Mount St Vincent University
In many recent (and some not so recent) publications Noam Chomsky makes an appeal to Galilean science and claims the Galilean framework justifies his own approach to scientific inquiry (e.g., Chomsky, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2012). Allegedly, this approach has a distinguished scientific and philosophical tradition. “Chomsky’s science of language is a science in the Cartesian-Galilean tradition. It is a branch of the study of biology” (McGilvray 2005: 4). In this blog post I argue that this approach should be rejected because it rests on a superficial and incorrect interpretation of Galileo’s work, has been rejected already by Rene Descartes, and is contrary to established scientific practice.
Without a doubt, Noam Chomsky is the best known linguist and his success has been linked to his persuasive debating style and his emphasis on rigorous scientific methodology for linguistic research. Yet, over the years Chomsky’s attitude towards the scientific method has changed, and he acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals. For example when asked what kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis, Chomsky replied: “All the phenomena of language appear to refute it” (Chomsky, 2002, 124, emphasis added). Yet, he is not willing to abandon the minimalist thesis. Instead he suggests dismissing the data that seem to challenge it. Chomsky claims that such a large-scale dismissal of data that are inconvenient for his view is based on a “Galilean style… [which] is the recognition that…the array of phenomena is some distortion of the truth … [and] it often makes good sense to disregard phenomena and search for principles” (Chomsky, 2002, 99). Chomsky calls this attitude the “Galilean move towards discarding recalcitrant phenomena” (Chomsky, 2002, 102). He claims that massive data dismissal was advocated by Galileo: “[Galileo] dismissed a lot of data; he was willing to say: ‘Look, if the data refute the theory, the data are probably wrong.’ And the data that he threw out were not minor” (Chomsky, 2002, 98). He then proposes that is was accepted by other famous scientists (e.g., Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Monod) and that it “is pretty much the way science often seems to work …You just see that some ideas simply look right, and then you sort of put aside the data that refute them” (Chomsky, 2009, 36). Data-dismissal has been advocated numerous times in Chomsky’s publications, culminating in the argument from the Norman Conquest: “… if you want to study distinctive properties of language – what really makes it different from the digestive system … you’re going to abstract away from the Norman Conquest. But that means abstracting away from the whole mass of data that interests the linguist who wants to work on a particular language” (Chomsky, 2012, 84, emphasis added). Arguably the most bizarre invocation of the Galilean style occurs when Chomsky suggests: “…if we want a productive theory-constructive [effort], we’re going to have to relax our stringent criteria and accept things that we know don’t make any sense, and hope that some day somebody will make some sense out of them” (Chomsky, 2012, 169).
Chomsky is not the only defender of the Galilean style. It has been suggested that “[a] significant feature of the Generative Revolution in linguistics has been the development of a Galilean style in that field” (Freidin & Vergnaud, 2001, 647). Attaching the label Galilean to a style of inquiry suggests two things. First, it implies that Galileo worked using the same or a very similar style. Second, given the massive success of the Galilean scientific revolution, it suggests that work adopting a Galilean style is superior to (all) other work. While the second suggestion seems uncontroversial, the first needs support from the actual work of Galileo. Below I argue that the success of Galileo as a scientist was not based on a massive dismal of data that were inconvenient to his theories and that he would have rejected proposals that required him “to accept things that make no sense”.
1. The Feyerabendian/Chomskyan interpretation of the Galilean Style
Interpretation of the Galilean method is notoriously controversial. One historian of science remarks: “Hardly any other icon of modern science has become as much a victim of his interpreters as Galileo” (Fischer, 1992, 165). Many interpretations were not based on impartial evaluation of the original work but on fashionable historicism or on the desire to bolster one’s own methodology by appeal to Galilean authority. Interpreters attribute to Galileo views from inductionism (Mach) to rationalism (Cassirer, Lewin) and methodological anarchism (Feyerabend).
Feyerabend alleges that Galileo replaced a well-established philosophical/scientific system and violated rationally grounded methodology to justify a worldview (heliocentrism) that clashed with observable data. He attributes the success of the Galilean model to the invention of auxiliary hypotheses and fraudulent tricks that compensated for lack of explanatory power of the Copernican theory (the centerpiece of Galileo’s world view).
Dogmatic insistence on a falsified central hypothesis, the development of a scaffolding of auxiliary hypotheses from related sciences, and reinterpretation of problematic evidence allowed the emergence of a new system of natural science that replaced the old… Galileo’s success became possible because he proceeded pragmatically, without feeling bound by any rules of rationality or methodology.
(Fischer, 1992, 168)
Chomsky seems to share Feyerabend’s conviction that Galileo discarded results that did not fit his theories and that he insisted confidently on the correctness of his hypothesis. Possibly he even agrees with Feyerabend that Galileo employed fraudulent tricks to bolster his hypotheses. For Feyerabend one such trick is the use of the telescope. He claims that the use of this new instrument was problematic for several reasons. First, Galileo never ruled out that the images seen had been based on optical illusions. Second, it was not clear at the time that the instrument would work as reliably for astronomical observation as it did for terrestrial observation. Third, the rather primitive first telescopes produced images that were unfocused, contained distortions, coloured edges, halos, and other impurities. Therefore, it was difficult to determine which part of the image was caused by celestial bodies and which by imperfections of the telescope.
Feyerabend claimed that because of these problems Galileo could not base his theory on empirical observation but instead inferred the telescopic images from his theory. The picture that emerges is intended to suggest that Galileo violated not only the rules of the existing paradigm but all rules of rational inquiry. He is depicted not as brilliant scientist but as self-serving opportunistic propagandist: “Galileo was – simply said – the better charlatan and evangelist … He used rules in an opportunistic way to promote his ideas” (Fischer, 1992, 168). Feyerabend was deeply skeptical of the value of scientific inquiry and used Galileo’s success, based exclusively on methodological anarchism as one important case to support his anti-scientism. He claimed that, ultimately, science is just another form of religion and that theories attempting to establish the objective superiority of scientific methodology are a “previously not described form of insanity ” (Feyerabend, 1978, 7).
Chomsky seems to accept claims about the methodological anarchism of Galileo. But, unlike Feyerabend, he consider this anarchism a virtue, an essential component of rational scientific inquiry. He claims it is precisely the willingness to adjust the data to his hypothesis that allows him to make significant scientific progress and cite the far reaching success of the Galilean revolution as supporting evidence for this claim (e.g., Chomsky, 2002, 2009, 2012). This raises the question of whether Galileo’s success was indeed based on an anarchistic methodology. The next section answers this question.
2. Galileo, the (non-anarchistic) scientist
Chomsky seems to hold that the Galilean style is superior because it constituted a radical break from the accepted practices of the day and that this break allowed scientists to gain novel insights. The claim that Galileo’s science was a complete break from the then dominant Aristotelian science has been widely popularized by Thomas Kuhn. He holds Galileo’s new method exemplified a paradigm shift in science, making it incommensurable with the previous methodology: “Normal research, guided by [Aristotelian conceptual categories] could not have produced the laws Galileo discovered” (Kuhn, 1996, 123). Yet, it has also been suggested that the break was not as complete and dramatic but resulted from a gradual process of changes to scientific paradigms. Below I defend this second position.
Fischer suggests that Galileo was not overthrowing a well functioning system of natural philosophy but responding to developments beginning in the 14th century that had failed to address “endemic problems of the late scholastic syntheses” (Fischer, 1992, 168). The system of natural philosophy at Galileo’s time was an “eclectic and somewhat pluralistic conglomerate… proponents of different factions chose different approaches in response to new challenges” (Fischer, 1992, 169). In astronomy the new Copernican/Galilean system (developing a theory based exclusively on uniform circular motion) was in fact closer to Aristotelian ideals than the more complex, dominant Ptolemean system. Further, the Copernican theory was not in opposition to all existing approaches but had important predecessors in the work of some ancient thinkers (Aristarch, Seleucus, Philolaus, Plutarch), and some medieval scholastics (Buridan, Oresme). Presumably, there was also some influence from some Muslim Theologians (Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Al-Zamakhshari, Ebussuud Efendi). Their proposals and hypotheses arose from within the Aristotelian framework, not in complete opposition to it. Thus, Copernicus and Galileo did not reject a single rational alternative to their own hypotheses.
Similarly, one can evaluate the validity of Galileo’s telescope-observations from a different perspective. The Galilean telescope may appear flawed and primitive from our perspective, but it was an important advance in technology in the 16th century. And it was continually improved, extending gradually the original (1609) 3-fold magnification (Drake, 1990, 133-4). Like any new technology there were certain risks in its use and uncertainties about its reliability. But the use of the telescope does not seem to be an instance of reckless methodological anarchism. Nor was Galileo the only one relying on the telescope. The new invention quickly gained popularity and was used by others who confirmed Galileo’s observations (Scheiner, Clavius). This is not to say that there were no problems with some of the observations and/or interpretations. Observations in 1610 led Galileo to the hypothesis that Saturn was accompanied by two small moons: “It is clear that Galileo assumes here wrongly that the blurred image is caused by a merging of the bright images of the members of a hypothesized three bodied system ” (Fischer, 1992, 170). Observations in 1612, when Saturn’s rings were edge-on from Earth’s perspective (seemingly disappearing), made him question this hypothesis: ‘I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for and so novel’. Further observations in 1616 and 1626 added evidence that challenged the three-body system hypothesis, and in 1655 Christian Huygens proposed after further careful observation that Saturn was surrounded by a solid ring. Thus, continued observation of the phenomenon resulted eventually in the correct hypothesis. Conflicting evidence was not ‘set aside’ but prompted further investigation which resulted eventually in the rejection of a hypothesis that had seemed reasonable based on the initially available evidence. It would be unreasonable to expect that every observation made leads straight away to the correct hypothesis. On the other hand, formulating hypotheses based on insufficient evidence can become a problem if scientists refuse to give up this hypothesis in light of new evidence.
Did Galileo use tricks and propaganda to support a hypothesis that had no solid theoretical grounding and conflicted with empirical evidence? In some cases this might have happened but in the context of Galileo’s entire body of work the defence of the Copernican world view is hardly an act of dogmatism in the face of empirical counter-evidence. Galileo’s physics had been developed prior to and independently of any Copernican commitments. They were based on existing knowledge and careful systematic experimentation. Galileo used Archimedean principles to solve problems in mechanics (hydraulics, movement of bodies, inertia etc.) and extended this approach gradually to new applications. At the same time he began his search for unifying mathematical principles. It is true that Galileo had great confidence in his method but this confidence was based on a systematic approach to well defined problems:
Where others speculate based on vague premises or arbitrarily changing suppositions Galileo makes deductions from evident and explicitly stated premises. Where others search for compromises Galileo strives for precise propositions and definite decisions. Where others appeal to authority Galileo demands evident axioms or conclusive empirical results.
(Fischer, 1992, 176)
Further, Galileo’s focus on mathematical analysis required conceptual precision. He understood that there is a difference between calculations based on ideal conditions and the observable movements of physical bodies. Galileo believed that this difference needs to be accounted for. However, it does not interfere with the ability to calculate based on general principles as long as it can be shown that it is accidental and insignificant. For Galileo it was important to separate accidental from essential properties. Finding essential properties allowed him to formulate hypotheses that make testable predictions. It took Galileo years of experimentation and theory refinement to arrive at proofs for some of the laws he had discovered.
While Galileo’s debating style might share self-confidence and assertiveness with Chomsky’s there are also considerable differences. When arguing with opponents Galileo first demonstrated that their assumption either led to logical contradictions or can be rejected on empirical grounds. Then, he introduced his own solutions and explained the mathematical and physical assumption that supported his premises. Next, he deduced consequences and showed how his conclusions could be supported empirically. Hypotheses that had been subjected to this testing procedure were assumed to be confirmed (demonstrated) but they were not irrefutable. It remained possible that further experiments provided refuting evidence. Many of the commendable aspects of the Galilean method are absent in the recent (post-2000) work of Chomsky. And, it is rather unlikely that Galileo would have advocated to ‘set aside’ recalcitrant evidence or to accept things that do not make any sense.
3. Descartes on the Galilean style
Given that Chomsky likes to call his method not only Galilean but also Cartesian (e.g., Chomsky 1966a, 2002, 2009, 2012), it seems relevant to consider Descartes’ opinion of the Galilean method. Descartes followed Galileo’s work with great interest. Especially Galileo’s trial and condemnation in 1633 had a profound impact on Descartes and he commented numerous times on Galileo’s work. However, Descartes’ critical evaluation of Galileo’s work has received only scant attention. Roger Ariew suggests this is the case because those who have commented on Descartes’ criticism “are generally in agreement that Descartes’ assertions lack value” (Ariew, 1986, 79). Ariew makes a convincing case rejecting the claims that Descartes arguments were defective, not meant for anyone but Mersenne’s attention, based on a desire to demean what did not conform to his own philosophy, or a reaction to unjustified plagiarism charges. Like Ariew I believe that Descartes gives an overall fair evaluation of Galileo’s work and raises some valid points of concern regarding the Galilean method. For example, Descartes deals with Galileo’s work in a letter to Mersenne (14/8/1634), providing his first reaction to The World: “I find that [Galileo] philosophizes well enough on motion, though there is very little he has to say about it that I find entirely true. As far as I could see, he goes wrong more often when following received opinion than when going beyond it” (CSMK III, 44). This comment indicates that Descartes values the original part of Galileo’s work as superior to that following the traditional method. Further, Descartes observes some flaws in the presentation of Galileo’s results: “The arguments which he uses to demonstrate the movement of the earth are very good; but it seems to me that he does not set them out in the way that is required if they are to be convincing, for the digressions which he introduces make you forget the earlier arguments when you are in the process of reading the later ones” (Ibid.). The concerns about methodological issues are more detailed in the following discussion (letter to Mersenne, 11/10/1638).
Generally speaking, I find [Galileo] philosophizes much more ably than is usual, in that, so far as he can, he abandons the errors of the Schools and tries to use mathematical methods in the investigation of physical questions. On that score, I am completely at one with him, for I hold that there is no other way to discover the truth. But he continually digresses, and he does not take time to explain matters fully. This, in my view, is a mistake: it shows that he has not investigated matters in an orderly way, and has merely sought explanations for some particular effects, without going into the primary causes in nature; hence his building lacks a foundation. Now the closer his style of philosophizing gets to the truth, the easier it is to recognize its faults, just as it is easier to tell when those who sometimes take the right road go astray than it is to point out aberrations in the case of those who never begin to follow it.
(CSMK III, 124)
This passage is important for two reasons. First, Descartes compliments Galileo on “philosophizing more ably than usual” and on using mathematical methods when investigating physical problems. This constitutes an improvement over the dominating scholastic approach. Second, the problems Descartes noticed earlier remain and lead to the accusation that Galileo’s building of reasoning lacks a foundation. In spite of some visible admiration for Galileo’s work, the criticism Descartes levels against his method is serious. Galileo has violated two “basic Cartesian methodological prescriptions ‘to consider a subject in an orderly fashion’ and ‘to explain a subject fully’” (Ariew, 1986, 83). That means Descartes is critical precisely of the aspects of Galileo’s work that Chomsky considers to be the foundations of the Galilean style.
Of course, Chomsky himself does not apply the Galilean style consistently. Many of his own ideas that “simply looked right” turned out to be wrong, including the following. In his early work Chomsky proposed that the base of a transformational grammar involves phrase structure (rewriting) rules (e.g. Chomsky 1957, 13-17; 1962, 127; 1975, 80); in later work these rules were abandoned (e.g. Chomsky 1986a, 82-83; 1986b, 3; 1995, 25). Chomsky first proposed that transformational rules are either optional or obligatory (Chomsky, 1957, 45; 1962, 136), then abandoned this proposal (Chomsky and Lasnik, 1977, 41), and claimed that transformational rules are all optional (Chomsky and Lasnik, 1977, 41). This proposal was subsequently abandoned (Chomsky 2000c, 130). In his early work, Chomsky proposed that a notion of well-formed (sentence) is fundamental to linguistics (Chomsky, 1957, 13-14; 1966b, 32; 1972, 64), but decades later he abandoned that proposal (Chomsky, 1995, 194, 213). In early work Chomsky insisted that the notion of deep structure is fundamental to NL syntax (Chomsky, 1966b, 91). Later he announced that language has no D-structure (Chomsky, 1995, 186-189). These are only a few of many instances in which Chomsky changed his mind about ideas that “just seemed right”. And he did this based on new data, which suggests that even in his own case the Galilean style has only very limited applicability. Finally, Chomsky does not accept the Galilean style for the work of others but rather strongly objects to massive dismissal of data: “Quine and those influenced by his paradigm are enjoining the ‘field linguist’ to depart radically from the procedures of the sciences, limiting themselves to a small part of the relevant evidence, selected in accordance with behaviorist dogma; and also reject the standard procedures used in theory construction in the sciences” (Chomsky, 2000, 54). According to this remark it is not justified to limit the evidence to suit one’s theory. I conclude that the Galilean style should be rejected.
Ariew, Roger. (1986). Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology, Synthese 67, 77–90.
Chomsky, Noam. (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
Chomsky, Noam (1962) A Transformational Approach to Syntax. Third Texas Conference on Problems of Linguistic Analysis in English, Austin, Texas, The University of Texas.
Chomsky, Noam. (1966a). Cartesian Linguistics. New York: Haper&Row.
Chomsky, Noam (1966b) Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar, The Hague, Mouton and Company.
Chomsky, Noam (1971) The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature.
Video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wfNl2L0Gf8
Transcript on official Chomsky website: https://chomsky.info/1971xxxx/
Chomsky, Noam. (1972). Some empirical issues in the theory of transformational grammar. In: S. Peters (Ed.) Goals of linguistic theory. (pp. 63-130). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Chomsky, Noam (1975) Reflections on Language, New York, Pantheon Books.
Chomsky, Noam (1986a) Knowledge of Language, New York, Praeger Scientific.
Chomsky, Noam (1986b) Barriers, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. (2000). New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. (2002). On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chomsky, Noam (2009). Opening Remarks. In: Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo Uriagereka, Juan & Pello Salaburu (Eds.). Of minds and language: a dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country. (pp. 13-43). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. (2012). The Science of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
CSM I, II (1984/1986) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, v. I, II, transl. John. Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, & Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
CSMK III. (1991). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, v. III, transl. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, & Anthony Kenny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Drake, Stillman. (1990). Galileo: Pioneer Scientist. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.
Feyerabend, Paul. (1978). Redet nicht, organisiert Euch! In: Duerr, H. P. (Ed.) Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand, Bd. 10, (pp. 1-16). Frankfurt: Karin Kramer Verlag.
Fischer, Klaus. (1992). Die Wissenschaftstheorie Galileis – oder: Contra Feyerabend, Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie, 23, 165-197.
Freidin, Robert. & Vergnaud, Roger. (2001). Exquisite connections: some remarks on the evolution of linguistic theory. Lingua 111, 639-666.
Kuhn, Thomas. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McGilvray, James (2005.) The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
How to cite this post
Behme, Christina. 2016. How Galilean is the ‘Galilean Method’?. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2016/04/02/how-galilean-is-the-galilean-method
Found it when researching this.
Entering in the specific of my work: I started with the empirical Galilean method to make the E-Cat, but all the experimentation made and the tests are leading me, in collaboration with Norman Cook, to a consistent theory.
is your assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals” supported if one looks at a fuller quote? i.e.
All the phenomena of language appear to refute it, just as
the phenomena of the world appeared to refute the Copernican thesis.
The question is whether it is a real refutation. At every stage of every
science most phenomena seem to refute it. People talk about Popper’s
concept of falsification as if it were a meaningful proposal to get rid
of a theory: the scientist tries to find refuting evidence and if refuting
evidence is found then the theory is given up. But nothing works like
that. If researchers kept to those conditions, we wouldn’t have any
theories at all, because every theory, down to basic physics, is refuted
by tons of evidence, apparently. So, in this case, what would refute the
strong minimalist thesis is anything you look at. The question is, as
in all these cases, is there some other way of looking at the apparently
refuting phenomena, so as to preserve or preferably enhance explanatory
power, where parts of the phenomena fall into place and others
turn out to be irrelevant, like most of the phenomena of the world,
because they are just the results of the interactions of too many factors?
Thank you for your comment. A few points in response. First, this is a short blog post. For a fuller discussion why I believe the assertion is justified you can read: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-linguistics/article/div-classtitlea-galilean-science-of-languagea-hreffn1-ref-typefnspan-classsup1spanadiv/5134714D7DBAF43A5CBF2F7BE8F0137C
Second, the quote you cite is not an accurate description of the scientific method. With no evidence that this is justified Chomsky compares his ‘strong minimalist thesis’ to some some unspecified Copernican thesis. Seemingly we are expected to believe because the latter was accepted in spite of some refuting evidence Chomsky’s thesis should be accepted, too. By that logic I can propose any wacky thesis and claim it should be accepted because Copernicus thesis was accepted. Not the way science works. Next, as discussed in my RA: “Copernicus’s thesis” is comprised of several proposals and those that have been refuted by the data [circular orbits. epicycles etc.] have indeed been rejected. So Chomsky’s claim is false. Further, Chomsky refers to some unspecified researchers working with theories apparently refuted by evidence. WHO are these people, what do they do? If one makes outlandish assertions like ‘every theory, down to basic physics, is refuted by tons of evidence’ one better has good supporting evidence. Chomsky offers none, yet you accept what he says, just based on his authority?
Third, regardless what we think of Chomsky’s view of the scientific method: what research has he done recently to support his … program? Where are his recent data in support? Instead of worrying if critics cite him correctly [assume I did not if that makes you happy] or about ‘the scientific method’, why are you not concerned about Chomsky’s actual LINGUISTIC work?
Hello thanks for your response
I read Chomsky’s (full) response to the question “What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis?” as evaluating the assumption behind the question, i.e. Chomsky’s response clearly thinks the question assumes a Popperian falsification view of science. He goes onto briefly state why this assumption is problematic.
If the question was “Is the strong minimalist theory inference to the best explanation” Chomsky would have had a very different response.
As an academic I don’t need to point out to you how serious misquoting is, I was lead to your article by another article which used your assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals” to make a similar point with regard to Chomsky’s view on corpus linguistics. When I asked the author of that article about the basis of his claim he pointed to this post.
Hence I can only respond to that (I will surely read the article you link when I have time).
However the fact that you even emphasised the “All” in the truncated quote seems to add to the charge of misquoting (or should that be selective quoting?)
I don’t know see how you can move from Chomsky’s response in that interview to your claim that he “”acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals”.
[…] uses an interview given by Chomsky in 2001. Further in developing his first point he takes as given Christina Behme assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own […]
This will be my last reply to the misquoting charge. I already said: if it makes you happy assume I am guilty as charged. It is of course also gross misreading of my blog post that I claim that Chomsky acts as if no data can challenge his own proposals BECAUSE of the one quote you obsess about. I make this claim based on decades of published work by Chomsky. His “use” of a so-called Galilean method has been criticized for the first time in 1984 in print. Not once has he provided evidence suggesting that his post 1980s work is on par with the groundbreaking discoveries by others he loves to cite. It is not.
Now it may be worth your while to ask yourself why a man would for decades elevate his own work while at the same time diminishing what others have accomplished. And, while you are at it, think about how dangerous the passage you insisted quoting in full is in the current political context: Any climate change denier can use Chomsky’s quote in support of his/her assertion that in spite of all the scientific evidence climate change is a hoax. Call this the hoax-thesis. Our denier can now say “So, in this case, what would refute the hoax thesis is anything you look at. The question is, .., is there some other way of looking at the apparently refuting phenomena, so as to preserve or preferably enhance explanatory power, where parts of the phenomena fall into place and others turn out to be irrelevant, like most of the phenomena of the world, because they are just the results of the interactions of too many factors?” Voila, we now have saved the hoax thesis from refutation by ‘anything we look at’. If this is how you would like to do science; knock yourself out …
hello again Christina
It is evidently not a case of making me happy, and it is hardly a misreading and an obsession that your assertion was used by someone else to make another point.
As to your other Chomsky statements (especially the climate deniers attack) I will leave it to readers to see how bizzare it is considering my previous response about the assumption in the question Chomsky was highlighting.
Presumably i should not have said this will be my last reply. So let me try again:
1. I thought I had answered your initial question ‘is your assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals” supported if one looks at a fuller quote’ by explaining that YES, my assertion is supported when one looks at the body of Chomsky’s recent work and I had given you a link to a fuller discussion. From what I can tell you have not bothered to read that – may I ask why not?
2. I never claimed my assertion was based ONLY on the one quote you are concerned about. So why would you accuse me of misquoting? I have no access to Chomsky’s book at the moment but if memory serves right he made the remark in reply to a question ‘what would refute the strong minimalist thesis’. Now what a reader would expect after the rather perplexing answer ‘All the phenomena of language appear to refute it’ is NOT a discourse in the philosophy of science. The reader would expect an explanation for why the refutation by ‘ALL the phenomena of language’ is only apparent or why Chomsky continues to defend his thesis. You seem to have the book available, so please quote where Chomsky provides one of these explanations supported by evidence.
3. Chomsky’s irresponsible remarks about language evolution have already been used by creationists to attack the theory of evolution [feel free to research] and I merely demonstrated to you what someone CAN do when s/he wants to misuse the irresponsible remarks you cite. I am NOT saying I would approve of such use. You may be not aware but remarks like those you cite contribute to an anti-science climate in the US. It is already difficult for scientists to secure funding for their research and things probably won’t get easier under the incoming president. It puzzles me that you would not be outraged by the fact that a celebrated intellectual like Chomsky makes such kinds of reckless remarks over and over again.
4. You claim you are concerned about the use of my blog-post by someone who seems to have an opinion you disagree with. May I ask if you ever have contacted Chomsky and expressed your concern about his well documented misquotations, deliberate deceptions, and ripping off other’s ideas? Chomsky’s publications certainly have an effect that is by magnitudes greater than the sentence I wrote on this blog. So if you are concerned genuinely about the impact of misquotations etc., then surely you must be by magnitudes more concerned about the impact of those by Chomsky. So please let us know: when have you asked him why he never responded to the below linked work and what was his response to you?
If you are willing to actually do the research required to substantiate your accusation [that I misquoted Chomsky], then I’ll be happy to continue this conversation. If you are not willing to do that work, then I ask you to refrain from posting any more accusation and disrespectful tweets. Thank you in advance.
hello again again : )
1. My question was simple – can your assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals” be supported by looking at a +fuller+ quote? I ‘ll come back to the +fuller+ in a bit.
You reply that the answer is no if I look at some other writing you have done which claims to look “at the body of Chomsky’s recent work “. I thought it was clear in my first response that I can only go by what is in this blog post, which is long enough.
As I said I will surely read your longer text when I get time. And as I said your emphasizing of your very truncated quote of the word “All” indicates to me you are quoting to support some polemic.
2. To recall I was lead to your assertion by another post hence my question. The actual question in the Chomsky interview was “What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the
rejection of the strong minimalist thesis?” I was tempted just to ask you do to something (i.e. download the book from all good download sites) like you have done with your instructions to me but I will resist.
Coming back to the fuller quote Chomsky discusses the nature of experimental work including discussion on “click displacement” and “phrase boundaries”. Here the experiment was testing “click displacement” in “clear cases”. They then applied this to hard cases and the results were unclear. If the experiment had found something different to what was expected in the +clear cases+ that means the experiment is poorly designed it does not say anything about the theory of phrase structure.
Chomsky comes back to the question by saying just about everything refutes a theory but this is not interesting. It is the “experiments that matter” especially the “well-designed ones” which “fit into a sensible theory”.
Again my question is how do you go from this viewpoint of Chomsky to say that he “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals”?
3. & 4 and final paragraph – Rhetorical bluster
I am sorry that you do not seem to understand what I have already said several times: I have never misquoted Chomsky; he said exactly what I quoted. Furthermore, what he says in the fuller quote has little to do with “the nature of experimental work”. I do not know what your line of work is but you seem to have no first hand knowledge of how scientists set up experiments in support of their theories. And, if you were truly familiar with Chomsky’s work, then you would know that he never conducted experiments either [and that he freely admits that].
Since you are unwilling to read the other publications I recommended, may I ask why you did not do what you claim I am not doing: quoting in context what I had written [instead of just taking one sentence out of context]. So here is the additional evidence I provided above [which you decided to ignore] – maybe you can explain how all these statements by Chomsky support your claims:
“Yet, over the years Chomsky’s attitude towards the scientific method has changed, and he acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals. For example when asked what kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis, Chomsky replied: “ALL the phenomena of language appear to refute it” (Chomsky, 2002, 124, emphasis added). Yet, he is not willing to abandon the minimalist thesis. Instead he suggests dismissing the data that seem to challenge it. Chomsky claims that such a large-scale dismissal of data that are inconvenient for his view is based on a “Galilean style… [which] is the recognition that…the array of phenomena is some distortion of the truth … [and] it often makes good sense to disregard phenomena and search for principles” (Chomsky, 2002, 99). Chomsky calls this attitude the “Galilean move towards discarding recalcitrant phenomena” (Chomsky, 2002, 102). He claims that massive data dismissal was advocated by Galileo: “[Galileo] dismissed a lot of data; he was willing to say: ‘Look, if the data refute the theory, the data are probably wrong.’ And the data that he threw out were not minor” (Chomsky, 2002, 98). He then proposes that is was accepted by other famous scientists (e.g., Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Monod) and that it “is pretty much the way science often seems to work …You just see that some ideas simply look right, and then you sort of put aside the data that refute them” (Chomsky, 2009, 36). Data-dismissal has been advocated numerous times in Chomsky’s publications, culminating in the argument from the Norman Conquest: “… if you want to study distinctive properties of language – what really makes it different from the digestive system … you’re going to abstract away from the Norman Conquest. But that means abstracting away from the whole mass of data that interests the linguist who wants to work on a particular language” (Chomsky, 2012, 84, emphasis added). Arguably the most bizarre invocation of the Galilean style occurs when Chomsky suggests: “…if we want a productive theory-constructive [effort], we’re going to have to relax our stringent criteria and accept things that we know don’t make any sense, and hope that some day somebody will make some sense out of them” (Chomsky, 2012, 169)”.
For the last time I ask you to stop talking to me in this incredibly insulting tone. I read immediately the article you linked, you still did not bother to read what I asked you to – yet you continue to lecture me as if I were a 4-year old – do you think this kind of mansplaining is appropriate? I don’t.
first i apologize for any disagreeable tone you have assessed, yet it is hard to stay agreeable when emotive words are used;
er well i guess thank you for copying/pasting text that was in the blog i read
my claim is that your selective quoting of the fuller text misrepresents what Chomsky was saying in order to make some point(?) of yours
the “nature of experimental work” was my paraphrase of what I thought Chomsky was saying; do you have to be an “experimental” scientist to critique “experimental” science?
i am a simple English language teacher asking what i thought was a reasonable enough question ( though i do appreciate that the topic of Chomsky always seems to people get lively)
again i apologize for any insult caused on my part
i forgot to add that all the other quotes you use seem to build to a picture of Chomsky’s views on science from bits of text of Chomsky’s responses to very specific Questions, is such a build of Chomsky’s overall worldview on science possible? if it is possible i don’t agree that you have shown it.
this question -In the current version of the Minimalist Program, what are the theory-internal restrictions that make it falsifiable?, all although not the same Chomsky interview question we are debating it is kinda similar, from a video of talk in Spain:
from 21:58 to 27:35
my paraphrase of Chomsky – “it’s been hard to get this point across, the minimalist program is a program, programs are not theories and hence cannot be falsified or verified”
you may of course say he has deftly sidestepped the question : )
oops that start time should read 25:58
I see you left more responses implying I do not know what I am talking about. I studied Chomsky’s work for 12 years now – so you can rest assured that I have read/seen all the stuff you recommend and much more. Chomsky’s debating style is notorious. He used to be a brilliant linguist but in recent decades he evaded responding to serious criticism of his work by applying a very idiosyncratic reading of the scientific method. All of this has been discussed at length in the literature, and you are free to read or ignore it. But please lets end this exchange now [the host of this blog indicated to me it is getting a bit much]. Thank you in advance.
not at all, i left the video link as it was a very recent speech by Chomsky and it related to our debate point re his response to the question “What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the
rejection of the strong minimalist thesis?”
thank you for responding to my initial question and to the host of the blog for entertaining our disucussion
i disagree with your assessement of Chomsky, he continues to lead and be modest about his contributions at the same time
(copy of a comment I left at Language Hat)
David Eddyshaw wrote:
Sure he does, and he is not entirely or inherently wrong to do so, either. It is not unscientific to reject an outlier on the basis of its manifest disagreement with theory, as when we observe this particular ice cube to have a temperature of 10 degrees. (Perhaps the American thermometer was used by mistake.) It is when the outliers outnumber the good data points that your true scientist begins to feel queasy. Likewise, when the allegedly good data points are mostly of the form Every sailor loves any sailor (h/t Nick Nicholas), we have clearly fallen into the urghative case.