Alexis on classification

Larry Trask larryt at
Sun Jan 25 22:04:51 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Alexis writes:
> There is in my view a subtle fallacy here (and also I think in
> Scott Delancey's reply to my posting).  It is true that if someone's
> arguments/data are exploded, they have no case left for their theory.
> But this does not justify concluding that there IS no "discoverable"
> case for the same theory.
And I have not said so.  I have only said that prolonged failure to
make a persuasive case leads to a more than reasonable conclusion that
there is probably no case to be made.
> For example, I showed that Sapir did not
> so much have bad arguments as had no arguments at all for relating the
> "Coahuiltecan" languages to each other, only for relating one of them
> (Tonkawa) to Hokan (I am oversimplifying slightly).  But there is
> lots of other evidence for relating some of tehse languages (esp.
> what I call the Pakawan group) to each other.
I think one might reasonably ask why Sapir thought it was worth while
putting forward a proposal on the basis of no evudence at all.  Even
if someone else later presents evidence for the same proposal, I think
Sapir can be credited with no more than a lucky guess, or at best
perhaps a sixth sense, if you believe in such stuff.  Credit should go
only to the person who comes up with real evidence.
I call this the "Democritus fallacy".  A number of ancient Greek
philosophers speculated wildly about the nature of the world, all of
them on the basis of no evidence at all.  Most of their speculations
are dismissed today as empty and worthless.  However, quite by chance,
Democritus's speculation turned out to look something like the atomic
theory settled on by chemists over 2000 years later, on the basis of
evidence.  Consequently, chemistry textbooks often give Democritus
credit for being the founder of the atomic theory.  But this is
absurd: Democritus had no more basis for his speculations than any
other Greek; he just got lucky.
The first person to predict that the surface of Venus would prove to
be exceedingly hot was the crackpot Velikovsky.  But he made his guess
on the basis of mad ideas of his own and no evidence -- hence he does
*not* get credit for a prediction that has proved to be true.
> I dont know how many
> of you have read my work (in Anthro Lg) or agree with it, but that
> is not germane to the point at issue here, namely, that even the
> complete failure of someone's arguments for a given lg family
> only means that THAT case has failed.
Agreed, but surely there must come a time...
Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
larryt at

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