Chomsky and his Critics the Anger Continues: Spodes Attack on Everett.

E.J. Spode’s recent article for 3am: Magazine continued the angry tone of Chomsky’s disciples anytime Chomsky is criticised.  Spode’s article was funny and accurate at times his comparing Wolfe with Trump was pretty on the money. Wolfe does lay it on way too think with his the poor little guys being crushed by big bad socially connected intellectuals. And Wolfe’s pretence to be a defender of the so called little guy, can I suppose be fruitfully compared with Trump pretending to be a man of the people. One of the really strange aspects of the article was the author pretending Wolfe’s book was given an easy ride and a load of good reviews until the brave E. J. Spode came along to tell the truth and expose the book for its failings. I have read every review I could get my hands on and as far as I can see the book was almost (aside from a few puff pieces) universally panned. I have criticised Wolfe’s book very heavily myself .  So Spode’s pretence to be the lone voice of reason is a bit weird; as pretty much everyone agreed with him that the book was poorly researched.

            When he starts talking about Chomsky though Spode goes completely off the rails. Personally, though I disagree with Chomsky about a lot, I think he is one of the most important thinkers of the last hundred years. But the way Spode talks about him is veering towards a kind of cult worship. This quote from Spode is bizarre:

“He came to us with that gift. He did not ask us to believe him, nor did he insist that we engage in that project ourselves. He simply told us what his project was and invited us to join him. And all we as a culture could do in our upscale magazines and newspapers and blogs was shit all over the man and clog the conversation with an endless stream of transparent gibberish from obvious charlatans. This is why we can’t have nice things.

That has to be the most cringe worthy pieces of sycophantic hero worship I have read in my entire life. He portrays Chomsky as analogous to Moses coming down from the mountain top with the ten-commandments to find the natives worshiping craven gods; it’s just overblown nonsense. Chomsky is a scientist who has a brilliant theory that other people don’t accept because they do not find the evidence sufficient. This biblical nonsense of Chomsky coming to us with a gift, which us ungrateful mortals with our fallen nature didn’t accept; isn’t science; it is the talk of cultish acolytes.

The rest of the article had very little argumentative structure and seemed to want to refute Everett by calling him names. He didn’t even attempt to engage with Everett and try to understand where he was coming from. His reasoning seemed to be that Everett is a buffoon, as only a buffoon could be silly enough to disagree with the great Chomsky. Everett is portrayed as a fool who is beneath the dignity of the great man to even debate with; so this duty was passed down to the disciples. Spode imagines Chomsky hearing about Everett’s discovery in the following way:

“Chomsky is working at his computer when a student rushes in.
Student: “Professor Chomsky! They’ve discovered an Amazonian tribe that has a language without recursion!”
Chomsky (slowly turning from his computer): “Can they learn Portuguese?”
Student: “Well… yes.”
Chomsky slowly turns back to his computer.”

Spode seems to think that because the Piraha can learn Portuguese then that is the end of the subject; Chomsky is right, let’s switch our brains off and go home. But as any child would recognise immediately the fact that the Piraha can learn Portuguese is neutral on the issue on whether Chomsky is correct that an innate domain specific language faculty is responsible. Likewise the evidence is neutral as to whether Everett’s theory of language being a domain general cultural tool is the correct story. The truth is that the Piraha debate on its own won’t settle the issue of whether Chomsky’s theory is correct or not. There are multiple factors that need to be considered. Poverty of stimulus arguments ( I have discussed this issue here ) and the ample evidence against them, impossibility arguments and the empirical computational models which purport to show that impossibility arguments do not work, evidence and counter evidence from children with Williams Syndrome, so called Specific language Impairment etc ( ) . There are debates on whether children receive corrections and whether they can make use of these corrections etc. There is mountains of evidence out there that need to be considered to adjudicate the issue but Spode ignores this evidence and instead constructs an imagined scenario that involves blatant question begging about the issue. If Piraha can learn Portuguese then Spode seems to reason we will assume without argument that this demonstrates that Chomsky is correct.

As his review went on it got nastier and nastier in tone and the arguments made less and less sense. At one point he chastises the brilliant anthropologist Barbara King for making the obvious point that there is no evidence that Everett is racist:

“Does it occur to King that by joining the parade of those primitivizing the Pirahã, she has added her support for a dominant discourse too? – a very old colonial narrative that, to borrow the words of Geoff Pullum, perhaps hides “our buried racist tendencies?” Perhaps yes, as she rallies to defend Everett: “The racism charge is plainly baseless; in his books Everett portrays the Pirahãs as clever people.” Well. That settles that.”

Now at this point we have left the realm of science. Spode is claiming that if a scientist discovers a language that is structured differently than say English; if we discover it is less complex then we are being racist. In effect he is asking us to stipulate a priori that all languages are equally complex, to eschew any empirical research into the matter and just stipulate the issue. As a person who is interested in understanding the nature of language I will stick to empirical research and let Spode stipulate matters how he wants. The fact is though that Everett didn’t argue that the Piraha language was inferior to our own language, instead he argued that it was a tool that developed differently because of the different cultural practices of the Piraha.

Other charges from Spode involve chastising Everett for changing his mind about the structure of the Piraha language as he learned more about the subject. Incredible though it seems, Spode seems to think that modifying your views in light of new data is a bad thing and is evidence that Everett is a charlatan. This is a strange position to hold. Chomsky’s views on linguistics have changed over the years, his current views on the Minimalist Programme involve much less machinery to explain our linguistic competence than he allowed for example in his standard theory phase. Is this evidence that Chomsky is a charlatan? Personally I see it as evidence that Chomsky is a flexible scientist who is changes his views on language as he learns more, and I think the same is true of Everett. Why Sprode treats Chomsky changing his mind differently than Everett changing his mind is anyone’s guess, it may having something to do with Chomsky being Moses and giving us a gift despite our fallen nature.

Overall Spode’s discussion of Everett’s views is entirely unbalanced. He focuses on Pesetsky et al. paper ignoring Everett’s reply to their paper or the countless other papers written on the issue. Treating one paper as an indisputable source on a debate is unadvisable to say the least. Spode didn’t even go into Pesetsky et al’s paper in any detail preferring to slander Everett by association. So he set about naming a few cases of anthropological theories of remote tribes which have been proven false, seeming to believe that guilt by association is sufficient to refute Everett. This guilt by association is extremely poor practice. Imagine a critic of Chomsky pointing out that the lead author of the paper Everett was criticising ‘Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch 2002’ was subsequently sacked from his job for falsifying data in an experiment. Marc Hauser was indeed sacked for falsifying data. But this has no bearing on the paper he co-authored with Chomsky and Fitch. And it certainly has no bearing on Chomsky and Fitch in general. Only a despicable charlatan would try to slur Chomsky because of things his colleagues have done. Imagine saying that because Chomsky has worked closely with Jerry Fodor for years that he is responsible for Fodor’s views on evolution. This would be absolutely absurd. There is no reason that people should be attacked for things colleagues have done or believe. And the exact same thing should hold for Everett. By all means criticise his theories but this incessant name calling and attempts to convict him of mistakes that people he is not even connected to is absurd. People like Spode need to get used to the fact that legitimate scientists like Dan Everett, Michael Tomasello, and Alexander Clark disagree with Chomsky on the nature of language. They then need to address the issues in a balanced manner instead of continuing this pointless attempt to slur anybody who disagrees with the great man.


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