Leon Stassen l.stassen at LET.KUN.NL
Fri Sep 26 22:08:30 UTC 2003

The point that Matthew Dryer raises in the current discussion on method in
typology is of course a very real one:

>Hopefully, the problem is obvious: it is natural for 5% of generalizations
>to come out as statistically significant at the .05 level, not because they
>are valid generalizations, but simply due to chance.

Since there is no real way of telling the useful generalizations from the
spurious ones, it is very probable that Matthew is also right on the

>I predict that pseudo-generalizations of this sort will be published in the
>typological literature, and there will be little way to distinguish these
>from valid generalizations.  Perhaps some already have been published.

But then, this is not very different from the real-existing situation in
other sciences. I don't think there's a principled way to exclude
pseudo-generalizations, but fortunately, science itself has a way of
eliminating them, namely by letting them wither gradually. The key-word is
"explanation" here: any generalization for which, after a certain amount of
time, no explanation in terms of higher, abstract principles can be given
will come to be disregarded and will disappear from the theoretical
discussion in the field. Of course, it is possible that this "selection
process" will also sacrifice generalizations that, by later generations of
scientists, will be found to be highly relevant; but that's, I fear, the
way the scientific cookie crumbles.

Leon Stassen.

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