion. My conclusion is that linguistics was better off in the pre-empirical era; whoever had more tenure got to decide which sentence is grammatical.

  4. Sorry if this is a repost:

    “As long as we’re not using linguists’ theories of evolution to fight disease, I guess we’re ok.”

    I hope we’re not using bio-geneticists’ theories of evolution to fight disease. I get the impression that currently the majority believe tht no more than about 1% of genetic change can be due to selective evolution.

    These don’t say what the current proportion of believers is but they deal with the neutral theory:

    If they’re right, that means that the amount of evolution that took place to adapt us in the last few thousand years to be able to continue to digest milk as adults, is about the max the human population could manage in that time. Anything else: “Sorry – we’re out of adaptive capacity.”

    • JFA says:

      Don’t scientists use their understanding of evolution to develop flu vaccines and create treatments for HIV?

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        I’m not up on recent developments on developing flu vaccines, but I do recall this from a journal club a few years ago:

        There was a paper (maybe a couple?) trying to use something like factor analysis to develop a potential method to develop flu vaccines (specifically, deciding which flu strains to target). There were a couple of flaws in the paper. However, one of the discussants pointed out that the (then; maybe still) current method of selecting strains to target was getting “experts” around a table to discuss their “expert” opinions based on — whatever they thought.

        • a reader says:

          “However, one of the discussants pointed out that the (then; maybe still) current method of selecting strains to target was getting “experts” around a table to discuss their “expert” opinions based on — whatever they thought.”

          On a Bayesian blog, shouldn’t this be supported? Personally, I would support this given one has faith in the experts.

          • Martha (Smith) says:

            “given one has faith in the experts” is a big if.

            “On a Bayesian blog, shouldn’t this be supported.”
            Not necessarily. Getting a good prior from “experts” isn’t a matter of letting them fight it out; it needs to be more carefully done than that — e.g., deciding who qualifies as an “expert”; figuring out how to weight different opinions; thinking about what is the most important information to elicit from the “experts”, etc.

            • Not to mention, thinking about what a prior even means. If a bunch of experts collectively tell you numbers say between 1 and 2 with somewhat more of them saying 1.5, what is a good prior to use for this parameter? Which of these qualify and under which circumstances?


              The first thing to realize is that the prior for this parameter *need not look anything like the frequency distribution of the expert responses* and in fact probably should not, probably should be less concentrated, and probably should be evaluated in many ways such as what it implies for the prior predictive distribution…

              • a reader says:

                Combining priors from experts is inherently extremely difficult: how do you define the dependency structure between different experts knowledge? This is a non-trivial task, and you certainly shouldn’t be asking for point estimates from the experts as well (as I believe is indicated from Daniel’s response).

                But I’m not purposing that you put a bunch of experts in the room and try to get them to produce a distribution that describes their uncertainty in order to make a decision about how to develop flu vaccines. The reason for this is that there will *always* be information loss when trying to get experts in some field to turn their knowledge into a probability distribution. It’s my opinion that the only reason to do this is if there is new data for which we have a reasonable model for AND is difficult to fully comprehend the impact of the new data. I haven’t ever worked on putting together a new flu vaccine, but it’s my understanding that it’s a pretty limited new-data scenario. At the very least, I’ve been to talks about predicting outbreaks and the general conclusion is that while the prediction models are getting better, they are still far away from producing actionable information: i.e., they can predict fairly well 2-3 weeks out, but 6 weeks are required to properly manufacture a response (or something along those lines).

                ‘ “given one has faith in the experts” is a big if. ‘

                Agreed. My conditional statements are definitely intended. With that said, my experience with MDs is that they do seem to have a very good understanding of their speciality but are generally not so good at turning things into mathematical models, probability distributions, etc. Once we start getting useful models and new data that aren’t easily ingested by MDs, then I’m all for using predictive models to help guide vaccines manufacturing. In the absence of good models + useful data, I think putting experts in a room and having them use whatever information they have available to make the decision is our current best option. Trying to get them to describe their knowledge as a probability distribution would be at it’s best just practice for the day when we finally have useful models. Even then, it’s not clear that we’re better off just telling the experts the predictions from the models and letting them make a decision as compared with giving them predictions from the models and asking them to make their own decisions. Of course, this will be dependent on the fidelity and accuracy of the models.

    • Bio-genetico-evolutionist says:

      This sounds like a misunderstanding that mixes up rapid adaptive evolution (which happens) with the fact that most of genome sequence isn’t strongly constrained by selection (which is also true).

  5. steven t johnson says:

    It’s not clear how linguistics doesn’t connect to computer languages, which is “big leagues.” Nor for that matter is it clear in what sense “biology” is big league. Paleontology is not, taxonomy is not, and quite a few biologists seem to feel ecology is the refuge of losers. What’s big leagues about biology is the budgets, as well as prestige, of genetics, population biology, genomics, genetic engineering. And there is genuine progress being made there. But evolutionary psychology is also the big leagues, dominating public discourse. Yet I find it hard to believe that EP is anything but an intellectual backwater/stagnant pond. Is it possible that the notion lurking behind the phrase “big leagues” is the superiority of the mathier kinds of science? It often seems to me that there is a version of scientism, where science is only what experimental lab sciences do, ruling out notions of historical or structural causes.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “It often seems to me that there is a version of scientism, where science is only what experimental lab sciences do, ruling out notions of historical or structural causes.”

      My view: Notions of historical or structural causes are fine, as long as they are based on “good” (i.e., relevant and carefully obtained) data that are carefully analyzed (e.g., a conclusion from fossil data may be shaky because fossils can only be found in localities that were amenable to survival and discovery of fossils)

  6. Peter Erwin says:

    Reading the obituary more closely, it turns out that the book What Darwin Got Wrong was not co-written with Chomsky but rather with “Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a University of Arizona cognitive scientist.” I wonder if the quote by Lepore about the shared modus operandi might not have been partly erroneous, and what Lepore was really referring to was Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini.

    (Although I’ve read comments by linguists that Chomsky’s style of argumentation in linguistics is similar to his style in politics: aggressive, even vicious attacks on those who disagree with him, often taking things out of context to make his disputants look worse. And Daniel Dennett has a chapter in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea about Chomsky’s discomfort with the idea that the facility of language could arisen due to evolution, instead of it being something more physics-based that human evolution accidentally stumbled upon.)

    • The Lepore quote wasn’t mistaken, it’s just awkwardly introduced in the article. Though Chomsky and Fodor never really collaborated, they worked together at MIT in the 1960s and have a long intellectual association through their promotion of innatist and modular theories of mind. They do also share a no-prisoners approach to criticising their opponents in writing, though Fodor managed to be much more humourous and honest about his own mistakes (Chomsky is somewhat of a revisionist when recounting his own published history). Having said that, I wouldn’t criticise Chomsky for being at all unfair or uncharitable – at present, both sides just cannot help but feel that the other is so obviously wrong that their ideas are near contemptible.

      Incidentally, for anyone interested in Chomsky’s opinions on language evolution, or Dennett’s (or anyone else’s) response, just remember that it is basically a category error to think that Chomsky has ever been interested in language; he’s only ever been interested in the computational basis of its syntax but his manner is to talk about them as if they’re the same thing and to hope that to the extent that they’re not the same, the difference has to do with non-linguistic cognition. Again, this isn’t a criticism, it’s his genuine position, though I do think this one is wrong!

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        “discomfort with the idea that the facility of language could arisen due to evolution, instead of it being something more physics-based that human evolution accidentally stumbled upon”

        Accidentally stumbling on things is an important part of what evolution is.

      • Noah Motion says:

        it is basically a category error to think that Chomsky has ever been interested in language

        Isn’t the computational basis of syntax a crucial part of language? I think it’s going a bit too far to say he hasn’t ever been interested in language, even if he has an unfortunate tendency to (seemingly willfully) use technical jargon in ways that are more or less guaranteed to generate confusion.

  7. Shravan says:

    As a linguist, I feel a visceral need to rise to the defence of my field. I will do it by shifting your attention towards something even more ridiculous: Do you guys realize just how absurd the constructs in quantum physics are? Multiverse indeed.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Doesn’t seem absurd to me. If you’re up for a challenge, you might try ;~)

    • Thanatos Savehn says:

      Peter Woit, perhaps not too many buildings away from Andrew, has been (quite intentionally, actually) letting the cats out of the multiverse bag for some while now.

    • As a former linguist, I feel the same visceral need to tear the entire field down and rebuild it in the image of science. I’d still be a linguist if the field wasn’t so antagonistic towards data on what people say or write.

      Odd you should pick on the multiverse—I grew up being trained in possible worlds semantics.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Good points.

      • Shravan says:

        But Bob, I don’t think the *entire* field is Chomskyan in orientation. I mean, am I a linguist? I’m a product of Ohio State, and you know what kind of linguists we have there. They are still linguists. Carl Pollard is a syntactician who is a mathematician; the first courses I did with him were on formal logic and category theory. Bob Levine is or was an HPSG person.

        About my picking on multiverse: At least Kripke semantics had accessible and inaccessible possible worlds, and at least it was all about formal semantic modeling, not intended to have any actual ontological reality. It’s disturbing to have multiple copies of myself living out alternative lives and I have no access to these presumably fun-loving people just like myself.

  8. A biologist says:

    I’m afraid that this post, instead of showing how clueless Fodor was or linguists supposedly are about natural selection, much more show that its author has no clue about either modern cognitive science or Fodor’s ideas about evolution. The book in question does not deny evolution at all, it questions the logic of natural selection and shows that it operates according to the same logic that was inherent to Skinner’s baviorism–which, without any doubt was fatally flawed. The observation that natural selection has serious flaws is not controversial at all in biology, it is quite obvious and there’s many proposed alternatives mechanisms for selection, targets of these selection processes etc. pp. Not many biologists might follow Fodor’s line of reasoning and buy the analogy to behaviorism, but most biologists will readily agree that natural selection indeed is inherently flawed. Darwin was of course right about evolution, but that doesn’t mean that he was right about natural selection being the only or even main mechanism for selection. Criticising natural selection, as the majority of biologists now does, then is not the same as denying evolution (something that Fodor never did).

  9. Fodor’s argument was never successful in linguistics because it was never intended for, or directed at, linguists. Fodor’s argument, should it seem worth looking at the actual details of a curious mistake at the end of an illustrious career, criticised natural selection as a particular mechanism of evolution given certain issues in the philosophies of mind and intentionality, which have a long and carefully thought out history.

    Alex Rosenberg gave a good summary of why Fodor was wrong (2013: ‘How Jerry Fodor slid down the slippery slope to anti-Darwinism’) but Fodor’s particular error and its rebuttal is instructive for anyone who wants to fully understand the mechanistic basis for selection – after all, we do as a matter of fact talk about selection in terribly vague, intentional terms and this does as a matter of fact lead to all sorts of shoddy adaptationist theorising, both within and without biology. Characteristically for Fodor, he was more helpful in being astutely wrong than any of the swathes of people who take insufficiently analysed theoretical frameworks for granted.

    What should be more distressing than occasional flirtation with unreasonable ideas is the fact that sub-fields of every major branch of science, from physics right down to the backwaters of linguistics that I inhabit, are presently marred by ill-tempered debates over basic philosophical problems in theory construction that are talked about as if they’ve just been invented when most can be traced back to Plato or Hume, at least. Sure, we need reliable institutions to look after the treatment of disease but if you’re interested in where the next exciting, revolutionary ideas are going to come from, I’d much rather gamble on the crackpot ideas of some backwater iconoclast than on some well-oiled unit of an entrenched research agenda feeding data into a black box (and we’ve got a lot of black boxes that aren’t anything to do with AI!).

  10. JFA:
    “Don’t scientists use their understanding of evolution to develop flu vaccines and create treatments for HIV?”

    Some aspects, but presumably they don’t need to know the potential speed; perhaps they don’t realise if their work implies speed faster than it’s supposed to go! Viruses have very high mutation rates and with high mutation rates the clock is closer to the mutation rate. But on the other hand they have huge populations which acelerates the clock. Maybe it’s population geneticists who are most concerned about limiting speed, and immunologists aren’t too bothered.

  11. norbert hornstein says:

    It’s always a pleasure to see Chomsky discussed on this blog. Prof Gellman knows little about the program in Generative Grammar; either its ambitions or its results. Nor does this lack of knowledge stop him from opining regularly on various topics. It would be nice to know where he thinks Chomsky has gone wrong? Does he deny that humans have a peculiarly robust propensity to acquire languages? Does he deny that human linguistic capacity is effectively unbounded? Does he deny that, to take a recent claim, that natural language grammars are recursive? Does he think that syntax is unimportant? Where exactly has Chomsky gone wrong? I am pretty sure that Prof G has no idea. I would love to be disabused.

    As for Fodor, I doubt that Prof G actually read the Fodor Piatelli-Plamarini book or could repeat the argument it contained. For those interested, I provide a link to a post that reviews its outlines ( The argument, IMO, is not bad. It would be nice if AFTER REVIEWING THE ARGUMENT those that don’t like it would explain why not. What step of the argument is not to their liking? The problem with most of the critical discussion of Fodor has been that it has failed to actually deal with the argument offered. This is not unusual or surprising. Adam Becker reviews a similar state of play in the foundations of quantum mechanics concerning Einstein’s critique of the Copenhagen interpretation. The field didn’t like his criticism. So it depicted him as a a slightly doddering past his prime fuddy buddy who didn’t understand quantum mechanics. Then after 50 years people read what he actually said and, wow, not so dumb!Maybe he was even onto something. Fodor is not Einstein, so maybe we can shorten the process in this case by reading the argument offered and discussing it. Maybe then we can decide how nutty or misplaced it was.

    • Thanatos Savehn says:

      Thanks for the insightful read. So NS is a way of looking, rather than a way of seeing? Also, is there room for teleology(4a-ish) anywhere in the argument? Calling Dr. Aristotle. Calling Dr. Aristotle.

    • Andrew says:


      That’s correct; I have not read the books in question, I was only responding to the linked obituary, and the above post was not in any way a discussion of Chomsky’s theories of linguistics. I apologize if that was not clear.

      • hb says:

        As a brief follow-up on Norbert’s point, it’s also worth noting that Chomsky’s argument about the origin of language is a) not widely adopted in linguistics (which does not generally deal with that question, at any rate), and b) is not at all a general argument against evolution. What Chomsky argues about is whether the linguistic abilities of humans arose in a gradual or in a sudden manner, and he advances an argument in favor of it having arisen by a single mutation.
        To my (admittedly limited — as I said, most linguists don’t have a professional interest in this question) knowledge, the argument is based on the fact that we know about other cognitive mechanisms that combine units of meaning in a large number of animals, whereas recursive mechanisms are very rare. Given that these have different mathematical properties, it is hard to conceive of a gradual shift from one to the other, therefore the shift ought to have been sudden. That is to say, the argument is about the question what kind of changes can be gradual, and what kind of changes can be sudden. Neither of these types of changes (that a minimal change in the genome might cause a substantial change in the phenotype, is not out of the question, I would assume as a non-biologist?) is incompatible with evolution at all.

      • norbert hornstein says:

        First off, thx for making this clear. However, it appears to me you are being just a tad ingenious here. The linked obit makes claims that you endorse (or at least do not distance yourself from) and there is really no way of taking your remarks as other than critical. So, linguistics is the “backwater,” bio the “big leagues.” Moreover, ling is a “safe space” for “ridiculous ideas” whereas the quality thinking goes on in the “big leagues” of bio and there is no reason for the real pros to suffer the slings from minor intellectual players like Fodor and Chomsky.

        Furthermore, you effectively claim that people like Chomsky and Fodor have wandered into the “unreasonable zone.” Evidence for this reading of your post? The apology you add in the P.S. which effectively says that a whole field should not be judged by taking Chomsky as representative. This clearly presupposes that if you don’t hold Chomsky’s “controversial” views then you are within the pale of reason.

        Lastly, you tar Fodor with the anti-evo brush in the first sentence by comparing his argument to Wolfe’s and calling both “evolution denial.” But Fodor did NOT deny evolution. He took this to be an obvious fact. What he denies was that Natural Selection explained much of evolution (actually was a very good theory of evolution), as the quote from the obit makes clear.

        So, all in all, whatever you intended to say, it is clear that you endorsed the presupposition that Chomsky and Fodor are intellectual nut jobs and you explored the question of whether having nut jobs around to pursue unreasonable ideas in backwater disciplines might be a road to truth. This IS an interesting question, but the presupposition is vital in making it live. My criticisms revolved around your evidence and arguments for the presupposition. It seems that you had none, or, more accurately, should have none as you did not read Fodor’s argument and it seems that, correct me now if I am wrong, you are not that well versed in Chomsky’s views either (at least in linguistics). That’s my beef. With the presupposition.

        Now, I don’t find it wrong to comment on matters that one is not expert in. But then this must be made clear. You could have done this with a disclaimer or two. But you didn’t. Hence the conclusion that you stand behind these presuppositions. And that strikes me as very bad practice because a pre-condition of responsible debate should be having read what you’re dissing and providing evidence and arguments for your claims and presuppositions. And that is what I was asking for.

        Let me reiterate this: intellectual debate requires certain ground rules. Read the stuff, respond to the actual claims made, add a touch of sympathy so that you argue against the BEST version of the claim you do not like, use evidence and argument, be explicit, cite your opponents when criticizing them. All too often Chomsky and Fodor are criticized not for what they say, nor for their arguments, but because someone doesn’t like their conclusions. This is not serious debate. I think that your post, sadly, fell into this region, though it appears from what you replied, it did so haphazardly.

        Last point and I drop the topic: too often we let bad arguments float by and allow argument by innuendo. When this is pointed out, the person doing the pointing is called “shrill.” Well, perhaps it is bad manners to point out that what someone is saying has little grounding. But that is what we do in the sciences. Indeed, it is what you do so well on your blog regularly when you discuss papers in stats and social science (power pose anyone?). If this be shrill, IMO, we need more of it.

        Thx for your comment. I will sign off from here now except to make a plug: those interested in vigorous debate of linguistic issues defending the Chomsky viewpoint can look up the blog

    • Linguistics went off the rails after Chomsky published Aspects. That’s when linguistics left science and became whatever it is today.

      Of course linguistics capacity is not unbounded. We have finite brains.

      Of course humans have a robust ability to learn language. Everyone’s known that for roughly forever. Armchair philosophizing about principles and parameters is just silly.

      What’s new about the theory that language is recursive? Wasn’t recursiveness meant to be the wooden spike driven through the heart of behaviorism? People have been modeling it that way pretty expicitly since the 1930s formal categorial grammars, which themselves grew out of the logical tradition in philosophy. Frege and Russell’s evolving theories were all about scoping and closure condition and recursivness.

      Of course syntax is important. It’s just not all of language. Focusing on form over the communicative, cognitive-agent aspects of language is what makes the field an academic backwater.

      Most of the recent advances in language have been completely outside of academic linguistics. Language and speech processing happens in computer science. Human understanding and development of language is studied in psychology or sociology/anthropology. Meaning is studied in philosophy.

      What do linguists study? Linguistic competence. Which isn’t really a thing.

      • Jake says:

        Not a linguist, but I read Language Log and don’t see there a lot of the kind of stuff you complain about. Also I checked the departments at my almas mater and found that 1/3 at one and, counting generously, 6/24 at the other, work on syntax or linguistic competence or things that looked similar.

  12. What constitutes an intellectual backwater? Whether it matters to anyone how the arguments end up? I don’t think Google’s computerised translation owes much if anything to linguistics, and presumably not much hangs on the field. More blockbuster films have been made about palaeontology but no-one cares if the science is wrong in or out of the films. But I think what makes people more tactless and swaggering in their arguing is how far away from an experiment the discipline is, and maybe that’s what defines an intellectual backwater. It may also be connected to how much it matters. If you can’t point to convincing evidence you have to shout. Odd though that top philosophers write so beautifully. But then I’m not at all sure Fodor WAS a philosopher, though he may have ended up doing the job.

    Chomsky was -sorry, is- a lovely chap but it’s hard to take his ideas about language seriously when he thinks it evolved 50,000 years ago, since some African groups today split off over 100kya. Also, apes think about the world using the same places in the brain as we do. Actions where verbs go… nouns where identities are resolved.

    Callum Hackett:
    Cor! These are nice:-

    “…the swathes of people who take insufficiently analysed theoretical frameworks for granted.”

    “…but if you’re interested in where the next exciting, revolutionary ideas are going to come from, I’d much rather gamble on the crackpot ideas of some backwater iconoclast than on some well-oiled unit of an entrenched research agenda feeding data into a black box (and we’ve got a lot of black boxes that aren’t anything to do with AI!).”

    As a genuine backwater iconoclast dealing in real bad crackpot ideas, I can confirm you’re spot on! I’ll be watching your stuff for further gems!! And so young too!

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “But I think what makes people more tactless and swaggering in their arguing is how far away from an experiment the discipline is, and maybe that’s what defines an intellectual backwater. It may also be connected to how much it matters. If you can’t point to convincing evidence you have to shout.”

      Interesting conjecture. In the math community (which is my background), the sine qua non is whether each step in the argument follows logically from the hypotheses/assumptions/ axioms and/or what has already been established. So there’s less swaggering and tactlessness; what there is is usually attributed to a person’s personality.

  13. Noah Motion says:

    As another reader with a background in academic linguistics, I just want to point out that academic linguistics covers a lot of ground, that it has much stronger theoretical foundations than a lot of other social and/or behavioral sciences, and that at least some sub-fields (e.g., psycholinguistics, phonetics) have been very good about the adoption of exactly the kinds of statistical modeling you advocate for here. Dismissing it as an intellectual backwater based on second- or third-hand comments about Fodor (not a linguist) and Chomsky (not at all representative of all of academic linguistics) is pretty absurd.

  14. norbert hornstein says:

    Whether Chomsky is a nice guy or not (he is) matters little in this discussion. What matters is whether what he is proposing is right or not. So, what claims that he is making do you think wrong? That language emerged roughly 50kya? This is is not his estimation, but one that he takes from others (e.g. Tattersall). He notes two things: first that the consensus is that it has emerged relatively recently and second, that it emerged before the trek out of Africa. Why the second? Because so far as we can tell the faculty of language is uniform across the species. Do you take this to be incorrect? Do you have evidence that there is a differential ability to learn different languages or that ethnic/bio background affects which languages you can learn? If you do this will be news to most everyone. If not, then you agree with Chomsky.

    So let’s turn to the first assumption: do you think that the full blown faculty for language is ancient and that we share it IN ALL OF ITS GLORY with our ape ancestors? Ok, then why don’t they have our kind of linguistic facility? Not even sorta kinda. FWIW, Chomsky’s principle claim is that what emerged relatively recently is the capacity to acquire recursive grammars. That’s it. Do you disagree? Do you have evidence that our kinds of recursive hierarchical systems exist anywhere else in the animal kingdom? If so, publish fast for this will be news. BIG news. It might even get you into Science.

    There is a terrible tendency around nowadays to rebut positions that nobody holds. Chomsky is quite prone to this kind of criticism. So for example, the fact that nouns and verbs are located in analogous places in the brain in humans and other primates speaks NOT AT ALL to anything Chomsky has EVER claimed. Ever. And I mean EVER!! (Though I would point out that it is very unlikely that verbs denote actions and nouns identities and it is quite unlikely that Apes have any conception of verbs and nouns like ours) So, what exactly is your beef? To me, it looks like you have no idea what Chomsky’s claims amount to (sorta like Andy G in this regard, who is similarly uninformed) but find it useful to criticize his views. But why? What reason can there be for criticizing positions that you know little about?

    Let me end by suggesting a first rule of debate: if you criticize another’s position you should have some idea what the person you are criticizing is claiming. Whether Chomsky is a nice guy or not (and again he is) he has one striking virtue; when he goes after someone he quotes them chapter and verse. He really does understand their argument. Don’t you (and Andy G) owe him the same courtesy?

    • Frank says:

      Prof. Gelman – while I completely agree that your original post displayed total ignorance of the field you cited as a ‘backwater’, it was completely worth it to watch someone provoke Hornstein to get his panties in a twist like this once again. He’s one of the last remnants of the burn-the-village, take-no-prisoners approach to scientific discourse that characterized early generative linguistics thanks to Chomsky and his close followers (and thankfully has begun to die off in the field). For many more entertaining examples check out Hornstein’s blog at I recommend drinking 4-6 beers before you start reading for maximum effect.

    • Hi Norbert Hornstein –

      Some years ago I watched a video of a meeting to celebrate an anniversary of MIT. I think the meeting was this:

      I’m not sure if the video is still available. I have what may be a false memory of Chomsky quoting in that video 50,000 years ago as the time of the start of language, but he later definitely gave 100,000 years as the start, here:

      It is thought that the modern groups of humans alive today split before 100,000 years ago. Whether of not “modern” humans emerged 130,000 years ago, or as some say now, nearer 300,000 years ago, it is definite, as you say, that it emerged before the trek out of Africa because, as you say, the faculty of language is uniform across the species.

      I made the point in 2012:

      So I agree it emerged prior to the trek out of Africa, which for our purposes we may consider to be the 70,000 years ago one… though the one that gave rise to the Skhul cave “modern” humans – I’d say it was before that one too. And before the one by “Heidelbergensis” also, in my view.

      You say the consensus is that it has emerged relatively recently. I don’t do consensus. That’s the best place to look for things that need correcting.

      You say if I agree language emerged before the last trek out of Africa I agree with Chomsky, but though I do agree about that I don’t agree about 100,000 years ago being the start date. The “end date” was even before that.

      You ask do I think that the full blown faculty for language is ancient? I think the Neanderthals had it, so that means 700,000 years ago at least. Their hyoid bone looks as adapted to language as ours, their mouths etc seemed a bit different but still fine, and their brains were at least as big as ours. Archaeological evidence for pigments, art etc are not in my view sine qua non for language. If Neanderthals had language, which I think they did, they had it without leaving much art (though they did leave some).

      Remember though that humans date back to nearly 2 million years ago so language can still be ancient without us sharing “it IN ALL OF ITS GLORY with our ape ancestors”. I do though think its first inklings started in our ape ancestors as an abstractive facility co-evolving with tool use and other behavioural flexibilites. Remember, Our ape ancestors weren’t even chimps. Chimps eventually evolved 1.5 – 2 million years ago, and our last common (ape) ancestor was 4.15 million years ago. But language started to evolve, very slowly at first, 2-3 million years ago, so I’m not saying the capacity to acquire recursive grammars is seen in other species alive today.

      I expect Terence Deacon is right – that proper modern language requires a kind of symbolic flexibility that other animals don’t seem to have at all:…/Terrence_W._Deacon_The_Symbolic_Species.pdf

      Perhaps that adaptation is close to the one needed for the capacity to acquire recursive grammars.

      “If so, publish fast for this will be news. BIG news. It might even get you into Science.”

      I’ve done Big News worthy of getting into top quality science journals, (well actually I got into the SIGART Newsletter, and the same article was accepted for Robotica) but as my work in other areas hasn’t I’m going to do my own science journal. I find one problem is that people often carpet-bomb a good idea because it is close to or reminds them of a bad idea.

      “There is a terrible tendency around nowadays to rebut positions that nobody holds. Chomsky is quite prone to this kind of criticism.”

      Chomsky did hold the idea that language evolution started 100kya and that is a very misleading belief. He also had further ideas about certain kinds of thinking that started about that time, which I also criticised here:

      “…if you criticize another’s position you should have some idea what the person you are criticizing is claiming. Whether Chomsky is a nice guy or not (and again he is) he has one striking virtue; when he goes after someone he quotes them chapter and verse.”

      I have given the exact source of his 100ky claim. He did make it. It is very wrong. I would add that modern language is probably built using some very useful facility for symbolic abstraction and theoretically infinite recursion that is different from extant apes, but it built on top of a kind of thought language they have that is very similar to ours. I believe Chomsky may be underestimating the importance of this foundation.

      A couple of other things: language is very intellectually important and very interesting. Since Google, and indeed since Rummelhart and McLennan, linguistics is not the only avenue we have for approaching it, but it’s main discipline is linguistics – which is very hard indeed. There are no stupid linguists. Unfortunately it is very hard to do convincing decisive experiments in linguistics or on its evolution, which is an unavoidable problem. This feature may also mean that in it, to some extent people get listened to according to the force of their style.

      Also, according to Deacon, because people can learn from feedback about whole categories of things such as language skills, it may after all be possible to learn some stuff about language that Chomsky said we don’t have time to do in childhood. But that doesn’t mean the behaviourists were right about not having any inborn mental infractructure. But they weren’t necessarily wrong about everything.

  15. Frank says:

    Sorry, sir. I just couldn’t resist given the increasingly shrill tone of the comments. Some of us have to deal with this stuff all the time …

    • That’s why I left the field. The last talk I gave in linguistics was at NYU circa 2002 or so. I’d already left the field to work in speech recognition full time. I live around the corner from NYU and know people in their department and they invited me to give a talk. I put some slides together on exploratory data analysis for linguistics using speech recogniton. I’d been working on phonology and had built a sub-word recognizer that could run at a phoneme or syllable level. And it was super cool for searching databases.

      Could I give that talk? Nope. I started. One slide in, a professor literally stood up at the back of the room and told me that what people say isn’t data. And wouldn’t sit down until I admitted that it was ridiculous to use what people say as data in linguistic theorizing. The other professors joined in. I was basically shouted down and have never tried to even get near academic linguistics again.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        This does make the field sound like backwater, sadly.

        • Shravan says:

          But that’s just NYU, it’s not the whole field by any stretch. I know a lot of linguists who would get shouted down in NYU, assuming the same people are there who shouted down Bob. They’d probably be proud of being shouted down too and would probably shout back :)

        • peter Erwin says:

          If you think that, then you’re generalizing from a single (anecdotal) data point to an entire scientific discipline, which is probably not a good idea. It’s quite possible that attitudes in linguistics at NYU are (or were, circa 2002) hostile and dismissive. Or even that attitudes within that particular sub-field are that way. The reality (as Shravan suggests) is that attitudes and behaviors can vary a lot within and between departments and sub-disciplines (and countries).

      • Martha (Smith) says:


        • Shravan says:

          There is a lot of value in subjective intuition-based judgements in linguistics. I did not understand that point back in 2000. It’s like an expert judgement in Bayesian statistics, a prior predictive distribution if you like. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and the empirical revolution swept this subjectivity aside a bit too successfully, replacing it with largely shoddy statistical abuse.

          • Keith O'Rourke says:

            > lot of value in subjective intuition-based judgements in linguistics
            Everywhere in every science.

            “On the long time scale which is inherent to archaeology [any science], it appears that ‘reality’, in the relative and temporary sense of the term defined above, eventually wins out over the cultural biases [subjectivity] we are subject to [need to rely on] […]” (Gardin, 2009b: 27)

            So the criteria for whether something should be excluded from science should? only be that it will unduly slow down the process of reality (painfully) correcting miss-steps. “Good” subjectivity I would argue actually hastens that process or should.

      • Shravan says:

        It’s not just Chomskyan linguists though. If memory serves, I saw Bob being openly mocked by the Utrecht multi-modal categorial grammar guys (led by Michael Moortgat) when he was giving a talk on categorial grammar (non-multi-modal) at the European Summer School in Logic, Language, and Linguistics, in Helsinki it was I think (or was it Utrecht? It’s all a haze). They were incredibly rude and the basic message I got as a grad student was it’s multi-modal CG (has anyone even heard of it today?) or the highway. I thought it was only linguists who are vicious with each other until I read the book “What is Real?” on quantum physics. Seems like academics of any stripe love to hate their scientific opponents. Nobody goes, “oh here’s an interesting alternative way of thinking about the problem.”

  16. Silly ideas can be well worth considering when you’re under no pressure to embrace them or apply them to life (or your field). Today much of the problem lies in the pressure to make ideas “actionable,” whether they’re silly or not. To consider an idea properly, one must suspend it from action for a while.

  17. wow says:

    I love how much saltiness this post generated :)

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