Chomping Chomsky

I ran into Deevy Bishop’s review of a recent book by Noam Chomsky and James McGilvray, titled The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray.

As someone who works on child language disorders, I have tried many times to read Chomsky in order to appreciate the insights that he is so often credited with. I regret to say that, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that, far from enhancing our understanding of language acquisition, his ideas have led to stagnation, as linguists have gone through increasingly uncomfortable contortions to relate facts about childrens language to his theories. The problem is that the theories are derived from a consideration of adult language, and take no account of the process of development. There is a fundamental problem with an essential premise about what is learned that has led to years of confusion and sterile theorizing.

Bishop’s post led me to a review of the book by Language Log writer Geoffrey Pullum, “The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray”. The review is bad:

It continues thus, jargon jostling with loose conjecture and dogmatic assertions. Chomsky avers that words never refer to anything in the world; that "the entire discussion of the last century or so" about relations between physics and chemistry "was crazy"; that Darwin was wrong and evolution by natural selection (like Skinnerian behaviourism) cannot work; that there was no "serious research" on morality before 2000; that the practice of debating "is a tribute to human irrationality"; etc.

It gives rise to a spectacular train wreck of a comment thread, with a heated exchange between Pullum and McGilvray.

I’m starting my Biology of Mind course tomorrow, and so once again I’ll be posting more neuroscience and psychology-related material than usual. Chomsky is quite a lot like Freud – he has written an immense corpus, developed an idiosyncratic model of the mind, and is surrounded by a coterie of true believers. He has been the most prominent objector to the idea that language evolved as an adaptation in ancient humans. Understanding this view helps to focus attention on how we use adaptive models in biology and how they can apply to behavior.

And how model-builders can shift some assumptions to adapt to changing scientific data.