Dec 182019

David Pesetsky recently posted to facebook Cilene Rodrigues’ response to Everett & Gibson’s “review” of the Recursion Across Domains book, for the Linguistic Society of America (LSA)’s flagship journal, Language. I posted a comment in the discussion thread below the post, asking why we should support the LSA given that they publish things like this E&G “review.”

The discussion thread then devolved – and this was partially my fault – into a broader discussion of the pros and cons of the LSA as a professional organization, until David, rightly, asked that everyone shift focus back to the actual topic of his post.

In the interest of that, I thought I’d write some of my further thoughts on the LSA over here, rather than in the comments on David’s post.

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I have two fundamental problems with the LSA as it currently operates. The first,1The following text is a lightly-edited version of an email I sent to someone, so if that someone recognizes it: hi! 👋 and more substantive of the two, is that the LSA treats different scientific persuasions that fall under “linguistics” (broadly construed) as though the proper governing principle that applies to them is equity. It goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that when the question is how the LSA should deal with different populations (and especially historically underrepresented and underprivileged groups), equity is the sine qua non. But it’s not clear to me at all that, when it comes to different scientific approaches, some of which are mutually opposing, we should amplify the pretense that these are all equally valid endeavors, or that “truth” is a quantity that is equally distributed among the different approaches that are at the table.

So, for example, I have heard from several members of various LSA committees that “balance between the number of generativists and the number of some-non-generativist-persuasion-X” at a venue or publication has been applied as a relevant consideration. And I have to say, that seems very problematic to me.

Also problematic: when you spend years teaching your students that “X is not a scientific approach to language, because of concrete reasons a, b, c,” and then the foremost professional association of their field acts like it is. (I’m not even going to talk about said association’s social-media presence…)

If I had a simple solution to all this, I’d be screaming it off the rooftops of course. Other scientific persuasions within linguistics could (justifiably, from their perspective) argue that the platform given to generativists is excessive and problematic. Giving any one person the power to decide these things is a nonstarter, and negotiating them collectively has led us to where we are now.

So that’s the situation. Some of what the LSA does is absolutely a force for good (lobbying against cuts to NSF, lobbying on behalf of linguistics departments that are endangered at their own institutions), and some of it is, I’m afraid, absolutely a force for evil (see above). I am legitimately conflicted, but where I’ve come down on this for now is that I can’t see myself being formally associated with the organization.

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My second problem with the LSA as it currently operates concerns a set of activities that can be broadly classified under “outreach to the general public.” We can all agree that linguistics, unlike some of the more venerable sciences and humanities, suffers from an acute lack of public awareness of its existence, much less of what it consists in. In essence, people are mostly unaware that there’s something there that is in need of scientific study.

This has many deleterious consequences, but one of them is that basically everyone who can talk & write thinks they therefore have an essential understanding of inner workings of language. People who write for a living tend to have an even stronger version of this conviction. As I am fond of telling my students, this is as if anyone with a beating heart thought themselves a cardiologist, and LeBron James thought of himself as the best cardiologist of all.

As a result, linguistics has to fight for its life in a way that, say, philosophy doesn’t. You generally don’t call yourself a “university” without a philosophy department, but linguistics has no such standing among the pillars of scholarship.

Against this backdrop, there is an (understandable) urge to simplify linguistics and certain results of linguistic inquiry, so that the public can more easily grasp what we do and why. But what gets lost in the shuffle sometimes, I think, is that these attempts at simplification can be self-defeating. Take the idea of “5 minute research talks” as an example. (Disclaimer: I’m not sure this particular LSA activity was conceived of as outreach to the general public. But it doesn’t much matter, since I’m just using it here as a for-instance.) If the problem is that the general public doesn’t think there’s a “there” there (i.e., that there’s nothing within natural language that can be subjected to meaningful, complex scientific inquiry), then what message does it send if we pretend that an uninitiated audience can go from zero to understanding what we do in 5 minutes? Doesn’t that bolster the my-heart-beats-therefore-I’m-a-cardiologist dynamic?

There is a broader societal issue hovering in the background, I think, concerning the erosion of the idea of expertise in society. To reiterate something I said on the aforementioned facebook thread: there’s a short line from the idea that anything can be explained to a general audience in 5 minutes to questioning why the hell these stupid humanities scholars need five years of funding to figure out XYZ anyway. I think it is both honest, and possibly even strategically sound, to say: “Nope, sorry. Some things are actually complicated and a fair understanding of them requires time and specialization and expertise, and they cannot be whittled down without becoming an offensive caricature (see: Gladwell, Malcolm).”

(This problem is far from LSA- or linguistics-specific, of course. This thing, which had a moment of intense internet popularity in some circles, is just as bad.)

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Okay, so that’s my two cents.

I’m guessing that the comment thread on a post like this has a better-than-average chance of deteriorating into a PoFlaWa, so I’m going to depart from my usual practice, and set the comments here to by-approval-only. Apologies in advance.

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