A style of argument can be effective in an intellectual backwater but fail in the big leagues—but maybe it’s a good thing to have these different research communities

June 12, 2018
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(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Following on a post on Tom Wolfe’s evolution-denial trolling, Thanatos Savehn pointed to this obituary, “Jerry A. Fodor, Philosopher Who Plumbed the Mind’s Depths, Dies at 82,” which had lots of interesting items, including this:

“We think that what is needed,” they wrote, “is to cut the tree at its roots: to show that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is fatally flawed.” . . .

The book loosed an uproar among scientists. (Its review in the magazine Science appeared under the headline “Two Critics Without a Clue.”)

“He and Chomsky had a modus operandi which was ‘Bury your opponents as early as possible,’ ” Dr. [Ernie] Lepore said, speaking of Dr. Fodor. “And when he went up against the scientific community, I don’t think Fodor was ready for that. He basically told these guys that natural selection was bogus. The arguments are interesting, but he didn’t win a lot of converts.”

That’s an interesting idea, that a style of argument can be effective in an intellectual backwater such as academic linguistics but fail in the big leagues of biology. It’s not so bad to have these different academic communities: we can think of academic linguistics as a “safe space” where scholars can pursue ridiculous ideas that might still become useful.

If we crudely model scientific hypotheses as being true/false, or reasonable/unreasonable, then it can at times be a good research strategy to start in “reasonable” territory and then deliberately wander into the “unreasonable” zone as a way of better traversing the space of theories. The best way to get to new reasonable hypotheses might be to entertain some silly ideas, considering these ideas seriously enough to fully work through their implications. And perhaps that is what Foder was doing in his thought experiment of cutting the evolutionary tree “at its roots.”

At the same time, you can’t expect biologists to just sit there and take it. Hence the value of distinct research communities. As long as we’re not using linguists’ theories of evolution to fight disease, I guess we’re ok.

P.S. Peter Erwin convincingly makes the case that the above post is “massively and bizarrely unfair to linguistics, especially by taking a single, controversial theorist (that is, Chomsky; Fodor is a philosopher) as being somehow representative of the field.”

The post A style of argument can be effective in an intellectual backwater but fail in the big leagues—but maybe it’s a good thing to have these different research communities appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.



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