An Epilogue to our Discussion...

alex gross language at
Thu Nov 4 20:46:43 UTC 2010

You'll find a fitting epilogue to our discussion about the value of 
linguistics in this month's Atlantic, an article entitled "Lies, Damned 
Lies, and Medical Science."

It's on-line at:

This piece represents the latest advance on "evidence-based medicine." a 
field I referenced as the basis for my 2005 LACUS presentation "Is 
Evidence-Based Linguistics the Solution? Is Voodoo Linguistics the Problem?"

Here's a few brief excerpts:

"At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to 
make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded," says 
Ioannidis. "There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures 
researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded."

Simply put, if you're attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being 
wrong, and if you're motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little 
wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you'll probably succeed in 
proving wrong theories right.

"Even when the evidence shows that a particular research idea is wrong, if 
you have thousands of scientists who have invested their careers in it, 
they'll continue to publish papers on it," he says. "Its like an epidemic, 
in the sense that they're infected with these wrong ideas, and they're 
spreading it to other researchers through journals."

These findings have repercussions for all studies not grounded in measurable 
observed results. The equivalent article about our field might be entitled 
"Lies, Damned Lies, and Mainstream Linguistics."

I can anticipate that some of you might prefer to get off the hook by 
rationalizing "if medical professionals can't get the basis of their study 
straight, then why should we feel guilty if we can't either...?"

But this won't cut it.  Medicine has almost unlimited practical effects on 
all of us, and regardless of its theoretical or research problems, the motto 
of med students remains "Common Things Are Common." There are countless 
reliable cures, tonics, and physical therapies that work perfectly well most 
of the time for countless well-known health problems. And conscientious 
doctors have at least an even  chance of treating more serious maladies.

But linguistics today in its mainstream aberration has virtually no 
practical effects at all on any segment of society. This was certainly not 
the vision nor the intention of Whorf, Sapir, Hayakawa, Ogden, or Richards, 
who foresaw a linguistics that could reach deeply into the lives of 
individuals, societies, and cultures.

If the entire medical profession can admit both tacitly and publicly that 
their theoretical and research fundamentals are not in order, would it 
really be too much to ask for the sages of TGG to do the same?

I guess it would...

Perhaps we'll have to await the advent of a new generation of Young Turks 
who stumble on these old ideas and/or reinvent them as new.  Assuming 
they'll be able to find the funding...

All the best to everyone!


PS--i am grateful to my colleague Paul F. Wood (himself a  long-time critic 
of mainstream errors in "The Linguist" out of London) for calling this 
article to my attention.

The principal purpose of language is not communication but to persuade 
that we know what we are talking about, when quite often we do not.


----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Frederick J Newmeyer" <fjn at>
To: "Funknet" <funknet at>
Sent: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 1:12 PM
Subject: [FUNKNET] Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics

> Hello,
> For a survey article that I'm writing, I plan to assemble quotes from 
> people outside the field of linguistics on what they see as the value, or 
> lack of value, of work done in linguistics. So I would like to cite 
> published quotes from psychologists, anthropologists, literary 
> specialists, etc. on their views about the value/relevance of linguistics 
> for their particular concerns and its value/relevance in general. Can 
> anybody help me out by pointing me to relevant quotes?
> Let me give one example of the sort of thing that I am looking for. The 
> late computational linguist Fred Jelinek reportedly wrote: 'Whenever I fire 
> a linguist our system performance improves'.
> Thanks. I'll summarize.
> Best wishes,
> --fritz
> fjn at
> Frederick J. Newmeyer
> Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
> Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser 
> University
> [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

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