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”.
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