Burden of Proof out of place

ECOLING at aol.com ECOLING at aol.com
Thu Aug 12 16:20:48 UTC 1999

There may be more agreement than seems to be the case
in this matter.  In particular I would agree with the following:

>"We don't know" won't suit for those
>purposes, because it is not a hypothesis.

is very similar to my position, that "We cannot currently know"
is the null hypothesis, and "We can currently know" is the hypothesis
to be tested.  And, quite obviously, no one can succeed
in establishing that "we do know" is valid, with current
data and tools, applied to the question whether all
languages are ULTIMATELY related.
So we know the answer to THAT test,
for now and for a long time to come.

No Burden of Proof is appropriate on the content of the question
whether all languages are ultimately related,
simply because we cannot test that question currently.

That is my summary.

Going back to the earlier discussion in more detail...

>>>    No languages are related.
>>> <snip>
>>>    All languages are related.
>> Rather, the real null hypothesis is something like
>> "We do not know whether all languages are related
>> (or whether there was polygenesis)" (etc.)
>No, I'm afraid not.  This last statement is not a hypothesis, but merely
>an observation of the present state of our knowledge.  As such, it is
>not subject to test.  A null hypothesis must be something we can test.

Exactly my point.  To put it another way,
because we cannot test whether all languages are
(ultimately) related, there is no appropriate null hypothesis.
The "ultimately" makes this a very different kind of question
from the kinds for which null hypothesis and testing are appropriate.

Incidentally, a statement that no language families are related
other than those currently known to be related
(a more reasonable alternative to "No languages are related")
is also not yet subject to any immediate kind of test using our current tools,
sort of by definition of "immediate" and "currently known".

Trask gives an example an investigation of whether baseball parks
affect the performance of baseball players.  The null hypothesis is that
they do not.  Trask states:

>Now, this is *not* the author's belief.  Quite the contrary: he makes it
>clear that he personally believes this hypothesis to be false.  But he
>can't achieve anything merely by declaring it to be false.  So,
>naturally, what he does is to state it, and then to go on to assemble
>evidence against it.  As it happens, he is able to assemble so much
>evidence against it that he feels safe in concluding that it is false,
>and that its contradictory must be true.  That's how things work.

Actually, how they work most often is that the investigator has plausible
evidence for a conclusion, and then AFTER THAT
sets up a null hypothesis which
the investigator already has some reason to think is false and can be
and then proceeds to lay out the evidence to defeat it.  Notice how
potentially circular this is, in the way the question asked is designed
precisely to bolster a previously drawn conclusion!
(Not in all cases:  when a previously unknown or unused, and independent,
data set is examined in a test, there is no circularity.)

In questions which are NOT testable...

>> Using a "burden of proof" argument is merely
>> a way of trying to get someone to accept a conclusion
>> in the absence of evidence.

When we are dealing with something we cannot test,
I staunchly maintain that the above statement is still true,
despite Larry Trask's disagreement:

>Hardly.  The burden of proof is always on the person who wants to defend
>the contradictory of the appropriate null hypothesis.

Since the "null hypothesis" can be manipulated, and must be subject to test,
and since the kind of hypothesis under consideration is not currently
subject to test, this reasoning simply does not apply.

In the following case, by contrast, a null hypothesis is appropriate.

>If I hope to
>persuade my colleagues that Basque and Burushaski are related, then the
>null hypothesis is that they are *not* related, and it is up to me to
>assemble enough evidence to disconfirm the null hypothesis in the eyes
>of my colleagues.  That's how comparative linguistics works.

Of course, in the above case, people tend to conclude that the two language
families are not related.  The appropriate conclusion is that they cannot
currently be proven to be related, using currently available data and tools.

I am NOT arguing that all languages are ultimately related.
Just that our conclusions should be based on actual evidence,
not on elaborate structures involving manipulable claims of
"burden of proof" which often involves much more politics than fact.

By declaration of almost all comparative linguists,
comparative linguistics cannot establish such ultimate common origins,
certainly not with tools currently used.

Perhaps evidence from mitochondrial DNA, inherited viruses,
and other evidence of human paleontology will eventually lead people
to a conclusion on this question quite independent of the vocabularies
and grammars of spoken languages.  Perhaps it never will.
But in a domain where we cannot test hypotheses, null hypotheses
and burden-of-proof have no place.

So stated, at least much of that seems to be in agreement with
the other comments on this list.

Lloyd Anderson
Ecological Linguistics

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