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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Jeffrey Punske
5 months ago

Omer- I want to engage with the question of public linguistics. I think *how* we do public linguistics is a critical one. I cannot speak to the 5ML specifically. I attended the first iteration of it and do not recall it well enough to speak with any expertise on it. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about a 5 minute, distilled talk meant for the public if done well. Personally, I think the LSA should… Read more »

Thomas Graf
Thomas Graf
5 months ago

As a scientific entity, the LSA is in an impossible position because there is no unified field of linguistics. It purports to represent something that doesn’t exist. So why is the LSA a thing? As you hinted at yourself, the LSA is also a strategic alliance, a strength-in-numbers thing to have at least some institutional resources. The AP Linguistics initiative, for instance, probably wouldn’t have happened without the LSA. Fields that can stand on their… Read more »

Bill Idsardi
Bill Idsardi
5 months ago

Many years ago Jack Chambers quipped that linguistics was “the most scientific of the humanities and the most humane of the sciences”. I learned much later that this bon mot has also been applied to anthropology and medicine. So maybe it’s instructive to compare the LSA tagline, “Advancing the scientific study of language since 1924” with the statement of the American Anthropological Association, “Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the… Read more »

Bill Idsardi
Bill Idsardi
Reply to  Omer
5 months ago

Let’s just say that the LSA mission message is a bit muddled at this point, for on that same page https://www.linguisticsociety.org/about/what-we-do , at the top, the first sentence is “The mission of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) is to advance the scientific study of language.” I think that much of E&G is both wrong and wrong-headed; that it’s “bad work”. And I also think the same thing about articles published in Phonology, PNAS or… Read more »

Bill Idsardi
Bill Idsardi
Reply to  Omer
5 months ago

So is this “unease” relative to the size of the organization? What’s your feeling about AAAS given the various articles published in Science that would be cataloged as “linguistics”? (David’s LSA address some years ago made this point about Science, Nature, PTRSB, etc. — that the articles pertaining to linguistics in these venues give a very poor, skewed picture of linguistics.) My response to this situation has been to try to publish *more* in venues… Read more »

Jeff Lidz
Jeff Lidz
Reply to  Omer
5 months ago

Here’s another way of determining if the LSA represents your scientific values: look at the work it celebrates, like winners of the best paper in Language award or the Bloomfield book award. It seems to me that the utter crap that E&G represent is not really indicative of the values of the organization. As for 5ML, I think it is possible in 5 minutes to explain complex ideas and why they are important without dumbing… Read more »

Colin Phillips
5 months ago

Professional societies exist to serve their members, and not in general to pick sides in academic disputes among their members. They create platforms to facilitate intellectual exchange, through meetings, publications, institutes, etc. Almost all of that is run by groups of members, with the benefit of some back room support that makes the job more feasible. It creates ethical guidelines and puts other structures in place to try to ensure some fairness and responsibility in… Read more »

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